The big myth about flexibility and firefighter back injuries

Last week I began what will probably end up being a very long series about back injuries in the fire service. There is so much to say about this topic, including many myths about how to treat and prevent back pain and injuries, six of which are outlined in the video below.

Last week I discussed myth #1 in more depth, while today I will go into detail about myth #2 below the video.

Myth #2: you need a flexible back to avoid back injury

In myth #2, McGill states that people with greater spine flexibility are MORE likely to experience a back injury, which is counterintuitive to many. I’lumbar extension testve also found this to be true in my own research. In 2011, I assessed the isolated lumbar spine flexibility of over 200 firefighters along with their prior injury history. Surprisingly, I found that those who had greater flexibility in extension (see the picture) exhibited a higher rate of back injury.

This is why I tell firefighters to avoid any exercise, including advanced yoga poses, that involve extreme twisting and hyperextension of the spine (although I highly recommend basic yoga and practice it myself).

However, this information should be interpreted with caution. The association between increased flexibility and higher injury risk applies to the lumbar spine ONLY. It is not to say that adequate flexibility in general/at any other joint increases risk of injury. That is definitely not true! As McGill explains, this relationship between increased flexibility and injury risk is specific only to the spine since the role of the spinal muscles is to stop movement, whereas the role of the other skeletal muscles is to promote movement.

Furthermore, we also know that people with very limited flexibility in the back and sacral region have a tendency to feel back pain. Therefore, there appears to be a “sweet spot” where we have enough spinal flexibility to avoid pain but not so much that we increase risk of back injury. For those who have pain associated with extremely limited back flexibility, try the gentle cat-cow exercise that I explain here.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be discussing more myths about back injuries in firefighters, plus I’ll show 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 #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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By | 2018-06-01T07:25:53+00:00 March 26th, 2014|Uncategorized|4 Comments

About the Author:

Dr. Karlie Moore has a PhD in Exercise Science and Nutrition and specializes in firefighter health. She has conducted fitness testing on hundreds of firefighters and has created the most comprehensive online wellness program for fire departments called the FitCulture program. Dr. Moore is also married to a firefighter and so understands their lifestyle and the health challenges associated with it.


  1. Robert March 26, 2014 at 3:59 pm

    Your Fit For Duty tips have been great, I have a question regarding medial upper thigh pain. I exercise daily and have incorporated some of your exercises into my routine. I am experiencing pain on the inside of my thigh down the back of my leg along with some slight numbness, especially when I am running, no back pain or other complaints. My research tells me I may have a compressed nerve. Is there exercises or stretching I can do to relieve this pain, which will hopefully eliminate the pain all together?

    • Karlie March 26, 2014 at 6:54 pm

      Hi Robert, I’m so glad you’ve benefited from my health tips. For your leg pain, the best thing for you to do would be to see a physical therapist or chiropractor (make sure they have a good reputation) so they can assess you in person. They will likely be able to give you some simple, targeted exercises to clear it up.

  2. DAVE May 8, 2014 at 8:26 pm

    Just wanted to share with all of my fellow brother and sister firefighters out there that whatever they do they need to treat their back with respect and lift properly, and above all when lifting anything that is even questionable as to whether or not it might be too heavy to not let their ego get the best of them and to ask for help in lifting the object. I must say that you only have one back and once you have injured it or if you do not take care of it you may end up like me who has had one back surgery and lives with chronic back pain pretty much every day of my life, I use to Love to run and I still would, but that is totally out of the question, as I hurt significantly after even a 3 mile walk. It distresses me to think that I will be totally retired after 26 years in the fire service at the end of June and will most likely have to live with the chronic back pain during each and every day of my retirement years. Take Care and be Safe out there !

    • Karlie May 8, 2014 at 11:15 pm

      Hi Dave, I’m really sorry to hear about your back. Back injuries are the most common reason for early retirement in the fire service. Thank you for sharing this with others.

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