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Bending Versus Breaking

Spring is officially here, and if you have been inside working out for most of the winter in the Northern states like I have, you cannot wait to get outside and change your training, scenery, and environment. Now that we have finished up the three-month series on preparing for a marathon, this month we join Danny Concha from the North Saint Paul Fire Department and take a look at stretching while on shift, if you are a career service, or while at home or work, if you are on a paid on-call service. Regardless of which type of department you are on, stretching in the fire service, just as it is in sports, is often overlooked or neglected. The simplest way to explain the benefits of stretching is when you’re department responds to a call of a tree into a power line. It is not the young, green, bendable trees that have fallen; it’s the older, larger, non-flexible trees that have.

The benefits of flexibility accomplished through stretching, unlike endurance (cardio-respiratory) or strength (weight) training is not immediately seen or appreciated. Unlike endurance or strength training, researchers have not been able to completely validate the proposed benefits of stretching or flexibility, though there is much evidence to support that it improves range of motion, balance, speed, and enhanced performance in certain sports. With that being said, I would argue that firefighting and emergency medical response resemble sports, in so much that they both require speed, endurance, strength, and balance, which flexibility may enhance.

So, now that we have decided that there is benefit related directly to your profession, the next question that again is often debated is, do you stretch before or after your workout? Stretching before and after is appropriate. The goal is to stretch muscles that have been, for a better term, warmed-up. That is, you stand up from sitting in chair for three hours and decide to stretch. Ideally, getting up and walking around for five or more minutes will increase blood flow and muscle temperature, which both play a role in stretching. Next, is static (slow and hold) or dynamic, sometime times referred to as ballistic (faster and through a range of motion) stretching better? Both have their role. Where static stretching is appropriate for everyone, dynamic stretching mimic’s specific sport- or work-related movements that are ballistic in nature. Also there is a greater chance of injury with ballistic stretching versus static. For the purposes of this article, we are going to only look at static stretching.

You have been sitting for an hour or more at the station or at home and decide you should get up and move around; instead, get up with a plan. Walk around the apparatus bay, your house, or yard for five minutes. Then, perform each of the following stretches once or more. Also, remember these can be performed following any major response as a cool down as well.

Calf Stretch: Find a solid wall, pillar, or apparatus, and then place your hands on it shoulder width apart, at shoulder level. Now, step back about two feet and slide your right foot back another foot. Your left knee should bend as you lean towards the wall slightly. Next, begin to slowly lean your body weight into the wall. You should feel a slow, steady stretch in your right calf muscle. You do not have to lean all the way in; you just want a nice stretch. Hold it for about 10 seconds, then lean in a little further, holding for about 20 to 30 seconds, then stand up and repeat for the other leg (see Photos 1 and 2).

Lower-Back Stretch: This stretch can be performed on a carpeted floor or your bunker coat. Lay down on your back on your coat with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Slowly pull your knees towards your chest using your abdominal muscles, keeping your legs together. As your legs come up, place your hands on your mid-shins and begin to pull them back towards your torso or abdomen. You should feel a stretch in your lower back. You can either have your head up or flat on the floor. Hold for 10 seconds, then continue holding for another 20 seconds, or pull a little more and hold for another 10-20 seconds. Then, slowly let your legs down (see Photos 3 and 4).

Hamstring Stretch: While still sitting on your bunker coat, extend your left leg straight out and bring your right foot to your groin. You can then reach with your hands, use a towel, or rope. Using a towel or rope allows you to have a steady, even pull. Loop the rope around your foot (as shown in the picture) then slowly pull yourself, letting yourself bend in the lower back, while slowly pulling your head to or towards your knee. You should feel a stretch mainly in your hamstring, but also in your lower back and calf as well. Hold for 10-20 seconds, or hold for 10 seconds, then pull/stretch a little more for another 10-20 seconds and release. Then repeat for your other leg (see Photos 5 and 6).

Upper-Body Stretch: The upper body stretch works the entire upper body as well as the gluteus and thigh muscles. Kneel on your right knee with your left leg bent and foot flat on the ground. Extend your right arm up, keep your left arm at your side, and look straight ahead. Lean slowly to your left side by extending your right arm over your head as if you were reaching for something on your left side. You should feel a stretch in your lower back extending up to and out your right arm. You will also feel, though less, a stretch through your left gluteus and thigh muscles. You can also from the starting position, lean slowly backwards, then to your left. You should notice that where you feel the stretch changes. Hold for 10 to 20 seconds, and then repeat on the other side (see Photos 7, 8 and 9).

Shoulder Stretch: Now in the standing position, feet together or at shoulder width, extend your right arm straight out in front of you. Take your left hand and grab just above your right elbow and slowly pull it across your body towards your left side. Hold for 10 to 20 seconds. Then repeat on the other side (see Photo 10).

You can do these stretches once or more. Another way is to do them as a circuit. That is, do the first stretch to both sides, and then perform the next stretch, and so on until all of them are completed. Then repeat it a second and third time. Remember, to stretch slowly, and if at any time you feel pain, stop. These are just a few stretches that you can do and there are many variations, as well as beliefs behind and how to stretch. How long have you been sitting at the computer? Maybe now is a good time to get up and stretch.

In May, we’ll visit the Lisbon , ME, Fire Department and look at the Firefighter Skills Challenge they put on with surrounding departments. We’ll look at how your department can follow their example and use the Challenge as an educational opportunity for your community, department fitness goals or program, recruitment, and public relationsfor your department and those that compete in it.

Until May, stay safe and enjoy the spring.

SCOTT TOMEK MA, EMT-P has been a paramedic for 25 years with 23 of those at Lakeview Hospital EMS in Stillwater, MN. He is a faculty member with the Century College Paramedic Program and wrote the curriculum for and served as the interim director of their public safety degree program. He is a frequent contributor to EMS World Magazine, a frequent presenter at EMS conferences in the Midwest and an educational consultant to fire and EMS services. View all of Scott's artices and podcasts hereHe can be reached at