Today I’m embarking on a big topic within the fire service: back injuries. The video below features a fellow scientist who studies spine health and has done some research specifically on firefighters.
This 4-minute video busts the 6 biggest myths about training for optimal back health, and shows a few simple exercises that will significantly improve your core strength and lower your risk of experiencing back pain or a back injury. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to discuss each of these myths separately. Next, I will detail the exercises that firefighters should be avoiding and those you should be doing. Below the video I discuss myth #1 in more depth.
Myth #1: back injuries are rare
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, firefighters have the single highest rate of absenteeism (missing work due to injury/illness) of any profession. They are 4 times more likely to experience an injury compared to other physically demanding professions (like construction and agriculture) and 12 times more likely than all other workers. Injuries caused by overexertion are the most common type experienced by firefighters, and back injuries account for 50% of those.
Furthermore, many many firefighters experience chronic back pain that may never be diagnosed as a full blown injury. Sometimes pain is a sign that an injury is going to occur while other times pain is the long-term result of an injury. There are things you can do to treat back pain and to prevent a full blown injury.
The greatest predictor of a firefighter experiencing a back injury is having suffered from one already, so avoiding an injury in the first place is paramount. That’s why over the next few weeks I’ll be showing you the exercises you should be doing to avoid a back injury (and they’re simpler than you think!), so stay tuned.
Other myths in this series:
myth #2: you need a flexible back to avoid back injury
myth #3: to avoid injury you need a strong back
myth #4: you should bend your knees when you lift
Myth #5: suck in your belly to work your core
Myth #6: sit-ups/crunches will give you a six-pack
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I am a personal trainer for our fire department. I just acquired my certification so I’m new to the fitness arena. The back injury article interests me because we have many guys go out on injuries for back pain. I love that you incorporated exercise techniques to the article. I have always been taught to have strong abdominals to stabalize the back and prevent injury. But I never knew about picking up stuff with your hips or doing crunches can lead to injury. I was wondering if a stabalizer ball crunch is still a safe exercise to perform? Thanks for your help. Thanks
Hi Matt, ball crunches aren’t necessarily bad, but there’s a better way to work your core than that. I will be showing more exercises to reduce risk of back injury throughout this series so keep reading.
Thank you for the great info Karlie. I strained my back the morning of the Seattle Stair Climb, and have been in pain for a couple weeks although it is slowly getting better. I will give some of the exercises in the video a shot, and enjoyed meeting you in person at the Stair Climb. Great blog and really appreciate your focus on firefighter fitness.
Hey Gordon, it was great to meet you too!
Stuart McGills books are compelling reading for those who want to hold onto traditional “LIft as much weight as possible as often as possible” to get stronger theories. The information in his books will make you think hard about how you condition your back and what exercises actually damage your back. The Fire Service is becoming proliferated with trainers who probably aren’t qualified to train, although I do appreciate the fact that they are good people with the best intentions. These people do need to be supported though, since they bring the right attitude and can help educate and motivate people to prepare their bodies for the demanding work. Support these motivated people with more extensive and better training.
I am very aware of the down sides to back injuries from beginning to end. Back injuries are a burden on our tax payers, the injured firefighters and their families.
I am currently being medically retired within days due to a number of back injuries and one failed surgery. Although I do not want to retire I have no choice. Trust me when I say retirement isn’t what you expect when you are substantially limited by injuries.
It sucks!!! Prepare properly for the job utilizing newer techniques to train correctly.
And seriously search for Stewart McGill and buy one of his books, read it and then give it to another firefighter to read.
Karlie, or Dr. McGill,
I am a firefighter and an RYT yoga teacher. I teach a little yoga to our firefighters, but also take some of the knowlege of movement in our job to teach the public. I teach people to “energize the spine” when bending, so for example fwd folds to enguage the core and only flex the spine while it is enguaged (as opposed to rag doll). Likewise I teach them about using “Kaegel” manuever while lifting to draw up the pelvic floor and trigger the spine into protection mode.
I like some of the tips in this video. Are there more recourses from a yoga point of view to support this mode of thinking? I really agree with it but as I work in gyms and even cover for some core classes would love more scientifically backed info to support my guys and my outside clients.
Brian M Dotson, RYT
Hey Brian, I’m not sure that there is much scientific literature on yoga and it’s benefits on back health, probably because, as I mentioned in the article, some yoga moves are not beneficial for the spine. It sounds like you are well aware of how to use yoga to teach people how to strengthen their core and avoid injury, so keep doing that!
There was one study published in a scientific journal about firefighters performing better on a functional movement test and reporting less back pain after participating in yoga. It’s called Functional fitness improvements after a worksite based yoga initiative. Here’s a link to the abstract. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1360859209000230 Email me if you’d like the full article.