Saturday, April 25, 2009

Break Falling is B.S.

About two years ago I started training in Judo. As I am in the medical research/genetics field, I tend to seek out and absorb any type of research reports that revolve around martial arts training. I simply log on to the medical research literature database and search for terms like "Judo", " Martial Arts", "MMA", "Jiu-Jitsu", etc. To make a long story short, there are TONS of manuscripts in the medical literature about Tai-Chi and Judo. Very little about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Muay Thai and MMA. Most of the Tai-Chi manuscripts center around how it benefits old people. Most of the MMA manuscripts talk about concussions and the lethality of the sport (which is a moot point as no one has died as a result of the activities of the sport).

When it comes to the Judo focused manuscripts in the medical literature there is much emphasis on the diet and cutting weight, comparing Olympic level atheletes to average atheletes, the effects of outside stressors on competition, the color of the uniform on competition results, etc. But, there are a couple of manuscripts that study the actual benefits of proper breakfalling techniques. That is to say, how important is it to break your fall when thrown or falling by landing a certain way and slapping the mat with your hand or hands, in order to "distribute the shock/impact of the throw" and not seriously hurt yourself. I am sorry, that due to my haste to write this post, I am unable to furnish you all with the actual references to these papers. Perhaps in the very near future I will edit this post and provide you with the references and/or actually post links to the PDFs of the papers.

What it all boils down to is that there was a published medical manuscript that came to the conclusion that teaching old people at a nursing home to fall with Judo breakfalling techniques did not curtail the number of injuries incurred during falling incidents of the residents. There are some more recent manuscripts that say that the number of "hip injuries" are reduced by the elderly when they have been taught Judo breakfalling techniques. But, the study did not elaborate on what other injuries might have been incurred by the elderly in the study.

Furthermore, if you watch high level Judo competitions you will almost never see a competitor breakfall properly. Why? Because the thrown competitor is trying to make him/herself not land in a position that will give their opponent a scoring point or ippon. The thrown opponent with brace the mat with their arm, or voluntarily land on their head, etc; anything that keeps them from landing on their back. Sometimes by bracing with their arm to prevent a throw, their arm breaks or hyperextends. Bottom line: watch or compete in a local Judo competition and you will see that not even local Judo black belts break fall properly when thrown or falling. High level judokas know how to fall propery, they just choose not to inorder to win their match.

What does this all mean? Bottom line, breakfalling is bullshit. Sure it helps in some ways. It helps to learn how to flow with the throw. It helps to provide psycho-comfort to the thrown opponent that "it's okay to be thrown, if you land a certain way." Without convincing students that breakfalling will "save" them, I doubt Judo and BJJ would have as many followers as it does today. Some people might just "puss out", when it comes to the grappling arts.

What does all of this have to do with this post? Well, just tonight, I slipped and fell in my kitchen. How did this happen? Well, I put some ice cubes in a cheap tupperware dish and let my puppies chase it around my kitchen. The ice cubes made a rattling noise in the dish, they chased it around the kitchen and tried to get the ice cubes. Unbeknownst to me, the puppies had punctured the dish and the ice cubes had melted to leak water all over my kitchen floor. Walking in to the kitchen in my flip flops I slipped, my feet kicked out in front of me and I fell straight on my ass and lower back.

Did I breakfall properly? No, I did not. One second I am stepping on to the tiled floor in my kitchen, the next mili-second later I am on my ass. Breakfalling didn't even cross my mind in the 1/100th of a second it took me to go from happy-go-lucky with my pups to flat on my ass in my kitchen.

How did I land? I landed by reaching backwards with my hands and hitting the floor ass first as my palms hit the floor. My arms were straight and my elbows were nearly locked out. Can you think of a worse position to land in? After I landed I realized nothing was broken, and I was thankful that I kept my chin tucked to my chest and nothing but my pride was bruised; even though nobody but the dogs saw it happen - I confessed it to my girlfriend out of the sake of comedic value. I think it's funny to make fun of myself.

So here's the skinny on this post. If you are an average Judo Black Belt, or an above average BJJ player, when you fall in real life - out of the blue; the odds of you properly breakfalling are slim to none. Now, if you are on the mat or in competition, you may be more ready for it. Breakfalling may even help you get through a training session where you get tossed around a 100 times or more. But, when you slip and fall off the mat your training will most likely not kick in and save you. But don't worry, the science is in your favor, unless you are over 65. Proper Judo breakfalling techniques do not mitigate falling injuries during Judo competions (in the young/middle aged) or everyday life (middle aged/elderly).

After the fall, come up with a cool "manly" excuse to explain your concussion and broken wrist. I suggest that when asked, you tell people that a rabid Jackal charged you and you were forced to break it's neck by suplexing and pile driving it to death. Hence the bruises on your ass.


Andres said...

I have actually used my extensive breakfalling training IRL once. I was on my bike, carrying stuff in one hand, when my steering wheel got stuck in something, and threw me and the bike in the ditch, at a fairly high speed.

I tucked and rolled perfectly, and actually finished standing up, with whatever I was carrying still intact in my hand. I was pretty happy I trained BJJ.

Blister said...

LOL...I think that most people(at least this is way I look at it) consider breakfalling as the best way to mitigate the possible effects of being thrown 50-100 times in a typical judo training session.

Jason said...


I'm glad to hear your training paid off! I've had a few incidents liked yours where I was able to save my ass with a roll through of some sort. Usually I was either riding a bike or running. I also have 2 BJJ friends who tried to roll through after flipping over their handlebars and both broke their collar bones. So, it can go either way in that scenario, I guess.

If you count the times I've fallen playing hockey, I've slipped and fallen on my butt several times. I've never once breakfallen properly during one of these falls. I think the sensation of falling backwards puts the brain into a panic, and it tries to save itself at the risk of breaking your wrists/arms.

Middle A said...


another neijia said...

I've break fallen successfully backwards due to an icy driveway but I am not a high level judo competitor who has rejected proper breakfalls. Long ago before learning breakfall skills I broke my arm falling off a skateboard. I'd love to think if I had these skills I might have used them. Hard to say. Perhaps it's a good idea to practice real breakfalling every so often, especially if you know how and deliberately do it wrong most of the time. Better to avoid broken bones due to real life accidents than to do weird aerials to win judo matches.

Jason said...


Props to you for breakfalling properly when you weren't even trained yet how to do so. I use to skateboard when I was younger. It's a miracle that I never broke anything. But, I once looked on as my friend went off of a 3 foot high launch ramp and pancaked on the pavement flat on his back. He cracked his one of his cervical vertebraes. He was in a brace for a bit but otherwise was fine.

I think that if I were a high level judoka competitor (National, Pan Am, World, Olympic level), I would probably sacrifice my body in an attempt to avoid being scored on, just like what we see players doing at those levels all the time. There is so much on the line (gold medals, sponsorships, endorsements, spokesperson, financial future as an Olympic champion, etc.) that the risk of a broken arm is probably worth it. Look at our American Judo champions (Jimmy Pedro, Mike Swain, etc.) Those dudes make some $$$ and they didn't even win gold at the olympics!

But as for us average, low level players, it is foolish of us to try to risk an injury in order to not get scored on in a low level local tournament. Some of us still do it nonetheless. Some of us are just taken by surprise on being thrown and don't have the time or wherewith all to react properly.

Let's not forget that there is no scientific evidence that backs up the claims that proper breakfalling can mitigate injury. Perhaps, like "Blister" said above, it is the best way for a judoka to get through a practice session of getting thrown 50 to 100 times. I don't know about this as sometimes breakfalling hurts just as bad as any other fall. But, what I have to agree with is that reaching out or back with your hands to brace your fall has to be one of the worst things you can do in order to cushion the impact or catch yourself.


matt spencer said...

Having trained in Aikido, Hwarangdo, Shuri-ryu karate, Judo, and BJJ over the last 25 years, I'm convinced that ukemi/nok boep/break-fall training provides a better opportunity for a non-injurious random fall than NOT training. I sustained minimal injury one time during a motorcycle accident because of an ingrained flip-fall. Currently working to become a Physician Assistant and am actually writing a paper on reducing fall injuries in the elderly. Would you by chance have any good references on the subject matter? Thanks!