I think for many who take up Parkour and have no previous sporting backgrounds will soon find they may struggle with upperbody work. You need to use it equally as much as lowerbody for such movements as Climb-ups, muscle ups, Dyno’s, k2p’s, kongs/Catpass’ and even remaining in a Catleap/Arm Jump position after the initial jump. I know when I first started practising I was a very skinny guy with who wore a vest of the smallest size and yet it would still bury and hang off me. I found it almost impossible to perform any type of upperbody tasks but like so many others in my position, I had a great core and leg power instead which made up for what I did lack of. Looking back though I guess even the strong defined core could be down to having an extremely low body fat percentage.
I never thought there was a need for working on my upperbody, I mean when do you really need it apart from a climb-ups right? How naive was I back then! All I wanted to do was practice what I had seen not thinking about how much work and preparation had gone into the movements and the various techniques behind them to be able to achieve them. This is setting yourself up for a lot of injury as I have experienced from my early years of training! It really is a slow progression to be able to get where you want to be, don’t let that put you off though. Stay motivated and grind through the good and the bad times and the rewards are huge in the end!
I didn’t get heavily into the fitness or even the strength training side of training until at least a year later, so in effect I did things the wrong way and had to back track to see further improvements and aim towards future goals. When I first started my Parkour Journey I could just about force a single pull up and maybe a few chin ups. I could hold a catleap/arm jump position for a few seconds at a stretch, there was no way on earth I could do a climb and certainly no way in hell I could even dream about doing a muscle up of any form! I also struggled doing kongs/catpass’ as I couldn’t get enough power from the initial push on take off and so would just get over the wall managing to let go of my hands from the wall at the very last second making me get no distance at all for evolving them into Kong precisions (k2p’s).
Naturally, Parkour will develop you with fair amount of strength from all the push and pull movements you do, you are also strengthening your joints and tendons in the process. Great, I hear you say, then I can just practice and get stronger and have no real need to strength train? Wrong! You still need to strength train I would go as far to say it’s compulsory to do so. Parkour training will only help you gain so much strength and develop the necessary muscles you need to do the moves you do, that in it’s self isn’t developing all those muscles within a muscle group only the ones you currently work from movements. Sure this is great but if you want to be a more rounded and in proportion person then you need to work all the muscle groups to make you as strong and functional as possible to prevent injury.
I mentioned I had to take a u-turn a year down the line to then get into strength training. At that time I had developed some back muscles and shoulders which I could now see forming but I had no real biceps or triceps as well as other areas were lacking. The time was now for me to get stronger and really change how I moved rather than it looking forced and a struggle which required strength. No one likes to see someone who is good at what they do in one area only nor do they want to see them struggle with say a climb up after everything else looks so good. I’ll explain some basic exercises I used to do to improve my own bodyweight strength and how to progress that further over time.
Press-ups are an excellent strength training exercise for people who are new to resistance training or lack upperbody strength. In a regular push-up you are lifting 64% of bodyweight, whereas with a knee push-up, you are lifting 49% bodyweight. If you’re new to training, performing the push-up with hands on an elevated surface will allow you to lift even less than a knee push-up, at 41% of bodyweight. Elevating the feet on a surface greater than your knee makes it harder and allows you to lift 75% of your bodyweight.
Doing X amount of press-ups daily is a great idea. I would suggest doing up to twelve repetitions to start with. Don’t worry if you can’t reach that quota, just do as many up to that number as you can and do 3-5 sets total (find which version of the press-up is most challenging for you from above). Once you go beyond 12 reps per set, you’re well into endurance training and won’t gain strength. You will be surprised how quickly they help gain strength, I used to do mine when I was bored throughout the day or when I first woke up and then again before I went to bed.
It doesn’t stop there folks either! Don’t forget regular press-ups (elbows tucked in and not sticking out) only do the basic biceps/triceps muscle group! If you want something more for the chest then put your hands wider than shoulder width for an added challenge. For primarily triceps you want to have hands touching, you can also make a triangle/pyramid shape with your hands (Pictured above).
I have so many other variations I have come across over the years and have created some strange variations myself which I have not seen others do. Just try different ones out and experiment to progress your strength further. A great link for a wide range of variations can be found on The Ultimate Push-up Guide.
From a Parkour perspective I found myself having to do such exercises as hanging in a catleap/arm jump position doing sets of three to five just hanging there as long as I possibly could. You think it is easy until you hang there and your arms start to tense up and burn, your body feels heavy and your shoulders are wanting to come out the sockets , you hold on as tight as possible with your grip going every so slightly each second that passes and your palms start to sweat not helping the situation.
This improved my over all grip strength for the forearms biceps/triceps and also helped with my various back muscles. I would also try and do a set of six to ten depending on the day, of climb-ups, even if I was unsuccessful at getting up on top of the actual wall from a static position I was working all the right muscles in my back and body to build up to doing it in the future. Another exercise involved getting into a hip shimmy position (arms locked above the wall taking all your bodyweight) then using only the arms to move/shimmy across a length of wall helped with my biceps/triceps and wrist strength. I did the same going across a length of wall in a Catleap/Arm Jump position which you would remain then shimmy across the wall using your arm and legs in conjunction.
Over time as my strength improved and I found such exercises becoming easier and had to do further distances to feel the same burn. I went from holding a Catleap/Arm Jump position for a mere five seconds all the way up to a minute and beyond! I was also able to do a climb up, admittedly though I first pulled up and got a flat elbow on top of the wall followed by my other arm pulling up to a locked position. Then slowly from practising this and always trying to Climb-up after any Catleap/Arm Jump I did, it got easier to do it without me needing to use my elbows and I was pulling up into a hip shimmy position one arm after the other.
From then on I used to from time see how many Climb-ups I could do in one go, from a Catleap/Arm Jump position up into hip shimmy then lower back down into the Cat position and repeat. This was great endurance and also helped with my over all strength, before I knew it from repeating these simple exercises each time I went out training I had developed upperbody strength and things which seemed difficult were now becoming easier!
Some other great examples of Parkour strength related exercises can be found by watching this excellent video (also shown below) from the guys over in Manchester. It might give you ideas for challenges to do while out training or even incorporating into your own personal workouts. There are many other great videos like this out there you only have to type in YouTube ‘Strength Training And Conditioning For Parkour’ and various videos come up, it’s your job to take what you want from each one to create something unique.
Now what do you do when such tasks become too easy? You up the weight so if you have a weighted vest at home that is a great way to add weight while you workout at home or outside. If you don’t have one you could always have someone else hold a press up on your upper back while you do press ups giving you more resistance.
Weight training in general when done correctly and safely is another great form of conditioning to help gain muscle. It needs to all be functional though so make sure you keep training Parkour and don’t become a muscle bound bodybuilder, sure all that muscle might look great but can you use it. Another problem with doing so much isolation workouts on any one muscle is you will look disproportional. We have all seen those guys with the tennis ball biceps from all the bicep curls and they do with hardly any triceps. The other problem with being too big muscular is flexibility, you still want to be able to move freely without becoming more like a robot with with rusted hinges.