By Asha Wagner, SFG II
StrongFirst recently asked some of its female instructors to define what makes a strong woman. While I have a reputation of being a decently strong woman, this was not the initial goal in my training. As a firefighter, I work in a field that is 95% male. In firefighting there is no “gender norming” at an emergency scene. When the bell sounds, my coworkers don’t care if I’m strong “for a woman” or how much weight I can throw up in the weight room. All that they care about is whether I can get the job done. Therefore, for me the definition of a strong woman is synonymous with that of a capable woman.
When I was training to get in shape for the fire academy, few strength training programs addressed the real world demands of the job, and none addressed the specific considerations of women entering this field. In my job I’ve faced such challenges as hiking up a stairwell of a high-rise wearing 75lbs. of personal gear and carrying an additional 90lbs. of equipment. Most fitness programs just don’t prepare you for that, let alone lifting a patient that has slipped and fallen getting out of the shower and is now wedged between the tub and the toilet. All of this requires a body that is not only all over strong, but can use its strength effectively, especially in awkward positions.
During the Naked Warrior Bodyweight cert, Pavel stated that gains in grip, abdominal and glute strength would have the greatest carryover to overall strength. This is especially true for women entering non-traditional fields. Women tend to be smaller in stature and have a tougher time gaining upper body strength than our male counterparts. This affects our grip, load bearing ability, and force production. For example, women tend to have smaller hands, yet the gloves firefighters all wear are the same thickness, regardless of size.
Consequently, smaller hands have to develop more grip strength to handle the equipment. This is also the case for load bearing ability. The equipment and gear that we wear and carry weighs the same regardless of what size we are. Tasks such as pulling a charged hoseline up a hill or through a house is generally easier the more mass a person has to lean into the pull. Smaller individuals have to make up for this through strengthening their midsections and building strong powerful legs.
Grip and ab strength play a huge role in developing upper body strength. Make a tight fist and you will feel the muscles contract from your forearm to your rear delts. Try it again contracting your abs, and you’ll probably notice you’re able to squeeze harder than before. My program uses this principle combined with full body movements to build useable strength. While it is aimed at women working towards entering a fire academy, it has other applications as well. For instance, I used a version of this program to train for the recent NorCal Spartan Beast 13+ mile obstacle course/mud run. It’s based off Dan John’s “Even Easier Strength” template.
• Upper Body Push – Double Kettlebell Military Press
• Upper Body Pull – Rock Climbing, Rope Climbs or Towel Pull ups
• Lower Body – Double Kettlebell Front Squats
• Abs – Full or 1⁄2 TGUs
• Full Body Dynamic Movement – Kettlebell Swings
Monday – 2×5, Tuesday – 2×5, Wednesday – 5, 3, 2, Thursday – Off, Friday – 2×5, Saturday – 2×5
Monday – 2×5, Tuesday – 6×1, Wednesday – 1×10, Thursday – Off, Friday – 2×5, Saturday – 5, 3, 2
Monday – Self-limiting run, 10-20 minutes
Tuesday – Weighted Hike or Stair Climb, 10-15 minutes
Wednesday – Viking Warrior Conditioning, 10-20 minutes
Thursday – Off
Friday – Self limiting run, 10-20 minutes
Saturday – Weighted Crawling, 3-5 minutes
Sunday – Off
The Program Explained
The double kettlebell work prepares the body’s structure for load bearing. The double military press directly translates over to movements such as ladder raises and lifting equipment overhead. Rock climbing does a great job of training the grip, lats and abs, as well as teaching a person to be strong, flexible and stable in awkward positions. If you don’t have access to a climbing gym, use a climbing rope or throw two towels over a pull up bar. The TGU further trains the abs and improves shoulder strength and mobility.
Kettlebell swings teach full body coordination, training both the midsection and glutes while passively strengthening the shoulders.
For the self-limiting runs, breathe only through the nose and run at a comfortable pace. During a fire, we breathe air from an air tank. The tanks generally last 20 minutes, but because we have a finite supply, the time we can stay in a fire and how much work we can accomplish in that time is directly related to our conditioning level. Therefore breath control such as that taught by the self-limiting runs has a huge carryover to firefighting.
The Viking Warrior 15:15 snatch protocol trains stamina and anaerobic recovery and prepares the shoulders and traps for load bearing. For additional breath control work, use 3-5 breaths in between sets of Viking Warrior instead of a timed rest. The better the breath control and anaerobic recovery, the longer the rest period.
When I started the academy, I had no idea how much time I’d spend crawling on my hands and knees. Yet crawling isn’t included in most conventional programs. It turns out that not only is this the best way to get around in a fire, but it does all sorts of great things for the shoulders, midsection, and quads, and builds full body coordination. For the weighted hikes, stair climbs and crawls, start out unweighted and gradually add weight 5 lbs. at a time for 3 weeks, then back off 10 lbs. the 4th week and start building up again. For the stair climbs Stepmills will work in a pinch, but steer clear of Stairmasters. When exercising on a Stairmaster, lifting the leg up is the most challenging part, putting the emphasis on the hamstrings. When actually climbing stairs, especially while under load, stepping up onto the stair puts much more emphasis on the quads.
Goals to shoot for with this program before entering an academy are:
• 1×10 20kg Double Kettlebell Military Press
• 1×10 24kg Double Front Squats
• Climbing at the v2/ 5.10 level and/or 2×5 towel pull-ups
• 2×5 20kg full TGUs
• Crawling and Stair Climbing w/ 60lb. weight vest
Remember that these are bare minimum goals for which to shoot and that this is only one component of a multifaceted preparation program. Still, this will lay a good solid foundation for all future fire academy preparation.
# # #
Asha Wagner is an SFG II Kettlebell instructor training out of Oakland, California. She is also a firefighter for a large city fire department. Check out her website at www.NS6Athletic.com for more information.