Planks and Ladders

For one of my college classes – biomechanics and kinesiology – we had to pick a movement, have a video demonstrating that movement, and explain each individual part of that movement – the muscles, tendons, ligaments, joints, bones, etc. The catch: it couldn’t be one that we had already discussed in class and no repeats. There was a sign-up sheet with the order to sign up being drawn randomly. My first pick was the deadlift, but that was one of the first chosen. Squats – back, overhead, and front – were all taken quickly too. At this point, I had already decided to focus on health and wellness for first responders – Firefighters and EMT specifically – which led to me thinking outside the box a bit. Climbing a ladder properly was my choice.

One of our Firefighters demonstrating how to climb a ladder for the required video. Shared with permission.

Have you ever been in a gym with a Jacob’s Ladder? I’m not talking about the rope ladder from gym class; I’m talking about that machine that is essentially a mechanical, rotating ladder. I have a love-hate relationship with the one at my gym. It’s a beautiful (expensive) machine. Very practical for firefighters or anyone else who climbs up and down ladders for work. It also leaves you feeling like you just did a half hour workout. . .but it’s only been about 5 minutes. Cardio and full-body muscular endurance.

Not everyone can afford one though. So what do you do?

I climbed about 150 feet in 3 minutes according to the machine’s computer. While I was feeling disgusted with myself for only lasting 3 minutes, I realized that the highest extension ladder my department has is about 24 feet. That’s not awful. Not great but not awful.

There are some movements and work-outs we can do at home, even with no equipment, to be better prepared for our line of work.

Let’s start with mobility.

It doesn’t matter how buff or defined your muscles are; if you can’t move to use those muscles, then you are a liability on your department.

Have you ever thought about how important your ankles are for movement? Not just for walking or running, but also for lifting and climbing. If your ankle mobility is limited, the connecting tendons, ligaments, and muscles are going to be limited in how well they work. An incredibly easy way to improve ankle mobility is simple, purposeful Flexion and Extension.

  1. Sitting up straight on the edge of your chair or couch, hold one leg out in front of you; it doesn’t have to be completely parallel to the floor, just not touching the floor.
  2. Point your toes as far away from you as you can.
  3. Now, slow and steady and still keeping that leg straight, pull your toes back and try to point them toward you.
  4. The combined pointing away from you/pulling them back toward you is 1 rep. Try to do 10 reps, then switch to the other ankle and do a set of 10 reps on that side.

When 10 in a row is easy for you, up the reps to 15 in a row. The goal is to be able to 30 reps in a row for each ankle. Even though our boots aren’t overly flexible in EMS and Fire, having ankles that are able to move, and muscles that move with them, makes a world of difference when it comes to lifting that heavy patient or leg-locking onto a ladder.

Speaking of leg locks….

It may not be overly obvious in the video, but core strength plays a huge role in ladder work, especially if you are leg-locking to be able to use both hands. Without core strength, you’ll be like a rag doll. You’ll have no power behind anything you’re doing on the ladder. Trying to knock out a window? You’ll have little to no power behind the swing leading to you doing a whole lot more work than necessary! Without core strength, you don’t have any way of correcting yourself when you get off-balance whether it’s on the ladder or even just walking around your house! Which leads us to planks. . .

Pretty much everyone I talk to has a love/hate relationship with planks; we love what they do for us but hate doing them! Why? Well, we feel them in our calves, our quads, our triceps, our shoulders, and all our core muscles!

There are many variations to planks, but I prefer the original forearms-on-the-ground, back flat, feet together variation. You want your back to be flat, like a table – hips, low back, upper back, and shoulders are pretty much level. This really makes your abs and low back work. Two of the most common errors are pushing your hips up too high or letting your stomach and hips drop.

The pictures above show the correct form for planks, but how do you know long to hold them? For planks, I like the Tabata8 style.

Tabata doesn’t stand for anything cool, much to my disappointment; it’s just named after the guy who researched this style of exercise. The 8, however, stands for 8 rounds. One round is holding the plank for 20 seconds then resting 10 seconds. 8 rounds totals 4 minutes. Make sure those are 4 good minutes, no sacrificing form. No letting the hips drop, back sagging, or knees touching the ground.

Not everyone climbs up and down ladders. But! Increasing core strength decreases your risk of falling. Better ankle mobility will help your lifting, whether it’s a 350# patient or a 10# bag of dog food.

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