Burn Fat Like A Firefighter
A new firefighter-run charity is aiming to reduce line-of-duty-deaths but what can it do for your heart health? MF’s Sam Rider trains like a fireman for a month to find out
Firemen, unlike journalists, have a reputation for being girlfriend-distractingly fit. But a recent study has exploded that theory. Four out of five firefighters in the US are overweight or obese, according to research by New York’s Skidmore College into cardiac fatalities among first responders. And a recent New York Times report found that the firefighter’s number one killer is cardiac arrest. That’s right – a weak heart, rather than risks of carbon monoxide poisoning and battling 600°C blazes, is their biggest threat.
To combat this, 555 Fitness (named after the traditional bell system that’s rung when a firefighter is killed in the line of duty) was set up two years ago with the aim of improving cardiovascular fitness among firefighters – something that’s virtually ignored in the US after the initial fitness tests. And because all you need is access to Instagram to join, the movement is growing in the UK too. To find out how – and what benefits there are for people in less dangerous professions – I took on the mantle of Fireman Sam for a month.
Every day 555 Fitness posts two free workouts – one at a fairly beginner level and the other for the more advanced. These resemble the type of high-intensity circuit-style training typical of CrossFit’s workout of the day (WOD).
This is largely because the men behind it are certified personal trainers and CrossFit instructors – but the sport’s functional fitness elements fit perfectly with the daily demands of fighting fire. After all, the world’s fittest man, four-time CrossFit champ Rich Froning, used to work as a firefighter.
"A firefighter’s life is high-intensity," says 36-year-old Lieutenant Rob ‘Pip’ Piparo, the New Jersey firefighter who co-founded 555 fitness in 2013. "We go from doing nothing to the most adrenaline-fuelled event you could experience in a matter of seconds. So the 'ready for anything' element of CrossFit makes sense but I don’t want to put people off if they don’t like CrossFit. If you like to run, go run. If you like to ride a bike, do that. We’re just trying to get these guys in shape to help them live longer hopefully."
In the US it’s spread like, well, like wildfire. ‘We’re hearing that people around the
world are building gyms in their firehouses and encouraging those who don’t exercise much to work out,’ says Piparo. In the UK it’s caught on too – Jamie Keane of Birmingham Fire Service thanked Piparo and the 555 team for helping his crew do their job better. "The high-intensity strength workouts 555 provided have dramatically improved my conditioning and grip strength, both essential as part of a high level of fitness required to be a firefighter," Keane says.
Fitness is given more attention in UK fire departments. "UK fire crews are tested annually and get regular medicals to test lung function and hearing," says Liam Noll, health and wellbeing coach at the Essex County Fire and Rescue Service. If they fail a test – such as the dreaded bleep test or the Chester Treadmill Test (where you walk/run on a treadmill set at 6.2km and increase the gradient every two minutes up to 15% for 12 total minutes) which requires a VO2 max of at least 42 to pass – they are put on review and retested between three weeks and six months later.
Fitness programmes are available if requested, and departments provide an allotted 40 minutes to train per 24-hour shift, but these aren’t obligatory – making 555’s work all the more valuable.
To join the 555 Fitness movement I simply start following it on Instagram, where it has 12,000 followers (30,000 on Facebook). The beginner workouts predominantly involve bodyweight moves that you can do anywhere – at home, in a basic gym or even in a busy fire station. Over the course of a week I take on three varied sessions.
First is a 15-minute AMRAP (as many rounds as possible) of six pull-ups, ten box jumps and 14 hollow rocks that makes my pulse leap above 150bpm for a healthy dose of fat burning and cardio training. Next is a partner workout, where my girlfriend and I take it in turns to do press-ups and planks and then air squats and wall sits – we do this on holiday in our hotel room, proving the versatility of 555’s plan. "I love partner workouts," says Piparo. "They’re great for building teamwork."
The last is an EMOM (every minute on the minute) challenge of dumbbell thrusters and pull-ups, increasing by one rep every minute. It sounds easy but I’m gasping after just five minutes – making me wonder how some of the 555 followers pictured on their Instagram page can possibly do these workouts in full firefighter regalia, loaded down by the 20kg kit and in some cases even restricting their oxygen intake using an elevation training mask (trainingmask.co.uk).
All the workouts are scalable depending on your ability so although the moves are simple, they will severely test an experienced trainer’s fitness if they’re willing to push themselves hard enough. And they can be easily squeezed into a lunch hour or done at home. "The bodyweight workouts are meant to be quick and easy to do with no equipment," says Piparo. "I do pull-ups off the buckets of my ladder truck and instead of battle ropes we use hoses that are out of service. We’re inspired by what’s around us."
As well as sets and reps to follow, 555 provide motivation. The more advanced workouts they post are challenging "Honour" workouts, each of which commemorates one of the 343 firefighters who died in the line of duty on 11th September 2001 (see above).
One I take on midway through the month, in memory of Thomas Butler of Squad 1, cycles 60kg hang cleans and 9kg medicine ball wall squats for 15-12-9-6-3 reps. "The idea is that every rep is for that person who lost their life," says Piparo, and it provides a worthy challenge for the more experienced ￼Sam takes on an Honour workout dedicated to a lost fireman and suffers a week of DOMS ￼trainer. However, the more demanding and technical lifts can elevate risk of injury. This workout leaves me with week-long DOMS in my lats, suggesting I could have done with a trainer to correct my form.
For all the good work 555 Fitness is doing, an awareness of the dangers posed by poor cardiovascular fitness is still the biggest fight. "Last year the leading killer was still cardiac-related disease," says Piparo. "But a lot of firefighters are sending us messages thanking us for what we’re doing. They tell us they’ve been following our programmes and lost weight, or they’ve put 40lb [18kg] on their back squat, or they were able to make a rescue they wouldn’t have been able to make before because they were out of shape."
555 has also partnered with a blog called Fork and Hose (forkandhoseco.com), which provides recipes for firefighters and educates people about improving heart health through nutrition. "This career is very stressful and it’s easy to fall into comfort eating," says Piparo, whose typical shift is 24 hours on, 72 hours off for a total of eight days a month. "But the culture is changing. When I started 12 years ago there would be vats of oil above the stoves because guys were deep-fat frying everything. Now we’ve got guys cooking up protein pancakes and plantain hash browns for breakfast."
As for Fireman Sam, after a month of short, varied and occasionally brutal workouts, I feel in the best shape I’ve been in for a long time. I’m less inclined to skip a workout because they’re over so quickly. Having a proper routine to follow gives my training structure. And 555 has recently added downloadable strength and fat loss plans for those with specific targets. Living the hazardous life of a firefighter might not be for everyone, but training like one and enjoying the heart-saving benefits it can provide certainly is.
For more information visit 555fitness.com and for their daily workouts follow @555fitness on Instagram. Photography Rupert Fowler. Thanks to 3 Aces CrossFit. Published by Men’s Fitness in the October 2015 issue.