When it comes to exercise in the fire service, the varying theories are no less unique than the individual firefighters themselves.  The necessity for individuality in strength and conditioning programs creates a unique challenge for fire departments who are trying to come up with standardized methods for ensuring health, wellness, and fitness among their ranks.  It can be difficult to convince anyone, especially a firefighter, that what he or she is doing, or not doing, is at best inefficient and possibly counterproductive; it is even more challenging to get an entire station, battalion, or department to get on the same page. I believe that the department’s big picture view of this issue has to start with the selection of candidates and continue with education and performance testing through the academy and probation, and finally foster a healthy environment for the firefighter’s entire career. But since we are not starting a brand new fire department with a massive budget and forward thinking managers I will begin here and now with a few ideas of how to approach exercise from the injury prevention perspective. In my experience attacking fitness in this way helps to straighten out a few of the “individual needs” issues and will give you your best chance at a long, injury free, career and post-retirement golfing for years to come.

What are the most common injuries in the fire service? You guessed it; lower back, knee, and shoulder. Any idea how much money departments spend on workman’s compensation for these three body parts alone? Somewhere around $800 million dollars annually, so let’s start with the lower back.

Without needlessly delving into an anatomy and physiology article I want to cover a few basics of human movement that will be critical as we move forward. For starters every joint in the body has a set of muscles and connective tissue that dictate what speed, how powerfully, and how far the joint will flex or extend; generally this coordinated flexion and extension is the basis for all movement. The balance of strength and flexibility in the tissues surrounding the joint will dictate the movement pattern of the bones on either side of the joint which will either be correct or not. A common injury among runners and firefighters a like is patellar tendonitis or “runner’s knee” which is generally considered to be a “overuse injury”, but really stems from a strength and flexibility imbalance between the quads and hamstrings. Imbalances like the one described above are at the root of the most common fire service injuries.

The two main joint structures in the body are the hips and shoulders, every physical task we perform involves movement in one or both of these structures and there is one very complex and very important series of joints that connects the two. Enter the spine. I cannot stress enough how important it is to grasp the idea that the spine is the ”bone” that connects your shoulders to your hips and in doing so transfers all of the power generated by the body from the ground all the way out to your finger tips. When acting in this “backbone” capacity it is essential that the spine is in its natural, neutral position; this means that we have to actively use the muscles that surround our spine to keep it locked securely in position. This is often referred to as midline stability. Can I use that in a sentence? Sure. The ability to maintain midline stability during a full depth squat requires glute, hamstring, and hip capsule flexibility. Why is that important? Mostly because the spine is strongest in compression, meaning that it can support a tremendous load on the shoulders when in its neutral anatomical position versus the load it can manage when used like a lever arm, as in the deadlift. If midline stability is lost before or during a lift, whether it’s a patient on a backboard or a barbell, it creates a weak link in the chain and leads to a shear force being placed on the spine; that shear force is often what causes the injury, either by damaging a disk or straining a muscle in an effort to regain neutral position.  The muscles surrounding the spine are designed to hold it in a rigid column not to flex or extend it in an effort to generate power.

So if the goal is to prevent back injury there are a few areas that need to be addressed. First and foremost it is important to develop a “core to extremity” movement pattern. We have already established that the spine is responsible for transferring power from the ground up so this should come as no surprise. It is difficult to regain a neutral spine once that position is lost under load so it makes sense that the first “move” is to stabilize the core. If movement is generated first by contracting the spinal stabilizers and then initiating the rest of the movement you stand a much better chance of maintaining midline stability. Start in the middle and work your way out. This concept should be applied to daily activity such as standing, sitting, and walking as well. It may not be necessary, or practical, to walk around with your midline fully braced, as you would before a 1000lb squat, but about 20% of that full brace is beneficial.

Every time you think of it throughout the day, pull your bellybutton in toward your spine and squeeze your butt cheeks together. That simple action of “turning on” your spinal stabilizers will do wonders for your lower back and ultimately establish the core to extremity recruitment pattern you are looking for.


Next on the list in this hierarchy of movement, after midline stability is range of motion (ROM). ROM is a joint structure or structures’ ability to move from flexion to extension. Take the squat for example; for the body to move from a standing position to a squat position it requires adequate ROM in the ankle, knee, and hip. If a muscle group lacks flexibility it affects the mobility of the joint it acts upon by mechanically limiting the bones’ movement within the joint. This poor mobility limits the joint’s range of motion and in the case of the hip it directly affects the safety of the lower back; developing enough flexibility in the glutes, hamstrings, and hip flexors to squat below parallel with a neutral spine is critical. Without the mobility to achieve that range of motion you will compromise your lower back when bending to pick something up off the ground. There are many factors that affect range of motion including, hydration, myofascial adhesion, position of the joint, and the over all condition of the muscles.

The final piece of the puzzle is shoring up the stabilizing muscles that surround the spine and sacroiliac joint where it connects to the hip. The best way I have found to strengthen these muscles is to use them in the fashion they were designed, as stabilizers; think planks and bridges not crunches and side bends.

Now that the low back is safe I will move on to the rest of the body with a few ideas of how to approach exercise from the “working on weakness perspective”.

Most firefighters fall in to one of three camps when it comes to physical training; there are the “Body builder type weight lifters” the “Endurance sports enthusiasts” and the “I’m good for a bottle and I’ve never come across a gurney I couldn’t lift so I don’t do shit” crowd. In recent years the popularity of CrossFit and other high intensity interval training (HITT) programs have perhaps created a fourth category but often times the way these are implemented allow them to fall nicely into one of the first three. I will break each of these down in a minute but first I want to introduce a concept for measuring the effectiveness of a physical fitness program. Enter the “10 elements of fitness” assembled by Jim Cawley, the creator of the Dynamax medicine ball:

1.         Cardiorespiratory endurance- The ability of body systems to gather, process, and deliver oxygen.

2.         Stamina – The ability of body systems to process, deliver, store, and utilize energy.

3.         Strength – The ability of a muscular unit, or combination of muscular units, to apply force.

4.         Flexibility – The ability to maximize the range of motion at a given joint.

5.         Power – The ability of a combination of muscular units, to apply maximum force in minimum time.

6.         Speed – The ability to minimize the time cycle of a repeated movement.

7.         Coordination – The ability to combine several distinct movement patterns into a singular distinct movement.

8.         Agility – The ability to minimize transition time from one movement pattern to another.

9.         Balance – The ability to control the placement of the body’s center of gravity in relation to its support base.

10.       Accuracy – The ability to control movement in a given direction or at a given intensity.

These 10 elements give us an easy checklist to self evaluate our fitness and to evaluate the exercises chosen to improve it. Do you feel like you are lacking one or two of those elements? Is your current workout program doing anything to improve one or more of those elements? Think about those questions while I ramble on about why I don’t like bodybuilding for firefighter athletes.

Bodybuilding is just that, building the body; emphasis is put squarely on the size and shape of muscle not how strong, flexible, coordinated, or generally useful it is. Often times those who train this way appear to be strong, because we tend to associate size with strength, but in reality most bodybuilders are weak and stiff in comparison to say a gymnast, Olympic weightlifter, or Sherpa. Just how many of those 10 elements are being improved when you perform a cable-triceps-kickback? Another obstacle with the bodybuilding model is overall mass. Just how big a hole do you want to have to make when you are lost, out of air, and beating your way through a cinder block wall with your SCBA bottle? There is some benefit to bodybuilding though, that comes in the very beginning of the athletes lifting career when they are generally getting stronger without putting on much mass. This is often referred to as the novice affect and is attributed mostly to improvements in neuromuscular signaling, wherein the body learns to recruit existing muscle. It is at this point, or shortly after, that the program needs to lean more toward strength development and away from mass gain.

Runners and cyclist hate this part of my shtick because it’s where I break the news that long slow distance (LSD) endurance training is about as useful to a firefighter as a ladder with no rungs. Yes I know that “cardiorespiratory endurance” is number one on the list above and “stamina” is number two but I submit that there are more efficient training methodologies to develop both. I find that the endurance crowd tends to be generally weak, considering the amount of time spent training, and are injury prone due to strength / flexibility imbalances and over-use; often the more “elite” they are in their chosen hobby the worse off they will be on the fire ground. Much like with bodybuilding however, there are some positive adaptations to endurance training, but all too often I see athletes go with the “if some is good then more is better” philosophy and eventually it stops being productive. Anyone who has ever spent any time running for exercise has experienced it; you start off struggling to run 5k then after a period of time 5k is no big deal. Now, unless you change speed, distance, or incline, any significant benefit is all but gone; it is this at point where the body is able to reach homeostasis during your run and adaptation stops. This is no mystery so the common runner will add distance, but if that is the only program change at some point you will have to run for a really long time to get any benefit.  The problem being that not only do those extended runs put a lot of wear and tear on the body but eventually you have to stop running and get back to work.

Last but not least are the “I’m good for a bottle” types and the HIITers. If you are only good for “A” bottle you are not only are you putting yourself at risk you are significantly increasing the risk of your brethren. Get off your ass and do something. If you are a HIITer read on. This is going to be a long-winded dissertation but I think it is very important. HIIT programs, like CrossFit, are a great tool for developing the kind of fitness we need to thrive in this job and I don’t want to see rings and plyo boxes banned from fire stations nor firefighters with adrenal meltdown because it is being implemented irresponsibly.

My goal is to provide some framework for structuring physical training programs at the fire station in order to ensure efficacy, safety, and progress without compromising operational readiness.

First a few definitions to dial in the clear text:

A high intensity interval training (HITT) program should be designed around traditional compound strength and conditioning movements like gymnastics, e.g., pull ups, push ups, sit ups, and basic ring work; weightlifting, i.e., clean and Jerk, snatch, and their variants; sprinting; and power lifting, e.g., squat, deadlift, and press. The ruling concept is that these movements be mixed together to compliment each other and be performed with intensity high enough to elicit adaptation. In CorssFit, ensuring an adequate level of intensity in these workouts is generally accomplished by scoring one of two ways, a given amount work as fast as possible or as much work as possible in a given amount of time. This framework implemented in a group environment fosters a level of competition that will generally push people beyond their perceived capacity.

Skill Work – Exercise and skill practice designed with the intent of mastering a given skill such as hand walking, snatch, or running. Generally performed while rested and practiced only until form falters.

Strength Work – Exercises that generally develop overall strength and power, e.g., power lifting, weightlifting, some body building. Work is focused on developing power (loading/time), strength (loading), strength endurance (loading/repetition), then hypertrophy (increased muscle fiber diameter) either together or in separate periods of programming depending on goals.

Mobility Work – Specific stretches and techniques designed to increase flexibility, improve movement quality, and reduce stress.

Metabolic Conditioning – Activity designed to increase work capacity in both aerobic and anaerobic energy systems.

Durability Work – Physical training sessions designed to build physical and mental strength endurance by performing work with sub maximal loading and sub maximal cardio respiratory duress for extended periods of time.

Operational Readiness – Your ability to do your job should you get an emergency call during or shortly after your physical training.

Now that we have some common terminology I want to move on to implementation. When developing a strength and conditioning program the first question has to be “what is the goal?” absent that information you may as well keep doing whatever it is that you are doing. It is important to recognize that each person is going to have different goals and require a different approach but, in the fire service, we are fortunate because we all have common tasks to perform which require a measurable level of fitness. Opinions vary on what it takes physically to perform those tasks and often people either assume their ability is much higher than it actually is or fail to train in a way that highlights their weaknesses. Fortunately for us, CrossFit OG Dave Werner has spent a lot of time fine tuning the CFN Fitness Standards and I wholly subscribe to his recommendations. Using his template we can each find our weakness and develop our goals based on improving our deficits.

I typically see three different models used to incorporate CrossFit into a training program:

A – Do a few basic stretches, a short run, and then jump into the .com WOD

B – Extensive warm up then either strength work or metabolic conditioning.

C – Extensive warm up, strength work, and then metabolic conditioning.

Generally all three options will last around an hour tip to tail. What I recommend is a deliberate well, designed program that looks a bit like option C but takes time to incorporate skill work. A program based around a simple but often overlooked concept; position (form) then loading then intensity. All too often what I see are people with little or no exposure to a movement being asked to perform it under load with high intensity. Results vary when athletes are exposed to this kind training but generally it ends one of two ways; injury, or a stall in performance gains as strength surpasses skill.  Here is the template I would like to see used:

  • Perform an evaluation based on CFN Fitness Standards recognizing that the long term goal is to reach the level 3 standard across the board.
  • Develop your own program using my templates or one of the many online resources available.
  • Implement all aspects of your new program in the following priority
  1. Position – Correct movement patterns and range of motion
  2. Loading –  Ability to achieve the correct position under load
  3. Intensity – Performing correct movement patterns under load at a level of work output tailored to your goals.

Here is a typical day:

Start with 3-5 minutes of warm up, literally raising your body temperature and preparing for movement. Jog, Jump rope, Row, AirDyne Bike, etc.

Then perform about 10 minutes of mobility work geared toward loosening up the body parts you are going to train.

Then spend 15 minutes on skill work; work a new skill, a skill that is complementary to today’s workout, or work specifically on the skill needed for today.

Then spend 15 minutes on dedicated strength work.

Then spend 10 minutes on metabolic conditioning. If your goals lean more toward developing work capacity than strength then you may want to use a durability WOD or combine the strength with the metabolic conditioning and spend 25 minutes on a heavy WOD; be careful to not get stuck in this mode though, dedicated strength work has to be the back bone of a fire service strength and conditioning program. When on duty it is important to leave a little gas in the tank after these workouts to maintain operational readiness. I am a huge of fan of pushing mental and physical boundaries and I think it is one of the most beneficial aspects of CrossFit but it is not necessarily a great idea while at work as these workouts can be so taxing that they leave your central nervous system in complete disarray.

Spend the rest of your hour cooling down and static stretching.

A word on Scaling and Progression:

I feel the need to clarify a few things in the “scaling” department. As usual most misconceptions and confusion stem from a lack of common terminology meaning that Bill and Ted know “scaling” by two different definitions, neither of which were part of their excellent adventure, so here comes the clear text:

Scaling: Changing the sets, reps, weight, rest interval, exercises, or time domain of a given workout to accommodate individual athletes.

Substitution: Swapping one exercise for another based on lack of equipment or skill.

Progression:  A plan that includes a starting and ending point with some boxes to check along the way. A common term is linear progression where an athlete continues to add weight to a particular exercise until they reach their goal. Another example would be handstand pushups, an athlete could progress from standing press to handstand holds to handwalking to handstand pushups against a wall to free standing handstand pushups and finally start the process over using parallets.

The issue here is really that of how to program effectively for everyone at once while maintaining positive direction. As far as the S in S&C (strength & conditioning) is concerned exercise science has pretty well vetted linear progression and periodization of the major lifts as king, it’s the C that gives rise to the most debate.

One of the key elements that have made CrossFit so successful is its ability to force out and expose individual weaknesses, e.g., 155lb guys expected to deadlift 315 for reps and 225lb guys expected to do muscle ups. The conflict comes when deciding what to do if the 155er can’t DL 315 and the heavyweight can’t do a muscle up. The typical CrossFit answer is to scale, so the 155er will do the work out with less weight and the big guy will substitute pull ups and dips easy breezy right? Well kind of; the only way I see this working is to put it in the context of a goal and use progression, either linear or periodized, to reach the goal. So for the little guy his weakness is just that; he’s not strong enough or lacks the skill to do the prescribed weight, so his goal is to increase his deadlift. Is doing a lighter weight for the rx’d reps the best way to get a bigger deadlift? Not really, I say look to linear progression a la 531 or MEBB and tons of sleep for big strength gains. Now for the big guy, clearly his issue is heaving 225lbs of flesh up, through, and over a pair of rings. Is this a strength issue? Maybe but I guarantee there is a huge element of skill and flexibility that is holding him back as well. So, are pull ups and dips the best way for him to get a muscle up? Maybe but I doubt it, what he needs is to do is set the goal of getting a muscle up, break it down into the issues (strength, skill, flexibility) and, through progression, improve each until reaching his goal.

So when do you scale and when do you ditch the work out completely and progress toward the individual elements separately?  At this point I think it is necessary for a little more clear text.

Diagnostic Workout: A set number of movements with prescribed loading performed exactly the same every time as a measure of progress.

Back to question of whether to scale or ditch the workout completely in pursuit of the individual elements. The answer is that it depends. It depends on the intent of the workout being performed, if it is a diagnostic workout then no it should not be scaled and should be avoided until the requisite strength and skill to perform the individual movements is attained. If the workout in question is a metcon then scale away with the intent of eliciting the intended response, which is generally nausea, vomiting, and hot flush diaphoresis.

If you follow Crossfit Football (CFFB) long enough you will see the daily workouts (DWOD) come around again and again; I suggest picking a few and using them as diagnostic wods or better yet set some goals for yourself (a la CFN Standards) and develop your own diagnostics to measure progress toward those goals using CFFB as a tool to get you there.

Coach Rut has come up with a way to mitigate most of these issues in his Max Effort Black Box template, where he uses a dedicated max effort strength session followed by one of 9 wods pre-designated for the programming period which are randomly drawn from a hat for each day. This accomplishes the constantly varied aspect of training for the unknown and unknowable but it also allows for closer tracking of progress on the metcon front. I have just such a program HERE.

If you choose to get your workout program online please don’t cherry pick workouts, a large part of having a program is consistency and if you pick workouts that look “fun” from different websites every day you are missing the point. I highly recommend the following sites: I like this the best because it has a daily strength wod and metcon both of which have progressions based on skill level and in season vs out of season which fits nicely with our seasonal needs. This is the home of the Max Effort Black Box. A Monday Wednesday Friday type program designed for long term performance. This is the template I have been using since I promoted because it is very flexible, effective, and doesn’t require a ton of equipment. Excellent programming and resources for those of you who are interested in weightlifting.



Mobility WOD


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