Firefighter Fitness: 3 Scientific Findings

( Bryan Fass, Firechief.com )

After 20-plus years in sports medicine, strength and conditioning, and tactical fitness there are not many times I walk away from a conference with a treasure trove of new and updated science.

It’s not often that I get to sit with those doing the research and pick their brains plus share ideas and examine best practices. Yet, I did just that at this year’s National Strength & Conditioning Association’s Tactical Strength & Conditioning Conference.

I walked away with that treasure trove.

During the conference three key areas of research were covered that may provide your departments with some very actionable ideas along with addressing many of the hot topics in the fire service right now.

1. Training on duty

There is a lot of controversy in the fire service about exercising on duty. Does it cause injury, prevent injury or improve firefighter fitness? The answer is yes on all counts.

If done improperly, 27 percent of injuries are from exercise, and this is a problem.

The first hour or two after training, your body is in a catabolic phase, essentially a state of breakdown. Nutrition and hydration are incredibly important to decrease this level of catabolism. The number one tool to reverse this break down state is sleep.

Other data shows that pre- and post-workout meals are incredibly important; feed the machine and then feed it again to replenish the tank. Here’s what several studies showed.

  • Hyperthermia decreased performance after exercise. When exercising on duty get your body cool as rapidly as possible post exercise, this can reduce the metabolic and cardiovascular load on the person.
  • Compression garments showed a small positive effect on power and recovery. Active recovery and cool down did not enhance recovery.
  • Stretching post exercise had no effect on recovery except to increase range of motion.
  • Massage had no positive effect on recovery, nor did NSAIDs (ibuprofen).
  • The only proven method to return a line firefighter back to 100 percent was full-body cold-water immersion.

Take home message is that firefighters can and should train on duty, but that training should focus on strength and power exercises that do not promote fatigue and or high body temperatures.

Training should focus on mobility and always include a well-designed pre- post-workout meal. Remember, that fit but fatigued firefighters still outperformed the fresh but unfit firefighters in a fireground scenario.

2. Movement matters

There is a lot of myth and misinformation when it comes to lifting and how it carries over to the job. A few points that resonated with me as both a coach and trainer were about how to combat many of the myths to reduce injury potential while training and on scene.

Back injuries occurred across the board (training, fitness and on scene), but mostly from lifting. Most knee injuries are from stepping in, out or over objects. Shoulder injuries occur from pulling.

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The myth of lifting with your legs is still present. What’s most important when lifting is trunk angle — the less trunk angle you have, the less spinal compression you have.

Disk herniations are cumulative from years of improper lifting and extreme trunk angles.

With fitness, movement matters; move well in the gym because it transfers to better movement on the street. This means becoming very aware these four items.

  • Use less trunk flexion.
  • Use less knee adduction and internal rotation — don’t let the knee turn in or rotate in.
  • Use less shoulder elevation — no shrugs.
  • Use less trunk lateral flexion — reduce the side bending.

The take home message is that movement is a behavior that can be influenced by proper exercise, but practice makes permanent. Control spine flexion, keep the heels down, keep the knees straight, use a hip hinge, don’t shrug, reduce side bending and keep your head up — always.

One final pearl on power development and rotation, which is job-task critical: be able to stop what you started. Keep everything in line and limit your trunk flexion.

3. Fitness and physical abilities testing

One of the hot topics for fire and EMS is testing. When it comes to testing, what is valid, job-specific, legally defensible and has no bias to age or gender?

When creating a standard, roughly 98 percent should be able to pass the test. That improves its defensibility if challenged.

There is no gender or age difference if it is a job-task simulation, such as a physical abilities test. This means that it cannot include abilities to be learned on the job for pre-hire use. It also means that the tasks in the PAT must be measurable, critical and are a sample of the job behaviors.

Many departments have struggled with the difference between physical fitness tests and physical abilities tests, especially when it comes to testing existing employees. A well-designed PAT can allow departments to test all employees annually as long as it is a valid sampling of critical job tasks.

I could probably write a book on the three days I spent at the National Strength & Conditioning Association’s Tactical Strength & Conditioning Conference — it’s in San Diego next year. The point is that the issues addressed in the research presentations are the same issues that many departments struggle with every day.