I first met Rafe Kelley at the 2012 Seattle Parkour Summit, which was hosted by Parkour Visions. Prior to the event, my buddy Ramman Turner had told me about some of the previous seminars he had taken with him, and had impressed on me what a great instructor he was. Rafe was busy leading a class on falling technique the day I was there, thus I didn’t get a chance to talk with him at any length. Given the one class I attended and Ramman’s insight, I knew that at some point that I would want to connect and listen to his thoughts at a deeper level. Luckily, that opportunity came just few months ago, when I saw Rafe again at the Parkour Visions Spring Obstacle Course Competition.
We recently completed this interview, and I’m sure you’ll find his reflections on parkour as some of the most elegant on the planet. He knows his stuff and has been putting out some awesome tutorials. If you’re looking for help take your training to the next level – just keep an eye on whatever Rafe is talking about!
Q: Tell me a little bit about yourself. I know you are the co-founder of Parkour Visions and from what I can gather from Facebook, you have an interest in anthropology. What else would you like the readers to know about you?
A: Yes, I co-founded Parkour Visions with Tyson Cecka, and I was an Anthropology major in college and have been interested in the subject since I was a kid. I started reading old anthropology textbooks and ethnographies in my early teens and I continue to follow development in behavioral genetics, cognitive science, neuroscience, and human evolution closely. However most of the best information on human nature comes out of other fields at this point.
The study of human behavior and evolution definitely contributes greatly to my teaching of parkour. My approach to parkour is also informed by studying martial arts throughout childhood, including brazilian jiu jitsu, Muay thai, Aikido and Tang Soo Do, and coaching gymnastics and CrossFit as a young adult.
I also grew up in the hippie community at the end of a dirt road with acres of forest all around and the freedom to explore them as much as I wanted. That experience plays a huge part in my parkour practice.
Q: As a coach for many years now, what are the biggest fitness deficiencies that you see parkour-newcomers demonstrate? What sort of strength and conditioning advice do give for the student who is just starting at your gym?
A: Most students who come for their first class are quite weak; it’s uncommon for people to be able to do a single pull-up. They’re also usually very limited in mobility, particularly in ankle dorsiflexion, every aspect of hip range of motion , and every aspect of thoracic extension and shoulder range of motion. The biggest limiting factors for novice traceurs are the strength to pull themselves up and over a wall and the proper mobility and stability to land well and absorb impact.
The basics to get a student up to speed are simple: do low impact parkour focusing on good mechanics complemented by basic calisthenics, squat, push up and pull up working to improve motor patterning and mobility as well as strength. The secret to a really successful program is understanding how deep the basics go and how to scale and develop them appropriately. Most people think they can do a push up but are actually far from doing it correctly and in such a way that it will optimally develop strength and complement their movement practice.
Q: When I visited your gym a few months ago I was impressed by a large area dedicated to weight training with a few power racks, a Roman chair and many kettlebells. Aside from dead lifts and squats, what are a few “must-do” weighted exercises that you encourage your athletes to perform?
A: I actually don’t think there are any must-do strength and conditioning exercises in parkour that apply to everybody. The only must-do for parkour is parkour. There is a certain mindset from the fitness community that has crossed over into parkour – the lionization of exercise for exercise sake with very little attention paid to the goal of the exercise what it is supposed to train you for. Parkour is conditioning for parkour, if you’re doing something else to help your parkour it must be more effective for developing towards a specific goal.
Given the set of weaknesses we mentioned earlier, almost everyone we work with needs to squat, hip hinge (deadlifts and similar exercises), do push ups, rows, and pull ups, and that is probably a good list for most novice athletes. But we need to remember why we are training those exercises. It is too easy for the exercise to become the goal and for people to lose sight of what they are actually trying to change its also too easy to fall into the exercise ADHD mindset and try to do every good exercise. There are 100’s of exercises that are are potentially useful when applied intelligently towards someone’s goals, but any given athlete only really needs to be working on a handful.
In addition to the exercises listed above, with intermediate athletes we start adding in split squats and romanian deadlifts if they have mobility weaknesses With advanced athletes we do complex weight training plyometrics and add work on dips, muscle ups, gymnastics levers, planches and handstand presses depending on their goals. Finally glute ham raises, back extension, sled drags, farmers walks, and glute bridges, single leg squats, and various mobilizations and prehab movements all make appearances based on a given athlete’s needs.
Q: Can you give some key advice for people who are looking to improve their standing broad jump?
Start by training the standing broad jump in an intelligent way. I see lots of traceurs advocating doing 100 reps of precisions and the like. A better idea is to train 5 to 10 sets of 3 jumps with full rest between sets, focused on jumping as far as possible on every jump. If you are getting less than 95 percent of your best jump for 2 reps in a row, stop. The next question is what is the limiting factor on your jump? Film your jump; are you consistently co-ordinating your arm movement with your hips? Are arms fully extended behind the body at the peak hip depth? Are they fully flexed overhead at full hip extension? Is your angle at take-off consistently 45 degrees? If not, then work on technique.
Next look at the movement signature. How fast are you dropping down through the eccentric? If it is slow, focus on squats and depth jumps to build up your ability to load eccentrically and produce a stronger reflexive contraction. Next, look at positioning at the bottom of the eccentric; is your back rounding, are your knees collapsing inwards? If so, work on deadlifts, glute activation, and lateral stability; to improve your ability to hold neutral positions during the amortization phase (the transition between the downwards and upwards part of the jump). Finally, look at how deep you can get in your setup and how much hip extension you get at the end of the jump. To improve that, work on split squats to open up your hip extension and strengthen your glutes and work on your squat mobility. This will also help you get distance at the end of the jump by improving your compression.
Vince Cossette is an example of an athlete who loads quickly, holds good position and has great depth and hip extension. Particularly pay attention to how deeply he loads and how far into hyperextension his hips go.
Q: We all know that using a weight vest is a great way to add resistance to classic body-weight exercises. What do you think of actually training while wearing one, i.e. running obstacles with a vest?
A: I have not experimented much with the use of a weight vest in parkour skill training. I would be worried about negative skill transfer and developing competing motor programs for any full on course work or more complex skills like kongs, cats, hurdles, speed vaults etc. I would use it solely for training simple jumps and only when the skill is mastered. If your standing broad jump does not have a consistent take off angle, you have no business trying to do it while dealing with the extra problem of a weight vest.
Q: Do you subscribe to any particular programming schedule or philosophy in your weight training?
A: My biggest influence right now is Sparta Performance Science. For our higher level athletes we do weight training and plyometric complexes progressing both in weight and density like Sparta advocates. So my training for instance looks like this: 3x 7 Split squats, 6 bounds x2 progressing in autoregulated fashion by either doing it in less time, 4 minutes per set to 3:30-3:00-2:30 or by adding weight. I weight train 2 x week when I can, for about 45 minutes. The rest of my training time is devoted to sprinting, jumping, practicing parkour skill and mobility and recovery.
Q: Are you currently focused on improving your skill in any movement in particular? What is it and why the emphasis?
My last real focused training cycle was in preparation for the Origins Parkour NAPC competition. I worked extensively on diving kongs and kong to precisions. I got up to an 8 foot kong to precision and 10 foot double kong in the gym. My next goal is to nail down my approach run ups and my long jumps and strides
Q: Who in the sports or fitness world has had the greatest impact on your thoughts about athletic performance?
A: Most recently I have been inspired by and influenced by the aforementioned Sparta Performance Science for strength and conditioning, Ido Portal for mobility, movement complexity, and training method, Kelly Starret for mobility and understanding of movement, Bo Schexnayder for understanding jumping and a local track coach Mike Cunliffe on understanding sprinting technique. In the past I have gotten a lot of value out of Steven Low, Mark Rippetoe and Vladimir Zatsiorsky.
Q: Ryan Ford and APEX Movement have promoted the 5-rep climb-up as an epic measure of power and efficiency. Do you have a favorite performance test for your athletes?
A: My experience with tests is that the major value of a test is taking the time to really look at a movement in depth and learning to look for the various elements of movement quality. Then you take that back to observing athletes do parkour and you find you can see the same things by just watching them train that is the best performance test. I can watch someone step vault and learn a lot about their mobility, stabilization, strength and coordination. A handstand or swing tells me a lot about someone’s shoulders, etc. The big test we are using recently is just the standing broad jump to look at different elements of force production the rate of eccentric force production stability during amortization and ability to dig deep and drive fully through the hips that I mentioned earlier.
Q: I love the video you did for Prana, demonstrating parkour in a forest setting, and I’ve also heard that you’re an epic tree-climber. Would you expand your thoughts on training in nature versus the urban environment?
The short version is :
- Nature is what we evolved to move through.
- Being in nature makes up happy.
- Natural environments are usually easier on the body.
- Natural environments offer a more complex environment, which develops more intelligent, sensitive, and transferable movement capacities.
- It’s the forgotten aspect of parkour and it needs to be rediscovered.
Parkour is brilliant because it is a meme that has conditioned our brains to be triggered to play in the urban environment in new and powerful ways, which is a wonderful and empowering thing. I think though that that association between parkour and urban has become too strong and people are missing an element of the practice that can be intensely rewarding, that really is innately more rewarding. So, like the title of my video, I believe that doing parkour in nature is literally returning to the source of the movement. The Yamakasi say that the body of L’art du deplacment (the other term for parkour) was born in Evry (which is urban) but the spirit was born in Sarcelles (a forested area). However, that aspect is forgotten by most of the community.
I personally like training in natural environments better and I would guess that actually most people would if exposed to it. We watch videos of people jumping between buildings and vaulting concrete walls and so that’s what we think parkour is.
To me, parkour is rooted in the movement play that is innate in all of us and that children especially will express given a chance. We want to climb, jump and run for a reason; those skills were vital to our survival as a species through the vast majority of our evolution. We are built with psychological triggers to engage those play capacities when given a chance, and natural environments are more potent triggers because thats what we evolved to respond to.
Being in nature in general is just good for us it engages our attention in distinct way that is restorative; for instance, when we are tired a walk in the woods has been found to be as good for the brain as a nap. Parkour in nature offers us the psychological benefits of being in nature plus the benefits of parkour. That’s the recipe for happiness for me.
I have found that the softer surfaces in natural environments also allow me to practice more and more intensely without breaking down my body.
My last big argument in favor of Natural environments is that they are inherently more complex than urban environments, and complexity in movement is what parkour is all about. It’s what being a good mover is all about. The city is very uniform in shapes you encounter in the degree of grip, dampness, penetration into the substrate. In the woods, even the visual field is far more complex. That complexity is good for your nervous system.
Q: How does MovNat intersect with the training that we already do as parkour athletes?
A: I was fairly deeply involved in MovNat at the beginning of the MovNat project. I was the first certified MovNat coach in 2008, but I parted ways with Erwan soon after. However, I continued to believe in the need for a model of fitness based on our innate nature. I wrote down my general synthesis of my thoughts about an evolutionary approach to human movement on the Evolve Athletics Blog.
I chose to focus on parkour because I believed that fundamentally moving your own body through space was the most basic task of any model of fitness and having a deep understanding of it would inform all other elements. I believed it was necessary to specialize in understanding one area first to really reach a level of mastery in teaching and I believed that the parkour community offered an amazing window into our innate play drive, our creativity, and many interesting thinkers to learn from. To me a complete physical culture would include not just overcoming obstacles but controlling the body in the air and on the ground, moving and manipulating objects, dealing with combat situations and dancing and it would understand the need for humans to move in nature and would place a high value on this.
In that sense MovNat is more complete then parkour and I would like to see more practitioners take up that broader scope. Right now I am in middle of expanding our method at Parkour Visions to include dealing with moving objects and combatives, and getting people out in nature more. That has always been my goal. We are evolving towards offering our own model of an evolutionary approach to movement and fitness. It always comes down to your goals but I think many people who enjoy parkour could benefit from expanding their movement horizons to include combative movements, strength and conditioning dance and of course acro which most traceurs already do.
Q: Given the huge popularity of obstacle course races, like the Spartan Race, Tough Mudder, and Alpha Warrior, do you see this as an opportunity for parkour training to reach a wider audience?
A: Yes, the show Ninja Warrior always brings in a crowd to our gym and we get people prepping for Tough Mudder and Spartan Race regularly too. The mindset of the two groups are rather different though. Traceurs do not generally enjoy running for long distances and philosophically favor the development of explosive strength capacities which is at odds with high levels of aerobic training, so the transfer between the two communities is often less than perfect. I am not sure what to do to bring them closer.
Q: Parkour Visions was founded in 2007 and last year you underwent a large expansion of your gym space. Do you have any cool news about upcoming Parkour Visions projects or other personal developments?
A: We made it a goal this year to not do another expansion, but we have lots of other fun developments. We are splitting up our summit event into a Summer Competition and Jam, on the 18-21st of July. We are calling this event the Classic, and already have a bunch of top traceurs committed, including our first Mexican athletes, Daer Sanchez and Danee Marmolejo, as well as Brian Orosco, Jesse la flair, Paul Darnell, Brandon Douglas, Jake Smith, Amos Rendao, Joey Adrian, Max Henry, Elet Hall, Paul Whitecotton and more.
We will also be co-hosting a pure teaching parkour summit with APEX Movement in Denver this October. That is just in the beginning phases of development though, so keep tuned to our blog and YouTube channels to hear more about that. And we will soon be announcing the official details on some three-day nature training seminars this summer.