The point of this article will be to go over the principles of Ushiro Ukemi or Back Breakfalls. This article is not necessarily a “how to” guide, but I’ll do my best to not leave out anything important. Having said that, like most everything in martial arts, learning is very hands on. Your Sensei and your fellow Judoka will be there to help you along with pointers and to help you with your form and use of proper technique.
Falling Hard – Your First Judo Lesson
For many of you, Ushiro Ukemi, or Back Breakfall will be where your Judo lessons begin. In my opinion, this is the best breakfall for beginners.
Ushiro Ukemi is a great backfall to learn for beginners. For the most part, you will most likely not be taking this breakfall because of a throw action, although it does happen. Ushiro Ukemi is the best breakfall to get you use to the idea that you can take a fall, not get hurt and even get up and fall again. Once you’ve done this one a few times, the only thing that will be holding you back is your stamina. It takes a lot of energy to fall over and get back up over and over again, after all.
The 4 Parts of the Ushiro Ukemi
1. Chin On Chest
Pretty much anytime you fall down, there is a risk of injury to something. The one part of your body you want to minimize all the risk to is your brain and neck. As you fall back, you need to keep the back of your head from bouncing off the tatami so as to not cause injury. To do this, put your chin on your chest and keep it there throughout the entire breakfall procedure. You may also hear this action called tucking your chin.
2. Arms To The Front
As you fall back, you’re going to want to slow or even stop your fall. After all, you learned early on in your life falling can hurt. As an automatic response, you’re going to put your hand or hands down to stop the hurt from happening.
Don’t do that.
When you fall, whatever body part hits the ground is the one that takes the impact. For example, if you put your hand down to stop the impact, your weight, the momentum of the fall, plus in the case of a throw, the power and weight of the person throwing you, all land in an area about the size of…well, the size of your hand. That’s a lot of pounds per square inch of pressure (PSI) impacting onto your hand, and that impact has a chance of damaging not only your hand, but the shock wave of energy could travel up to your elbow and maybe even into your shoulder, damaging those locations as well.
How to minimize and disperse this energy properly will be addressed in point 4 below. In the meantime, you need to keep your hands from impacting the ground before your back does. I usually teach beginners to cross their arms on their chest. I have seen Senseis have their students keep their arms straight out in front of them. Either way, the principle is still the same- Keep your hands in a position that helps prevent you from using them to slow or stop your fall.
3. Squat and rock back
In the beginning, start your Ushiro Ukemi by squatting down then rocking backward onto the mat with your back. Think of your back as the bottom of a rocking chair. Instead of impacting square on the floor, rock back to disperse the fall’s energy. Once you’ve taken a few falls this way and have built up your confidence, you can start taking your Ushiro Ukemi from a more upright position.
4. Slap the Tatami
Who’s ready for a physics lesson?
Yeah, me neither. However there is sound physics behind what I am about to tell you.
When you slap the tatami, you both disperse energy as well as increase the impact zone, thereby reducing the chance of injury.
By getting your hands to the tatami at the same time as you hit the ground with your back using a slapping motion, two things happen-
First, you increase the impact zone on your body. Remember earlier when I said don’t put your hands down to stop your fall because PSI and such? By hitting your hands down at the same time as your back hitting the tatami, instead of the small area of your back (or hands) being the only area impacting the ground, you increase the area of the impact zone to your back, both arms and your hands. More surface area means less PSI.
Second, by slapping the tatami the energy of the impact disperses out and away from you rather than getting absorbed by you. By slapping the tatami simultaneously with your back, the kinetic energy is dissipated. Just like the springs on a vehicle absorb the shock of the road, if you didn’t have them every trip you took would be an very bumpy adventure indeed. By absorbing the energy then sending it away, like those springs on your car, when you slap the tatami the energy and therefore risk of injury is taken out and away from your body, instead of your body absorbing all the impact energy.
A Final Thought
Before I move off of the topic of slapping the tatami, I want to talk a little bit about arm placement. You’ll want to slap the tatami near your body. Don’t stick your arms out, but rather have them out from your torso no more than a few hand lengths away from your waist. You’ll do this pretty much automatically once you become accustomed to doing this breakfall, so don’t sweat the distance too much, just understand you don’t want your arms straight out, slapping the tatami somewhere around shoulder level. I discuss why in the next section.
Common Issues With Ushiro Ukemi
Here are the most common issues I’ve found beginning Judoka have when they are unfamiliar with doing Ushiro Ukemi properly.
1. Hand wrist elbow shoulder
I touched on this a bit earlier when I wrote about not putting your hand down to slow or stop your fall. So, I’ll be brief. If you try to stop your fall by putting your hands down rather than just taking the impact with your back, you risk injury to your hand, wrist, elbow and shoulder.
I also touched on this part earlier when I wrote about arm and hand placement. How you place your arm as you impact the tatami can make minor changes to your skeletal structure. If you slap the tatami as instructed, your scapula (shoulder blade) will be nice and flat, as it lays in a natural position. You stick your arms straight out, the position changes, tensing on the shoulders. In turn the chance of injury increases. Not a lot, but enough that since you are in control of the situation, it’s best to work proper form.
2. Banging your head
And not in a 80’s Hair Band kind of way either. Not to sound like a broken record, no pun intended, but even though the first thing I say in part 1 of The 4 Parts of Ushiro Ukemi is to put your chin on your chest, this issue still happens. Please, make sure to tuck your chin so you don’t impact the tatami with the back of your head. Your brain and neck will thank you for it.
3. Diaper changing
My original Sensei, Greg loved to use this metaphor, especially during the kids class. You do your Ushiro Ukemi, and while you rock back, you continue with the momentum and swing your legs way back over your head.
The problem with that is, you spend all this time learning how to do these breakfalls with the idea that you want to increase the area of impact, lowering the overall chance of damage. Swinging your legs up will negate all that work. Instead of a large area over your back and down your arms, you make the area of impact smaller again because of the position you are now taking. You also increase the PSI on the area by adding your weight directly to the impact zone. Yes, you legs are going to swing back. Just don’t add to the action by throwing your legs up and back over your head.
Like when you change a baby’s diaper.
Next, we learn Yoko Ukemi – Side Breakfall