Fitness for Search and Rescue: The Core
Hiking with a loaded backpack. Navigating obstacles and uneven terrain. Litter carries. Rappelling. These are a few examples of the search and rescue tasks you need to complete efficiently, with the ultimate goal of saving a life.1 A workout for excellent physical fitness is therefore a requirement of the job.
Carrying out your tasks effectively can literally be the difference between life and death. It requires muscular strength including core strength and grip strength, power and endurance, aerobic capacity (including a good VO2 max), and mental resilience.
And this isn’t just for search and rescue. These are exercises for wildland firefighters, backcountry personnel, guides, outfitters, and more. They’re good for anyone who is out working or recreating in the outdoors.
In this post, we are going to focus on exercises for core strength. After all, a strong core is the foundation of movement! We are not just talking abs. Core encompasses your scapula (shoulders), back, abs, and hips. It is essentially everything but your limbs.
Trunk Stability for Search and Rescue
Going one step further, core strength in terms of “trunk stability” should be the focus in SAR strength and conditioning. Because trunk stability is a vital component of dynamic balance, focusing on trunk stability will reduce risk of injury and enhance performance.1 In other words, doing countless crunches will not cut it when you are carrying someone out to safety amid uneven terrain or chaotic conditions.
Dynamic Correspondence Exercise
When training for SAR or any athletic endeavor, your exercises should mimic those in the field. This is called dynamic correspondence exercise.3 Dynamic correspondence exercise enhances movement patterns and other components of fitness (i.e., grip strength, aerobic capacity, etc.) to best prepare you. Your time is valuable. Remember to train as efficiently and effectively as possible.
So, what dynamic correspondence exercise should you do for search and rescue? There are many options, but here are three exercises that will improve your core strength and trunk stability, but also your overall strength at the same time. I chose these exercises to give you many benefits in one exercise. Plus, they can be done anywhere, anytime, whether in the field or at home.
3 Exercises to Improve Core Strength and Trunk Stability
Half Kneeling Sandbag Rotation and Lift
Why: This rotational movement pattern teaches your body to disassociate between your upper and lower body, common in many SAR tasks.1
How to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vcOT-FIFOOg
In a half kneeling position, grab your sandbag from your knee downside.
Keeping shoulders back and engaged,and maintaining posture (fight the urge to collapse at your waist), grab your sandbag. Twist and lift it onto a platform at approximately chest height. Maintaining form, bring the sandbag down to starting position before beginning your next rep.
Offset / Single Arm Carries
Why: Another dynamic correspondence exercise, this will pay off when you need to carry gear quickly or carry someone to safety.
Offset or single arm carries challenge your opposing core muscles, enhancing trunk stability and “core bracing.” I love carries! They also build overall strength, especially shoulder and traps, leg strength, grip strength, and toughness. All great things for the field!
Done right, a variety of carries is also a postural endurance exercise, very important in helping you reduce risk of injury and maintain efficiency during those long hikes with a pack or other tasks as you get fatigued.1.2
How to: https://youtu.be/t6iWTua8YAc
Grab a kettlebell, lighter sandbag, a tool, or other object. You can also wrap a “grip sling” around a rock or object to really tax your grip strength. With your shoulder engaged back, simply walk. Make sure the weight is heavy enough but not so heavy that it messes up your form and forces you to lean forward. It is important to keep your shoulder back and engaged. Think “tall and strong” so you get the postural benefits.
You can do this carry, switching arms as needed, for a set distance of anywhere from 100m to 1 mile. Start with a shorter distance and work up by either increasing weight or time.
Advanced: Doing these over uneven terrain will help transfer to the field. There are many variations! Here are a few.
Pack (or sandbag) overhead presses
Why: Trunk stability and core bracing, including your shoulders. By pressing your unstable pack overhead, your smaller muscle needs to work hard and make micro-adjustments to stabilize the pack, making this an excellent dynamic transference exercise. A barbell is stable, so it won’t give you the same benefits or transfer as well to the field.
How to: https://youtu.be/t6iWTua8YAc
Grab your pack. With elbows at your sides and hands just below your chin, stabilize your pack and think of bracing your core while you press the pack overhead. When pressing your pack overhead, try not to lean back too much. Press out to full extension, pause briefly, and return to starting position.
Want a butt kicker and to work your aerobic capacity at the same time? Perform a pushup with your hands on your pack. Then pick up your pack and perform an overhead press. This is an advanced movement that will work your whole body as you move from a dynamic plank to standing position, from a prone to standing position. It will also increase your aerobic capacity to help you prepare for the stressful conditions faced in the field.
Final Thoughts on Fitness for Search and Rescue
Remember, personal training should be efficient, effective, and with a purpose. I always say “Train like you play. Train like you work.” Mix these core-focused exercises into your workouts for optimal fitness and be prepared for your best season yet!
By Tammy Kovaluk
MS (Kinesiology and sport performance),
CSCS (Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist), FMS (Corrective Exercise Specialist)
1. Conolly, Michelle MSc, CSCS1; Elder, Craig PhD, ATC, CSCS, CSPS2; Dawes, Jay PhD, CSCS*D,
NSCA-CPT*D, FNSCA. (2015). Needs Analysis for Mountain Search and Rescue. Strength and
Conditioning Journal, 37, 35-42
2. Lafiandra M, Harman E. (2014). The distribution of forces between the upper and lower back
during load carriage. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 36, 460–467.
4. Nazari, G., MacDermid, J. C., Sinden, K. E., & Overend, T. J. (2018). The Relationship between
Physical Fitness and Simulated Firefighting Task Performance. Rehabilitation research and