So the other day, I made the following contentious statement on Twitter:
If you can do a muscle-up but can’t happily do a forward roll on concrete, you’ve got your priorities wrong.
Response: mixed. Mainly from people who love muscle-ups.
Let’s be clear: I’m not saying that you should regularly do forward rolls on concrete as part of your training. I’m saying that you should be able to do one, with minimal discomfort, if the situation calls for it. Royce Gracie, winner of three of the first four UFC tournaments, agrees with me – apparently at his seminars, he regularly asks people how confident they are in their breakfalls, then asks if they’d happily do them in the car park. Dan John, probably the strength and conditioning coach I have the most respect for, suggests that tumbling/falling practise is what’s missing from most people’s workouts, and is one of the best ways to directly improve your chances of survival in an unforgiving world. I agree.
When I was 18, I had the (relatively) good fortune to stumble across The Jitsu Foundation, a martial arts school that does a sort of blend of aikido and traditional jiu-jitsu. The fighting techniques were useless and there wasn’t any sparring, but they did make us spend up to half an hour every lesson practising breakfalls, to the point where I could happily dive-roll over half a dozen people, or jumping back breakfall over a couple of people in the universally-recognised leapfrog position. After that I did a bit of gymnastics, supplemented by practising in the park with my friends, and it’s no exaggeration to say that I now count falling over as one of the things I am best at.
It’s definitely improved my life. Almost any physical skill – from climbing to judo to pro-wrestling and breakdancing and skiing and snowboarding – is made easier when you aren’t worried about falling over. When taking a hard fall doesn’t hurt or wind you, and you can bounce straight back up, it’s easier to get repetitions done. You know that Japanese Proverb, ‘Fall down seven times, get up eight’? It’s a hell of a lot easier when you know how to fall.
Secondly, falling can save your life. Breakfalls – as opposed to more aesthetically pleasing gymnastics moves – are designed to a) Teach you to keep your head and spine out of contact with hard objects and b) Avoid posting out limbs that will simply break if you land on them awkwardly. I can safely report that I am excellent at both these things, since I’ve fallen over quite a lot during my life. I know guys who can roll – jiu-jitsu guys and gymnasts – who’ve fallen off walls and moving objects, and might have died if they didn’t know how to fall. Guerilla jiu-jitsu inventor Dave Camarillo talks about getting in a motorbike crash that he forward-rolled out of, that probably should have killed him. Also, I hope to get old one day, and I’m bound to fall over then. Landing correctly, and being able to get back up, might be the difference between death, an artificial hip, and going about my day, zero fucks given. If you’re paying into a pension but not physically preparing for the old age you’re planning on getting to, what the hell are you doing?
Thirdly, it’s not like falling is difficult. You could learn it in a weekend, which is why it’s a better use of your time than worrying about muscle-ups. I’d suggest starting with the technical standup, which is a simplified version of the Turkish Getup. MMA and self-defence guys use it as a stable way of getting back to their feet without being kicked in the face, but I know physical therapists who teach it to aging clients as the most practical way of getting up. Once you’ve got that down – five minutes, tops – move onto the shoulder roll (not the best tutorial I’ve ever seen, but it gets the key points), then back and side breakfalls. Dave Camarillo’s first book covers all of these in great detail. They’re the 20 percent of moves that will prepare you for 80 percent of situations you might encounter, but after them you might want to try some more traditional gymnastics rolls and cartwheels.
So to sum up: will improve your life, might save your life, can be learned in a weekend. There’s no excuse not to. After that, you can get back to obsessing over muscle-ups. I mean, surely one day you’ll have to pull yourself to the top of an object from a false grip with a giant amount of kick. Right?
HOMEWORK: Learn to fall over. I’m not even joking.
LATE EDIT: I cannot honourably let this post go without directing you to the fight between Kevin Randleman and Fedor Emelianenko, in which this happened.
About 60 seconds later, Fedor (the tubby white guy about to get suplexed onto the back of his head) won by keylock submission. After the fight, a reporter asked Fedor how he was able to recover from such a devastating throw, and through a translator Fedor explained, ‘It didn’t affect me. I train to fall great distances.’ Yeah, you heard.