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The Trampoline and Parkour: a Guide to Proprioception

The beauty of parkour has always been that it takes nothing, or at least next to nothing, to start training. All you need is to get outside and move around. While that is still an absolute truth of parkour, winter setting in means that we get further pushed indoors, and athletes are made to use less optimal training spaces, providing a perfect opportunity to explore some trampoline techniques which translate well to parkour.

The potential benefit of trampoline training for freerunning and parkour is incalculable. The development of an athlete’s proprioception, spatial awareness, and mental fortitude can all be improved with the inclusion of trampoline. Thankfully with the insane regularity of trampoline parks and the like, most have access to a trampoline of some kind. 

What is Proprioception?

Proprioception, also called kinesthesia, air awareness, or kinesthetic awareness, is the brain’s ability to recognize all coordinated movements. For example, if you close your eyes, and wave your hand in front of your face, your brain can still “see” the placement of your hand in a virtual manner. This is due to mechanoreceptors all over your body, which become stimulated by mechanical force, and send signals through the nervous system to the brain. The brain then takes the onslaught of electrical signals and rearranges them to make sense of each body part, it’s position relative to the rest of the body, what that body part is actively doing, and the force production of said limb. There’s no logical way to land a side-flip precision to a rail without an accurate sense of where your body is during every moment of the skill. 

The brain’s ability to make sense of these signals depends on an individual’s “body mapping,” or the sensitivity and density of a set of mechanoreceptors. The parts of the body which have greater tactile and movement needs will have more mechanoreceptors and can even become more sensitive to stimuli. If you were to illustrate the human body based on the brain’s virtual map of sensation and movement requirements, you would end up with the disturbing figure below. A terrifying monster, called a homunculus. 


The brain devotes most of its kinesthetic processing ability to the hands, which require much more dexterous movement and fine motor control than the rest of the body in most cases. However, this can be affected. A skateboarder’s body map may look very very different from that of a guitar player. Where the brain has devoted huge amounts of processing power to conditioning a body part, like the legs and feet of a skateboarder, or the hands of a guitar player, the brain is observably larger in the places where that processing takes place. Meaning that one can effectively rearrange their body map depending on their training, thus achieving greater awareness. This is the science of practice makes perfect.

The Role of the Trampoline

The trampoline is a thing of abject beauty. There are many benefits to trampoline beyond what we’re discussing in this article, but as it relates to parkour, trampoline is one of the most effective tools in promoting kinesthesia. Why? Because the ability to use body shape changes to affect momentum is intrinsic to parkour, as well as trampoline. And trampoline provides one with the additional airtime necessary to explore movements without the mechanical influence of the floor or other inanimate objects; in short, developing your proprioception through a free and active range of motion.  

A primary example of a trampoline skill that translates to developing proprioception is the Cat Twist, created by a god among trampolinists, the great George Hery. (Depending on where you are from, this skill may or may not be called a cat twist.) He invented this skill after studying the physics of cats. Which, when held upside-down and dropped, send their fore-limbs one direction, and their hind legs the opposite direction. This causes the cat to perform a sort of loose half-twist, and land on its feet. Every. Single. Time.

For a person to perform this skill, you must start by jumping straight into the air, easy enough right? Once you’ve reached the peak of your jump, (arms up of course) you must reach your hands to your feet, and bring your feet up to your hands simultaneously, into a “piked” position. Shown by George Hery Jr. below.

From here, you lift your arms back up overhead, and throw your feet back down towards the trampoline. It’s important that you don’t simply stop your arms and legs once you’ve achieved a straight body, but continue throwing your limbs back behind you, and spot over your shoulder to initiate the twist.  

From this ¼ turn position, you should be able to easily maintain your momentum and complete the half twist, landing facing the opposite direction from where you started. 

The beauty of this skill is that once this motion is understood and practiced, one can easily recognize its application in dozens of other skills, and indeed it’s importance in the practice of ukemi. If cats can become legendary for always landing safely, why not freerunners? 

In terms of its usefulness in skill acquisition, the cat twist, when turned upside down, is a cartwheel, is a round off, is a front flip with a half twist, is a barani (round-off without hands), and even that weird ass gainer-thing Josh Malone did at the 2021 Red Bull Art of Motion is a cat twist. Josh sets up a gainer-full, then halfway through, cat twists and sends his momentum the other direction.The cat twist allows you to alter the direction of your twisting momentum at will, and with the kind of proprioception Josh has built through his use of these biomechanical principles, he can create new skills on the fly, and keep himself safe performing them. (Shown below, mid cat twist.)

The elite level of movement shown above relies not just on an athlete’s proprioception, but also their spatial awareness. Spatial awareness differs from proprioception in one important way; while proprioception is the brain’s understanding of where the body is, spatial awareness is the brain’s understanding of inanimate objects and their position in relation to the body. It’s easy to see why this is important from a parkour perspective, but how can it be improved through the use of a trampoline? 

Spatial awareness isn’t as intrinsically linked to our neural pathways as kinesthetic awareness, and so relies on other additional stimuli to make critical judgments for the safety of the individual. Stimuli such as visual cues. Spatial awareness can be built on the trampoline through a number of different games and exercises, but the easiest is the “spot test.” 

The spot test is when an inanimate object is placed somewhere on the padding or floor around a trampoline, and the athlete bounces into the air, performs a decided degree of twisting, and stops when their eyes reach the object. So responding to a visual cue, the athlete knows to release the twist, and halt their momentum. An example of this in a skill is performing back twisting drills, in essentially the same way as the spot test.

For this drill, you perform a backflip on the trampoline, and when you are upside-down, you look first to the trampoline (your landing area) and then for the placed object to inform your twisting degree. As your feet come down to the trampoline, orient yourself to face the object. This type of training has many obvious parkour applications, and lends itself to falling safely as well. 

So if you’d like to see an improvement in your flips, if you’d like to try new variations, or if you’re pushing the flip-precision game, the trampoline is the tool for you and your winter training. Speaking of winter reps, use the discount code CHAPPY10 at checkout for 10% off the Winter Reps clothing line, available now!

 

 

Media Credit:

Homunculus Image: researchgate.net
George Hery Cat Twist Images: Gymnastics Minute, YouTube
Cat Gif: crazyhyena.com
Red Bull Art of Motion: Red Bull, YouTube
Nate Weston Sideflip: Nate Weston, YouTube