The Benefits of Stretching

May 8, 2003
A sensible flexibility, or stretching program will not only enhance physical fitness, it can actually leave you with a more youthful body and help prevent injury on and off the fire-ground.
A sensible flexibility, or stretching program will not only enhance physical fitness, it can actually leave you with a more youthful body and help prevent injury on and off the fire-ground. Stretching increases suppleness by stimulating the production of chemicals that lubricate connective soft tissue.

But besides becoming more limber, your ability to learn physical skills will be improved due to increased dexterity and coordination. Stretching after an intense resistance or cardio workout will also reduce next-day muscle soreness, promote healing of microscopic tears, as well as prevent future injuries to overused, tight muscles.

Stretch training promotes relaxation, both physical and mental. The ability to let go of stress is something everybody, not just firefighters, can use on a daily basis. Breathing patterns slow down, and this effect can carry over beyond the training session, translating into longer working times while operating with an SCBA.

Types of Flexibility

Flexibility is defined as the absolute range of motion in a joint, or series of joints. We can further subdivide flexibility into the following categories:

1. Dynamic Flexibility: the ability to bring a limb through its full range of motion

2. Static/Active Flexibility: the ability to assume and maintain an extended limb position using only your own muscles

3. Static/Passive Flexibility: the ability to assume and maintain an extended limb position, using body weight, a partner or prop

All of which are improved by incorporating some gentle static stretches into your fitness regimen.

Connective Tissue

Extended periods of inactivity bring about chemical changes that can limit flexibility. Underused connective tissue loses elasticity as it becomes stiff and dense. The human body goes through a similar pattern as it ages. A properly executed stretch routine can reverse this process.

It's theorized that stretching stimulates the production of lubricants between tissue fibers and promotes hydration and suppleness of all connective tissue. The resulting increased range of motion, especially when coupled with more strength and muscle mass, allows you to bend and move more freely before sustaining serious injury. This is the extra protection any working firefighter could use.

Stretch and Strengthen

Both flexibility training and strength training are necessary to achieve overall fitness. As a matter of fact, one of the best times to stretch is right after a resistance exercise. Static, or slow gentle stretching with a brief hold, that's done immediately after a strength exercise that challenges the same muscles and connective tissue, increases the overall effectiveness of that stretch. Go to related article on strength training.

A fatigued muscle is inhibited from contracting as hard, and thus limits the stretch reflex. This allows an even further elongation of the muscle and surrounding tissue than would have been possible without the muscle being in a state of pre-fatigue.

Immediately stretching a muscle after intense exercise also promotes muscular growth and reduces post workout soreness. Stretching hastens the delivery oxygen and other nutrients, while speeding up the removal of lactic acid and other waste products.

Static Stretch Guidelines

  • The flexibility segment of your program should be done when the body is warm, preferably at the end of your workout.

  • Once the body is warmed up, stretching exercises can be intermixed with strength moves to save time.

  • Stretches should be held from 10 to 30 seconds. A sum total of about 30 seconds is recommended to achieve any kind of permanent stretch, regardless of the number of sets performed.

  • Breathe out when going into the stretch, and inhale when coming out. Use your breath as a way to relax, and go further into the movement.

  • NEVER stretch to a point of feeling pain, only slight discomfort. There should be no fast motion or bouncing.

  • Unlike aerobic and strength training, stretching works best when repeated every day, but good results can be achieved with as little as two or three, five to ten minute sessions per week.

Increase the effectiveness of your workouts, as well as job safety and performance. Follow these sensible guidelines and make flexibility part of your fitness program today.

Sample Full Body Quick-Stretch Routine
Shoulder Crossover (Shoulders/Arms)
Stand or sit and place your right arm across the front of your body at shoulder level. Place your left hand on the back of your right elbow and press your right arm into your body, exhaling. Hold and breathe. Inhale and release. Repeat with your left arm.
Hold Time: 10 to 30 seconds
Chest Stretch (Chest/Shoulders)
Stand in a doorway and place your arms out to your sides, elbows against each side wall. Exhale and lean your upper body through the doorway as your arms are pushed back, your chest stretched and hold. Inhale as you release. This stretch can be done with one arm at a time as well. This is an important stretch to maintain a healthy posture of the upper back and eliminate rounded shoulders.
Hold Time: 10 to 30 seconds
Triangle (Upper Back/Inner Thigh)
Stand with your feet wide apart, hands on your hips and your head straight. Exhale as you let your upper body drop to the right side feeling the stretch on the inside of the right leg, hold the position. Inhale and return to center. Repeat to the left side. This movement may be performed with the back against a wall to keep the body perfectly aligned.
Hold Time: 10 to 30 seconds
Step Stretch (Hamstring)
Stand with your feet shoulder width apart, about two feet back from your step. Place the heel of the right foot on the step, keeping your left foot planted on the floor. Exhale and slowly bend the left knee creating a stretch in the back of the right leg. You can bend at the waist as well to intensify the stretch. At the point of slight discomfort, not pain, hold the position (this applies to all stretches). Inhale and slowly release. Repeat on the opposite leg.
Hold Time: 1 to 30 seconds
Calf Stretch (Calf/Achilles Tendon)
Stand with feet together, three or four feet out from a wall. Place your hands on the wall shoulder width or wider, exhale and lean the upper body in towards the wall. Your heels remain planted firmly on the floor as you hold. Inhale and return to the starting position. One foot can be brought forward to intensify the stretch on the leg that remains planted, repeat on the other side if this is done.
Hold Time: 10 to 30 seconds
Michael Stefano is a 20-year veteran of New York City Fire Department, currently serving in the rank of captain, as well as author of The Firefighter's Workout Book, and creator of the Firefighter's Workout video.

He has been developing exercise programs for the firefighters he's worked with and the general public for the past seventeen years. His workout routines and articles have been featured on such internet giants as America Online, Yahoo!, eDiets, and iVillage.

"To find out more about The Firefighter's Workout Book, or get more of Captain Mike's fat burning, muscle building workouts, go to:

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