Everybody wants the best. Anybody training generally wants to be on the best program. They want the best programs to get the edge on their competition or maybe to get in shape the fastest. I have been fortunate enough to work with many clients over the years of all ages from 12 to 76. I have worked with individuals ranging in abilities from clients in wheel chairs, everyday “Joes”, Olympic caliber athletes, high school athletes, pole dancers, professors, business owners, runners, students, return-to-sport patients and about 200 high school students each year … a lot of different backgrounds and needs. I have been very fortunate to have worked with such a large variety of people, and such wonderful clients during my time in this industry. Having worked with so many different people has allowed me to explore so many different training techniques and programming styles and I feel I have learned some of the best ways to program for each type of client.
I have written about the needs for firefighters before here and here. A firefighter should have a large aerobic capacity with ample strength to perform tasks on the fireground, at accidents and medical related emergencies. Unfortunately, firefighters are not professional athletes. They do not have a team of trainers and therapists with them ready to keep them in top shape. Firefighters (police and paramedics too) have real lives outside of work, generally without the support systems of pro athletes.
I have been in the station long enough to hear the phrase hundreds of times “What have you been doing?” This is usually in relation to someone losing a bunch of weight or bulking up. I have been asked this by my own family members and friends. Usually people are trying to find out what that person’s edge is. They wonder if this person has a secret method that is responsible for all their success. The answers always vary but I believe the best program for firefighters is the program that they’ll actually follow. This is also true for the rest of the world.
Maybe there is a perfect program to build the ideal firefighter but in reality, we all have different demands at home. We all have a different injury and activity history and we all have different likes and dislikes. The best thing you can do is flex your consistency muscle. Whether that means going to a CrossFit class, running, doing the stairs, cycling, weight training for body building, powerlifting or following a program designed by someone like me, if you follow it consistently something positive will happen.
There should be three main goals to any program and as long as whatever activity you choose is accomplishing them, then it’s a good choice. I have heard Mike Boyle speak and write about these 3 goals many times in relation to training for sports but they apply to any and all programming.
Goal #1: Don’t get hurt training
The most important goal is to not get hurt training. If you are constantly injuring yourself while training then it’s probably not the best method to be using. Using high risk exercises or activities that constantly cause you to miss training days is counterproductive and slows progress. If you can avoid getting injured during training then you can continue to train and improve. Simple enough. Pick activities or exercises that work well with your body type that allow you to keep training day after day.
Goal #2: Don’t get hurt at work (in competition: Boyle)
To me, the point of training is more about injury prevention than anything else. This could be in part a result of getting stronger and having the capacity to complete your job more safely. You could also reduce injuries as a result of learning and rehearsing safe practices during training and demonstrating them at work. Learning how to lift safely in the weight room and then strengthening those patterns transfers into lower injury rates on the job.
Goal #3: Performance Enhancement
Finally, if firefighters can prevent injuries while training or while on the job from overuse or overexertion then the focus can now include enhancing performance for responding to emergencies. If firefighters are healthy (strong, fit and mobile) they can train to increase speed and capacity of task completion. This is where methods can be chosen that better mirror on-the-job tasks, provided they don’t cause more issues.
So many people reverse this order and focus on improving their performance at all costs. It’s important to remember that your performance is equal to zero if you are injured all the time. A firefighter is not useful to the crew when injured or unable to complete tasks because they don’t have the durability to meet the minimum requirements. It doesn’t matter if an athlete is the best on a team if they are always injured. If they’re not dressing for games then they aren’t contributing in any way. If they aren’t contributing to the team’s success are they still the best player? A few questions to ask yourself are:
What activity (activities) do I enjoy and will do consistently?
How likely am I to get hurt while doing this?
Will this activity increase or decrease my chances of getting injured on the job?
Will this activity improve my performance?
If you enjoy the activity then you are more likely to actually go and do it and it won’t feel so much like a chore. If it doesn’t get you injured then you can continue to do it and build on your progress. If it leads to you not getting hurt at work then you can continue to be an asset to your crew. If these 3 questions are answered positively then the fourth question is almost always a yes. Any positive change through training will almost always lead to increased performance on the fire ground.
So, what is the best program for firefighters? It depends on the individual. The perfectly built program on paper is only a good program if someone actually does it, otherwise it’s just an answer to a case-study. I could put together the perfect combination of exercises with carefully planned intensity and volume to lead to maximal fitness gains but if the program just sits there and the firefighter (or client) doesn’t complete any of it, or not consistently enough, then it’s not a very good program. I will never tell someone that they must train one way. I have my preferences but if they don’t meet up with those of the client then we adjust the plan to suit them. The best program is the program that someone will follow that doesn’t get them injured. If the program is smart, safe and enjoyable then performance improvements will follow. Remember, form follows function.