Published on June 27, 2013
Notes on systema principles and practice.

On and off, I do a bit of exercise with Systema, a Russian “reality-based” (as opposed to sport focused) martial art.

I have ended up with a few notes on the general principles and on some common exercises.

I find these helpful when I try to explain what it’s about to someone new, which happens occasionally as Systema is still moderately obscure in the UK.

It’s also nice to remind myself what I like to play with when I eventually go back to class.

Good to remember: it’s not a competition.

The 4 pillars of Systema

Focus on one or all of these in every exercise.


  • In through the nose, out through the mouth.
  • Breathing out to release tension from hits.
  • Patterned breathing, e.q. square breathing for running exercise or doubled breathing for faster recovery.
  • Breath holding for generating mental stress.
  • Shallow breathing when restricted by a lock or during ground work.
  • Don’t forget to breathe!
  • Continuous breathing that is not too fast or too slow for the situation helps save energy.


  • Remain flexible and adaptive.
  • Conserve energy by using only the muscles needed.
  • Use selective tension to provide structure to an opponent, then take it away.
  • Helps prevent injury.


  • Vertical spine is usually good structure.
  • Good posture allows easier movement and avoidance, and more efficient power generation.
  • Strong structure is defensive as well as a good base for controlling the structure of others.

Continuous movement

  • Moving targets are harder to hit!

Useful tools

  • A hard surface

    A sprung wooden floor is forgiving but hard enough to make mistakes clear; grass is less good once you begin to gain confidence as it forgives too much.

  • A wall.

    Walls can be good for exercise, for learning use of space and footwork, for structural support.

  • A stick.

    Great for footwork and timing, ok for massage, good when working close contact for learning leverage and instinctive biomechanics.

  • A sledgehammer.

    Can be fun for exercise.

  • A training knife.

    Can be fun for timing and stress work, and great for control, but less useful for me as I don’t want to train in the expectation of getting into a knife fight. Run away!

Movements to include

  • Moving inside and outside an attack.
  • Avoiding while maintaining structure, in the ballroom-dancing, pivoting, weight transfer sense.
  • Duck walking.
  • Movement while grounded - rolls, crawling, forbidding certain limbs.
  • Changing levels - avoidance, rolls, takedowns focused on structural weak points, working from the ground against a standing opponent.

Traditional exercises

Often creatively combined with each other, with random non-traditional exercises, and with some minor pummelling.

  • Squats.
  • Pushups.
  • Situps.
  • Leg raises.
  • Selective tension and relaxation.
  • Rolls and falls.
  • Force (generally spiralling) against a resisting partner.

Exercises can be tried slow, fast, and with particular patterns of breathing or with no breath.

Form should be varied often.


  • Varying strength and depth.
  • Right on the surface for pain compliance work and structure shocks.
  • Slow and deep, moving towards pushes.
  • Gravity based, very relaxed with heavy hands.
  • Accuracy, for stop hits and to penetrate defence.
  • Aggression as a defence.
  • Hits specifically to deform structure.
  • Hits to attack weapons (e.g. arms).
  • Boxing style - high elbow, straight line from shoulder, shoulder moves first for a whipped arm, tension only at the last second.


  • Small work, keeping low - great for stop hits.
  • Pushes.
  • For attacks at multiple levels simultaneously.
  • For working from the ground.

Pad work

  • Side kicks - great exercise, but not hugely practical. Keep that leg high!
  • With focus mits: Continuous movement and varying intensity. Figure eight. Aggression vs defense, for movement across a room.

Control work (the fun bit)

  • Locks.
  • Takedowns - whatever works.
  • Pushes.
  • Maintaining a particular distance - following and leading.
  • Control from the head.
  • Control from joints.