CrossFit and Firefighting

Photographer: Britney Holmberg


On March 26, 2014, two Boston Firefighters were trapped in the basement of a Brownstone as a 9-alarm fire raged above them. Both men died: Edward J. Walsh Jr., 43, a father of 3 with almost a decade of experience, and Firefighter Michael R. Kennedy, 33, a former Marine who served in Iraq. Kennedy was also a CrossFit coach at CrossFit Together in MA.

In the tradition of CrossFit, where fallen soldiers and first responders are honoured by the creation of special workouts designated “Hero WODs”, Kennedy’s Crossfit Together family designed a WOD that shares his nickname, “Dork”

To raise awareness, Brampton, Ontario Firefighter (and Canada East CrossFit Games competitor) Brit Holmberg organized a day-long event at Hawkstone CrossFit in Mississauga, where Ontario firefighters completed “Dork” in their bunker gear.

Hero WODs are a way to remember those who have sacrificed their lives, but they are also a reminder of the dangers of service. “What we do is dangerous,” says Holmberg, “we need to emphasize that reality, and these people need to be recognized.” Participating in a Hero WOD serves as a more visceral version of a moment of silence, forcing an emotional connection that goes beyond simple reflection.

The Canadian firefighters who participated in “Dork” didn’t know Mike Kennedy. But they didn’t have to; he was one of them, it could happen to them. So they rallied, to show support and solidarity, to remember, and to remind.


33 Back Squats 225/155#
15 Burpees
33 Deadlifts 225/155#
15 Burpees
33 KB swings (american/russian tbd) 32/24kg.
15 Burpees


Brit Holmberg’s CrossFit journey has been inextricably linked with Firefighting. Passionate about becoming a Firefighter from a young age, Holmberg moved after graduating university from her home in small-town Sudbury to Burlington, Ontario to pursue her career. Looking for a way to prepare for the physical tests, she found CrossFit Altitude; several members were already Firefighters, so it seemed like a good fit. Holmberg was a natural at the sport, and with less than a year of training under her belt, she and her Altitude team qualified for the 2011 CrossFit Games.

With a new addiction to the sport, Holmberg focused her energy on qualifying for the 2012 games as an individual. Her Open qualifying scores suggested she might have a chance, but a week before the Canada East Regional a tweaked back changed her perspective. “I had every intention of popping some pain killers and competing anyway, but there was a red light in the back of my head that said I shouldn’t,” she explains. “I was standing behind Camille (Leblanc-Bazinet) and Michele (Letendre), ready to go, and I literally turned around at the gate and had to cry in front of everyone. It was probably one of the hardest decisions for me to have to make. ” But with her firefighting physical test and application deadlines approaching, it wasn’t worth the risk. “If I did something permanent to my back, I might never become a Firefighter. (Firefighter) Jay Jackman was integral in helping me make that decision.”

Holmberg refocused all of her energy on her career goals, and a year later she had passed her firefighting tests and was a volunteer firefighter, just waiting for a job to open up. She was also healthy and ready to compete at the 2013 Regional. But when a job offer came from Brampton Fire with a training schedule that spanned Regional weekend, she once again had to choose her career over CrossFit.

This time, the choice was an easy one. “I could have turned down the offer,” she says. “I knew I had two or three other offers coming my way after Brampton. But I always said the first department who accepts me into their family, I would be on board 100%.”

Now Holmberg’s fire crew, which includes Jackman, will be on scene to support her at the 2014 regional and she couldn’t be happier. “This year, I finally get a chance to go and I don’t care how I place, I’m just really happy to be there. I’ve got my career and the support of brothers and sisters at the department. The two (CrossFit and Firefighting) have come together and that’s what I’ve wanted this whole time. ”

A firefighting crew and the community at a CrossFit box have a lot in common, says Holmberg. “They both understand family, helping one another expecting nothing in return,” says Holmberg. “There aren’t a lot of people in the world that get that, and I think that’s why crossfit is growing.” She describes how her CrossFit family supported her while she pursued her career, from helping her with her math for the written test, to picking up her car from an impound lot. Likewise, her fire family is helping her prepare for anything that might come up in competition, like swimming (thanks Mike!).

“Everyone has a way to help each other out,” says Holmberg. “[At a crossfit box or on a fire crew], everyone has a trade on the side. Some people are carpenters, some people are mechanics. I’m “Mule” if anyone needs help carrying stuff! I also bring my knowledge and education of health and fitness and provide nutritional, mobility, and Olympic lifting advice.”

Whether it’s fighting a fire or finishing a “Hero WOD”, the bonds that are forged from experiencing a challenge together transcend our roles in our daily lives, and turn fellow sufferers into family.


Work smarter, not harder is often said in fire service. CrossFit’s emphasis on functional movements will help you move more efficiently. An element of the physical test is to “rack” a ladder, which for some means getting it overhead by yourself, and people seemed to be struggling. You get two attempts so I said “don’t laugh, I’m just going to try something” and I snatched it!

Check your ego at the door: In CrossFit, the ones who get hurt are those who aren’t willing to slow down and fix technique. In fire service, the stakes are even higher. You don’t have to always be a hero. Females especially come in feeling like they have something to prove. But they don’t, everyone needs help. We all have strengths and weaknesses, it’s about teamwork.

Prioritize. I want aspiring firefighters in Crossfit to realize that they need to be patient, but they can’t put CrossFit before fire if they want to get on. You’re going to have to make sacrifices. As tempting as it is to be an elite CrossFit athlete, if fire service is what you want you have to go for it now, you have to put 120% into it. When I hurt my back I realized, Crossfit can be your support and outlet but it can’t be your life.


How it Translates
CrossFit WODs translate in many ways to help firefighters be better at their jobs.

Efficiency: A smaller, less-strong person can move the same load as a stronger person with proper technique, developed in the Olympic lifts (snatch and clean and jerk)

Unknown, unknowable: Constantly changing workouts help train mentally and physically for emergency situations of all types.

Upper body strength: Overhead movements like thrusters and push press will come in handy for prying ceilings down at a fire, lifting ladders, or using heavy tools.

Controlled breathing: CrossFit WODs help train you to control your breathing when adrenaline is pumping with limited air.

Increased work capacity at high intensity: In firefighting, you can’t separate your cardio from your lifting. Heavy WODs help prepare for this.


Gear up: Do your WOD in bunker gear, measuring how long your air lasts as well as your reps. “We try to do this once a month,” says Holmberg. “It helps you control your breathing and gives you an idea if how long you can work hard in an actual fire.”

Don’t gas out: You never know when you’ll get called to a fire, so Holmberg recommends short bursts over long gassers. Try EMOM lifts (every minute on the minute) or a Fight Gone Bad style workout (one minute each of five moments, rest after the 5th for one minute, repeat).

Partner up: Do Fithy Fifty style chippers (50 each of a list of movements) with a partner. Have one partner run around the building or hold a loaded bar while the other chips away at the required movement.

Limber up: “We lift awkwardly every day and jump out of bed on nights,” says Holmberg. “Spending time on mobility is a good way to prevent injuries at work.”

Keep it simple: You don’t need to be an experienced CrossFitter to join in. Stick to simpler movements like kettle bell swings, pushups, lunges, push press, or skipping for new-comers.

Finish with ice cream: The Holmberg motto: work hard, then crush some ice cream.

* Thanks to Hamilton Firefigher Steph Gowanlock for extra FireWOD tips.









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