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Diminishing returns in ukemi practice

I'm sure that you can tell from my previous articles as well as from talking with me that I consider ukemi (falling) to be one of the most practical, most important skills that we teach in the martial arts.  It is the single best self-defense skill that you can have and it is good exercise, so it deserves continual practice.
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BUT... we are practicing an inherently risky thing - surviving unexpected descents to the ground.  Hitting the ground always carries with it the potential for injury, even when using good equipment and even when properly supervised (see my standard disclaimer at the bottom of every page of this blog).  
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It does not make sense to injure ourselves trying to learn self-defense or trying to become healthier.  It is not only counter-productive - it's just plain dumb.
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So we have a bit of a conundrum - ukemi practice is potentially the most valuable practice we can do, but it is potentially very risky.  There comes a point of diminishing returns - where increasing the risk (by increasing reps or intensity) does not yield increased benefits.
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Here is a handful of hints on how to try to stay on the productive side of that limit...
  • Choose lo-impact practice forms - While you are going to want to get a LOT of repetitions over the course of a LONG time, not every repetition has to be a hi-amplitude, spine-crushing ordeal.  In fact, the two best exercises we have found for learning the forward roll are 1) the slow, careful no-impact forward roll from kneeling, and 2) the reverse - rolling backward over a shoulder from a side-lying position.
  • Utilize equipment - Of course, you're going to want some mats - and certainly something better than half-inch puzzle mats.  About the minimum you should start on is a 1.5 to 2 inch mat designed for falling or tumbling.  Better than that would be a mat on top of a suspended floor - most of these floors use springs or 4" foam blocks to make them more forgiving.  Perhaps the most valuable and best-loved piece of equipment for learning to fall is the crash pad.  Most of these are 8" thick foam pads that are excellent at eliminating negative consequences of an errant fall.
  • Utilize spotters - just about any fall can be made into a much safer exercise form by inserting a trained spotter - a partner - to help position the faller properly and support them during the exercise.
  • Stop while you are ahead - Sometimes very severe injuries can sneak up on you through repetitive motion or frequent micro-trauma.  You do want to get regular falling practice, but there comes a point where more is not better.  If you start to become tired during falling practice or you notice your form becoming sloppy then it is smart to stop while you are ahead and do something else - but then come back to your falling practice another day.
  • Stop while you are behind - If you do injure yourself, stop doing things that aggravate the injury.  Sounds like common sense, but it is super-common for fanatical judo folks to get on the mat injured, relying on tape and ibuprofen to keep them going.  This is a recipe for a short martial arts career with an abrupt end.  Don't be dumb.  If you are injured, watch from the sidelines.
So, in summary, it is wise to get a LOT of ukemi practice, but do it smartly by 1) reducing the intensity (by using lo-impact practice forms), 2) reducing the consequences of a mistake (by using good equipment), 3) reducing the likelihood of a mistake (by using spotters), 4) reducing repetitive-stress injuries, and 5) not practicing while injured.

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Patrick Parker
www.mokurendojo.com