By Matthew Loux, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice, American Military University
Stretching is a major component of physical fitness, but something many law enforcement officers overlook as part of their exercise regimen. Officers should incorporate stretching exercises into daily workouts to improve their flexibility and reduce muscle tightness.
Stretching also increases strength and cardiovascular fitness. Ultimately, stretching makes workouts more effective and safer.
Police Work Causes Muscle Tightness, Reduced Flexibility
Officers often sit in patrol cars or at desks for long periods of time. Prolonged sitting causes leg muscles to constrict and may increase officers’ discomfort when they stand. Officers must also be ready to quickly react to unexpected situations. These sudden and abrupt physical movements can further strain tight muscles and lead to injuries.
“Tight muscles can cause undue strain on the neighboring joints during normal daily function, or they themselves can become injured,” Sasha Cyrelson, D.P.T., clinical director at Professional Physical Therapy in Sicklerville, New Jersey, told SELF magazine. However, by stretching and loosening the joints and muscles of the body, they become less restricted during movement.
Stretches to Relieve Muscle Tightness after Prolonged Sitting
When I’m on the job for a long period of time, my legs and back muscles stiffen at times. However, performing standing hamstring stretches and hip flexor stretches relieve the stiffness. Both exercises are easy to perform and only take a few minutes.
Standing Hamstring Stretch
Hamstrings are the thigh muscles in the back of the leg between the knee and hip. During long periods of sitting, these muscles often tighten up. Here’s a simple exercise to lengthen and stretch the hamstring muscles:
- Stand straight with your feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent, arms by your sides.
- Bend forward, keeping your head, neck and shoulders relaxed.
- Wrap your arms around the backs of your legs or grab your calves near the ankle. Gently pull your body towards your legs so you can feel the stretch in your hamstring, but the stretch should not feel uncomfortable.
- Hold the stretch anywhere from 45 seconds to two minutes, depending on muscle flexibility.
- Bend your knees and roll upward as if you’re stacking your vertebrae one on top of the other as you stand up.
- Take a few deep breaths.
- Repeat the stretch two to three times.
Lunging Hip Flexor Stretch
Hip flexors are the muscles in the front of the leg that connect the thigh to the pelvis. Pain from tight or injured hip flexors can often be felt in the groin region.
Stretching the hip flexors can also ease the strain on the body caused by carrying a weapon, radio and other heavy items around the waist. Here’s an easy way to stretch out these important muscles:
- Kneel on one knee and place the other foot on the ground flat behind you (use a yoga mat or rolled-up towel if you experience discomfort when kneeling on a hard surface).
- Lean forward, stretching your hip toward the floor.
- Squeeze your butt muscles; this movement will allow you to stretch your hip flexors even further.
- Hold for 30 seconds to two minutes, depending on flexibility.
- Switch sides and repeat.
Stretching once a day to maintain flexibility greatly increases overall body fitness.
Stretching Releases Lactic Acid and Improves Circulation
Sitting for long periods of time not only causes tight muscles, it can also cause poor blood circulation in the legs. Taking a short break for stretching releases lactic acid that has built up in leg muscles, improves circulation to the legs, and prevents muscle cramps and soreness.
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Even 30 seconds of stretching fosters greater circulation. Toe touches, forearm stretching and lunges are simple yet effective exercises that increase mobility. Just three rounds of each exercise are beneficial in the long run. Greater flexibility and strength make police equipment easier to carry and less of a burden on the body.
Add Variations to Stretching to Prevent Boredom
Many people get in a rut when it comes to varying up their workout and stretching routines. To prevent this, I use an app called Track Yoga that guides me in a yoga class on a smartphone. This app allows the user to vary stretching exercises each day and incorporate them into a daily routine. It even has a feature to ask questions that arise during physical training.
Ultimately, stretching exercises make workouts more efficient and safer by better preparing your muscles and increasing flexibility. Better workouts lead to better physical fitness for police officers, enabling them to keep up with the physical demands of the job.
About the Author: Matthew Loux has been in law enforcement for more than 20 years and has a background in fraud and criminal investigation, as well as hospital, school and network security. Matt has researched and studied law enforcement and security best practices for the past 10 years and is a criminal justice faculty member at American Military University. To contact him, email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.