How do we acquire beautiful breakfalls?
1. System & practice
In our system we are serious about breakfall practice. Rather than do calisthenics, running, etc. to warm-up, we do breakfalls! We spend at least 15 minutes practicing at the start of every class. Following the opening ceremony we almost invariably run through 12 standardized breakfalling exercises:
- 6 from a supine position with heads up, knees bent and feet flat on the floor: Slapping the mat; some with kicking; some with rolling side-to-side; some symmetric, some asymmetric
- 3 from the haunches: Side breakfalls, back breakfalls
- 3 from standing: Side breakfalls, back breakfalls
These core exercises are often supplemented with a selection of additional exercises: e.g. front breakfalls (from knees, haunches and standing), or a few partner-assisted breakfalling exercises.
Similarly, at the end of each class we go through many different kinds of rolls as a warm-down.
This practice is technically demanding, and develops not only the ability to breakfall, but also develops other attributes that are important to Judo and Jiu-jitsu:
- neck, abdominal and leg strength
- whole body movement and coordination
- lower body strength and flexibility
- bilateral symmetry of the musculature
- ability to withstand impact
Note: For the beginner, just learning to do the exercises properly is enough to keep interest high. After being a thrown a few times the importance of diligent practice at the start of each class becomes apparent! However, once you have achieved proficiency there is a danger of becoming blasé -- just going through the motions during the warm-ups -- so the challenge becomes to find new paths of development.
2. Make connections
Having internalized the movements, it is possible to visualize applications of the movements while practicing. Two good ones:
- Sacrifice throws
- Movements in groundwork: Escapes, transitions, etc.
As you do the exercises, what are the different parts of your body doing? Which muscles are tensing, and which are relaxing as you move? Where is the power coming from? How does your breathing play into your movement? With the asymmetric exercises, what are the differences in your execution of the left- and right-handed versions?
How does varying angles and patterns of use affect the amount of effort required, the smoothness of execution, and the loudness of your slaps?
In a more indirect vein I occasionally teach a short version of Feldenkrais's pelvic clock lesson, following it with a repetition of two supine breakfalling exercises that involve rolling as well as slapping. Among more experienced practitioners there is usually an immediate palpable improvement in execution. Interestingly, Aikido teacher and Feldenkrais trainer Leslie Wilder has made a similar connection.
There's no shortcut: For breakfalls to work they need to become second-nature, and there is no substitute for regular and intensive practice. By embracing breakfalling as foundational, it is possible to put this training time to additional use, and besides training beautiful and effective breakfalls, to develop many other elements besides.