Knowing how to do a back breakfall instinctively, without thinking about it, keeps you from cracking your head open as your body hits the concrete. This is a quite a common injury in real street fights, and has resulted in many deaths and criminal charges of manslaughter or worse.
Since you learn Judo, Aikido, Hapkido or Jujitsu by throwing your partner and being thrown in turn by him, you have to learn right from the start how to break your fall safely, because you will be thrown many, many times while training. And at senior levels, as you get closer to Black Belt skill level, you can expect to throw and be thrown yourself scores – or even hundreds – of times during training sessions that could last from one to two hours.
And when you are skilled enough to be chosen as someone’s Uke (that’s the attacker who gets thrown all over the place) for a demonstration or a competition you are expected to take some hard falls without getting hurt. So you had better be darned good at tumbling.
So martial arts breakfalls will get you fit alright.
It is like you are doing weight-lifting, over and over again. But it is the weight of your own body that you have to keep picking up each time you rise to your feet after being thrown.
How much did you say you weigh? 😉
The most basic of all breakfalls used in Jujitsu, Judo and Aikido is the back breakfall. You start to learn this one at first from lying down on your back, on the training mats or on the ground.
As your skills improve, you graduate to sitting and then squatting breakfalls. Then you learn to do them from standing at your full height… and when you get good at them, you will be able to handle being hurled at speed and with full power by your training partners.
You learn to keep your head from smashing into the ground as you land, and you learn how not to place your arms and hands.
The way an untrained person tries to break their fall – by placing their straight arms out behind their back and between them and the ground as they loose their balance and fall down – almost guarantees that they will break their arms, one or both clavicles (the collar bones) and possibly their coccyx (or tail-bone) as well.
Uninitiated onlookers who are watching an Aikido, Hapkido, Judo or Jujitsu training session think that the guy flying through the air is being thrown… as if Tori* that’s the person doing the ‘throw’ is tough and strong. But it’s not a matter of superhuman strength, it comes from timing and feeling for and understanding your opponent / partner’s balance – and how to break that balance.
And it’s true, some of the so-called ‘throws’ wouldn’t actually throw many real-life attackers, like out on the street. What they would do is cripple the guy. The Uke jumps over his own arm from, say, a Kotegaeshi wrist throw because he knows only too well what will happen to his arm if he is too slow taking that breakfall. So he does this flying somersault and his body goes thump on the ground; but what he has actually done is avoid a serious injury from a potentially dangerous martial arts technique.
Think about it. What hurts you more … a punch in the head or having your arm broken in two places?
That’s why we learn to breakfall.
* Note: Tori, the defender who executes the throw is called Nage in traditional Aikido styles.