Breakfalls are techniques used by the karateka to absorb impacts when the karateka who is in motion impacts with a stable object (i.e. floor, ground, wall, etc.). The breakfall technique acts as a shock absorber. It reduces the energy absorbed by any one point by transferring the collision energies evenly throughout the body.
Breakfalls do not eliminate the shock of the impact. Rather, such force is channeled and absorbed by parts of the body more capable of handling the force. Performed properly, the shock is minimized. Performed improperly, the breakfall is virtually useless.
Breakfalls do not eliminate the energy created by the collision of the karateka with a stable object. They simply channel and control this energy, allowing for the minimization of bodily damage due to such an impact. This is commonly known as force dissipation.
Traditionally, breakfalls tend to emphasize a collision with horizontal objects like the ground. However, these techniques work equally well with vertical objects like walls. There are four basic types of breakfalls:
- front breakfall–used to minimize the impact when karateka’s motion is headed in a forward direction. This would normally be caused by a push from the rear, or a possible trip or slip forward.
- back breakfall–used to minimize impact when the karateka’s motion is in a backward direction. This would normally occur from a push from the front or similar situation when the karateka is falling backwards.
- side breakfall (both right and left)–used to minimize the impact when a karateka’s motion is in a sideways direction. Possible causes of this would be pushes from the side or various throwing techniques being applied to the karateka.
- rolling breakfalls–these are variations of the front and back breakfall. They are used to channel the energy by harnessing the motion in which the karateka is going. They do not try to stop the motion, merely redirect it. Thus the karateka will usually finish in a standing position once these breakfalls have been executed.
The key to all breakfalls is absorbing the force of impact with a “non-vital” area of the body. It does not make sense to land on vulnerable areas of the body like the head or rib cage, where serious damage may occur. Instead, breakfalls use the arms, shoulders, and the padding of the rear end, to absorb the majority of the impact with the stationary object. These parts of the body act as “shock absorbers” pulling the body of the karateka together with the impacted object.
A fundamental understanding of breakfall techniques is needed fairly early in the study of karate. Some of the more advanced techniques involve the use of a mat. These techniques, usually performed with a partner, result in one of the karatekas ending up on the surface of the mat. In order for these defensive techniques to be properly learned, the technique needs to be carried through to its conclusion.
However, control throughout the technique needs to be maintained. This is even true if the karateka falling to the mat is an expert in breakfalls. Breakfalls by their nature do not eliminate the risk of damage upon striking the mat. They are merely a means of limiting and controlling the possible damage done. Sore body parts are common place after extensive mat work. Breakfalls need to be thoroughly understood before a karateka undertakes the role of attacker (and thus ending up on the mat).
Breakfalls are taught in a controlled manner. Breakfall training is performed on padded mats. The beginning karateka begins breakfall training by squatting, or otherwise starting very close to the mat. The breakfall is performed in a slow, controlled manner. At this stage, absorbing impact is not as important as technique. It is important that the karateka strike the mat with the appropriate area of the body.
The arms, which typically strike the mat first, must be in perfect alignment. The most common problem is when the elbow is bent, striking the mat first. This could lead to serious damage to the elbow or the shoulder. A paradox of breakfalls is that the karateka strikes the mat with their arms in an effort to absorb the impact. A weak strike of the arm means the main body absorbs more of the impact. The strong strike of the arm means less likelihood of impact being transferred to the main torso of the karateka. Properly performed, breakfalls use a combination of proper striking areas, along with the appropriate motion to absorb the blow. You simply do not put your arms up and land on your forearms. Rather you need to give as the you make impact. This helps dissipate the force.