Firefighter mobility: 3 reasons stretching hurts

Stretching is key to mobility and protection from injury, but it can hurt; here's why it hurts and how to end the pain


I like to joke that there are three types of personalities when it comes to stretching. The first is the one who sees and feels the benefit from stretching, so they just do it.

The second is the one who will never, ever stretch because either they do not care or because that have had multiple negative experiences from high school to the academy. The third is the one who has tried to stretch and the pain is too much, so they inevitability give up.

The first is good to go. The second is always going to be a challenge. But, the third is the one we can help.

Janda's Muscle Imbalance Syndromes

Janda's Muscle Imbalance Syndromes

There is no question that having good mobility — a combination of soft tissue flexibility and joint mobility — will decrease the risk of injury and its severity if it does occur. What we have to understand is that there is a lot of myth and misinformation surrounding mobility, especially how to achieve it safely.  

Think back to the academy and all those stretches you did every day during physical training. Did that system instill in you a process to follow from hire to retire, allowing you to stay on the job injury-free? If not, then what good did those movements do for you?

Why stretching hurts
One day your back is tight so you try a few hamstring stretches. As soon as you get into the stretch, the pain overrides your desire to continue and you stop — or you hold the stretch, but after 15 seconds noting changes. Sound familiar?

There are a few theories as to why stretching hurts — here are three.

First, your dehydrated and dehydrated muscles do not stretch well. Research is tying firefighter cardiovascular risks to dehydration and heat dissipation under stress.

From this, we can achieve two goals with staying hydrated: reduced risk of injury and cardiovascular events. Plus, to truly get a good stretch, all stretches must be held for 60 seconds.

Next we need to look at my favorite culprit of poor flexibility — trigger points. After 16 years of clinical physical therapy practice and 10 years of training first responders, I can confidently say that most mobility issues stem from trigger points in the soft tissue.

Every person I have ever treated for pain, injury or mobility issues has had trigger points contributing to or causing the problem — and you cannot stretch a trigger point. That's why it often hurts to stretch. We can bundle old injuries, arthritis and surgery into this category as well.

Last, you suffer from tightness weakness. Yes there is such a thing and here is why it's such a problem.

You have a weakness, and to protect the muscle and joints from injury your body makes the weak muscle tight, or contracted. When you try to stretch this tight muscle, your nervous system says "nope" and you feel pain.

This sure makes the case for some structured exercise designed to strengthen the tight-weak muscles allowing better mobility, power and stability.

4-step program
For any program to be effective there has to be a system behind it; haphazardly doing work and disguising it as stretching is what has caused the issues in the first place.

In this case there is fact and there is gym — or better known as "bro science." We like science fact. Most of us know never to stretch cold, and that still holds true today. But the warm up system has changed.

1. Roll
By now I hope that all of you have seen and used a foam roller. I can still remember when the only responders that had seen a roller had gotten hurt and learned about it in physical therapy.

Now you can get them at all the big-box retailers, but responders still do not truly understand their benefit and application. We know that rolling six key areas of the body pre-shift, pre-training and pre-PT will increase the tissue temperature as much as some light cardio.

So does this mean no more calisthenics? Maybe. There six key areas that a responder must roll to improve mobility, increase tissue temperature and break up trigger points: calves, hip flexors, inner thighs, glutes, lats and upper back (thoracic spine.)

Here is how I teach foam roiling. Imagine you are an obsessive-compulsive foam roller; roll all of the tissue and then roll it again. Work the outside, inside and middle of each area.

Contort yourself into bizarre positions to fulfill your OCD foam rolling needs. Healthy tissue does not hurt to roll; unhealthy tissue hurts a lot, so seek the nasty staff and kill it. Now you are warm and ready to activate the muscles.

2. Activate
No good warm up is ever complete without activating the muscles that you just rolled. The system dictates that activation targets the commonly tight and weak muscles that cause most of our injuries and make mobility work difficult in the first place.

I like joint mobilizations, core and hip activation and carriage load exercises like farmers walks, suit case carries and kettle bell get ups.

3. Clean it up
Over the years (some 800 classes later), I have realized that after rolling and activating, we are not always done. Often there is some junk left over that we may have missed.

A few weeks ago, my exercise programming (mesocycle for the coaches out there) said that it was time for some 95 percent repetition max dead lifts — sumo dead lifts, as I feel they are more job specific and have less spinal torque than a traditional dead lift.

I followed the steps above and began pyramiding my way up in weight. As I passed the 250-pound mark, my left lower back let me know it was there. So before the next set I grabbed a tennis ball and hit the hot spots and then deeper in the hip on the side that was causing the symptom. I hit a personal best that day.

After rolling and activating, listen to your body. If it gives you a symptom, treat the symptom. I love tennis balls as they are awesome for getting more pinpoint than the roller and treat the deeper spasms and trigger points that the roller misses.

4. Work
Now it's time to do work and get your training done. By following the system before any and all physical activities, you have reduced your chance of injury and will ultimately feel better. One thing that I have learned is that pain, fear of pain and not wanting to get mocked are the primary detractors from following a system of human performance that will keep you fit, pain free, mobile and serving your communities for years to come. 

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