Monday, March 09, 2009

Do breakfalls work in real life?

In the dojo we practice our throws -- and breakfalls -- on a 5 cm (2 inch) thick rubberized mat. But do they work in real life?

First, an illustration of what not to do:

Now, can we do better than that?  Will good breakfalling technique help?

Short answer

Long answer
When an untrained person tries to break their fall -- like the unfortunate young skater in the video -- (s)he often tries to extend an arm with the hand bent back.  While this is an effective strategy in low impact situations -- e.g. if you are sitting on the floor and lean too far in any direction -- it is disastrous in any significant fall.  The wrist bends back too far, and -- if you are really unlucky -- the resulting shock wave can travel up your arm and also snap your collar bone (not shown!).

I believe that most of us learn this "propping" reaction as babies first learn to sit, and they soon discover that propping is an effective method to help them keep seated.  It works, but it is not natural, and can be trained out.

Personally, I have used rolling, side, back and forward breakfalling techniques to save me while:
  • inline skating -- many times (both while learning and later on)
  • tripping over fences
  • coming over the handlebars of a bike
  • falling down stairs
  • slipping over while rushing for a train 
Sure, I am accident prone, but the worst that I have suffered from any of these mishaps has been the odd graze.  My training does not make me invincible -- far from it -- but it works much better than the usual disorganized "panic" response (shown above).

Other martial artists that I know have fallen down stairs, off ladders, off motor-bikes and been thrown from cars and survived without breakages.

So, yes, they work.

Breakfalling on concrete
While we usually practice on nice thick mats, I have been asked on occasion to perform a single standing side breakfall on concrete.  My arm stings for about half an hour, but it works.  

I recall reading once about a hapkido group who practiced their breakfalls on concrete all the time, and went on to develop arthritic spines.  True or not, we practice mostly on a padded surface with good reason.  So: Don't try this stunt except under qualified supervision.

Getting hit in the head
Finally, another scenario in which you need to get to the ground safely is when you are hit.  In reading newspaper reports of fatalities and brain-injuries from getting punched in the head, it is often the case that the majority of the damage is incurred when the victim hits his head on the (hard) ground or curb.  This was more-or-less what happened to former Australian cricketer and then Victorian state coach David Hookes.

So, while prevention is better than cure, reliable breakfalling is great insurance!


Michele said...

My sister-in-law was involved in karate for about a year. She had to give it up due to a hip injury.
Years after she stopped karate, she used a breakfall to prevent injury. She works at a daycare. She was standing on a small ledge reaching for something on a high shelf. She lost her balance and perfomed a rollfall.

Dan Prager said...

Hi Michele

Thanks for stopping by!

Your sister-in-law's story is an encouraging one, emphasizing that basic proficiency in breakfalling is a life-skill that stays with you, even with limited -- but effective -- training.

Anonymous said...

a friend of my taekwondo teacher is a black belt judo who works as car mechanic.

once he fall from hydrolic pump 2 metres above the ground to concrete floor. he just break that fall and came out un-injured.

i wonder what will happen to me if i were to fall like that... :(

Anonymous said...

I have been training judo for about 10 years and to be honest, I can not remember the last time I performed a break fall unless I was getting thrown through nage komi or via a demo. In competition or sparring, when i am thrown I never actually break the fall but just go down.

However, by breakfalling plenty of times through practise, I feel that I have become used to falling without hurting myself, and have also learnt to roll forwards sideways and backwards when tripping over or getting pushed etc. It is now a natural instinct. So yes breakfalling does work in real life, sometimes even if you do not actually break fall.