Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Tools of the Trade: April 2018

By Sean Kingswell   

Features Fitness Health and Wellness firefighter fitness Sean Kingswell

Core is and always has been a buzzword in the fitness world. That being said there is often a lot of confusion about what the core actually is. A lot people think it’s their “abs”. In fact, the rectus abdominal muscles are one of a long list of muscles that make up the core. The core is essentially anything that stabilizes your spine. Everyone has core muscles on their front, back and side.

Core muscles are both superficial and deep. Probably the most important core muscles are internal and make up the pelvic floor, tranversus abdominals, internal and external oblique muscles and finally rectus abdominals or the “abs.” Firefighters need to strengthen the pelvic floor as well as the transverse abdominal muscles to give us a strong base. To do this, you need to engage and pull up and in from the bottom (pelvic floor) and think about zippering up into the transversus abdominus. Most think of abs as muscles that you need to push out and down on, the exact opposite of what is necessary.

There can be a tendency with exercise to focus on “mirror muscles” – the muscles that are visible when looking in the mirror. Mirror muscles are important, but so are the ones that support them and the ones beneath them.

The core is very important for firefighters. A strong core can help prevent back injuries and is essential in times where stability is crucial such as climbing stairs or wearing your pack. Just wearing an SCBA requires core strength and good posture, regardless of whether we are moving or not. Posture can be improved or properly maintained with good core strength. Firefighters are required to move through a variety of unnatural positions during interior fire fighting operations that will benefit from a strong core.

The body is one big kinetic chain. Whenever we transfer force, our core has to be involved. Force can be transferred from either direction, bottom to top or vice versa. Force begins when the foot makes contact with the ground, which is then transferred through the core to the upper body. The core helps to transfer force, whether you are swinging an axe or sledgehammer or pulling a ceiling.


Firefighters need to have a strong core both statically (i.e. standing) and dynamically (i.e. moving). The plank seems to be a go-to when it comes to core strengthening exercises, but there is a lot more to it than that. Plus a plank can put excessive burden on the lower back, which means it may not be the best exercise for everyone. Keep in mind a push-up also doubles as a plank.

So what else is there to consider in terms of core work? Core exercises can be specific exercises to work a core muscle or group of core muscles or they can be more of a full-body movement that works a multitude of muscles, including core. Isolation exercises like crunches are not the only way to work your core. Dynamic movements, if performed properly, can also strengthen this area. First of all, there are flexion movements. Flexion movements are when your spine bends forward, such as a sit-up. Unsupported flexion can be bad for the back, as these movements can be hard on the discs. Be sure not to put your back into flexion when you squat or deadlift, remember to always lift with the legs. Unsupported flexion, especially with too much weight can be very dangerous. A crunch is a good example of supported flexion, with the back supported by the ground during flexion movements.  Extension is essentially the opposite of flexion, which involves bending your spine backwards. Too much extension in distance or repetition can be dangerous as can over-weighted extension. A basic extension exercise could be lying on your stomach with arms at your side and raising your shoulders slightly off the ground, which is also called a “Superman.” Isometric core exercises do not involve core movement while you are working those muscles. So it could be an exercise where you are not moving like a plank (keeping in mind that the proper starting position for a plank is on your knees, moving up to your toes) or a movement where you are moving but the core is not, such as a kettlebell swing. Another great core movement is sideways torso flexion such as a side bend or lying heel reach. Core rotation is a movement that includes twisting, like a Russian twist or an oblique crunch, but be careful not to over rotate. Finally, composite exercises that bring multiple movements together are a great way to work your core. Although an advanced movement, a Turkish get up would be a challenging composite core exercise. The firefighter begins lying on their back with one arm raised holding a kettlebell or dumbbell. The firefighter uses the lower hand and core to push up into a kneeling position, then to standing, all while keeping the weight above the head.

A strong core is relevant to fire fighting in both injury prevention and performance. Take the necessary steps today and train to ensure you have a strong core built for the job.

Sean Kingswell is an experienced career firefighter, personal trainer, fitness coach and the creator of the FIRESAFECADETS program. 

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