Crossfit: A Good Choice For Firefighters?

Disclaimer: this is not an attack on Crossfit.  If you’re the person that Crossfit works for then simmer down, put your shirt back on and go back to your box.  Before you blow your WOD, step back, give this a read.  AMRAP for you to understand this is not a personal attack on your belief system.  It might not apply to you, but might give you something to think about.

 

Not too long ago, if you asked if firefighters should do Crossfit I would have answered with a hard “NO”.  While I still don’t participate in Crossfit myself, my tune has changed from Cross-fuck-off to a milder maybe-not-so-bad Cross-for-some…

This year I took some time to watch the Crossfit Games and some of the specials that come with it.  What I took from it all was that Crossfit is not the games. The Games are a spectacle. When hundreds of thousands of dollars of prize money (and millions more in sponsorships) cheating is ok.  Not Russia-level cheating, but finding out how to make the event work in your favour, form breakdown and get it done no-matter what is the name of the game.

So, my thoughts on Crossfit itself:

Crossfit is not bad as a whole.  There I said it.  I’m not against it, but I’m not all for it as-is either.

You can get injured doing just about anything.  Do anything long enough and you’ll probably find yourself sidelined at some point. Triathlon, bodybuilding, Mui Tai, Zumba…  there are risks to it all.  Even prancersize could get you hurt – but mostly your pride I’d wager.

(I should add that she is being 100% herself and that’s a good thing)

 

The Bad:

Poor coaching:  This comes up whenever the Crossfit discussion is on the table.  There are plenty of shitty coaches out there in the “boxes” that qualify as nothing more than cheerleaders and babysitters but the same could be said for some personal trainers and strength coaches.  I have met many great coaches that spend their time doing Crossfit.

Poor exercise selection: This stems from poor coaching.  Not understanding what an individual is capable of and safe for them is on the coach.  Again, not just limited to Crossfit coaches.

All-or-nothing attitude:  This can be unsafe at best.  Not scaling workouts safely.  Forgetting form to get your time.  This is where injuries can and will happen.

 

The Good:

Atmosphere and team building: This is important for firefighters. The atmosphere is encouraging and breeds competition, which can be right for some people.

Fun: If that’s your thing.

All-or-nothing attitude:  Sometimes we need to get shit done.  With the right exercises and coaching, this attitude, when controlled, can be totally safe and can help undo some of our snow-flake existence and make us a little bit harder.  More specifically, firefighters are going to have to grind it out on scene at times.

 

It’s important to ask about the 3 goals of any program.

Will this program get me injured in training?

Will this program help reduce my injury risk at work?

Will this program improve my performance at work?

 

Crossfit could potentially improve your performance at work.  There is no question that a fitter firefighter is more effective.  (We are not getting into experience and knowledge here.  All else being equal, I’m putting my money on the fit firefighter)

It could increase or decrease your chances of getting injured during training.

It could also increase or decrease your chances of getting injured on scene depending on the coaching and exercise selection.  Why?

 

Dr. David Frost published a study in 2015 that took 52 firefighters and looked at the role that coaching plays on their injury risk.  The firefighters were analyzed for injury risk using biomechanical witchcraft** while performing tasks related to fire ground operations (lifting, bending, twisting, pushing etc).  The participants were placed into one of three groups: control, fitness or movement + fitness.  The fitness (FIT) group were given programming to follow and the movement + fitness (MOV) group were given programming along with coaching through the study.

At the end of the study both the FIT and MOV groups were fitter than the control group that did not exercise.  No surprise.  What is interesting is the MOV group decreased their injury risk while the FIT group did not.  Neither group was coached in the tasks that were tested to simulate fire ground operations but the group that was coached in the weight room saw a transfer of skill that reduced their injury risk outside of training.  They didn’t just get fitter and stronger, they learned valuable skills to help keep them safe at work.

This shows that simply telling someone to work out will not reduce their injury risk.  This shows the importance of good coaching and taking the time to learn safe lifting practices.  Another study has shown that engaging in a fitness program without coaching can actually increase your chances of injury and that workplace injury claims increase.  Not what we want.

 

Why do I bring this up?  Firefighters aren’t all young athletes that can tolerate anything you throw at them.  Firefighters are typically gritty, driven individuals that will work their asses off to complete a task.  We find a way to get it done, even if we don’t have the resources we need.  This can work for and against them.

If they are not coached properly then telling a veteran firefighter to go do Crossfit (or a Crossfit style workout) could lead to a greater chance of a workplace injury or a training injury.  It could exacerbate their bad knees from crawling hallways, jumping out of rigs and climbing stairs for 20 years.  With this population we are also looking at immobile and injured shoulders and low back pain from pulling ceilings, stretching hose and generally poor mechanics and a 20/21st century lifestyle outside of work.  If it’s the right firefighter they will just grind through it all because that’s what they do, and if you add in the competition with friends or the crew there is no way they are tapping out.

So, should firefighters do Crossfit? I think that depends on the individual. If you are generally injury free and a coordinated individual then go for it.  If it interests you then go for it but keep the following in mind…

Get coached – Either hire somebody qualified to teach you how to move better and keep yourself safe or latch onto a friend that knows what they are talking about (not just your fit buddy necessarily).  Neither of these an option?  Use video to compare your technique to that of proper lifting mechanics.  A good coach won’t just push you to work harder but correct faulty movement patterns.

Don’t do high rep Olympic lifting movements, high rep box jumps or burpees – O lifts aren’t a good choice for conditioning.  They’ll make you want to vomit if you do a shit ton, but they are very technical and should be used for developing power through triple extension.
The same goes for box jumps.  Every time I see box jumps used for conditioning it tells me that the person doesn’t actually understand the point of a box jump and to add injury to insult, usually they are using a box that is way too high.  (Watch the displacement of their hips – most people can’t jump nearly as high as they think).

Many coaches are against burpees because they’re basically a shitty push up and a shitty jump paired with spinal flexion while fatigued.  If you’re going to do them I suggest doing a modified burpee with the hands raised or to a box.  All of these exercises share in the fact that the risk far outweighs the reward.

Make better choices for metabolic conditioning – Piggy-backing on the previous point, choose exercises that will promote good spine hygiene and are less technical while fatigued.  Consider circuits consisting of line hops, bike, fan bike, ski and rowing ergs, sleds, loaded carries, body weight exercises and ropes etc.  “Met-Con” was a thing before Crossfit abducted it and forced it to change its name and live out its life as “WOD”.

Scale workouts accordingly – Regress or scale workouts according to your injury history and movement ability.  If you can’t go overhead then don’t even think about a thruster or wall ball.  If you can’t squat properly then go single leg.

Progress wisely – Don’t go from newbie to games-ready workouts.  Baby steps will keep you training for the long term.

Make technical breakdown the limiting factor – Don’t grind past your limits.  When your technique changes then your training target changes.  Stop before this point.

Remember that Crossfit itself isn’t quite the problem.  The community has helped many people get into shape and can be a great test of fitness, however, it does have its limitations and may not be the right choice for everyone.  While Crossfit can be fine for some, if you’re skeptical about starting Crossfit, there are plenty of training choices that are safe and can provide equally substantial results.

 

 

**By biomechanical witchcraft I mean they used the science of biomechanics, a subject that many people, including many personal trainers, don’t do particularly well in because of the math and physics involved.  It is, however, one of the most important subject areas in this field.  Those who understand biomechanics typically will understand how to get results from loading a human body.

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