Your fitness will save your life one day

CarolinaFireJournal - By Bryan Fass
By Bryan Fass
04/24/2015 -

Accept it or not but fire-rescue and EMS is a 100 percent physical job. The only way to manage and maintain your wellness is through constant attention to your fitness and nutrition. You are a highly trained, medically/fire educated, power lifter. You lift, push, pull, carry and transfer heavy objects in awkward and often dangerous positions every day. So this more than qualifies you as an athlete or in this case a power lifter.


A professional athlete would never begin their sport without a thorough warm up, stretching and soft tissue work. Since many of you are paid to do your job that qualifies you as a professional athlete. But the parallels end there. Most responders do not stretch pre-shift which has been proven without a doubt to reduce injury in other labor and awkward lifting jobs. Most responders do not have to “qualify” to make the team by passing a physical ability test, athletes do. As a coach, trainer and therapist it amazes me that so many departments test on hire and never again. What are we afraid of? The data is there; cardiac arrest on scene, cancer, metabolic diseases, career ending injury to name a few. Your fitness will save your life and that of your crew every day!

Professional athletes, power lifters in this case, go through a well-practiced series of steps to get their body ready to lift and move. They position their feet to generate maximal power and to improve balance. They “set” their hips to take load off the spine and maximize power generation. They follow a specific breathing pattern to allow the abdominal wall to “brace” the core and spine further reducing spinal torque and reducing soft tissue load.

Responders on the other hand often go out of their way to cut corners and lift in the most inefficient and dangerous ways. Responders rarely follow a process to prepare to lift safely, instead it often just gets done as fast as possible. So the parallels between professional responders and pro-athletes are quite a contrast to say the least.

So it begs to ask the question what can be done to get medics, firefighters and even our brothers and sisters in law enforcement to take better pride in and more responsibility in their own health and wellness?

Some departments are turning to high deductible medical plans to make employees have some skin in the game and force them to be responsible.

Some departments are implementing pre-hire physical abilities testing so they no longer hire their potential unfit and injurious employees, instead fielding a more fit and agile workforce.

Some departments are investing huge sums of money in powered tools, trucks and gear to address the problem. This methodology will reduce injury but, it is expensive and the tool still needs to be used properly. If responders still cut corners and use lazy mechanics injury will still occur and the bottom line is you still have to get the patient on and off the transport tool! A prime example is if you are called out on EMS calls (which are now out numbering fire calls) you will most likely have to lift or transfer the patient on to the cot. If you decide to move the patient over on a bed sheet it can place between 1300 to 1700 pounds of torque on your back. Sound like a lot? It is; most people can only handle around 800 pounds of torque/load before injury occurs. In fact if you pick up a 51-pound tool off the floor it will place over 700 pounds of force on your back. Folks, movement matters.

The question you have to ask yourself is what is your own personal health and wellness worth to you? Do you want to live with pain and disability? Is a disability a good thing? Sadly fire-EMS is a high risk job, you owe it first to yourself, second to your partner and thirdly to your team, to go out of your way to stay injury free. Think about what happens when a team member is injured, someone has to pull overtime which costs more for the team and your risk of injury is much higher when you are working overtime. When running short the call volume increases, which also increases your risk of injury. So while one injury does not seem like much, the trickle down is significant and effects everyone.

What steps can you take right NOW?

  1. Stretch pre-shift and on duty
  2. Follow the five keys to safe patient and equipment handling
    a. Wide stance or split stance with your feet flat at all times.
    b. Ready stance, flex slightly at the hips NOT the back.
    c.Tighten your abdominal wall; push your abs down and OUT.
    d. Head up on ALL movements ALL the time.
    e. Shoulders back: never lift with a round back.
  3. Stay hydrated as this can reduce your chance of injury and reduces concentration errors. Another data set that has come out specific to the fire service is that many career firefighters are deficient in vitamin D, magnesium and have low testosterone levels. This occurs in firefighters because of the shift schedules/altered sleep patterns, excessive sweating, circadian rhythm disruption and chronic activation of the stress response.
  4. Bottom line equals GET your yearly physical with blood work and make sure the doctor orders the appropriate labs to test for these things.
  5. Exercise: We often make exercise far too complicated and to be honest difficult. Many of the best exercises do not need to be that hard. Sure your job dictates that during a working fire or a difficult extrication you will drastically increase your heart rate. It’s often this extreme exertion where your heart rate will increase well above 200 beats per minute and that is thought to cause many of the cardiovascular issues faced by firefighters. So you need to train for it; just not on duty.

Training excessively hard on duty is a common mistake many firefighters make. They destroy themselves on the clock and then “the big call” is dispatched. This leaves nothing in the tank and sets you up for injury. On duty exercise is all about mobility, flexibility and cardio. Save the tire flips and HIIT training for the second day after your shift. That’s right the day after your shift your body is shot; tired and stressed. NOT the time to kill it in the gym. Rest.

To end this article I want to give you a sample firefighter routine that I really like. It can be done off duty or on as it will not fatigue you too much yet will improve anaerobic, aerobic and overall fitness. Please follow the rules.

After your thorough warm up with: the foam roller, active stretching, some light cardio, you are ready to start.

Rule 1: Only do what you can, this workout will break you if you disobey the rules.

Rule 2: Never begin the next set until your heart rate is back to 120 or below.

Rule 3: Only do upper body and core exercises, never legs.

Rule 4: Sprinting is about as primal a movement as you can do at full speed and that’s the key ... full speed.

Rule 5: Just do it; this is the only case where we want you to just get the resistance movements done. Don’t get sloppy, but this is not the time to focus on slow and controlled.

Rule 6: Do not progress into the next response level until you are able to recover during the intervals. This means that your heart rate must be 120 or below within the allotted time of each response level.

Rule 7: Some days you just will not have it, so do not force it.

Rule 8: Avoid alcohol, fatigue or bad foods the day prior to your priority response training.

Rule 9: Although already stated, warm up thoroughly as stated above. Exercise should not cause injury.

Rule 10: You will be VERY hungry the 24 hours after these workouts, plan to eat well.

Rule 11: It’s probably a good idea to take the next day off from training.


Sample Workout  
Priority 1 set 1: Treadmill at 9.5 MPH at a 9.5 percent grade. 30 second sprint, rest 20 seconds, 20 seconds of crunches, 20 seconds of pushups. Go back to the TM and repeat once your heart rate is below 120. Do 3 sets.
Priority 1 Set 2: Treadmill at 10.5 mph, at an eight percent grade. 30 second sprint, rest 20 seconds, do 15 dumbbell curl to press followed by 15 warrior rows (push up position on the DB, do rows). GO back to the TM and repeat for 2 more sets once your heart rate is below 120. Do 3 sets total.
Priority 1 set 3: Treadmill at 11.5 mph at a seven percent grade. 30 second sprint, rest 20 seconds, do pull-up’s to failure followed by 15 kettle bell swings. Go back to the treadmill and when your heart rate is below 120 repeat for 3 total sets.

Bryan Fass is a leading expert on public safety and Industrial injury prevention. As the president and founder of Fit Responder Fass’ company works nationally with departments, corporations; state and local governments to design and run targeted injury prevention and wellness programs. He authored the Fit Responder book used by departments and schools plus writes for numerous Web and peer-reviewed. He holds a bachelors’ degree in sports medicine with over 17 years of clinical practice, was a paramedic for over eight years, and is certified as an Athletic Trainer (ATC, LAT), Strength Coach (CSCS) and the Functional Movement Screen (FMS). Fit Responder developed the nation’s first mobile fitness program. For more information, visit
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