Improve Core Strength and Reduce Back Pain with These Exercises

Back injuries suck. As a first responder you will probably, at some point in your career, experience some type of back pain. While not 100% avoidable, there are some things that you can do to prevent them.

Functional core training is so essential for first responders like firefighters, EMTs, and medics because a lot of our injuries occur due to excessive torque on the back while twisting.  Moving patients to a cot, advancing heavy firehose, and carrying equipment all involve some twisting that can wreak havoc on your back. 

I could spend days and numerous posts talking about the muscles of the core and their relationship with back injuries and pain.  For simplification purposes let me summarize, when talking about the core muscles you can include everything from your chin to your thighs, including the glutes and hamstrings.

Training these intricate muscle groups presents some challenges because rather than just creating motion like most muscle groups do (think about what the biceps do during a cot lift), the function of the core is also to resist unwanted movements, such as "excessive" twisting or bending.  In other words, the core has to keep the spine both stiff and allow it to move when needed.   And, the better trained the core is, the less likely for injury!

So, what is the best way to train the core?  This is the question that many strength and conditioning specialists (like myself) have been working to perfect for years.  Based on research and experience, the best way is with a balanced approach that focuses on building stability and endurance of the core muscles and then applying controlled "functional" motions.

Consistency is also a key component to decreasing back pain and injuries.   Working out from time to time and performing the same old exercises you have for years is not going to improve your core function or your performance on the fire/ rescue scene.  Working out consistently and taking care of your body can reduce your chances of back injury.  Especially if you are training correctly! 

While all back injuries are not avoidable (sometimes crap happens on the fireground) here are some great exercises that you (as a first responder) should incorporate into your workouts.   

The Prone Plank

Almost everyone at some point in their fitness journey will do a plank.  I think it is an exercise many people love to hate, like burpees.  As a first responder, you need to learn to love the plank.  Why?

The prone plank exercise improves your core efficiency which allows the body to have greater control and stability through multiple planes of motion. This helps to improve posture and keep the body in a neutral and natural position which helps to strengthen the back. 

Performing the plank

There are a couple of cues coaches use when teaching the plank.   Here are the points you need to consider when performing any plank variation.

-Squeeze or contract your glutes.  Contracting and focusing on the glutes will keep the hips in a good neutral position.

-Keep a straight line from head to toe.  Focus on your posture, make sure your head does not drop or jut forward.

-Shift or distribute your body weight evenly between your forearms, core, and feet.   Distributing your weight evenly helps with balance and coordination.

-Tighten your core.  Think about bracing your abs, the same way you would suck in your gut to zip up a pair of pants that are too tight.  I also think about bracing my abs for a punch, this tightens up those core muscles and protects the spine.

Start incorporating the plank into your workouts by holding for 15-30 seconds.  Work up to 3 sets and then extend the time.  Make sure you focus on posture, core engagement, and breathing each time you perform a plank.

The Side Plank

The side plank is a great exercise to help build core strength and stability through the transverse plane.  As stated above, a lot of back injuries occur due to twisting while carrying a heavy load.  The side plank works to develop the muscles needed to efficiently twist and should be integrated into your workouts.  Along with the prone plank exercise, the side plank should also be a staple in every first responder's workout program.

Performing the side plank

Perform the side plank just like you would the prone plank, just balance on one arm and elbow.  Make sure to keep your head in proper alignment, keep the abs braced and balance the weight throughout your body.  You can stack your feet on top of each other or spread them out for more balance.

Start with holding the side plank position for 15 to 30 seconds on each side and work up to 3 sets. 

The Side Plank- a great core exercise for all first responders.

The Bird Dog Exercise

The bird dog is another great core exercise for first responders.  The bird-dog is an excellent floor exercise that strengthens your core, lower back, glutes, hamstrings, and shoulders.  Just like the plank and side plank this exercise does not require any equipment and can be easily modified based on your level of fitness.  This is a perfect complement to the planks and will build strength in the core muscles along with improving balance and coordination.   

Performing the Bird Dog.

Start on all fours on a padded surface. Lift your left arm until it’s parallel to the floor in front of you. At the same time, extend your right leg straight out behind you, focus on bracing the core, and do not arch your lower back. Slowly return to the starting position and repeat with the opposite arm and leg. . Repeat for three sets of 10 to 12 reps on each side.  You can make this movement more difficult by holding the extended position on each side for up to 30 seconds. 

Incorporating planks, side planks, and bird dogs into your workouts will help prevent back injury and reduce back pain, while also prolonging your career and improving your performance.  Try to perform them at least twice a week (at a minimum). 
And, make sure you stay consistent with a well-rounded program that integrates these exercises and promotes functional movement and mobility.  This cannot be emphasized enough!   Back injuries can be very debilitating and can end your career.
Take time each and every day to improve your health and fitness.  Let me know what FRF can do to help.
Time to GET FRF!
-ZAM

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