Upper Body Conditioning for Parkour

Handstand Variations

Upper body strength is important.

With a powerful upper body, a traceur can climb faster, roll easier, vault farther, lever, handstand, flag, planche, play on bars like a combination of a monkey and a gymnast, walk on his hands… The possibilities are endless.

Upper body strength is awesome. This is an established fact. So how can it be developed? You could go in a gym and mess around with all of their fancy isolation machines and get a crappy workout that will have no practical effect on your training. Or you can do some of these bodyweight exercises and get a great upper-body workout with nothing more than yourself, a few square feet of flat space, and possibly a pull-up bar.

Note: I’m not a doctor or personal trainer or anything. All of exercises and information listed below have come from personal experience and research. I don’t make any guarantees, blah blah disclaimer disclaimer. You know the drill.

Push-up

Ah, ye olde push-up. What would we do without you? A staple of gym teachers and military training, the push-up is without a doubt one of the best exercises you can do for your upper body. You probably already know how to do a push-up, but on the off chance you don’t, here’s a picture.

push-up

A straighter back in the "up" position would have been better form. Don't criticize my picture taking skills. I was using a tripod and timer, okay?

Place hands shoulder-width apart. Keeping your body straight, push yourself up. Lower yourself back down in a controlled manner; stop when your nose or chin is nearly touches the ground. (Some people look straight forward and stop at the chest; it’s up to you.) That’s one repetition. Oh, and don’t let your butt stick up in the air. It’s helpful to take a video or get someone to watch, just to make sure you’re maintaining a straight and tight core.

After you’ve mastered the basic push-up, try clapping push-ups. Push hard enough upwards to become airborne, then clap in front of you before falling back into another push-up. When you’re very good at those, try falling push-ups on soft ground.

Falling push-ups

Stand up, then fall straight forwards into a push-up position. Be very sure that your elbows and shoulders are flexible and well warmed up; I know someone who broke an arm doing these. Be careful. But for the decently strong traceur, falling push-ups are great conditioning for diving and double kong vaults.

More fun variations:

Triangle/diamond push-ups.

Triangle push-ups

Elevated push-ups.

Elevated push-ups

Don't go down too far, you'll strain your shoulders excessively. (This is too far.)

Push-ups with hands in close; these are great for the delts.

Forearm push-ups; good conditioning for forearm stands, and amazing for the triceps.

(And push yourself back up.)

Wide push-ups; good for the pectorals (chest).

I say, what is this I see between the boards?

Why, it's a spinal column! Cool.

Knuckle push-ups, to toughen up your fists and knuckles. Martial artists do these.

 This variation is from Chau Belle. It’s a little like a one-arm push-up, but the main pushing arm goes all the way down to the floor, while your other arm assists, but only as much as your spread fingers can bear.

(And back up again.)

More Resources

36 Push-up Variations

Proper Push-Up Technique

Proper Push-ups


Pull-up

My personal favorite, the pull-up, is perhaps the most useful parkour-specific upper-body exercise. It works the same muscles used in handstands and muscle-ups/climb-ups. If you want to climb walls faster and flow better, do these.

Bring your chest to the bar, as high up as you can.

Grasp your pull-up bar, overhang, tree limb, doorframe, playground bar, etc.; whatever you’re using, grab it with hands facing away from you. Your hands should be slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, but go with whatever feels most comfortable to you. Then, keeping your body steady and controlled and your core tight, pull yourself up to the bar. Curve your body slightly inwards, towards the bar. If your legs are flopping around, place one on top of the other.

Some people do this just because it’s easier to focus on only your arms, but I like to keep my legs right next to each other. It develops more total-body awareness. And anyway, if you’re climbing to the top of a wall, you will have to have both feet on the wall. But anyway, back to the pull-up.

Maintaining control, lower yourself back to the starting position. That’s one repetition. Rinse and repeat.

If you don’t have a pull-up bar, I highly recommend getting one. I actually doubled my handstand time within a month of purchasing a pull-up bar. If you don’t have the money for a decent over-the-door model, you can use  a tree limb, a (sturdy) doorframe, a swing set bar, a (sturdy) roof overhang… Whatever works for you. If the standard pull-up is too easy, drop some books or weights into a durable backpack and do pull-ups while wearing it. If that feels unnatural, put on a sturdy belt or wrap a rope around your waist and attach the backpack to that. Don’t compromise your form, though. If your shoulders start feeling unduly strained, take out some of the weight. There’s no point in having massively strong arms if your shoulder joint feels like it’s stuffed with gravel and rusty knives.

More Resources

Do a Pull-up

Do More Than One Stinking Pull-up

All Kinds of Pull-ups


Chin-up

An arched back will work the forearms more, a inward-curved back will hit the lats.

The same as the pull-up, but with a grip in which your hands face towards you. An arched back will focus more on the forearms, an inwardly curved back will hit the biceps and lats.

Muscle-up

You know it’s gotta be good if it has the word “muscle” in the name. And it is an amazing exercise. The muscle-up is technically defined as, “a pull-up that traditions into a dip.” Oh boy. You’re basically moving your entire body four feet up in the air using only the power of your upper arms. Fortunately, there’s a “cheating” route you can take to perform this exercise; it’s called the “bar kip.” It’s rather hard to capture on still cameras, let alone describe with words, so definitely check out the videos and tutorials linked below.

More Resources

The Bar Kip

The Muscle-up


Plank

One of the best abdominal exercises ever.

I'm actually pulling imaginary levers.

Extremely simple to perform. Get in the push-up position, then put your forearms on the ground. Straighten your body out, like a plank, and hold yourself there. The longer you can stay up, the better, but aim for two minutes.

More Resources:

Useful Exercises: The Plank

The Plank Abdominal Exercise for Core Strength


Side Plank

Just like the normal plank, but sideways.

This works the obliques, which are used in the flag.


Side Bend

This is a pretty ridiculous-looking exercise, but it targets your obliques like a laser. (Apparently, this is also a yoga exercise. That’s mostly done by women. Whatever, it works.)

Stand up straight, with your arms over your head. Bend your torso sideways. Quickly bend over to the opposite side. It looks and feels a little silly, but it works. As a bonus, it develops torso flexibility, which you need for au batidos and aerials.

More Resources

Saxon Side Bend


Dipping

This exercise requires a little more equipment. Two parallel bars are ideal, but anything you can hang your body through should work fine. You’ll see what I mean.

Place your body between the bars. Hoist yourself up until you are hanging only by your arms, but don’t lock your shoulders or elbows. Lower yourself down until your upper arms are parallel to the floor. Push back up.

There’s also a method where your hands are placed behind you on something that’s a little lower than waist height, while your feet rest on the floor. I don’t like this variation much, as it places unnatural stress on your shoulder joints.

Look how enthusiastic I am.

On the positive side of this exercise, it’s very like a stationary dash vault. SO if you’re having trouble with your hands collapsing on the dash vault, you may want to try this.

Speaking of stress on the shoulders, you may have heard that you should ONLY go down until your arms are parallel to the floor. Heck, I just told you to. There’s some debate about this, but I think going past parallel is too much risk for too little possible gain. If you want to increase the difficulty, you can add weight with a weight belt or holding a dumbbell/barbell between your legs. Better yet, try descending sloooooowly. Not only is this harder on your muscles, it’s much harder to control than a dip at normal speed.

More Resources

How to Do a Perfect Dip

Dips

How to Perform Dips with Proper Technique


L-Sits

HAPPY HAPPY ENTHUSIASM! Yeah, not really.

Another simple exercise. Sit on the floor with your legs straight in front of you. Then use your arms to push yourself up. And hold it.

More Resources

The L-Sit

The L-Sit — Train Your Abs Like A Gymnast


Superman

I haven’t seen too many people recommend this exercise, but it’s great for working the lower back. And you almost certainly need a stronger lower back. It helps a lot with handstands, planches and levers, not to mention more conventional exercises like squats and deadlifts.

I can flyyyyyy

Lie facedown on the ground with your feet straight out behind you and your arms pointed forward. Raise your legs and arms, balancing yourself on only your abs. Annnd hold.

More Resources

Superman

How to Do a Superman Exercise


Now What?

Now you know how to perform the some of the best bodyweight exercises around. So how should you use them?

How Muscle-Building Works

The simplified version: When you exercise, you create tiny tears in the tissue of the muscles worked. Over the next few days, those tears will heal while the muscle is rebuilt larger and stronger. However, in order for the muscle to be rebuilt, your body needs building material.

Protein.

You need protein to build muscle. No protein, no muscle growth. Where do you get protein?

  • Chicken
  • Steak
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Nuts
  • Beans
  • Tofu and other soy products
  • Milk

Get in my belly, you feathery delicious ball of meat.

My favorite source is chicken. It’s relatively cheap, it’s natural, it tastes good, and it’s easy to prepare. Eggs are my second favorite source, but they do come with some reservations: they have a lot of cholesterol and saturated fat. Saturated fat may or may not be bad for you. Steak has more protein than chicken, in addition to more creatine. It’s expensive, however. Beans are very cheap, but they don’t have as much protein, and, according to the Paleo diet, they’re bad for you. The same goes for tofu and other soy products. Milk is in a grey area under the Paelo diet, and the healthiness of it is somewhat up in the air.

Besides being a good source of protein, nuts are great for you in a variety of other ways – just about every diet plan ever agrees on that. Sadly, they’re expensive. You can also buy powders and shakes and bars to get a super burst of protein — but those are best saved for when you’ve had a really killer workout that leaves you insanely sore. Excessive protein can be bad for your kidneys. Also, if you’re really trying to bulk up and gain weight, it’s a good idea to eat a lot in general. Your body can use the extra fuel.

Rest

Your body needs time to repair the tears created when you exercise. If you train just as hard on the 2nd as you did on the 1st, you’re not doing yourself a favor. You’re exacerbating the tears and literally ripping your muscles apart. Training through pain is not smart or hardcore, it’s stupid. Pain is the body’s mechanism for telling us that there’s something wrong. Ignore pain, and you will get injured. So take a rest day after hard training. One day is the minimum amount of time you need to recover. Two days is probably the average time, three days for the cautious. Bear in mind that your own metabolism may be different and you might heal faster or slower than the average person. If you’re still sore from your last workout, don’t train. Duh.

How Many Reps?

Should you do a lot of easy reps or only a few really hard ones? This is the age-old (or at least decades old), “high reps/low weight vs. low reps/high weight” argument. There are pros and cons to each, but it basically boils down to this: If you want endurance, do a lot of repetition with light weights. If you want big muscles and a lot of power, do few repetitions with heavy weights. For the traceur who trains with only his body, this means doing a few hard exercises versus a lot of easy exercises.

On Regimens

If you read fitness websites a lot, you may have noticed that I haven’t provided a workout regimen. There’s a reason for that, and it’s not laziness. I don’t like standardized workouts. There’s no point in setting up a workout with a designated array of reps and sets and expect the average person to benefit from it. Because there’s no such thing. What is an “average level of fitness”? A good workout for one person may not even tax another. Five reps of one exercise may absolutely exhaust a person who can do 30 of another without breaking a sweat. Everyone has different capabilities and levels of fitness. Predefined regimens can’t take that into account. That’s why you need to build your own workout.

Building Your Perfect Workout

Since prebuilt exercise regimens are pointless, how do you know what to do?

Listen to your body.

To do that, you first need to get it talking. Start by doing some of the exercises from the above list. Let’s pick pull-ups, push-ups, L-sits, and supermans. Do as many reps (or seconds) of each one as you can without rest and without compromising form. Rest 60 seconds and repeat. Then do it again. Now repeat for the rest of the exercises.

You should be smart enough to take it from here. If it make you sore in the morning, then you’re doing it right. If you’re in genuine actual sharp pain, then you’re not. Keeping that in mind, do some experimentation. At the end of a week or so, you should have a good feel for what you can safely do for an awesome workout. From there you can just increase the reps, weight, or time held for a harder workout.

Conclusion

I’ve shown you the exercises that can develop a powerful upper body. I’ve told you the most efficient ways to implement those exercises, through diet and smart training.

My part is done. You have the knowledge and the means, since all you need is flat space and maybe a tree. It’s now up to you to implement these exercises in your own training. Good luck, stay safe.

—Alan

HERP DERP I DO HANDSTAND

PS: How do you like the new design?

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  • Silas klug

    Thank you very much for writing this, as well as having nice large pictures along with it. Made me wish I had a dock outside and weather that wasn’t 23 degrees (curse you Wisconsin!!!!) I still do exercise, but find I enjoy it more outside… just have to wait until next summer.

    • Anonymous

      Hey, the great part about all of these except for maybe the muscle-up is that they’re easy to do inside. I just used my dock because it was the easiest place to take clean pictures, hah.

      And you’re welcome!

  • Chris Ell

    Wow very nice. This is an excellent basic strength guide for parkour. Though in my opinion you should replace pushups and planks with planches. Go from the basic frog stand up to full planche. Accomplishes the same thing more concisely and effectively.

    • Anonymous

      You’re actually not the only person to tell me that, buuuut I wrote this more as a guide for people just starting to try to develop their upper body. IMO, handstands, planches and flags are more ‘moves’ that you build up to by using these exercises. 

      Most people just starting training can’t hold a frog planche for any more than 2-3 seconds (I definitely couldn’t), so that isn’t really an effective exercise for “noobs”, but just about everybody can do a push-up.

      Thanks for the comment, I’ll have to consider doing a more advanced tutorial sometime in the future.

      • Chris Ell

        Well in that case you should add hanstands and planches and put in some good prerequisites for them. For instance, the handstand prereq could be wall handstands and/or overhead barbell press. As for planche, L-sits are actually the prerequisite for  planches, and if you can’t do L-sits then you start with bent leg and work on up. Ta-daaa! There’s no excuse not to put them in there. Handstands are absolutely essential to shoulder and over all upper body development and planches should be a staple of all traceur’s upper body workouts.

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  • Crow

    Thank you so much for this. It’s well written, funny (GET IN MAH BELLY), informative, and really easy to understand. Tried my first plank after reading it and they’re AWESOME. Can’t wait for an advanced tutorial like you were talking about writing ^^ 

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  • Vegeto

    awesome work alan!

    though you make me wonder how does a nerd manage to do so many exercises :P