By Monte Egherman
Published Wednesday, April 25, 2012
| From the June 2012 Issue of FireRescue
I like to think of firefighter fitness as a truss. As we all know by now, when one piece of a truss weakens, it may cause the whole roof to collapse. The firefighter’s fitness “truss” is made up of strength, cardiovascular fitness, nutrition, flexibility and mental wellness. If any one of these is weak, it will certainly affect the others.
We’ve all experienced some type of injury during our lives, whether it’s a strained back or a stubbed toe, and if you’re like me, every time you get injured, you probably think, “Wow, I never realized how much I depended on that little toe (or muscle or whatever it is) until I injured it.” Well, that’s exactly how the fitness truss works too—you never notice how much you depend on each element until something happens to one of them—which is why it’s important to evaluate each element periodically.
Of course, it’s natural for people to fall into a rut from time to time and to seek the path of least resistance. This may be why there’s an emerging trend in the fitness world in which people are utilizing fewer weights and instead are performing more body weight exercises. There’s a time and place for this type of exercise, but it shouldn’t replace regular use of heavier weights in your program.
When firefighters are in full PPE and deploying handlines, climbing ladders, lifting and using tools, performing search and rescue, venting roofs, extricating and overhauling, we’re never carrying just our body weight. Due to this fact, it’s important for us to add weight to our own body weight while working out. Ideally, this should lead to an increased level of strength that allows us to perform functional fitness training in turnouts.
One suggestion on how to get there: Include standard power lifts in your program. These lifts are the bench press, squat and dead lifts. These three lifts are simple to do, and very effective when it comes to building strength. The squat and dead lifts in particular are the ground-floor lifts for all the sports performance lifts, some of which I’ve covered in previous articles.
The Bench Press
The first exercise that most people start with in the weight room is usually the bench press, which is simple to learn and highly effective for developing general upper body strength.
When done correctly, the bench press will involve the entire body but concentrates mostly on the chest, shoulders and triceps. The proper form for the bench press is to lay down flat on the bench, keeping your feet flat on the ground, with your toes pointed slightly outward, and your knees spread. It’s OK to have an arch in the back; however, the shoulders and butt must stay on the bench throughout the entire lift. Your head must also stay on the bench with no side-to-side movement so your neck stays straight.
The grip for the bench should be just a little wider than shoulder width. Your thumb should wrap around the bar, but some prefer the open-thumb grip (myself included), so do what you prefer. If your grip is too wide on the bar during the bench press, you won’t get the good interaction between the chest, shoulders and triceps. If you go too narrow, the same thing happens, plus you’re doing more of a triceps movement, which is good for the triceps but bad for heavy bench presses.
Remember: Always use a spotter when doing a bench press. The last thing you want is to risk injury by having a loaded bar fall on you, pinning you underneath it. Position a spotter in the center of the bench behind your head so they can continuously watch your progress. It’s also recommended that they keep their hands on the bar, but they should stay far back enough so that they don’t disrupt the bencher’s concentration.
I like to have two “safeties” on the outside as well. These spotters never touch the bar unless the center spotter can’t lift the bar up, or if the spotter needs a little help after stabilizing the bar, in which case they can all raise up the bar as a unit. Tip: The safeties should never grab the bar first, because it can place the bencher in an awkward position. But safeties aren’t an absolute necessity. It is acceptable to have only a single center spotter.
The squat, which is really the “king” of all lifts, is an ideal full-body lift. Every muscle group in the body is engaged in the squat. The sports performance lifts are rooted in the squat as well.
A successful squat starts long before the lift begins, because it’s important for the lifter to get into the correct position. You’ll approach the bar, duck under it and get the bar rested in the correct place on their back. You may place the bar in one of two positions: The high position allows the bar to rest on the lifter’s trapezius, just below the base of the neck. The low position allows the bar to rest slightly below this at the mid-deltoid level.
Your grip on the bar should be comfortable and away from the shoulders. In the low position, the grip will be wider; in the high position, it will be in closer to the body. Your elbows should come back and position high up behind you so you form a stable shelf that the bar will rest on during the squat. Remember: It’s very important to fit your body tightly under the bar.
Once in position, explode up with the bar, keeping the head up, and the chest and back tight. Your feet should be just wider than your hips, with toes pointed slightly out. Lock your lower back as you stick out your chest.
Once in a stable position, lower the bar by leading with your butt and traveling to the point where the thighs become parallel to the ground. Keep the knees over the toes in a straight line; in other words, don’t move the knees in or out or forward. Keep your heels flat on the ground at all times. If your heels tend to come up, this means you need to work on your flexibility. Once in the bottom position, stay as tight as possible and begin to rise up back into the start position.
Important: When performing the squat, always have two spotters, one on each side. As with the bench press, they must work in unison to avoid injury to the squatter. For heavier squats, I suggest having a middle spotter as well. And no matter what exercise you choose, communication is essential between spotters.
The Dead Lift
The final exercise we’ll examine is the dead lift, which is ideal for building a strong back, butt and quadriceps. Honestly, this is another rather simple movement that will make the entire body stronger. When we consider the starting point for much of what we lift and stabilize while on the job—extrication equipment, patients, hoseline manipulation, etc.—we find these muscle groups at work.
To perform the dead lift, place a loaded barbell on the ground. Note: Make sure you place collars on the bar so that the weight can’t slide during the lift. Approach the bar, and let your shins come in contact with it. Keeping a straight, tight back and your head up, squat down and grab the barbell with an alternating grip. (Note: An alternating grip is when the palm of one hand faces forward and the palm of the other hand faces backward.)
Then, keeping the chest out just as in the squat, explode up by lifting with the legs. Tip: The shoulders should always stay above the hips and should move upward in a single motion. If your hips are up first and you feel the lift being completed by your back, you must readjust your form.
So what to do with these three lifts once we have them in our arsenal? I’ll give you two of my favorite routines, which are on opposite sides of the exercise spectrum; in other words, one is a pure strength program and the other involves endurance and strength, which I combine into enduro-strength training.
The 3 by 5
When trying to improve strength, you must use heavy weights with low repetitions. The program that has always worked for me is called the 3 by 5. To accomplish this routine, use a weight that’s easy for you to lift three times without anyone’s help. Note: That said, it’s still very important to have spotters for these exercises. The sets should be difficult to complete, but still obtainable. Complete five sets of three repetitions. This works for all three of the power lift exercises that I’ve described. Once the five sets of three are completed, you can do some appropriate auxiliary lifts for a particular muscle group, whether it’s the chest, back or legs that you’re training that day.
To describe a typical way that you can determine and actually test when you’re getting results, I’ll use a program for someone who has a one-rep max of 200 lbs. on the bench press as an example: The typical three-rep max for the lifter with a 200-lb. max bench press equals about 175 lbs. If that individual lifts 175 lbs. during their five sets of three and completes two bench sessions a week, they’ll notice in a matter of a couple weeks that the lifting is becoming easier to accomplish.
At this time, the lifter should increase the weight on the three reps to 180–185 lbs., depending on how they feel. As the person gets stronger, they will also increase their single-rep maximum. It’s fun to see periodically what your single-rep max is and how it’s changing as you continue your lifting routine, so I suggest testing it once a month or so.
This program also works well for squats and the dead lift.
A great enduro-strength program for the squat and the dead lift is the squat-dead-squat-dead-squat. This routine challenges the lifter to try a new level of lactic acid threshold training that few athletes ever attain, but athletes also never run into a burning building, so a more unique workout that can help firefighters perform their jobs better is not only ideal, it’s a necessity.
To begin, the lifter sets up a squat bar with a moderate weight and does the same with a dead lift bar. They then complete 10 squats and immediately move to the dead lift bar, where they complete 10 reps. The lifter then repeats the 10 squats and 10 dead lifts and ends with 10 more squats.
Important: This routine should only be done by experienced lifters who can keep good form through the entire five sets. This type of training is excellent for firefighters because it helps us become accustomed to doing multiple physically tasking movements in succession, much like firefighting.
Firefighters perform countless physical tasks every day, from lifting equipment, to PT to carrying victims to safety. And we complete all of these tasks while wearing and carrying PPE and tools that weigh a few dozen pounds at least. As a result, if we don’t prepare our bodies for the physical demands of the job, we simply won’t make it in the fire service.
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