Ukemi: The new cardio craze!

Okay, ukemi isn't really a new cardio craze—but why not?

I remember when I first started aikido years ago, just prior to my 20th birthday. I was a good 20 or 30 pounds overweight (I'd been that way since hitting puberty), and made no other lifestyle changes other than attending aikido classes 3 times a week.

I remember the ukemi practice we did at the beginning of every class kicking my ass. Fall down, get up again, fall down, get up again, fall down, get up again. Backwards, forwards, sideways... I think I lost 10 pounds or more in the first several months just from that!

The problem is, the older I got, and the more advanced I became, the more I started "leading" classes instead of "doing" them. Ukemi practice was gradually replaced by sitting around, watching everyone else, drinking coffee and giving input when needed.

And I'm paying for it. My lifestyle in general has slipped and I'm probably in the worst shape of my life (and that's saying something).

One problem I have with doing just about anything is getting bored easily. I'm constantly thinking of new ways to do something, to shake things up, to make it interesting. Which, as far as exercise goes, I understand is a good thing, otherwise your body acclimates to a given activity and stops progressing.

All of which brings me to that aforementioned ukemi cardio craze! That I'm starting. With myself. They can be done with a class, too, but at the moment, I'm keeping the pain to myself.

Around the Clock

Instead of doing 6-8 back-falls, then 6-8 side-falls, 6-8 front-falls, and then forward rolls (mixed with chatting with other folks), I'm trying an "around the clock" approach.

I start with a forward roll on one side (12 o'clock). When I come up, one leg will be in a position that naturally lends itself to a side-fall (let's say 3 o'clock). When I come up from that, I'll do a back-fall (6 o'clock) and then a side-fall to the other side (9 o'clock). Lastly, I'll end the set with a front-fall (yes, from standing). Get back up, and do it all over again (if I started with a forward roll, I'll do one on my left next, and go the other way around the clock).


I did this a lot as a brown belt, and I think it helped my ukemi develop faster and better than just the normally rolling across the mat. I would take a crash pad, stand on one end and do a forward roll (sometimes ending flat, sometimes rolling up) and end up on the other side of the pad. I'd stand, turn and go back the other direction, and so on (also alternating left and right sides). Back and forth, over and over and over and over. Usually until my legs had turned to jelly and I could scarcely stand any longer.

Not only does it give you a high number of reps and a fabulous workout, it also tends to take the fear and conscious analysis out of it, so you're just cruising on subconscious autopilot, which is where you want your ukemi anyway.

End to End

The mat space in the dojo where I'm at is rather large, but rectangular, so going from one end to the other lengthwise is quite a stretch. I like doing just about any kind of drill, solo or partnered, that way, but ukemi is another good one.

Try doing side-falls: fall on your right side, stand, turn, fall to your left, repeat.

If you do back-falls, continue the motion by rolling over completely backwards into a standing position so you'll actually gain some ground.

Knock Down

Sometimes it's kinda fun to get a partner to follow you around as you slowly walk around the mat and interrupt your movement one way or another in such a way that it causes you to have to fall. You don't know when it's coming, or which direction you'll go, so your conscious mind gets more comfortable with being surprised.

Shomen Ate Line

This is a good one my friend and fellow budoka Scott uses. We'll grab a blue crash pad and get everyone in a line. The first person stands in front of the crash pad, facing everyone else (but not right up against it, give yourself a bit of room to take a step back). Everyone in line takes turns doing shomen ate to the first guy, and when they've all had a turn, the next guy gets to get hit.

It not only helps folks get used to doing back-falls as a response to energy outside of their control, but teaches them relax while doing it, AND gives everyone a very real understanding (especially new students) on how they should be doing shomen ate in kata (even when they're uke and don't actually get to knock anyone down).

Rocks in a Pond

This one can get a bit tricky. Basically, one person just gets down on their elbows and knees and curls up into a tight little ball, and everyone in lines does a forward roll over them. For the particularly adventurous (or stupid, depending upon how you look at it), you can add another "rock" right next to the first one, and jump over two people. Or three. Obviously, the chance for injury to all parties involved jumps quite a bit, so it requires advanced skills. And balls. (Also you could use soft object to roll over instead of people.)


This was a common practice with one of my older teachers, usually in judo I think.  Have everyone get in two lines, each on a corner of a large, imaginary square of mat space. The first guy in the line on the right starts off by doing a rolling breakfall from his corner to the opposite corner of the big square space. Once he's out of the way, the first guy in the second line does the same to the other, opposite far corner. After you've rolled you go to the end of the other line. Constant activity, not much time to chat, plus a little "awareness" practice (so you don't hit the guy who rolled before you).