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Prevention of health and medical problems requires the ability to look further into the future than the average arborist is used to -- but it is worth it. Flexibility is a component of fitness that can help to prevent injuries such as sprains and strains, and can help to alleviate muscle soreness common in tree worker's lives.

Fitness for Arborists: Flexibility

By John Amtmann


It is vital for arborists to anticipate the results of their actions to prevent collateral damage, as well as injury to themselves and others. The best arborists have an innate sense of what should be done on the ground and in the trees to prevent catastrophe. How many times have you said to yourself after an accident, “Man, I could have prevented this,” or “It would have been so simple to…”? We all have — indicating that we understand that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Prevention of health and medical problems requires the ability to look further into the future than the average arborist is used to — but it is worth it. Flexibility is a component of fitness that can help to prevent injuries such as sprains and strains, and can help to alleviate muscle soreness common in tree worker’s lives.


Flexibility can be defined as the range of motion of a joint or group of joints (Alter), and various factors determine joint range of motion. The first factor affecting range of motion is the architecture of the joint. The specific design of the bones that meet in the joint have an enormous impact on the direction and range of motion at that joint. For example, the hinge joint of the elbow allows for relatively modest movement when compared with the ball and socket joint of the shoulder because of their respective architecture. Age and sex also play a role: younger people tend to be more flexible than older people, and females tend to be more flexible than males — especially in the hips. Also, active people tend to be more flexible than inactive people. Connective tissue, such as tendons, ligaments, fascial sheaths, joint capsules, and skin also determine joint range of motion.


What do they do?

Tendons: Connect muscle to bone
Ligaments: Connect bone to bone
Fascia: Aids in maintaining integrity the individual components (muscle fibers) of the muscle
Capsule: Surrounds the joint and secretes synovial fluid, which helps to lubricate the joint

 


Tree workers should be thought of as industrial athletes, and most strength and conditioning specialists stress the importance of the flexibility training for their athletes, believing flexibility exercises may reduce the likelihood of injury to muscle tendon units (Vorkapic).


Hip Flexor Stretch — Hip flexors, the muscles that cross the front part of the hip, lose flexibility over time, causing strain at their attachment point on the lower back. This stretch will help maintain and improve flexibility of this muscle group.

Hamstring stretch — The muscle group located behind the thigh is called the hamstring group, and hamstring flexibility is required to maintain posture to protect the back while working. This stretch targets the hamstring group. Note, use an object such as a stability ball or stool if balancing in this position is difficult.

Quad Stretch — The muscle group at the front of the thigh is known as the quadriceps femoris, or quads. An effective quad stretch is to assume the hip flexor stretch position and to bend the rear knee. Hold the ankle or foot with the opposite hand. Again, if balancing in this position is difficult, use an object to stabilize yourself.

Anterior Spine Stretch 1 — This stretch helps to maintain flexibility of the connective tissue in front of the spine. Don’t allow the hips to rise off the mat, come down onto your elbows if needed.

Anterior Spine Stretch 2 — another version of the anterior spine stretch is to use a stability ball helps to relieve stress on the spine.

Hurdler’s Stretch — AVOID THIS POSITION! It places excessive stress on the knee.

Modified Hurdler’s Stretch — One way to modify the Hurdler’s Stretch is by placing your foot on the inside of the opposite thigh. Ahh, that’s better.

Posterior Shoulder Stretch — This stretch focuses on the muscles crossing the back side of the shoulder.

Chest Stretch — This movement targets the chest muscles.

Upper Back Stretch — The muscles of the upper back are involved in much of the pulling actions done when working in a tree. This stretch focuses on these muscles.Some research supports this. In one study, researchers assessed the lower body flexibility in 146 male soccer players prior to their season (Witvrouw, Danneels, Asselman, D’Have, Dirk). All of the examined players were monitored throughout the season to determine the presence and severity of injury. Players who suffered a hamstring (N = 31) or quadriceps (N = 13) muscle injury during the season were found to have significantly lower flexibility in these muscles prior to their injury compared with the uninjured group. No significant differences in muscle flexibility were found, however, between players who sustained an adductor muscle injury (N = 13) or a calf muscle injury (N = 10) and the uninjured group.


Researchers concluded that these results indicate that soccer players with an increased tightness of the hamstring or quadriceps muscles have a higher risk for a subsequent musculoskeletal injury to those areas, but not necessarily to the groin or calf areas.


So there are conflicting reports on the relationship between flexibility and injury. Most experts agree, however, that there appears to be an ideal [ital>range<ITAL] P (Hackney).

As industrial athletes, arborists need flexibility training on a regular basis. Along with the possibility of reducing the occurrence of injury, properly performed stretching exercises may help to relieve low back pain, muscular cramps and muscular soreness, as well as reduce stress.


 


Guidelines


There are two general approaches to stretching: static and dynamic. Static stretching involves moving toward the body’s limits of range of motion in a slow and gentle manner, and holding the stretched position. Dynamic stretching involves actively moving the limb toward the limits of its range of motion. One type of dynamic stretching is called ballistic. As the name implies, ballistic stretching involves bouncing a limb toward the edge of its range of motion. Static and dynamic stretching both may improve flexibility, but we recommend avoiding any ballistic stretching because these types of movements may actually [ital>increase<ITAL] P and of the soreness.

When should you stretch? The body’s temperature is usually higher at the end of a workout session compared to the beginning of the session, and this may be a safer and more effective time to stretch. So, following a strength training session or a cardio session when body temperature is higher is a good time to stretch. However, arborists could stretch at any time during breaks in the work day. The ACSM recommends the following guidelines:


Type: A general stretching routine that exercises the major muscle and/or tendon groups.


Frequency: A minimum of 3 days per week


Intensity: Moving the body segment to a position of a comfortable stretch


Duration: 15-30 seconds


Repetitions: 3 to 4 for each stretch


 


A few important notes arborists need to be mindful of include the following:

Some stretching exercises may not be appropriate for some participants because of prior injuries or other conditions, or because the exercises have been identified as unsafe. Avoid the contraindicated exercise shown below.
Stretch to the point where you feel a comfortable stretch in the target muscle group, NOT pain. NO BOUNCING!
Focus on deep breathing and avoiding breath holding. The recommended time, 15-30 seconds, should be spent concentrating on deep breathing and relaxing the muscle group being stretched.

If you want to make most effective use of your stretching time, make sure to target the common tight spots, which include the hamstrings, hips and low back. But keep in mind, research indicates that maintaining a healthy range of motion in all the joints/major muscle groups is important for preventing musculoskeletal injuries.


The following, easily followed, sequence is a safe set of stretching movements that target the hip flexors, posterior thigh (hamstrings), anterior thigh (quadriceps muscle group), and anterior spinal musculature.


A common stretch that should be avoided is the hurdler’s stretch. This stretch has been commonly used to target the hamstrings (when leaning forward) and the quadriceps (when leaning backward). The traditional form of this stretch causes excessive stress to knee. There are a variety of modifications to safely adjust the hurdler’s stretch, one modification is to bring the foot of the bent knee to the inside of the thigh rather than to the outside.


Remember, developing health and fitness, including flexibility, will improve your chances of remaining injury free.


 


John Amtmann is a professor in his twenty-second year teaching for the Applied Health Science program at Montana Tech in Butte, Mont. He works in the summer for Alpine Tree Services in Butte, and can be reached via e-mail at jamtmann@mtech.edu


 


References

Alter, M. Science of Flexibility. Second Edition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
American College of Sports Medicine. ACSM’s Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription. Sixth Edition. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
Hackney, R. Nature, prevention, and management of injury in sport. (ABC of Sports Medicine). British Medical Journal. Vol. 308, Issue #6940, pp. 1356-1359.
Mannie, K. Flexible Perspectives on Stretching. Coach and Athletic Director. Vol. 73, No. 5, pp. 6-9.
Powers, S., Howley, E. Exercise Physiology: Theory and application to fitness and performance. Fourth Edition. New York, NY: McGraw – Hill.
Vorkapic, M. 2002 Summer Strength and Conditioning Manual (Michigan State University).
Witvrouw, E., Danneels, L., Asselman, P., D’Have, T., Dirk, C. Muscle flexibility as a risk factor for developing muscle injuries in male professional soccer players: a prospective study. The American Journal of Sports Medicine. Vol. 31, Issue #1, pp. 41-46.

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