Over the past few months I’ve been explaining that due to job demands, firefighters should strive to be proficient in all the components of fitness, and I gave a few examples to illustrate how muscular endurance, muscular strength and high aerobic capacity are protective against injuries and heart attacks on duty. But one component of fitness that I did not discuss was flexibility. There is a lot of confusion around this topic, so here I’ll try to clear things up.
Contrary to popular belief, there is little scientific evidence to show that inflexible firefighters are at greater risk for injury. However, there is an established relationship between lack of flexibility and pain. Many of you have probably been to physical therapy and been prescribed stretching exercises. Treatment of back pain, which is very prevalent among firefighters, often includes stretching of the hamstrings and glutes. This is because tight hamstrings/glutes pull on the low back muscles (they’re all connected by the pelvis), which increases the workload and stress placed on the spine.
During work tasks, it is assumed that firefighters who are inflexible, especially in the hamstrings/glutes, are at an increased risk of back injury since they have a limited ability to get into correct lifting position and maintain a neutral spine throughout. (see the picture for neutral spine position).
On the other hand, the assumption that stretching before exercise (or drill) will reduce injury risk is incorrect. Many research studies have shown that pre-exercise stretching reduces potential power output in a muscle and just does not translate to reduced injury risk – in fact, some researchers believe it increases risk of injury.
Take home point: As I stated above, firefighters who are flexible benefit from fewer aches and pains and possibly fewer back injuries. Improved flexibility is accomplished through regular stretching and moving joints throughout a large range of motion. The best time to stretch, however, is not before exercise, but after – when the muscles/joints are very warm. This warm-up can also be accomplished simply by being in a hot environment, like a shower or sauna.
What is your experience with flexibility/stretching and pain or injuries? Share with us in the comments below.
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Interesting. Good read. If then, stretching can be potentially counter productive before a workout, what do you suggest to warmup before weights, run, etc?
Hey Zack, I’m glad you brought this up. While pre-workout (static) stretching is no longer recommended, a warm-up is definitely important for injury risk. You really can do any light, low impact activities that get your joints warmed up like wall-sits, lunges, arm circles and leg swings. FYI: sometimes people call this type of warm-up “dynamic stretching,” not to be confused with static stretching (holding one stretch for a long period of time). http://www.livestrong.com/article/393261-dynamic-stretches-exercises/
Nice. Thanks. A full article on that and other pre workout warm ups moves and foods could be cool and interesting, if you haven’t already
Great article! Thanks for the reminder on this often overlooked aspect of fitness.
I have found that doing a general warm up and dynamic stretching before any workout, then static stretching/ yoga afterward has helped me stay healthy on the job and for my outside activities.
I liked your article. We usually take our body parts for granted, not realising just how important they are until we injure muscles/ligaments. Stretching and warm up prior to any physical exercise workout is well advised as is warming down/ stretching.
I’m a huge fan of foam rolling prior to workouts. I think it is a good thing to add during a persons warm up. Also the use of a soft ball or lacross ball to hit those more pinpoint areas that a foam roller can not reach.
Thanks Aaron for your insight!
Looks good. Thanks for the read