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With or without gear?

When & why to train in and out of your kit


Wear your gear to train the physical & psychological qualities you can’t train out of it.


Now that I’ve provided a tweet sized oversimplification, you either have a reason to run away knowing all you need to know or a reason to read on for some contextual nuance.


Specificity is a principle of performance training and nothing is more specific than the job itself. While we need to acknowledge and value specificity’s role in performance enhancement, we also need to recognize that it’s not the only principle. If it was, we’d never need to touch the weightroom. Hell, you might not even need to train since you could just do the job while getting better at doing it. Coaches coming from collegiate and professional sports have helped infuse better practices in developing raw physicality; output, capacity, and, maybe most importantly, movement competency within the tactical setting.




In some cases, however, the pendulum has swung too far and tactical professionals are relying too heavily on generic strength and conditioning to advance their craft. Cognitive demands aside, consider the physical feedback value of the following considerations, specific to movement competency, output (strength, speed, power), and capacity (endurance, repeatability).

  • Traversing in boots

  • Handling with gloves

  • Breathing through constraints

  • Maneuvering with reduced range of motion

  • Carrying ergonomically unfriendly equipment

  • Relating fitness training to technical/tactical proficiency

How do we solve these shortcomings? …Unfortunately, most of your minds undoubtedly gravitate toward bringing tactical gear into the physical training facility.


Good Intentions


In the last week alone, I’ve seen:

  • Pullups performed in fighting kit (but also w/ band assistance)

  • Rowing (on an erg) intervals performed in turnout gear (w/ SCBA but off air)

  • “Functional” conditioning circuits performed in turnout gear (w/ SCBA & on air)

  • Bench Press wearing full patrol equipment (including firearm)


ALL of these examples were under the supervision (and probably the guidance) of certified strength and conditioning professionals. While no doubt well-intentioned, each of these training scenarios contains unnecessary risks with insufficient upside to offset them.


Let’s examine each of the above scenarios:


Pullups in fighting kit (but w/ band assistance) - Wearing external load while using band assistance during Pullups is like pressing the gas and the brake at the same time. That aside, body armor changes posture and impedes the dynamic stability needed for safe and efficient overhead pulling. Reduced ability to upwardly rotate the scapula impairs scapulohumeral rhythm and forces range of motion (ROM) to be donated from other sites like the glenohumeral joint. Likewise, body armor reduces the ability of the thoracic spine to extend, thereby forcing more ROM donated by both the shoulder and the lumbar spine.


Should a soldier train to pull themselves up while wearing kit? Yes. Should they do it for multiple sets and reps as a component of physical training aimed to increase upper body vertical pulling strength? No. There are safer processes to accomplish the same outcome. Instead of adding kit to make physical training more “specific”, polarize your approach by training them separately. Perform Pullups in physical training with the appropriate resistance or assistance added in a way that doesn’t hinder movement quality AND perform pulling yourself up in full kit within the context of legitimately tactical scenarios (unlikely to include a pullup bar - although a SWAT friend just shared that he knocked out a pullup on a bar at a recent call).


Rowing (on an erg) intervals performed in turnout gear (w/ SCBA but off air) - One argument I accept for general fitness training in gear is its ability to appear specific so it achieves buy-in from the tactical professionals you’re training. For firefighters, however, there’s an unacceptable added risk that too many coaches are ignorant to: Cancer.

What if the gear is “clean” gear? It’s not. There’s no such thing. The fire retardant materials that comprise turnout gear pose a serious and cancerous health risk (Peaslee et al., 2020).


Logic rarely wins verbal disputes because people are too emotionally tied to their perspectives to entertain reality. However, a solid right hand to the face does win physical fights and I’d be happy to knock your ignorant ass out if you think you’ve got a specificity leg to stand on when it comes to the ridiculousness that is “heat acclimation” claims to support rowing in partial gear as viably firefighting specific. Unless, of course, you mean elevating cancer risk as specific to firefighters…


To again quote our good friend AZ - “As a coach, these ‘athletes’ trust you. Don’t dare lead them astray by promoting or condoning conditioning in gear.”


“Functional” conditioning circuits performed in turnout gear (w/ SCBA & on air) - One of my favorite sayings is, “Good deeds and good intentions are as separate as heaven and hell.” Or, as military leaders often say, “Good initiative - bad judgment.”

When it comes to firefighters, aim to minimize time spent in gear that is not also spent doing extremely specific technical and tactical training. Rope Slams are not technically nor tactically specific. Kettlebell Swings are not technically nor tactically specific. Lateral Crawling Sled Drags and Sledge work are certainly closer to reality; however, the raw physicality of these demands can and should be trained out of gear and then tested and trained under extremely specific conditions - Technical and tactical conditions that should be understood but not set by a coach. Do not turn the weightroom into the fireground.


Bench Press wearing all patrol equipment (including firearm) - Similar to the Pullup conversation, wearing a ballistic vest reduces extension through the thoracic spine. That extension helps the shoulder function safely and efficiently. Lack of scapular movement is less a factor in this scenario because fixed scapulae are preferred to create a solid platform for benching. Bottomline, the addition of a patrol uniform and all the equipment that goes along with it adds exactly zero benefit to the Bench Press exercise while adding some risk.


I’m going to assume two things. One - the firearms were unloaded. Two - The officers had no time to change into proper training attire. These two assumptions save me an additional paragraph or two.


I asked a SWAT officer for his take on benching in gear and he shared this perspective:


“I’ve seen bad compensations because of gear. I’m all for movement based stuff. . . But obviously after a good base is built and we move better. . . Traditional strength moves - I don’t see a good correlation in gear.”

Good Deeds


I’ve now talked out of both sides of my mouth by stating that the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of training without gear right before bashing a bunch of kitted up training scenarios… I’ve also more than hinted at the value of polarized training. Here’s a lengthier and more pretentious version of this blog’s opening line:


Raw physicality should be developed as safely, effectively, and efficiently as possible while the development of job specific physicality and cognition under the many constraints of tactical gear (including limited: range of motion, breathability, dexterity, heat dissipation, strength, speed, power, endurance, economy, senses like tactile/visual/auditory) should primarily be reserved for technically and tactically specific training scenarios that simultaneously advance non-physical skills.


Coach Joel Raether created an incredibly insightful and relevant course on how to best prepare your core for tactical load carriage by promoting integrity of the body’s pillar (hips/torso/shoulders) and advancing it to a place of job specific durability.

Yes, you can include components of tactical gear within physical training - even in the weightroom. You can drag dummies, carry litters and people, wear armor, gloves and footwear, climb ladders, and swing sledge hammers. Relatability promotes both transfer of training and trust within the tactical profession. However, safety is paramount and should never be compromised within a setting that is twice removed from the job itself.


Here are some reasons to spend time training in gear, primarily outside of general fitness training:


Tissue Tolerance - I learned this the hard way. I focused far too much on training soldiers’ underlying physicality while making an effort to keep them out of boots and out from under a pack. The good news? They absolutely smashed an initial ruck assessment. The bad news? They were not prepared for the continued daily demands on their ability to chronically handle load. Both external and internal structures could not afford the price they paid. These soldiers returned early from selection processes due to overuse (or more like underpreparedness) injuries.


Familiarization & Application - Tactical professionals need to be intimately familiar with the load they carry and how it affects both their physicality and cognitive function. Skills and physical attributes should be learned in a low stress environment that promotes learning but at some point the rubber does have to meet the road and those skills need to be applied under the stress of gear and other tactical demands.


Marketing - We often worry more about what the people IN the gym are doing while ignoring that many tactical professionals are not even stepping foot on the training floor. Maybe we should direct less anger at the guy who wants to wear his “altitude” mask while getting after it on the stairclimber and direct more attention toward attracting those not currently participating in physical training. Sometimes that requires allowing or even promoting the inclusion of gear. That inclusion should include education on its shortcomings and progression toward the safest and most efficient training approach possible. It is also more than okay to refuse to compromise when the risks are simply too high.


Test & Assessment

Not to go too deep here but the inclusion of gear for testing and assessment purposes is a common argument in favor of wearing gear to train.


Testing - Testing is either job specific or a test of general fitness. Tests are pass/fail and often have punitive or promotional implications. General fitness tests should not include gear (sorry Sprint Drag Carry - you’re a terrible fitness test but that’s a whole other blog for another day) because they increase skill contribution and confound contributing physical qualities. Both job specific and general fitness tests should be based on extensive job task analyses and be legally defensible.


Back to the whole gear thing - I’m not opposed to an occasional test performed in full or partial gear but testing and training are not the same. Also, that test should involve legitimate job specificity.


Assessing - Assessing provides information that guides training and has no positive or negative consequences attached to it. Assessments can also be job specific or an evaluation of general fitness. Same common sense rules apply to assessments that apply to tests. I don’t need someone to wear gear to assess the advancement of their raw physicality. And assessments of someone’s ability to perform the job should, like tests, have legitimate job specificity.


Kettlebell swings in turnout gear while on air is not job specific. It’s unnecessary and past the borderline of reckless. In fact, it’ll likely provide a false indicator of a firefighter’s ability to perform the job. A physically fit rookie will likely outperform a more senior and less fit firefighter while swinging a kettlebell on air but a more job specific scenario, especially one that involves more cognitive stressors, would likely reveal the senior firefighter more specifically able to regulate his aerobic output.


Polarize your tests and assessments in the same way you polarize your training.


Index


Develop underlying physical components that support tactical demands without the addition of wearing gear. Prioritize movement competency and reinforce it with output and capacity. Recognize the physical limitations associated with wearing gear and the downstream cognitive effects (decision making, concentration, fine motor skills, communication, etc.) of those limitations. Promote the value of including gear when combining technical skills and physicality in an applied, tactically specific training scenario. Also, educate tactical professionals on the risks of wearing gear during physical training.


A sensible middleground exists! Taking an extreme stance for either the blanket inclusion or exclusion of training with gear leaves a gap in preparation - And a gap in preparation leaves a gap in execution.



Reference:

Peaslee, GF, Wilkinson, JT, McGuinness, SR, Tighe, M, Caterisano, N, Lee, S, Gonzales, A, Roddy, M, Mills, S, & Mitchell, K. (2020). Another Pathway for Firefighter Exposure to Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances: Firefighter Textiles. Environmental Science & Technology Letters, 7, 594-599.








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