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Turning the city into a gym
By Andrew Chin

GYMS are filling up with people working out to look their best for the summer. If you feel chained to the treadmill, shake up your workout routine with new, natural-movement-based fitness trends.

Groups like LINK Parkour, MovNat Shanghai and Reebok Crossfit Me Wellness will have you climbing trees, jumping up and off boxes, and leaping off stairs to get fit.

Parkour, also known as free running, was developed from French military obstacle training.

As the biggest parkour group in Shanghai, LINK Parkour reached a major milestone this March when it opened its parkour gym by Jinjiang Park. While the members all meet international training standards, instructor Martino Chen laughs about the early days of the group.

"I was inspired by the movie called 'District 13' starring David Belle, who is the founder of parkour," the 26-year-old Shanghai native explains. "I looked online and found three other people doing parkour. It was the end of 2007 and we had no idea how to do anything. We just followed the movie. If they jumped, we tried to jump. We usually crashed."

The core of parkour is getting from Point A to Point B using only your body and the environment in creative ways. It has grown in popularity internationally due to the spread of online videos like "District 13," which feature extreme tricks like leaping from rooftop to rooftop and jumping off walls up a flight of stairs.

While stylish tricks make a striking first impression, the philosophy behind parkour appeals to dedicated students like Simone Zhang. "There's a quote by George Hébert where he says, 'be strong and be useful'," the Minnesota native says. "I really liked that idea and the philosophy of overcoming your fears."

Parkour is a "survivor skill," Chen says. "If you fall from somewhere, you need to know how to land properly. With parkour, you learn the technique on how to land while building up strength and power all over your body. It's a way to train and gain more control of your body overall."

French educator Hébert's ideas are a major inspiration behind MovNat Shanghai's form of "paleothic fitness." Developed by exercise guru Erwan LeCorre in 2008, MovNat is a complete fitness system based on many of the same natural human movements that inspired Hébert such as running, jumping, balancing, crawling, climbing and throwing.

"I have students who can do 20 pull-ups but cannot climb on top of the bar because the neurological patterns in their body used for climbing have atrophied," says MovNat Shanghai founder Oki Alexander. "In human development, we started using conditioning like push-ups to enhance our natural survival skills. Conditioning has now become something we do to keep healthy and not to enhance these skills."

Gerhard Seizer, from Germany, attended a MovNat weekend workshop in Moganshan, Zhejiang Province, where his favorite workouts was climbing bamboo and trying to get on top of two bamboo chunks strapped horizontally.

"I had been doing regular gym workout, but it was pretty boring and I found that it would focus only on the major muscle groups," he says. "I was already looking for something different and I really enjoy that MovNat is outside and that it's based on thousands of years of natural human movement."

Alexander attracts plenty of attention in Jing'an Park on Thursday mornings leading students through exercises like jumping between spread out thin planks of wood and choreographed crawling. Rather than building upper body strength through pull-ups, students climb trees. Instead of push-ups, there is crawling.

"It was a fun workout because it brings you back to nature and you get to play and workout like when you were a kid. It was difficult though because you use muscles that you should be using but haven't been using in awhile," says American Lauren Hogan, one of the students. "I was extremely sore after the workout but I felt great. It's similar to boot camp type classes because Oki puts huge influence on understanding how you move and using that to maximize your workout."

While the tasks may seem easy, you soon learn that it requires immense body control. Exercises like walking in a squat position backward are designed to build leg strength while improving balance. Alexander keeps a keen eye on students, providing personalized tips on posture and body movement to maximize the workout.

"Materials that we use in gyms to exercise are nice and polished," the Amsterdam native says. "I get guys who can lift twice their body weight in a dead lift. We do a simulation where they have to carry somebody two-thirds their body weight on their shoulder while keeping one hand free for doors. They can't get that weight onto their shoulder because picking up a human requires more body control than a bar. If you can't do that, what are the dead lifts for?" he asks.

Weight machines can't be found at the recently opened Reebok Crossfit Me Wellness Gym on Changhua Road. Instead, students use free weights, kettlebells and stationary boxes during the high impact workouts. "Here we do workouts where humans are the machines," explains coach Murat Erbaytan.

While there are 2,700 Crossfit boxes (their term for gym) across 57 countries, the Shanghai branch is the first in China. It's a strength and conditioning program that involves high-intensity sets of exercises using functional movement at maximum intensity.

Find out more about MovNat (www.movnatshanghai.com), LINK Parkour (www.linkparkour.com) and Reebok Crossfit Me Wellness Gym (www.reebokcrossfitmewellnessgym.com).

(Andrew Chin is a Shanghai-based freelancer.)

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