Fitness trails have become a mainstay for personal training exercise programming.

I’ll be the first to admit I used to make fun of fitness trails. I would joke, “Walk a few inches and then lean against this pole while doing 5 arm circles and 5 leg circles, then walk toward the next apparatus and lean against it, while you reach for your toes.” (By the way, it’s OK not to actually touch your toes, so long as you can set the intention to reach your toes and to feel the stretch.)

I thought fitness trails were for less-than-serious fitness people and socialites. However, with fitness centers closed in Phoenix, AZ, I have been doing more and more training outdoors, even with our record blazing heat and lack of monsoon rains this year. I go early in the morning or at dusk, when temperatures are closer to 100 versus an inhumane 115-120 degrees.

The term ‘dry heat’ does little to assuage the discomfort of it all. I call the dry heat a clam bake and the humid heat a lobster boil. It doesn’t matter which one it is, either way you get cooked!

If you decide to go out on the fitness trail, use sunblock, make sure you hydrate adequately, and follow outdoor safety guidelines! In addition, make sure that your clients are doing the same.

What is a fitness trail?

The fitness trail is also known as a “trim trail” or “parcourse.” It’s comprised of a course or path with outdoor exercise obstacles and/or equipment installed along its length. Trails like these can be natural, man-made, or a combination of the two and vary in location. They can be located in forests, state and city parks, and other creative urban settings. The exercise apparatuses found on a fitness trail can also be natural or man-made.

The important point is to exercise the human body and to improve components of fitness such as balance, coordination, and strength. They can be suitable for all levels of fitness clients, including children and adolescents. Most fitness trails will have a placard providing basic and simple instructions on how to use each work each station. The stations can focus specifically on the upper extremities, lower extremities, core, or total-body endeavors. They can be made of wood, galvanized metal, rope, PVC, etc.

Natural fitness trail Components:

  • Rocks, trees, and river embankments that are climbable
  • Fallen logs for balance or plyometrics

Man-made examples are:

  • Climbing bars
  • Parallel bars
  • Sit-up bars
  • Balance Beams
  • Ladder walks (or rope ladders)
  • Chin-up/pull-up bars
  • Stepping posts
  • Raised platforms (for lunges/squats/reverse lunges)
  • Checkpoints with to-do lists for calisthenics like push-ups, sit-ups, crunches and other such exercises

Trails found in nature with man-made fitness stations are a third type of fitness trail and can have components of both a natural fitness trail and a man-made fitness trail.

All three types may have a myriad of items designed to provide physical challenges for the human body.

Are fitness trails challenging/Can they help enhance fitness & overall well-being and health?

Whether a fitness trail is natural, man-made, or a combination thereof, the level of difficulty would be directly related to its:

  • Terrain slope/elevation changes
  • Surface (grass, gravel, dirt, asphalt and/or combination)
  • Length/distance (many man-made fitness trails are 5k)
  • Intensity desired by the participant on the trail

As Fit Pro’s, you’re probably all versed in using the FITT principle (Frequency, Intensity, Time, Type)  when working with clients and creating exercise and program design. The same principle is applicable to fitness trails and their difficulty levels. Here’s how:

  1. Frequency: How often does a client train using a fitness trail (how many times per week)?
  2. Intensity: Does the client walk it, run it, sprint it, etc? Does a client wear a heart rate monitor, making sure to stay in a specific cardio zone during the session or does a client walk between stations and work hard on each stop, with a focus of strength training?
  3. Time: What are the lengths of the sessions? Regardless of a fitness trail’s length, time spent on the trail can be manipulated as a variable.
  4. Type: Did you choose a rugged terrain with a vast elevation change or an easier terrain with more demanding apparatuses or somewhere in between? Is the course mild or formidably challenging by design (whether by nature, man-made, or combination)? Did you skip stations?

History of Fitness Trails

The original fitness trail, otherwise known as Parcours was invented in 1968 by Erwin Weckemann, a Swiss architect, in cooperation with a Swiss life insurance company called Vita. It was erected in Zurich, Switzerland and by 1972, hundreds of Parcours followed. By 1976, the concept had traveled to the United States and one was built in Country Farm Park in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Today, fitness trails can be found all over the world and in almost every state in the U.S.

The course is designed to promote physical fitness training in the style attributed to Georges Hébert.

The degree of difficulty of a course is determined by terrain slope, trail surface (dirt, grass, gravel, etc.), obstacle height (walls) or length (crawls) and other features. Urban parcourses tend to be flat, to permit participation by the elderly, and to accommodate cyclists, runners, skaters and walking. The new concept of an outdoor gym, containing traditional gym equipment specifically designed for outdoor use, is also considered to be a development of the parcourse.

Another key contributor to the fitness trail is Georges Hebert (April 27 1875-August 2, 1957). He was a physical educator in the French military and a pioneer for a methodology he coined, “La methode naturelle,” or “The Natural Method.” It’s also known as Hebertism (after his namesake) and was comprised of:

Physical training: Training was meant to improve the overall physiological health of the human body and its organs such as the lungs, heart, and muscles while also enhancing speed, balance, coordination, dexterity, endurance, and strength.

Mental training: Hebert sought to cultivate and maintain healthy levels of vitality, mental rigor, energy, courage, coolness, firmness, and willpower in his program participants.

Ethical behavior: Friendship, altruism, and collective work were emphasized.

As personal trainers we can all influence our clients to improve not only their fitness but their overall wellness through the use of fitness trails and their components.  Remember to get a PAR-Q and make sure a client is cleared to start a program, just like you would at a fitness facility.

Shay Vasudeva

Shaweta “Shay” Vasudeva, MA (Psychology), MS (Kinesiology), NFPT-CPT, NASM-CPT-CES, THSA-CNT, and Tai Chi & Black Belt Karate Instructor is a teaching professional, speaker, author, coach, and cat lover! Her passion is to help people become the best version of themselves by using an interdisciplinary and holistic approach, bringing 10+ years of experience in Psychology, Personal Fitness Training, Corrective Exercise, Nutritional Coaching, Cranial Sacral Work, and teaching Karate & Tai Chi classes to her business, ShayTheCoach. Shay teaches classes at Maricopa Community College District as an Adjunct Professor. For more information visit her personal webpage: