How to Fall Backwards and Engage the Ground Safely (Even on Hard Surfaces)
By Alex Schenker, MovNat Master Trainer
The breakfall is a fun, practical movement that most people unfortunately ignore. Being able to receive a fall without injury is a vital prerequisite to participating in higher risk activities. It is a form of a ‘get up’, with a little more emphasis on the ‘descent’.
This skill has literally saved my backside more times than every other movement skill combined, and is vital for maintaining safety in any movement practice as well as in daily life. Learning how to breakfall and practicing it regularly is the best way to improve your chances of coming out of a wipeout unscathed, with grace even, both when training and in daily life.
In your MovNat practice, there are lots of opportunities to use your breakfall skills: as a transition from (not quite) landing a jump; as a transition from a (foot-clipped) vault; as a transition from (falling out of) climbing a tree, etc. The point is, if you are progressing and trying new, challenging, and maybe riskier skills, you’ll most certainly wipe out at some point.
Breaking a fall is known as “Ukemi” in Japanese martial arts. At the root of this Japanese word is the verb “to receive”. With this in consideration, “breaking a fall” is a crude way of describing this skill; it’s more like the feeling of embracing the ground, or the fall.
The moment you realize you are falling, you make a split-second choice to go with it, or resist the force of gravity with all your might. Unfortunately, all your might usually isn’t much of a match against gravity, and at that point, you would just be gambling with injury.
Beyond the aspect of safety, breakfalling can be an intense way to integrate ground transitions in a workout. Think “practical burpees”. Breakfalls are also just plain fun! Especially the “trust-fall”; it can feel exciting, like going for a ride on your own built-in mini roller-coaster.
This movement has important implications for everyone, especially children and the elderly. It is about building and fostering your relationship with the ground. The more you fear the ground, the more likely you are to resist a fall, and the more likely you are to try and push the planet out of your way…which almost never works!
There’s a lot to gain from learning how to breakfall effectively, then efficiently, then adaptively.
Here’s a video that will walk you through the backward breakfall. We’ll start from the ground and work our way up, so you can practice the variations that you’re most comfortable with:
Key Points for an Efficient Back Breakfall Technique
1) When first learning how to breakfall, use the following skill progression:
- Supine Breakfall Positioning
- Forward Rocking
- Rooting the Rock
- Falling Back from a Deep Knee Bend
- Falling Back from Standing
2) Before you begin practicing breakfalls, check the area for any safety hazards or poops that may be present.
3) Practice the movements very slowly to develop control over your descent. Slow makes smooth.
4) Don’t try to rush to do this at full speed. Take your time building up your confidence with slow, controlled, consistent practice.
5) Round your back to avoid thumping down, but allow your back to flatten out after rocking back unless you want to rock back up right after falling.
6) Make sure to keep in mind the 3 key points of positioning: Keep your head up; land with your arms about 45° from your body; and keep at least one knee up.
7) Don’t strain, tense up, or hold your breath as you roll. Exhale as you receive the ground for a smooth landing.
8) You should land with a wide base of support. Think “snowshoe”. Or, if you’re accustomed to warmer climates, floating on your back in the water.
9) Make sure your hands are the last things to touch the ground. The key here is not putting your hands down as you fall (as in trying to stop the fall).
10) Work toward a no handed breakfall once you are comfortable. You don’t want to rely on your arms if you are holding something (like a child).
11) Generally, the closer you are to the ground when you fall, the better. That’s why I suggest practicing very slowly, which builds control in your descent. When you progress to practicing this from standing, focus on lowering your center of gravity as much as possible, ideally bringing your butt right down to your heel before rocking onto your back. If well practiced, this cultivated control will result in naturally lowering your center of gravity down as you start to lose balance, falling from a lower height.
12) Once you’ve become comfortable with the basic technique, you can start adding adaptations to apply your breakfall in many different ways, to name a few:
- with various ways of getting up.
- at more realistic speeds.
- with a “trust fall” (just falling back and waiting as long as you can to get into position).
- as a transition from running, and other skills
- on different surfaces, like grass, sand, mud, cement.
You may be pretty confident in your ability to take a fall, but we can always find room for improvement. This guide offers some great progressions to refine your falling technique, or learn it from scratch.
Integrating breakfalls into your practice will go a long way in preventing injuries; bolster your physical capabilities; can be easily integrated in combos; and can even make some of your wipe outs look more impressive than your successful attempts.
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About the Author
Alex Schenker is a MovNat Master Trainer, Martial Arts Instructor, Movement Therapist, and the creator of Natural Mobility. His approach emphasizes restoring and maintaining the natural state of our human bodies, reconnecting with the evolutionary movement aptitudes of our species, as well as stimulating our own natural healing capabilities through corrective exercise. Alex coaches people privately, and teaches regular weekly MovNat & Combatives classes in Toronto, Canada. Follow him on Instagram: @naturalmobility.