Recently I had the pleasure of meeting Rafe Kelley, who owns and operates a parkour gym here in Seattle called Parkour Visions. Rafe is a very knowledgeable movement geek, so we had a great time chatting. (He’s also a real movement stud, see video below for evidence.)
He shared so much interesting information that I thought I would do an interview to pass it on to my readers. Before getting to the interview though, you might be asking yourself what is parkour. Here is a video of Rafe and his friends doing some parkour, which is kind of like being an urban ninja:
OK, now for the interview, which covers many interesting topics such as: Rafe’s background and how he started his gym; the history of parkour; training for parkour; how to do a “kong vault”; how deadlifts improve your broad jump; and Rafe’s evolutionary perspective on movement fitness.
So how did you get interested in movement?
I basically grew up along the end of a dirt road playing in the woods. My first introduction to it was just being the kind of kid who had the freedom to go play around and move as much as I wanted, climbing trees a lot, playing with swords a lot, fighting with my brother and my cousins.
I started training in martial arts when I was 6 years old, and trained in martial arts off and on throughout my childhood. I started training in gymnastics when I was 15.
In 2005 I met my friend Dane who had been coming to my old gymnastic classes and basically doing parkour. He was dive rolling over obstacles and swinging in between the bars and basically driving the gymnastic staff nuts. I was like, “Hey, I saw this video of this guy doing this stuff outside. You should check it out.” Dane then got my number from the gym that I worked at and started hassling me to come outside and do it with him; and as soon as I did, I was just in love with it. It was the greatest thing ever!
I remember being 10 years old and running through the woods with awesome courses we’d built out there, thinking it should be an Olympic event. So, as soon as I started doing it as an adult, it was like I found my niche.
Parkour versus gymnastics
I’m curious about the differences between parkour and gymnastics. Obviously, there’s a lot of similarities, but what, in your mind, makes you prefer parkour to gymnastics?
In a lot of ways, there’s a tremendous overlap between gymnastics and parkour. One of the ways that I like to think about them as different – which isn’t entirely accurate, but it’s a nice model – is to say, gymnastics essentially takes six simple sets of equipment for men and four for women; and they try to develop the most complex and difficult movement possible as well as the most aesthetic on that very simple apparatus. Within parkour, it’s almost the opposite. It’s almost the inversion, where we take the very basics of human movement – the ability to move on all fours, the ability to run, the ability to jump, the ability to swing from our hands and climb – and we apply those to increasingly complex environments.
One of the things that I find interesting about gymnastics or dance is that you’re doing the movements basically for an aesthetic purpose as opposed to really trying to accomplish a functional goal. For example, in gymnastics, if you roll over yourself, you do it in a somersault type of a way where your head goes under. I suppose that’s because it’s aesthetically pleasing and it looks symmetrical. If you guys are going to roll, you roll with your head to the side and over the shoulder. Even though it might not look as good, it would be more functional. Does parkour have an aesthetic element? Or are you just trying to get over the object?
The balance between movement that has utility and movement that is focused on aesthetics is a very interesting distinction. The truth is that parkour is a balance. There is an ethic of utility in parkour, but there is also definitely a focus on aesthetics. I think that has been true of both dance and gymnastics in the past, too.
A lot of dance elements actually have their origin in military training and the same is true in gymnastics. The vaulting horse that they use in gymnastics, it was based on the idea of being able to vault onto a horse’s back in combat. The same thing with the pommel horse. All the pommel horse tricks originate as tricks for cavalry to develop agility on top of a horse.
In fact, a lot of the movements that are very key, typical movements of parkour now are movements that were trained very specifically as part of utility in early gymnastics training. Early gymnastics training was much more focused not so much on the aesthetics, but on developing athletes who had asked to be useful athletes and can move well.
The shoulder roll is something that used to be taught in gymnastics. Most of the vaults that we do in parkour used to be in gymnastics, they’re all basically rooted in gymnastics. You can go back and look at Douglas Fairbanks movies from the 1920s and see that he is doing stuff that is basically parkour. He’d learned that stuff out of schools of gymnastics.
In some ways, parkour is like a return to the roots of gymnastics. I hope that it doesn’t devolve completely into a pursuit of aesthetics because I think in some ways that’s been destructive to gymnastics. It used to be that gymnastics was seen as the foundation of athleticism for everybody, especially in the old Soviet system. I think that parkour is a great potential foundation in the same way. If it disappears into a purely aesthetic pursuit, I think that that will be forgotten. In some ways, they are very similar and there may be the same potential to lose that utility aspect of parkour, but it is more of the focus right now.
Is there a deep philosophy behind parkour?
We don’t do parkour because we are operators in the military who have to be able to do this. We do it because it’s fun. We do it because we feel it makes us stronger or better people. Really the focus becomes what parkour does for the human being. They say in mountaineering, “It’s not what the man does to the mountain, it’s what the mountain does to the man.”
Cool. Personally what I find attractive about it, as little as I’ve done it, is that it inspires me to interact with my environment in more creative ways and find more interesting movement opportunities, even in an urban lifestyle. It seems like that’s what you guys are doing.
Yeah. There’s a ton of focus, really, on the ability to play, to play with your environment, to see the opportunities form. [Click here for an article on play.]
The Parkour gym
Tell me about your gym. How did you get it started? Where is it at? Where is it going?
I have been an instructor of gymnastics, parkour and Crossfit, and some degree of martial arts essentially for nine years, starting with gymnastics. Most of my gymnast students were basically more interested in jumping off of things and climbing things and jumping between things than being forced to do cartwheels over and over and over again. I was like wait, if I’m paid to teach gymnastics and my students really want to do parkour, I just need to set up a situation where I can get paid to teach parkour and then I can meet the needs of all these people who want to do parkour better than what I’m doing right now.
I started teaching parkour out of the gymnastics gym on a regular basis, charging for the clinics that we’d do. Then I ended up working with a facility in Bellingham teaching parkour. At the same time, there was a lot of demand in Seattle for that, so we ended up at Northwest Crossfit. We ended up having to move out of the Northwest Crossfit facility because they had other things that were going on. We taught outside over the summer and looked for another facility. In October 2009, we opened the first parkour facility on the west coast. It’s the third in the nation. We have been pretty much growing very fast ever since.
We started with eight members on the day that we opened. We had 30 by the end of that month and then I think we were close to 100 by the end of that year.
How many do you have now?
We switched from a solely membership system to package system. We have 160 members, or maybe 170 members, which is the highest that we’ve ever had, but we also have so many packages that have been used in the last three months, so basically we had over 500 people who trained within the gym in the last three months.
Wow. That’s a ton. What are the age ranges? Do you get old, young, in between, all kinds of people?
Yeah. We started mostly working with school-age kids and then young adults. We’ve been slowly expanding out from there. This summer, we started teaching all the way down to preschool-age kids. We have two-and-a-half-year olds who are doing parkour there and their parents are extremely excited about it. It’s beautiful.
We just recently started a class that’s officially just a women’s class but ends up being a class of women in their 40s to 70s. We have a few students in their 50s and then a handful who are older than that. We try to reach all ages. We really feel like at some level parkour is applicable to just about everybody. It’s a really beneficial thing if we can create a way for people to enjoy it.
Teaching the basics of parkour
How do you teach someone to do parkour who has no idea how to land a jump? How do you progress that?
The first idea is that parkour doesn’t have to be jumping between buildings. Really parkour is about improving the way that you move and your capacity to move through the world in an effective way and also in a creative way to see more potential for movement in play in the environment.
We really believe that anybody can progress and that it’s very useful to a human being to see that progression. From wherever you start, you can always overcome that and keep moving past it. You may never go from where you are currently to feeling like jumping between buildings is a good idea, and that’s great. Most people probably should never do that.
I’m pretty sure I’m one of those people.
We want to change the idea of what parkour is in the public mind. In the public mind, parkour is young, adrenaline-filled males jumping between buildings, but really parkour is a practice of developing yourself through improving your ability to move, similar to martial arts or gymnastics or anything else. And just like you wouldn’t have somebody come into a gym and try the martial arts class by having Anderson Silva in a full contact match, and you wouldn’t start someone weight-training by saying, “Here’s 400 pounds. Snatch it over your head,” in parkour, we develop incremental progressions.
For instance, one of the movements that’s really popular and has a lot of visual set is a movement called the kong vault; it’s essentially where you dive onto your hands pass over them and land on the other side. This movement is really intimidating for beginners, but we’ve found that we can teach it by having people move on the ground, and anybody can get down on all fours and from there start learning to support their weight primarily on their hands, start getting their hips to rise up over their hands, and eventually the feet can land in between the hands and then you can start pushing off and pulling back with your hands and your feet are landing past your hands.
From here, now we’ve created a very incremental set of steps to developing a motor pattern that can then be applied in more and more difficult situations. We’ll start with ground level. You can’t fall very hard at all from the ground. Then we’re four inches off the ground, and then eight, then 10, 12, etcetera, all the way up.
What are some of the other “ABCs” of parkour that almost anyone can do on the first day? You mentioned this kong vault, but are there other types of basic moves that anyone can be taught on the first day and start moving in the right direction, like a squat or a crawling pattern or rolls?
We look at parkour as containing four basic locomotion patterns: run, jump, climb and move on all fours, also called quadrupedal movement. Essentially, any healthy human being can accomplish some level of these on Day 1. We’re looking to refine that.
Most people walk in the gym and they can run, but they can’t run well. They have motor deficits in how they run. We want to address those and improve their ability to run. From this basic skill of running on the ground, we want to increase it so that they can run over the tops of obstacles, so they can run balancing down a narrow surface, so they can run underneath things and over things. That’s a building block.
In the same sense, we have people start crawling on the ground, moving forwards, backwards, sideways, learning to do more complex motor patterns on the ground, and those become our vaulting patterns. A vault is basically a jump where your hands are interacting with an obstacle to pull you to the other side.
Then jumping, obviously. We’ll start with very simple jumps at the ground level, learning to properly coordinate your arms, being able to extend through your hips and feet, being able to produce power and jump through the air and land properly, make sure that your knees are tracking well, make sure that your hips and ankles and knees are all intercepting the ground and you’re not overemphasizing one structure, make sure that you’re able to maintain posture, develop all those capacities.
Then we’re going to start with a jump between two objects on the ground, can you jump between the objects on the ground that have an element of precision so that if it’s a narrow surface and you have to land on it, you’ll be able to balance, then there are running jumps, then jumps at increasing height. Step by step.
It seems like the jumping, and these other movements that you’re talking about, would have a
very broad transfer to lots of other different activities. You mentioned the 40 to 70 year old women. Any of them could probably benefit from an increased ability to fall with skill, because it’s going to happen to everyone sooner or later. Talk a little bit about your ideas about falling, fear of falling, and how that relates to general physical wellness.
One of the things that we noticed when we first started training people, when you look at the people who learn quickly, they fell pretty regularly. With our experienced guys, we are pretty comfortable watching each other fall. It’s not a big deal. With inexperienced athletes I’ve seen people fall from very short heights and break their wrist because they overreacted to the ground. They threw their arm out completely straight and extended behind them and got their whole weight coming down on their arm.
The way that I like to think about this is that the human body, the human nervous system, is designed to experience falling as a regular part of growing up, and that when it does not have that stimulus, the natural reaction towards falling becomes disorganized, it becomes hyper-reactive, in the same sense that our immune system becomes hyper-reactive if it’s not exposed to dirt.
Falling is fundamental
I noticed that when my daughters were learning to walk, they would fall maybe 100 times a day. I really like this idea of learning to fall. How do you teach people to get better at falling without hurting themselves?
An athlete who comes from a specific sport discipline may become really good at falling in one direction but be really unprepared to fall in another direction. Parkour, because it forces you to explore all of your movement capacities, really prepares you to be able to fall in a lot of effective ways. We focus very much on trying to capture that and give it to people as effectively as possible.
One of the concepts that we teach is how can we accept the force of falling over a larger percentage of our body while at the same time protecting your central nervous system and keeping contact on soft tissue. The next concept is that we can actually distribute the force of landing over time. If we land everything at once, we’re going to have a high transient impact, whereas if we can land and chain the movement up across our body, you absorb however many newtons of force over a second and a half instead of a tenth of a second, the total force that we’re dealing with at any one moment is less. We have specific techniques to land on the side of your body instead of on your spine or your neck and we always work on progressing starting small but progressively getting more difficult, higher, harder, more complex, less control.
The SAID Principle, carryover and GPP
I know you’re familiar with the said principle – you adapt specifically to the stress that you put yourself under. In most cases, there’s not a lot of transfer from whatever skill you learn to other activities. I’m very interested in finding out which types of skill you can acquire which do have a broad transfer to other types of activities. One of the reasons I’m interested in parkour, it seems like a lot of the skills and general abilities you guys are learning might have more transfer than other types of skills. For example, hitting a tennis serve is going to make you better at hitting a tennis serve and nothing else, but if you learn how to fall really well, I imagine that might help you get better at a wide variety of sports where falling occurs, such as soccer, lacrosse, football, baseball, basketball, lots of sports. Do you think that parkour is the type of thing you can learn that would have a broad transfer to lots of other areas? Or is it just a specific skill?
I think it has the potential for a very broad transfer. In the Soviet system, everybody trained gymnastics, and the way that they trained gymnastics actually looked very much like parkour. There was a lot of emphasis on learning effective break falls, on learning vaults, on learning jumps. You can look at old videos of Soviet system athletes who are weightlifters being trained to do handsprings and vaults and run through the woods and jump over obstacles. They believed that this was the root of athleticism where you developed kids and it would create athletes with a better base for every sport.
What they called GPP (General physical preparation)?
GPP. Everybody basically in the old Soviet system trained gymnastics until they were 12 years old at least. From there, they’d start specializing in a sport, except for athletes whose sport peaked very young, like gymnasts. They would actually have people continue this training all the way up to 18 before they started specializing in them.
I think that, yes, this can absolutely have a positive transfer to most athletic activities. We have team sports athletes who come train with us and they go back to their sport and come back tell us they felt more confident, faster, stronger more capable. There’s a few potential reasons for that.
Take something like falling; if you’re better able to fall, you’re more confident doing anything. I had an athlete I trained, he was an ultimate frisbee player and what he wanted was to feel comfortable laying out (diving) on the ground. We went through a sequence of learning falls and getting more comfortable in various ways to hit the ground. It made him feel like he could lay out for a frisbee and not wreck himself when he hit the ground.
At the same time, there are general physical capacities that have a high degree of transfer from one activity to another. In general, strength is fairly transferrable. If you make a cyclist stronger, he’ll become a more efficient pedaler. Parkour affects strength not as effectively as weight training, but it’s a potential avenue for that. More important it improves power development and rate of force development in different ways. It’s good for reactive strength, which is important in every sport.
One of the attributes that I think is extremely important, we don’t have the research to say this as robustly as some of the other things, but I think that parkour essentially develops the capacity to deal with motor complexity. Parkour and gymnastics and certain other sports, essentially they progress by always looking to do a more difficult version. We’re not just jumping higher, we’re jumping in a more complex situation. What this means is that we’re always facing novel motor challenges. I believe that there’s a general capacity to basically problem-solve a motor challenge. If that general capacity is developed to the highest, that athlete exposed to any new sport will tend to learn the patterns more quickly and be able to solve new challenges better, there is an old observation that gymnasts tend to learn other sports quicker than other athletes. I think the same is true. It’s like you use your movement IQ.
So movement IQ improves across the board.
Yeah. I think that parkour is one of the most effective ways to develop an athlete’s movement IQ.
You mentioned strength training. How do you guys incorporate strength training into what you do at the gym? I know you guys have some barbells and stuff there. What kind of program do you use? How does it make people better at parkour?
When I started parkour, I was a gymnastics coach and I didn’t have access to strength training. I trained for about a year in that situation without access to barbells for strength training. In that time, my broad jump went from about eight feet to about eight feet eight inches; it stalled there, just completely would not budge. I added strength training, specifically squatting and deadlifting, to my program, and soon I could jump nine feet six inches.
That is essentially a story that I hear over and over in the parkour community. Our best athlete at Parkour Visions, Justin Sweeney, trained with us at Northwest Crossfit for a while, then he wasn’t able to afford classes for a while so he went and trained on his own. He’d been training for about a year and his broad jump was, again, plateaued at eight feet four inches. It was not moving despite all the jumping that he was doing, his standing broad jump. Again, squats, deadlifts and in his case half gallon of milk a day. He went from 130 to 160 pounds and from an eight foot four inch broad jump to a nine foot four inch broad jump.
Wow. That’s amazing. What about energy system development? Do you guys do anything to get people fitter other than just doing parkour?
Fair enough. It sounds like what’s limiting your guys from doing what they wanted to do is more strength issues than fitness issues. Is that right?
Yeah. Basically, for the way that parkour is commonly practiced, which is spurts of 10, 15 seconds at the most, the primary limiting factors are: Are you strong enough? Do you have good reactive strength? Do you have good mobility? Can you get a good position? Are you lean?
You mentioned mobility. What do you guys do at your gym to improve mobility, flexibility,
coordination, that type of a thing?
We have a mobility-specific class where we do a lot of things. We also have a section of about 10 minutes at the end of every class where we do some form of mobility development. I like to use that term over “stretching” because stretching tends to imply static stretching, which is not so much what we’re doing. We’re very influenced by the ideas of Kelly Starrett from MobilityWOD and Ido Portal, who are both guys who really know their stuff when it comes to how to mobilize people.
Lately we’ve been focused a lot on what Ido advocates, which is a lot of progressive loaded stretching where we’re basically using barbells and dumbbells and kettlebells not primarily as a way to address somebody’s strength but as a way to load them in deep ranges of motions.
We think about the nervous system as the central governor of mobility and we think about our expression of mobility as being necessary within the context of dynamic movement. By having somebody have a heavy load on them in a position, if they’re able to maintain their position, if they’re able to maintain proper posture and breathing, it’s sending a very strong signal to the nervous system that this is safe. [FYI - For some articles on central governors, click here.]
I’m interested by this. You load end range movements. What are the specific exercises? I can imagine maybe a Romanian deadlift to load the hamstrings.
What other muscles do you target and what are the exercises that you use to do that and load them?
The primary limiting factors we see are dorsiflexion of the ankle and then flexion, extension and external rotation at the hip, and then thoracic extension and external rotation and flexion at the shoulder.
We’re still experimenting about what are the best ways to address the hamstrings and the hip flexion. We’re looking at the Romanian deadlift as a core element to try and address that, so basically getting people to use a relatively light load and do a set of Romanian deadlifts with holds at the bottom. That’s one of the exercises we’re doing.
We’re also using the rear leg elevated split squat as a primary strength development exercise, which we found has actually alleviated a lot of the need to try and specifically address the stretching of the hip flexor outside of it. I had big problems with my hip flexors chronically being tight. I switched from using the deadlift to using the split squat as my primary training exercise and I find that I have spent a lot less time stretching my hip flexors.
To address the ankles, one of the things we’re doing is again the Romanian deadlift, but with the front of the foot elevated. We’re increasing the demand on the calf and the Achilles stretch as we’re doing that.
Then for thoracic extension, we’re doing actually overhead squats. It’s going to address basically everything. Again, we’re using relatively light loads with holds at the bottom.
If you can get the strength at the same time you get the flexibility, I guess that’s why deadlifts, squats, Romanian deadlifts, and Bulgarian split squats are so popular, huh?
Yeah. [Editor’s translation: "duh."]
I know you like to take an evolutionary perspective on things. Why do you think that’s useful? What misconceptions do you see in other people taking that approach and how does it inform your approach to movement and health?
I come from an anthropology and evolutionary biology background and, essentially, one of my favorite quotes is Theodusius Dobzhansky who said, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution.” There’s all these patterns in the world that we can only really develop a powerful understanding of by utilizing evolution.
However, at the same time, I think that there’s a lot of danger in sort of over generalizing from this evolutionary model, because it falls into our tendency toward the naturalistic fallacy. We tend to think what is natural is good or right; and that’s not necessarily the case.
And at the same time, there is a tendency to view human beings’ evolution as a static thing that stopped at some point. The paleo diet is a really big thing right now. It’s based on this idea that our genes stopped changing 10,000 years ago or more than 10,000 years ago … 50,000 years ago when we developed cultural evolution and that, therefore, we should eat like we ate 50,000 years ago, but it’s simply false.
John Hawks published a paper about the acceleration of evolution in 2006, which anyone interested in this should read; and essentially what they found is that if you actually track the genes and look at how much change in genes there has been, human evolution has accelerated since the dawn of agriculture and since the dawn of cultural evolution. So, evolution is not stopped; and just because a caveman did something doesn’t mean that your body is designed to do it or eat like that.
Yeah, maybe in 400 years, people will say, “Hey, our ancestors spent a lot of time sitting in chairs. We need to spend some more time doing that.”
That’s correct. So, it’s a powerful frame, but it’s a frame that we have to be careful of; and the way that I utilize it personally is primarily about movement.
Because I think that the way we move today is very novel. The fact that we are so insulated from risk and so insulated from the necessity to move, to walk. A hundred years ago, you had to walk all the time. The fact that we have sidewalks everywhere and we never have to climb over difficult terrain, that we never have to expose our bodies to these different classes of movements is very evolutionarily novel.
I think that if we look at what we’ve always needed to do, we’d have a good guide for what it means to be a fit human being; and that, in fact, human beings still innately play in a species-specific pattern. When you look at a kitten or a puppy, it plays in a specific way. A kitten stalks and pounces things and bats at them with its feet and bites it with his teeth. Because this is how cats grow to kill things, stalk them. And if you look at a puppy, it plays by chasing things. It plays by playing tug-of-war. Well, that’s what wolves do. Wolves run their prey down, grab onto them and hold them to the ground and then eat them. Right? Well, if you take a child, and so many children just never get this opportunity; but if you let them out in the woods, what do they do? They run. They jump. They climb trees. They box with each other. They wrestle with each other. They build forts. So, to me this is a really powerful guide to what a human being needs to accomplish.
One of my favorite examples that I have been talking about recently was just observing my daughter. I have a 3-month-old daughter and everyday she wakes up and she starts kicking and punching and moving around and wiggling. Right? Why does she do that? She does it because it’s fun. She doesn’t do it because somebody has told her that she needs to get 60 minutes of exercise a day to fill the doctor’s orders. She does it because it’s fun; and if she didn’t do it, she’d never learn to walk. She’d never learn to crawl. She’d never learn to become a competent human being and nobody would think that it’s a good idea to prevent her from doing that.
Great answer Rafe. Thanks for talking!
If you are in Seattle and want to check out Rafe at Parkour Visions, you can find the website here.