The Skill of Taking Strikes in Systema

Systems Strikes DVD

An interview with System’s Vladimir Vasiliev discusses the practical (apparent) reason for taking strikes and the underlying (psychological) reason.

Student: We heard that you are currently working on a new DVD on STRIKES. One of the topics covered will deal with the skill of taking strikes. It is of great interest to anyone studying martial arts, self defense or even human psychology. In Systema training, this skill is recognized to be very important, quite a lot of time is devoted to learning it. Why is that?

Vladimir: Why study this, you ask, but when they get hit, students also ask Why Me?..
There are 2 reasons for training to take strikes. The practical (apparent) one and the underlying (psychological) one.

No matter how good a fighter is, sometimes he gets hit. Some strikes you just do not see, some pleasant ones may come from the back, unexpectedly, or can be more powerful than you anticipated such as when you are hit with an object or a weapon.

In my experience with numerous martial arts and martial artists, fighters avoid getting hit by trying to be the first one to punch, by learning escapes, evasions and blocks. But they rarely talk about dealing with the strike that actually landed on you.

There is also an approach of taking strikes by withstanding pain, deliberately toughening up and tightening up various body parts. Aside from the ultimately destructive effect of such practice, it would only work for a visible, anticipated strike, while in place. But what if you have not seen the strike come or if you were on the move? Then you would need alternate relaxation of muscles.

I have seen how an unexpected punch can send a skilled martial artist into a state of disorientation, shock, panic, resentment, and many other counterproductive conditions. Moreover, I have never seen anyone capable of avoiding all strikes in a mass attack or crowd fight. You can easily verify it yourself in a group of 10 or more fighters.

Here is a typical example seen in class many many times. A new student joined in, big and strong guy, experienced in martial arts. We began a mass attack drill where everyone comes to the center of the gym and is hitting in all directions, each man fighting for himself. Right away the new guy got punched on the head, he turned to see who did it ready to hit him back. At that moment he received a punch from the other side, and with some anger building up, he turned to that side, his fist ready to fly in that direction. And then of course he was hit again from the opposite side. He was twirling like a good punch bag. Finally, he realized that a punch-for-punch does not work in a mass attack. So he exhaled and started punching those who were close by and not those who hit him.

Unfortunately, most of us have an almost automatic response: when a strike touches us we immediately go to retaliate and hit back. This is caused by pride. Systema training of taking punches deals directly with pride.

Student: When did you realize the need for learning how to receive punches?

Vladimir: When I was young and involved in many confrontations, due to my body type, I had an easy time evading and escaping any punch, I could move, roll and twist my way out of any situation. Although it worked for some time, I knew that I will not always be able to escape. And true enough, I learned though my injuries. First torn neck muscles, then broken ribs, and later torn knee ligaments.

These injuries clearly showed me the limitations of my agility. That led me to very serious thinking that good agility, reaction time and strength do not guarantee success. I realized the incompleteness of all martial arts teachings that I had known, or almost all…

By the way, these injuries of mine happened while I was training with my legendary teacher Mikhail Ryabko. Being a restless student, every so often I would try sparring outside of my gym, tried other ways of fighting or tried to prove something. Now, through the 15 years of teaching at my own gym, I see a very similar picture with my students. An injured student arrives to class. What happened? His answer is usually: I was wrestling with a friend on the weekend, or played some soccer, or had a volleyball game.

Student: So how does that relate to taking punches?

Vladimir: A punch is a potential injury. And there is only one sure way to minimize or prevent destruction from a strike and from physical stresses to the body. This sure way is offered in its completeness only by Systema. Of course, it is breathing.

With proper breathing it is extremely difficult to sustain an injury. If the circumstances were very serious and trauma does happen, then the damage is a lot less severe than would have been otherwise.

Breathing is the most interesting, useful and largest physical resource that we have. If we want to enhance ourselves we must incorporate this key element into our training and our life. If we look at a person (as a human being), we see that he or she is complete, our training method also has to be complete with all the components present and connected into a system, or Systema.

Student: Can breathing really help that much to take a punch?

Vladimir: Let’s look at it step-by-step. What is a strike that landed on you? It is a sudden force or impact or increased inner pressure, in other words, a quick transfer of tension from person to person. Keep in mind that the tension not only comes from the physical impact but also psychologically from our perception of threat and pain.

I have seen punching sessions where one or several punches were signaled or shown in a convincing way, but the fist was stopped just before making contact with the body. Although the recipient was not even touched, he became sick to such an extent that he had to throw-up.

This clearly shows us the vicious cycle of fear causing tension, tension producing more fear, fear leading to more tension, etc. This is where breathing comes in as the best method to break the cycle in such a simple way.

The effects of proper and improper breathing are very well described in the book Let Every Breath…If you have not already read it, please check it out.

Let’s say you are punched in the stomach. If you breathe properly, the physical impact of the strike is dissipated, the tension does not build up in the area, there is no excessive blood flow and therefore, minimal or no bruising. Moreover, what is extremely important: breathing does not allow the feelings of fear and self pity to enter the body; you literally exhale them. This way, even a powerful punch brings no damage physically or psychologically.

Tension always builds up in the muscles from the anticipated pain of the punch and from the real pain of the impact. Breathing helps to eliminate the tension and thus removes both pain and all the negative feelings.

Student: And still, people do not really want to get hit, so if we are training to receive strikes, do we have to overcome this weakness and just force ourselves to get punched.

Vladimir: It does not have to be forced, it all depends on your instructor and training partner. Over the years of teaching, I never stop being amazed at what happens when we work on strikes at Systema seminars.

As you know and have seen on DVDs, Mikhail Ryabko can hit with the power of a cannon ball. He stands calm, relaxed and smiling and from his subtle punches, the recipients drop on their knees, totally loose focus of their eyes, laugh or cry. Yet, what is most incredible, every seminar there is a huge line-up to experience his punches. Out of a hundred participants at least 50 voluntarily stand in line. These are people of all athletic abilities including the frail ones, all ages including the older ones, instructors, new students, as well as women.

Each volunteer gets from one up to several punches. Each participant gets a different reaction, some are in real pain and Mikhail instantly shows them how to come out of it, some go though a whole spectrum of feelings, but all come out enlightened. And guess what, at the next seminar day the participants line up to get hit again. The people have reported that with every strike delivered correctly and received with proper breathing fear leaves the body, replaced by peace and strength.

Student: I realize that training to take strikes is an extensive and exciting process and I look forward to the next class. Could you give a few tips on how Systema applies breathing to taking a punch.

Vladimir: I will be glad to. There are training tips related to preparation for striking and the actual things you do while your are receiving the strike. Most people have the primary fear of contact. Of course the degree of fear varies from person to person. I have met some who came to my school afraid to get hurt to such an extent that they were shaking even in a peaceful setting of the gym. Learning to take strikes should follow a good progression.

One day at Mikhail Ryabko’s class in Moscow one of his students brought a friend who was not a fighter at all. In fact, the man had no experience in any martial art or any sport, he was from the world of science and classical music. He wanted to know how to take strikes, but he was absolutely unprepared to have any contact with a fist. Despite his interest, he was completely unable to understand the principles of breathing and taking strikes. Even talking about punches made him panic.

To help this man understand, Mikhail demonstrated this fundamental drill.

  • In order to gradually reduce the fear, do not punch right away, but begin with pushes.
  • If you are the recipient of the push stand comfortably with your mouth slightly open to allow exhaled air to flow freely out though the mouth.
  • >Have your partner place his fist on your upper stomach and apply intermittent pushes in a pumping action without breaking contact with your stomach.
  • Allow the air to be expelled freely with each push though your mouth.
  • Once you got the feel for exhaling the extra pressure, just to sense the alternative, close your mouth and try to take the same kind of pushing. You will immediately realize how much less effective this is. The extra pressure now cannot exit and you will clearly feel the discomfort that builds up.

For another easy test, try to keep your mouth closed as you are just standing and doing nothing else, you will feel tension increasing inside. So imagine if you have tension to start with, then pushes cause more tension, strikes cause yet greater tension and hitting with an object or weapon would cause even more tension inside. This is the very thing we want to avoid, since as we know, unresolved tension leads to destruction.

Student: Can you explain what you mean by that.

Vladimir: If the impact of a strike enters a space enclosed by tension it has an accumulative power; it is explosive from inside. A strike that penetrates past the superficial muscle layers carries this force and destroys the internal organs and structures. That is why it is so important to make sure that the strike does not enter inside.

Student: During these drills is it better to exhale quietly or to make a sound?

Vladimir: You see, due to the everyday stresses, people arrive to class very tense. Their breath cycle has been constantly distorted and interrupted throughout the day. And they were not even aware of that. At the very least, what an instructor can do in class is to teach them to breathe. If breathing is audible, or obvious to the person himself, he will be more likely to remember that he is breathing, it will take less effort for him to concentrate on breath work rather than muscle work. Thus, it will be easier to reduce the tension.
For more description of Audible Breathing please refer to Let Every Breath…page 50.
Student: When I am comfortable with pushes and exhales can I begin taking punches?

Vladimir: We need to advance the skill by building a strong foundation. Continue working on the exhale phase of the breath cycle. Take light punches only. But now have them delivered to various body parts such as shoulders, arms, upper back. You can have your partner walk around you as he strikes. This drill will help you control tension in different body areas. Your goal here is to acquire an instinctive exhale to any contact.

When you have gained this automatic response of contact-exhale, then you can start on real punching. You may like to prepare by doing a few sharp inhales and exhales to prevent the fear from developing. As we discussed in the first part of our conversation, such dynamic breathing interrupts the fear-building process. Sharp breathing keeps you in control while at the same time fills your muscles with oxygen needed to match the physically active condition of your partner.

When you begin to practice taking punches, make sure you stand in a natural and straight body position, as described in Let Every Breath…, pages 51-54, at a comfortable distance to each other. At the very moment that your fist touches your partner’s stomach, he exhales sharply though the mouth. Then he immediately draws a short and sharp inhale though the nose with the mouth closed, ready to repeat the exhale at the point of next contact.

Punches can now get stronger than in the previous drills, but stronger for that recipient and his level of skill. Your primary goal is to teach your partner to breathe, so as you strike watch your partner vigilantly and make sure that your strikes do not make him tense.

In Systema, we call these short and sharp inhales though the nose and exhales through the mouth Burst Breathing. It is widely used in endurance exercises and in combat. More details in Let Every Breath… >pages 69-70 and throughout chapters 5 to 7. When training, the more discomfort and pain you get from a strike the more you accelerate and intensify your burst breaths. This way you do not allow the pain to penetrate. By doing Burst Breathing you can also stop the destructive feelings of self pity, anger and resentment from arising within yourself. In Russian, Burst Breathing is also called The Saving Breath. There are numerous instances where this type of breathing helped to prevail in a confrontation or saved a life. I heard about one such dramatic episode from Mikhail’s student in Moscow. This young man was in a horrible accident. The minivan with several people in it fell off a cliff and rolled down a steep and rocky hill. The minivan took one shattering bounce after another and each time this young man tried to group himself, move and roll, he kept doing Burst Breathing constantly. Tragically, all other passengers were killed in the crash. He was the only one that took Systema classes with Mikhail, and he says that it was Divine providence and breathing more than anything else that saved his life.

Student: Why does it have to be short breaths? It seems that slow deep breathing is a lot more relaxing.

Vladimir: If you do a big long exhale when you are punched, it will make you take a big inhale and that is when you drag the pain and all the unwanted emotions into yourself. Whereas if you only breathe with the top part of the lungs, the stomach muscles remain slightly contracted and in tone even after a punch, and the punch remains on the surface. This type of breathing allows you to take a series of punches and allows you to stay mobile in a fight.

Student: How many times should I hit my partner when we are practicing?

Vladimir: Your partner is not a punching bag, so quantity is not important. What is more important, do not hit until your partner is ready. Make sure that he has totally recovered himself from your punch, that his face, position and breathing clearly tell you that he is ready to go on. Only then do you continue and take turns.

Student: I noticed that when I am being punched, I sometimes close my eyes for a very brief moment. Why is that?

Vladimir: Many people do that, especially during sparring or real fight. Your fear of getting hit is bigger than your will to protect your body. You can not handle the tension of anticipating a punch and therefore avoid facing it.

You can deliberately make this an element to work on. It is important to watch and see when the strike comes at you so that you know exactly when to exhale. With more experience, you will be able to catch the right moment even with the eyes closed. Keep in mind that the perceptions of pain are different when the eyes are open and closed.

Student: Some strikes make me kind of disoriented for a moment. What can I do to control that?

Vladimir: The reason is that you begin to concentrate on the pain and other body sensations, you become too consumed with these and thus lose the control of your surroundings and become disoriented. During practice, it is useful to look at your partner, remain in visual contact with him. It does not even have to be him, you can maintain eye contact with another person in the gym. Burst Breathing will also help you restore your awareness much faster.

Student: Is it beneficial for an experienced martial artist to practice strikes with a non-experienced student?

Vladimir: I often ask more experienced students to work with newcomers. It is a great opportunity to check oneself, because the new person presents something unknown and unpredictable, a chance to control the tension of anticipation and adjust to a variety of punches.

Student: What kind of things can we do to accelerate our learning progress?

Vladimir: Make a habit of breathing properly all the time in class, during any exercise. No matter where and how you are training watch the tension as it appears from any contact or any effort and exhale it. Apply the same to your everyday life, do not let the stress, tension and negative feelings get in.

Student: Are there any words of caution in training to receive strikes?

Vladimir: It is important to proceed gradually, preparing your body physically and preparing yourself psychologically.

Systema also recognizes that the one who strikes transfers his internal condition to his partner. As the skill of striking improves, it becomes easier to transfer inner feelings to the recipient. This is a word of caution especially to those who teach. An instructor may not even recognize it himself but he may be trying to prove that he is not just an ordinary person… Sometimes we forget that we cannot be the strongest ones. The desire to be the strongest makes us the weakest. An ideal teacher is a calm and balanced person with no ego. His strikes would be safe to take.

The topic of Strikes will be covered in detail at the 3-Day Toronto seminar in May 2009.

To read this article in French visit:

This article was published on September 30, 2008.