The fireground demands work capacity – plain and simple. There’s no app for forcing doors, advancing hose lines, or hooking ceiling. Achieving optimal work capacity is dependent on your functional training, which must be dynamic, comprehensive, and built for performance.
Firefighters pride themselves on their strategies, tactics, and skills. But when it really comes down to it, being “fit for duty” is the true foundation of every successful firefighter. You may be a tactical fireground expert, but if you are exhausted after climbing a few flights of stairs in full personal protective equipment, then it is time to take an honest look in the mirror and make some changes.
Ask yourself the following questions:
- When I arrive on the fireground, does my level of fitness make me an asset or a liability?
- When I show up, do I make the fireground safer for my citizens and fellow firefighters?
- If not, what can I do to improve my physical fitness and performance?
What is Functional Fitness for Firefighters?
For the longest time, if firefighters did work out, it typically took the form of weightlifting with the purpose of bodybuilding. Traditional approaches to this type of strength training focus on separate body parts (for instance “leg day,” “chest day,” etc.). Furthermore, little emphasis is typically placed on flexibility training, core strength, or aerobic/cardio training. However, the “beach body” mentality does little to improve a firefighter’s physical performance and effectiveness for the fireground.
As a firefighter, your primary fitness focus should be improving total-body function for the purpose of optimal fireground performance. In order to properly prepare yourself for the tasks you perform on the fireground, you must replicate those movements and the fireground intensity during physical training, much like you do when you train on a skill. As a firefighter, you have a specific set of physical duties that are essential to the job. If you cannot safely and effectively perform them, then you cannot safely and effectively do the job.
It is important to note that there are other key components to improving a firefighter’s functional fitness, including adequate rest and recovery, proper hydration, and healthy nutrition. In this article, our focus will be on the importance physical fitness for firefighters.
Why is Functional Fitness Important for Firefighters?
We must remember that functional fitness is a relative term. In other words, it is directly related to your goals and performance requirements as an occupational athlete. For example, cross-country skiers place great emphasis on endurance training combined with arm and leg strength. American football players combine sprints, agility training, hand/eye coordination drills, and explosive power movements. As a firefighter, it is imperative that your physical preparation reflects the strenuous demands of the fireground. Therefore your training must be well-rounded and specific to the tasks and duties that firefighters perform.
For firefighters, functional fitness is an approach that incorporates what we do on the job, and then replicates those actions and movements during physical training or workouts. There are several key components to consider. Each is equally important, and all of them are directly attributable to improving your fireground work capacity and reducing the likelihood of suffering an injury or line-of-duty death.
How do Firefighters Make Fitness Functional?
As we have shared in our book Firefighter Functional Fitness, the “Big 8” concept is a comprehensive approach designed to make fitness functional for firefighters. It provides firefighters eight key elements of a comprehensive functional fitness program.
- Core Strength
- Cardiovascular Capacity
Let’s look at each of the Big 8 components and give some tips for real world application.
The body’s core is made up of over 20 different muscles in the torso – this includes the chest, abdomen, sides, back, and even parts of the shoulders and hips. The core connects the upper body to the lower body. A strong core will build total-body strength, maximize movement efficiency, and decrease the risk of a back injury.
Consider these simple tips for improving core strength:
- When you strengthen your core, don’t just focus on abdominal crunches. Work all of the torso – high, low, front, back, and sides.
- Ideal core exercises include: planks, side planks, oblique twists, leg raises, side bends, etc.
- Perform total-body strength movements that also engage the core, such as deadlifts, squats, and crawling.
- Perform core workouts two to four times per week, for 10- to 20-minute sessions.
Fireground work capacity is primarily dependent on cardiovascular capacity. Cardiovascular capacity can be defined as the effectiveness and efficiency of your lungs and tissues transporting and utilizing oxygen.
When combined with personal protective equipment and environmental extremes, the fireground can easily produce heart rates in excess of 200 beats per minute. This is why optimal cardiovascular capacity is essential for every firefighter.
There are two primary methods to build cardiovascular capacity: high-intensity interval training (HIIT), and endurance-based cardiovascular training (EBCT). HIIT reflects the short bursts of high-intensity fireground work, such as stretching attack lines, forcing doors, dragging victims, overhaul, and others.. EBCT, on the other hand, develops resiliency and long-term stamina for the marathon of fireground tasks.
High-intensity interval training exercises include tire and hose drags, sledgehammer strikes (on a tire), and sprints. HIIT can be performed two to three times per week, in 20- to 40-minute sessions. Alternate any form of very vigorous exercise for 15 to 60 seconds with a rest period of the same time amount or less.
Endurance-based cardiovascular training includes exercises of moderate intensity, such as climbing stairs, running, rowing, and biking. Since these modalities are performed at lesser intensity (70 to 85 percent of maximum heart rate), they can be done for a longer duration: 30 to 60 minutes per session.
Set a goal of at least 90 minutes of weekly cardiovascular capacity training, which combines HIIT and EBCT.
Flexibility is probably one of the most often overlooked components when it comes to physical fitness, but your flexibility (or lack thereof) has a tremendous impact on your chance of suffering an injury. Statistically speaking, 44% of the over 1 million firefighters in the U.S. have suffered a strain or sprain injury while on duty. Attention to flexibility will not only help reduce your chance of suffering a career-altering or career-ending injury, it will also dramatically improve your fireground performance while operating in movement-restricting protective ensembles.
Some of the many benefits of flexibility training include:
- Reduced chance of injury
- Reduced injury recovery time
- Reduced severity and duration of muscle fatigue/soreness
- Improved balance and posture
- Increased ability to perform exercises and movements properly (with good form)
Traditional “reach and hold” stretching merely scratches the surface when it comes to improving your flexibility. Here are some ways you can incorporate flexibility training:
- Stand-alone functional yoga sessions
- Dynamic or “in-motion” stretching performed pre-workout, during workouts, and post-workout
- Static (reach and hold) stretching performed post-workout
Incorporate flexibility training into your weekly routine by participating in at least one stand-alone functional yoga session per week. Also incorporate dynamic and static stretching into your training sessions at least three to four times per week, both before and after workouts.
Five firefighter functional strength categories
The five remaining components of the Big 8 concept fall under functional strength movements that are specific to firefighters – pushing, pulling, lifting, carrying, and dragging. Instead of building strength that revolves around segregated body parts (such as chest, biceps, abs), functionally fit firefighters focus on fireground-centered movements. These movements are compound movements that work multiple muscle groups, and not single, isolated muscles.
Consider these exercises:
- Pushes: Push-ups, standing overhead press, standing cable press
- Pulls: Pull-ups, bent-over rows with kettlebells or dumbbells, hand-over-hand hose pulls
- Lifts: Deadlifts, squats, suitcase lifts with fire truck equipment
- Carries: Farmer’s carry, heavy equipment carry (rescue tools/saws), ladder and hose carry
- Drags: Dummy drags, tire drags, ladder drags
Here are a few tips for improving functional strength:
- Perform free-standing exercises that also integrate the core. Steer clear of single-function weight machines, such as leg curls, leg extensions, leg press, or “pec deck.”
- Use fitness sandbags, kettlebells, medicine balls, slam balls, BOSU balls, suspension straps, and resistance bands.
- Perform functional strength training three times per week, focusing on different areas of the body: upper body, lower body, and total body.
Is it Safe? Is it Effective? Is it Functional?
We’ve all seen that person who tries to lift too much weight, lifts or exercises improperly, tries dangerous movements, or focuses on exercises that build physique rather than improving performance.
When it comes to putting your functional fitness into practice, it must be safe, effective, and functional. Above all else, you should be able to answer “Yes” to each of these categories for every exercise and movement you do in your fitness training. Remember, the point of functional fitness is to improve performance and prevent fireground injuries, not cause them.
Whether you are a paid or volunteer firefighter, your citizens expect the highest level of performance and service from you. Doing this job “for free” is no excuse to be out of shape and unprepared. Being paid is not an entitlement. Take your fitness seriously, and take ownership of it on every level. There really is no argument against improving your fitness and investing in your personal health. It impacts every aspect of your personal well-being, it impacts your career longevity, it impacts your ability to successfully carry out your duties, it impacts your level of service to your citizens, and it impacts the people you love the most: your family.
Invest in yourself, take action, and uphold the oath you swore.
- Kerrigan, D. & Moss, J. (2016). Firefighter Functional Fitness: The Essential Guide to Optimal Firefighter Performance and Longevity. Firefighter Toolbox LLC. Trabuco Canyon, CA.
- Peate, W. F., Bates, G., Lunda, K., Francis, S., & Bellamy, K. (2007). Core strength: A new model for injury prediction and prevention. Journal of Occupational Medicine and Toxicology, 2(3). Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1865378/
Dan Kerrigan and Jim Moss are the co-authors of Firefighter Functional Fitness. It is the essential guide to optimal firefighter performance and longevity. It provides all firefighters with the knowledge, tools, and mindset to maximize their fireground performance, reduce their risk of injury and line-of-duty death, and have long, healthy careers and retirements.