Picking up heavy things, putting them down again: Strength training for Paramedics

Now for something a little different, but very important:  another guest post by my colleague James on the benefits of strength training for paramedics.

Why paramedics should be strength training
In the dim dark days of the mid 2000s when I was training to be a paramedic I was shown a video entitled “no jobs for ambos with bad backs”.  It was an in-house documentary exhorting junior paramedics to take great care when lifting patients or equipment, as a bad back injury was nearly guaranteed to end our career.  It was both hokey and scary and has made absolutely no impact on the rates of injury for paramedics.  Similarly, as the years have gone by numerous pieces of equipment and training have been introduced into my practice to reduce the risk of injury, which have made little or no difference as far as I know. Why?  Because none of these devices addressed the core problem.As a profession, we are physically weak.

This seems strange given that our job entails lifting and carrying far more than the average punter, and we don’t have most of the gear that nurses or physiotherapists use to get mangled people off the floor.  We should be good at this stuff, but we’re not.  Many ambos are physically fit people; in particular there is a large community of cyclists and runners, but very little emphasis on strength training.  I have to ask:  If you’re cycling or running to keep fit for work, how well does this equip you for your job which involves neither cycling nor running but lots of lifting? I am a mediocre lifter, but I can squat 1.5 times my bodyweight and deadlift close to twice it.  These are utterly unremarkable lifts in the strength world but many of my colleagues consider these achievements to be freakish.  I consider them to be a minimum in order to work safely.We know that lifting a loaded spine board off the ground is inevitable.  We know that hoiking a very unwell patient off a bed is inevitable.  We know that carrying the oxygen, monitor and trauma bag into a job is inevitable.  Why would we not equip ourselves as well as we could for those occasions?Strength training really is tailor made for our job.*  A deadlift simulates that spine board lift very closely. Barbell rows or pull ups are sensible training for a rough-and-ready bed slide.  Farmer’s walks are almost exactly like carrying all the gear into a job.  These are easy lifts to learn and master, and can be scaled up or down in difficulty as much as you need.

I shouldn’t even have to talk about the other benefits of strength training, because we’ve heard them all before.  Looking better nekkid (men and women), reduced cardiovascular risk factors, increased energy,  better ability to metabolise that 3am kebab and avoid diabeetus, the list goes on.  But I can talk about myself as an example – in around 2009 I was weak, exhausted, sick all the time and skinny after having a serious go as an endurance runner.  I gave it away and did nothing for a while.  Around 2011 I started tinkering with strength training and seriously went at it from the start of 2013.  In that time I’ve doubled my strength, gained a ton of muscle and actually lost some fat. My back pain is gone, my neck pain is mostly gone, I cope better on night shift, I recover faster after night shift, I sleep better and generally feel pretty great despite the travails of family life.

I encourage anyone doing this to try doing the same.  Go to the gym** and buttonhole one of the trainers or read up on the internet.***  Or grab me in the write-up room, I’ll talk the leg off a wooden chair!  Get to know the barbell, dumbbell or kettlebell. Go heavy, eat right and you’ll make progress.  If you have a decent crack at it I suspect you won’t know yourself after a few months.

As ambos we owe it to ourselves to look after our own safety and well-being.  Instead of actually addressing the problem via strength training, the culture seems to be pointing towards trying to engineer all risk out of the system.  But I think you’ll agree that it’s futile – the job of a paramedic invariably involves physical stresses, including lifting and carrying.  No amount of gear or technique short of learning to use the Force will make this a risk free process.  But we each have the power to make ourselves far more resistant to stress by strength training.  It’s not “injury-proof” but it’s about as close as we’re likely to get.

*  I should clarify that when I talk about strength training I mean lifting a barbell or other item of metal, not piss-farting around with those silly machines that make it easy for you.

** If you live or work around the Bellarine Peninsula, Heavy Metal Barbell in Ocean Grove is where you need to go.  Hands down the best strength gym west of Elwood.

*** I know of no better resource for beginners than Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength or startingstrength.com.  It can get a little wordy but it’s utterly bullshit-free and reliable.

I absolutely agree with the points that James has raised, being a keen (if sometimes inconsistent) gym junkie.  I hate anything to do with cardio (show me a runner who is smiling and I might take it up…) but weight training has held me in very good stead at work.  Being physically fit and strong helps you deal with many aspects of life as a paramedic, not just the physical moving of patients and things, and will prolong your life as a paramedic (and your life in general)

I do understand the reticence that people have about going to a gym, especially if you aren’t in good shape.  I’ve been there, felt that (god knows I don’t look like Arnie)  But that is the best reason to hit the gym.  And quite honestly, most people (at least at the gyms I’ve trained at) couldn’t care less about how someone else looks; they are far too enamored with how they look to care!

For those who live in the western suburbs of Melbourne I can highly recommend Renegade Health Club in Werribee.  It’s a great set-up with boxing (run by the very nice, but very scary Kim Heta, former WBF heavy-weight champion) Dietitian (Kim’s wife Louise), plenty of cardio gear (if that’s your thing), an excellent weights room with plenty of machines if you train alone, and more than enough weight if your are a big freak.  They also have some superb personal trainers working there to get you going in the right direction, and their rates are very reasonable.  If you are particularly unhinged, next door (and run by the same family) is CrossFit Repercussions, the western suburbs premiere CrossFit gym.

Like James, I am always happy to talk about training and surviving as a paramedic, so feel free to bail me up if you see me, or drop me a line.

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3 Responses to Picking up heavy things, putting them down again: Strength training for Paramedics

  1. Zeke says:

    I cut out the middle man and just bought a barbell and weights for the garage. 😀

  2. Peter E says:

    Totally agree.
    For years, due to our policy of no exercise equipment on station, I didn’t lift at all and just ran and did cardio and body weight stuff. I suffered chronic back pain through that period. I had to sleep in my side in the foetal position with a pillow between my knees. It wasn’t until I bit the bullet and invested in an olympic bar, some plates, flat bench and a squat rack (and solid strength coaching) that I was able to completely eliminate back pain.
    Deadlifts and squats are the mainstays of back health and bench press, overhead press and rowing/pulling movements for the upper body are excellent assistance exercises for back health and strength. Anyone paramedic who can lift should lift. Period.
    Great article and reminder.

  3. Pingback: Things I’ve learned after a year of lifting at home – Incremental Eudaimonia

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