Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Super-Efficient Learning: Part II

As discussed in Part I super-efficient learning is all about training in exercises that have multiple benefits, i.e. killing two -- or more -- birds with one stone.

The foundational exercises of many traditional martial arts are -- as I will demonstrate -- super-efficient, even if they have not been described in that way previously. (The term "super-efficient" is my own invention, so remember: you read it first here.)

Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo, selected his techniques from various Jiu-Jitsu schools that lived up to his dictum of "minimum effort, maximum effect". That's about efficiency at the level of the individual technique, so super-efficient learning can be thought of as extending the same principle into the realm of learning strategy. To summarise: "Learn the most efficient techniques, using the most efficient methods."

In this article I will describe the core break-falling exercises of Judo and Jiu-Jitsu, and discuss some of the many benefits of these outstanding exercises.

Throwing and Break-Falling in Judo and Jiu-Jitsu
Here is a very quick 30 second video showing several Judo throws.
In any martial art training that features regular training of throwing techniques, the participants will need to be able to fall confidently, reliably and -- above all -- safely. Safe throwing and falling is best achieved:
  1. Under the supervision and tutelage of an experienced instructor
  2. In a controlled environment where participants do not perform unpredictably, or beyond their level of competence
  3. Using appropriate equipment, such as a padded mat, which enables repetitive and comfortable practice.
In the method of teaching that I follow, which goes back to Minosuke Kawaishi, we skip conventional calisthenic warm-ups such as push-ups and sit-ups, in favour of a superior super-efficient option: Break-falling.
In our system, almost every class warms up with the standard break-falling exercises, and cools down with a fairly standard sequence of rolls. In this way, both warm ups and cool downs provide an opportunity to practice falling (and more falling), so that over time everyone's falling techniques become second-nature.
The Break-falling Exercises
The core set of break-falling exercises consists of two sets of 3 exercises performed on the back, plus 3 distinct exercises performed from a squatting position, repeated from a standing position.
The 1st exercise commences lying on your back with knees bent; head raised off the mat; hands crossed at the wrists above your chest. You slap the mat with your palms and forearms striking the mat (hard!), and then return the starting position. This is usually repeated about 40 times, with -- ideally -- the entire class synchronised. The two variations add alternating left- and right- kicks, and double kicks.

The second set of exercises consists of asymmetric variations on the first set, in which one hand slaps the mat while the other hand protects the face.

In the subsequent variations leg, hip, and body-movements are coordinated with the slaps. Here is the first variation:

The following exercises further develop falling to the ground and getting up safely, with and without break-falls, starting from squatting (example below) and standing (not shown).

As usual for this blog, the preceding descriptions and photos are intended to convey the flavour of this system of instruction, but not the detail. Please do not try to learn break-falling without qualified hands-on instruction.

Benefits of Break-Falling
Now, to qualify as super-efficient, the benefits of these exercises must be multiple. What are they? Without further ado, here is my off-the-top-of-my-head list, broken down into a few categories.

Preparation for the rest of the class
  • Warming up the entire body
  • Gentle stretching
  • Starting to follow the instructor and participate as part of the training group
Foundational Skills of Judo and Jiu-Jitsu
  • Learning techniques of safe falling
  • Learning how to get up smoothly from the ground
  • Developing the conditioning to be able to survive the impact of striking techniques, and falls on hard terrain
  • Learning to protect the face in combat
  • Basic distancing
  • Basic kicking and punching
More Advanced Aspects of Judo and Jiu-Jitsu
  • Practicing important movements for ground-fighting
  • Preparation for “sacrifice throws”
  • Developing whole-body movement
  • Developing “soft” strength
General Physical Benefits
  • Strengthening the whole body; especially the neck, triceps, abdominal “core” and legs
  • Improving overall coordination
  • Improving posture and balance
  • Improving body awareness and sensitivity
  • Improving bi-lateral symmetry of musculature and movement
General Health Benefits
  • Learning to blend effort with relaxation
  • Practicing basic meditation
  • Practicing the coordination of breathing with effort
  • Improving auditory awareness and rhythm
  • Developing the ability to rapidly recover from sustained and significant effort
Note: I am happy to clarify the individual points in response to posted comments.

The Challenge: Exploring Super-Efficient Learning

  1. For martial artists who practice break-falling: "What's your perspective? Does the list help? Can you find other benefits?"
  2. For non-break-falling martial artists: "Can you find the super-efficient exercises in your martial art?"
  3. For everyone: "Can you find a good example of super-efficiency outside of the martial arts?"
Further instalments
In Super-Efficient Learning: Part III, I intend -- plan is too strong a word -- to look into super-efficiency in the Chinese Martial Arts, Yoga, and possibly Software Development!


Anonymous said...

While breakfalling certainly is a very important if not foundational skill in jujutsu & judo and should be practiced each class I don’t agree you’ll be able to properly warm up and prepare all muscle groups with breakfalling alone. In my opinion you need to build your strength by means of basic calisthenics and as a jujutsuka it’s very important to build your abs since the body’s core is instrumental in all techniques, not to mention the fact you should be able to take a shot to the gut if need be. How are you going to achieve that without sit-ups & similar exercises? If you’re going to use kicks at all you need proper stretching and you’ll never get that with only breakfalls. Besides: don’t you get dizzy doing all those falls and rolls? If you do this every class doesn’t it get tedious after a while? Don’t get me wrong: there’s merit in your reasoning and I may use this method from time to time but I would never completely forego other exercises and methods and rely solely on this method of warm-up (or any other for that matter, I like to vary and keep it interested for the students).

As to your concept of efficiency: we use ground exercises like shrimping and bridging as part of our warm-up since this a) prepares the muscles and b) they’re basically the same methods you’re going to employ to get out of holds. We also do regular pad-work: this enables striking at full power, teaches proper distance when moving & it allows the feeder to occasionally throw a technique back to make sure your guard is up and you’re not flailing wildly. This is also part of the warm-up and general conditioning (going at it for a few rounds really works up a sweat) so it is killing multiple birds with one stone. How do you train striking & defense against strikes at your dojo? What style of striking do you employ?

Dan Prager said...

Excellent response - thanks.

Our systematic breakfalling incorporates some gentle dynamic stretching and kicking, as well as punching although it doesn't develop the kind of flexibility you would need to kick high (but we don't kick high). It does, however, warm-up every major muscle group.

Kicking from your back and keeping your head up during breakfalling from your back develops abdominal muscles very nicely. It's not dissimilar to Pilates (think of it as Pilates-lite) in this respect. Nothing wrong with sit-ups and crunches, per se, but they're not as functional as what we do. And you can do them at home to your hearts content without the need for mats or training partners.

We have some kicking and punching incorporated into some of our breakfalling drills from haunches and standing: breakfall, get up & vertical punch, is typical. For more intensive fist & foot practice we have separate classes in Hung Kuen chinese boxing, whose warm-ups are a bit more calisthenic, or qi gong-ish, depending on your perspective.

Calisthenics between classes, BTW, are a very good idea for general fitness, IMHO. Shrimping and bridging are excellent exercises; we sometimes do shrimping as a supplement (more rarely bridging), and if one looks closely there are shrimping aspects in our 5th breakfalling exercise.

On rare occasion we've done a set of Gracie warm-ups for variety (I really like their push-up variations), and I've seen some fairly macho Hapkido warm-ups incorporating calisthenics, and both have much to recommend them. As with all things, it's a trade-off, and it's worth exploring alternatives (and giving them a reasonable trial) before making a call.

I really need to put up some video of our warm-ups and cool-downs at some stage. In summary, we offer a distinctive approach to warming up with an unusually thorough set of breakfalling exercises.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the explanation, I'll try your method sometime. It would be a good idea to put up a video.