We very often neglect flexibility in our training, because the quests for strength and speed require so much of our attention. However, stretching and flexibility training have their place in parkour.
Flexibility helps with injury prevention, the reduction of soreness following a workout, and a general sense of well-being. Flexibility training also enhances your proprioceptive skills (your sense of body awareness and personal space), which are very important in the practice of parkour. Lastly, increased flexibility helps to enhance skills in various parkour movements.
Before we start, I would like to point out that I am neither a medical professional nor a fitness professional. I am simply someone with a great deal of personal experience in dance, yoga, and martial arts training.
I enjoy stretching and often neglect other aspects of my training (e.g. strength and endurance training) in favor of flexibility practice—which seems to be the opposite approach of many traceurs. This article is simply the organization of my personal approach to stretching and flexibility training: it’s based on a lifetime of regular stretching, on coaching others to enhance their flexibility for various activities, and on research I’ve done on the subject.
There are two critical things to keep in mind when stretching: one is to pay strict attention to alignment, placement, and form; and the other is to relax.
For many people, stretching is uncomfortable, and so they respond by either shifting position (thereby changing their form), or by “gritting their teeth to bear it,” which only places tension in the muscle and does not allow it to lengthen. Either response is detrimental to developing flexibility, and in many cases can also lead to injury.
Stretching should feel good. It is a relaxing and calming activity, as any dedicated (or even fair-weather) yogi will tell you. You may feel some slight discomfort, particularly if your flexibility is limited, as your body gets used to moving in a new way. You may feel as if “something is happening” in the muscle you’re stretching, but it should not hurt and it should not be unpleasant.
If it’s unpleasant, stop! Check your form and check your breathing.
Many people find stretching to be an unpleasant activity because they are either incorrectly holding a position (thereby straining something), or because they are tensing and clenching up, and this is why many people avoid stretching. But if you approach it as the relaxing, pleasant activity that it is, you may find that you experience less discomfort in doing so. Who knows? You may even find that you enjoy it!
As you know, the frame of the body is the skeleton, and the muscles enable the skeleton to move in certain ways. Places in your body where “bending” takes place (such as the elbow or knee) are, of course, joints. Joints are areas where two bones are connected by ligaments, which are flexible enough to enable movement. Your muscles contract and relax in certain combinations to essentially push and pull your body parts through space. Muscles are connected to your bones via tendons.
Each muscle is made up of different types of fibers that can contract and elongate based on what your brain tells your body it needs to do. If more power is required to accomplish a task, the muscle will “recruit” more fibers within a muscle to get the job done, sort of like pushing a stalled car up a hill. You will exert your maximum effort, and will call as many of your friends as you can to help you until the car moves.
Muscles often work in cooperative groups. For instance, the bicep and tricep work cooperatively: the bicep contracts as the tricep lengthens, and vice versa, to bend and straighten your arm at the elbow. Other muscles in the arms, shoulders, or back may pitch in as needed, to stabilize this action and to lend their strength to the cause, depending on the job to be done. Understanding these cooperative relationships can help you maximize your stretching by contracting certain muscles to allow for lengthening of others. This is where form and placement come into play. I will describe this in more detail when describing each stretch.
What happens when you stretch
When you stretch, you are lengthening muscle fibers. Just as a muscle will “recruit” as many or as few fibers it needs to contract to accomplish a strength task, when you stretch, individual fibers lengthen and others may remain at rest. The goal is to engage all the muscle fibers in the stretch; to get all the muscle fibers lengthened to their safe maximum at the same time. The more fibers you can get lengthening in cooperation, the greater your flexibility. As with anything, this comes with practice.
When a muscle lengthens, proprioceptors in the muscle communicate two things to the brain: how long the muscle fibers are getting, and how quickly they are lengthening. Your brain makes a decision based on this information and directs the muscle to either contract (say, if the muscle is lengthening too quickly), or to relax to enable further stretching. This is designed to protect the muscle from injury. For instance, when you slowly and gently pull a hunk of Silly Putty, it stretches but does not break. However if you pull on the Silly Putty too quickly, it will snap.
This brain-muscle communication is known as the stretch reflex. The stretch reflex communication goes on for as long as the muscle is lengthened. Part of what regular stretching accomplishes is habituating the proprioceptors to the level of lengthening, and the number of muscle fibers lengthening, so that your brain becomes used to the idea that the stretch is okay and safe for the muscle. This is also part of the rationale for holding (I prefer to call it “relaxing into”) a stretch for a long period of time. The more slowly you can lengthen a muscle, the more okay the brain feels about the stretch being safe, and the more your brain will allow the muscle to relax its contraction and allow for lengthening.
We have all seen dancers and martial artists kick their legs above their heads, or leap into the splits, with lightning speed. In general, the faster a muscle is lengthened (as in a sudden high kick), the more drastic the contraction will be in the stretch reflex. However martial artists, dancers, and other trained athletes have spent so much time habituating their proprioceptors via regular flexibility training that they are able to quickly lengthen a muscle without initiating a stretch reflex. High, fast kicks and split leaps are things that take time to build up to safely.
Over time during a stretch, the proprioceptive communication will tell the muscle to relax rather than contract, once it has been determined that the lengthening is not happening to a harmful degree. It’s as if the communication went something like this:
This is another strong argument for holding stretches (and consciously relaxing into them) for a long period of time, to get over the contraction point of the stretch reflex.
Note: Muscles can, and should, stretch. Tendons and ligaments, however cannot, and should not. There is a danger to over-stretching, particularly if the muscle is stretched to its maximum length. If at any time you feel a pulling deep within a joint, as where a tendon or ligament may be, STOP and rest the body part you are stretching.
Now that you know what happens in your muscles when you stretch, it is easy to learn how to “feel” those communications happening as you stretch. Learning what this feels like, knowing when your muscle is contracting in a stretch reflex and when it is relaxing, will help you learn to ride it out and gain the maximum benefit from your stretch.
In order to do this, it is important to bring a deep awareness to your stretching: put your mind inside the muscles being stretched, experiment with the breath and the stretch to learn what your body is telling you. Remember, stretching should be a pleasant, relaxing activity. Practice feeling and interpreting these sensations as you go along.
Stretching for the traceur/traceuse
There are several different kinds of stretching. It is possible to stretch prior to working out, but this type of stretching is meant to accomplish something other than overall muscle flexibility and post-workout muscle care. In this article I will only be presenting a program specifically designed for after parkour workouts. However be aware that my approach is neither definitive nor exhaustive. There are benefits to other types of stretching which, in the interest of simplicity, I will not address here. Depending on your goals, you may wish to research other types of stretching on your own. In future articles, I will present programs that incorporate other types of stretching, designed with other parkour-specific goals in mind.
In commencing a parkour-specific post-workout stretching routine, consider the most important things to keep in mind when stretching:
- Stretch after a full workout/parkour training session, when the body is fully warm. Ideally every parkour workout should end with a stretching session like the one outlined here.
- Pay attention to form, placement, and alignment when stretching.
- Relax into the stretch. Breathe. Stretching should be a pleasant, relaxing activity.
- Be mindful of your body’s sensations while stretching. Let your body “invite you into the stretch.”
The post-parkour stretching program
This program is designed to be used after a parkour workout; either the WOD or a day spent training at a favorite spot, or both. The body should be fully warm.
The goal of the stretches is to relax and quiet the muscles after their activity, to help the muscles eliminate waste that could lead to soreness, to re-habituate the muscles to their “lengthened” range of motion to enhance healing and muscle-building, and to habituate the stretch reflex to longer muscle fiber lengths and sustained lengthening, developing increased flexibility over time.
I have chosen stretches for body parts that tend to get used a great deal in parkour, namely the chest and arms (from all the climbing and grabbing we do), and the posterior chain in the legs (from all the jumping and shock absorption we do). I have also designed the exercises to flow in an order that makes the most sense bio-mechanically.
Remember to hold each stretch for several seconds. Opinions vary, some say 30-60 seconds; I encourage you to learn to feel when your muscle relaxes and lengthens, and stay in the stretch for as long as your body tells you it needs to. Relax into it (deep breaths are a great way to do this), and let your body invite you into the stretch. Obviously if you have an injury or if a body part needs some extra attention, modify as needed, either by using blankets or yoga blocks to support the stretch, or by eliminating certain stretches altogether, setting them as goals for the future. Only you can make those kinds of “body decisions” based on what your body tells you and what you know of yourself. Train smart.
For some of these stretches, I have provided an explanation along with photos to help describe the stretch. For others, I have provided a link to the pose at yogajournal.com. The explanations and details at YogaJournal.com are excellent; at the bottom of each pose they also have drop-down menus with details for beginners, suggestions for modifications, and other helpful points. Because we are all at different places in our flexibility,
I have a mix of basic and more advanced stretches in this routine. I strongly encourage you to read these explanations thoroughly and adapt as necessary based on what works for you. Do not simply look at the picture and try to mimic the pose. Be aware that some poses may not work for your body at this time. Keep your ego out of the stretch as much as possible. Breathe, breathe, breathe.
By the end of this series, if you are relaxing into the stretches, you should feel refreshed as if having awakened from a comfortable nap.
1. Move the spine in six directions:
- Start on all fours, in a “table” position. Engage the abs to support the spine. Weight should be evenly balanced among all four limbs. Legs should be directly under hips, arms directly under shoulders. Keep the collarbones broad and the neck long and easy. Fig. 1
- Exhale, and curl the spine up towards the ceiling like an angry cat. Let the head and tailbone arc downward, feeling the space and broadness of the back. Breathe into the lower back lungs. Hold the pose for 3-5 breaths.Fig. 2
- Inhale, and arc the spine in the opposite direction, bringing the neck and head, and tailbone, up, feeling the openness of the chest and the suppleness in the spine. Breathe naturally. Hold the pose for 3-5 breaths.Fig. 3
- Return to neutral. Continue to breathe as your body invites you to. Be mindful of the breath.
- Curve the right shoulder and right hip towards each other, so that if viewed from above, the spine would look like a letter “C.” Look over your right shoulder. Feel a stretch along the left side, and a gentle “squeeze” on the right. 3-5 breaths.Fig. 4
- Repeat on left side.
- Reach the right arm under the left, lowering the right shoulder to the ground as if trying to reach something from under the bed. Feel the gentle twist to the spine. Reach; hold the pose for 3-5 breaths. Fig. 5
- Repeat on right side.
1. Tricep stretch. To deepen the stretch, press down on the elbow of the stretching arm and widen the shoulders away from the body.
2. Bicep stretch. Step 1 and Step 2. You may have to experiment with the arm position and the rotation of the hand. In Step 1 you really want to point the thumb towards the floor. In Step 2 you should feel the stretch in the “belly” of the bicep muscle. Adjust until you can feel the position for your body.
3. Namaste hands. To deepen the stretch in the wrists and forearms, keep the hands pressed together, widen the chest, and lower the wrists towards the ground. You can also rotate the hands so that the fingertips are pointing out from your chest.
4. Forearm/wrist stretch Step 1 and Step 2. This is a variation for a bit of a deeper stretch than the one above. Especially helpful for carpal tunnel issues. Keep the fingers splayed and spreading along the ground. If you feel any tingling or pinching, stop immediately.
5. Lion Pose You don’t have to make the goofy face (although the extended tongue sometimes can really relax your facial muscles). The splayed hands are key, here; after a long day of gripping ledges, this hand stretch feels good!
6. Namaste hands behind back, between shoulder blades This is a difficult stretch, but is a good one if you want to go deeper with the wrists. It also incorporates the shoulders and chest. Just be sure to keep the neck long and the chest broad, shoulders back. Sit with your very best posture to be sure you stretch all those places.
1. Single-arm chest stretch View 1 and View 2. You can deepen the stretch in the chest by leaning forward and keeping your opposite shoulder reaching back. Vary the height of your arm to feel the stretch migrate to different places in your pectoral muscles.
2. Sphinx pose
1. Reclined glute stretch Let the top leg fall open. You should feel this along the glute and outer thigh of the top leg. Be sure to do both sides.
2. Reclined twist with leg extensions. This is a great one for engaging the lower back also. You can experiment with the angle and extension of the top leg to feel the stretch move to different places in your gluteal muscles.
3. Fire Log pose (with cow face arms) Again, let the top leg fall towards the ground. Incorporating the arms will sneak in a nice tricep and upper back stretch if you feel you still need to give them some attention.
4. Cow Face pose A deeper stretch. Be sure you are sitting up tall, feeling your “sit bones” under your bottom. Reach the knees towards the floor. If they come up, you are missing the stretch. You may widen the feet away from the body if it helps you, as well as use your hands to help hold your feet or knees into position.
1. Standing calf stretch with a wall. Be sure the legs are completely parallel and the back heel is reaching towards the floor. Keep the pelvis pressing forward and the back knee straight, but not locked. Bend the back knee, keeping the heel reaching towards the ground, to move the stretch into your Achilles tendon. Be sure to do both sides.
2. Seated ankle circles, clockwise and counterclockwise each leg. You will get more of a stretch in the ankle if you use your hand to gently rotate your foot, pushing the stretch a bit.
4. Downward Dog
2. Garland pose
1. Prone quad stretch. In this stretch, it is critical that the legs be absolutely parallel to protect the knees. Keep the inner thighs together and the knees together. The knee of your stretching leg needs to point straight down in a laser line towards the foot.
2. Standing quad stretch Again, pay attention to the knees. Do not let the knee of the stretching leg splay out to the side or come up in front or in back of you. Your knees should both be together in all planes. Be aware or your lower back; it should not be engaging at all in this stretch. If you need to deepen the stretch, reach the knee towards the floor, let the ribcage grow up and out, and lean the pelvis forward and up, slightly. Be sure to check your knees.
3. Bridge pose
4. Camel pose Think of the back lengthening rather than arching. You should feel this in your quadriceps. The spine should be long, not pinching in the lower back. If grabbing your ankles is a challenge, you may use yoga blocks to lean on, or support your arms on a chair or low table behind you.
1. Dolphin Pose Be sure to lengthen the spine and keep the shoulders away from the ears and the neck long. Feel the stretch all along the entire back body. Let the chest and shoulders be broad and the abs be drawn up in support of the spine.
2. Child’s pose
Important note on consistency
The key to increasing flexibility is to stretch regularly; at least every-other day, if not daily. Because stretching is a relaxing and pleasant activity, I personally find it very easy to stretch daily as a way of managing stress. If nothing else, as a traceur/traceuse you’re probably working out on a daily basis for the most part anyhow; so tacking on an extra 20 minutes or so at the end of the workout for this stretching routine should be an easy thing.