Ukemi: Fall Breaking Techniques

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Ukemi Waza

The common human response to falling is the most dangerous. Although most people instinctively protect their heads, they will reach out to catch themselves and break an arm or wrist. Apprehension causes them to tense their body when makes it more susceptible to injury and causes the forces of the fall to travel through the body to the brain causing dizziness or even unconsciousness.

Injuries from falls range from a bruise or sprain to a concussion or possible death. In a fall during a self-defense situation, one must prevent injury from the fall and protect oneself from further attack by regaining a defensive position as quickly as possible after the fall. Therefore, the ability to fall safely is an essential practice for anyone interested in learning any type of self-defense. Ukemi (literally receiving with or through the body) is the structured practice of learning to fall in response to a technique while minimizing or eliminating injury to one self.

To become accustomed to falling and protecting one self from injury requires actual experience at taking falls. Therefore, you must force yourself to fall in spite of what your instincts dictate. Structured ukemi practice provides the ideal platform for practicing falls and therefore makes it a mandatory component of the greater study of the fundamental techniques of old style karate.

Early endeavors at ukemi will most likely create many mental barriers as your desire to perform ukemi conflicts with a primal instinct to avoid falling. The result will be a high level of anxiety that will disrupt your ability to fall smoothly and confidently. Given a committed, disciplined effort, you will eventually conquer the fear of falling and reveal a whole new level of ability.

The Physics of Falling

The damaging effect of falling from the execution of nage waza (throwing techniques) is produced when you throw or sweep your opponent off their feet and they collide with the ground. During the decent the opponent gains speed because the body is subject to a downward acceleration due to gravity. As the velocity of a falling body increases, so does its momentum. The force generated by the collision between the body and the ground is transferred into the opponents’ body thus causing injury. The potential for greater damage is realized when the mass of the opponent is larger, velocity is higher and the contact area is small.

In order to employ these principles to eliminate or reduce the level of damage experienced by the fall, the practitioner’s ukemi would seek to reduce the velocity of the fall by rolling into or slapping the ground with their arm like a coil. In addition the practitioner would strive to increase the surface area in which the force could be absorbed.

Breathing During Ukemi

Beyond the necessity of supplying oxygen, breathing helps you focus energy, to stay calm and concentrate. During ukemi the body should be relaxed until the point of contact with the ground, at which time you expel air from the diaphragm (kiai) and tense the appropriate muscles to direct the force of the blow throughout the body and then relax again.

While performing ukemi, we must tighten different muscles depending on the type of fall. For back falls, it is very important to tighten the neck and front torso muscles so that our chin is pulled into our chest. This keeps the back of our head from hitting the ground.  We also tighten these muscles in the side falls to protect our head.  Likewise in a front fall, we tighten the neck and trapezius (upper back/neck) muscles to prevent our head from dropping forward and hitting the ground.

In rolling, we will not have one absolute point of contact with the ground but rather many points of brief contact. Therefore we keep our muscles more relaxed to facilitate a fluid completion of the roll. We do, however, continue to keep some tightness in our abdominal muscles.

Key Points

The three basic directions are forwards, backwards, and sideways. To begin, practice ukemi from a laying down or sitting or kneeling posture, ensui no kamae (squatting posture) and finally a shizen no kamae (standing posture). Once simple break-falling from different heights and positions has been mastered, other applications such as changing your direction, being pushed, and break-falling from a throw may be attempted.

Key points to remember when practicing ukemi:

  • Start from a low position and gradually work up to a standing position
  • Maintain the proper angle of the slapping arm(s) to the body.
  • Strike the mat hard with one of both arms – straight arm slap – palm down
  • Timing of hand slaps must coincide with main mass of your body striking the ground.
  • Curve your back
  • Roll when ever possible.
  • Keep hips off the ground
  • Tuck your chin to your chest so that your head does not hit the mat and tense neck on impact
  • Do not try to catch yourself by reaching out with your arms, but to take the impact of the fall on the meaty portions of the body.
  • Do not fall onto your elbows or knees (Keep unprotected bones from hitting the ground)
  • Stay relaxed to prevent injury.
  • Breath out on impact
  • Tense stomach on impact

The following are simple descriptions of ukemi techniques; however, one must not forget that the basics of learning ukemi require one to practice executing all types of ukemi with a flexible body, a sharp mind, and an accurate judgment of the situation.

Ukemi Waza

1. Ushiro no Ukemi – Back Breakfall

Back fall is most common type of fall. Back fall is used when being tripped and pushed backward. If a strong horizontal force is also used, such as being forcibly shoved backward, then the back-rolling fall should be used.

Sitting

  • Start learning the back fall by sitting on the ground with the legs together, knees bent, and feet flat on the ground with the arms in a guarding position, then:
  • Cross the arms in front of the chest with tight fists in a guarding position and tuck the chin down to the chest.
  • Curl the back into a half circle and roll the body backward.
  • As the upper back touches the mat, slap the mat with open palms with the arms at a 45-degree angle from the body and kiai. The palms of the hand should hit the ground a split second before the upper back hits the ground. Do not reach backward with the arms (may break the wrists). Do not keep arms to close to the body (ineffective). Do not extend arms too far out to the sides (ineffective and may sprain the shoulders).
  • Immediately snap the arms back in front of the chest in a guarding position to protect yourself from further attack.
  • Return to the sitting position.
  • Repeat until the movements become smooth and powerful.

Squatting

  • Now practice the same technique by falling backward from a squatting position. Begin by assuming a deep squat position with the arms in a guarding position, then:
  • Cross the arms at the chest with tight fists and roll backward with a kiai.
  • Follow the same steps as explained in the sitting position description.
  • Do not let the legs fly back over the head.
  • Return to the squatting position.
  • Repeat until the movements become smooth and powerful.

Standing

  • Next practice the same technique by starting from a standing position with the arms in a guarding position, then:
  • Squat and fall backward with a kiai, all in a smooth motion.
  • Follow the same steps as explained in the sitting position description.
  • As you roll backward quickly pull the knees inward toward the chest to absorb the rolling momentum and keep the legs from flying back the head.
  • Return to the standing position.
  • Repeat until the movements become smooth and powerful.

2. Yoko Ukemi – Side Breakfall

Side fall is next most common type of fall. Side fall is used when falling onto either side of the body. A side fall is similar to the back fall except one rolls onto one side rather than onto the back and then only slaps with the hand on that side.

Lying

  • ·         Begin the side fall by starting in what will become the final position of the fall:
  • Lie on the ground leaning toward the right side (at about a 45-degree angle).
  • Lay the right arm on the ground extended at a 45-degree angle palm down.
  • The left arm is held across the stomach in a guarding position. If thrown, this arm will be used to grab the opponent and pull upward an effort to alleviate some of the force of the fall.
  • Lay the right leg on the ground extended in line with the body with a slight bend in the knee and the outside of the foot flat on the ground.
  • Bend the left knee so the sole of the foot is flat on the ground near the mid-calf of the right leg.
  • Hold the head up and slightly turned toward the left shoulder.
  • This is the final landing position for the side fall. Now practice the slapping motion:
  • Lift the right and left legs about 12-inches while maintaining their position.
  • Simultaneously pull the right arm to the left shoulder with a tight fist.
  • Slap the legs back to the ground to their original position.
  • Simultaneously slap the right arm back down to its original position at a 45-degree angle to the side of the body palm down with a kiai. The slapping arm and the legs should strike the ground simultaneously.
  • Now practice getting into position and slapping while leaning to the left side. Everything is performed the same as on the right except everything is opposite.
  • Repeat movement on each side until the they become smooth and powerful.

Squatting

  • Now practice the same technique by falling to the side from a squatting position. Begin from a deep squatting position with the arms in a guarding position, then:
  • Cross the arms crossed at the chest with tight fists with the right arm on top.
  • Extend the right leg and roll and drop to the right side while slapping the right arm and leg into the final side fall position with a kiai.
  • Rise back to the squatting position and repeat the fall to the other side.
  • Repeat the falls on each side until the movements become smooth and powerful.

Standing

  • Next practice the same technique by starting from a standing position with the arms in a guarding position, then:
  • Squat and fall to the side with a kiai, all in a smooth motion.
  • Follow the same steps as explained in the squatting position description.
  • Return to the standing position.
  • Repeat until the movements become smooth and powerful.

3. Mae Umemi – Front Breakfall

Front fall is used when falling forward with no forward momentum. Being able to instinctively bring the hands up and turn the head may protect one from chipped teeth, broken nose, or bruised ribs.

Kneeling

  • Begin by kneeling on the ground with the heels under the buttocks, toes curled upward, and weight resting on the knees and the balls of the feet with the arms in a guarding position, then:
  • Raise the arms with the forearms perpendicular to the upper arms, hands held flat, and palms facing forward.
  • Turn the head to the side, slightly raise the head, and tense the neck muscles.
  • Fall straight forward with the upper body and slap the ground with the palms with a kiai. Do not reach forward with the arms so the elbows hit the ground (may injure elbows) or let the arms drop so they land in a push-up position (may injure wrists or shoulders). The hands should hit the ground on a horizontal line with the head. When the hands initially hit the ground, the elbows should be at a 45-degree angle to the hands (about 9 to 12 inches off the ground).
  • After the hands slap, the arm and shoulder muscles are used to absorb the forces of the fall and slowly lower the elbows to the ground.
  • Return to the kneeling position.
  • Repeat until the movements become smooth and powerful.

Squatting

  • Begin from a squatting position, then:
  • Raise the arms with the forearms perpendicular to the upper arms, hands held flat, and palms facing forward.
  • Turn the head to the side, slightly raise the head, and tense the neck muscles.
  • Fall straight forward, extend the body forward by straightening the legs and slap the ground with the palms with a kiai. Do not reach forward with the arms so the elbows hit the ground or let the arms drop so they land in a push-up position. The hands should hit the ground on a horizontal line with the head. When the hands initially hit the ground, the elbows should be at a 45-degree angle to the hands (about 9 to 12 inches off the ground).
  • After the hands slap, the arm and shoulder muscles are used to absorb the forces of the fall and slowly lower the elbows to the ground.
  • Simultaneously with the hand slap, the body is extended supported by the feet that are resting on the balls of the feet.
  • Tense the entire body so it is rigid and supported above the ground. The body is supported above the ground so it will not impact the ground or a piercing object on the ground. Many vital areas are located on the front of the body.
  • Return to the squatting position.
  • Repeat until the movements become smooth and powerful.

Standing

  • Begin from a standing position with feet together, then:
  • Bend at the waist and touch the toes with the fingertips of both arms.
  • Turn the head to the side, slightly raise the head, and tense the neck muscles.
  • Suddenly thrust the body forward and the legs backward while dropping straight down. In the final position, the waist will be just above the point where the feet were at originally.
  • Slap the ground with the palms with a kiai. Do not reach forward with the arms so the elbows hit the ground or let the arms drop so they land in a push-up position. The hands should hit the ground on a horizontal line with the head. When the hands initially hit the ground, the elbows should be at a 45-degree angle to the hands (about 9 to 12 inches off the ground).
  • After the hands slap, the arm and shoulder muscles are used to absorb the forces of the fall and slowly lower the elbows to the ground.
  • Simultaneously with the hand slap, the body is extended supported by the feet that are about 2-feet apart and resting on the balls of the feet.
  • Tense the entire body so it is rigid and supported above the ground. The body is supported above the ground so it will not impact the ground or a piercing object on the ground. Many vital areas are located on the front of the body.
  • Return to the standing position.
  • Repeat until the movements become smooth and powerful.

4. Front Rolling Fall

The front rolling fall is used when one is falling forward and has a lot of forward momentum. Protecting the head is vital during this fall.

Squatting

  • Start from a squatting position, with feet a shoulder width apart.
  • Take one step forward with the left foot.
  • Place right hand on the mat on the right side of the left foot, under the right shoulder.
  • Place knife-edge of left hand on the mat between the left foot and right hand with fingers of knife hand pointed back toward the body.
  • Turn head to the right looking over the right shoulder. If the head does not remain turned, but tucks into the chest, it may impact the floor.
  • Push forward with the right foot, rolling along the outside of the left arm, diagonally across the back, and finish in a right side fall position. Keep the body curled like a ball throughout the roll.
  • At the end of the roll, slap the mat with the right hand, kiai, and raise arms and legs to a guarding position.
  • Return to a squatting position.
  • Repeat with right leg forward, rolling into a left side fall.
  • Repeat until the movements become smooth and powerful.

Standing

  • Start from a standing position, with feet shoulder width apart.
  • Take one step forward with the left foot.
  • Place knife-edge of left hand on the mat between the left foot and right hand with fingers of knife hand pointed back toward the body.
  • Turn head to the right looking over the right shoulder. If the head does not remain turned, but tucks into the chest, it may impact the floor.
  • Push forward with the right foot, rolling along the outside of the left arm, diagonally across the back, and finish in a right side fall position. Keep the body curled like a ball throughout the roll.
  • At the end of the roll, slap the mat with the right hand, kiai, and raise arms and legs to a guarding position.
  • Return to a standing position.
  • Repeat with right leg forward, rolling into a left side fall.
  • Repeat until the movements become smooth and powerful.

Beginners usually throw themselves forward, landing heavily on the shoulder instead of rolling gently along an unbroken arc. They have not learned to maintain a sense of “center” around which the sphere of their body will roll. They leap forward with their upper body with the rest of the body trailing along. In a correct forward roll, the entire body moves at once as it revolves around the center of gravity like a wheel.

To avoid injury, contact must be maintained with the ground throughout the movement. Pain results from the impact of body surfaces with the ground. The greater the distance between a body surface and the ground, the greater the impact and the greater the pain. If there is no distance between them, there will be not impact and no pain. Your body must roll along, not “fall” onto the floor. Contact should be smoothly transferred from the shoulder to the back, the hip, thigh, and finally to the feet. There should be no interruption of the flow.

Ukemi Kata

As well as being able to perform ukemi independently, practitioner are also trained to fall in formation with one another. This is known as ukemi kata. The kata can be performed from kneeling or standing, and there is often a transition from kneeling to standing.

When the call for ukemi kata is made, the practitioner should make their way quickly (i.e. run) out into a neat formation facing the way the instructor requests, or by default facing the kamiza (is the Japanese language term referring to the “top seat” within a room, meaning the place of honor). The practitioner should line out either in a grid, or in a staggered pattern – whatever looks neatest.

For example:

X   X   X             X   X   X   X

X   X   X               X   X   X

X   X   X             X   X   X   X

The most senior grades should aim to stand at the front of the formation, and the practitioner should progressively decrease in grade as the formation sweeps back.

The instructor will give any supplementary instructions (e.g. for kneeling down), and before each breakfall is carried out the instructor will call out the fall to be performed. Only when the instructor calls out ‘break’ should the practitioner perform the fall. If a practitioner performs the fall out of time they run a high risk of hitting another practitioner (if they go early), or being hit by another practitioner (if they go late) – hence the skill.

Glossary:
Acceleration the rate at which the velocity of a moving object changes over time
Gravity the force that makes objects tend to move toward each other
Velocity the speed of a body moving in a certain direction.|
Momentum
Force a push or pull that causes a body to accelerate or change shape
Collision
Mass the amount of matter a body or object contains; a measure of the inertia of a body or object

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About The Author:
Anthony R. DiFilippo is the owner and director of the Ryukyu Kodokan Dojo/Silk Road Enterprises. He has been a student of the martial arts for over thirty years and holds Yudansha grades in Okinawan Shorin Ryu karate and Koryu Uchinadi Kenpo Jutsu and is the Africa Shibucho for the International Ryukyu Karate Research Society and Africa Region Style Head for Koryu Uchinadi Kenpo Jutsu, under the auspices of Hanshi Patrick McCarthy.