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Parkour as a martial art

Eric "Silver Surfer" Zimmerman of Phoenix Freerunning practices a movement.
Eric "Silver Surfer" Zimmerman of Phoenix Freerunning practices a movement.
Phoenix Freerunning Academy

Parkour is a movement activity that involves running and navigating obstacles in an effective and efficient manner. Freerunning is a similar activity, that not only involves the navigation of the terrain, but also adds the participant’s artistic vision to the movement so that it becomes a form of self expression in addition to the movement. Parkour finds its roots in military obstacle courses, but has grown from the confines of military practice and is now enjoyed worldwide.

I was interested if Parkour could be classified as a martial practice, largely because the Use of Force spectrum includes avoidance and escape as a highly effective option to prevent harm. I contacted the Phoenix Freerunning group, a metro Detroit Parkour and Freerunning club, to see if they had some insight. As it turns out, the club leader, Eric “Silver Surfer” Zimmerman knew a fellow member was a practicing martial artist as well. Jesse “Jazz” Harrison also lent his perspective with his martial background.

From my initial research, Parkour is the skill set involving moving from point A to point B, with effective and proficient navigation of any obstacles in the way. Freerunning is similar, but focuses on the 'how' these obstacles are navigated, making it as much a physical artistic expression of the participant as it is a means of effectively traversing the terrain. Is that an accurate distinction between the two? How are the terms used within the community doing this activity?

Eric: In general, I would say yes, that is an accurate distinction. Despite this, the terms "parkour" and "freerunning" are still often used synonymously and most traceurs (practioners of parkour/freerunning) understand the implied distinction. One of the most common distinctions that people tend to point out is that freerunning often includes more flips whereas parkour rarely uses any (one example of a flip being acceptable in parkour would be doing a “dive-front" or a diving-front-flip to add a bit of distance to an initial jump). Going off of your "point A to point B" reference, parkour would find the most direct route between these two points, again navigating any obstacles in the way, whereas with freerunning, you might go a bit out of your way to add in some extra "moves" or "tricks" that wouldn't be necessary but that would look stylish/impressive.

Jesse: Yes that is completely accurate. In the community parkour is sometimes used as a general term to describe both parkour and freerunning, although it is inaccurate. Freerunning is like you said “how” one moves through obstacles which allows for a lot more artistic expression and creativity. Martial arts tricking has become a large part of freerunning; taking moves from extreme martial arts and chaining them with parkour vaults and various parkour movements. Gymnastics is also a huge part of freerunning, and some parkour movements have been inspired by gymnastics. I love the creative side of freerunning that allows me to create combos of movement that flow together well that I have never seen someone else do before.

I've heard a few points of view on if Parkour can be defined as a 'martial art style', or if it is something else entirely. Certainly the act of evading a potential attacker has martial implication, but the martial artists I have polled seem to think Parkour is something else entirely. Many liken it more to an act such skateboarding or skiing, rather than martial, because it involves the physical 'artistic expression' mentioned above. Without breaking out Webster's dictionary definitions, I'm thinking any skill set that has martial application, such as moving like this, can be considered a martial art, or at least practiced with a martial intent. Have you looked at it from this viewpoint?

Eric: Up until this interview, no, I have not really considered parkour as a potential martial art. In my mindset, martial arts are most often directed at being able to combat/compete against an opponent. In fact, from my understanding, this is often how martial artists test and advance their skill level. Although competitions are beginning to emerge with parkour and freerunning, they are more similar to skateboarding/skiing in that most often only one person performs at a time and that you practice mostly to be able to perform new and creative moves that look smooth and flow from one movement to the next. It is definitely an artist expression. It is not a contact sport (with other humans at least). I would say that within the community, the sport is not often practiced with martial intent, however, one could easily apply the parkour/freerunning skill sets with martial intent of either capturing or evading another opponent.

Jesse: I have looked at it from this viewpoint and I have often thought of parkour as the martial art of running away. In fact, parkour started in the French military as an efficient way for soldiers to retreat. Most people who have seen parkour don’t realize the intense training, conditioning, and mental discipline that is involved with parkour. Likening parkour to skateboarding is similar to liking martial arts to dancing just because all you have ever seen of martial arts is kata. As much as retreating has martial implication, so does parkour. We don’t often get to see parkour used in a situation that calls for its original purpose.

Specifically to Jesse, have you integrated your martial training with your parkour practice?

Jesse: The fusion of parkour and martial arts sorta happens whether you want it to or not. In both parkour and martial arts you gain extreme body awareness, which makes you more skillful in both of the arts. It is just like a symbiotic relationship. I have used moves from my Freerunning arsenal to spice up some of my creative forms, and I have used moves from my martial arts to spice up my freerunning (I do tae kwon do chung do kwon by the way).

Regarding the skill of Parkour, is there a repertoire of tricks that are standard 'curriculum'? In other words, are there specific moves with names that are generated and considered standard fare for Parkour practitioners?

Eric: There is absolutely a general set of moves that all of us practice and teach. Unfortunately, the list is too long to enumerate in full, but some of the most common elements include: parkour roll (different than a somersault or a gymnastics roll, i.e. shoulder-to-hip versus along the spine), vaults (including safety vault, speed vault, kong vault, lazy vault, dash vault, reverse vault, etc.), wall-runs (typically vertically up a wall), tic-tacs (horizontal off of a wall), cat grabs (position of holding oneself up from a ledge), precisions (landing on a specific area such as a rail), and the list goes on, with new concepts being invented/added almost every day.

Jesse: There are skills that all traceurs usually have even at the beginner levels. These skills include the following basic vaults, the kong, the safety, the speed, the lazy, and the monkey. The parkour roll also comes standard and is one of the most important movements a traceur ever learns. The wall run, climb up, and lache are also very basic and important movements that all traceurs have or at least should have.

What are some basic moves that you think would aid a martial practitioner or other person in evasion? For instance, some common obstacles require jumping over, sliding under, or sidestepping. Are there basic techniques that would aid a person's ability to negotiate these obstacles?

Eric: Any move that increases muscle control and spatial awareness (which is almost all moves) are absolutely beneficial for learning either sport. The flexibility offered by MA actually helps with the jumping motions used in PK. Both require confidence, control, discipline and preparation and they each help with everything from balance to strength. Although you can be
good at one sport and not the other (I myself specialize in parkour and am not very good at martial arts or even flexibility, while I have met master martial artists that struggle with learning parkour), being able to master both absolutely helps one progress within each discipline.

Jesse: I think it is important to be able to do wall runs/climb ups, in order to scale large walls. Also, knowing as many vaults as possible will make it so that there isn’t an obstacle that you can't get around over or under. There is a vault or movement created for efficiently traversing every type and size of obstacle. One can start with the basic movements I talked about earlier.

Conclusion

In the interview it was clear that a non-practitioner of martial arts viewed Parkour as a certain thing while a martial practitioner saw it as applicable to both. Is Parkour a martial art? With its roots in military troop movement training, as well as its proficiency building in escape and avoidance techniques, it seems Parkour can be considered martial activity if trained with that mindset.

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