Ukemi: A Fundamental Technique for Judo Beginners
Learning how to break one’s fall (ukemi) as a reflective motion is one of the most important judo techniques for beginners
Learning and practicing the proper ways to break falls (ukemi) is important to prevent injuries. Ukemi should be regularly practiced by judo practitioners at all levels, developing the ability to apply the techniques as part of an instinctive movement, based on muscle memory.
Most training centers focus on developing the technical skills necessary to perform standing judo throws (nage waza), which creates the need for all judokas to become highly proficient in breakfalls. Ukemi is a set of fundamental techniques to be practiced before moving on to more advanced ones.
In most cases, performing breakfalls under different scenarios are the first judo techniques to be learned by judo beginners. Practicing falls in circumstances when we control them provides a more enjoyable and safer way than when being thrown by a partner when sparring, which usually happens fast, and without much anticipation or control.
Breakfalls can happen intentionally or unintentionally. When practicing standing judo techniques with a partner, the goal is for the individuals to take turns executing judo throws on the other. Every time that happens, applying ukemi correctly is crucial for the thrown partner to land safely.
Breakfalls can be practiced in four directions: backward (ushiro ukemi), forward (mae ukemi), and to the right or left side (yoko ukemi). Breakfalls are also practiced as forward rolling breakfalls (zempo kaiten ukemi or mae mawari ukemi). Forward rolling breakfalls will either end in the individual staying down or continuing into a standing position. Watching videos of ukemi techniques can help novice judoka get a better sense of their purpose and usage considerations.
Breakfall techniques should be practiced at the beginning of every judo class so that they become part of the subconscious response of the body when it becomes the subject of a throw. They should be practiced on both left and right sides, and at different speeds.
Developing adequate ukemi skills will require a very large number of repetitions, so a recommended practice is to spend additional time on these technique beyond that offered during regular judo classes. This can be done by arriving early to the class and proceeding to practice ukemi, after conducting the regular warm up exercises, or by staying extra time after class.
When the feet of someone being thrown end up in a position that is higher than their heads, it may be confusing to know which arm to use, where to direct the mitigating breakfall action, and to time it appropriately to mitigate the fall. However, with regular practice, breakfall techniques become increasingly instinctive, accurate, and reliable.
This and other related topics are further explained in the book “Judo: An Introductory Guide for Beginners.”
The following video illustrates the practical application of rolling judo breakfalls (Zenpo Kaiten):