Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Fit for duty: Improving your functional movement

Sherry Dean   

Features Fitness Health and Wellness annex firefighter fitness

There is no doubt that fire fighting, weight training and endurance training are hard on our bodies. I have never heard anyone say the older they get, the easier it is to recover. Injury is a given when you lead an active lifestyle, but there are many ways to treat and work through an injury. One of the better approaches is to prevent injuries before they happen, but how do you do that?

Canadian Firefighter columnist Sherry Dean explains how firefighters can limit injuries with daily exercises

Improving mobility/ functional movement is one way to help limit injuries. Our bodies are designed to move through specific ranges of motion, but unfortunately, as we age, range of motion can become impaired. There are many reasons for decreased mobility including lack of use, medical issues, repetitive movements, and injury. The good news is it’s never too late to start mobility training.

Mobility versus flexibility
Mobility is the ability to move a body part effectively through its full range of motion, or functional movement. Flexibility refers to the total available range of motion around a joint. Think of it this way: mobility is the way a joint moves; and flexibility is the length of a muscle. Improving flexibility can certainly help with mobility and vice versa, but the two are very different.

Just like with any activity or movement, lack of practice limits us. If a person attempts to return to a previous range of motion they haven’t been maintaining, this can cause injury.

Mobility/ functional movement has become an extremely important aspect of personal training for me and for many of my peers. Our fire department includes mobility training as part of the daily workout regime for all recruits; this is done through yoga and straight-up mobility work. The feedback is great: the recruits love it; it helps to balance the heavy demands of firefighter training and decreases the likelihood of injury.


Yoga is another great way to expand range of movement; this type of training can be greatly underestimated or misunderstood. Yoga is not an easy activity and a lot of men (sorry guys) are hesitant to try it because they think it’s for chicks. Try putting your doubts aside and try five classes – not just one. Halifax firefighter Joe Barbati (a former university football player), teaches yoga for jocks or joga; he does an excellent job teaching our firefighters that yoga is good for them; it can be as challenging as you want to make it.

There are a number of great books and websites available to athletes for mobility training tips and information. The Supple Leopard is a great book, but only one of many. You can Google “functional movement” or “athletic mobility training,” and quickly get started. I recommend starting with hip, ankle, spine, shoulder and knee mobility.

On top of using books and online resources, there are a few items you can purchase that will help with mobility training. I recommend starting with these:

  • Foam roller – Ensure it is a fairly dense one or one with a hollow core lined with plastic.  
  • Two lacrosse balls –These are high density and can be used one at a time, or put both in a sock and use on your back.
  • Softball – A little bigger than a lacrosse ball so it doesn’t get as deep into the tissue. This is good if you are really tight and experience discomfort with a lacrosse ball.
  • Small rubber ball – You can usually buy these in packs of three or five. Once again, make sure the ball has a fairly hard surface. Use when you need to get really deep into the muscle tissue.
  • Yoga mat and blocks – These are good whether you are going to begin practising yoga or not. A lot of the mobility work will be on the floor.  
  • Mobility bands or towel – These will help extend your reach during stretches, if you are new to mobility training.

Before you begin mobility training, here are two key points to keep in mind:

  • Remember to breathe. If you are holding your breath you are probably pushing a little too far or too hard.
  • Never pass a seven or eight out of 10 on a scale of discomfort. Remember, there is a difference between normal discomfort, and pain. Mobility should not be painful, but you will be uncomfortable a lot of the time.

Enjoy your new supple body. Work hard. Stay safe.

Sherry Dean is a career firefighter/engineer with Halifax Regional Fire & Emergency. She has more than 20 years of experience in fitness and training.

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