Category Archives: Russian Martial Arts

Systema Principles of the Russian System


If someone had told me a few years ago that out of a western Christian tradition would come a martial art as deep, sophisticated and evolved as the best of the oriental arts I would not have believed them. Yet there is such an art coming out of the ancient Russian culture with deep roots in the Russian Orthodox monasteries.

At its root in the present day is an exceptional man, Mikhail Ryabko. Trained by one of Stalin’s Falcons from the age of five and beginning his operational career in the Russian Spetsnaz (Special Forces) at the age of 15, Mikhail Ryabko was not only given the secrets of this ancient art, he was put in the position of repeatedly applying both the art and its principles in life and death combat on, what for much of his early life, was a day-to-day basis. This System, taught by Mikhail Ryabko, is not a shadow of what once was, it is a living practical art that even now is being applied by warriors in combat.

Lets take a more deep look at some Systema Principles.

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Double Your Punching Power

You would be amazed at how quickly I can transform the punching power of people with little or no training after just a couple of training sessions and I am going to give you three simple ideas for you to practice and I am only going to work on simple arm striking without using the whole body as this is the fastest way to deliver a quick, powerful strike:

  1. Stay relaxed – a relaxed body is a fast body and I am not talking about walking around like a rag doll or moving around doing fancy acrobatic movements.  What I am talking about is to keep just enough tension in the body to perform the movement and keep control and as an example, hold out your arm in front of you and make a fist that is vertical, so the top of the thumb will point to the sky.  Now tense your whole arm and shoulder and move your arm around and notice how hard it is.  Now do the exact opposite and notice how easy it is to move, but also how floppy the arm is and this would be too loose.  Now place a little tension in the underside of your wrist and also the fist itself and now do the same with the other hand and get into a pushup position using your fists.  If you cannot support your whole body in the full position, then work from your knees.  Now the fists are supporting the whole body and the pushup position represents a kind of impact position and you will notice that holding that little bit of tension in the wrists helps support you.  Memorize the tension in your wrists as this is what you need for simple striking.  Now stand up and hold one arm out in front of you and make the same fist with the same tension that you had during the pushup supporting position, but keep the forearm, biceps, triceps and shoulders as relaxed as possible, but don’t let the tension release out of the wrist and fist – this takes a little practice but work at it.  The rest of your body should be strong (enough to support), but not tense and you should be able to walk around quickly and keep your back straight and your shoulders and hips will be in a straight line.  This is how relaxed you need to be and make sure you get this first before moving to point 2.
  2. Use your natural levers – we are only talking about single arm punches here, so we will focus on the elbow as this is the key to power.  Stand in front of a punch bag or if you have a partner you can use hand mitts and if you are on your own without either, just make the motion in the air.  The motion is a simple striking motion, but using the elbow only – keeping your hands by your sides (never practice from a fighting ‘stance’ as you will not have the luxury in real combat), make a strike with either elbow in a round motion to the bag and not looping down or up, just moving horizontally around starting from the side.  Do this slowly and deliberately and keep the tension in the fist and wrist as I have previously explained, but use your elbow to make the strike.  You must still stay relaxed and after a few minutes you will feel a kind of loose power and the elbow will whip around to the target as you work up the speed.  This is a strike on its own and a very powerful one if done correctly.  To remind yourself of how relaxed you need to stay, try a couple of strikes with full tension and then quickly revert and relax.  Allow your body to rotate with the movement, but do not initiate the strike with the body as we are learning also to strike from a relaxed everyday position and we have no time to think or prepare.  Now come away from the bag or mitts and perform the strike in the air and you will notice that your fist leads the elbow when performing the elbow strike, so in other words, the fist is being ‘thrown’ or propelled by the movement of the elbow and this provides the power.  We are still working at say medium speed and it is important to do so and make sure you feel that you are moving the elbow.  If you watch early boxing footage of Mike Tyson, you can see how his elbow is moved directly behind his fist and for the unlucky sparring partners of opponents at that time, they often inadvertently got two strikes for the price of one – the fist and a follow up elbow. Now you are ready to move to 3.
  3. Accelerate – now you need to move as fast as possible, but also you need to keep the structure of the body as described earlier to provide balance.  First work on the elbow speed and then add the fist.  Make sure you practice in the air and work the speed up slowly and deliberately before trying to hit pads or bags.

These are simple tips to use in practice and remember this is just training – in a real situation, you will not have any time to think about ‘levers’, elbows or whatever and that is why we drill the movements in slowly and deliberately so they become implanted in our subconscious and we can use them instinctively.  Practice the above and you will notice a dramatic increase in striking power.  When you get proficient, you can add more movement and always look for the natural levers in the body and try to incorporate them.

The Difference Between Russian Martial Arts and other Traditional Martial Arts Systems

Many people want to know the difference between Russian Martial Arts (RMA) and more traditional Martial Arts.  I am not going to give a history lesson as to the evolution of Martial Arts, Russian or otherwise, not am I going to speculate as to which is better – for the history, it is easy to search and as to which is better, that decision lies with the practitioner, but let’s talk about the philosophy of RMA.

RMA are not designed for any form of competition, they are designed for brutal combat effectiveness and that explains why they are taught to Special Forces and Operations Personnel and Elite Bodyguards.  Now what I am talking about here is the pure form of RMA that is practiced in Russia and spread over the World by specialist Instructors, who are extremely capable of using the Arts as they are meant to be.

RMA has no formal structure or hierarchy, except of course when taught in the Military, where Military rank prevails.  This is why when you search on the Internet, you will see many students, working in a very relaxed environment and almost ‘playing’ with the moves and techniques.  Now on the subject of techniques, one of the key differences between RMA and Traditional Arts is that there are no specific techniques taught, nor are there any forms or Kata.  The reason for this is that the student must learn to think and act for themselves and not from any ‘grading’ system or belts.  Also and this point is very controversial and rarely understood, is the emphasis on working at very slow and deliberate speeds. This is to let the student find an answer to a problem within a controlled environment and this allows that response or technique to be implanted in the student’s subconscious mind and if that situation were to repeat itself, the response would naturally follow.  What is important here is to understand that many hours must be devoted to this type of practice and also, it is only part of the overall picture.

There is also a great deal of emphasis placed on body conditioning and in learning how to build tendon, rather than muscular strength – muscles have a short lifespan and get overloaded quickly and to demonstrate this, think about the guy who is working in construction, carrying bricks up and down a ladder all day long.  No amount of bench pressing, bicep curls or squats can prepare the body for that type of work and in RMA, simple exercises such as the pushup, squat, leg and body raise are performed in a specific way to achieve this goal.

Breathing is vital to life and even more to RMA as it is taught in varying ways, according to the demands of the body – there is no ‘one way’ to breathe, such as specifically from the stomach, rather different ways of breathing depending on the task.  Body structure or ‘form’ is also critical as the actions of combat need to be supported by a strong, but flexible and extremely agile body.

We also place great emphasis of learning how to deliver strikes, but more importantly, how to take them and I cover both in my Ballistic Striking DVD’s.

advanced ballistic striking

Unlike many Traditional Systems, you do not have to reach a certain level of ability or grade to learn to defend against weapons, – knife, gun, stick and other weapon defenses are taught almost immediately.  The student cannot determine when he or she may be attacked according to their length of service and proficiency in their Art.

There is also no ‘mystique’ in learning how and why RMA is effective and the student is taught from day one, just the same as the student who has been around for years and this is why many people find RMA appealing, as you get straight to the heart of the matter very quickly – learning to survive in the most brutal of combat situation,

Finally, I want to talk about all of the negative comments that I see posted in response to the RMA videos on the Internet.  If you are new to Martial Arts, or practice some rough, hardcore Art or MMA, then looking at a group of people ‘playing’ around in the world of dangerous combat, then your first instinct is to think that it is a joke at best and then when you see people reacting to some kind of attack by falling backwards and rolling away, then the next thought is ‘fake’.  I cannot blame you for this, but I help you to understand.

Now as in all Martial Arts, there are some very suspect practitioners out there and I see some crazy things taught and RMA is no exception, but take note of what I am about to say, watch all of the videos that you can and draw your own conclusions.

What you cannot see or feel in the videos is the power of the person defending against the attack or delivering the strike.  In my seminars, I often get people trying to test me and a good RMA instructor will not worry about this and after all, how many high grade Martial Arts instructors will, during a seminar, invite any member of the audience to attack them, in any way they want – we do!

Now the instructor will respond to this attack in the way that he is being attacked and that means if the attack comes in hard and strong, then that is exactly how the defense will be and on the subject of striking, we often ask members of the audience to come up and experience a strike and learn how to handle it and you would be amazed at the amount of skeptics who fall down in severe pain, from a seemingly soft, relaxed strike.  After a few attacks and the resulting pain, they learn to move in more slowly and with less aggression so they actually learn what is happening to them.  This is precisely why you see people moving and falling over before they are hit – they know what is coming and have experienced the pain.

So take a look at the videos out there and keep an open mind.  More importantly, go to a seminar and experience it for yourself and the good news is that you don’t have to change what you are doing now, if you are practicing Martial Arts, just use RMA to supplement what you already know.


Arm punching vs Traditional

Over the years I have received a lot of comments, as have the Russian style of Martial Arts in general, about the effectiveness of punching using the power of the arm only.

In Ballistic Striking I cover this in detail, but here is an overview:

In traditional martial arts there is a great emphasis on using the whole body to generate power when striking – you will hear instructors talk about generating power from the ‘ground up’ and transferring the energy from the feet, through the ankles, knees, hips, through the core and into the hands and why not as it makes perfect sense?  You will find no argument from me if we are talking about generating maximum power in a strike, provided of course you maximize speed by eliminating tension in the body, but do we need maximum power?

Russian Martial arts were developed for pure combat effectiveness and never for any kind of sport and it is combat that causes the problems.  As I always say, combat is a vicious, nasty business and the first priority is survival.  Now I am not talking about ‘passive’ survival or cowering on the ground covering our head with our hands, I am talking about survival through attack, looking for opportunities to neutralize and get out of the situation.  Combat also brings in the element of unpredictability in attackers, weapons, and the environment, which now creates another issue and that is one of position.  In a combat situation it is almost impossible to get ‘into position’ to deliver those powerful strikes that you have worked so hard on in the Dojo.

Look at boxers and MMA fighters and how they prepare in the gym – shadow boxing, bag and pad work and then look at the fight itself and you will see highly technical and capable boxers thrown into all sorts of chaos.  Also, these types of fighters will be able to re create that chaos with endless hours of sparring and this is how they hone their technique and prepare for the fight.  Remember though, boxing and MMA fights are still sports and governed by rules.  Real combat is not.

When you train, put yourself in all sorts of positions – stand on one leg, then the other, lay on the ground, put your back up against a wall and practice your strikes and see how you can generate leverage and power, because in the real world, these are the situations you will find yourself in.  Here is another drill you can try to feel the power of just an arm:

Stand up and extend say your right arm out in front of you at shoulder level, make a fist with your thumb pointing to the sky.  Keep some tension in the wrist only to absorb the strike, but keep your forearm, bicep, tricep and shoulder muscles relaxed.  Now simply let your arm drop to your side allowing gravity to do so – put absolutely no effort into this.  Now find a partner or place some kind of padding on a solid table at waist height.  If you have a partner and some boxing style hand mitts have your partner hold a pad in one hand facing the sky at waist height.  Now allow your arm to drop again hitting the pad and it is essential at this stage not to use any effort and simply feel the force and get feedback from your partner if you have one.  Even at this stage you will feel that this downward ‘strike’ is powerful.  Now we can look at ways of ‘assisting’ the drop to generate more power, but still remaining relaxed and allowing the mass of the arm and fist to do the work – we know from our physics lessons (if you stayed awake) that Force = Mass x Acceleration, so we have to accelerate the mass to produce more force.  Next, get into the same starting position and allow your elbow to drop first, leaving the fist lagging behind and you will generate even more power – add a small, relaxed drop of the waist hips and knees to lag the elbow and then the fist and you will see just how much force can be generated by such a simple movement.  This is a key strike in Russian Martial Arts and has many applications and considerable damage can be caused by just the first drill alone, so be very careful if you practice this with and on a partner.

Now we also have to generate strikes that are not assisted by gravity, so here is where you have to experiment to find the motion, but follow the rules – keep relaxed and just enough tension to absorb the impact and you can find this by working with pads and bags and work up to it slowly to avoid injury and you will gradually feel the power!

Relaxation in Martial Arts – Hand to Hand Combat

If you take a look at most Martial Arts, there seems to be a high degree of focus an disciplined movement and aggression when it comes to the point of combat and it seems to be a logical approach after all, we are trying to prepare ourselves for survival under extremely dangerous  conditions.

The main problem with this approach is that it requires a lot of energy – nervous energy in particular and this can drain the body very quickly, leaving you even more vulnerable.

Martial Arts Hand Combat

If you look at world class boxers for example, when they enter the ring for a big fight, you can see that there is a high level of intensity and when the first bell sounds, there is usually a spark of nervous energy as the first few punches are thrown, but then they seem to settle.  Boxing at this level now turns into a chess game, assuming the matching is fairly even and the one who makes a mistake, get’s punished very quickly, but they rarely can keep up the intensity and pace of the first few rounds throughout the fight.

Now there is a world of difference between fighting in any controlled conditions and out there on the street and that is why it is extremely difficult to train for street encounters as you simply cannot re-create the threat and more importantly the emotional environment that you are likely to encounter.  It is the emotional element that I am going to focus on here.  We have all heard of the ‘fight or flight’ syndrome and the release of adrenalin when we face a stressful situation and yes in most cases, assuming an exit is available, ‘flight’ is a good thing, but if you have to fight, then you need to be able to survive, whatever the odds.

When you are at the stage of fighting for survival, all of those disciplined techniques seem to go out of the window and as aggressive as you want to be, you will not be able to sustain the level of aggression for long and this is fine when the confrontation lasts for a minute or so, but what about longer?  As strange as it seems, this is when you need to be relaxed and calm.  When you are relaxed, your body can move – a relaxed muscle is a fast muscle and this is the main fundamental of Ballistic Striking, but unless you are in the front line of ‘business’ and are training every day for extended periods of time, in as near to real life situations as possible, how can you prepare?

First, let me define ‘relaxed’ and I am not talking about walking around like a rag doll or being so loose that you lose your structure, you need to be strong, but able to move quickly and respond to the threat, but not so strong that you become tense and unable to move.  Also, you need to control your breathing so you can remain as calm as possible and control the adrenaline response to help you sustain your efforts and in a article, it is extremely difficult to explain.  To help you understand, think of a cat and how relaxed it is when moving around normally, then when there is a threat, the cat becomes ferocious in its response and then after, goes back to sleep!  The cat although seems fierce and strong when it lashes out, is able to move very quickly and sustain its effort.  When the cat strikes, it uses only the muscles it needs and the rest of its body provides the support for the action and of course, the animal is extremely focused.

Of course, we are not cats, but I am just using this as an example, so how can we train for this?  As I have already said, re-creating a full on combat situation is almost impossible, even for Special Forces personnel, but there are some simple things you can do.  There is a lot of criticism and controversy out there about how in Russian Martial Arts, we seem to practice techniques slowly and almost in a light hearted environment and at first glance it looks very strange and far from combat effective.  But like many things in life, this aspect is rarely understood and there is a very good reason to practice this way.

When you are relaxed, you can move and movement is the key, along with breathing and keeping your structure.  The slow training allows the person to move instinctively and more importantly, to respond instinctively and not with pre-arranged techniques or ‘stances’.  Over time, the movement will become fluid and there will be little thought given to any specific response, only the natural one.  Also, each time you respond, because you are working at extremely slow speeds, your body and mind will commit that response to memory and the easier it will be to utilize that response if you need to.  In this way, you can subconsciously train different responses to different situations, but those responses will be unique to you.  When you train this way you will train your body to keep its structure and also to control your breathing.

It is very important to work at this slow speed, but also, you have to work at higher speeds and this is where the realism  comes in, but try always to move and respond naturally and in that way you will not have to ‘think’ about how to respond as it will come naturally.

You can also take a couple of exercises such as the push up and squat and do the following:

Support yourself in the push up position and begin to breathe deeply, you will feel the stress on your shoulders as they are doing most of the work.  Now mentally  and physically feel that your back muscles are now supporting your body and relax your shoulders as much as possible, then move down to your legs and relax the shoulders and back, then move to the left side for support, then the right, each time without changing your position.  In this way you can learn to engage different muscles and relax others, only using the muscles you need.  The same goes for the squat – lower yourself to half way down and hold and again, breathe deeply and start to feel the muscles that are supporting you.  When you squat, you must totally relax the upper body and most of you will not when you first try it as you will be focusing of the total movement, but over time and with practice, you will feel all of the different muscles involved and you will expend only the energy you need to, by using only the muscles you need to perform the movement, but always remember to breathe smoothly and deeply!

Finally as I always say, combat is a vicious and nasty business and I sincerely hope you never have to experience it, but if you do, your first objective is to survive and get out of the situation intact!