parkour paris fitness
Parkour got its start in Paris, and (besides YouTube) that's still one of the best places to learn it. (Photo: THOR/Flickr)

The Concrete Jungle Is the World’s Best Gym

Strength is useless if you don't hone your agility—the skill of translating power into meaningful movement. And it all starts with mastering the "Kong vault."

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I was waiting at the checkout counter of a drugstore in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, when a human cannonball sailed past the window. I glanced around. Did anyone else just…?

A second body flew by, right behind the oblivious cashier’s head, looking like it had been flung by one of those medieval catapults that hurled rotten cow carcasses over fortress walls. I swiped my card, grabbed my bag, and hustled outside to see what was going on. I could have taken my time, it turned out. The two guys were still there and totally absorbed by the handicap-ramp railings: vaulting, swinging, tightrope walking, basically wringing a crazy amount of movement out of two blue bars. When I’d spotted them through the window, they were practicing “precisions”—broad jumping back and forth between the railings and sticking precise landings on top of the bars.

“You start practicing parkour,” one of the guys told me, “and whole nights disappear.”

Technically, he’s talking about l’art du deplacement, more universally known by the funkified French version of its other name, parcours, for “obstacle course.” Parkour was born in the late 1980s when a band of mixed-race kids living in the outskirts of Paris got tired of being roughed up by bullies. They created their own “training method for warriors” and called themselves the Yamakasi. Being rebels and outsiders, they detested the idea of organized competition; even after parkour became a phenomenon, the Yamakasi never bothered cashing in with how-to stuff. They were innovators, not explainers. If you wanted to come to Paris and follow in their footsteps, fine—but that meant being yanked out of bed at 2 a.m. to train in a midwinter rainstorms. Otherwise the Yamakasi had just about zero interest in sharing their skills with the rest of the world. That left two places you could go if you wanted to learn parkour: France or YouTube.

Not surprisingly, my two new parking lot buddies got their start at YouTube U. “I got into it because I was so fat,” one of my new buddies, Neal Schaeffer, told me. He’d begun partying after high school and by age 20 had bloated up from 175 pounds to 240. One afternoon, he was in a nearby park watching some strangers “kong vault” picnic tables—they’d charge a table, plant their hands, and shoot both feet through their arms like gorillas and fly off the other side—and they talked Neal into giving it a try. He was shocked to discover that even out of shape, once he got over his fear, he could master skills that at first looked impossible.

Well, maybe not master. “You’re on this endless trajectory where you’re always getting better, but it’s never good enough,” Neal explained. “That’s what’s so exciting. As soon as you land one jump, you can’t wait to try it again. You’re always looking for ways to make it cleaner, stronger, flow into your next move.” Neal became a member of a local parkour tribe that likes to train after midnight, because after dark the city is all theirs. Whenever a police car prowls by, they drop to the ground and bang out pushups. “No matter what time it is, no one bothers you if you’re exercising.” Within a year, Neal had become so slim and nimble, he was able to scramble to the roof of a three-story building and crouch high on a flagpole. “Just like Spider-Man,” he told me.

To himself, he’d said, “You’re back.”

Two weeks later, I wiped my palms and weighed my chances against a six-foot brick wall outside a Wells Fargo bank. It was lunchtime rush in downtown Lancaster, and people swarmed past us on the sidewalk. “You’ve got to learn to shut out distractions,” Andy Keller told me. “Forget who’s watching you. Forget where you are. Just focus and go.”

Andy is one of America’s few trained-in-Europe parkour coaches, and by a bizarre twist of luck, he lives 20 miles from my house. That Spider-Man comment stuck in my mind and made me track him down. Who wouldn’t want to be able to skitter up the sides of buildings? And frankly, if a double-stuffed slacker like Neal could forge himself that quickly into an American Ninja Warrior, how hard could it be? Age ain’t on my side—I’m twice as old as Neal—but that’s another theory I wanted to test: Maybe parkour is what human strength is really all about. Because logically, the one thing we rely on for survival—the way birds rely on flight and fish depend on fins—would be the one thing we’re all good at, men and women, old and young alike. Most of the spectator and recreational sports we get excited about now are kind of phony. They were created by men, for men, to show off what men do best, and they have just about zero connection to any natural human function. They’re a guy pride parade. So is it possible that parkour, with its emphasis on agility and creativity instead of bulk and brute force, is really the tightest link we have in sports to our evolutionary past?

Georges Hébert was sure of it, and the “Movement of Three” women back him up. Hébert was a French naval officer and the philosopher king of pre-parkour. Back in the early 1900s, Hébert survived a volcano eruption in the Caribbean. Thousands of people died horribly all around him, and Hébert was scarred by the fact that many didn’t have to. They could have run, jumped, climbed, swum, and carried each other to safety—except they’d forgotten how. We’ve let our bodies become stupid, Hébert believed. We used to be really clever on our feet. We knew how to make the world our playground, instinctively creating the most animal-efficient way to fly over, around, and under the hard edges of the landscape the way monkeys tumble through the trees. Herbert went on to develop his own theory of physical education, the “Natural Method,” and helped create obstacle courses to train French marines. But his teachings have largely been forgotten. Years of sitting around have since drained away our savage gusto and brought his second golden age of natural movement to an end—and that was even before we had an app for Chunky Monkey home delivery.

But there is a way back, as three women in a North London housing project demonstrate. They’re not especially impressive looking, at least not when the “Movement of Three” video begins. They’re just giggling around in baggy sweats, looking like they’re in the mood for something pumpkin-spiced after Bikram. She told me it took a year before she could do a single pullup; the first time she tried, she just hung helplessly from the bar. Now, on camera, she muscles herself up onto a swingset and balances on top in a full squat, blowing soap bubbles. “Movement of Three” is a fast-moving masterpiece, a sort of time-lapse display of how average women can use parkour to turn themselves into an aerial urban-assault team.

“It’s not magic,” Andy Keller told me when we got together for our first parkour session. It’s ass elevation. If Georges Hébert and the Yamakasi ever have a statue erected in their honor, that beautiful breakthrough should be the inscription: “We Raised Asses.” Andy and his buddy Adam show me what they mean by getting me started on the turn vault, a basic parkour move. “Very handy for, like, jail breaks,” Adam points out. We head into an alley behind a tire repair garage and run toward a chest-high cement wall with a metal guardrail on top. Andy and Adam plant their hands on the rail, swing their legs over, then twist their hips so they 180 and land facing back the way they came. I try the same thing, clang knees on steel, and fall backward.

My problem: poor butt boost. Like most people, I’ve lost my taste for being weightless in space. We all used to love it, which is why every kid destroys his parents’ box spring at some point and would trade a sibling for rope swings, trampolines, diving boards, or sliding boards. But grown-ups keep warning you you’ll get hurt, recess monitors yell at you to cut it out, and over time you grow so nervous about falling down that you forget how to jump up. Watch anyone over age 20 attempt a cartwheel: A nine-year-old girl goes straight vertical and takes all the time in the world, while the 20-something rushes through and barely gets his feet off the ground. The higher our hips, the more anxious we get.

So Andy starts me over, this time in the kiddie pool. We plant our hands on top of the waist-high guardrail and turn ourselves into desktop drinking birds: head drops down, ass tilts up, boosting our butts higher and higher and spending longer each time supporting our weight on our hands. For a two-second maneuver, it’s got a lot of moving parts: one palm faces out, the other in, your knees press together and your elbows lock out straight. After three reps, my knees are higher than the rail; after five, I suddenly twist, swing over the rail, and execute a turn vault without even thinking. It just seemed so natural.

“Man, I could do nothing but this all day,” I said. Even that little taste of parkour was the perfect combo of kaizen and kid on a rope swing: You want to keep smoothing the move, like a sushi chef obsessing over his tuna slicing, but you don’t mind because, you know, you’re flying over walls like a fugitive. But Andy had other plans for the afternoon: the Big Wall.

Outside the Wells Fargo, Andy briefed me on technique. Then he sprinted straight for the wall, kicked hard against the bricks, and disappeared over the other side. As he trotted back, he was met with applause. An audience had formed, blocking the sidewalk.

“Impressive, isn’t he?” I said to the guy beside me.

“I knew he’d make it,” the man responded. “I’m waiting to see if you do.”

Yeah, well. Let’s just say he got a show.