A few weeks ago I began a series about a dire and complicated problem in the fire service: back injuries. If you haven’t seen it yet (it’s posted on every page of this series), the video below is a good primer about the misconceptions we have about treating and preventing back pain and injuries. Each week I’m going more in depth about the 6 myths discussed in this video. (see myth #1: back injuries are rare; and myth 2: you need a flexible back to avoid back injury). I will discuss myth #3 below the video.
Myth #3: to avoid injury you need a strong back
I’m not sure that I agree that this is a myth per se, but I can say, since I wrote my dissertation on back injuries in firefighters, that we know very little about the relationships between fitness and back injury risk. Furthermore, while there has been a long held assumption that more back strength = less injuries, this is either not true at all or there is much more to the equation since even very fit/strong firefighters experience back injuries.
What the research does show is that firefighters who have greater upper body strength perform significantly better on firefighter tasks/physical ability tests. Relating this to injury risk, my belief is that the better chance you have of successfully performing job tasks such as lifting, the better chance you have at avoiding an injury.
Dr. McGill’s research has shown that tests of back strength do not correlate with injury incidence while tests of back endurance do. So, in terms of strengthening exercises specifically for the back, it appears that lower load exercises performed for a longer duration, like those listed below, are more protective than exercises that demand very large muscular contractions of the spinal muscles, like using the back extension machine at the gym.
Taken together, I would suggest that firefighters do resistance training that allows them to have a great deal of muscular strength (especially in the upper body) while being sure not to skip muscular endurance exercises for the back.
Here are some muscular endurance exercises for the back:
1. Starting on all fours, stiffen your abs and extend one leg and the opposite arm. The key is to keep your spine in a neutral position and avoid letting it sink. Attempt to hold for at least 5 seconds, then switch sides. Do 10 repetitions on each side. (this exercise is also shown in the video).
2. Another exercise, which also works your abdominal muscles, is a plank. Be sure to engage the core muscles so your torso is flat and your low back does not sink.
The longer you can hold these exercises (without pain) the greater the endurance of your back muscles.
Over the next few weeks I’ll be discussing more myths about back injuries in firefighters, plus I’ll show you some exercises that you may unknowingly be doing that are BAD for your back!
Other myths in this series:
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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