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Russian martial arts and accelerated learning

Russian martial arts and accelerated learning?



I have heard a number of instructors of various schools refer to Systema as having a teaching model that accelerates the student’s ability to learn, but what are they and how do these teaching models compare to ones used by other martial arts?   


Before we look at the practices of Russian martial arts I would like to discuss the way other martial arts teach and how this effects the development of the student.

The first teaching model I would like to look at is most often used by what are termed traditional schools.  The students of these schools never fight full contact and as a result contact in the sessions is reduced in favour of developing control. 

Classes are usually built up of basic techniques followed by stringing them together in an ever more complex series of movements during kata training.  Next comes some form of partner training where the attacker throws the prescribed attacks and the student deals with them in the manner they have been taught.  Finally the student may be asked to do some light contact sparring that simulates fighting without the contact that is associated with it.

So how does this affect the student? 

A positive aspect of this training is that it includes plenty of repetition.  Warm up exercises usually mimic movements from techniques, these are then repeated in the basics part of the class, then again in the kata and partner work.  By the time the student gets to do some sparring they have performed the techniques a large number of times.  This is important because it is generally accepted that to learn a movement it needs to be repeated approximately 10000 times and this training model keeps the number of movements to a minimum and repeats them often.

Students are trained in uniformity.  By that I mean there will be little difference in the mechanics of one student to another of similar grade. They only learn to deal from attacks that come with the ferocity (or lack of) that their styles train with and they are only delivered in a manner that their art advocates.  For this reason if contact and aggression is kept to a minimum during training what happens in a real fight can be a shock to students of these arts and mentally their preparation falls apart.

Now let us look at combat sports.  These styles have developed to compete in full contact competitions, using a variety of rules that depend on the discipline of the art.  One of the important ways this affects these styles is that there is a greater emphasis on physical conditioning.  They have no illusions that fighting with good technique negates the fighter from needing to be in the peak of physical condition.  Exercises are used that not only take the student well beyond a basic level of fitness, they contain workouts aimed at developing the physical attributes that relate to the art in question.  By this I mean strikers hit bags or other pads to develop power and cardiovascular endurance, grapplers do partner drills where they lift their opponent.

Another important point in these arts is the amount of time a successful student has to invest in them.  All this conditioning, practice of basic techniques, ring craft and sparring takes time.  The higher up the competitive ladder the fighter climbs the more time they have to invest.  Also with the drive to compete the student can often push for competitive success over long term physical health leading to injuries caused by overwork or accidents.

Through competition combat sports evolve unlike most traditional arts which aim to preserve what went before.  Techniques and strategies are created to give fighters an edge over other competitors.  Also the advent of mixed martial arts competitions, which allows styles to experience fighting with other fighting arts, creates an environment where an element of cross training is the normal thing to do and not the exception.

Some combat sports stick to a well drilled, but limited syllabus of techniques and yet others have so many variations of moves that it takes over 12 years to reach black belt level. In general grappling styles have far more techniques than striking based sports.  Brazilian Jiujitsu is a good example of this.  If you consider the number of basic submissions and sweeps that the art contains and multiply this by the number of positions and guards that they use, you can see that the quantity of material that needs drilling quickly multiplies.  If this is then multiplied by 10000 repetitions for each variation of a technique we can see that proficiency will take a vast amount of time to achieve.  Except for rare exceptions a black belt in BJJ will take a student at least 12 years to achieve if they manage to commit sufficient time on a weekly basis to make progress.

In BJJ schools it is not uncommon for white belt students to train 15 times a month, but some students spend manage to spend greater amounts of time than that on the mat. As students progress through the ranks they have to invest even more time to keep their skill levels increasing.

Now compare this with the smaller amount of hours that Russian martial arts students train and the larger range of skills that they need to explore to become proficient, such as armed work, defence from weapons, low acrobatics, ground fighting, working in confined spaces such as vehicles, pressure point striking, team work and much more and we can see that they are disadvantaged straight away because to do 10000 repetitions of each technique for each of these areas would take a lifetime.  So how do Russian martial arts try to get around this?

The answer is simple.  By focusing on principle over technique the students only have a limited number of things to know about and they then can problem solve any situation using this toolbox of principles.  Take the principle of leverage as an example.  Instead of learning a series of different joint locks with which an arm can be damaged or control of an opponent gained, a student can use the principle of the three classes of levers to create an effective lock.  Also the same knowledge can be used to breakdown and analyse what is happening in any technique they see no matter what the source of the information meaning they can learn from other arts they are exposed to.

This is something I do in my own study of BJJ.  It is not uncommon for me to break down the way that a technique functions using the principles of leverage, planes and vectors of force.  This way I can quickly replicate the important points of any technique and sometimes further adjust it using to improve its efficiency.

Another point worth noting is that when considering structure breaking the number of core principles is very small.  Also the movement patterns are either ones that occur naturally (as in the work of Ryabko and Vasiliev) or limited in number as in Kadochnikov Systema. By consciously focusing on the principles of movement and structure breaking during our training we can quickly work towards the goal of 10000 repetitions of the principles because they are in everything we do. 

When I started training Kadochnikov Systema with Alexander Maksimtov he stated that progress in Systema is slower at the early stages whilst the student learnt the basic principles and developed the ability to operate their bodies correctly.  Once students progress through the 6 levels of tests things become easier.  A possible reason for this could be that when they reach the later levels they already have performed a large portion of the necessary repetitions and simply need to experience applying them to new topics.

One thing we believe at Combat Lab is that it is important for the various schools of Systema to accept that they will never be experts in every area of combat. Because of this there is always going to be things that can be learnt from combat sports and those that train them.  This not only includes studying their techniques and strategies, but also the conditioning methods that they use. In the case of MMA the subject of exercise and nutrition is often based on the latest research of sport scientists and we too should look at this side of our training.

In my opinion Systema styles such as ROSS, IZVOR and Sistema Homoludens may hold the key to the future growth of the Russian martial arts tradition.  This is because both arts have crossed the divide from the accepted Systema training methods whilst maintaining a focus on teaching the scientific principles behind Russian martial arts.  Adopting training methods from combat sports such as making use of protective equipment for sparring and pressure testing gives their students the best of both worlds.  Therefore, for the average martial artist who cannot commit all their resources and time to studying for combat this combination of principle, exploration and testing will always be the most efficient method for developing such a varied skill set.


For more information on Combat Lab's approach to studying the Science of Russian Martial Arts and learn how to train it for self defence check out our other Systema blog articles and the educational material in our Combat Lab Shop.  Our educational material is unique in the English language.