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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