You need to know how to fall properly for one simple reason: you’re going to have a bad fall. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but most of us will suffer some kind of fall in our lifetimes. Americans alone suffer around 7.9 million serious falls annually. These falls account for over a third of all emergency room visits nationwide. At these rates, stereotypes really don’t hold up. It’s not just senior citizens; anyone can have a serious fall.
Then, there are the insane falls.
As you might have noticed, even insanely high falls are survivable. Indeed, whether it’s a small or ridiculous fall, the secret is understanding how to fall safely and correctly. A well-executed fall can save your life, or at least save you a broken bone or two.
How to Fall Properly: Basics
If you’re falling far, then the first thing you’d better do is chill out. Seriously, relax. Relax your muscles, and relax those joints. Relax, or they’ll be shattered when you land. A relaxed body is better at distributing the force of the impact. This could somewhat reduce the amount of damage it inflicts and might save a few bones.
The case of WWII-era Soviet pilot Ivan Chisov is a perfect example of how relaxation could save your life. During a dogfight, Chisov leaped from his bomber but passed out before he could deploy his parachute. He fell from around 22,000 feet and survived. In part, Chisov survived because his limp, unconscious body absorbed the impact better than the average mass of flailing limbs.
2. Protect Your Head
If there’s one thing to know about how to fall properly, it’s this. The golden rule of how to fall is to protect your head at all costs. I’ll be repeating this throughout because this one golden rule ties into all others. After all, if your fall proves to be fatal, it’ll almost certainly be due to a head injury. Likewise, if you survive your fall, it’ll be because the force of impact was redistributed away from your head somehow. Remember: surviving is all that matters. So seriously, protect your head.
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While we’re talking about relaxing, don’t forget joints. Keep joints like elbows and knees loose, and don’t lock anything. This is really important. When you land, you’re going to want your joints to collapse in the right direction. Otherwise, you might literally kick your own teeth out. Don’t let that happen.
3. Don’t Stretch Your Arms
This rule is especially important for shorter falls when the worst injuries are often broken wrists. Even if you’re trying to break your fall with an arm, you shouldn’t stretch out too much. Remember that you’re trying to distribute weight away from joints like the wrist and elbow. It’s not easy, but you need to keep that force focused on wider areas like your palms, and the meatiest bits of your arm.
How to Fall Properly: Legs first
4. Bend Those Knees
Closely related to the previous point, you need to bend your knees. Studies have repeatedly shown the single most important factor in most serious falls is keeping those knees slightly bent. Don’t bend them too much. It should be just enough to keep your knees from locking, but not so far as to be crouching. Martial arts practitioners will already know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s just your standard ready-stance.
5. Land on your Feet
Cats always land on their feet for a reason: it’s the best way to survive a fall. Research has repeatedly shown that standing beats rolling, landing back first and just splatting by wide margins. The secret is that it concentrates the force of impact in just the right place – your feet. You might be confused as to why we’re suddenly interested in concentrating force. After all, you’re usually told to spread the force out when landing. While this rule will crop up later on the list, standing wins because it protects vital organs better than the alternatives. If your feet are absorbing all the impact force, then that’s less shock for your heart, kidneys, and lungs. Likewise, your feet just so happen to be on the opposite side of your body to the most important organ of all. If you survive a major fall without brain damage, then you should consider yourself lucky.
Even if there isn’t much left of your feet.
6. Use the Balls of Your Feet
Assuming you’re aiming to land feet first, you should likewise try to land with the balls of your feet out. Landing on your heels will push the shock further up your body. So instead, extend those toes out and back, and use the balls of your feet to absorb as much of the initial impact as possible. Yes, it’ll hurt, but it might save your life. Also, try keeping your feet together, as though you’re standing at attention. Or, at least, you’re standing at attention with your knees bent.
Anyway, try to get both feet to hit the ground at the exact same time. This will help distribute the shock across both legs evenly. It might reduce the risk of a serious injury in one leg.
How to Fall Properly: Directions
7. How to Flop Sideways
When you do hit the ground, you’re inevitably going to fall to the ground. You might fall forwards, backwards or to either side. Data from fall victims suggests people who fall to either side are more likely to walk away from the fall. Even paratroopers fall sideways.
“The idea is to orient your body to the ground so when you hit, there’s a multistep process of hitting and shifting your body weight to break up that impact,” said Sgt. First Class Chuck Davidson once told the New York Times.
Second place goes to falling forward, where you can use your arms to protect your head. Falling on your back is the worst, so don’t do that.
If you can fall sideways, make sure you use the entirety of your arm to break the fall. For example, if you fall to your left, use everything from your left palm to left shoulder to break the fall ahead of the rest of your body. At the same time, tuck your chin into your chest and squat. You’ll also need to avoid landing directly on your hip, focusing instead on your arm.
8. How to Fall Forward
If you can’t fall sideways, you’re going to want to fall forwards. As with sideways, the trick to how to fall forwards mostly boils down to using your arms to protect the rest of your body. Try to hit the ground with your palms and forearms at the same time. Meanwhile, turn your head to the side. This will lessen the risk of smashing your jaw or nose on the ground.
9. How to Fall Backward
Try to avoid falling backward if you can. If you can’t then get into the same squat position as you would for a sideways fall. Remember to tuck your chin into your chest, bend those knees and round the back. Ideally, you’d like to hit the ground with your palms first, both hands at the same time. Don’t let your head loll back, and keep it from impacting the ground.
How to Fall Properly … From Really High
Some of these tips contradict previous suggestions on how to fall properly. That’s because from now on, we’re just talking about ridiculously high falls.
10. Grab Something – Anything!
Sometimes, you’re not going to have a clean fall. You might get knocked around a bit, or have little or no control of the fall. This might seem a bit obvious, but grabbing something can seriously impact. During the fall, immediately try to grab absolutely anything in arm’s reach. Obviously, this means trying to do so while avoiding actually hitting the ground with your wrist or elbow. If you’re falling from a window, try for any outcroppings on the building. This could include protruding brickwork, hanging signs, cables – whatever. If we’re talking a cliff, go for rocks, branches, roots. If it can even hold your weight for a moment, it could save your life. Heck, you might even be thankful for something that can slow your fall for a split second.
A good example of this in action was the 1943 case of B-17 pilot Alan Magee. Magee discovered his B-17’s emergency parachute was faulty at an inopportune moment. Abandoning his craft at 20,000 feet over France, he found said parachute was nonfunctional. Moments later, he crashed through the glass roof of a train station. Magee was captured by German soldiers, who were apparently shocked the pilot was even alive. One key factor in his fall was the glass ceiling, which likely reduced the impact of the final landing.
11. Hold on!
So let’s say you’ve tried grabbing stuff, but nothing holds your weight. At the very least, you could try grabbing something simply to hold. If you can grab something big, it could actually help cushion the fall. Look out for something that can spread your weight out. For example, a flat, wide piece of wood positioned beneath you could absorb a small amount of the impact. You’ll still feel it (a lot), but it could be the difference between a cracked skull and a very cracked skull. So that’s nice.
12. Try Hitting as much Stuff as Possible
This one will sound counter-intuitive. Imagine your favorite action movie. Odds are, it includes a scene where someone falls. For dramatic effect, they’ll probably hit tons of stuff on the way down. Heck, this scene is even more common in slapstick, where the poor victim is seen colliding with some blunt surface over, and over, and over. Check out this classic scene from The Simpsons for a perfect example of what I’m talking about.
Surprisingly, those multiple collisions were probably actually good for Homer. Each little collision reduces your velocity. This is good because it means the final impact will be less severe. Hence, when you’re falling, remember to be like Homer. Hit as much stuff as possible, preferably with the most durable parts of your body. You’ll end up suffering from more superficial injuries, but hopefully less severe blows. In other words: more busted teeth and black eyes, but fewer collapsed lungs (hopefully).
A real-life example of this rule in action is the story of Juliane Koepcke. In 1971, she survived falling from a passenger plane over the Peruvian Amazon. If you’re wondering, the plane itself was also both falling apart and nosediving into the jungle. As the only survivor, Koepcke is believed to have survived the fall after slipping from the plane, but not getting a clean fall. Instead, she was knocked around by the thick Amazonian foliage all the way down. This probably hurt, but it also probably saved her life.
By the way, you can find more tips specifically about how to survive a plane crash here.
13. Land on Soft Meat
This should go without saying but always aim to make contact with the meatiest parts of your body. If you can’t land on your feet, then the next best options are buttocks, thighs, or any muscular or fatty parts of your back. We don’t have any hard and fast rules on which body parts in particular. After all, we’re all built differently. Whatever you do, just don’t land on any bones. Pay particular attention to knees and elbows, which should never hit the ground first.
14. Roll With It
If you find yourself totally falling out of control, the best thing to do is just roll with it. Likewise, if you can’t stop the fall, go with it. This is the advice of professional stuntwoman Alexa Marcigliano.
“Spread the impact across a larger part of your body; don’t concentrate impact on one area,” said.
Check out this video by GMB Fitness about how to roll to break your fall:
It’s hard to remember these instructions in the event of a fall. You’re most likely to end up in a bad fall especially if your body is in an awkward position. On the other hand, one of the items in this list might save your life when executed perfectly. There’s a very big chance for you to get hurt, but that doesn’t matter if it keeps you alive.
Do you think these tips will really help in an actual fall? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on January 21, 2018, and has been updated for quality and relevancy.