Systema remains amongst Martial Artists a controversial art.
Well, the countless videos of people falling down without being touched have caused its study to be met with ridicule.
But is that really fair?
I don't think so, and in this article, I will explain what Systema is and why it is a solid self-defence system.
And possibly the best Martial Art you never tried.
Ready? Let's do this.
What Is Systema?
Systema is a Russian system of self-defence and self-improvement.
The name comes from the Russian word 'Sistema' which translates as 'System.'
It has grown a great reputation for a few different reasons but among them is that the people behind the art are ex-special forces/ military and have backgrounds in a lot of martial arts.
The art of Systema focuses on 4 core aspects.
As such Systema drills can look strange to the outsider who is trying to judge it as a fighting system.
The 4 core aspects of Systema are designed to create a healthy body, strong spirit and also to increase combat skill. Resulting in soldiers and participants that are, stress-free and combat efficient.
When you write it that way, Systema sounds amazing. But it still gets mauled on social media when clips of the drills are placed online.
Well, don't worry, I am going to go through why this happens and why it is totally wrong.
The Origins of Systema
While Systema seems new, it actually goes back over 1000 years when it was developed by the Cossack Army and trained by many different Russian areas.
And much like all Martial Arts, the areas had their own variations.
While not known as Systema, this is the foundation of Russian Martial arts.
Years later the art of Sambo was created by V. Oschepkov and V. Spiridonov and practised across Russia.
But due to injury, Spiridonov created another art that he called Samoz.
Samoz was based on the more traditional fighting styles that had gone underground in the ear of the Soviet Union.
It was later taught and used by the bodyguards of Stalin himself.
Over the years, many Martial Arts in Russia added the word 'Systema' to their title, which is why you see a lot of variations online.
But it is taught and used by the military to this day.
Is Systema A Fraud?
That's a good question.
But before I answer I have to say, most of the Systema videos out there look like a combination of a weird ‘blokes club’ which combines a lot of rolling around and falling on the floor whilst wearing a range of clothes that should be only worn on a paintball range.
That being said, I have a phrase that I say a lot that applies to this situation :
“LOOK BEYOND THE VIDEO”
This is the hardest thing for most martial artists to do but bare with me.
What I want people to do is look and try and not see a training drill, or a technique that will work in a street fight, instead see a drill that the sole purpose of is the develop a skill set, a skill set you can draw upon should you find yourself in a bad situation.
To help this process I've included the videos below but before watching these I want you to be aware of a few things:
You will notice Systema students falling down a lot!
In many ways, it looks like some form of drunken Yoga and yes when I saw it I too thought it looked stupid.
That is until someone tried to explain it to me.
Firstly it seems that Systema has many similarities to Aikido (yet another art that gets a bashing) and there is little resisting, and that means the training partner does not resist the technique.
This is a principle that we see in all aspects of martial arts. Otherwise, you would never get anything done.
Judo has randori but to learn to throw you need a good partner who lets you throw him.
In BJJ and any other art you have the same, you have a good old fashioned punch bag and pads in boxing, but the process remains the same.
This full force, full resistance training, only works so much. Even pro boxers rarely spar full power.
To point this out, I have some video footage from a Rory Miller seminar.
If you didn't know Rory is considered one of the greatest minds in self-defence and is a published author.
Look at the people training; now it doesn't look very different from what you see in Systema, does it?
In training, you can’t resist all the time, and it seems this is also agreed on in the world of Systema.
In addition, this lack of resistance or going with an attacker's energy is actually a fundamental part of many arts. It is yielding to power and adding your own direction and power to it.
Of course, this is a powerful principle and is something I both agree with and adhere to. If we look at the video below, we see this principle in a graceful and stunning Aikido demonstration.
This is a stunning demonstration.
But let's get back to Systema, once we scrape the surface we see art that cares less about what it looks like in training and more about how it performs in reality.
It doesn't have the same grace as Aikido because its goals are quite different.
Aikido is based mainly on attacks used in an era where the sword was carried. Systema works in the modern-day arena.
So let's look at a more up to date view of Systema before moving onto the big daddy video that will blow you away.
Striking In Systema
Now let's also address the striking in Systema.
It looks strange and loose because it targets the shoulders and the limbs (err hold on don't other arts do this too?) and forces you to strike in a relaxed fashion.
This is, of course, the key to massive power in striking.
If you come from a striking Martial Art background, you will be used to striking in your stance. And for a good reason. It is biomechanically the best way to generate power.
But think of this.
Take your fist and move it six inches from your own nose.
Would you punch yourself with your fist from that distance?
Of course not.
Why? Because it would probably break your nose.
And that's kind of the point I am making.
Punches from a boxing stance hurt but so does a strike to the inside of someone's wrist.
Or a stamp on the ankle.
And the Systema style of striking is about relaxation and striking with efficiency.
Take a look at this example of Systema striking.
Now I am sure you will agree that the last video looked pretty impressive.
Systema Knife Defence
Knife Defence is one of the most misunderstood parts of self-defence, but you will learn one of the most critical concepts in the video above.
Matching the speed of the attacker.
This is something done in boxing when an opponent rushes forward.
In real knife defence situations, we know that movement is key to survival, and this is what we see with Systema.
Drills where a person learns to react instinctively.
This goes beyond conscious thought. Our subconscious drives it.
Of note, the way Systema teaches knife defence is the same as I was taught in the police.
BJJ Rolling V's Systema Rolling
Another thing that I see complained about is the way that Systema students are the videos that show flowing drills like this one.
These videos get serious abuse online, yet when we look at BJJ rolling, (which as a Judo player is just something that we would never do), it isn't much different.
Just relaxed 'play' that reduces the risk of injury yet allows the development of mind and body coordination.
I don't think you can criticise Systema's approach to training like that unless you critique the BJJ use of rolling.
Is Systema Any Good For Self-Defence?
To answer this question, I will draw upon 2 key factors.
My own experience and the evidence for its practical use.
Firstly, my own experience.
I have not trained in Systema, but I have trained with people that have.
Most notably among these is my friend Mikey Wright who has trained in dozens of Martial Arts.
Mikey was involved in a project around the measurement of fighters striking power called Power Kube.
I was present at a pro boxing club where the fighters were being tested by Mikey and eventually he got to have a strike.
The power generated by Mikey's strike was vastly greater than the pro boxers.
The type of motion he used was as is seen in this video:
There will obviously be people who say that the Systema style of striking sacrifices things such as stability and speed but that's not what we are talking about.
The question is if this style is suitable for self-defence.
And I can evidence that the striking power isn't only excellent but terrifying.
So what about the evidence for its practical use?
Well, the art was taught to the very people who protected Stalin.
We aren't talking about the bodyguards of Kanye West. And it has been taught to the highest levels of Russian soldiers, Spetnaz.
To get to that level, without being a serious self-defence system in a nation like Russia where Sambo exists, well that would be almost ridiculous.
Russia doesn't exactly have a reputation for being soft.
So considering these things, from the evidence I have seen both on video and in person and the history of the art, Systema passes the test by any stretch of the imagination.
Yes, Systema is excellent for self-defence.
But remember it's not just for self-defence, just like BJJ, or kickboxing, Wing Chun, Judo or others.
It is a system designed to improve human functionality and not just the ability to fight.
My goal in writing this post was to try and get you to see another side of Systema because I too was once a very big criticiser of the art of Systema for the same reasons you might be.
However, once you look past the camo trousers and what seems like weird ‘falling over’ you see something far more powerful, and it often takes videos like the Korean Guy has made to show you that something is in this ‘Systema business’.
I personally will be trying it one day as I truly believe it is effective.
That being said, I dislike a few things, mostly that the hands are always far too low!
For me, that is a no-no even when training and I understand people who don’t like this as it's my biggest turn off for trying systema.
The other aspect is that it doesn't seem like a workout and that is an issue I have as I like to combine my martial arts with a workout, but that me just guessing from the videos that the physical aspect isn't as focused as say Judo and Karate.
Take care and train hard.