Friday, November 02, 2007

When Worlds Collide

My bedroom walls may well have seen more blood, sweat and tears than the Saw and Hostel franchises combined over the past 4 years.

In this torture chamber/laboratory, that also has a bed, I have tried and tested many different exercises, apparatus, angles, reps, weights and a vest, on a quest, to find the absolute way to prepare my body for Parkour. The problem was always having to wait to see what effect these exercises would have on my ability to move when I went outside to train technically.

Through speaking and training with more experienced traceurs, experimenting on my own and reading a lot of material on the subject, I have finally settled my mind on the best way to prepare my body for Parkour. This is not some new discovery or a secret being unveiled, as many people will already practice this form of training and you can find details about this elsewhere, but this information seems to be fragmented and spread across a dozen forums amongst the arguments and hostilities often found there. The reason that I am writing this is just to bring the information together and share the method with people who do not know about it or have been scared to give up their current training plan to try it (as I was). It is also to state that I think it is the best way to train physically for Parkour. This is not so much a recommendation for newer practitioners to Parkour, as it will take a solid strength foundation to train in the way I am suggesting in this post. If you undertake any of the advice in this post without a certain amount of prior training and conditioning then you are very likely to pick up injuries and cause more damage in the long run.

I have received many emails in the past asking for physical training advice and even requests to create an entire weekly training plan for people to follow but it is nearly impossible to really help these people without meeting them and knowing their current level and ability. This article should help all of them to progress physically without having to worry or even think about it too much. It should hopefully provide a simple solution that is better in the long run than a fixed schedule.

When I was beginning my training and up until around 2005, everyone in the UK was still experimenting with physical training and its relationship to technical ability in Parkour. Compared to the information, videos, articles and advice available now, 2003 was effectively the dark ages of Parkour in this country. It would have been even worse for guys like the Saiyans who started quite some time before me, so I have a lot of respect for those guys who were slugging it out and trying their best with minimal help from any sources in France.

Most of you have probably heard of (or may even taken part in a) Hell Night. These were physical battles alone or alongside some fellow warriors and these training sessions really developed my strength and endurance. But it also had a negative consequence, which is why I stopped doing them. I was gaining a lot of bulk that I did not really need. Although I thought this increase in size was good at the time and would improve my technical ability in the long run, time has proven that I did not need this extra muscle, as I am leaner now than I was following the 20+ week program, yet stronger and faster than ever before. That is not to say that I regret creating Hell Night - quite the opposite in fact, I think that I needed it to develop an understanding of my body, my limits and most importantly to build the mental fortress that is still with me today when it comes to pushing through pain barriers.

Although I would still recommend some type of loose weekly program to people who are just beginning their training and need to concentrate on building an initial foundation, I think a more organic approach to this is necessary rather than ‘X’ sets of ‘Y’ reps of ‘Z’ exercise.

Being a bit of a planner when it comes to this kind of thing, I used to create very complex and diverse weekly training plans to stick to, where I would train legs on a certain day, arms on another and train technically on certain days. Using this method, everything was structured and being controlled. It had its advantages as I could record progression by counting the reps and sets and seeing a gradual increase in my ability but it had more serious disadvantages. The main problem was that if a body part was still sore and tired when it came to the day that I planned to exercise it, the training I did on that day was damaging to my muscles, which were still in need of rest and repair. I was following a regime more suited to a predictable machine than an ever-changing and complex organism.

The mistake that I was making was not listening to my body. I understand better now that the body is very good at letting the brain know its current condition and we should always listen to it to see how we feel and adjust our training accordingly. If something hurts or feels stiff then it needs rest and/or time to repair. If you exercise fatigued muscles then all you are going to gain is an injury and you are wasting time and energy.

Rest is equally as important as work in Parkour. Finding the balance is vital to your progression and longevity.

The other problem with such a strict and planned approach to training is that you end up doing the same exercises each week. The body loves to be active and it is good at rebuilding muscles after they have been broken down, but when you target the same muscles from the same angles every week, the tendons and joints surrounding those muscles begin to suffer as they can not heal in the same way that muscles do. It is therefore important to really vary your exercises when you train to avoid overuse injuries such as tendonitis.
Not only is performing the same exercises each time determimental to your health, it can be very laborious for the mind. You should regularly challenge both your body and mind by keeping the exercises spontaneous and interesting. If you can, train and spend time in new environments and you will begin to notice new technical possibilities too, all things to keep your mind busy and your routine fresh. There is nothing worse than dreading an upcoming workout because you know how hard it was last week. Do something new this week, surprise yourself with improvisation and as long as you work hard, this is a positive and productive way to train.

Before newcomers to the discipline discover the benefits of additional strength training and conditioning exercises to improve their Parkour, they just move around doing new jumps and finding new challenges. This is fine for a while but when they reach their first plateaus, most begin searching to find a tool to speed up the conveyor belt that is transporting their level onwards and upwards. This theoretical conveyor belt used to travel at a furious pace in the first few months of training, and they want that back when they hit the plateaus. Once they find the tool to do this (additional strength training), many put all of their energy in to this new solution hoping it will bring them the same rewards that they used to see when they first started training. The reality is that we never progress as fast as we did back in those first few months, when our minds were sponges and we were plunged in to the Parkour pool head first. Just like children learn more in the first few years of their lives than they will when they enter adulthood, there are no preconceptions and everything is absorbed.

But this is hard to realise at the time of our first slow down period and we become desperate to get our training ‘back on track’ – even though there is actually nothing wrong with it and this period is completely normal.

Once the benefits of strength training and conditioning are discovered and we begin to make progress with it, we notice how this is affecting our technical ability, as we can suddenly jump higher, swing further and run faster once more. New doors and possibilities open up to us and we find ourselves progressing at a faster rate again.

Eventually on this path I came across another difficult, yet well concealed obstacle that proved a challenge for me to overcome until recently. An obstacle that I can best describe as a colourful tree called ‘S.A.C’ that sat on the edge of a vast and dark forest called ‘Parkour’. As I walked towards this metaphorical forest (my first few months of training), overcoming smaller trees and obstacles on the way, I was suddenly faced with the imposing forest itself (my first plateaus). My initial reaction was to walk the perimeter to find an easy way in (to find a fix to that which is slowing my progression) until I came across the S.A.C tree. The Strength And Conditioning tree offered a path deeper in to forest. This is a bright, attractive and healthy way to progress further in Parkour so it is an obvious route for many people to take. But what we need to remember is that this tree is still an obstacle regardless of how attractive it is.

It can be very easy once we reach the forest to stand too close to the Strength And Conditioning tree because it seems to offer us so much. But what we need to remember is the reason we approached the forest in the first place when we were learned of its existence. When you first saw Parkour or heard of it, you did not consider the brutal training needed to become the best you can be, you wanted to fly, to be set free and be able to do all of these amazing things that these other people were doing, whether for your yourself or for other people.

I once stood so close to this tree that I could no longer see the forest behind it. My mind was consumed with my body becoming stronger that I almost lost sight of the overall goal, which was to progress deeper in to the forest and develop my ability to move and overcome all obstacles in my path. My technical ability suffered a bit of a setback and I was becoming nothing more than a guy who worked out a lot and occasionally did some proper Parkour - this was not right and obviously did not last long. I had to rethink and shift the balance as I was spending around 80% of my time strengthening and conditioning my body, overtraining and not having any energy to train techniques. By week 20 of Hell Night perhaps only 20% of my time was spent training technically. So I stopped Hell Nights and began to explore what my new body could do technically and it took a while to synchronise everything again.

For a while quite recently I followed a slightly more organic regime in which I would train either upper or lower body depending on which felt ready - and if they were both tired, I would simply practice balance and foot placement drills. I trained technically on a regular basis too but I still felt that there was a distinct difference being made between the physical and technical training days and that they were not being integrated enough.

But now my training has changed yet again and it has been simplified even further. My physical training is directly linked to my technical training in a way that is so obvious, I am surprised that it took me this long to subscribe to its many benefits.

My new training regime allows me to progress deeper in to the forest towards my goals but with deeply ingrained lessons carved in to my calloused hands to remind me of what I learnt back at the perimeter, climbing around in the S.A.C tree for so long. It taught me that I needed to find the balance in my training.

This method that I am talking about states that the body becomes good at doing what it does. Repetition of technical movements, done in a controlled and focused manner is the best way to get better at those technical movements, but at the same time, this repetition of technique is the best way to build the muscles needed to do the technique better.

Take the following as examples...

-To improve your Parkour ability, doing 50 precision jumps near your maximum distance is more beneficial for you than doing 50 squats, it is also a great deal harder and will target exactly the muscles you want to build.

-Doing 25 arm jumps followed by a climb up each time is more beneficial to your Parkour than doing 25 pullups and then doing 25 pushups or dips.

-Repeating many laches is the best way to prepare your body for, and improve, your laches.

-Repeating running jumps is the best way to prepare your body for, and improve, your running jumps.

This list could go on and on.

Drilling a lache immediately followed by a muscle up is much more beneficial than just repeating the muscle up. Just by adding something simple to it turns it from being just a physical exercise in to a physical exercise AND a technical one, since a lache followed by a muscle up is something you could well be called upon to do in an emergency situation. It is unlikely that you would suddenly find yourself hanging from a bar or branch ready to muscle up, you have to arrive there somehow so we should bear this in mind and practice this too.

If we focus on what we are doing and really work hard on these repetitions, training like this physically is in my opinion far more beneficial than doing singular bodyweight exercises. You will use more muscle groups in unison, develop your technical ability, have more fun and be less likely to reach a plateaus in your training due to the almost infinite variations of exercises you now have available to you with no additional equipment needed.

In the past I trained my legs using pistols, squats, one-legged glute raises, calf raises and a whole host of other exercises. These have all no doubt contributed to my current jump distance but in a less efficient way than if I had targeted the exact muscles used in the way they would be called upon during Parkour training itself. It would have been more efficient to repeat the actual jumps I wished to do over and over again.

I had tried repeating jumps in the past with moderate success but never really committed to it fully or considered it as a viable or complete replacement of my old regime of using bodyweight exercises. So on Wednesday of this week I decided not to do any pistols, calf raises or any other singular motion. I would simply repeat jumps. It is now Friday and my leg muscles still ache from that session. Climbing or descending stairs is quickly met with fresh reminders that I worked my ass off in that session and targeted specific muscles that had never before been worked the way they were that night.

In the image below I have illustrated the jumps that I repeated...

+First I repeated the standing jump on the red line 100 times, 50 times in each direction. Going from the lower wall to the higher one is quite close to my maximum jump distance.

++Then I repeated the standing jump on the yellow line 100 times, 50 times in each direction.

+++Finally I repeated the standing jump on the white line from the floor to the higher wall 50 times.

This type of training was extremely refreshing to me and it was amazing to think that I was working my muscles harder than before and in a way that was also directly beneficial to my technical progression.

Another way you could implement this concept of training and see immediate results, is to find a rail that you can only just jump on to from standing and repeat jumps on to it from the floor each week. When you can jump over the rail, you have progressed and need to find a higher rail. How much simpler can training towards a goal become than that? It is an instant way to monitor your physical and technical progression without having to wait and go outside to test your new muscle gains after a gym workout or doing lots of pistols. It is using all of the muscles you need to use to develop your standing jump ability, without adding unnecessary bulk.

Also, your body does not know what Tuesday, March or 3pm is. It has no concept of the system we use to record and organise our time so it is completely unnatural for it to stress the same muscles on a Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 6pm every week and expect the best results. The body does not work this way. If you really broke them down on Monday with a new exercise then it might take until Thursday before they have healed completely and you should not try to force them in to more training when they are not ready. It is now my opinion that strict training schedules and plans can be dangerous things if taken too seriously.

Not only does your body have no concept of the time that our brains do, it has no idea what a pushup or a weight is. It simply breaks down when in use and rebuilds itself stronger to protect itself from the same abuse next time. So with that in mind, doing pushups will make you better at pushups... doing pistols will make you better at pistols... and therefore it is no real surprise that doing precision jumps will make you better and doing and resisting precision jumps.

I am now completely stopping the conventional singular exercises as a test. No more sets or reps of pushups, pullups, chinups, pistols or glute raises etc. Just repetitions of basic movements that use exactly the same muscles used in those exercises mentioned, but in a way that will directly benefit my technical ability. Sure, my climbups can become better by doing pushups and pullups, but not as good as they can become by actually doing climbups. This principle will be applied to all techniques and exercises. I will still use those movements to warm up my body as they are simple, quick and less stressful for the body than many other techniques, but my focus will be shifting to much more repetition of technical movements.

The method was talked about by Stephane Vigroux in 'Le Singe Est De Retour' but despite having seen that so many times, it never really occurred to me just how widely used and successful this method was for him. I know from other sources that this is a very popular way to train in Lisses and the one that David Belle has taught other people who came to train with him.

I am not completely against the traditional exercises that have brought me this far in Parkour, they certainly have their uses in building strength, endurance and speed. I also definitely see the benefits of certain exercises such as quadrupedal walking, the muscle up and shimmying or climbing. I just aim to avoid the singular, more isolated exercises that make it very difficult to see whether they are actually helping or hindering your progression.

It is at this time in my training that I feel the need to connect what was previously two conflicting worlds for me. I need to amalgamate my physical and technical training for the benefit of my overall goals.

I think this method of training could benefit a lot of other people who are still searching for the perfect way to train for Parkour, so I wanted to bring together all of these ideas in to one place for people to look at. Read it if you like, take from it what you wish and discard anything that you don't feel will work for you. Good luck and feel free to leave your opinions here!

Here are some quotes in support of the concepts and methods mentioned in this post:

Stephane Vigroux - "There is one jump there. But if you repeat it many, many times, you are working physically."

Stephane Vigroux - "When I'm training everyday, first thing I just do a little check up of me, and my body, so ok today, how I feel? How is my mind first? Am I lazy or not? How are my legs? My arms? And when I've checked everything, I plan, not the training, I just plan the way I'm going to train. I mean more leg exercise today or more arm exercise and I define if I'm going to train physically or more technically."

Thomas Des Bois - "be careful of rigid training programs, they can get you injured if you train too much. I prefer "listening" to my body and seeing what i can work on presently. If my arms feel tired, i'm not going to work on them. That way, you can prevent long term injuries."

I will post again with my findings in this training method when I have fully explored it and tried it for a while. You may have noticed I also made a few template change to my blog, I thought I should tidy it up a little bit in celebration of its first birthday, it has been exactly a year since my first post!