Training In Systema

July 4, 2011

Post image for Training In Systema
“There is one big limitation or obstacle. And that is our personal laziness. If we overcome that the possibilities are amazing.” ~Mikhail Ryabko

For the last few years or so, I have been fortunate to train with Sonny Puzikas in a Russian martial art called Systema. I have trained in other martial arts like Tae Kwando, Hapkido, Ninjutsu and MMA. The other arts did not hold my attention and interest the way Systema has. Truthfully I get bored easily.

I find myself enthralled by the many “onion layers” Systema training has as well as the impact Systema can have across other areas of life and living beside physical conditioning and combat skills.

It has spiritual and mental elements to it that I have not come across in the other martial arts. The wisdom that I have gleaned from the practitioners of Systema is far more practical and applicable than I have received from other instructors.

Don’t take my comments to mean there is no value in the other martial arts, I am not saying that. For me personally I found a connection with Systema that I did not have with other fighting arts.

Training has yet to get dull.

It can be intense as much as it can be enjoyable. I have yet to get bored with Systema or ever feel unmotivated to attend classes and put myself into the training. I particularly appreciate the lack of techniques to drill, it makes Systema so much more simple to understand. Though the challenge is to master and apply its principles.

Another element of Systema that I appreciate is the constant drive to remove ego and pride from the equation. In other martials arts- particularly MMA, there is an emphasis on how hard and fast you can punch a bag or other training aids. The training can become mindless for many, this was particularly true for me. The swinging of the punching bag from hard hits, or causing someone to fall back after kicking a pad they are holding usually ends up stroking the ego and accomplishing nothing at all.

I have a deep appreciation of the humility that is exhibited by many of the top practitioners of Systema. The training demands that we take ourselves out of the way; and as a result the training reinforces principles I learn from the Torah and Stoicism about removing attachments, pride and arrogance.

As I previously wrote, it is important that we remove the illusions we have of ourselves before a catastrophic event does that for us. A violent encounter is not the time to find out that you are not as good or as tough as you thought you were.

I came to Systema by way of a suggestion from a member of a survival forum I participated in. I was in search of a fighting style that had a sense of fullness to it and the training would be more able to mimic or prepare the body and mind for real-world violence. I searched around in Dallas and found Sonny Puzikas who is an outstanding  instructor and has an amazing style of his own within the world of Systema. Sonny trains directly with Mikhail Ryabko and Vladimir Vasiliev who are considered master practitioners of modern-day Systema.

One of the beautiful elements of this fighting system is it is based on key principles that allow you to create your own “dance” if you will. There are no techniques to practice. Systema’s approach is based on principles instead of techniques which lends it to being very adaptable to different situations and circumstances.

The principles apply regardless of what you are doing or going through: violent encounters with multiple adversaries, shooting a gun, using a knife, going to the ground, fighting in confined spaces, etc. The opportunity is there to develop skill and your own style of performing Systema.

As I understand Systema today, the primary principles or concepts are as follows:

  • Breathing
  • Relaxation
  • Form
  • Movement
  • Bio-Mechanics
It is important to master these principles as Systema does not emphasize techniques. The training is designed to create a thinking fighter that is quick, dynamic and completely unscripted in a violent confrontation.


If you cannot breathe, you cannot live. You cannot use the other principles of Systema without proper, continuous breathing. Breathing brings life and energy into the body. Everything we do should involve uninterrupted flow of breath unless you are training to deal with the lack of air. Breathing promotes clarity of mind and allows us to ascend to the next level of Systema which is relaxation of mind and body. Holding our breath causes tension, tension removes our ability to move efficiently and removes power from our movement.

Watch yourself in your daily activity. For the untrained you will probably find yourself holding your breath to get out of the car, to sit down, to lift something or reach over for something. Your breathing will probably also stop or become erratic and shallow when you are confronted with stressful or frightening situations. Being aware of your breathing is an element of Systema traning that can enter every part of your life at anytime you are aware and conscious.

For me watching my breathing was the first step to becoming more aware of myself inside and out. Breath control was the first step or gateway to watching myself and my movements. Even paying attention to how my feet land on the ground while walking. Try monitoring and controlling your breath through out the day and see if this doesn’t make you more aware of what you usually do mindlessly. As Sonny would say,”be mindful (mind full) of your training.

A book that was recommended to me to read that I will pass on to you regarding breathing is Let Every Breath… Secrets of the Russian Breath Masters by Vladimir Vasiliev.


As breathing is mastered and monitored, the next principle of Systema to accommodate is relaxation. Relaxation like the other principles cannot be effectively accomplished without proper breathing. Relaxation and good breath control play off each other and influence not only each other but the other principles of Systema. If you become tense, your breathing is affected. If you hold your breath or do not breathe properly, your ability to relax is affected. Systema training holds within it the ability to condition your mind and body to relax and breathe under stressful or painful stimuli.

A point about relaxation that is brought up by Sonny is relaxed muscle is strong muscle. The kind of strong muscle Sonny is referring to though is not developed by mainstream weight training with barbells and machines that isolate muscle groups. This can cause imbalances in muscle strength and size that lead to tight muscles. The kind of strong muscle Sonny is talking about comes by training that involves slow, and controlled movements that use the whole body via body weight or training aids like kettlebells.

A relaxed body is better able to handle stress, and react faster. More so a relaxed body can help create a relaxed mind just as a relaxed mind can help promote a relaxed body. When our mind is under stress, our stress tends to manifest itself in our shoulders, upper back and chest. Stress will change our breathing or cause us to hold our breath. This creates more tension in the body and begins to cloud the mind.

Part of relaxation also is acceptance and faith regarding the things outside of us that we cannot control. This shares a common thread with Stoic and Biblical principles. We must train our minds to be accepting of the things we cannot control, to conquer fear and let go of the ego that makes us blind and sabotages our efforts at self-improvement.

For example, we must accept that in any given violent encounter there is the possibility of being hit, stabbed, shot or any other number of scenarios that can be painful, injurious, or life-threatening. As a result we must accept that these things can happen and if they do; accept them with a relaxed mind and body. Systema training contiguously demonstrates and reinforces that breathing and relaxation is key to reducing the physical damage of violent strikes as well as maintaining your wits.

Another advantage of maintaining a relaxed mind and body is that you are less likely to transmit tension to your opponent which can quickly make a violent encounter more difficult by tensing up the body and natural movement of your opponent, which will move you from using body mechanics to overcome your opponent to strength and power to overcome that tension.


Systema dictates that proper form is achieved by removing tension from mind and body while using good breath control. Systema favors a natural stance where the feet are comfortably shoulder-width apart, relaxed shoulders, hands by your side. Your knees have a slight bend, with your hips forward to help create a flat lower back. You should be able to stand this way at least an hour without tiring. A general rule is that any position taken in training or an actual encounter should be easy to hold and move from as opposed to more difficult stances that may tire the muscles or cause unneeded tension advocated by other fighting systems.

Maintaining good form in Systema helps relaxation of the muscles in movement. Punches for example are often landed on the last three knuckles instead of the first two. The reason for this to maintain relaxation in the forearms. Punching with the first two knuckles reduces surface area and requires a wrist alignment that causes tension in the forearms which means a less powerful punch.

Maintaining good form allows for efficient movement, another core principle of Systema. Good form will help you avoid getting into positions that limit movement or cause tension.


The principles mentioned all come together to help create free-flowing movement that is fluid, smooth and quick. Smooth, rapid movement cannot be accomplished without mindful, slow training with the combined principles of breathing, relaxation and good form.

Movement should have an economy of motion, efficient. Systema movement that is properly executed makes the practitioner look as if he is doing almost nothing at all to overcome his or her opponent. The efficiency of Systema often causes causal observers to think that Systema is fake or not a real fighting system. Having been on the receiving end of Systema, I can vouch that Systema is anything but ineffective or fake.

The movement in Systema is neither defensive or offensive. For most parts, Systema movement is about allowing the opponent’s movement to expire by moving the body to take advantage of  an opponent’s position and movement.

There are no blocking motions that I have seen in Systema as a block would trigger the opponent’s mind to initiate a new attack. Punching is done completely relaxed and without the use of body weight or movement. It would be something along the lines of waveform striking which is exactly opposite of what most fighting styles teach about punching.

Systema emphasizes movement as a principle because in an encounter there is no interest in being planted or holding ground as might be emphasized in other fighting styles. Systema teaches us to move off the “X” if you will, there is no planted stance that is offensive or defensive. Movement is to remove opportunities from your opponent and open new ones for yourself. Sonny would put this in another way by saying, “out of nothing make something, and out of something make nothing.”

“Don’t accumulate movements, accumulate the feeling of correct movement.” ~Konstantin Komarov


Putting the above principles together allows you to take advantage of bio-mechanics. Systema training is purposefully slow so that as you train, you can study the affect of your movements and that of your opponent’s movement to see windows of opportunity to take your opponent down with literally your finger tips. The movement of the human body is fundamental and does not change much from person to person despite strength, size and weight differences. Systema trains its practitioners to take advantage of the natural movement of the human body as an encounter unfolds.

Training to understand body-mechanics is what helps Systema practitioners prevail in a violent encounters. Knowing how the body moves makes a person very aware of their own body as well as the bodies of their opponents. It makes for efficient movement when you know what to move and the effect of that movement to the balance, tension, and body position of your body as well as the body of your opponent.

If a certified instructor of Systema is teaching in your area, I highly recommend checking them out. Also keep your eye out for seminars, many of the top instructors travel doing weekend seminars in major cities.

Previous post:

Next post: