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Fit for Life: Stretch for prevention

Stretch for prevention

December 13, 2007
By Aaron Brouwer

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aaronbrouwerMuscles have two functions: they shorten and contract as well as lengthen and stretch.  When one muscle group shortens and contracts, the opposite muscle group will lengthen and stretch.  Everything we do, from working out to fighting fires, or even changing the channel on the TV, depends on this working relationship. 

Before starting any type of workout, it is important to prepare the body for the work you are about to put it through. In the book Fitness Leader’s Handbook by B. Don Franks and Edward T. Howley, they note that, “Stretching exercises help prepare the joints for the more strenuous dynamic activity to come by releasing fluids that lubricate the joint and by increasing the size of the joint’s soft cartilage that absorbs the shock of impact associated with normal physical activity.”

Stretching is a key part of the warm-up that will help get your body ready for exercising.  Try to do a full body stretch prior to working out.  If you only have limited time, be sure to stretch all the muscles you are going to be using during your workout.  Start stretching the large muscle groups first, which will allow for more flexibility in the smaller muscle groups.  Stretch the core muscles (back, hips and abdomen) first, then work your way down the lower body and finish stretching with the upper body.

Work on increasing your normal range of motion by holding the stretch for 15-20 seconds and repeating two or three times. You should feel some discomfort. This is your body’s way of telling you that you are stretching something. If you feel pain, however, stop the stretch.  Never stretch so far that you feel pain. The most you should feel is a mild tension on the muscle group.

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Our job as firefighters is very physically demanding. We put our bodies through a lot.  A typical call could go something like this: you’re sitting around the house and the pager goes off. Your adrenaline kicks in as you’re driving to the hall.  You jump into your gear and hop into the engine.  Upon arriving on scene, you are assigned to attack 1. After pulling off the preconnect, you and your partner proceed to attack the fire.  You have just pushed your body so hard without any preparation for the strenuous activities to follow.  I know time is of the essence in this situation but there are a few things you can do to prepare your body for the work it is about to experience.

Perform a stretching session in the morning (to prepare your body for daily activities) and evening (to work out any tightness or tension). Arrive 15 minutes early for your shift and go through a full body stretching session.

Then perform another set of stretching after lunch to help prepare you for the afternoon.

If you arrive on scene and are stationed at staging, do a few stretches there. If possible try to stretch large muscle groups en route to the incident.

The following are several descriptions of stretches that will help improve your flexibility and help reduce muscle strains.  Some key points to remember:
•    Hold stretches for 15-20 and repeat two or three times.
•    Count out loud, as this will help you remember to breathe during the stretch.
•    Stop stretching if you feel pain.
•    Do not bounce!  Bouncing will cause more damage than good.
•    To increase flexibility, hold the stretch longer.

KNEE TO CHEST – BENT KNEE: (stretches glutes, lower back, hamstrings and quadriceps)
•     Lay flat on back with knees bent.
•     Grab under right thigh and pull knee toward chest until you feel mild tension.
•     Hold for 10 seconds, and then pull slightly farther until you feel slightly more tension.
•     Hold this position for 10 seconds.
•     Repeat with other leg.

KNEE TO CHEST – LEG STRAIGHT: (stretches glutes, lower back, hamstrings and quadriceps)
•     Lay flat on back with knees bent.
•     Grab under right thigh and straighten right leg.  Do not lock knee.
•     Hold for 10 seconds, and then pull slightly farther until you feel slightly more tension.
•     Hold this position for 10 seconds.
•     Repeat with other leg.

LEG CROSS: (stretches piriformis, glutes and lower back)
•     Lay flat on back with knees bent.
•     Place your right outer ankle on the top of your left thigh, just below the knee.
•     Grab under left thigh and pull knee toward chest until you feel mild tension.
•     Hold for 10 seconds, and then pull slightly farther until you feel slightly more tension.
•     Hold this position for 10 seconds.
•     Repeat with other leg.

SIDE QUADRICEP STRETCH: (stretches quadriceps, hip flexors and abdominals)
•     Lay flat on left side.
•     Grab right shin, just above your ankle.
•     Slowly pull right foot toward right buttock while pushing right hip forward.
•     Hold for 10 seconds, and then pull slightly farther until you feel slightly more tension.
•     Hold this position for 10 seconds.
•     Repeat with other leg.

BUTTERFLY STRETCH: (stretches groin and lower back)
•     Sit upright with the bottoms of your feet touching each other.
•     Bend forward at the waist to a position where you feel mild tension.
•     Elbows can be used to push down on thighs if you want more stretch.
•     Hold for 10 seconds, and then pull slightly farther until you feel slightly more tension.
•     Hold this position for 10 seconds.

STRADDLE STRETCH: (stretches groin, hamstring and lower back)
•     Sit upright with legs straight.
•     Spread legs as far as you can comfortably can.
•     Keeping legs straight, but not locking knees, bend at waist, moving your chest towards your left knee.
•     Reach forward with both hands.
•     Hold for 10 seconds, and then pull slightly farther until you feel slightly more tension.
•     Hold this position for 10 seconds.
•     Repeat with other leg.

CROSS OVER STRETCH: (stretches glutes and illiotibial band)
•     Sit with legs straight in front of you.  Bend right leg and cross it over so you can grab around the outside of your right thigh.
•     Slowly pull bent right leg towards your chest until you feel mild tension.
•     Hold for 10 seconds, and then pull slightly farther until you feel slightly more tension.
•     Hold this position for 10 seconds.
•     Repeat with other leg.

STANDING CALF STRETCH: (stretches calves)
•    In a standing forward-lunging position, place your hands ahead of you on a wall and support yourself.
•     Press the heel of your back leg toward the floor while keeping your leg straight.
•     Hold for 10 seconds, and then pull slightly farther until you feel slightly more tension.
•     Hold this position for 10 seconds.
•     Repeat with other leg.

UPPER BACK STRETCH: (stretches upper back and posterior deltoids)
•     Sit with legs straight in front.
•     Twist your upper back, crossing left arm across chest and place your right hand on the floor.
•     Slowly twist until you feel mild tension.
•     Hold for 10 seconds, and then pull slightly farther until you feel slightly more tension.
•     Hold this position for 10 seconds.
•     Return to starting position and twist to the other side.

CHEST STRETCH: (stretches chest, shoulders and biceps)
•     Stand with right shoulder against a wall.
•     Place right palm on the wall.
•     Slowly turn your body away from the wall until you feel mild tension.
•     Hold for 10 seconds, and then pull slightly farther until you feel slightly more tension.
•    Hold this position for 10 seconds.
•     Repeat with left arm.

TRICEPS STRETCH: (stretches triceps and posterior deltoids)
•     Stand upright and extend right arm over head.
•     Grab right elbow with left hand and place right hand on right shoulder blade.
•     Slowly push right elbow backwards until mild tension is felt.
•     Hold for 10 seconds, and then pull slightly farther until you feel slightly more tension.
•     Hold this position for 10 seconds.
•     Repeat with left arm.

As firefighters, we stress the importance of fire prevention.  The best way to prevent fire damage is to perform fire prevention tasks that will reduce the possibility of a fire.  Think of stretching in the same light as fire prevention.  The best way to prevent muscle damage from happening is to stretch before working out, which will reduce the possibility of an injury.  A little work beforehand (fire prevention/stretching) can help reduce a lot of work (fire/injury recovery) later in life. Remember to stretch for prevention.

Aaron Brouwer has 17 years of combined experience in structural and wildland fires. A graduate of Trinity Western University with a Bachelors of Human Kinetics, he is an instructor with Canwest Fire.


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