A high level of fitness is not a perk of military training – it’s a non-negotiable essential. Irrespective of your role in the military, being fit and strong will make you more effective. A high level of fitness could even save your life and the lives of your comrades. Because fitness is such a critical part of military life, prospective soldiers must be fit before they even start boot camp. Continual training and regular assessments mean active servicemen and women cannot take their fitness for granted and must work at it constantly. However, a lot of people make the mistake of focusing exclusively on their cardio fitness and strength while neglecting their flexibility. This is a significant oversight. Tight, stiff muscles do not function as well as they should and are also prone to injury. If lacing up your boots makes it feel like your hamstrings are about to snap, you probably need to pay more attention to your flexibility.
In this article, we discuss the role and benefits of flexibility training for military readiness.
The Role of Flexibility in Physical Fitness
The total physical fitness model comprises several separate yet related components. These components are:
- Cardiovascular fitness: This refers to the ability of the heart, lungs, and blood vessels to deliver oxygen to working muscles and tissues efficiently. It reflects how well your cardiovascular system works to supply the oxygen and nutrients your body needs during sustained physical activity.
- Muscular strength: The maximum amount of force a muscle or group of muscles can exert against a resistance in a single contraction. It’s crucial for tasks that require lifting, pushing, or pulling heavy objects.
- Muscular endurance: The ability of a muscle or group of muscles to sustain repeated contractions or to continue applying force against a fixed object. It determines how long your muscles can perform a task before getting fatigued.
- Body composition: Refers to the ratio of lean body mass (muscles, bones, organs, etc.) to body fat. A healthy body composition indicates a lower percentage of body fat in relation to lean body mass.
- Agility: The ability to move quickly and change directions while maintaining control and balance. It’s especially important in sports and activities that require rapid changes in direction.
- Speed: The ability to move or perform a movement quickly, e.g., sprinting for cover.
- Power: The ability to exert maximum force in the shortest amount of time. It’s a combination of strength and speed. For example, jumping or a quick start in a race.
- Balance: The ability to maintain the body’s equilibrium while standing still or moving. Balance is essential for activities like assault courses and urban assaults.
- Coordination: The ability to use different parts of the body together smoothly and efficiently. It’s crucial for activities that require hand-eye or foot-eye coordination, such as sports and unarmed combat.
- Flexibility: The ability of the joints to move through their full range of motion without discomfort or pain. It’s essential for preventing injuries, improving posture, and allowing muscles to work most effectively.
Each of these components plays a vital role in overall physical fitness and well-being. While they are separate, they are also interrelated, meaning improvement in one area can positively affect another. Military fitness training places a high value on the first nine items on this list, but flexibility is often neglected. That’s unfortunate because muscle flexibility will invariably enhance your performance of the other nine fitness components.
Flexibility and Reducing Injury Risk
Whether you are pumping out push-ups, sprinting up a hill to engage the enemy, or hoisting a heavy pack onto your back, military training is hard on your body. Your muscles and joints bear the brunt of this daily assault, so you must do all you can to minimize the risk of injury. After all, getting hurt during training could hold your career back. In contrast, an injury in the field could jeopardize your mission.
Flexible muscles are less prone to strains, sprains, and other injuries. For example, going from a march to a crawl to a sprint will take many of your muscles through big ranges of motion, often with little warning. Tight muscles are more likely to tear under such demands. In contrast, flexible muscles will stretch and are less likely to be damaged.
You don’t need the flexibility of an elite gymnast to be a successful soldier. Still, you do want to avoid being overly tight. The solution to muscle tightness is stretching a.k.a. flexibility training.
Flexibility and Enhanced Performance
Better flexibility can help you move more smoothly, especially during movements that involve large ranges of motion or place your joints at unnatural angles. Imagine trying to squeeze through a small tunnel, climb through a high window, or duck under a low barricade. Tight muscles will make any of these tasks considerably harder. As well as battling gravity and the weight of your equipment, you’ll also need to overcome the tension in your muscles.
However, when you are flexible, there is one less force to work against, and your movements will become smoother and use less energy. Improved flexibility will also enhance your posture. Posture is more than just standing up straight and looking smart on the parade ground. It also ensures your joints are in the most biomechanically efficient position, which again can help save energy and lower your risk of injury.
A final example of how flexibility can be useful is unarmed combat. Being able to bend more readily will make joint locks a little less effective. While it won’t save you from the debilitating effects of a good arm or shoulder crank, increased flexibility may mean you have an extra split second to extricate yourself from danger.
Flexibility and Mental Health Benefits
Mens sana in corpore sano is a Latin phrase for “a healthy body and a healthy mind.” It is often used to express the idea that physical and mental well-being are interconnected and essential for overall health. Serving in the military not only takes a lot out of your body; it can affect you mentally, too. The things you see and do can profoundly affect your short- and long-term mental health. Depression, stress, anxiety, and PTSD are all common problems that can occur during or after military service.
While flexibility training isn’t a cure-all for all military-related mental health problems, it can be very beneficial. Stretching increases mindfulness, helps relieve physical tension and emotional stress, and can be a welcome distraction from distressing thoughts. It also feels good, which can be very welcome when you are uncomfortable or in pain.
Implementing Flexibility Training
The great thing about flexibility training is that you can bolt it onto almost every workout in your physical readiness schedule. For example, you can do dynamic stretches in your warm-up to prepare your muscles and joints for what you’re about to do. Exercises like leg forward leg swings, waist twists, and butt kickers are ideal for this purpose. Then, you can end your workout with a cool down and stretch to more quickly return your body to its pre-exercise state and speed up recovery. Stretching when your muscles are already warm is the ideal time to improve your flexibility. Just ease into a stretch and hold it for 30-60 seconds, increasing as you feel your muscles relax.
You can also do dedicated flexibility training as a stand-alone workout. Warm up with some light cardio and then work up or down your body, doing a stretch for each major muscle group. 20-30 minutes later, you’ll feel loose, relaxed, and better prepared for your next challenge. You should try and stretch at least 3- to 4 times a week, and daily stretching will quickly improve your flexibility.
The Importance of Flexibility Training for Military Readiness: Closing Thoughts
In the rigorous world of military training and operations, every edge counts. While the emphasis has traditionally been on strength, speed, and endurance, the role of flexibility cannot be understated. As we’ve explored, flexibility is not just about preventing injuries; it’s about enhancing performance, conserving energy, and even supporting mental well-being. The ancient wisdom of “mens sana in corpore sano” holds true today, reminding us that a holistic approach to fitness is paramount. By integrating flexibility training into regular routines, you can ensure that you’re not just fit, but comprehensively prepared for the multifaceted demands of military life. It’s time to stretch beyond the conventional and recognize the full spectrum of fitness essentials.