How to Vault Over Obstacles with Maximum Ease, Safety, and Efficiency
By Alex Schenker, MovNat Team Instructor and Expert Trainer
Imagine that you’re leisurely running on a minimally maintained trail in the forest. You’re surrounded by so much greenery that it seems to tint the light from the sun sparkling through the canopy. You can’t count how many birds you hear, and you can smell the terpenes coming from the surrounding pine.
There’s a fallen tree up ahead blocking the way. Your subconscious scans your options and there’s too much debris to go under it smoothly, but the tree’s horizontal trunk is just below the height of your waist. As you approach, you reach out and place your hands and one of your feet on the obstacle while the other leg takes off from the ground. Shifting your bodyweight to your hands, you throw both feet over the other side of the fallen tree, letting your hands lift off as your bodyweight transfers forward through the momentum of your lower body. You land with one foot in front of the other, continuing the gait pattern of your run as though it were never interrupted.
The term vaulting is used to describe the act of leaping over something. In MovNat, it more specifically refers to using your hands to transition over an obstacle, or onto an elevated surface. In most cases, these obstacles are between knee and hip height, but it is possible to vault over an obstacle as tall as shoulder height. Any higher than that and the obstacle would likely have to be climbed before vaulting over. Vaulting is typically used when moving at a moderate to fast pace where time is of the essence. When you don’t need to move quickly, walking around, stepping or climbing over, or crawling under will often be more energy efficient.
There are many variations to the vault depending on how high the obstacle is, how you approach the obstacle, and any limiting factors in the environment such as a narrow vertical space to pass through, or limited overhead space. There are many vaulting techniques, but they all share the basic aspects of getting on or over an obstacle using your hands. Once you understand the practical application of each vault, it feels less like a bunch of different variations, and more like a different tool for every occasion.
Here is a demonstration of the vaults taught in the official MovNat curriculum…
As you can see, this is a versatile skill that can be used to traverse a short wall or fence, to get your feet on or over a bar or branch, or to get up onto a platform or elevated surface. It’s essentially like mixing the skills of jumping and ground movement transitions.
Vaulting is something that Parkour is iconically known for, and its community has their own terminology to describe these techniques. For the sake of congruence, MovNat terminology differs from the nomenclature of Parkour. Some Parkour practitioners wonder why MovNat does not simply adopt the Parkour technique names, and the reason is simply to maintain consistency in the language of our system. I think it’s important to be aware that vaulting is one of the parallel skill sets shared between the two disciplines, and all of our MovNat vaulting techniques also exist within Parkour, though approached a little differently.
In this article, my objective is to give an overview of the various techniques that comprise the vaulting skillset. I want to give you a clearer understanding of the various techniques and their unique practical applications to paint a clearer picture in your mind of what vaulting is comprised of. First, we’ll break down the most fundamental vaulting techniques and describe the context in which they would be most appropriate, then we’ll break down some of the ground movements that can be used to safely build a foundation before taking the vault to an elevated surface. Finally, we would like to recommend a 4-week program to work up to the Tripod Vault.
Before we start, always be aware of the safety of your training environment. If you’re training outside, morning dew or fresh rainfall can render surfaces slippery. Also, some vaultable obstacles may be unstable. It’s always a good idea to feel out the obstacle for stability and try a few slow and controlled Tripod Transitions to get a feel of what kind of friction you’re working with. Also, survey the ground around your obstacle for hazards when finding a suitable place to practice.
The Main Vaulting Techniques
The foundational technique is the Tripod Vault. The Tripod Vault can be first practiced on the ground through the Tripod Transition. This can be progressed to a Balancing Tripod Transition on a balancing surface that is very low to the ground, then an obstacle below knee height, then finally one just lower than hip height. This technique can be slow and controlled like the Tripod Transition exercise, or quicker and jumpier once it starts taking form as a true vault.
Once you get comfortable with the Tripod Vault, you can try getting your leg in front of you by the time the other foot lands on the box. You can make that step lighter and lighter until you don’t even need to step. This vault, without the feet touching the box is called a Side Vault. When you get comfortable with the Side Vault, that will likely be more commonly used than a Tripod Vault for lower obstacles, and Tripod Vaults will be reserved for taller obstacles, or longer obstacles, that you can’t quite jump over in one shot with any of the faster vaults.
For the Side Vault, you want to orient your body horizontally as you vault over. This will prevent you from bashing your knee on the way through. The approach is similar to the Tripod Vault, but without any foot contact on the obstacle, making it quite a bit faster. This is why it is called a Speed Vault in Parkour.
A Half Turn Vault involves a slightly different placement of the hands to allow you to face the other direction you came from after vaulting. This is helpful when you need to hang over the edge of what you vaulted over, or otherwise face the opposite direction after vaulting. Aside from the placement of the hands, and the direction that the body turns during this vault, it is quite similar to the Side Vault.
A Belly Vault is similar to a Half Turn Vault in it’s hand placement, but the body is held very close to the vaulting surface as you transition over. This vault is good for maintaining a low profile, such as when the overhead space above the vaulting surface is limited.
When you need to get through a narrower space, or really dive into your vault to get across a long obstacle, the Front Vault will be a helpful alternative to the other vaults. The Front Vault is the most iconic vault in Parkour (they call it the Kong Vault, or Saut-De-Chat). It seems to be very demanding from a mobility standpoint. In a Front Vault, your legs have to pass between your planted arms, but the arms don’t have to stay planted. Once the knees get close to the chest, the hands should spring up, creating space and allowing you to change the orientation of your body. This allows you to land upright in a squat position if the goal is to land on the obstacle, or to land on your feet on the other side of the obstacle if vaulting over it.
When approaching the obstacle from the side, such as if you were running alongside a fence and want to get over to the other side, the Split Vault or Kick Vault is appropriate depending on what direction you want to go after you vault. The Split Vault will involve swinging the leg closest to the vaulting surface, and will result in continuing to face to same direction you were headed before vaulting. The Kick Vault is just the opposite. You swing the leg farthest from the vaulting surface, and you also have better control if you want to change your orientation while airborne – including ending up facing the opposite direction you were facing before you vaulted.
In it’s basic form, the Inverted Vault happens after jumping over an obstacle. Setting the hands down behind you to get that extra push can give you a little more distance, or allow you to make a more precise landing. Taking place at the back end of the obstacle allows this vault to be combined with many of the other vaults.
An Inverted Vault can be used during the exit of a Split Vault or Kick Vault to help change direction. This pattern can also be used after a Front Vault or after jumping over an obstacle to help get over an extra long obstacle. The Inverted Vault is also called the Dash Vault among the Parkour Community, and when combined with a Front Vault, they call it a Kash (Kong + Dash) Vault.
The Inverted Vault can also be used to get down from a height, or after a jump to get more of an arc out of the exit of your jump. When jumping down from a height, squatting at the edge of the object you’re jumping down from and then pushing off with your hands instead of just jumping down can provide a little more control for the drop. The Tripod Vault is also very useful for descending from a height, especially when there are a few platforms in succession to descend.
Finally a Pop Vault involves getting up or over an obstacle that you are hanging onto in a Vertical Hand Press position without your feet on the ground. It requires popping your hips up and placing your feet on the obstacle or Front Vaulting over. This is essentially the same as a Front Vault, except your feet are not taking off from the ground; you are hanging from the obstacle and must generate the force for the vault by popping your hips up and back to move your feet on or over the obstacle. Alternatively, you could Side Vault or Tripod Vault over using the same technique.
Common inefficiencies with vaulting as a whole include holding the breath; it’s best to synchronize an exhalation with the vault. Another inefficiency is landing with a hard impact; hard landings disperse a lot of energy and slow down your momentum. You want to avoid disrupting the speed and pattern of your run so you can continue moving without pausing after the vault. On that note, taking off and landing can be done on one foot or by gathering the feet and taking off with both together. Taking off and landing with one foot is always faster and smoother, but when the obstacle is very high, gathering the feet and taking off with both feet together can help transfer your horizontal momentum into vertical momentum.
Finally, one of the most common inefficiencies I see is what I would describe as a “gingerly” use of the hands, where a person touches the obstacle and jumps, but doesn’t quite load the hands as points of support. If you’ve ever seen pole vaulting, you are using your arms like the pole, so you have to lean into your arms, keeping the elbows straight as you pass over the obstacle.
Ground Movements & Beginner Progressions For Vaulting
There are a few key ground movements that can help you build a strong foundation safely before trying to vault over an elevated surface. The Tripod Transition is the foundation for vaulting. This starts with getting in a deep knee bend, reaching out to the side, placing your hand down on the ground, and then lifting the ipsilateral leg of the hand that’s on the ground. From here you reach the leg out in front while reaching over and behind you with the free hand, then weave your free leg under your body to reach behind you as you reach your arm out in front of you. This technique lays down all the prerequisites to controlling your body as you bring it over obstacles.
Another good ground movement drill resembles a cartwheel with bent legs throughout the motion. Reach your arms out in front of you and place them perpendicular to your legs, transfer your weight to your hands and jump up to land on the other side of your hands. This is the foundation of a Half Turn Vault, and helps to get you used to loading the arms as points of support.
A variation of this can be done for the Side Vault by placing the hands on the ground in front of you, slightly to the side of your feet. As you jump forward onto your hands, your legs will spring forward past your hands. If you’ve ever imitated a chimpanzee moving quickly on it’s knuckles, you should have a good idea of what this movement feels like.
Another variation of this drill can be done for the Front Vault by placing the hands directly in front of your feet as if going into a Foot Hand Crawl, then quickly transitioning your bodyweight to your hands and jumping your legs forward with your knees together, trying to fit them between your arms. This should feel like a little bunny hop motion, if that visualization helps.
Here is a demo of these ground movement progressions…
For the Pop Vault, there is no ground movement that will really build this, but you can build up your confidence and capability in this technique by practicing popping up from the Vertical Hand Press position without trying to get your feet on or over the obstacle. Just getting used to popping your hips up is a great start. Then when you’re ready, you can try to gently tap the obstacle with your feet. Practicing like this enough will lead to the confidence and capability to start practicing the full technique. The Pop Vault can be on something like a bar or on a box-like structure. Starting with a box before progressing to a bar is safer and easier. A Pop Vault after climbing a wall is the quickest way to transition to the top of the wall.
There are lots of other more advanced variations for vaulting, such as Reverse Vaults, vaults that use the corner of a wall, double Front Vaults, vaulting while carrying an object, and more. Once you get comfortable with this skill set and start exploring various kinds of obstacles, plenty of creative variations are revealed.
Vaulting is all about turning obstacles into opportunities. First, it’s about being able to deal with things that get in your way, but as you get more competent, obstacles no longer slow you down, and at higher levels of expertise, vaulting over obstacles can actually help accelerate your movement. Without vaulting, obstacles stop you dead in your tracks, and your only option is to find a way around. With vaulting, obstacles are surmountable, and eventually, obstacles actually become tools to speed up your traversal.
Some ways to progress your vaulting once you’ve developed a deep level of competence would be exploring what other movements can be combined with your vaults. Precision landings, rolling after a vault, jumping from a distance into a vault, and vaulting to a Vertical Foot Pinch Hang are a few examples. I could make a list, but all of these kinds of variations will be revealed to you by creatively exploring the application of this skill in various environments. At that level, allow your environment to be your teacher, and try to open your eyes to opportunities that are not as obvious.
If you are totally new to vaulting, or want a good review of the basics, check out the “Beginner’s Guide to Vaulting” video that I put together a few years ago. If there are any specific vaulting techniques that you have trouble with and would like to make a request for a breakdown in a tutorial video, please let me know! I’d love to hear from you.
4 Week Tripod Vault Program
Over the course of 4 weeks, this program will take you through some key progressions to get comfortable with the Tripod Vault. These are very short training sessions that I would recommend doing at least three times per week, but they are fairly low intensity, so there’s so reason that you can’t practice every day. Each week, you can progress to the next two drills as you gradually build your confidence and competence.
Week 1: Ground Transitions/Progressions
In this first week, we’ll establish the position and motor pattern through the Tripod Transition, and get you used to jumping into your hands with the Side Vault Ground Movement Drill.
- Tripod Transition: 3 sets of 5 reps per side
- Side Vault Ground Movement: 3 sets of 3 per side
Week 2: Low Tripod Vaults at Slow Speed
This week we’ll start playing with balancing the Tripod Transition, as well as doing the actual Tripod Transition on a lower surface. This week will be about increasing the complexity by elevating the surface or restricting the surface area available.
- Balancing Tripod Transition on a 2×4 board: 3 sets of 5 reps per side
- Slow Tripod Transition over a knee-height obstacle: 3 sets of 5 per side (Try to land softly, like you’re trying not to create a sounds or vibration with your landing. Slower movement will build better balance and control throughout the motion.)
Week 3: Increasing Height & Speed
This week takes the foundation we have built in the previous weeks and brings it into true practical application. We increase Intensity by moving more quickly and putting more of a spring in our vaults. Previous weeks have focused on the Tripod Transition, and this is where we transform that pattern into a true vault by speeding it up and introducing a jump.
- Tripod Vault over hip height obstacle: 3 sets of 5 reps (slower & controlled, but still a run and a jump)
- Tripod Vault over hip height obstacle: 3 sets of 5 reps (more quickly, less weight on the foot that steps on the box)
Week 4: Exploring different environments or skill-to-skill combinations
This week is about adaptability. Some obstacles require you to Tripod Vault onto rather than over. Sometimes you’ll need to carry an object while vaulting, and there may be environmental demands that require you to exit the vault with a precision landing.
- Tripod Vault onto an elevated surface: 2 sets of 5 reps per side
- Tripod Vault to Precision Landing: 2 sets of 5 reps.per side.
- Tripod Vault with Single Hand Chest Carry: 2 sets of 5 reps per side.
After the 4 week program, you should be pretty comfortable adapting your tripod vault to a variety of contextual demands. You don’t grow out of the usefulness of week 1 exercises once you’ve been doing them for a week. All of these exercises can provide unique opportunities for development that others don’t. So, keep them in your tool box and try revisiting them from time to time!
About the Author
Alex Schenker is a MovNat Team Instructor & Expert Trainer, Martial Arts Instructor, Movement Therapist, and the creator of Natural Mobility. His approach emphasizes restoring and maintaining the natural state of our human bodies, reconnecting with the evolutionary movement aptitudes of our species, as well as stimulating our own natural healing capabilities through corrective exercise. Alex coaches people privately, and teaches regular weekly MovNat & Combatives classes in Toronto, Canada. Follow him on Instagram: @naturalmobility.
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