Can martial arts really teach me to fall safely?
April 9, 2008 9:59 AM   Subscribe

Can martial arts practice really help one overcome the instinct to break a fall by putting out one's hand? And if so, what form of martial arts teaches this most effectively?

A year ago I slipped on ice, put out my hand to break my fall, and broke my wrist. Last week I tripped and fell, did the same damn thing, but this time was on soft turf instead of pavement, and thus I only sprained my wrist. In each case, I knew perfectly well that one ought not to break a fall by landing on one's hand, but that awareness was not enough to override instinct.

Several people have told me I should practice some form of martial arts to learn to fall safely, so that it becomes second nature. I am interested in pursuing this, but am wondering if it is really possible to get safe-falling habits so deeply ingrained that they would kick in wholly out of the context of martial-arts practice (e.g., while strolling down the sidewalk, preoccupied, listening to headphones, and WHAMMO hitting a patch of ice).

If I were to pursue this, any recommendations as to which type would be most effective? (Judo, jiu-jitsu, aikido have been most frequently mentioned.) Note: I am very aware that there are many other things to be gained from martial arts practice, and many pros/cons to each form, but right now I'm curious about this specific aspect.
posted by Kat Allison to Health & Fitness (23 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I was taught how to fall pretty early on when I started taking Kenpo. Our sensei made sure we had learned something by kicking our legs out form under us. It worked! I always slap out when I fall on my back.
posted by mkb at 10:02 AM on April 9, 2008

Best answer: Yes, and anything involving throws (like the three you mention) is pretty much guaranteed to emphasize training in how to fall.

get safe-falling habits so deeply ingrained that they would kick in wholly out of the context of martial-arts practice

Get good habits into your muscle memory and there won't be martial-arts practice context and not martial-arts practice context.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 10:09 AM on April 9, 2008

Best answer: Yes. Ju-jitsu helped me immensely in this manner. I am diagnosed with spastic cerebral palsy (hemiplegia), which predisposes me to falling more often than most folks due to poor balance. To put things into perspective, I can't walk in a straight line or balance my weight on my affected side of my body (like standing on one foot). I took a ju-jitsu class and spent hours learning how to fall properly. My injuries have gone downhill dramatically.

My now ex-boyfriend who is a 2nd degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do has seen me fall and described my movements as mimicking martial arts techniques.
posted by carabiner at 10:11 AM on April 9, 2008

Best answer: Both jujitsu and aikido teach you how to fall down properly. Aikido has a few ways to fall down; in jujistu I leared about 15 ways to fall down. For it to be ingrained in you just means practice, practice, practice.

That being said, if you're nervous about falling, it's going to make it harder to fall properly, even if you've learned the techniques. As important as finding the right style will be finding the right kind of environment in which to learn that style. Go talk to some senseis and explain your problem. If they're any good, they'll be able to advise what might be best.
posted by LN at 10:12 AM on April 9, 2008

Best answer: Martial arts will help, but so will a basic gymnastics / tumbling class. Moreover, once you have the basic shoulder roll, which can be taught in a few minutes, it's going to be 99 percent about repetition in a safe environment more than any more specialized super-secret ninja training.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:14 AM on April 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A good judo or BJJ school will do the trick. Judo more so because it is much more focused on throws. That will be about as good as it gets for learning to breakfall, outside wrestling through high school and college. Either way, you'll have all kinds of fun learning everything else. Go get em.
posted by crunch buttsteak at 10:15 AM on April 9, 2008

Best answer: Thirding Judo -- you will not only learn to fall, if you randori, you will be falling unexpectedly, which should help for your other unexpected falls.
posted by Comrade_robot at 10:17 AM on April 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: To yammer on a bit, if you ask a group of martial artists if they've ever really had to use their training, you'll probably hear "Yes, I had what could have been a really nasty fall, and landed perfectly."

After a year of aikido and then something like 2.5 years of jujitsu, I was playing frisbee catch in a parking lot at night. My friend's throw had gone long, and I was running full tilt to catch it. I didn't see the curb in front of me, and tripped on it at full speed.

Next thing I knew, I was prone on the cement, having caught myself on both forearms in a perfect front-fall. I was unharmed and kept playing.

(And I was the classic uncoordinated nerd as a kid -- I began my martial arts training without any practice or skill at kinesthetic tasks.)
posted by Zed_Lopez at 10:20 AM on April 9, 2008

An hour practicing Aikido consists approximately of 45 minutes of repeated falling.
posted by nicolin at 10:30 AM on April 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

nthing Aikido.
posted by spec80 at 10:31 AM on April 9, 2008

Best answer: Aikido guy here, adding to the aikido pile. But will preface this with one caveat. You will need to practice a lot for falls to be "second nature". Like 5-7 times a week for a couple years, in my opinion.

My anecdote: Came into work one winter day carrying briefcase in one hand, coffee in the other. Hit a patch of ice, legs came out from under me. I let the briefcase go, came down on my side, slapped with free hand, coffee hand held aloft (minimal spillage), no injuries.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 10:48 AM on April 9, 2008

Best answer: Comrade_robot's comments about judo teaching you to handle unexpected falls is on the money. Judo sparring is done with full resistance from your partner and completely unrehearsed, so you'll develop the ability to use breakfalls even when you're surprised by a fall.

Someone I do judo with is an avid cyclist, and he once went over his handlebars. He instinctively went into a "judo roll," slapped the asphalt, and ended up with just scratches.
posted by ignignokt at 11:08 AM on April 9, 2008

What about building strength in your hands / wrists / forearms so that if you do fall again, you will be less likely to get injured? Deadlifts are one of the best exercises for such strength.
posted by tiburon at 11:27 AM on April 9, 2008

Playing volleyball for six years has ingrained the front shoulder roll to the point where I can do it drunk in the middle of the street. Which I have, alas, proven conclusively.
posted by restless_nomad at 11:58 AM on April 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

my experience is, when i learn how to use my body in a certain way, i do so - even when out of context. go for it!
posted by entropone at 12:30 PM on April 9, 2008

Best answer: Another martial artist here. I've had a number of unexpected falls where I avoided getting hurt thanks to my training. I didn't always demonstrate the most beautiful and correct form when taking those surprise spills, but I did manage to keep from getting damaged.

Arts that will teach you how to fall correctly: judo, jujutsu, aikido, ninpo taijutsu - pretty much any art where you spend a lot of class time being thrown around.
posted by tdismukes at 12:36 PM on April 9, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone! I went kind of nuts with the "Best Answer"-ing here, I realize, but I'm grateful for all the sharing of experiences and opinions. I think I'm leaning toward aikido, just because I find it philosophically appealing, but a lot will depend on what instructors I can find in my area. (Oh, and tiburon, I'm in total agreement about the need to improve strength--one of the most frustrating things about the recent accident was that I'd just started on a good strenuous program of strength training, with lots of fundamental compound moves like deadlifts and pushups, and now I have to wait and relaunch slowly and carefully, drat it.)
posted by Kat Allison at 12:50 PM on April 9, 2008

Best answer: Aikido, jujitsu, hapkido, aikijujutsu. Also, general (core) strength with light flexibility training.

On a side note, standing on one leg with your eyes closed for, say, twenty seconds wakes up your proprioceptive and vestibular system, and is a great thing to do before any athletic activity.
posted by zeek321 at 12:57 PM on April 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Actually, yesterday, I took my bike out for my first ride of the year. Naturally, being an idiot, I didn't check the tire pressure nor the layer of gravel at the end of my driveway. So, I ride all of 15 feet, make a sharp-ish turn, and feel the bike slip out from under me.

This resulted in a clean, though somewhat somersault-ish roll without injury. If I hadn't rolled, my hands would have taken the brunt of the fall by scraping four feet across the gravel.

I have to thank eight years of rolling around in various Japanese martial arts for avoiding cut up hands. I think my old Japanese jujitsu dojo helped the most.

Along those lines, if you do pursue one of these martial arts, pay attention to how they teach rolling. My current schools aren't as rigorous in teaching ukemi as my original school was, so I think a lot of the students around me now have somewhat crappy ukemi (falling technique).

Also, note that a particular martial art will teach their ukemi in a way optimized to how they practice. For example, I feel that a lot of judo ukemi is better for landing on mats than on concrete (the arm slap on rolls), a lot of the aikido I'm seeing right now is better for relatively soft throws where the person doing the throw isn't really trying to blast his partner into the ground and the throwee therefore has a chance to roll out, etc.
posted by chengjih at 2:00 PM on April 9, 2008

Judo! Some places will have you practice breakfalls by jumping over other people, doing other cool looking stuff like that. I'd recommend Judo over all other martial arts; the focus of Judo is throwing someone else on their back. The one caveat is that at high levels, people do all manner of crazy (somewhat dangerous) stuff to avoid being thrown on their back, since landing on their back means they will lose. Avoid that instinct, and you'll be fine.

Also, look into gymnastics and parkour. In parkour, people spend a lot of time jumping gaps, and taking drops, so you learn to fall/land softly. Gymnastics is great, as it exposes you to being upside down and in other odd positions; when you find yourself in those positions, you're less likely to spaz out, and thus more likely to land safely.
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 3:50 PM on April 9, 2008

My chinese kung-fu taught me how to fall, as well.
posted by Camel of Space at 4:43 PM on April 9, 2008

I'll give the same advice I give anyone who wants to study a martial art (for any reason). The art isn't as important as the school and the instructor. You need to find a MA school that you will be able to attend reasonably often (distance-wise and class-time-wise) and that feels like the place you want to be. Go to a few dojos and watch classes. Get a feel for each place. Go back again. You'll just kind of know where you belong. It will take you a month to visit just the aikido schools in Seattle! (I've practiced aikido for 18 years and have never had to do a roll on the street, thank heavens, but I'm pretty sure it's ingrained by now.)
posted by Joleta at 10:14 PM on April 9, 2008

Best answer: the focus of Judo is throwing someone else on their back

Actually, no. That's the focus of the Olympic sport of Judo. The focus of the original art (Judo essentially translates as "the gentle way") is the ability to defend one's self without raising a fist or foot in a manner that appears to be a fighting form. This came from a time where the plebes were forbidden to outrightly fight the ruling class, and could be killed for attempting to do so, thus they developed a defense mechanism that didn't outrightly appear to be fighting.

In actuality, the end focus of Judo is to land a person, with their whole body weight and momentum behind them, on the top of their back, at the neck, or directly on their head. To maim or to kill.

That's why I'd recommend Judo as the best of all the above recommendations, because the very first thing you have to learn - and the thing you will in fact practice the most, in any good Judo school, is how to fall extremely carefully. You have to learn this so that you don't get hurt as you progress through learning each new and more complex level of throwing. You'll start out with simple side-falls and back-falls that you won't come to appreciate the intricacies of for possibly years after (when they've become muscle memory). Then you'll start learning the rolling-falls and front-falls. Once you're very good at those, it will be time to begin learning combinations of those with the added complexity of flying rather far through the air before contacting the ground.

I was in similar shoes to yourself - I've broken both of my wrists twice, mine were all sports injuries (namely skateboarding and snowboarding). Then I spent a few years studying Judo. I still do all kinds of crazy sports, and although I wear wrist-guards more frequently now, I've never hit the ground in a way that would have broken anything, since my years in a do jong.
posted by allkindsoftime at 12:27 AM on April 10, 2008

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