What Makes Systema Different From Other Martial Arts?

by Maryland Systema

George Borrelli from Systema Colorado Springs wrote this attempting to answer the question:

Q: “How is Systema different from other martial arts?”

Please note: I LOVE AND RESPECT all other martial arts and still train in other arts. I am not trying to put Systema ahead of others and I am NOT PUTTING others down. Great respect for all of you that train. I am training in other arts too. I am simply attempting to tease out differences and nuances to answer the question.

A: In so very many ways, Russian Systema is very unique.

In fact, most when watching Systema in practice accuse it of being too “weird” and “not effective” because it is so unconventional. Most say that until they are hit by a Systema Master, then they have a change of heart, almost universally.

Keep in mind that using the term, “Systema” is a very broad term, similar to the Chinese term, Kung Fu, embraces many arts and many “splinter”, “sister”, and “cousin” arts. Systema does definitely infer a Russian Martial art or system.

I spent most of my 6 decades in some martial arts or another. I started with judo, then wrestling, then traditional forms of karate, then self-defense systems, Kenpo, TKD, Hapkido, full contact kickboxing, and many more. I never had seen anything quite like Russian Systema. To say that I was in a state of shock would be an understatement. I would spar with instructors and get hit with stuff I wasn’t able to comprehend at that time.

Trying to classify Systema is difficult. It is a hard or soft style? Is it internal or external? Is it a ground-based or stand-up system? Is it a weapons or knife system? All of these categories don’t suffice to describe Russian Systema.

It is kind of a soft style, yet the hits are brutal and worse than anything I’ve felt previously, even in full-contact KO fighting I’ve done. It does focus internally sure, but it also focuses on the impact to others definitely. It has stand up but has massive ground.

It includes all weapons and defense of weapons too. So, for me, it’s kind of like and internal/external system, that is soft in practice but brutally hard when felt. It covers all weapons use and defense. It spends equal time standing and ground an even in between! And is a health system to boot.

Is Systema a joint-lock system like BJJ, Hapkido, Aikido? Yes, Systema has lots of modified joint locks that start out looking somewhat like the arm bar and so forth but it’s not the focus. And there’s no equivalent tap out submission in Systema. Does Systema focus upon take downs and throws like judo, wrestling, aikdo, etc?

Well Systema covers what’s called balance disruption very deeply and most Systema encounters end up with the guy on the ground. But it’s not a takedown or throwing system. Does Systema focus upon pressure points when striking? Not really, no. Pressure points are given little time. However, the punches are really deep and impact the nervous system very profoundly. Phew!

How is Systema Different?

Almost all ways. Let me highlight some ways (there are more). Sometimes the differences are quite large, other times its focus or nuance differences.

Systema is a concept-based system vs. technique-based approach of other systems.

Systema has at the root a focus upon breathing – posture – relaxation – movement. They are all worked together, and all the time, as a true focus. These will be tied into and support all the rest. Most other systems don’t spend a lot of time on these or they are built-into their technique-based approaches. Systema pulls them out and works on them as a core focus a lot.

Natural calm breathing.

Some systems focus upon out-breath for power, like in traditional karate kicks and strike with the “kiaɪ” or yell. In Systema, the feeling is that this causes too much tension and make one vulnerable to incoming strikes it also might cause higher expenditures of energy and might cause one to run out of steam earlier.

Systema focuses upon a more natural breathing instead.

Training begins with breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth.

The focus is on how to deal with internal fear vs other systems hardly address this and assume it will be nearly overpowering in a fight

There is also a focus on maintaining the human always, even under extreme duress vs. other systems focus upon how to defeat the other person(s). To me this means homeostasis.

The sister focus is upon health vs other systems have very little except a few notably Tai Chi and Chi Gong. Systema will spend class time in massage and other health-giving methods.

Systema teaches how to “self-heal” while fighting.

This is a complicated topic and sometimes a little difficult to understand. Very few other martial arts focus as much on this. Systema practitioners work with how to handle very impactful punches so they do less internal damage, and then to use this against the attacker, instead of letting do more self-harm.

All the movements are designed not to hurt self, deteriorate, nor injure yourself. Vs most other martial arts the practitioners may (depends upon how hard one trains and the style) suffer long term damage to joints, etc. So, you can practice Systema, even with bare-knuckle punching, well into old age.

Even Systema’s strikes are designed in a way not to jolt any part of oneself. The theory goes that even in boxing there’s a toll to body, joints, even the head with all the punches and the way it is done some energy comes back. Systema goes very deep in this with lots of study and lots of practice to prevent self-deterioration from the practice.

Systema has a corollary to not hurting oneself in practice and that is not to cause long term injury or health deterioration to the partners in practice. It’s a focus where not as much a focus in some other martial arts.

You can compare it to the operating system OS of a computer. It works on the core. Then all the applications (other arts) can be added into it. Systema welcomes and encourages training and competing in all other arts. Many Systema practitioners are also training in many other arts such as: BJJ, MMA, Aikido, Silat, Filipino knife arts, etc.

Systema spends a very high percentage of training on efficiency of movement vs other systems focus upon techniques, speed, power, etc. There are a few notable systems who have it in their premise, such as Ed Parker’s American Kenpo.

But, Systema takes it much further.

Systema even will take the bounce energy of punching one guy and add it to the force of the next punch, as just one example.

Systema has a focus upon conservation of energy. Practitioners are using much less than full effort. The theory is that full effort isn’t required most of the time in the fight, with the correct concepts. A reserve of energy remains for fighting the next guy and the next guy, for example. If a surge of energy is needed, it is there, but is used in brief.

Systema covers 100% of all aspects of all fighting vs most other systems have a focus, say stand up boxing, or BJJ/grappling ground. Therefore, Systema also takes a long time to achieve practical prowess. Where others focus and can achieve strengths in narrow focus areas.

Systema assumes and all the concepts and movements are based upon an assumption that there are displayed or hidden weapons and visible or hidden accomplices. Yet works equally well when no weapons and no accomplices appear in the fight vs most other systems fight one-on-one and it either is a weapon-based system or not weapon-based.

Systema trains a LOT in multiple attackers as a focus or core concept. Vs most systems are one-on-one, and the few that do some multiple attackers devote much less work and practice time.

Systema’s punches are incredibly deep and punishing. Systema’s punches, strikes, etc., are extremely deep, penetrating and sometimes devastating vs most systems punches, and strikes tend to be focused upon KO’s, bone and joint damage, some muscle impact. Note that I say “most”.

Systema has very wide range of punch concepts. Using varying amounts of body mass and other variables versus the hard striking and kicking focus of some other systems where you train punches that have the same amount of body mass and such behind them. Some even go very fast to full stop in “pulled punches”. There are exceptions of course. Perhaps boxing has a lighter jab and heavier cross, for example.

Systema’s multiple strikes are somewhat unique. They are and look very different from most other strike-then-strike approach. It’s something like, once you enter with your fist, it does additional impacts before leaving. Short strikes and bounce strikes are some of them.

Systema minimizes engagement time and tying up time vs. many other systems, notably BJJ where tying up is core approach

Systema has codified (see Kadachokov’s Systema to see what I mean) human levers and human balance disruption to a science vs most other systems teach technique-based approach

Systema has a concept called, “intention without commitment”.

This is the first I’ve seen of this idea and I’ve trained in many arts. I think at the higher-level, other arts do this. This concept tends to yield shorter duration movements when attacking or implementing a strike-break-throw.

Systema takes the art of blending or moving-with to another planetary level. So, it is similar in that regard to arts like judo or aikido and some others, but it is a core in Systema

Systema has great emphasis on punishing strikes WHILE doing other things that significantly affect the opponents, versus most systems tend to separate the two. Again, I stated “most”. There are some systems that come close.

Systema practices striking in movement while doing other things to them, and in all kinds of positions, without the need to pause/setup etc.

Systema’s strikes include countless that are meant to disruption or discombobulation rather than to KO/break/destroy. This opens up a much wider range of striking concepts versus most systems of fighting focus upon damage.

Systema’s balance disruptions are similar. Systema will nearly continuously disrupt balance without the need to make any singular one “work”.

Systema has a lot of conceptual work on maintaining one’s composure while disruption of another person’s composure. It is not done by talking crap or eyeballing. It’s done through physical impact and in the cumulative way it is approached.

Systema’s strikes are from anywhere and “nowhere”. Whereas most systems the strikes come from a loaded or cocked position. Systema develops strikes that have impact from any position any angle and any distance from the opponent

Hidden movements/ hidden intentions.

Systema’s work against an opponent is almost entirely hidden from him. And it has a focus upon deceptive touch and tells. From an outside observer it is difficult to see this. It is hidden from the person begin hit, not necessarily hidden from observers at a distance.

Systema’s hidden intentions become a rather deep study of human psychology of fighting. Whereas most systems other than perhaps ninjitsu and the approach of ninja, the work is somewhat more or tremendously more visible most of the time. There are generally more tells to notice.

In Systema training virtually all intentions are hidden by their very nature.

Systema has a focus upon falling softly so not to injure. Even though many arts like judo, aikido, hapkido, etc have falling techniques. Systema’s falls are designed to avoid injury to the spine and designed to handle weapons and be able to stay in the fight. There is no “slapping” in Systema falls as there are in almost all the others.

Systema also has training in the use and defense of virtually all weapons, from guns to knives to whips.

Systema is one of the few arts where it is sometimes practiced with the use of “live blade”, real weapons, and real bare-knuckle punches, etc.

I could say so much more. You get the picture, Systema is very different.

Please note: I LOVE AND RESPECT all other martial arts and still train in other arts. I am not trying to put Systema ahead of others and I am NOT PUTTING others down. Great respect for all of you that train. I am training in other arts too. I am simply attempting to tease out differences and nuances to answer the question.

George Borrelli
Systema Colorado Springs

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