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Functional Firefighter Fitness

January 23, 2007 07:45 PM

Firefighting and Emergency Services work places very heavy physical demands on a person. The nature of shift work requires long hours on duty, probable sleep deprivation and intense physical efforts with little or no advanced warning. Firefighters are required to perform in darkness, intense heat, and cramped spaces and in environments that contain both low oxygen levels and toxic gases. Having a sound strength and conditioning program not only ensures that one is physically capable of performing these duties but may also be a major contributing factor to surviving the dangerous circumstances encountered in the line of duty.

Firefighting is an anaerobic sport. An aggressive interior attack, scaling a ladder with heavy tools in order to ventilate a roof or lifting and carrying an unconscious victim all require high levels of both strength and high intensity endurance. The fact that most duties are performed while wearing heavy personal protective equipment only compounds the difficulties that all firefighters face in performing their jobs.

Trying to balance a sound training program with the demands of the job can be a daunting task. I hope to provide a blueprint that can be used by anyone to create a sustainable and effective physical training plan. Military personnel and law enforcement officers may find this a useful plan as well.

Training while on duty is a staple of some departments' daily schedule yet is all but forgotten in others. The problem with an intense session while on duty is that one never knows what is coming next. A responder may find himself or herself grinding out a set of high intensity squats one minute and then responding to a heavy box alarm literally moments later. The intensity of the workout may have left him or her too spent to perform adequately. How do we train while on duty while remaining fresh and ready for action at a moments notice?

Enter The Naked Warrior! Pavel has given us the template for developing respectable levels of strength without over taxing ourselves in the process. When I worked in a busy house I would perform a set of pistols or pull-ups every time we got back from a run. This is known as "greasing the groove" and works very well for developing brute strength, while remaining fresh and ready for action. This amounted to as many as 7 to 8 low rep sets in a single day without leaving me whipped for the rest of my shift. One could pick two full body exercises and either perform them in this fashion, or for those of you at a "retirement" house once at the top of every hour. Pistols and pull-ups worked well for me but deadlifts and heavy presses are just as good. Don't be afraid to change up the exercises every once in a while to avoid staleness and encourage further strength gains.

In order to train at optimal levels, sleep and recovery are very important. As I stated earlier, sleep deprivation is a real factor in this line of work. Sleep deprivation and altered sleep cycles cause a decline in naturally occurring levels of growth hormone and can contribute to chronically elevated levels of cortisol. Both of these factors can derail any training program. On the days off from work training should be aimed at whole body strength development and improving high intensity conditioning. If you work at a busy house these sessions should be kept short and focused. I have found that about 20 to 40 minutes is a good range of time. A typical strength development session might look something like this:
  1. Double kettlebell clean and press
  2. Moderate to heavy swings
  3. Weighted pull-ups
  4. Turkish Get Ups
This session should be performed in a short circuit with minimal rest between exercises and perhaps one to three minutes between circuits. There is a lot of potential for variety here as well. For example one session could include conventional clean and presses while another may substitute see-saw presses, side presses, or single kettlebell military presses. The swings could be one or two handed, done with double kettlebells, substituted with snatches or done as alternating swings. If you are greasing the groove with pull-ups on your duty days, bent over rows, Renegade Rows or bear crawls could take the place of weighted pull-ups. The Turkish get up creates whole body strength through multiple planes of movement and is a great enforcer of whole body tension. If TGU's are too much on any particular day, the windmill is a nice drill to round out the circuit. It allows some active recovery while promoting stability and flexibility. It is also acceptable to substitute such drills as slingshots or figure eights here too. There is a lot of room for creativity in a circuit session like this, while still maintaining a focus on whole body strength. As Pavel says: "training the same, but different".

A conditioning session should ideally include a mix of lighter weight kettlebell drills and sustained efforts to mimic the metabolic demands of firefighting. A high repetition set of swings or snatches followed by jogging or jumping rope as active recovery works very well. Start at two sets of 5 continuous minutes with a short break between and build from there. Another great session includes alternating between double kettlebell thrusters and swings or snatches. This is an intense session and will leave you a whipped puppy in no time flat! Incorporating some body weight drills such as push-ups, squats or burpees, with kettlebells into a short circuit that can be blown through several times without rest is another great option. This will develop both muscular and cardiovascular endurance.

If your conditioning is already high you can get a lot more creative (and evil!) with your sessions. If you are lucky enough to have regular access to a drill tower here is a smoker that will make you a legend in your department: Put a kettlebell on every landing of the tower and get yourself a 40-pound hose bundle (a sandbag is a suitable substitute). Start at the bottom and carry the bundle up the stairs, just like you did in the academy. Every time you come to a kettlebell, drop the hose and perform a set of ballistics (swings, snatches, jerks, thrusters, etc.) then re-hoist the hose bundle and continue upwards. One you reach the top, walk down easy as active recovery. Repeat for a few trips up the tower and try not to pass out. If you're a real stud wear your turnouts and an air pack. This drill is an absolute killer and will humble anyone in no time flat. It is intense, so obviously shouldn't be done too often, but is a great test to gauge the progress you are making in your fitness program.

If you are feeling especially worn out from a high call volume shift, try getting a nap before training. The restorative power of sleep cannot be undervalued for adequate recovery. As a co-worker of mine used to say "take a good nap whenever possible and then go outside and play until it gets dark"! Don't be afraid to take a day off from training when you need it. The rest is important and you will feel much fresher and more motivated for your next training session.

A good way to structure your sessions is to alternate between whole body strength days and conditioning days, taking a rest day when needed. Greasing the groove while on duty allows for further strength development without causing overtraining or burnout. This will leave you strong and fresh and ready to go when the alarm sounds.

A well thought out strength and conditioning plan will not only improve your ability to excel on the job but may be the best insurance policy for preventing injury as well. Train smart and stay safe.

Tom Shook, RKC is a former rescue swimmer, firefighter and special operations paramedic for a governmental agency in Texas. He currently resides near Yosemite National Park and is available for individual and group training, seminars and Internet based coaching. He can be contacted through his website;