HEALTHBreaking the Myths: Fact or Fiction about your Fitness as a Firefighter

Breaking the Myths: Fact or Fiction about your Fitness as a Firefighter

By: John Hofman

Be realistic with your goals. There needs to be something else to fuel the fire other than “just look good”, maybe try “I want to feel good”.  If you do start an exercise program try something you enjoy and establish a routine.

The internet is making it harder and harder to understand things. It is almost as if we have too much information at our fingertips, especially in regards to health and wellness. Everyone and anyone can become an “expert” in the fitness industry, and how do we know for sure that the information they are providing is correct? A lot of times the information can be contradicting and we end up becoming more confused than when we first started. As I stated in my article for the National Strength & Conditioning Association, “The more things change the more they stay the same,” the basic scientific principles of any workout will always remain the same. Here are some of the most common myths and the realities.

Myth # 1: Lifting Heavy Weights Will Make Me Big And Bulky

FALSE: I’m not sure where this myth started, but I can remember in my early days of weight lifting, reading this stigma in magazines from Flex and Muscle and Fitness and following the bodybuilder routine. Looking back 25 years later, I realized that the sole focus of bodybuilding is to create size not necessarily strength, yet we always saw pictures of them lifting heavy weight and thought “heavy weight makes me big”. 

In reality, it is volume that creates size, not necessarily load. Look at the normal body building routine for the chest:

  • Bench Press: 4 x 10-12 reps
  • Incline Press: 4 x 10-12 reps
  • Dips: 4 sets x 10-12 reps
  • Cable Flys: 4 sets of 10-12 reps

Count how many reps they actually performed on the chest? 40 – 48 reps per exercise x 4 exercises = 160 -192 reps!!! THAT’S A LOT OF VOLUME and henceforth, the natural result of hypertrophy. According to Merriam Webster, the word hypertrophy is defined as an “excessive development of an organ or part; specifically: increase in bulk (as by thickening of muscle fibers) without multiplication of parts”. 

What should you do? All firefighters should be strong. Most injuries occur because of poor movement and/or lack of strength; so it is very important for a firefighter to maintain their levels of strength (performing circuits will not make you muscular strong). It is recommended that a firefighter perform 3-4 sets of one lower push (goblet squat) or lower pull (Hex Bar Deadlift) and one upper push (bench press) or pull (Pull Up) for 4-6 reps at 80-90% of their one rep max. This will help with what is called your high threshold motor units. Perform these exercises by alternating each time you workout. Then you have enough energy to complete a metabolic circuit. 

Myth #2: Running Is The Best Way To Get Into Shape

FALSE: We have always been told to go out and perform a long slow run for 20-30 minutes, but in reality there is” NO BEST WAY” to exercise.  In fact, how many people have you met that have ever said the following “I want to lose weight so I am going to train for a marathon?” These are two different goals and the person is likely to fail at both. The effectiveness of any exercise program depends on the individual. If you are looking to lose weight and improve on your aerobic capacity, interval running may be a better option. If you are looking to reduce stress, then a long slow run may be better. 

What we recommend: If you want to improve your aerobic capacity or lose weight, interval runs would be the best method.

Example: Run hard for 30 seconds, then rest anywhere from one minute to 30 seconds again. Do this for a total of 20-30 minutes. Also, intervals are also very specific to the firefighter because the job itself is usually a series of stop and go. Adjust the work to ratio according to level of fitness. 

Sprinting is another good way to train the whole body. Perform 10 x 100m with 100m walk (full recovery)

WARNING: Always warm your hamstring up prior to sprinting to reduce the chances of a hamstring pull. 

Myth #3: Performing Sit Ups And Crunches Will Get Rid Of Unwanted Belly Fat And Give Me A Six Pack Abs

FALSE: This is purely marketing and those infomercials do a great job selling to you. Everyone wants six pack abs but a lot of times it is genetics, but more importantly it is really our diet. Our diet has more of an impact on bodies than any form of exercise. In fact, researchers have shown that if you exercise regularly for 60 minutes a day, five days a week and DO NOT change your diet you will only lose around 1-2 pounds per year. So in reality the best exercise for six pack abs are push aways “push the plate away”. 

WARNING: Research has shown that crunching and sit ups will cause your lower spinal disks to herniate, potentially creating more problems.

What we recommend: If you really want to see your abs, change your diet. Eat less processed foods and more vegetables and lean meats. Try to reduce your carbohydrates throughout the day and have no starches at dinner. To help strengthen your mid section, perform more front planks and side planks to create better stability throughout the body. Perform sets of 3-4 for about 10-20 seconds at a time. 

Myth # 4: Lifting Heavy Weights Will Hurt Me

TRUE AND FALSE: You are probably asking yourself “How can that be? Easy….the less strength you have, the lower your ceiling is. For example: if you can only deadlift 150 pounds and go to lift a person who is 250 pounds, you have exceeded your limit and therefore you are at higher risk for injury. However, in most cases it is volume that creates injuries. Look at Myth #1, you will notice there was a lot of volume in that routine, and for most people over time, your shoulders will hurt because of the constant stress placed upon the AC Joint. 

In reality volume hurts us, not the load. It does not matter if you are doing a circuit (P90x, CrossFit) , powerlifting, running, swimming, etc. Regardless of weight, performing anything with a lot of volume and repetitive motion will start to hurt you. 

What we recommend: Try switching things up every four weeks. Perform strength training prior to your circuit for four weeks. Then the next four weeks change the movement pattern: instead of always moving forward and backward, try moving side to side (forward lunge vs. side lunge). If you run or perform any cardiovascular exercise always keep to the 10 percent rule: do not perform more than 10% than you did the previous week. This will help keep injuries down.

Myth # 5: Not Sticking To An Exercise Program Is A Lack Of Self Discipline

FALSE: Depending on the research, somewhere between 50-80% of people who start an exercise program will not stick with it. The reasons most people stay with exercise programs for the long haul vs. those who do not have a variety of factors, but for the most it is not in large part due to a lack of will or self discipline. In fact, most people will run out of will power at some point and finding motivation is oftentimes difficult. Most people have unrealistic expectations “I want a six pack abs” or “I wanna lose 50 pounds” without really thinking it through, and therefore set themselves up for failure.

What we recommend: First, be realistic with your goals. There needs to be something else to fuel the fire other than “just look good”, maybe try “I want to feel good”.  If you do start an exercise program try something you enjoy and establish a routine. Be patient, the results may not come right away, so again ask yourself “How do I feel?” The last thing to remember is to give yourself a break. Allow your body rest; try going two days in a row and then give yourself a day off – use the weekends as an option to do something different. Remember life does get in the way so you cannot make exercise burdensome but rather rewarding. Try exercising in the early morning to help set the tone for the rest of the day, you will probably feel better at the end knowing you got it out of the way. And switch up your routine every four weeks, even go as far as letting yourself have the fourth week off!

Photo by Andrew “Donovan” Valdivia on Unsplash