Part 2, Yoko Ukemi – Side Breakfall

A good demonstration of the Yoko Ukemi or Side Breakfall
A good demonstration of Yoko Ukemi, or Side Breakfall, at the Kodokan judo demonstration at the 2011 Club Championships at the MFA in Sint Anthonis Oelbroeck
Kodokan_demo_-_GvKempen.jpg © 2011, Gerrit van Kempen Permission to use under CC BY 3.0 NL
 The point of this article will be to go over the principles of the Yoko Ukemi or Side breakfall. 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.

Getting A Little Bit Sideways

In the previous article, I discussed how the Ushiro Ukemi is good for a foundation backfall. You build up your confidence and timing while learning the basic principles of the action of falling safely. You also do it repeatedly to make sure to continue practicing proper technique.

The Yoko Ukemi or Side Breakfall is the breakfall that most closely resembles how you end your fall when being thrown with a Judo technique. In the introduction article I said the object of judo is to throw your opponent, and part of the criteria is to maintain control throughout the throw. A lot of the time that control is as simple as not letting go of someone during a throw as they hit the ground. Based on the basic judo grip (to be addressed in a future article), that usually means controlling the Uke’s arm.

When you take a fall, chances are you will not be able to slap the tatami with both arms like you would during Ushiro Ukemi. If Tori is maintaining control, they probably have one of your arms in their grip. This means, you’ve got one free arm with which to disperse the energy as you fall to your side.

This is where Yoko Ukemi comes in.

The 4 Parts Of The Yoko Ukemi

1. Chin On Chest

Place your chin on your chest to keep your head from bouncing off the floor.

You may be thinking if Yoko Ukemi means Side Breakfall, chances are I’ll be falling on my side. My head isn’t going to hit the tatami. In most cases, you’d probably be right. You most likely won’t impact the tatami with the side of your skull during this action. You might though, especially if you hit more square on your back than your side. Also, if your neck isn’t restrained, you may very well give yourself a bit of whiplash as your body impacts the ground and your head continues with inertia towards the floor, snapping your head in a downward direction.

So, I tell my students to keep their chin tucked because it engages the neck muscles to keep your head from bouncing sideways.

2. Swing your arm and leg across your front

For you first timers- Start Yoko Ukemi from your knees. It doesn’t take long to realize that Yoko Ukemi looks more intimidating than it really is, but we’ll start there just to get use to the motion and action. You’re going to swing your arm on the side you are falling toward across your abdomen. Falling left? Swing the left arm to the right. Falling right? Swing the right arm to the left. At the same time, slide the leg on the same side as the swinging arm into the other leg. After that, go on to step 3. Once you got a good idea of what’s going on, you can start doing this from the standing position.

You more experienced folks (which is you after a few successful attempts from your knees)- Stand up. Whichever side you are falling to, left or right, the arm on that side swings across your abdomen and the leg on that same side swings in front of the other leg. You don’t want your leg to swing behind the other as you will trap your leg underneath you. More on why that is below.

3. Collapse to the side

Whichever side you are swinging your arm and leg on is the side you are falling toward. Think about that leg you just swung for a moment. If you trace an imaginary line along the outside contours starting with the foot of your swinging leg and up the body toward the shoulder of the swinging arm, you take the shape of the bottom of a rocking chair. This is how you’re going to fall; along your leg most likely starting at your hip, and onto your side. 

As you swing your arm and leg, bend the other leg at the knee at the same time, like you’re about to sit down using that one leg. Lean to the direction you are swinging your arm and leg from, and down you go.

A Word Of Caution: Your arm is crossed in front of your abdomen currently. Keep it there until your body impacts the ground so you don’t land on it, or use it to try to stop your fall.

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 whatever hits the ground first. That’s a lot of pounds per square inch of pressure (PSI) impacting your hand, and that impact has a chance of damaging not only your hand, but the shock wave of energy could travel through your wrist, up to your elbow and maybe even into your shoulder, damaging those locations as well.  

4. Slap the Tatami

By getting your hand to the tatami at the same time as you hit the ground with your side using a slapping motion, two things happen:

First, when you slap your hand down at the same time as your side hitting the tatami, you increase the area of the impact zone. More area hitting the ground means less PSI, reducing the chance of injury significantly.

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 as your side, the kinetic energy is dissipated. Just like the springs on a vehicle, they absorb the shock of the road, then throw that energy back down into the ground. If you didn’t have springs on your vehicle, every trip you took would be an very bumpy adventure indeed. In the same way, by absorbing the energy then sending it away, when you slap the tatami the kinetic 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 word. When you slap the mat, be sure to slap the mat close to your body. More on why below.

Common Issues With Yoko Ukemi

1. Hand, Wrist, Elbow, Shoulder

I touched on this above in part 4, so I’ll just do a quick highlight. If you try to stop your fall by putting your hands down rather than just taking the impact with your side, you risk injury to your hand, wrist, elbow and shoulder.

It’s the same situation if you try to stop your fall with your elbow, like you’re in a reclining position but sitting up on your side. I’ve seen many people use their elbow to stop their fall. Don’t do that either, for the same reasons as not using your hand.

2. Arm out instead of near the body

Keep your arm near your body while you do this breakfall. Slide the arm down your abdomen as you slap the tatami.

Remember, you are practicing this because you are learning how to fall because someone has thrown you. This means there’s a real good chance whoever threw you is going to be falling with you so they can keep control. If your arm is out, it may get trapped under your opponent, or just plain landed upon. That, and structurally, it changes the impact zone as to what will be taking all that impact energy, specifically your clavicle and scapula depending on how extreme your arm position is. So, keep your arm near your body.

3. Crumpling The Leg

This is another common issue. Usually, it happens right from the beginning of the breakfall. Instead of swinging your leg in front of the other, you swing it behind. Another way it happens is when you swing your leg, instead of going in front of the other, you pull your heel up to your butt as you are falling over, like a flamingo’s standing position. Only a very uncoordinated flamingo because you’re falling over.

However it happens, you end up on the ground with the swinging leg on the ground bent at the knee and tucked under the other, rather than outstretched with the other, or as I call it, crumpling.

If your leg is all crumpled up, and your partner/opponent is coming crashing down upon you, as is often the case, you are in a bad position. You may get crushed like a soda can if your body is in this position. You want your body extended out. This will increase your surface area, and lessen any potential damage you take when you impact of the floor as well as the impact from your Tori landing on you.

4. Swing One Way, Fall The Other

I’m not gonna lie, this one baffles me.

It’s like the student gets it all the way up to step 3 of how to do this breakfall. At that point there is some sort of disconnect. There is the direction you’re supposed to go and the direction you actually go. It usually ends up with the person swinging their arm and leg but turning and doing a bad front fall (see next Ukemi- Mae Ukemi, for how that’s supposed to work), or turning and doing a one handed back breakfall-usually with the opposite arm they were suppose to slap with.

I just…I don’t get it.

This is usually corrected by pointing in the direction they should have fallen after they’ve gotten up and ask what they did wrong because of that puzzled look on my face. Well, and practice of course.

What’s Next?

The Ushiro Ukemi and the Yoko Ukemi are the foundation for the next two breakfalls. The Mae Ukemi or Front Breakfall, and the Zenpo Kaiten Ukemi or Forward Roll Breakfall, are the more advanced of the 4. I’ll be addressing those in the next 2 parts. In the meantime, practice Ushiro Ukemi and Yoko Ukemi falls often, and be sure to have your Sensei or one of the more experienced students keep an eye on you while you do it, at least in the beginning. It doesn’t take long to get the hang of doing proper breakfalls, so a little coaching will go a long way.

Up next, Mae Ukemi – Front Breakfall

1. Ukemi Or Breakfalls- An Introduction

2. Ushiro Ukemi – Back Breakfall

3. Yoko Ukemi- Side Breakfall

4. Mae Ukemi – Front Breakfall

5. Zenpo Kaiten Ukemi – Forward Rolling Breakfall

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