When I was a kid I used to do stupid stuff. Jumping barefoot off the peak of the roof onto the concrete in the back yard was one of them. I’m one of those boys who was lucky to survive childhood. The peak was about second-story window height. I also jumped off the peak of a two-story house once, but the total height–since I was jumping onto a hill slope adjacent to the house–was probably only about the same as the fall from a normal one-story peak. I did that at about 11 or 12 years old.
First, it helps if you don’t weigh a lot. The last time I tried this kind of stunt was in my early teens and weighed about 40+ pounds less than I do now. I’m certain I’d bust an ankle if I did it now. At the very least. Second, it helps if you’ve done lots of high jumping and tumbling. I did gymnastics starting from around 10 years old, continuing for several years. Even then, you’re likely to get hurt sooner or later. I bruised my food so badly when I was 14 that it took almost two weeks before I could walk normally on it.
First step, relax. Simple? Yes. Easy? No. Your brain is telling you, “Central, this is a really bad #^¢*ing idea!” If you tense up, you will have a much greater chance of injuring yourself. If you want to experience a similar phenomenon, take an aikido or even judo class. It hurts more if you’re tense and you land harder in more awkward positions when you take falls. If you learn how to take falls in martial arts classes it will help immensely for taking falls from a height too.
Point your toes. The time I bruised my foot, part of the reason I did so was because I landed heavier on one foot than the other. I landed harder on it because I landed slightly flat-footed and, instead of rolling through the ball of my foot to the heel, the bottom of my foot smacked the ground at the same time most of my weight came down on the heel.
Never, ever reach for the ground with your hands. Never, ever reach behind you. Those are good ways to break arms or dislocate shoulders. My only broken bones were obtained a few years ago when I deliberately took a bad fall to keep a kid from being hurt. If I’d fallen the way I should have to prevent injury I would have landed on him, so I reached and bridged, knowing I’d get hurt. I was, and I vastly underestimated how bad it would be.
As you land, use your thigh muscles to help decelerate. You have to keep loose and relaxed until impact. If you lock your knees, you will probably blow a joint. The sequence is impact, tension. Stay loose until you actually hit.
Depending on the height, you will have left over energy that you can’t get rid of through muscle power alone. If you bottom out in a crouch, you will probably tear something, so you’ll have to roll out. In this case, you need to shift your balance far enough forward during the landing phase to do a forward or backward roll. I almost always went forward since I had more options for protecting my face and neck. Its scarier to go backward anyway.
Do not roll over your neck. In gymnastics a forward roll carries you straight down the spine. That will cripple you or make you smack your head into the ground if you’ve got enough energy built up. A roll from one shoulder to the opposite hip, like in aikido or judo protects your neck and head much better. You might be going too fast to stop with one roll. If you’ve got room, just go with it until you slow down enough to control it.
If I screwed up the roll or had too much momentum to turn directly into a roll, I would also use my arms to break the fall. However, like I noted earlier, you never reach. Make a triangle with your hands by putting the tips of your thumbs and index fingers together with your palms facing out, bend your elbows at about 90 degrees, extend your upper arms at a right angle to your body. Your hands should be in front of your face with your nose pointing at the triangle formed by your hands. The idea is to protect your face and your wrists by hitting the ground with your entire forearm at the same time. You will probably scrape your elbows and bruise your forearms, and you’ll feel the jar all the way up your upper arms, but it’s better than a broken nose or wrist. If you can’t roll from there and you feel like your face is still going to hit the ground, turn your head to avoid breaking your nose.
This kind of thing is very hard to convey well through text but I can’t find anything on the net that shows good demonstrations of some of the things I’m talking about. I actually came up with my way of falling before I started taking martial arts, which made me a natural when it came to learning ukemi in judo and aikido. The closest examples of the techniques I described are in those martial arts, so if you’re interested in learning, start with those.
The modern versions of the rolls and breakfalls are not as loose and adaptive as they should be–in particular, most people in aikido tend to take falls without bending the knees–but they’re the best teaching for taking a fall that I can recommend. Older, hard style martial arts dojo that are reputable are pretty rare.
The major factor is just getting comfortable with falling. Start low and work your way up. Start with a soft, padded, non-slip surface like a tumbling pad. Don’t try doing it too much; it’s not exercise. If you think running screws your joints up, you have no idea what jumping off a roof onto concrete does to you. Despite having few serious injuries doing this as a kid, both my ankles click, probably from the damage done to them from being an idiot.
And don’t do anything as stupid as what I used to do. Stunt people are constantly injured. Even the best and safest guys in the business get injured all the time. Most of them have collections of breaks and scars that would rival those of an old-time warrior. I was lucky, very strong for my size and weight, I was pretty light, and stupidly fearless. I would never do as an adult some of the things I did as a kid because I know that something I could deal with then could kill me now. It still could have killed me then, but I had some advantages that I don’t have any more.