Silence and Sound, The Dichotomy of Break-falls
Posted Tue Jun 21, 2011 09:27 AM
It has often been my observation, especially on the internet that instructors will argue viciously and with close minded abandon about what break-falls should and should not be, that being said I am not a person who has not argued this myself in the past.
The largest issue that comes up is whether or not break-falls should be silent, whether the best break-falls is the noisiest or the quietest. This is a bit of an odd argument, because while it skirts the edges of the main point, it completely avoids the actual principles and ideas of break-falls.
This is the dichotomy of break-falls, the two sides of a single coin, and the idea that these two coin sides fight each other is so ridiculous that it leaves me wondering if some modern martial artists, and indeed instructors have never bothered to learn the founding principles and the basic physics of a break-fall.
Sound or Silence, the dichotomy drags at people, because the two concepts are so completely opposite and yet easily understood that when someone is talking about the kind of break-fall whose virtues they expound, the silence or sound of the break-fall is the easiest thing to grab on to and wave in the other persons face.
So where does this two sided approach to break-falls come from, the division in some dojos and even some styles between the silent break-fall and the loud break-fall. Well in essence it comes from the lack of training time, allot of dojos do not allocate enough time to break-falls to thoroughly cover the entire length of break-falls. The two styles of break-fall are so completely different and need to be learnt and practised separately most instructors and groups choose to focus on a single style, focusing on one form of break-fall and hoping it’s enough.
Silence and Sound,
The difference between a loud and quiet break fall is the difference between an uke and a dome, between a deflection and a block, between stopping a grab or using that grab to control your own grapple.
For those who have studied or at least understand physics, the two issues at stake are vectored force, and force absorption/impact.
The silent break-fall relies upon the idea of vectoring; this kind of break-fall is mainly suitable for falls that are not entirely vertical. Some vertical falls especially falls that can be redirected by strong limbs such as the legs can use the “silent” break-fall as a way to deal with the energy.
In truth this kind of break-fall can also make noise, but in general the smoother and less noisy this break-fall the greater skill, more efficiency and less damage that occurs.
When we fall we gain energy, a kind of momentum, this energy is traveling in pretty much any direction at the start of our fall, but as we fall gravity curves our travel towards the ground, by introducing an extra force and curling up our bodies we vector our momentum so that it is traveling nearly parallel to the ground, we curl and roll because this allows us to continue the movement and progressively drain the momentum, absorbing energy into the motion of the roll and even using excess energy to return to our feet.
This is true with a forward, sideways, back, jumping, no handed, arched, coiling or any rolling break-fall done with the correct form and action.
Now why is this not the be all and end all of break-falls, it is certainly the most commonly taught kind of break-fall. Common to aikido, judo, parkour, free running and a dozen other arts it is popular because it is dynamic, helps students reach their feet, and protects and dissipates the energy of a fall efficiently and effectively.
The problem with this kind of break-fall, as anyone who understand vectors will be able to visualise, the more vertical the fall is, the more energy needs to be imparted at an angle to change the vector, enough to make it parallel with the floor, and the faster the fall, the more energy needs to be imparted.
This is why for straight vertical falls using the large muscles in the legs and imparting force across the length of the legs compression helps to make this sort of roll effective.
There is a second problem, break-falls used in combat aren’t always as clean as break-falls in practise. Often times a rolling break-fall, or vectoring, or silent, or uke break-fall whatever you want to call it, is not possible because in a fight we are being thrown or dropped, our arms or limbs are being controlled for us and falling with a roll, vectoring and using the energy is impossible. This is when we have to use and can benefit greatly from the second half of our dichotomy…
In a sounding break-fall we rely upon the idea of impact absorption, put in its simplest impact is foot lbs per second, per second, per square inch or if you prefer, kilogram meters per second, per second per square meter.
Basically, the bigger the area and the slower the impact the less damage, or the smaller the area and faster the impact the more damage. In the real world outside of mathematics and the lab it isn’t quite as simple as different substances and structures react differently, but in general these rules apply and even if the rules are tweaked by how a human being is made up of bones, muscle and tissues, the basic principle is as sound as ever.
The principle of this break-fall is simple, we line ourselves up swiftly with the floor, and we absorb the force of the impact onto parts of the body that can take it. When falling backwards vertical force is absorbed through the shoulders and ribs, and is kept away from the spine, it is also absorbed into the arms which should strike the floor a split second before the body does helping to take away from the impact.
Just as with our silence or vectoring break-falls, this break-fall has those situations when it works better, and those include completely vertical drops where the legs are not under the body, drops that have little none vertical momentum, and drops or body slams were we are restrained and can’t roll.
The problem with this kind of break-fall is simple, we are still absorbing the force involved in the fall, fine we are distributing it properly and protecting those parts of our body that are sensitive to impact, but there is still no escaping the fact that all the force of the fall is being taken into our bodies, compression, distressing, distortion, movement, sound and heat energy is all created from the movement energy of our fall.
This issue of the force being absorbed means that these break-falls will only reduce injuries received when we reach a level of force too great for the major parts of our body to absorb, unlike a rolling break-fall that can absorb any level of force as long as it can be vectored away from the ground, and allows you to even come to your feet running if enough force is imparted, a sounding or stopping break-fall beyond a certain force of throw or fall will still result in injuries and the more force the more injuries.
Another issue with sounding or stopping break-falls is that they require more skill to practise and are less enjoyable to practise. While someone practising rolling break-falls may experience pain in the first few hundred and this pain will diminish as skill is gained, stopping break-falls will always hurt because you are taking that force into your body. When doing a stopping break-fall you also have to line up the body with the ground, the major body parts striking the ground first and protecting the weaker body parts, this in itself can be a challenge, but when you have limited time and must land on the ground completely relaxed so connective tissue can flex and allow greater no-injury absorption of force, practising and learning to instinctively use this kind of break-fall is a challenge.
Principles in practise
To see these principles in practise is quite easy really, you can examine them yourselves using a rounded focus mit or a circular disc of foam. You can use a ball and plank of wood but I like the circular disc of foam for showing these principles as it shows off all the principles in one object. A firm foam disc works best.
Firstly sounding break-falls;
Drop the foam on its edge vertically down, just hold it up and drop it, you’ll see that when it hits the floor if the foam is firm it will bounce quite high.
Next drop it flat side down, you’ll not that it bounces not nearly as high.
Because the foam can compress and release energy efficiently and has no flexing bones and muscles inside it, the energy of the fall is converted into stored compressive energy and that launches the foam upward again. The smaller bounce when falling flat is because there is less stored energy per square inch and so the compression and subsequent release of energy is lower per area of the foam pad. Lower bounce, less damage.
Next onto silence break-falls;
First throw the foam edge down, but throw it at about a 45 degree angle toward the ground with NO spin. The foam will likely pick up some spin as it bounces but it will bounce and skid unstably and often rather unpleasantly.
Then do the same but add a bit of forward rolling motion to the throw, the bounces will be shorter, especially the second and onward bounces, and the action will often be smoother and more controlled.
Because it is traveling at an angle the foam will start to rotate after the first bounce the first time you throw, but this will be imparted by the landing and the second and onward bounces will be the important ones to note. On the second throw the rolling momentum imparted creates a vectoring force the moment the edge touches the floor this tilts the momentum of the throw and makes the second and third bounces shorter and less pronounced.
Posted Tue Jun 21, 2011 09:29 AM
Now I wanted to do a brief examination of two of the basic uses of these principles and how they compare.
To be honest choosing which break-falls to use as the examples her, the two basic forward break-falls demonstrate principles of vectoring and body mechanics for absorption well, whereas backwards more appropriately shows of spreading of force over a large area. And sideways is just insane so.
During a forward rolling or silent break-fall we use added momentum from the legs and from the arm to redirect our fall when falling face first at the ground, we add this momentum to pull the head through and away from the ground bringing the centre of balance over the falling body and landing on the back edge of one shoulder.
The energy is not dissipated and instead moves us in the direction of our roll, we roll from shoulder to opposite or same hip depending on the break-fall (to avoid pressure on the spine), using this forward momentum to turn us up and onto our feet, or into a kneeling position, or even into an additional roll dependant on the situation.
The arm can be used to guard the head and add additional momentum, or in the case of a very hard roll a slap on the ground as the roll completes can absorb momentum and stop you overshooting on an attempt to stand upright.
Forward stopping break-fall thrown at the ground or dropped face first towards the ground in such a way that we can’t roll is always frightening and a challenge to cope with. When falling on our faces we can’t really use a large body area to absorb the force as we normally would with these impacts so instead we turn to body mechanics to help us as much as possible.
We put our forearms in a triangle , forearms parallel to the floor, and hands open and flat to the floor. Landing on the floor the upper arms should be about 45 degrees from the shoulder, (at 90 degrees the shoulders take the force too linearly and often dislocate) the forearms absorb the force by landing flat in line with the bones and unlikely to break, the muscles in our arms act like shock absorbers and slow the impact, the arrangement of arms keeping our head off the floor.
At the same time we land toes up on our feet, (think push up position) knees slightly bent but not hitting the floor (to avoid broken knee caps) and use the large muscles of the thighs and back to help absorb the impact as shock absorbers, attempting to keep the spine straight and protected.
The comparison between the two is interesting;
In the first variety we are taking the throwing energy and imparting a little nudge to redirect it, we end up rolling along our back, and if that roll is not mastered we instead thud from one part of our back to the next often taking injuries on the way. If the force is not controlled we can be tipped off our feet or over in the roll and end up sprawled and disorientated on the floor, or worse with a neck or shoulder injury. But if done well the injury potential is limited to bumps and bruises if we roll on a hard surface, a few scraps if the surface is rough, our body and muscle are intact and we can move to our feet with surprising speed and confidence.
In the second sort we are using large muscle groups to absorb the energy, spreading it out and making sure our body position reduces the likelihood of injury. If the position is wrong we can bang our knee caps on the floor, dislocate our shoulders or even land chin first on the floor. If the force is too much and the position good though we still receive some minor injuries, we often partially tear and bruise the muscles of the upper arm and lower back, and if our arms give way we can scrape our face, but the force of impact is greatly reduced than if we did not protect ourselves with a good break-fall.
Either way we face risks involved in doing the break-fall but the risks are often tempered, no break-fall often resulting in much worse injuries than even a poorly executed break-fall. On top of this even if too much energy is put into the throw or fall for us to stop it safely we a break-fall often the break-falling form is designed so that injuries are easily recoverable and not debilitating, such as partial tears in the muscle, and over extension of tendons which while painful and in need of rehabilitation are less damaging than broken bones to our continual fighting potential.
In a backwards rolling break-fall as we fall backwards with backwards headed momentum we aim to land just above the level of the backside on the one pelvic arch of the hip bone. With our back curved that pelvic arch imparts the redirecting force and we turn the fall into a roll by creating a curve with our back and following over. If the energy is low we can stop the roll and impart returning energy by hitting the ground with our palms, this helps us stop from over balancing mid roll or rolling too slowly. We can also use our slapping hands to impart extra energy to push us into the roll and maintain the speed of the roll. The roll moves to one shoulder and then over that shoulder, or in some rare cases redirects sideways over the arm. The neck is avoided and the spine protected, the energy of the fall is partly absorbed into the large groups of the back but primarily redirected into a roll.
In backwards stopping break-fall, we place our back so it is parallel to the ground or as close too as possible. The arms extend out before impacting the ground however they must stay straight and should land without kinks wrists to prevent damage, the arms absorb some of the energy. The shoulders are held back shoulder blades tucked and legs level with the body. The spine is protected by the back shoulders supported by the energy absorbing potential of the chest muscles, the legs help to spread the impact. Energy is absorbed and dissipated while protecting the easily damaged parts of the boy.
The comparison between the two shows the distinct differences;
The rolling backwards beak-fall relies upon the pelvis being closer to the floor than the head something much more commonly controlled by the throw or fall not the person doing the break-fall, this means that rolling break-falls are more suitable for leg picks, ashi-barai, and unbalancing’s where you end up falling in an almost seated position, backside first. By lifting and tucking the backside you can roll. As with all rolling break-falls an improperly curved back and put stress on the spine and lead to bumps and bruises, while a good curve protects well but can lead to scrapes on a rough surface. Done very badly this roll ends up putting weight on the rollers neck a big risk, which is why this rolling break-fall while still done as a roll is often stopped with a slap before the individual actually rolls.
In the stopping version of this break-fall, it is much more suitable to when the head is closer to the ground than the pelvis, the hands reaching back actually help level out the body in this situation and prevent the head from slamming the floor, more suitable for drops or pick up throws. On rough surfaces the sliding motion experienced by the slapping arms can lead to nasty cuts and abrasions, and in situations of high energy falls the shoulder blades can get cracked or the ankle bones, but done appropriately the head and spine are protected. The one big risk due to the sudden stop of this fall is that a weak neck will give way and the head will hit the floor, a common issue in children too young for well-developed neck muscles. Surprisingly having flexible neck muscles is more important to stop loss of head control than having strong muscles and regular stretching helps keep the head controlled.
Practising your break-falls
There are a billion tweaks and twists and alterations when it comes to the sequence used to teach, and to the exact end result of break-falls of either the sounding or silent variety, but that doesn’t mean that any one way is wrong. A break-fall is there to protect you from injury in a fall, if yours works that is good, if another works better maybe it’s worth adopting the other one, but it’s always worth having some sort of working break-fall.
With silent or rolling break-falls the curve of the back and the prevention of the neck and spine from impacting are vital. This often means starting on the floor already, putting the body in an appropriate position and rolling gently. This can later be enhanced to include a standing walking forward or backwards version, and even later a jump over a fellow student or a bench while walking or jogging backwards or forward. You can also use throws like tomoe-nage to bring students to the brink of their break-fall before letting them fall.
With stopping break-falls it is a bit harder, some can be practised with a partner by being held a few inches off the floor and dropped repeatedly (backwards) others can be practised by kneeling in frog position and doing a little hop jump (forward). Later on the use of a bench to fall off from a sitting or kneeling position, the use of a partner doing pick-ups, such as a slowed down body slam, and even jumping straight up yourself are methods, but getting the basic principle down first is imperative to help protect from injury.
Posted Tue Jun 21, 2011 09:29 AM
My final note on practising break-falls is that nowadays in many martial arts classes there is a BANE of break-falls, a device an item that not only ruins students practise of break-falls but leads to busy and hard-pressed instructors, as well as lazy instructors ignoring the need for these fundamental skills and relying upon this device.
I refer to the crash mat.
Now don’t get me wrong, mats in general, 35-40 mm plastic foam, or the foam condensate judo style mats, are fine, hugely beneficial in fact to break-fall practise, as they reduce the risk of recurrent injury, make break-falls a little less painful and much safer to learn.
I can even forgive or to some degree support the 3-5 inch air-foam crash mats, these extremely thin mats dampen the impact for inexperienced fallers, encouraging them to continue practising, reducing minor bruises and bumps, but they still allow people falling incorrectly to feel the ground, to feel how their body is landing, to feel the feedback they get from the world about their technique.
No the bane of break-falls are the 6-24 inch thick air-foam mats, the mats so thick that even with a full grown man falling full force he never touches the floor. The mats that cradle a faller, touching them on the sides of the body. The mats that require NO skill to fall on, that provide NO workable feedback, and that have such a soft overall condition that there is NO chance of a successful roll or stopping break-fall ever materialising.
Now I am not saying all instructors who use these mats are bad instructors far from it, some are just scared of law-suits, some are just ill-informed about how using the mat is affecting their students, some are unfortunately bad, or lazy. I like to think that all instructors at least believe they are doing the best for their student, but these massive great mats stop a student ever learning how to fall, and that risks the students health.
That’s my rant on that over. I hope you enjoyed the none ranting bit of my writing.
Posted Tue Jun 21, 2011 10:07 AM
This post has been edited by CountessDD: Tue Jun 21, 2011 10:13 AM