Over the years, I’ve had many conversations with various martial artists in person and online about the most valuable tool they’ve learned in their training. In every conversation, Ukemi is unanimously considered one of the most important parts of training, usually the most useful aspect. And more than that, ukemi is not only helpful in Judo and Jiu Jitsu, but also your life.
Most people rarely fight. They may go years without fighting, or may never get into a fight in their lives. People trip and fall far more frequently.
In our daily lives, the ability to fall without injury is a far more useful skill than the ability to fend off an attacker. In this vein, another important tool to consider is balance. The better your balance, the less likely you will fall but, if you do fall, break fall skills can help you prevent taking serious injury from the fall.
To paraphrase several instructors I’ve heard over the years, “I like to hit opponent’s with the biggest thing around, like the planet.” A good takedown does that, and when a planet hits you, it can cause serious injury. If it doesn’t finish the fight directly, it’s certainly a step toward the finish.
Learning to break fall and minimize the damage from a fall, throw, or takedown can help you get through the fight and, hopefully, prevail.
The Importance of Ukemi (Break Falls)
Ukemi include both break falls and rolls. Both methods seek to spread the force of impact through large portions of your body so you minimize the chance of injury by reducing the amount of energy any single part of your body receives.
The primary purpose of ukemi is to keep your head and spine from taking damage on impact. Damage to the head can cause a concussion, which might put you in the hospital or worse. Damage to the spine might cause neurological damage, including paralysis.
Secondary, but still important, element of ukemi is to keep your more important joints, such as those in the hands and wrists, elbows, and knees from striking the ground by themselves and absorbing the shock into those joints. Damage to these joints can limit your ability to move and, of course, that limits your ability to fight or exit the fight.
Ukemi can also serve as a form of evasion. Sometime, you feel your opponent has achieved control, such as via an arm drag and is about to apply a lock or throw. Then, if you move yourself ahead of your opponent’s energy, you can reduce the amount of power you take from your opponent’s attack. Your opponent cannot throw you if you are no longer there.
I have often seen this idea misunderstood in training. Ukes sometimes leap into their fall or roll before there is any threat. This can be detrimental because, if your opponent isn’t committed to an attack yet, then they can follow your ukemi and prevent you from maintaining your structure through the fall or roll, which will, in turn, prevent you from launching a counterattack.
To start your training, you must have your good Judo mats.
Ukemi training often starts with you on your knees. This puts your body close to the ground and minimizes the amount of energy in play as you learn the fundamental elements.
In my personal background, the forward roll is most commonly taught first, then the backward roll. After the rolls, we learned break falls, starting with back, then side, then front. I assume other systems and instructors might use a different order or put different emphasis on each method.
From your knees, place your left hand on the mat in front of you. Place the back of your right hand on the mat and reach back toward your left knee. Lift your left knee, raise your left leg over, and follow its momentum.
Keep your chin tucked toward your chest and roll across the large muscles of your back. This keeps your head from hitting the ground and minimizes the stress put on your spine. Over time, you will learn to use this roll to get immediately back to your feet.
Once you develop and ingrain the basic structure, you can start the roll from a standing position. Now it becomes more realistic. You don’t place your left hand on the mat first.
First, tuck your chin to your chest. Place your left hand on your chest to keep it out of the way, lean forward with your right arm in front of you but bent, so your forearm will take the bulk of the initial contact with the ground. Lift your left leg and roll, maintaining the structure of your right arm so you roll from forearm to upper arm to shoulder then across your back to your left hip.
This video will help you:
In order to start learning the backward roll, start in a seated position with one leg folded flat in front of you and the other with the foot flat on the floor and knee in the air. Say you have your left leg with knee up, when you roll, you will roll over your left shoulder. Keep your chin tucked against your chest and roll back to your left shoulder. Then, slide your head out from under, and continue the roll into kneeling position.
Once you are comfortable with this motion, you can practice it from standing. Imagine someone pushes you. Rather than let your balance be compromised, you accept the energy and use it to propel your own roll. Step back with your right leg, lay your shin flat on the ground with the top of your foot flat on the ground, then perform the roll as above.
Forward Break Fall
For the forward break fall, you want to turn your head to the side, raise your hands in front of you with your elbows bent. As you fall forward, your forearms and hands hit the ground simultaneously. This allows you to spread the impact out a bit. Your arms act as shock absorbers to slow your momentum and prevent your head from smacking into the ground.
Back Break Fall
As you begin the fall, tuck your chin to your chest and cross your arms in front of your chest. As your body touches the ground, extend your arms out and down at a forty-five degree angle from your body and slap your hands, palm down, on the floor. Keeping your arms at a forty-five degree angle down causes the large muscles in your upper back to pad your ribs. If you lift your arms too high, you’re more likely to land on bones, like your ribs, and fracture them.
The side fall is basically the same as the back fall, except you only need to slap with the arm on the side on which you’re falling.
Here are the key elements, universal to all methods of falling safely.
The Earth is your friend. It will catch you if you let it. If you fight it, though, it will always win.
First, relax. I can’t stress this enough. Relaxation is one of the most important things to learn in martial arts, and one of the most difficult things to master. Relaxation of mind prevents panic, and relaxation of the body prevents injury whether you’re falling or getting hit. Relaxation also enables you to strike with more power.
Second, turn your head or tuck your chin to minimize the possibility of head and brain trauma.
Third, pull your limbs to your body. Don’t reach out to “catch” yourself. Allow the largest areas of your body possible to spread the energy of the impact. Fourth, to quote Sensei Richard Moon, “Never fall when you can roll.” Rolling keeps you mobile, distributes the force much more efficiently, and can result in you standing back up quickly.
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In every conversation with various martial artists in person and online, ukemi is unanimously considered one of the most important parts of training, usually the most useful aspect.