Get Tactical With Your Fitness

BY RYAN PROVENCHER and CHRISTIAN CARSON

Many exercise programs build general physical preparedness, but is being “generally fit” enough to meet the demands of a firefighter’s job? Athletes in any sport require a certain level of general physical preparedness, but what separates the pros from the weekend warriors is sport-specific training. Baseball players practice baseball, swimmers swim, and firefighters fight fire. How do you implement a “sport-specific” training program for firefighters without having to drag charged hoselines around in full gear and pull all of the ceilings out of the fire station?

Let’s consider what we may be called on to do. Moving people from awkward positions, dragging charged hoselines, pulling ceilings, swinging axes, carrying people, and climbing stairs and ladders are common tasks. Now, consider that we do these things with the added weight of our gear, heat stress, and the inherent pressure of an emergency incident. How can we expect to do something occasionally that we do not do often?

The body cannot differentiate between the stresses encountered while fighting fire and the stress applied during physical exercise. Firefighters will often reach heart rate maximum (HR max) during an emergency and may even get close to it as soon as the alarm goes off. When we reach our HR max, our bodies receive a biochemical dump (the fight-or-flight response), at which time we lose our access to fine motor skills and broad cognitive function. The result is tunnel vision and a loss of the fine motor skills we have trained so hard to hone.

Firefighters need a fitness program designed to mimic the movements of our job while applying the type of stress we meet in our occupation but in the safety of a training environment. We must develop the ability to maintain access to our skills while retaining broad cognitive function when placed under extreme stress. When training at high intensity to prepare for these situations, we must make sure that we recover properly and prevent injuries.

Unfortunately, most fitness programs do not meet the firefighters’ needs because they were not designed to prepare us for what we do. Many programs overemphasize training the aerobic energy system through long, slow-duration exercise. Others overemphasize size and limit strength through power lifting and bodybuilding. Furthermore, many training programs fail to place sufficient attention on injuryproofing firefighters through comprehensive training.

A SOLUTION

Members of our department have engaged in fitness programs that have provided them with tremendous benefits both on and off the job. Core Performance and CrossFit are excellent training systems we have used with success. As great as these programs are, we found ourselves having to modify them depending on crew fitness level, available equipment, and training time. Something was missing. That all changed when we met Coach Scott Sonnon in 2006.

Sonnon travels the world teaching tactical fitness to special operations groups, law enforcement, mixed martial artists, and firefighters. He also happens to live in our community. He walked into our fire station one day to propose a tactical fitness competition between local police and firefighters. Firefighters are generally competitive, but throw in some friendly competition against the cops, and you don’t have to ask twice! Not only did we earn bragging rights against a very fit group of police officers, but we were introduced to a program called “TACFIT.”

A few of us immediately adopted the TACFIT training protocol, and we experienced levels of fitness that we had never seen before. We were demonstrating better performance with better recovery. Based on the success of a few, we wanted to test this program on a larger scale.

OUR STUDY

The Bellingham (WA) Fire Department (our department) and North Whatcom (WA) Fire and Rescue each conducted an informal study using the TACFIT program, with similar results. Bellingham has 137 firefighters in its department. Sixty expressed interest in TACFIT, 40 participated sporadically, 20 maintained 60-percent compliance with the program, and 11 had 70 percent or higher compliance for the entire 108 days. The average age of the 11 firefighters with more than 70-percent compliance was 41 years old. There were nine males and two females.

Compliance was measured on a 10-point scale. Completing the daily workout was worth four points; eating six healthful meals a day was worth one point each. A perfect day was worth 10 points. Points were subtracted for missing workouts, consuming foods or beverages with a high sugar content, alcoholic beverages, and so on. The goal was to average eight points per day over an eight-day period (80-percent compliance). Firefighters who scored 70 percent or higher with their compliance had significant increases in the following physical attributes:

  • Greatest Weight Loss: 11 pounds (Average 1.4 pounds)
  • Greatest Fat Loss: 9 pounds (Average 2.3 pounds)
  • Greatest Body Fat Percentage Reduction: 4.3% (Average 1%)
  • Greatest Lean Body Mass Gain: 5 pounds (Average +1 pound)
  • Greatest Push-Up Increase: 20 reps (Average + 4 reps)
  • Greatest Pull-Up Increase: 9 reps (Average + 4 reps)
  • Greatest VO2 Max (aerobic capacity) Increase: 4.9 ml/kg/min (Average +1.73 ml/kg/min)
  • Greatest Reduction in Abdominal Circumference: −2.25 inches (Average −1.2 inches)

Firefighters also reported significant increases in the following areas:

Mobility. Firefighters noted increased range of motion and better body movement overall after completing the program. The joint mobility warm-up, multiplanar exercises, and compensatory movements all contribute to increased mobility and decreased pain. Improved mobility will assist in injury prevention and performance on the job when faced with physically demanding situations.

Mental Toughness. Participants expressed an increase in “mental toughness.” They were able to push themselves harder mentally as their training progressed. TACFIT takes you to the edge of your physical limits and teaches you to work through them. The mantra “If you can, you must” pushes you forward. Firefighters must work through the discomfort of the many physical, mental, and emotional stressors we face on the job. It is paramount that we retain cognitive function, mental acuity, and fine motor skills under stress. (Please note that we are differentiating between discomfort associated with intense exercise and pain associated with physical injury.)

Work Capacity. The firefighters participating in the study had significant increases in aerobic capacity (VO2 max) as well as increased muscular strength and endurance. This enhanced our ability to work near HR max, recover quickly, and continue working. This is critical during emergency operations. Improved work capacity not only allows firefighters to maximize work time on one self-contained breathing apparatus bottle, but it also prepares us to handle the extreme physical stressors placed on the body during firefighting operations.

Injury Prevention. The number-one killer in the fire service is heart disease. Back injuries, as well as strains and sprains, are also common impairments for firefighters. TACFIT addresses all of these issues and more by providing comprehensive training. Improvements in metabolic conditioning, expressible strength through a greater range of motion, core strength, and joint mobility, lead to injury prevention and improved heart health.

Teamwork. TACFIT was designed as a group fitness program. Each program has four levels of sophistication that can be applied with all fitness levels. Progression is built into the program. Delta level is designed for those new to TACFIT, Gamma level is for those who have been following the program for several weeks, and Beta level is for those beginning to adapt to TACFIT after a few months. Alpha level takes most athletes a year or more to achieve with consistency. Firefighters rely on teamwork in all that we do. We work together, we eat together, and we train together. TACFIT allows us to exercise in a way that builds camaraderie and encourages us to do our best, regardless of differences in fitness levels within our team.

Efficiency. Few people have 90 minutes a day to work out, and firefighters are no different. In an environment where we are expected to do more with less, TACFIT provides a comprehensive workout in only 30 minutes.

THE PROGRAM

TACFIT is comprised of 26 workouts. Each workout consists of four levels of sophistication, allowing everyone to train together regardless of each individual’s baseline fitness level. Each workout is 30 minutes in duration and includes a five-minute warm-up, a 20-minute work period, and a five-minute cool-down. Six training protocols are periodized throughout the program to maximize results. The work-to-rest ratios of the six programs are as follows:

  • 20 seconds work/10 seconds rest (four-minute rounds with one-minute rest in between).
  • Every minute on the minute (complete work within each minute as fast as possible).
  • Four minutes work/1 minute rest.
  • 90 seconds work/30 seconds rest.
  • Complete as much work as possible in 20 minutes.
  • Complete a set amount of work as quickly as possible.

The intensity of the training is cycled over four days. The intensity is determined by a self-assessed rating of perceived exertion (RPE) on a scale of 1-10, or by calculating percentages of HR max and wearing a heart rate monitor. The four-day cycle looks like this:

  • Day 1. Moderate intensity: RPE 5-7 or 75-85% of HR max.
  • Day 2. High intensity: RPE 8-10 or 85-100% of HR max.
  • Day 3. No intensity: joint mobility only.
  • Day 4. Low intensity: RPE 3-4 or 65-75% of HR max. Compensatory movement applies here.

TACFIT is a comprehensive program that includes priming movements for warm-up, synergistic strength and conditioning exercises, and compensatory movements to accelerate recovery. Its purpose is to train movements, not individual muscle groups. All of the exercises were reverse engineered from tactical movements. The program is periodized to reach the heights of physical, emotional, and chemical stress and then recover completely. You will train harder and smarter with TACFIT.

The instructions for the TACFIT India program follow. Give it a try, and see what you think. Pay special attention to the joint mobility warm-up and the compensatory movements. If you would like to see a video tutorial for TACFIT India, go to www.TacFitFireFighter.com. Train hard and have fun!

TACFIT INDIA

TACFIT India follows the every-minute-on-the-minute protocol. Complete the prescribed circuit as fast as possible within 60 seconds. The recovery period is determined by the time remaining within each minute. Repeat the circuit each minute on the minute for 20 minutes. Score one point for every circuit completed within the allotted time for a maximum score of 20. Do not pace yourself! The key is to complete the reps as fast as possible; try to give yourself at least 15-20 seconds to recover between rounds.

Warm-Up

Perform each exercise for one minute.

Hip Swings/Front and Back

Begin with legs together, back straight. Keeping your right leg straight, swing forward and then to the rear for 30 seconds (photos 1-2). Move slowly and with control while maintaining spinal alignment. Switch legs and repeat for 30 seconds.

(1) Photos by Sheila Carson.
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Hitchhiker

Begin with elbows fully extended (photo 3). Lead with your thumbs pointed laterally and rotate your forearms out to the fullest range of motion (photo 4). Complete the movement by circling your hands beneath your chin, rotate thumbs medially, and continue back to full extension (photo 5). Keep elbows on a level plane throughout. Continue for 30 seconds, and then reverse the direction for 30 seconds.

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Full Torso Rotations

Begin by pitching forward at the waist, relax your neck, and allow your crown to point toward the floor (photo 6). Activate your hips and legs to support your lower back through the movement. Rotate off to one side by folding at the hip (photo 7). Continue to rotate to the rear as your hips move forward (photo 8). Activate your hamstrings and glutes to go deeper into extension. Continue to rotate to the opposite side (photo 9), folding at the hip, and then return to the starting position (photo 6). Move slowly and fluidly in one direction for 30 seconds and then reverse direction for 30 seconds.

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TRAINING EXERCISES

TACFIT India consists of 20 one-minute rounds. Complete 15 Trinity Squats, 10 Quad Presses, and 5 Pull-Ups to score a point for each round (Figure 2). Max score is 20 if you can complete all the reps each minute for 20 minutes. Do not pace yourself. The key to success is to complete all 30 reps as fast as possible within the minute to allow yourself 15-20 seconds recovery before the next round begins. Take a round off if you need to recover, but do not award yourself a point. Again, we are providing a tutorial on level Gamma. The complete program with tutorials can be found at www.TacFitFireFighter.com.

Trinity Squat

Perform 15 reps. Keep your feet flat, back aligned, the crown of your head toward the ceiling, and squat down. Do not extend your knees forward or lean forward. Squat as low as your mobility allows without sacrificing technique (photos 10-11).

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Quad Presses

Perform 10 reps. On the Gamma level, you will perform a forward ellipse. Begin in the quad squat position on the balls of your feet with knees pointed out at a 45° angle (photo 12).

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Notice how the hips are oriented over the ankles and the thighs are parallel to the floor. Hands are down with fingers turned in slightly and elbows flared out to a 45° angle. Keep your back flat, and drive forward until your shoulders pass your hands (photo 13). Lower yourself toward the mat while maintaining spinal alignment/flat back, and then push back into the starting position (photo 14). Your shoulders and hips should be in the same plane throughout the movement.

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Pull-Ups

Perform five reps. On the Gamma level, you will be performing the commando pull-up with opposing grips. Begin in full extension, and pull your chin over the bar near your palm-facing hand, and then lower to full extension (photos 15-16).

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Cool-Down

Immediately on completion of your workout, perform the compensations, and hold for one minute each.

Backward Bend

Begin with hands clasped overhead and arms locked (photo 17). Keep your shoulders packed down, and look for the window of light between your ears and biceps. Activate your quads, glutes, and hamstrings to allow a deeper bend while protecting your lower back. Drop your head back, and completely relax your neck (photo 18). Now, pull your biceps back to your ears as you drive your hips forward and reach back (photo 19). Relax; exhale as you sink into position. Maintain activation of your quads, glutes, and hamstrings. Control your breathing, and hold the position for one minute.

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Seal

Begin on your hands and knees. Rotate your palms forward, and point your fingers toward your knees. If your current range of motion doesn’t allow this, point your fingers to the side (photo 20). Drive your elbow pits forward, and activate your triceps. Drive your head and chest toward the ceiling while allowing your hips to sink toward the mat. If your range of motion will allow, place the top of your feet on the mat and elevate your knees (photos 21-22). Activate your glutes and hamstrings to release your hips toward the mat. Control your breathing, and hold for one minute.

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Clasped Hand Forward Fold

Begin by clasping your hands together behind your back; reach down toward your knees and pack your shoulders down (photo 23). Go as deep into the movement as you can keep your hands clasped together. When they begin to break apart, stop and go no further. Now, fold forward, and place your belly on your thighs (photo 24). Once in position, begin to reach toward the ceiling, push your hips up, drive your knee pits toward the back wall, and relax your crown straight toward the floor (photo 25). Keep your belly on your thighs throughout the movement. If your belly begins to lift, stop and go no further. Control your breathing, and hold for one minute.

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RYAN PROVENCHER is the training captain in the Bellingham (WA) Fire Department, where he has served for 15 years. He has a B.S. in physical education with an emphasis in exercise science and a minor in nutrition from Washington State University. He is a certified Circular Strength Training instructor and TACFIT division chief. He has been conducting fitness testing and exercise prescription for the fire department since 1996, when he joined the department.
CHRISTIAN CARSON is a captain in the Bellingham (WA) Fire Department, where he has served for nine years. He is a certified Circular Strength Training coach and a TACFIT division chief. He has served as a TACFIT instructor for the Bellingham Fire Department, North Whatcom Fire and Rescue, the Suquamish Police Department, the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

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