Thursday, January 27, 2011

Ukemi -To fall or not to fall...

Ukemi, or break-falling, is an important part of many martial arts.  Learning to fall properly is integral to safe training.  Learning to relax when being thrown drastically reduces the chance of injury.  Many martial artists in stand up styles are now incorporating some throws and break-falls into their curriculum.  This is great.

Now I break-fall all the time.  My style has many throws and takedowns, so its necessary to know how to fall safely.  Like so many things, though, there are pros and cons to the traditional 'slap the mat' break-fall.

The traditional break-fall is less effective outside the dojo depending on the terrain.  Concrete is not nearly as forgiving as dojo mats.  If you were to do a full break-fall on uneven pavement, there is a reasonably good chance that you might injure yourself, be it your arm, side, leg etc.  There may be a time when this is necessary to avoid a more severe impact or injury, but it is worth mentioning that you may experience pain or shock on impact.  Not being surprised will help you carry on in a combat situation.  You also might not slap the ground with as much force on an unknown surface.  Sure, it helps to dissipate the impact, but losing the use of an arm in a real fight can have dire consequences.  Also, exhaling on impact is extremely important, especially on a hard surface.  If you don't, you might find yourself winded or knocked out. And always, always, tuck your chin.  For those beginning to learn to break-fall, trust me.  For those who've got some experience, you know exactly what I mean.

So, are there any options?  If you find yourself being thrown or taken down, what can you do?

Consider rolling.  I was lucky enough to train under a high ranking black belt in Ninjutsu for a period of time.  It was his opinion, that whenever possible, rolling was superior.  He had me rolling around all the time, as a response to a throw or takedown, or, in some cases, as a counter to an attack.  There are many times when you can just as easily roll as break-fall.  If you learn to roll effortlessly, it can be a valuable addition to your arsenal.  Rolling can prevent injury, create time and distance, surprise your attacker and allow you to move to cover, if needed.  Interestingly, he was so skilled, that I wasn't even always convinced he made contact with the ground.  It was almost a flip an inch above the ground right back to standing.  You can imagine how unnerving it would be for an attacker, throwing an individual and having them barely hit the ground and popping up a half heart beat later out of range.

There are issues with rolling as well.  You need some space, objects can get in the way, and in some cases, especially with skilled throwers, you just can't roll out of it.  With less skilled throwers, it's often possible to combine schools of thought, doing a modified break-fall but then rolling with it.  I've used this with a fair amount of success.  I fall and roll, holding on to the thrower.  If they don't have their balance or were sloppy, I simply pull them over, rolling up on top of them.

Clearly, both the traditional break-fall and rolling techniques have their advantages and limitations.  I feel strongly that you should experiment with both to figure out which works for you, and when.  As with all break-falling or rolling practice, start slow and be under the watchful eye of a good teacher. The more relaxed and confident you are, the easier and safer it will be.


  1. Excellent, informative post! I sometimes think that thick, soft judo mats don't do us any favours because they soak up too much of the impact. In my jujitsu club about a year ago my sensei bought all new mats and chose thinner, harder ones than we'd previously had. We all complained like mad to start with because it was more unpleasant to be thrown onto. However, we got used to them and now it feels normal to be thrown onto a slightly harder surface.

  2. In my club we train krav maga wich is a self defense martial art,we train a lot on falling in the right way,your post gave me alot to think about,thanks.

    Martial Art Training

  3. I'm happy to hear that. Falling is an art in and of itself.