How to Fall—the Right Way, According to a Doctor of Physical Therapy

April 24, 2024

I vividly remember walking into my very first Jiu-Jitsu class. Before I was allowed to do anything the instructor pulled me aside and said I needed to learn to fall correctly. Needless to say, I was confused—I never realized there was a “correct way” to fall. I just thought you landed on the ground, crossed your fingers, and hoped for the best.

Fast-forward five years, hundreds of falls, and zero fall-related injuries later, and I am so grateful for that lesson. It quite literally saved my back.

So, to help keep you safe, Doctor of Physical Therapy Dr. Chad Walding shares his expert tips on how to fall as safely as possible.

Why Do We Fall More As We Age?

Many falls happen because of a combination of factors. As you age, your balance can get worse, which can make you more likely to fall. This is especially true if you have muscle weakness, difficulty walking, or trouble seeing well. A vitamin D deficiency and having health issues like osteoporosis, high blood pressure, or Parkinson’s disease can also up the risk of falling.

“As you age, you begin to lose muscle mass and strength, and your reaction time begins to slow as well,” explains exercise physiologist Christopher Travers, MS. “These are all things that affect your balance. As a result, you’re more susceptible to trips and falls.”

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What are the Risks of Not Knowing How to Fall?

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Every day, a senior (age 65+) falls in the U.S.—it's actually the leading cause of injury and injury-related deaths in this age group. In fact, one in four older adults will take a tumble each year in the United States (1).

Surprising Health Facts About Falls

  • About 36 million falls are reported among older adults every year—leading to more than 32,000 deaths (2, 3).
  • Every year, around 3 million older adults end up in the emergency room with a fall-related injury (3).
  • One out of every five falls causes an injury, such as broken bones or a head injury (2).
  • Each year at least 300,000 older people are hospitalized for hip fractures (4).
  • More than 95% of hip fractures are caused by falling—usually by falling sideways (5).

How To Fall Safely: Tips From a Physical Therapist

Follow along as Dr. Chad leads you through how to fall correctly.

1. Falling Backward

Knowing how to fall backward is crucial because, let's face it, it happens quite a bit. Picture this: you slip on the stairs, and suddenly you're falling backward. If you're not prepared to protect yourself, you could end up seriously hurt.

Here are some tips to keep you safe:

  • If you feel like you're falling backward, try squatting down low.
  • Remember to tuck your chin in and round your back to soften the impact.
  • As you go down, stretch out your arms to the sides with your palms facing down. Imagine slapping the ground as you land.

The key is to avoid looking up or extending your neck which will likely cause your head to the ground first. Don’t stick your arms out behind you to catch yourself, as that will result in a broken wrist or arm. Getting familiar with these reactions can help keep you safe in case of a fall.

2. Falling Forward

If you ask me, faceplanting is the most embarrassing way to fall. Knowing how to fall forward correctly can make the difference between a broken nose or walking away with your body and reputation intact.

Here are a few things to keep in mind for safely falling forward:

  • Keep your elbows bent to a 90-degree angle, with the palms open in front of your face. When you fall forward, you’ll land on your forearms with your wrists neutral. This will protect your face from hitting the ground.
  • Don’t try to break your fall with your hands. Falling onto an outstretched hand is the most common cause of wrist fractures in people over 50. Keeping your elbows and knees slightly bent will help your body absorb the impact more effectively.
  • Make sure you avoid landing on your elbows—that could cause a break or dislocation.
  • In the beginning, practice this falling forward motion on a soft surface (like a bed), gradually working your way to harder surfaces so that you’re prepared for just about anything.

This particular technique can be a bit scary at first, but once you’re comfortable with it, it can be a lifesaver.

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3. Falling Sideways

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Of course, falls aren’t just straight forward or backward. They often happen in the most awkward positions. But if you fall to the side—in whatever manner—the basic principles still apply. It just depends on the angle at which you fall.

  • In many cases, you’ll use the same technique as falling backward, just with one hand extended, sometimes with the same side leg extended too (this often happens if you slip on one side).
  • If your body is a bit more turned, it may make more sense to continue that rotation and fall as though you were falling forward, landing on your forearms.
  • Don’t fall on the bony part of your hip, which is how hip fractures happen. Again, try not to use your arms to break your fall, which can easily break your shoulder, elbow, or wrist. Try to stay relaxed and go with the flow of the fall.

It’s important to practice these falls in a safe and controlled manner, working on different angles and levels so that you get used to immediately entering protective postures.

4. After You Fall

If you do fall, stay calm. Take a few deep breaths, and don’t move right away. Do a quick body scan to check for injuries. If you think you can get up safely, move slowly toward a sturdy object that you can use to pull yourself up. Pause if you feel dizzy. Once you are up, call your medical provider or an emergency contact.

If you can’t get up on your own, activate your emergency response alert system, call 911, or call out loud for help.

"Falling down is a part of life; getting back up is living.” - Jose N. Harris

More Fall Safety Tips

Think of yourself as a pilot, and use the two to three seconds as you go down to actively plan a soft landing.

  • Try to relax your body as you fall. I know it’s easier said than done, but tensing up could cause you to injure yourself further. 
  • Aim toward open areas and toward soft surfaces like grass or dirt rather than concrete.

The Bottom Line

We all want to avoid falling, but accidents happen, right? By working on your balance and strength, following Dr. Chad’s tips, and practicing, you can reduce your risk of injury. Remembering even one of these tips may make all the difference.

If you have any other strategies to reduce your risk of falling, we’d love to hear your tips in the comments below. And if you know someone who could benefit from this article (and we all do), feel free to share it with them. It could end up saving their life. 

Kat Kennedy
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Kat Kennedy

Kat Kennedy is the Fitness and Nutrition Editor at NativePath. With a NASM CPT, NCSF CPT, and NCSF Sports Nutrition Certification, she has a passion for giving people the tools they need to feel healthy, strong, and confident.

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    Medical Disclaimer

    This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of such advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Chad Walding nor the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content, especially those taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, should consult their physicians before beginning any nutrition, supplement, or lifestyle program.

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