How women stay physically fit, meet the challenges of careers in public safety

by CJ Gibbs - O2X Instructor and Denton, Texas, Firefighter

Momma always said, “Firefighting is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.” Some might consider this an understatement. The expectation of public safety has grown to incorporate not only public safety services, but EMS, technical rescue, HazMat, psychologic crisis response and much more. However, there are a few physical demands that you can always count on, no matter what area you’re in or where you work. As a woman with 16 years in the public safety, here’s my best advice for anyone – especially other women – looking to be physically prepared to be a first responder.

Get fit

It sounds obvious, but you must build on a solid base. I’m not saying to be a jacked-up gym rat or a marathon runner. But be at a healthy weight where you are able to move your own body efficiently and can do most things with a decent recovery. All of this comes from eating healthy, whole foods, in moderate portions, moving your body regularly, and addressing any metabolic issues you may have. Free caloric calculators are available online and can give you an idea of how many calories you need to lose weight, gain muscle, or maintain a healthy body weight. You can find healthy recipes with a quick online search or on apps, such as the O2X Tactical Performance app.

Once you build that solid base, you can focus on things that are more specific to the job, such as muscular endurance. Tasks like pulling, dragging, pivoting and handling tools, equipment, and humans can be extremely taxing. While it’s important to be strong and capable of performing heavy lifts at lower reps, you’ll find that training larger rep ranges and static movements will pay off greatly.

Build grip strength

This is especially true when it comes to grip strength. I’ve noticed through my personal experience, as well as watching others, that women tend to struggle with grip. This can be a problem because the job is often grip intensive. Thankfully, you can easily train to improve grip strength and you can accomplish this in a number of ways. Carrying heavy loads is the most obvious solution. You can also carry lighter items for a longer amount of time (hitting that muscular endurance). Or you can simply hang from a bar (such as a pull up bar) with only your body weight. Grip strength will prepare you better for the job; and studies have shown that increased grip strength correlates with increased life expectancy. Win-win!

Another good area of focus is handling odd loads. It’s rare that you will pick up or carry something on the ground where the weight is evenly distributed, like it would be on a barbell. Train the way you play. Executing Farmer Carries with different weights in each hand and incorporating unilateral exercises are great ways to prepare for odd loads. You can also incorporate sandbags into your training routine – a personal favorite. Sandbags are the perfect training tool for the first responder population. The weight shifts as you move the bag, which challenges your stability. Plus, a sandbag is an affordable tool that you can use in almost any movement. You can change the fillers to add or take away weight. Look for a bag that has multiple handles, different size filler options and a lifetime warranty.

Train in odd positions

My final suggestion would be to train in odd positions. Almost everything you do in public safety, requires you to twist with some sort of load in your hands or on your back. From picking up someone who fell between the toilet and bathtub to lifting the ice chest from the ground and placing it in the side compartment of the truck. You will find yourself bending over and rotating in ways that you rarely do at the gym.

You can do this at home with limited or no equipment. Grab a bag of dog food from the floor and place it on a counter. Put the dog food back on the floor. Now stand with the counter next to your right side and repeat. Next, stand with the counter to your left side and repeat. Remember to brace your core before and during the lift. If you’re not sure what bracing feels like, search “dead bug warm-up” and practice this movement.

While being a first responder can be extremely challenging, it is also fun and rewarding. Being well prepared for the job makes it more enjoyable; and with competence comes confidence. So, whether you’re a 16-year veteran or someone who’s looking to join the best job there is, never stop training. Find your weaknesses and address them, so that you can be 1% better every day.

CJ Gibbs is an O2X Instructor and firefighter with Denton Fire Department. She entered the fire service in 2004, when she joined her high school’s Fire Explorer program. After graduating, she continued to volunteer as she went through EMT, Paramedic School, and the Fire Academy. CJ got her first career department job in 2009, then began working for her dream department, Denton Fire Department, in 2012. CJ currently works at Denton’s rescue station and serves as an instructor for the department’s training program. She has a B.A.A.S with concentrations in health promotion, public administration, and emergency management from the University of North Texas. She has been a CrossFit Level 1 Trainer since 2016 and has used that training to help men and women prepare for careers in the fire service. CJ also serves as the Grant Coordinator for 555 Fitness, a non-profit whose goal is to help first responders create a resiliency to illness, injury, and disease. In her spare time, CJ works as an adjunct instructor for Tarrant County College’s Fire Program and travels the world.

About O2X Human Performance:
O2X Human Performance provides comprehensive, science-backed programs to hundreds of public safety departments, federal agencies, and the military. O2X works with clients to elevate culture, improve mental and physical wellbeing, support healthy lifestyles, and reduce healthcare costs associated with injuries and illnesses. Driven by results and cutting edge research, a team of Special Operations veterans, high level athletes, and hundreds of leading experts in their respective fields of human performance design and deliver O2X programs.