Use these fitness tools to improve your performance and prolong your career as a firefighter, EMT, and/or medic.
Ladders, saws, fire hose, axes, sledges, water can, spreaders, and cutter, are all traditional tools that every firefighter needs and uses. We use these every day to help us perform forcible entry, fire attack, search, and rescue. Many feel that without these, we would not be able to function on the fire and rescue scene. I argue that we would, it would just make our jobs as firefighters, EMTs, and medics a lot more difficult.
One common trait about all these tools is that they all require a physically capable firefighter to operate them. The equipment is not light and in a lot of cases requires a lot of functional strength to use them to their full capacity. So, what tools do you use to keep your body physically ready to do the job?
I've been very fortunate to work with thousands of firefighters over the past 15 years and have learned from both their and my own fitness failures. One thing I did discover is that there are five (or six) common tools that "fire rescue fit" firefighters use to stay physically ready for duty. Are you using these?
Foam Roller- Foam rolling is a quick and easy way to combat the sprains and strains of the job. A foam roller is a cylindrical piece of compressed foam or PVC plastic. The idea of foam rolling is to roll your body weight along with the foam roller, massaging through restrictions (adhesions) that may occur in your muscles (especially those of the back) and thus causing the nerves and muscles to relax and loosen. This allows blood to flow more freely through the muscles and allows muscles to heal and repair more efficiently. There is no universal agreement on when to roll, how often to roll, or how long to roll, but generally, techniques are used both before and after a workout (or shift in this case).
Personally, I try to use the foam roller anytime my muscles (especially my back) feel tight and sore. Try to get in the habit of foam rolling at the beginning of your shifts, it will help ensure you are “Fit for Duty.”
TRX (suspension training)- As fire rescue athletes, we need functional strength in all planes of motion and on unstable grounds. One of the best fitness tools that match that need is suspension trainers. Suspension training requires you to use balance, coordination, and strength, all aspects required on the fireground. Another reason I like suspension training is that it promotes core endurance. If you’ve never tried suspension training before, you’ll soon find that all the exercises, even the ones that concentrate on certain body parts, will use just about every muscle group, especially the core. A third benefit, suspension training works well for all levels of fitness. You can easily vary the level of resistance of any exercise, all you have to do is change the various angles of the exercises you’re performing or where you place your feet or arms in relation to the suspension device’s anchor point. Suspension trainers also use a small footprint. Finding space at home or in the firehouse can be difficult. These trainers don’t require a lot of space and only require an anchor point like a pull-up bar or doorway. You can perform over 70 different exercises in a very small space. And finally, these suspension trainers are fun. They keep your workouts interesting, you can continually challenge and change the dynamics of a workout with some slight changes in grip or stance.
A Solid Fire Rescue Workout Program- One of the first items in your firefighter fitness toolbox should be a solid workout program. The purpose of any firefighter workout program should be to improve performance on and off the fire/rescue ground and to help reduce injuries. In order to do this, you must follow a plan. On the fireground, a command staff evaluates the situation and creates an action plan to mitigate the situation. You should approach your fitness the same way. A solid program should improve your flexibility, add strength and power, and improve your cardiovascular capacity. As such, make sure your program includes core training, active warm-up and stretching, foam-rolling, full-body strength exercises, and intervals. Make sure that any program you follow has legitimacy and is written by individuals who are certified and experienced in fitness programming and understand the functional demands of the fire rescue athlete. You wouldn’t get information about fire attacks from a rookie or someone outside of the fire service; the same needs to apply to your fitness.
An interval Timer- Any fire rescue athlete needs to have a program that focuses on cardiovascular conditioning and recovery. When you think of cardiovascular conditioning most people think of running or biking, which in most cases emphasizes aerobic conditioning. We, however as fire rescue athletes need to have a good level of aerobic fitness but cannot overlook the value of challenging the anaerobic systems. If you've ever humped a "charged" hose line up some stairs or dragged a victim or axed a roof open you realized the importance of anaerobic fitness. A great tool to use to challenge the cardiovascular system is intervals. Intervals raise our maximal oxygen uptake (VO2 max), which, simply put, is the greatest amount of oxygen our bodies can use during maximum aerobic effort. Firefighters who can work longer before they reach their VO2 max will be able to accomplish more on the fireground. Intervals also help the body to more efficiently flush muscles of lactic acid. We develop a build-up of lactic acid and hydrogen ions that are associated with the burning sensation we feel in our muscles when under heavy physical stress. In their simplest form, they're short bursts of high-intensity exercise separated by periods of lower-intensity effort. A great and necessary tool then is a way to time these intervals. There are numerous interval timer options in the iTunes store or in google play. Get an interval timer and start incorporating them into your workouts today. I think intervals are one of the best ways to simulate the high level of fitness required on the fire ground (click here for a great interval workout option).
A water bottle (or a couple of them). Around most firehouses (and offices) the day and the shift start with some coffee. We all need a pick-me-up from time to time but before you reach for that second cup, have some water. Water is the center of all metabolic processes, the more hydrated you are the better your performance. Progressive dehydration from exercise (or fire ground operations) impairs performance, mental capacity, and perception of effort and can be life-threatening. With as little as a 2% body water shortage, the ability to perform a high-intensity activity can be greatly impaired. Translating that onto the fire ground could mean death or injury to you or a crew member because your performance is greatly reduced. Try to drink at least 1/2 your body weight in ounces of water a day, more if you are very active or it is hot out. Personally, I carry a water bottle with me on the truck and have another around the firehouse. This fitness tool ensures that you stay hydrated which can save your life.
And, a bonus tool, the carry exercise- I know this is not a “tool” per se but when you integrate more functional movements into your workouts (like the carry) you reap the benefits (like that of a tool). We as fire rescue athletes are generally moving in unbalanced positions. Whether it is climbing a ladder, pulling a hose, or moving a patient, we are usually in an unbalanced, split stance. Therefore one area of focus should be the deep balancing muscles of the core. These muscles play an important role in holding and stiffening the pelvis to prevent it from bending and can be challenging to train in normal bi-lateral lifting and pulling exercises. In addition, we as fire rescue athletes are routinely required to carry heavy loads and equipment. The carry exercise (or any variations) addresses these issues, it engages the core, improves balance, and at the same time improves grip strength. It’s a simple movement, grab some fairly heavy objects, engage the core by bracing your abs and slowly walk (chest up, good posture). The longer and heavier you go the more you challenge the core and your grip. Include “the carry” at any point in your workout. I especially like to do them at the end when fatigued. But, no matter when you do them, the payoff is the same- a stronger and more efficient body on the fire ground. You can perform different variations of the "carry" for distance and/or for time.
Of course, these are not the only fitness tools you should have in your fitness toolbox. But, I can guarantee that if you are using these, your performance and your physique will improve.
So, if you are not using these, give them a try. And, if there is a tool that should be on the list, please let me know your thoughts. The purpose of FRF (fire rescue fitness) is to give you fitness resources and to get you thinking about your fitness like an athlete. My goal is to help 100,000 firefighters, EMTs and medics improve their performance and get "fit for duty." I hope this article helped you.
Please comment and share with your crew and colleagues.
Stay safe and Get Fire Rescue Fit!