Flexibility & Firefighting

There are several types of static stretches, such as a simple toe touch. None of these stretches requires a partner or extra equipment. Photo Monte Egherman

In the fire service, we always like to keep our equipment in the “ready state.” We check and re-check it to ensure that when it’s go time, we’re ready to do the job.

We also have a deep appreciation for the apparatus we ride to emergency scenes. It becomes part of our team, and we all know the engineer who treats the fire truck like it’s their child, wiping off every speck of dirt no matter what time of day it is.

Given all the attention we heap on our tools and apparatus, don’t you think it’s time we start thinking of our bodies in the same way and treating them with the same level of importance? Sticking to an all-around fitness program can help you do this.

Forgotten Flexibility
Think of the components of fitness just as we do a truss. When one part fails, there’s the danger that the whole roof will come down. In the same manner, your fitness “truss” needs all of its components to stay intact in order for you to remain in top physical shape.

The fitness truss consists of strength, cardiovascular endurance, nutrition, psychological health and flexibility. The one component that many of us neglect is flexibility, but nothing keeps us more in the “ready state” like flexibility. Think of the many times you’ve been woken up out of bed for a call, feeling stiff and sore and wondering how you’re ever going to make it to the rig, let alone answer an emergency call. I know—I’ve been right there with you. That warm, fuzzy feeling you got when you squatted the big weight in the gym earlier that day doesn’t feel so warm and fuzzy at 0300 hrs on a cold winter’s night. The good news: You don’t have to feel like that. A reasonable flexibility program can put you in the ready state any time, day or night.

Flexibility Factors
Let’s first go through what flexibility does for us and then through the various types of flexibility protocols. The definition of flexibility is simply an individual’s range of motion at any particular joint.
Your range of motion can be affected by several factors:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Past injuries
  • Genetics
  • Joint structure, such a ball-and-socket joint (hips and shoulders) that has a large range of motion, or a hinge joint (knees), which has less range.

These factors must be considered when devising your personal flexibility program.

Stretch It Out
Flexibility is improved by including a well-rounded stretching program in your weekly fitness activities. For the average athlete, the proper stretching program depends on what sport and position they play, and whether they’re in or out of season. But firefighters don’t have the luxury of planning for an event that occurs at a particular time, nor do we play just one position for the duration of the event—depending on the situation, we may play every position on the fireground. Further, there’s no “off season” for firefighters. Our season may last more than 30 years—and we usually kick and scream to stay in the game! Therefore, we must be ready 24/7/365, which is why I suggest a daily stretching routine. Once you’re familiar with it, you’ll probably be able to complete a basic session in less than 10 minutes.  

Types of Stretches
Before you begin stretching, your body needs a warm-up, so I typically recommend a five-minute jog. Whether it’s in place or on a track, it will get your heart pumping and your muscles warmed up. You can also use any piece of cardio equipment, such as a bike or a treadmill.

Once you’re warmed up, you’re ready to begin your stretch program. There are several types of stretches available.

  1. Static stretch: The static stretch is probably the safest stretch. The participant slowly reaches the end position of the stretch and holds it for up to 30 seconds. This may be repeated until you feel that you’ve adequately stretched the area. This can be a simple toe-touch from a standing or seated position. The participant simply reaches as far as they can in a slow, smooth manner and holds the position without any extra movement to force the stretch.
  2. Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF): This is almost always done with a partner, so although it’s an effective way to increase range of mobility, it does have its drawbacks if your partner isn’t available or isn’t trained in this type of stretching. There are ways of doing PNF without a partner, such as using weights to help your body stretch beyond its normal limits, but this too requires experience, training and must always be done with safety in mind. To properly accomplish PNF, the National Strength and Conditioning Association believes the “Hold-Relax with Agonist Contraction” method is best. This method begins with the athlete receiving a passive, 10-second pre-stretch of the desired muscle group, followed by the athlete holding the muscle group so that it doesn’t move against the force that their partner applies for another six to ten seconds. PNF is completed by the partner stretching the muscle as well as the athlete contracting the muscle for up to 30 seconds to help move the muscle even further. Note: This must be done carefully and should be worked up to. Communication is also important here to prevent injury.
  3. Ballistic stretch: The ballistic method of stretching includes a bouncing motion at the end of the stretch. Example: When you bend over to touch your toes, but you’re a few inches short of the floor, so you bounce up and down at the waist three or four times until you tap the floor on the last one or two repetitions. Note: This may aggravate injuries, so make sure you’re properly warmed up first and performing the exercise safely.  
  4. Dynamic stretch: Dynamic stretching involves movements that mimic the movements that you’ll perform during the event you’re training for. Example: Firefighters should perform lunges because they perform the same movement and use the same muscles (gluteus, hamstrings and quadriceps) when climbing ladders.

Other Activities that Promote Flexibility
There are many activities that promote flexibility and include stretching. Strength training with weights is a prime example when you consider how you perform deep squats, overhead squats, dead lifts off a block or any of the sports performance lifts.

Yoga continues to gain popularity and is fantastic because it not only promotes flexibility, it also promotes relaxation and toning.

The boom in martial arts, thanks to the popularity of mixed martial arts fighting, has brought with it a whole new interest in the types of exercises involved in the sport. The point: Almost every physical activity requires flexibility, but to truly master most physical activities, you must first master your range of motion.

Firefighters perform a multitude of strenuous exercises every time they arrive on the fireground—and they do them all while wearing PPE. This of course hampers our mobility, so to counteract that, we must incorporate a solid stretching program into our fitness regimen that promotes flexibility. Remember: Our bodies are one of the most important pieces of equipment on the fireground. Treat them as such.

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October 2017
Volume 12, Issue 10