No Belts, No Ranks, No Bowing

I started practicing martial arts in college (Tae Kwon Do) and have been training and studying several other martial arts since then. I have been training in Systema since 2013. My perspectives about training have changed over time.  The article below represents my perspective ( that of one student) when I wrote it in 2019.  Like many things I have written down over the years, I will likely return to read it and chuckle about my ignorance.    

It is easy to see the contrast between Systema practice and many Eastern martial arts, such as Tai Kwan Do. Systema practitioners train in street clothing, all ranks train together, and there is little formality (e.g., bowing) or rigid hierarchy (lining up from senior to junior rank) that you see in most traditional martial arts schools.

What is not immediately apparent is that Systema represents a different approach to learning martial arts.  Systema focuses on understanding principles (e.g., breathing, relaxation, structure, movement) rather than techniques (punches, throws, blocks).  As practitioners learn these principles, they can quickly adapt techniques from other martial arts.

Personal Development

In Systema, people of all ranks train together and work on the same drills.  While all the students are practicing the same drill, each student uses the drill to refine their skills.  One student may be working on relaxing while moving, while another may be focusing on their timing.  Over time, students find that the various principles complement one another. For example, smooth movement is challenging without relaxation, and relaxation is difficult without breathing.

Asynchronous training

In Systema, many/most drills are asynchronous, where one partner provides a stimulus, e.g., an attack, a lock, or even a simple movement to which the other partner responds.  In Systema, the purpose of the drill is to challenge the receiving partner.  The provider calibrates the attack to the skill level of the receiver.  The receiver can learn from both success and failure – how not to respond to the stimulus.  So, the provider should adjust the 

Both training partners should ensure that the ego is removed from the drills.  The drill should not become a contest (e.g., the provider attempting to thwart of trick the receiver).  Conversely, the drill should be a challenge, the provider should execute a technique that challenges the receiver.  


In many martial arts, progress is similar to an academic program – a student learns some material, is tested on the material, and is promoted. For example, study Brown Belt material, take the ‘brown belt’ test, and receive a brown belt. 

In contrast, Systema has no formal curriculum and no series of ranks. Progress is measured in a couple of ways.  Internally, students look at their ability and life and ask themselves – am I better due to my Systema training?  Externally, Instructors and other students can observe the individual – how they move, whether they are relaxed under pressure, and how effective their strikes are.    

In summary, Systema’s overall approach differs from many other martial arts. Some students will find it a good fit, while others will discover Systema clashes with their concept of what a martial art should be. Ultimately, the question should be whether the student is growing through their training, whether it is Systema or another martial art.