Exercising While On Shift

Most fire departments have gyms in the stations.  Maybe they’re not all state-the-art fitness facilities but in most, if not all, there is at least some weights and a rack or a universal machine.  At first glance for the public this may seem odd.  Maybe they are for off-duty firefighters to use?  As most stations have gyms, departments generally allow their firefighters to use the facilities while on shift and some even encourage it.  The demands of the job require firefighters to maintain a certain level of fitness that allows them to complete tasks that protect the community but also to keep themselves safe.  The question is, how wise is it to work out while on duty?  While it is important to train, firefighters also need to be ready to respond to calls at any minute, even while in the middle of a workout, so if they are training while on shift how hard and how much is appropriate?  Should they even be working out at work at all?

In my opinion, yes.  And no.  It depends.  Ideally every firefighter is in top physical condition but we don’t live in a vacuum and this is the real world.  So, if they are training off-shift then they have the option to take days off during shifts but if they never train when they’re not at work then I think they absolutely should be doing something physical at work.  (One could argue that working a labour-intensive job on the side could count towards training and I won’t argue that point, however training focus should likely be on preventing overuse injuries)

In the case that a firefighter does train off-duty, assuming they are working a 24 hour shift schedule, there are 7 or 8 days at work per month to take a rest day or at least plan for a lighter workout.  Personally, I think it’s a good idea to take some full rest days while off-shift to recharge with family and friends and go through some lighter training days while at the station.  It’s best to plan the most intense training days for off-shift days and focus on mobility circuits or moderate aerobic workouts during shift.  This leaves the firefighter fresh to respond but still adds needed volume to improve or maintain fitness levels.  This doesn’t mean I don’t suggest any strength training or conditioning work when at the station, however, when planning training in the station it’s important to think about the 3 main goals of any program.

  • Don’t get hurt training – Do not plan a workout that increases the risk of getting injured and putting the rig out of service until coverage can be found. Even more-so than at home, training should be low-risk while on shift.
  • Don’t get hurt on scene – Consider how the training conducted could impact performance while on scene and if it could increase the risk for injury if a call came in during or shortly after the training session.
  • Improve performance – Training should improve performance once adaptations have occurred but only if it doesn’t impair shift performance immediately afterwards.

Strength and Power Training

In many cases this is likely where a firefighter could get injured training on shift.  Certain precautions should be taken to avoid this.  Guidelines I suggest following while training on shift are:

  • Avoid training to exhaustion while on shift especially when using technically difficult exercises. Limit volume to just before technical failure each set and add in additional sets to increase total volume while reducing the risk for injury.  If exhaustion were 12 reps of an overhead press then you could complete 8-10 reps and add in an extra set of 8 or so to achieve the same volume but reduce the chance of an injury during any single set.  In addition, rep schemes such as clusters and sub-maximal EMOM sets are useful here to achieve volume without going to exhaustion.
  • Choose less complex, technically demanding exercises when possible. For example, choose a goblet squat while on shift versus a front or back squat while training at home.  Choosing less technically demanding exercises not only reduces the chances of getting injured but it also reduces fatigue of the nervous system and allows you to stay alert and fresh over the long shift.
  • Reduce intensity of complex lifts and focus on the quality and feel of each rep instead of the amount of weight used. Limit the number of reps over 90% of training 1RM and do not attempt to test true 1RM in any lift.  Typically training 1RM is about 90% of what a true 1RM is so 90% of training 1RM would be 90% of 90%**.  If during the warm up the weight feels heavier than normal then don’t worry about achieving the full target load and grinding any reps out.  Reduce the working load and make sure each rep is high quality and safe.  If the firefighter is proficient in the deadlift and the workout called for 3 sets of 3 reps at 90% and their true 1RM was 450, only 365 should be used (90% of training 1RM of 405).  Training off-shift they might complete all sets at or around 365 but on shift I would suggest maybe only 1 working set at 365 and use some extra ramp-up sets or some back-off sets.   For someone who doesn’t take an approach that is this calculated I’m basically saying more quality lifts at a lower weight while on shift.
**Training 1RM is a great approach for anyone to apply to every day training to reduce the load on their joints but still apply a high stimulus to grow stronger.  This will help keep people training and improving long term.

Conditioning

Typically, this is where a firefighter could be left feeling bagged and what could negatively impact on-scene performance and increase the risk of injury due to fatigue.  Guidelines I suggest following while training on shift are:

  • Focus conditioning on low-level aerobic intervals or easy, long-duration for improving cardiac output. On-shift training sessions are an excellent time to use short 70% tempo intervals or cardiac output workouts.  Both methods help to return the body to a resting state and promote recovery.  I have written about building and aerobic base through these methods before.  Neither method will leave a firefighter more susceptible to injury even if responding immediately after completing the workout and in many cases can actually provide a nice boost of energy to help get through a long shift
  • Keep lactic intervals short and avoid training lactic capacity at full intensity. True lactic training sucks.  It often leaves many people feeling like garbage afterwards and can take a large toll on the nervous system.  After a lactic capacity workout I find I am often far more fatigued later on and it is for this reason I do not suggest training capacity while on shift.  Lactic capacity workouts take the firefighter to their limits and often beyond them and from a cost-benefit perspective it just doesn’t make sense to train this way on-shift when a firefighter is expected to respond at any moment.  If anyone has tested their 500 metre row at maximum intensity they know how hard it is on their body and how long it can take to recover.  It’s just not worth it to go all out on a 500 metre row and feel like you’re going to pass out sitting in the back of a rig responding to an alarm.  It’s not only irresponsible but dangerous.  If this type of training must be done on-shift for whatever reason I suggest rowing at about 90% effort.  I apply the same rules for lactic capacity training on shift as I would for strength training.  Work at a training maximum intensity for the day.  I understand that testing a 500 metre row can be fun, especially if you’re competing with your crew but consider how well a crew would perform if 4 firefighters just hopped off a rowing erg and went straight to a fire scene totally bagged.  Personally, rather than try to row a 1:25 I’ll back off to a 1:30-1:35 pace and do it once or twice over a 10 minute period instead of resting a minute as the machine suggests doing.  This leaves me with plenty of energy as I have stayed away from my limits and recovered between bouts if I repeated the row at all.  Finally, too much anaerobic capacity training reduces the aerobic system’s abilities as the two systems are in direct competition with each other.
  • Don’t spend too much time in the middle. Go hard and short or low and long.  Lactic threshold workouts can also be very taxing on the aerobic system.  This is the point where the body switches to lactic metabolism as the aerobic system is pushed to its limits and can no longer produce the energy required.  Because these types of workouts push how hard the aerobic system can go before tapping out it puts a lot of stress on the body and can reduce endurance later on in the shift, especially if responding during a workout or immediately after.  While on shift it’s best to stay on opposite ends of the spectrum as much as possible: short lactic intervals of typically 20 seconds or less with plenty of rest in between, even shorter high resistance intervals of 10 seconds every minute for 20 minutes or go the opposite route of low intensity, keeping the heart rate below 150 BPM to promote improving cardiac output.  Both ends of the spectrum should leave the firefighter able to respond but still result in very favourable aerobic improvements.

If using the time on shift as a rest day it’s a good idea to still get in the gym or on the apparatus floor and go through some mobility drills.  If I am using a shift a rest day from training then I will generally pick 5 to 8 active stretches, body weight exercises, torso exercises or prehab exercises and go through them for 20-30 minutes once or twice per day.  This approach helps to work on any mobility issues that come up from training day to day and helps to reduce any injuries that could occur from any drill or calls we run on shift.  A simple recovery/prehab day might look like this:

Spiderman with rotation x5*

Bear crawl x20m

Kossack squat x5*

Band pull-apart x12

Briefcase carry x20m*

I would repeat this until the 20 or 30 minutes is up and then call it a day, leaving myself fresh and ready to train hard the next day after shift.

It is also important to consider how busy of a station each firefighter works at.  If they are working at a busier station then it might be smarter to treat each shift like a rest day from training as calls may consistently get in the way of workouts or the workout plus a high call volume without adequate recovery could leave you beat down over time.  On the other side, if the station has a lower call volume it would be worth considering adjusting the workout to account for less calls.  A tougher workout might be more appropriate at a hall with fewer calls, but still know that anything could happen at any time so the above guidelines would still apply.  In the end, the number one priority is the job itself.  Drill has to be completed and calls have to be run.  The public doesn’t accept the excuse of having just worked out for sub-par performance so be smart with your training if choosing to train on shift.

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