What Should I Wear To Systema Class?

So you’re ready to take your first Systema class. One of the first questions you probably have is, “what do I need for class?”

If you begin training at a traditional martial arts school you would need: a uniform, a belt, a groin cup, a mouthguard, protective gear for sparring, etc.

One benefit of Systema is that you don’t need any of these items to get started in Systema, you just need to show up, clothed. If you continue to train, I have listed some other gear you should invest in below.

What to Wear to Class

If you have seen video clips of Systema or watched a class, you most likely have seen Systemists wearing part or all of military uniforms, which raises the question, “Do I have to wear BDUs?”

No, BDUs (Battle Dress Uniforms), or “fatigues,” are definitely NOT a Systema uniform, although many students choose to wear them instead of gi pants because they are gusseted and are very comfortable to train in. In addition, many Systema student are either current or former military members who simply wear the training clothes they have in their closet and are used to wearing.

There are NO uniforms, not even alternative uniforms, so wear whatever you feel comfortable training in. Whatever you wear, make sure it’s comfortable, you can move freely, and it’s not something you wouldn’t mind getting ruined. If you’re more worried about your attire than training, wear something else to class. Leave your suit and tie at home.

Commonly, you will see students in MMA-type shorts, sweat pants, tracksuits, BDUs, Gi pants, and in Boulder, climbing pants. Students like to wear Systema shirts (often souvenirs from the many schools they have visited and seminars they have attended), short or long-sleeved, rashguards, and some wear full Gis. Anything goes, really. Just make sure class is about training, not what you are wearing.


Traditional martial arts classes require you to remove your shoes before stepping on the mat, a tradition that harkens back to cultures wherein people remove their shoes at the door whenever they enter a home. Going barefoot indoors is a custom that carried over to training in a dojo.

In contrast to Judoka and Jiu-Jitsu practitioners, American and Russian wrestlers customarily wear shoes specifically designed for training. Note: if your Systema class is held in a traditional martial arts dojo, then follow their customs and go barefoot.

Systema has no hard-and-fast rules for wearing shoes versus going barefoot. If anything, the custom is to vary what you wear or do not wear in class so you get used to the movement challenges, balance and sensations presented by different footwear and being barefoot. Varying your footwear is one more part of learning to adapt to all situations.

That being said, I highly recommend wearing wrestling shoes or some other type of foot covering while training, for the eminently practical reason of protecting your toes from injury.

I have a friend who had the toenail ripped off of his big toe during a mass attack drill. He told me that, after healing from that excruciatingly painful injury, he would never train barefoot again. I have rheumatoid arthritis, so I wear wrestling shoes with inserts to class.

If you have any type of foot issues you deal with, by all means wear shoes to class.

Training barefoot in a chaotic martial art such as Systema does confer some big benefits if you are willing to risk it. Moving your feet is an important skill, and going barefoot heightens your awareness of your feet, which makes you quick to move them if they are about to be stepped on or smashed. Training barefoot, particularly in mass and multiple attacker scenarios keeps you light on your toes and free to move.

As a result, at least some part of your training should be barefoot. At my school in Colorado, we more often than not go barefoot in summertime and wear shoes in wintertime.

Protective Gear, or Lack Thereof

It may surprise you, but protective gear is not normally worn in a Systema class, for very good reasons, so you will not need anything special to begin training. That means no groin cup, no mouthguard, no gloves, and no padding of any kind.

Early in my Systema training I asked my teacher why we don’t wear cups in class, as in Kenpo we did a lot of groin strikes. His initial response was, “do you wear a cup outside of class?” He went on to explain that I would learn to move my groin out of the way if I knew there was nothing protecting it other than my awareness. At first this was a tough adjustment because I was used to standing there and letting my partner haul off on my groin cup, but my Systema training bore out his explanation — I have since learned to avoid groin strikes as well as delivering them safely, with pinpoint control.

In general, protective gear deadens your sensitivity and makes you less likely to move because you can afford not to avoid strikes. It also gives you a false sense of safety because protective gear shields you from the consequences of making mistakes.

However, there a some drills wherein you must wear some type of protective gear to be able to safely practice. One example is when we train knife fighting with marking blades that can still take out an eye. We wear eye-protection that students quickly forget they are wearing once sparring begins and saves them from potential eye-loss, without sacrificing proper skill development.

NEXT: Optional Training Gear You Should Invest In

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