Advanced Technique: the Front Roll-Fall

The front roll-fall technique uses the third principle of Fearless Falling, rolling, to absorb and redirect the dangerous forces of a forward fall at speed.  This kind of fall usually happens when engaging in some sport activity: skating, skiing, biking, running, Parkour, etc..  The bad things about these falls are the velocity and danger; the good thing is that you are usually aware of the potential hazard, so are not as startled and have more time to apply a safe falling technique.

* * * IMPORTANT NOTE * * *
The roll-fall technique requires some arm strength, core strength, and good chin-tuck and rolling skill.  You should not attempt to learn the front roll-fall technique until you have mastered the basic "tuck-sit-roll" side back-fall method.

Rollfall contact zoneThe main idea is to transform the energy of your forward and downward momentum into angular momentum: the forward rolling of your whole body.  You essentially shape your body into a hoop which then rolls across the ground.  By curling up and tucking your head out of the way you land mostly on your back shoulder area instead of striking face or head-first.  The energy of the fall is absorbed by rolling across your back and landing on the side of your back and buttock. At the end, the side of one leg and both feet hit, and the whole body slides across the ground a bit. In the most advanced version, the legs are pulled in closer, and the remaining angular momentum is used to lift you right back up off of the ground into a standing position. This slick method allows you to avoid scraping along the ground to "burn off" the excess energy of the fall.

The figure to the left shows the areas of the body that are used to absorb the force of the roll-fall.  The extended arm is "dashed" because it does not absorb much force -- it only guides the upper body into the roll.  The major force absorption is by the upper back, behind the shoulder, down across the back to the opposite gluteal muscles and into the back of the thigh and side of the leg.  

Note: you do NOT roll across the hip bone (major trochanter) in a proper roll-fall.

The First Roll-Fall Step: Rolling at floor-level.

NOTE: the "floor" in these photos is a gymnastics mat.  You should learn these movements on a cushioned mat.

rollfall-1The lead arm must be rotated inward and gently bent.  The extended fingers of the hand are pressed together, and they point downward and backward towards your legs.  This arches the arm in front of you with the elbow up above the hand.  Note: your lead elbow is pointing out in the direction of the roll.

The other arm is arched with the fingers pointing forward. Your two hands are close to each other, pointing opposite directions, so that your two arms form an angled hoop.  Tuck your chin towards your chest on the lead arm side, and your head will be close to the hoop formed by your arms.

rollfall-2Push off with your rear foot, and tighten your core muscles to hold the curved body shape. Keep your lead arm "springy" and extended, so you will roll right over it to the back of your shoulder.

The position and angle of the lead arm (the right arm in these pictures) is key to a smooth roll-fall. The arm does not have to support the weight of your body; it just acts as a curved "guide rail" to initiate the forward rotation. But, if you let this lead arm collapse, or fold it in to your side, your shoulder will plow into the ground.

By keeping your lead arm slightly extended and rotated inward, you roll right over the elbow joint and up the back of the arm over the triceps and onto the deltoid muscles of the shoulder area.  The slightly extended and rotated position of the arm is very important to maintain a large, open, angle at the shoulder joint.  If the arm is dropped down and folded in close to the body, with an acute angle at the shoulder, you will hit right on the shoulder joint instead of rolling over it.

As you continue rolling, try to maintain the curve of your body, and keep the legs bent at the knee.  The brunt of the first contact with the ground is taken by the muscles of the upper back in the shoulder blade area. Rolling at an angle across the back, the force is spread across the trapezius and latissimus down to the lower back, and then across the spinal area to the upper gluteal muscles on the opposite (in these pictures, the left) side. This roll angle, from right shoulder to left gluteus, gives the maximum contact area and avoids rolling down the spine on the vertebrae and hitting the tailbone.

In the final phase, the lower gluteus maximus will impact the mat, followed by the left leg (in these photos) which will come over and strike the mat on its side.  The right leg should strike with the foot alone; preferably the ball or sole of the foot, not the heel.

Notice the roughly 45 degree angle to the floor of the hips and frontal plane of the body. This is very important to keep the hip bone (major trochanter) from striking the ground. The final impact is spread between the left butt cheek (the gluteus maximus) and the outer thigh of the left leg.

The arms and hands wrap protectively around the head as the roll finishes, still in a slightly angled position.

As seen in the video below, the energy generated  by the roll is absorbed by the sequence of body contacts, ending with the feet striking, and the remainder is "burned off" by the friction of the body sliding across the mat a bit.  In the beginning learning stage, at low speed with proper mats, this is not a problem.  

Remember, the most important objective in a head-first forward falling method
is to protect the head from traumatic brain injury.  Some scrapes and bruises from sliding on a hard surface are a small price to pay for avoiding a serious or fatal head injury.

rollfall gif
Here is a full floor-level practice roll, shown at half-speed.  This is usually called a "right-side roll-fall" because it starts on the upper right side.

You should always practice roll-falls on both your right and left sides.

The Roll Fall from a Standing Position

The next step is to start from a higher position.  First, just crouch down very close to the kneeling position shown above to practice the rolls.  Then gradually stand a little higher until you can confidently start your roll from a normal standing position.  At this height, it is important to think of the lead arm as the start of a great curve, arcing down to the mat with your body following its line.  Here is a full practice roll to side-fall position at normal speed:

rollfall standing

Again, notice how stopping the rotation at the end of the roll fall
transforms the angular momentum back into forward momentum.  Some of the energy of the fall is lost through the action of  the back, buttocks, legs, and feet striking the mat.  The remaining kinetic energy must still be dissipated by frictional heat loss as the body slides across the mat.

The Complete Roll Fall back up to Standing Position

The final version of the roll fall recovers the energy in the angular and forward momentum of the fall by using it to lift the weight of the body back up from floor level to a standing position again.

Roll Fall back up to feetThis neat trick is done by folding the left leg (in this "right-side" roll) in closer to the pelvis, with the right foot coming over a bit ahead of it.

The body is kept in a circular shape, and essentially just keeps rolling.  As the center of mass lifts up over the feet, the forward and angular velocities are both reduced as the energy is drawn off by the work required to lift the whole body back up to a standing position.  In this demonstration, with little forward momentum to start, the kinetic energy gained in the fall closely matches the energy needed to return to standing.

In a higher speed fall (from running or biking), you may have to take several steps to run off the energy at the end, or even do two or more consecutive rolls.