(A General Guideline)
Picking out equipment, budgeting, and allocated funds is nothing new to the first responder community. Hoses and medical equipment expire, rounds must be changed and cycled in duty carry’s, batteries deteriorate and won’t hold a charge, and responder burn out / turnover is high. Some of these are just accepted as “the cost of doing business”. Others should be looked at very carefully.
Equipment is just equipment. I’m going to say that again. Equipment is just equipment. Though there are some things that are extremely hard or even impossible (Synchronized Cardioversion for example) for us to accomplish without the equipment, NOTHING can be done without the responder assessing the problem, identifying the appropriate tools to use, and of course, using the tool or equipment to solve the problem and reassessing afterwards. If you have the right tools but the responders are incapable of using them, then that is both an employee and employer failure. If you have the right responders and the wrong tools, the responder may still be able to solve the problem still. And that is what I’m here to talk about.
In military special operations community there is a group of statements called “The 5 SOF Truths”. There is one of these truths in particular that I would like to explore, and that is “Humans are more important than hardware”. From SOCOMS website; “People – not equipment – make the critical difference. The right people, highly trained and working as a team, will accomplish the mission with the equipment available. On the other hand, the best equipment in the world cannot compensate for a lack of the right people.” Facing the truth, we as first responders do not have the same recruiting, training, and retention capability that our countries special operators have, but we do have the experience and capability to begin the change that I believe is required. We need to take care of ourselves, and our people better.
This article will be focused on the physical health and general longevity of our responders. Heart health, cancer, digestive issues, and suicide is a very real threat in our society, and unfortunately it affects our responders heavily. I will not write on things that are out of my knowledge base, so this article will be focused on the things we can change today to make a difference for tomorrow, physical exercise and the tools we can use to improve our health and occupational capabilities.
(Photo above taken from John Saylor)
The general idea of “building the base” is establishing a baseline of physical fitness. This was enforced in the old soviet union and eastern block and reinforced by Louie Simmons and the crew at Westside Barbell. This idea isn’t foreign to us as responders, however it is worth stating and restating because as Louie stated numerous times, “A pyramid can only be as tall as its base is wide”. For our purposes as responders (Broad generalization incoming), this means we have to be capable of running a few (2 to 3) miles (sub 10:00 miles) without our heart rate exceeding 150 bpm, we have to be able to lift our bodyweight in the Deadlift (trap bar), bench press, and squat several times, and we should aim to be training no less than 4 days a week. Please keep in mind, these are only starting points. Our conditioning and general strength has to be at a much higher level for us to be capable of building a taller “peak”
My personal programming recommendation to get to this point would include Mountain Tactical Institute (MTI) daily sessions if you can’t meet any of the requirements, Brian Alsruhe programs ($25 each program), 5/3/1/ template by Wendler (google probably), Starting Strength “Texas Method” (Google), if strength in the lifts is a problem. If cardio is the problem I would recommend purchasing “smart marathon training” by Jeff Horowitz or “Pose Method” for running and following their guidelines. Otherwise, Specific running programs on MTI or SOFlete are rock solid. There are also various free running improvement plans available on Marine Corps and Army websites.
In reference to the photo above, this is Level 1 Training.
Tools of the Trade
- Barbell & Weights
This tool is irreplaceable and is a non negotiable for first responders. Your capability to drag weight will increase overall strength with little to no risk of injury.
- Pull Up Bar
- Running Shoes
(25-50% bodyweight) Sandbag
This tool can either be an old seabag, a sandbag product like from Rep Fitness or Rogue with handles, or a bag of play sand duct taped.
- Trail / hill to run if feasible
Something sturdy that is approximately 12-14” tall to step up onto with weight.
Cinder Blocks, wood platforms, etc… Step ups are one of the best unilateral exercises that have incredible carryover to first responders. You carry people, gear, equipment, etc. Specificity is high here.
Set of quality bands (EliteFTS or Westside Barbell)
Please don’t cheap out on bands. I’ve seen cheap bands from amazon snap while being used. This can cause injury and remove you from your job.
Yeah, I know. There isn’t much to enjoy here. However, this is absolutely necessary. Like stated in the beginning of the article, heart health issues are a devastating reality of our careers. From my understanding, the high levels of stress and unique situations dump specific chemical cocktails in our brains which lead to increased baseline cortisol levels. One way to manage these levels and control efficient contractility of the heart is with increased frequency of steady state cardio. If you don't want to purchase a fancy watch or heart rate monitor, you can use the “talk test” to gauge where you are at as far as energy expenditure goes. For brevity, please refer to ; The talk test: a useful tool for prescribing and monitoring exercise intensity - PubMed (nih.gov)
I subscribe to the Joel Jamieson methodologies of endurance training, and I believe he wrote THE book for cardio development, “Ultimate MMA Conditioning”. Joel trained some of the most renowned MMA fighters in the sport, and he is noted as one of the leading professionals regarding endurance and specificity training. Based on Jamieson's book, I would recommend starting with 35-90 minutes of steady state sessions (keeping HR between 130-150 or passing the talk test during your cardio) and trying to complete them twice per week. I choose to do them on days I am not weight training, but you could complete them 8-12 hours after your strength training. I would recommend for responders to cycle between machines during the same session, or switch on a weekly basis. I think the most effective method is cycling from machine to machine during one session, but do what makes sense for you. I like the Rower, Echo Bike, Ski Erg, and curved treadmills, but anything will work as long as it keeps that heart rate constantly elevated.
Joel Jamieson’s book goes into specific details about each method of cardiovascular training and why each should be used in conjunction with another. I HIGHLY recommend purchasing the book and bookmarking each page with the “summaries” of each type of training. Jamieson goes into details about specific measurables that are good indicators for overall cardiovascular health. He goes over specifics such as HRV, Resting HR, 1:00 recovery heart rate, and even down to Starling's Law. I enjoy this book and one copy lives in my garage gym. Disclaimer; I don’t do every single method in that book due to time constraints and my requirements for specific rehab work.
Tools of the Trade (Placed in order of precedence)
The assault bike or its variants are my number one recommended piece for responders due to the low impact and low risk of injury starting out on a frequent cardio program.
This will build both strength and strength endurance while working on your cardiac functioning. I recommend starting with 25% body weight on the drag sled and just walking. If your heart rate does not increase, congrats! Add more weight. For the purpose of cardio development, we are only going to drag the sled from the waster.
This process is as simple as they come. If you want to improve your distance running times for your own personal goals, I strongly recommend reading Pose Method by Nicholas Romanov. If you plan on putting in high mileage I’ve found this method to be the most “joint friendly”.
Walking with Ankle Weights
This enables strength just as much as does cardio- I would recommend this for someone who is wanting to increase their steps while increasing strength in their hips, hamstrings, and glutes.
This thing is a special type of torture device. Long story short, if you’re able to do steady state for 40 mins without breaking 160 bpm heart rate on the Skierg with a low damper setting, then I’d say you're in pretty good cardiovascular shape. If you’ve heard of the “hell Ski” from conjugate tactical then you know that's the 3rd circle of hell.
The only reason this is last on my list is because of lingering knee issues. Otherwise it is a phenomenal exercise if knee flexion does not bother any lingering symptoms you may have. The Interval settings on these are incredibly awesome and user friendly.
Once a general baseline is established, Absolute Strength must be increased. My personal favorite way to increase absolute strength is through heavy compound movements that involve several joints/body parts. This includes the Squat, Deadlift, Bench Press, Overhead Press, Cleans, Snatches, Push ups, etc.. The general
recommendation for raising strength is going to be completing sets of few (1-4) reps, but of high “intensity” which is defined as heavy. I prefer to train under the Conjugate method as I require a lot of change and autoregulation in my training. The conjugate method utilizes Max Effort days to increase absolute strength. For article brevity, please refer to Strength Training Education: Weight Training, Powerlifting & More | Westside Barbell (westside-barbell.com) for explanations of each of the methods.
I strongly recommend the use of free weights as opposed to the use of machines for our purposes as responders. Machines most certainly have their place in building strength, but one thing I believe that machines lack is development of stabilization muscles, coordination, and conscious thought / focus of the exercise. While we are increasing our absolute strength, we need to focus on what we are doing in order to ensure we are not wasting our time, and more importantly, avoid injury.
There is another method of strength which is called Speed Strength which is important for us as responders, specifically police or peace officers. Like absolute strength, I recommend using free weights supplemented with bands or chains. For the same reasons as listed above. Again, please refer to Westside Barbell’s articles and books in order to respect brevity in this article.
Tools of the Trade
The safety squat bar (Or SS Yoke from EliteFTS) is one of the best investments you can make in your department's gym, or for your own home gym use. I can’t emphasize this bar enough. The carryover is incredible as it builds the absolute shit out of your upper back because the bar is trying to push you forwards while squatting. This requires significant core strength. Also, one hidden gem about the Safety Squat bar is if you flip it around wearing it the “wrong” way, this makes everything dramatically harder. This pitches the weight out in front of you, and has tremendous carryover to carrying patients or handling assailants. I recommend starting to wear it backwards and doing step ups.
Multigrip bench bar
I prefer the Reps Direct bar or the Black Widow Multi Grip Press bar as it is narrower and has a space in the idle to allow for easier overhead press. EliteFTS sells great bars as well, but for our purposes as responders, I would not recommend purchasing the American Cambered bar, but rather the Regular american multi grip bar. I think the cambered bar is great when you flip it upside down (to use as a block press) but I believe that introducing a cambered bar at a station for general use is dangerous and can introduce serious injuries if the employees are not experienced with cambered bars. I recommend multi grip bars because they help keep shoulders healthy while developing strong pressing muscles. The angles of the hands are important, please consider this for your station.
Look, I get it. These adjustable boxes are expensive, and even more expensive to ship. If you have a local fabricator I’m sure they could come up with something for you, but I choose to trust MBPowercenter with my box. What made me choose this box over any other was the size and weight. I wanted a very large and heavy platform to step up on because I will do step ups up to 300 pounds, plus my body weight. If the box has a risk of flipping over, I was not interested in it. If I were to become injured from equipment malfunction (my fault or not) then I couldn’t provide for my family, team, or community.In addition to step ups, Box Squats was the only way I could continue to squat during low back flare ups. It is absolutely imperative that you learn to box squat correctly. Again I’ll refer you to the westside barbell website or EliteFTS youtube videos. I chose the “buy once cry once” mentality with this piece and I do not regret it.
Specifically for EMS and Fire, I think these are violently underrated and underused. Kettlebell swings, carry’s, snatches, presses, cleans, turkish get ups, etc. The list is limitless. The greatest carry over for kettlebells is the shear grip strength you will develop. This is especially helpful when you find yourself in shitty weather conditions having to carry patients in mega-movers from areas that are not gurney accessible.
5:00 dumbbell drill from John Saylors is hands down the most important strength endurance drill for us. The goal is to aim for 1/3 - 1/2 your bodyweight in dumbbells in your hand, so for me @ 200# I would aim for 25’s in each hand. The general guideline is to pick a group of exercises and keep the dumbbells moving for 5:00 total. Just starting, I would recommend going for 15-20# dumbbells in each hand and performing 10 reps each for 5:00; presses, tricep extensions, curls, judo pull & throw, bent over rows, shrugs.
Fat grip bar
Axle bars or just any bars with fatter grips are a welcome addition. Increasing grip strength while performing exercises will increase your economy of movement (killing two birds with one stone). When I first started my home gym, I had one axle bar, and one rogue “beater bar”. I solely used the axle bar for deadlifts, and I never experienced my grip failing no matter what situation I was in during that time. Fat grip bars also require quite a few more muscles to be recruited in a movement.
Bands & Chains
5/8 chain preferred, but can combine several 1/2 “ chains to get to the same weight if you want to purchase from home depot etc. 3/4 “ chain is generally too heavy.
Job Specific Equipment
This is the bread and butter. Only you will know what your specific job requirements are within your department. The Conjugate System under Louie Simmons was built upon sport specificity. Once GPP or General Physical Preparedness was developed the crew then worked on building specific strengths required for their own individual sport. I will tell you what I do for my job, but you will progress in your training and figure out what does work and what doesn’t, and I hope you tell me about why my training is stupid. I’d love to hear about it.
Tools of the Trade
Direct carryover to loaded carry’s up stairs as well as load absorption.
Builds overall explosive power in the event that I must exert force quickly.
I love sleds. Louie stated at one point that he felt he got more out of dragging sleds than squatting.They just feel good to me and you can do them anywhere. A sled and some plates live in my truck 24/7.
Banded Hamstring Curls
Due to injury history these help keep my hamstrings happy and healthy, as well as directly correlate to reduction of back pain for me.
I enjoy this.
Alternating Cardio Machines
I switch cardio machines every 15-30 mins to avoid boredom and will typically listen to Medical, Westside, or EliteFTS podcasts to keep up to date on both my job and passion.
Sitting softly on a box reduces me going “into the hole” and controlling which portion of the squat I want to work on. And I have to use dramatically less weight.
Dedicated grip work
Direct carryover to holding onto straps, grabbing onto clothes, and hand health.
Core every training day
This is non negotiable due to recurring back pain from a fracture and this helps keep me relatively pain free. Thank you Stu McGill for your work.
Dedicated Pin Work
Pin deadlifts have tremendous carryover to picking up patients. I just enjoy pin bench. And Pin squats build the shit out of your entire body.
Nothing humbles me faster and has more carryover to EMS work than picking up an awkward sandbag and putting it on something. Thanks to Brian Alsruhe for all the lessons and for your patience with all of my questions.
You will find what works best for you, but the overall health and fitness of our responders must be addressed. I hope you pulled at least one useful piece of information from this article. This article was written free of charge for Freedom Fitness Equipment and is about as unbiased as I can be.
- Chris Key
About Chris Key:
Originally from Detroit, Michigan, Chris Key joined the military to find a life worth living and quickly found his passion in Explosive Ordnance Disposal and supporting the Infantry. After separating from active duty, he ran into a litany of physical ailments —spondylolisthesis, spinal stenosis, ligament tears, bilateral meniscal tears, sleep apnea, and mental health disturbances. He then transitioned to support the military and first responders in a different way by trying to increase the health and longevity of military and first responder personnel. His credentials include completing the Special Operations Support Orientation Course (EOD Tech), Marine Corps Instructor of Water Survival, EMT/Advanced EMT, and various other military specialized courses. He is currently working on an ambulance while attending school to hopefully become a Physicians Assistant.