Training to Do Breakfalls When Balance Is Actually Broken

Training to Do Breakfalls When Balance Is Actually BrokenWhile I was in New Zealand to teach seminars, I had the pleasure of doing some training with Jules Robson Sensei. One of the topics we spent a lot of time on was breakfalls, as you can see in the photo on the right taken at his dojo. He posited that many martial artists train their breakfalls in a more performance oriented way. By this I mean that the uke being thrown has full control over their balance and structure allowing them to get more leap and spring so as to enjoy greater control over one’s fall. When well trained, these falls and rolls look quite beautiful, but when applied as a response to a throw, it’s a beautiful lie.

Breakfalls that Train Poor Throw/Takedown Habits

To do the controlled breakfalls as described above, the uke performing them needs to have enough control over their structure that they can get the necessary spring loaded into their feet to do the fall. The problem with this is that it can cause uke to pre-empt tori’s technique. In essence, uke is throwing themselves and leading tori to believe the technique was successfully applied, when they never really even got to the point to know one way or the other. This is most noticeable when using rolls to fall out of sacrifice throws like yoko otoshi (side drop) or what we call valley throw in Can-ryu Jiu-jitsu. If tori does the throw properly, there isn’t usually enough time for uke to do a full shoulder roll safely, so often you’ll see people not fully commit to the dropping action of the throw to make the roll possible. This is why we don’t teach our students to attempt the roll as a response to these types of throws.

The other problem with training to do breakfalls before tori has fully taken balance is that it prevents tori from seeing the natural counter openings that their technique is leaving open. If uke always falls, regardless of how well or poorly the technique is applied, the feedback loop that application failure offers is taken away. The technique is never truly put to the test.

Double-Loading the Feet for Breakfalls

If balance is truly taken, the uke’s weight is double-loaded in such a way that they can’t step or sink their weight to counter without compromising their structural alignment in a much worse way. Robson Sensei posits that this is the way we should be training to do breakfalls. This makes total sense, but it can be hard to do when training solo breakfalls without a partner to do said balance breaking. He led me through a series of exercises that led to working on this concept as applied to rolls. I started getting the hang of it over a few sessions, but it is challenging to train myself not to spring into the roll. Fortunately, we don’t really use rolls to fall out of throwing techniques, using them more for when a fall comes out of the blue, say from tripping or if someone loses balance after a throw, the roll can be used to fall over uke without falling into them in a way that makes tori vulnerable. It did however, get me thinking about the utility and functionality of breakfalls and the roll of uke in being thrown in concept. Instructors who teach throws and breakfalls should consider how the breakfall training methods affect the way throws are performed one should not negatively impact the other and vice versa.

Over to you. Do you teach throws/takedowns and breakfalls? If so, is this something that you’ve considered? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

Comments (3)

3 thoughts on “Training to Do Breakfalls When Balance Is Actually Broken

  1. Hey Lori,

    Thank you for sharing your experiences! I will definitely look up this dojo if I am around. I have not been practicing martial arts long enough to be an expert, but I am lucky to be guided by a skilled Sensei. We do some exercises, but maybe you already know them. I guess the main aim of the exercises is to try to perform in a way where you are out of your comfort zone, which makes you less likely to be in balance.

    For rolling, Sensei asks us to roll over someone down on their knees and elbows (highest belt first). After he puts another person, and another person, and another person. Last try I managed to get over 6 people shoulder to shoulder, but the second try (and 7 people) I could not manage. I lost may balance and learned how to deal with that.
    Similarly, he does this in height. I have seen our black belt students jump over someone standing up straight and going into a roll. Learning this you mess up a couple of times, and still have to break your fall.

    For the back-falls. We usually practice in pairs. One student stand up straight. The other jumps legs first, and puts the legs around the waist of the other students. Lower belts are helped to the floor, higher belts are pushed around in order to fall in different ways. Higher belts also jump to the side of the other student, so there is a different grip.
    Another way we practice backfalls is to line up (highest belt first), and again someone is on their knees and elbows. However, this person is now able to move back and forward. The student walks backwards in the diagonal of the dojo. The person on hands and knees is in this diagonal, however the student walking backwards does not know where the person is nor how high/low this person is.

    Perhaps these techniques are all known to you, but maybe there are some variations on what you know.

    Keep sharing your experiences and also your teachings, thank you 🙂

  2. @Dutchie – what you’re describing is a typical breakfall training regimen. The issue with that is that it trains you to breakfall by starting out on balance, and able to either jump off the ground or sink or whatever you. Ie, you control your breakfall. The article is about the difficulties that this creates in training–it introduces a barrier between jiu-jitsu as an exercise regimen and jiu-jitsu as a _martial_ art. The difficulty has always been to try to make training as realistic as possible; which is to say, to practice techniques designed to break and sometimes even to kill without injuring either uke or tori.

    Either way, this is a great article and food for thought. I wonder how I’d try to learn to breakfall when hurtling towards the mats at breakneck speed without having sprung first to start my rotation or whatever.

  3. Obviously one shouldn’t fall when the throw is bad (absence of kuzushi) and for the same reason one shouldn’t tap when a lock isn’t properly applied: it leads to bad form and ultimately incompetence and a false sense of security which totally negates the purpose of training.

    That being said one should keep in mind that the original goal of a throw was to incapacitate or kill an opponent (drop him on his head forcefully and all his armor and weaponry will be of little use) so some caution should be utilized in practice like not rotating him in such a way as to make it virtually impossible to breakfall properly. In koryu styles of jujutsu or tai-jutsu throws are done in such a way as to counter the likely breakfall or rolling technique the opponent will make: if the uke doesn’t know which throw is going to be utilized and thus how he should fall chances are fairly high he’ll be seriously injured.

    In some throws and joint locks it is quite necessary to initiate your own breakfall/roll or you will get hurt and imo it’s a useful skill to learn how to defend against such techniques by rolling and thus escaping without serious harm. If you wait for him to complete his technique it’s too late: this applies to all manner of techniques be it throwing, locking or striking/kicking.

    Imo the single best way to practice hard, realistic throwing and breakfalling is with a throwing pad so that even when one lands badly there will be no serious repercutions. I used to do judo as a kid and I even entered some competitions. At 14 I was quickly transferred to the men’s training since I was quite big for my age. While I was much more flexible back then all that hard throwing was still pretty harsh to endure and now I wonder if it really is necessary or even healthy to get thrown regularly with full force even on matts and with proper knowledge of breakfalls.

    I am interested in these solo breakfall exercises, could you perhaps upload a video with a few examples?

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