Letter to the Editor: Concerns About Use of CrossFit for Firefighter Fitness Are Overblown

Ed Hadfield writes in response to Coach John Hofmans concerns, Letter to the Editor: Firefighter Fitness Should Focus on Injury Prevention, published 6/13/2012.

In his editorial, Mr. Hofman states, “I recently came across several articles on CrossFit and the fire service. As strength and conditioning coach who works with more than 1,000 firefighters, I feel this is a dangerous path.” Although, I agree there have been many articles written on the benefits of the CrossFit concepts and conditioning modalities as it relates to the fire service lately, I disagree with his summation this is a dangerous path.  

Mr. Hofman cites a specific report conducted by the University of Arizona which stated, “1/3 of injuries are due in part to exercise in the fire service.” The report cited was a small study group of firefighters in the Southwest and although the report cited a number of differing reasons for the injuries–no one specific type of exercise was the overriding cause of injuries in this department. To state that 1/3 of injuries as due in part to exercise in that department during those timeframes would be true; yet, to associate it to CrossFit is misleading.

According to the study, “Beyond the fire ground: injuries in the fire service,” by Gerald S Poplin,  the types of exercise practiced by the studied department include a wide range of activities (i.e., jogging, basketball, circuit training, Olympic lifting, metabolic conditioning, interval training, etc.), and vary in exercise programming structure and management. In a personal discussion with the author of the study, the author stated, “Proper programming and instruction on the proper methods of functional exercise will in most cases reduce the potential of injury to the employee.” This is exactly the programming and coaching model which CrossFit advocates.

One of Mr. Hofman’s concerns is the type of exercises that individuals would be accomplishing as part of their fitness and conditioning program using the programming methods of CrossFit. This happens to be the beauty to the CrossFit programming model: it provides the individual the ability to scale the programing to meet the needs of the individual while working in the group setting. The scalability is based on the current fitness and conditioning of the individual and the group as a whole.

As for the potential of a knee-jerk reaction where someone will not allow firefighters to exercise on duty, this has been a concern the entire 27 years I have been in the fire service. As part of the city-wide safety committee in two differing agencies, I can attest that the number of fitness-related injuries in those two particular agencies pale in comparison to the number of duty-related injures firefighters sustain during normal activities. It really boils down to risk management. Do you condition your employees for the rigors of the profession and accept the occasional sprain and, strain of over-use injury? Or do you accept the high-dollar, negative-impact orthopedic injury–or worse, cardiac related injury–that occurs as a result of ailing to establish a comprehensive fitness and conditioning program, which includes strong education and foundation in nutrition and mobility, within your agency.

Mr. Hofman states he receives phone calls from all over California because CrossFit has made their fitness programming worse. My question is: Does CrossFit make the fitness programming worse, or is it the individuals who were programming the fitness in the agency that made it worse? Blaming CrossFit for making the fitness programming worse is like blaming the gun for killing the individual. Don’t blame the programming, blame the programmer.

It appears Mr. Hofman is aware and even uses CrossFit-type programming as part of his work as a coach with the regional academy. This is evident by the videos on Mr. Hofman’s own Web site. In those videos, you see academy recruits performing: Concept 2 Rowing, Squats in the Front Rack Position, Tire Sledge Swings, Front Walking Lunges, and other exercise components which are typically used in CrossFit programming. All of these exercises are done in a group setting, very much like the Crossfit model

Mr. Hofman is correct: we should not accept one model of fitness as our stand alone fitness regime. Nor should we accept the fact that we are currently facing an epidemic of obesity in the fire service and the line-of-duty deaths related to cardiac-related emergencies continue to plaque our industry. There are hosts of reason we are as a general rule unfit and lack conditioning. The basic premise of CrossFit is to address the entire system of fitness and conditioning as a whole and not just to build bigger muscles or to enable individuals to run marathons. The beauty to CrossFit programming includes the foundation of hydration; nutrition; strength and conditioning; mobility and rehabilitation; and work-specific -performance. Furthermore, the functionality of CrossFit lies is its infinite scalability. The fitness needs of a fire service recruit, a firefighter with a few years on the job, or a senior member differ by degree, not kind. By scaling loads, intensity, and duration; CrossFit programming is appropriate for any individual who is willing to put in the work–regardless of fitness or ability level

Because CrossFit is branded and copyrighted, many want to call it by some other name (Functional Fitness Programming, Firefit, Fit for Fire, or a host of others.) But at the end of the day, it’s CrossFit. If you want to call it something else, go ahead, but it was CrossFit and Coach Greg Glassman with some very special members of the SEAL community who brought to light the need for a fitness regime that has been adopted, tested, and integrated into a number of different fire service agencies with great success (the Orange County Fire Authority and the Los Angeles County Fire Department, to name a few). All of the mentioned agencies have seen the marked improvement in overall fitness and conditioning from the recruit level through the most senior of personnel. Remember, fitness is a personal choice–you either choose to be fit or you choose to be unfit.

Again, I do agree with Mr. Hofman: the need to evaluate all programs is a must and the need to assure we are programming based upon the individual needs of the members and the agency will continue to be the priority of all peer fitness trainers. However, to say one particular fitness and conditioning model is going to be the downfall of our fitness revolution is a bit overstated. Maybe we should just bring back the Jane Fonda Aerobics tapes and give it a go–at least nobody will get hurt.

 

EDWARD HADFIELD has more than 25 years of fire service experience and serves as a division chief. He is a frequent speaker on leadership, sharing his experiences within the fire service, and also with corporate and civic leaders throughout the United States. He created and teaches company officer development programs and is a specialist in truck company operations, firefighter safety and survivability, and mission-focused command tactics. He was the 2004 California Training Officer of the Year. He has developed state and regional truck company academies in California, Washington, and Oregon.

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