The evidence is pretty clear that exercise is a key component to a long and healthy life. The physical and mental toll exacted by fighting fires makes fitness all the more critical. Yet like weight loss, there is a seemingly endless supply of equipment and techniques for better fitness.
One technique that's had some traction for the past decade is commonly called super-slow training. The idea here is that a person goes through a series of exercises under a trainer's supervision and does each repetition at the slowest possible speed. The exercises are selected to work the large muscles. The slow speed eliminates the cheating one can get from momentum and keeps the muscles strained during the whole set. The goal is to stay in the exercise until the person reaches the point of failure and can do no more reps.
For a department looking to outfit a training room or just get better use of the one it has, this method has some practical application.
Since 2000, Martin Prisby has owned and operated a personal training center where he takes clients through super-slow training. Before opening his center, Prisby spent five years as a regional manager for a major fitness equipment manufacturer; many of his clients were municipalities. Prisby says there's no substitute for strength training.
“Cardiovascular work with aerobic movement, from the 1970s on, kind of muddied the scene in strength training,” he says. “What everyone is talking about now is functionality; core strength for improved functionality.” In other words, the more strength people have in their core muscles, the better they can function in life.
But replicating the super-slow training is tough to do without a trainer. That's because to get the most benefit from a workout, a person needs to push his or her muscles past the point of fatigue, Prisby says. A person's mind wants to quit before the body does. “I never train by myself,” he says. “I'd be wasting my time. There's no way, by yourself, you can get to that threshold.”
That said, there are techniques firefighters can use when working out to improve their results. Prisby says that each set should be measured by the time the person spends with the weight load. Ten seconds per repetition is a good speed. A person should do eight to 11 reps at that speed and reach full fatigue. The target is to have someone in an exercise for 90 seconds with plus or minus 20 seconds, he says. If the person is not reaching muscle failure by 11 reps, it is time to bump up the weight by about 2% to 4%. A person who stays in an exercise for 90 to 100 seconds can expect to reach full fatigue in 65 to 70 seconds after increasing the weight. Prisby uses a stopwatch set at 90-second intervals when training his clients. He recommends firefighters keep a chart that lists the exercise, weight, number of reps, date and time if measured.
Of all the muscles, Prisby says leg strength is the most important, which applies to everyone from a young firefighter to a 90-year-old woman. “You could just train your legs and your whole body is going to get stronger,” he says. And, he says, it is important for everyone, regardless of age, to build strength.
“Research shows that you start to lose muscle at age 25 if you don't strength train,” he says. “I've seen 35 and 40 year olds who come to our place who you'd think are 60. They have no strength because they haven't done anything.”
However, he says, even in people as old as 90, muscles can be rebuilt. Muscles in a person who's been inactive for a long time will respond very quickly at first, hit a plateau and eventually make only small gains after very hard work.
One problem Prisby cautions against is overtraining the upper body. Those working all upper body and doing no leg work will have a severe muscle imbalance, which can lead to injury, he says. “That will lead to weakness in the lower back and can lead to back injury.”
Prisby recommends beginning a workout session from the ground up. Start with leg and trunk exercise, then move into the core muscles of back, abdominals and chest, and finish with upper body. The upper body will gain strength from the exercises that focus on the core and leg muscles, he says.
“Core work is very important,” he says. “You want to have a good, strong solid core and good legs; you're upper body will follow.”
For female firefighters, Prisby says very little needs to be changed regarding the workout regiment. Yet, one area of concern is the knees. Studies that tracked female college athletes showed a greater incidence of torn anterior cruciate ligament (knee) compared with male athletes. This is because women's wider hip structure makes the knee more susceptible to this particular injury. Therefore, women firefighters should focus on strengthening the lower extremities to ward off knee injury.
Another gender difference is that women produce less testosterone than men and cannot build as much muscle. But, Prisby says, they should still workout with the same intensity level as their male counterparts. And that is not likely to be a problem.
“Typically, women train harder than men,” he says. Women have a higher threshold for training, a better understanding of how hard to work. This is especially true for those who have gone through natural childbirth.
Because firefighting is as physically demanding as athletics, Prisby says it is important not to overlook stretching. It is best to stretch after a workout, when the muscles are warm. There are stretching machines on the market where the person can set start and end points. However, he says, that will add cost and take space away from the fitness room. A mat and a stretching chart works well.
“If you did five to 10 minutes of stretching after strength or cardio training, you would greatly reduce your chances of injury,” he says. You want to get the lower back, hamstrings and shoulders. Those are the high-risk injury areas. The more flexibility a person has, the less risk there is of injury.”
How often firefighters should train will depend on several factors including their age and the number of calls they respond to. Giving the body proper time to recover is important, and Prisby recommends strength training between six to eight times per month with cardiovascular activity mixed in. Because they will have less-intense workouts, older firefighters should train more often than younger ones, he says.
Keeping those differences in mind also plays into selecting the equipment for a fitness room. For aerobic equipment, it is important to get something that everyone can use, Prisby says. “Elliptical climbers are extremely hot right now,” he says. “It doesn't matter if a guy has bad knees or a bad back, he can use it. Or, if a guy is in elite condition, he can still use it [for a good workout].”
Treadmills probably won't be used much by those with bad knees or who are overweight. They can use it for walking, but the value of the exercise will be diminished, he says. Those with back problems will not use upright stationary bicycles, and recumbent bikes won't give highly conditioned firefighters a good workout. The elliptical climber will “give you the most bang for your buck,” he says.
“Cardiovascular equipment is important, but core strengthening is very important to prevent injuries,” Prisby says. He recommends buying full-body strengthening pieces that focus on the legs, back, shoulders, chest and upper body. A leg press is important, as is a lower-back machine. A combination chin-up and dip machine works muscles in the core and upper body and provides two exercises in the space of one machine. Also, Prisby says, to look for chest machines with two hand positions. A good fitness room can be equipped with five or six machines. These are machines that firefighters of any age can use and won't take up much space.
“When I first started this business, I had 400 square feet and 11 machines that did 13 exercises,” Prisby says. “You can put five machines and an elliptical in 200 square feet; that's the size of a small conference room.”
Free weights can be bought for a fraction of the cost of strength machines, and they can be used for an effective workout. However, Prisby advises departments to avoid free weights because they increase the risk of injury.
“Since I've been training people on high-intensity strength training, I've not used free weights,” Prisby says. “With machines it is a safer way to train and you can train them harder than you can on free weights.”
Good-quality strength-training machines will cost more than free weights or the all-in-one machines. But, Prisby says, they will outlast and out-perform the others. And there are things a department can do both before and after it buys equipment to extend its life.
When selecting equipment, keep in mind that moving parts wear out, Prisby says. Equipment that uses chains will last longer than that which uses cables. He advises to examine each manufacturer's warranties to see which parts are covered and for how long. Upholstery will wear out and is not likely to have a long warrantee period from any manufacturer. Warranties aside, there are things fire departments can do to extend the life of their fitness equipment.
Regular maintenance helps, Prisby says. Most manufacturers provide a maintenance book, and Prisby recommends, establishing a maintenance schedule and log similar to what is done for fire apparatus. Basically, he says, the guide rods and moving parts will need to be inspected and lubricated with a Teflon spray. But maintenance will only go so far.
“You want your equipment to last, pay attention to how it is used, first and foremost,” he says. The key is to not let the weight plates fall during an exercise, to set them down softly. “Here, our equipment is going to last a long time because it is never abused — never slam, never abuse, never drop.”
Regardless of what techniques or equipment they use, building strength is critical.
“Firefighters have to strength train,” Prisby says. “If a department has $10,000, they've got to put all that money into a strength-training program. Without strength, forget it; you're going to lose guys real fast.”