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Fitness Lessons From A Strong Firefighter

Why is it,growing up, so many dreamed of being firefighters? I know I did! The reason really seems simple. We want to do something meaningful, something that makes a difference, and we want to help people! 

That is why one of the greatest thrills in my life was being asked to help the Milwaukee Fire Department make DVRT Ultimate Sandbag Training part of their program. After all, that career in firefighting didn’t quite pan out, so this was as close as I would get to living that childhood dream out!


Excited and nervous I remember pulling in and wondering what I was in for, what I would be doing, who I would be working with! Fortunately, whenever I feel like I don’t have the answers (which seems like more and more as I get older) I have adopted the philosophy of shutting up and listening. This was definitely a case where listening before I spoke was very valuable.  

I got to hear all the exciting work this truly revolutionary department was doing. Their hard efforts were paying off with reduced missed time, decreased injuries, and the goal of improving the overall health of their firefighters (where heart attacks are still a HUGE issue). 

Most importantly, I got to hear how they thought DVRT Ultimate Sandbag Training was going to help them. Especially when I got to talking to Captain, Jordan Ponder. Speaking with Jordan he gave me some great insights because not only was he a firefighter, but someone who has trained to a high level most of his life and is the director of their Firefighter Dynamic Performance Training (whew, that is a title!). 


As Jordan really explained to me the needs and demands of a firefighter, something really struck me. While the situation was very different, what he described were the real life needs of basically anyone! 

Most of what firefighters used regarding their tools and equipment were not perfectly balanced, symmetrical items. In fact, they are anything BUT that! Jordan gave me the great example of a saw….

“think about a saw. Its midline and center of mass are in two different positions. The center of mass is closer to the motor because it is the heaviest part of the saw. This also influences the positioning of the handles, providing you with optimal control. Just like the saw, all the equipment we have and the handles we use are situated ergonomically in a way that impacts how its weight reacts when held and moved. This mismatch in midline and center of mass is characteristic for the overwhelming majority of firefighting equipment. What we use is unsymmetrical. The Ultimate Sandbag is exactly this-unsymmetrical. Because of all the grains of sand, the midline and center of mass are never the same.”

Jordan is definitely a man that practices what he preaches!

You don’t have to be wielding a powerful saw to get this example. Think about your life, how many times do you grab, pick-up, or use things that you could see the similarities in, hmmm, all the time?! 

I thought what was particularly interesting is how Jordan explained the use of unstable objects. While most understand that Ultimate Sandbags are unstable due to their internal filling, this isn’t always the way instability presents itself. Leverage, awkwardness of an item, these are all ways that an object can feel unstable. As Jordan shared, “As firefighters, we are constantly under active external stimuli. Think about raising a ladder. As you raise it overhead to walk it up to the structure, it is teetering from side to side. The ladder is the external stimuli, and its continued movement is what makes it dynamic. To control it, you are coordinating a plethora of muscles to move it as you move while keeping your body in safe alignment. Failure to call on these muscles leads to inefficiencies that add to accumulative injuries. We need to have dynamic stability. The Ultimate Sandbag is a critical component in developing dynamic stability as it is an implement that is in a constant stage of shifting.”


This isn’t just about finding the most novel thing and start lifting it either. What I can appreciate about Jordan’s work is how thoughtful he is about everything they do, but that shouldn’t surprise me. Like my experience with police and military units, the firefighters work off of systems and RESULTS. I chuckled a bit because anyone who has lived with, been, or worked with tactical athletes now the following statement from Jordan is so true!

“We are pragmatists.Firefighters recognize the worth of something through application, relevance, and outcome.”  

That is why it wasn’t just about abusing their bodies and pushing themselves to the edge, but like anyone looking to get great results he understood the role and importance of the nervous system. 

“…our nervous system is incident command and your movement system or body is the attack company. Communication has to be relayed efficiently back and forth to successfully complete the overall goal. If it isn’t, the result is injury. A challenge here is complacency in this communication. No matter the emergency, you need to be keen, aware, and mindful. You can’t lose diligence even when going to the same building a 100 times for a false alarm.

In our movement, we can become complacent also. We get used to moving things that are static and nonreactive and don’t challenge us or require adaptation. Consequently, the communication between our nervous system and movement system gets dulled, and those small support muscles stop firing as they are intended. This leads to a higher risk of those strains and sprains when performing on the fire ground. What we need to do is continue to excite our motor learning, motor development, and motor control with resistance that requires adaptation. The Ultimate Sandbag provides that stimulus because it constantly requires adaptation. This increases that communication between your nervous system and movement system and strengthens support muscles to reduce risk of strains and sprains.”

Man, I think Jordan is going to take my job soon as I don’t think I could say it any better! 

Then there is this, one of the things that is most important to a firefighter, but probably the average person doesn’t think is sexy. INJURY PREVENTION!! Few things strike fear in a firefighter like not being able to perform or be a part of the job they love so dearly. Not unlike many of us one of the major culprits? Low back pain! 

Why does Jordan think DVRT Ultimate Sandbag Training works so well? Mostly because it can address the issues that plague so many of us, but I’ll have him explain as he describes on of his favorite DVRT Ultimate Sandbag Training exercises. “The Bear Hug Squat will address your low back pain by teaching lifting mechanics that encourage maintaining an upright torso position and reducing excessive forward leaning. The DVRT Bear Hug Squat will also improve your core strength by emphasizing gluteal activation and intra-abdominal pressure, and this creates a beneficial stretch in your lower back. This movement will also improve your hip mobility. The sand within this dynamic load continues to drop slowly to the lowest portion of the bag, which encourages progressive depth with each repetition. This progressive depth opens your hips, causing them to become more mobile with each squat. Mobile hips provide relief to your lower back because, when your hips aren’t mobile, your lower back begins to perform in ways it wasn’t intended.”

Not only does Jordan love the Bear Hug Squat, but check out some really cool drills that Jordan uses from our DVRT Ultimate Sandbag Training program that can make you feel as powerful as a real world firefighter. Read his great article on full firefighter training at Firefighernation.com HERE.

Want to reach out to Jordan? Contact him at  jponder@fd-pt.com 

Want to join the power of DVRT and changing people’s lives check out some of our upcoming educational courses HERE