We’ve all seen parkour practitioners jump from seemingly unsurvivable heights, only to roll away safely once they land and continue running as nothing happened.
So, why do parkour traceurs roll? How do they do it and is it really possible that simply rolling away will prevent you from getting injured after landing from a high fall?
Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple.
Rolling can help you survive a landing without damaging your ankles and legs, but only if it’s done properly. Traceurs start practicing this technique from the moment they get into parkour and never stop perfecting it. This is how important it is to learn how to drop into a proper roll after landing.
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What Is a Parkour Roll?
The Parkour Roll, PK Roll, Shoulder Roll, Martial Arts Roll, Judo Roll, Safety Roll, or simply the Roll is a breakfall technique parkour traceurs use to dissipate the energy from the fall over a horizontal line, in order to make it less damaging to a traceurs body.
Even though this may seem complicated, it applies the basic principles of kinetic energy and body mechanics, and it’s pretty easy to understand once you start doing it. Anyone can learn parkour (and yes, anyone can learn all of the techniques they are using).
Types of Rolls
Rolling away after falling isn’t a strictly Parkour skill.
Gymnasts roll after sticking the landing after their exercises, martial artists roll after being thrown to reduce the damage they sustain when hitting the ground.
Even other sports, such as football or soccer teach their players how to properly fall to minimize the hurt and maximize mobility.
Naturally, this has led to several variations of the roll, all of which differ to a larger or smaller degree.
- Gymnast’s forward roll – Gymnasts roll with their head between their hands and their shoulders squared
- Martial arts roll/judo roll – With this variation, the knee is on the ground once the roll ends, and you use it to get up
- PK roll – Goes over the shoulder and across the back. The feet are parallel once you finish the roll and you get up on both of them.
Types of Parkour Rolls
The basic roll transfers the energy forward after the fall in order to dissipate it. However, not all jumps or falls will leave you facing forward and ready to hit the ground into a perfect forward roll.
Luckily, the roll is a versatile tool in any traceurs belt and can adapt to almost any fall.
Here are the three most important types of the PK roll:
- Backward roll – Basically a forward roll, but in reverse. Be careful when practicing this one since doing it improperly can lead to the compression of the spine and nasty tailbone injuries.
- Dive roll – With the dive roll, your hands hit the ground first, and your feet touch the ground at the very end of the roll. Used for leaps that are forward and horizontal in motion and have little height difference. With the dive roll, there is a moment when the entire body is suspended in the air.
- Side roll – Rolling to the side as opposed to front and back. This is a great breakfall technique to know when you make a mistake and end up landing sideways instead of facing forward.
Do I Need to Know the Safety Roll to Practice Parkour?
In short, yes. Before you even learn your first vault, you need to know the roll. This is an essential technique that can save you from a world of pain and injury.
Even David Belle (who basically founded the discipline) practices safety rolls, even now, after doing Parkour for almost his entire life.
The trick is to learn how to do a roll instinctively every time you fall, whether from tripping or from jumping off a 10ft wall.
The roll should be learned like any other trick, with variations and progressions, and practiced until perfected.
Disclaimer: This article explains the mechanics and the basic principles of the Parkour roll. It cannot substitute instruction by a professional Parkour trainer. This sport is very dangerous and should not be practiced without supervision. Good luck and watch your surroundings.
How to Do a Parkour Roll?
Now that we know why parkour tracers roll, it’s time to talk about how they do it.
To most of us “regular”, non-parkour people, it may seem like an easy flip and roll, however, there’s a lot of physics and body mechanics behind it.
We will take you through the safety roll one step at a time.
Step 1 – Sailing Through the Air
Aim to land on the balls of your feet, with your legs slightly bend and ready to absorb the impact. Sébastien Foucan says that you should be tense, but not stiff while getting ready to hit the ground.
Ensure you have forward momentum (that you’re moving forward), as it is required to do a successful PK roll.
Step 2 – Feet Touch the Ground
As soon as the balls of your feet touch the ground, tense your hamstring chain and absorb some of the impact.
Do not try to take all of the impact with your legs, but rather try to recoil from the ground. It should feel like your legs are tightly wound springs, activating as soon as your feet hit the ground.
Your legs should bend all the way, and if you reach a 90-degree angle with your knees, you’ve gone too far down. Your back should be straight at this point.
Your hips should go down and your knees should never cross your toes.
Step 3 – Going Down Into the Roll
Once you absorb some of the kinetic energy with your legs and push off with them, allow the momentum to carry forward and down. So, bring your weight forward.
It is crucial that you allow the inertion to carry you over – do not jump into the roll or try to hold back and slow down the roll.
By letting the momentum carry you over you’re dissipating more of the kinetic energy that would otherwise injure you.
Step 4 – Over the Shoulder
Use your hands to guide your fall over the back of your shoulder and diagonally across your back. As you extend your hands, let your back curl.
Tilt your head to the side and away from the rolling shoulder to protect it.
Tuck your chin in as close to your chest as possible to avoid any head injuries.
Keep in mind that you should still be pushing off with your legs the entire time. When your hands touch the ground, your legs should be almost fully extended.
Step 5 – Getting Up
Tuck in your legs close to your chest to finish the movement and extend them once you’ve rolled across your back.
Put your feet under you and make sure they’re squared and parallel. Stand up and continue running.
Before Doing a Parkour Roll
Prior to trying out your first safety roll, you’ll want to acquire good leg strength and practice your landing. Once you can jump from about 5 ft and land properly (without rolling), you’ll be ready to try your first no-height roll.
Make sure you practice your landing well as doing it improperly can cause a string of devastating injuries that can require surgery or long-term rehabilitation to heal properly.
Arm and Hand Placement
Your hands should alleviate some of the kinetic energy driving you forward and down, but it’s not necessary to have extreme upper body strength. Hands should guide your roll movement.
Make sure your elbows are inside your knees the entire time. If they flare out, it could lead to serious injury. Your arms and legs should be parallel for the basic version of the forward roll.
The first couple of rolls you do should be from the ground while kneeling on one knee.
At first, don’t even stand up, just practice going over your shoulder and not hurting yourself.
Next, try doing a roll from an upright position. After you get comfortable with this, try jumping over things and rolling away.
In the beginning, it might be difficult to get enough momentum from the jump to ensure a roll goes through, but it’s more important to practice the technique.
You’ll want your roll to be one smooth, fluid motion, and not a set of jerky movements.
Finally, you should practice the roll on soft surfaces for at least a month or two before doing it on concrete.
Why Do Parkour Traceurs Roll When They Fall?
Traceurs roll to avoid injury and to disperse kinetic energy, accumulated from falling, over a horizontal surface.
This process is called reverse blocking in the parkour world.
It was adapted from a gymnastics principle of blocking which uses running forward to accumulate energy for jumping up. Basically, it translates forward movement into upward movement.
As the name suggests, reverse blocking is the opposite. It translates downward momentum into horizontal (and forward) momentum.
How Do Parkour Rolls Break Your Fall?
Reverse blocking distributes energy from the fall over a horizontal area. The larger the area, the less impact. Thus, the farther you roll, the more energy you’ll disperse.
It gets a lot more complicated than this, though.
What you’re doing is transferring force.
Imagine a bullet hitting a kevlar vest straight on. The kinetic energy transferred by the bullet will knock the person wearing the vest on the ground, but the bullet will be crushed in the process.
However, if the bullet glances of a hard surface, it continues going without much damage to it. This is the movement you should aim for. By rolling you’re looking to transfer some of the force and continue running.
You’ll need to take the height you’re jumping from into account, what kind of surface you’re landing on, and what your body can handle.
This is why it’s crucial to progress slowly to a proper roll, and not to start by jumping off high places right away.
Common Parkour Roll Mistakes
Finally, here are some common mistakes you should avoid when practicing your rolls:
- Not having enough forward momentum – If you’re falling straight down your legs will take the entire impact and your roll afterward will be pointless. You’ll want to fall at an angle and have enough forward momentum.
- Not keeping your body tight enough during the roll
- Letting your elbow hit the ground before your shoulder
- Letting your knees hit the ground or absorb all impact
- Rolling straight across your spine and not diagonally across your back
- Hitting with the front or the top of your shoulder
- Landing on your heels after doing a high parkour jump
- Keeping your hands too close to the feet and not covering enough ground with the roll to better disperse the energy