As you may have heard, core strength is very important for firefighters to possess. In fact, I would be willing to bet all my student loans that 99% of firefighters know this. But there’s a lot of exercises out there – some good, some bad. So which ones should you be doing?
I’ll start with what NOT to do: exercises that involve extreme flexion or extension of the spine. Think of your low back bending into a “C” in the forward direction (flexion) or backward (extension). Scientific research has shown us that these motions, while they may not hurt at the time, place a great deal of stress on the vertebrae. Over time, that stress builds up and the spine is no longer tolerant of high forces, which results in chronic pain and/or injury. So while sit-ups improve abdominal strength, they tend to decrease spine strength at the same time (because sit-ups promote spinal flexion).
Your core is not just your abdominals. It includes your back muscles too. Therefore, an ideal core exercise is one in which your back remains in it’s neutral position (as if you’re standing up) and you work both yours abs and your back.
There are many exercises that meet the above description but here is the single best (in my very educated but humble opinion):
Plank walks and hold using a stability ball
Start with your chest on the ball and slowly begin to walk out on your hands. Walk as far out as you can keeping your back straight. Once you are in the “plank position” hold that for 30 seconds to a minute, then walk back so your chest is on the ball again. Repeat.
Some people may not be able to walk all the way out so the ball is under their feet. That is something to work up to. Stop walking out when you become really unstable, but don’t be afraid of a little wobbling. Those little side to side shakes help “wake up” some very tiny back muscles that line the vertebrae and are responsible for fine motor movements, which reduces back pain and risk for injury (most exercise only works the muscles that create gross motor movements).
Ok I want you to try it out and tell me what you think. Was it harder/easier than you thought? Also, do you have a favorite core exercise that meets my requirements? Let us know in the comments.
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Hello. This seems a silly question to me but have to ask, how do you choose the correct ball size or doesn’t it matter?
There are typically 3 sizes of stability balls and the medium size would likely work best. Just make sure your body can be flat as a board when your feet are on the ball. If it’s too big your back may sink.
Try sitting on it aiming to have a bend at the knees slightly greater than 90 degrees. Over the years I have found this to be a more valuable tool than relying on the manufactures recommendations found on the side of the box. Like any other exercise equipment, initial set up is essential.
I’ve done plank walks for a few years now and I agree with you on how they have strengthened my core and reduced back pain (In fact, my therapist had me do these for my torn ACL that I didn’t have surgically repaired and they also helped strengthen my knee, but anyway)!
I also have done “Pikes” (wording?) as a variety where when you do the plank walk and get to the furthest position you pull your feet towards your hand therefore bending into a peak or V shape. Have you heard of these and would you recommend them?
Newton Fire Department
Yep and I do those too! Just be sure that you continue to keep your back in a neutral position when you bend at the waist to peak into that V. They are really difficult!
Karlie, I have enjoyed your website and listening to you on the Firefighter Toolbox. Thank you for your service to the fire service.
Okay, Walking Planks are best, and crunches and sit-ups are bad. What do you think of the Up-down Planks, Russian Twist, V-ups, and Flutter Kicks? Are there other exercises you recommend for core?
I teach at a fire academy and we don’t have stability balls and are likely not to get any.
Hi Shelby. I assume these exercises are done lying on your back? In that case it’s super important that the whole time you are engaging your abs inward so there’s barely any space between your low back and the ground. If your stomach muscles are pooched out instead of inward and/or your back is arching off the ground, you’re placing undue stress on the lumbar spine and your hip flexors are doing most of the work anyway. When this begins to happen as your core gets fatigued, stop and take a break, then find good form before beginning again. People have a tendency to want to do their abdominal exercises really rapidly, but actually the slower you go, the more effective (and safe) it is.
Indeed the core is made up of many mm. groups including autonomous muscles that we don’t volitionally contract but instead these muscles “react”. These can be activated by ” perturbations ” (having a force applied by another person or pulley or elastic cable) that lightly and/or suddenly moves you off balance). I use this at my PT clinic as well as at the fire house. Incidentally, when a partner assists with this they get a workout too! Great for balance as well. John C. (PT and FF/EMT)
Not too thrilled with having my patients or fellow firefighters doing any ex on their backs that involves raising both legs off the ground at the same time… Good way to ruin your low back and your posture! John Celestino PT, GCS, MTC, OCS, CSCS, FF/EMT
thanks for your input John!