Rare is the person who hasn’t tripped during a run, stumbled over something at the gym, or taken a full-on tumble. While these missteps often come off as funny, falling is no joke. It isn’t uncommon but falls come with various degrees of injury. Most of the time, we can shake off a fall. But sometimes, hitting the ground can leave us bruised, scratched up, or worse. Because of the possibility of serious injury, it’s paramount—especially if you’re into fitness—to learn how to fall properly. Seriously. According to physical therapists, stuntpeople, and karate professionals, there are correct ways to save a fall—and they can prevent disaster. To cover all the bases, we spoke with Kevin Inouye, stuntman and assistant professor of movement, acting, and stage combat at Case Western Reserve University. Read on for his tips about how to fall correctly.
Don’t catch yourself.
If you’re like most people, your first instinct when you begin to fall is to throw out your arms and catch yourself. According to Inouye, this can actually do more harm than good. “I think the main problem I run into is people who are trying to catch themselves to prevent or stop a fall. We instinctively reach out or tense up,” he tells us. This can especially be true if you’re working out, even if you think your muscles will remain relaxed and in control. (Spoiler: They likely won’t.) “It’s not something that’s too deliberate. Without practice, we’re unlikely to plan our falls. It happens quickly, and we react on impulse,” Inouye adds. In this case, avoid landing on your palm. Doing so can bring too much sudden force to your hand and wrist, potentially causing a sprain or break.
Decelerate your fall.
If you didn’t think reducing the speed of a fall was possible, think again. It is, and it’s definitely the move. “If you can catch yourself early in the fall by grabbing a railing or something, by all means, do that,” Inouye explains. “But once the fall is really happening, it’s best to change tactics. Rather than trying to stop yourself from falling, it’s more important to focus on decelerating your fall. When you think about it, what hurts is not the fall, it’s the sudden stop. We want the stop to be as gradual as possible. That means taking time to decelerate.”
Lengthening your fall will lessen the impact. This is safer than reaching out your hand to stop a fall. Plus, it actually allows your body more time to slow down. “Stopping yourself robs you of some of that time. If you catch yourself on your hands, knees, or elbows, you miss that extra couple feet of deceleration time,” he continues. “If you reach out, that’s fine. But don’t try to stop yourself with that limb. Use it to slow yourself down and steer as you fall. Distance equals time. No distance over which to slow yourself means no time to spread that out—and [then] you slam hard.”
Roll to absorb impact.
Overall, you want to be adding one bit of yourself to the ground at a time. This can be done by spreading the impact over more surface area (more on that later) or falling into a roll. “This can mean something like a shoulder roll if you know how to do one of those, or a paratrooper-style fall, where you roll up your side and back as you land. Parkour practitioners become great at this, using rolls to help absorb the impact of jumping from heights,” Inouye explains.
Rolling turns the downward energy of a fall into rotational energy, which allows for a smoother landing. These rolls aren’t for show, so don’t worry about looks or performance ability. You want all your effort to go into protecting the more injury-prone parts of your body. “It’s not the same as gymnastics somersaults, where symmetry is the goal,” Inouye says. “We don’t want to hit tailbones, heads, or the spine, so going a bit to one side or the other—on the muscles where a back massage feels good—can be much better than a centered roll.”
The same goes if you’re falling backward, in which case you should tuck your head toward your stomach to avoid hitting it as much as possible. Of course, don’t wait until your next tumble to attempt a roll. Practice often on a padded surface to avoid spiked shoulders.
Land on as much padding as possible.
“Sometimes you don’t have enough time, height, or control to set up a roll, so it’s better to just dissipate the impact over as much surface area as possible,” Inouye says. “This means not just avoiding pointy protrusions such as elbows or kneecaps but also splitting the difference over as much of your thighs, torso, and forearms as you can.” The goal here is to land on your natural padding to spread out the impact of the landing.
Try to avoid landing on bones and cartilage, which can crack and take a lot of time to heal. “This might mean an ungraceful belly flop or splat on your back, but dignity isn’t what we’re trying to save here,” Inouye tells us. “It’s better to have a medium slap across your whole body than a big slap on just one part, like a tailbone or wrist. Share the pain evenly, and all parts can walk away whole.”
Plant a foot for control and balance.
Each of the points mentioned above is much easier if you can place a foot correctly in the early moments of a fall. This support foot can help you regain balance, decelerate the fall, and get some control back.
“The closer you can fall to that support foot, the more you can control your fall. If you can do that, then your other limbs just need to help balance you on that support,” Inouye explains. “If I’m falling back and I can get one foot behind me, I want my other foot, my hands, and my head to all reach forward to counterbalance my fall and keep me on that foot. When I throw my hands behind me to catch myself, I’m actually throwing more weight into accelerating my fall and throwing my weight away from my support. The farther my center of gravity lands from that support foot, the less control I have over the fall.”
When it comes down to it (excuse the pun), falling can catch you off guard more often than not. You don’t have much time to react, so knowing these tips and familiarizing yourself with them is key. “It’s something you need to practice because when you need it, you need it to be in your muscle memory, not somewhere in your head. There’s no time to think about it while it’s happening,” Inouye says. Even as someone who choreographs his falls, he admits that planning goes to the wayside once you’re falling. It’s all about being able to respond properly at the moment. If you have the time (hello, rest days!), take an hour every so often to practice your falls. Your reaction may be the thing that prevents a major injury down the line.