The concept of firefighters needing to maintain a high standard of physical fitness seems fairly common sense. However, “old school” mentality often assumes that being firefighter fit is just that: letting your daily firefighter tasks constitute the bulk (or entirety) of your fitness regimen. The demands of the job require not only muscle memory and training, but significant physical strength and stamina. Beyond that, there is an inherent cardiovascular risk associated with sudden surges of stress to the body – especially when that body is unaccustomed to such stress.
While the nature of the job itself is inherently more active than your average desk job, unless you work in Detroit or Baltimore it is highly unlikely that on the job activity alone is enough to sustain that required level of fitness. Most of us work for suburban departments where we catch a couple jobs (at most, probably) each year, and are far more likely to get sweaty picking up patients than putting out fires.
Functional fitness is more than simply throwing on gear and pulling lines or dragging a dummy around. While those types of training activities should absolutely comprise a portion of every firefighter’s routine, a well-rounded fitness program should include much more than that. When it comes to firefighter fitness, it’s not a bad idea to look at firefighting as a sport of unknown type or duration.
We often talk about needing to be prepared for anything, but if we apply that mentality to fitness then it changes the game a little bit. What if today is the day I need to help get the 450 pound lift assist off the floor but I’ve never done heavy barbell work much less practiced proper deadlift or power clean form? What if I run a call where I need to remove multiple large heavy pieces of furniture, mattresses, and/or appliances from a house but I’ve shrugged off tire flips and sled pushes as “not job related”? What if the closest we can park to the scene is 3 football fields away and I have to run in gear with tools before even starting to go to work, but I’ve never worked on maximum interval training, weighted, or endurance runs? What if today’s the day I simply jump out of the apparatus a little more spritely than usual and I snap my ankle because I’ve never done plyometric or agility training? I think we all know at least 1 (or 6) people who have injured themselves in exactly that manner.
Returning to the sport analogy for a moment, athletes don’t simply train their sport. NBA and NFL training sessions aren’t only spent on the court or field. They work heavy weights, bodyweight, plyometric, cardiovascular conditioning, yoga, agility, endurance, etc. There is strategic thought put into how their exercise programs are developed because of their specific sport, yes, but they don’t just throw on pads, run plays for an hour and call it good. Which is essentially the equivalent of putting on gear, throwing a few ladders, and saying “checked that fitness box”.
Love or hate CrossFit (and those seem to be the only two options), the field of firefighting can learn and benefit a lot from that type of high intensity, widely varied functional training. And ultimately CrossFit is just a trademarked brand of functional training; it has its specific flavor and approach but there’s a multitude of ways to tackle functional fitness. Ultimately, the goal is to constantly challenge our bodies through a variety of movement, intensity, and load so that we truly can be prepared for anything.
Doing heavy barbell work is just as important as working on our 5K time, 250m row sprints, odd object conditioning, 15 min AMRAPs of whatever, etc. Training only one of these areas will certainly help maintain our overall fitness level, but it won’t maximize our fitness potential. In order for our fitness to improve, we have to constantly add load, intensity, or duration. And, honestly, for many of us who are aging faster than we’d like to admit, we have to keep working harder just to slow the pace of decline. Either way, without changing the stimulus or upping the challenge, fitness will stagnate.
Not to get too science-y, but it’s important to understand why functional training is so crucial. Essentially, our bodies have three energy pathways: phosphagen, glycolytic (anaerobic), and oxidative (aerobic). Each of these pathways performs a function in terms of energy supply. Phosphagen is tapped for maximum intensity but short duration bursts (think: 1 rep max lifts), glycolytic kicks in for slightly less heavy but longer duration work (think: circuits of farmers carries and sledge hits, or boxing rounds), and oxidative supplies the energy required for lower intensity longer duration effort (think: running a 10K). While these pathways have specific functions, they rarely work in isolation. Rather, imagine them on a sliding scale where depending on the work being performed, you might be drawing on mostly phosphagen and glycolytic but still some oxidative, or vice versa. There’s a natural ebb and flow, and in your standard functional training workout you’re likely to cycle through these three pathways quite a bit.
Similarly, there are three types of muscle fibers. For ease of explanation, we’ll call them slow twitch, intermediate twitch, and fast twitch. Slow twitch fibers are the sort of endurance muscles needed to run marathons. They don’t produce massive amounts of force or power, but they can work a long time before tiring. Intermediate twitch fibers essentially split the difference between slow and fast. They can draw on both aerobic and anaerobic metabolism, can generate more power than slow twitch, and don’t tire quite as quickly as type fast twitch. Fast twitch muscle fibers generate the greatest amount of force but also tire the quickest. While there are genetic predispositions at play in determining how much of each fiber type we have, ultimately it’s up to us to unlock all of that potential through training and conditioning.
To sum up the science: if we want to be able to fully tap into our energy and strength when it counts, we need to train in a manner that taps into them and builds their capacity regularly.
In recent years we have begun to see more departments develop physical fitness SOPs and programs, and some departments are even mandating daily fitness activities. The trend towards prioritizing firefighter health and fitness is growing, with more in depth medical evaluations and companies like O2X popping up with fitness workshops and support. Departments are adding Peer Fitness Trainers to their workforce, and taking advantage of grants for gym equipment.
Hopefully before long, the idea of firefighters not maintaining a regular exercise program will be a thing of the past. While high intensity functional cross-training is what we at 1stDueFitness recommend, ultimately the best exercise regimen is the one that is sustainable to the individual. If you absolutely hate the workouts, then you’re unlikely to do them. Fitness is a lifelong journey and lifestyle change. It needs to start with what is fun, something that keeps us coming back for more, and then build from there.
1stDueFitness is a relatively new enterprise by the Peer Fitness Team at the City of Manassas Fire and Rescue Department in Virginia. We are a small (<60 person) city department in the greater Washington DC area and currently have 2 Peer Fitness Trainers. Ben Page is our lead trainer, with a degree in kinesiology and significant personal training experience. He’s an ALS firefighter and has been with the city for 6 years. Becca Wilson finished her ACE certification 2 years ago and is an ALS Master Technician with 9 years in Manassas. Our goal is to try and provide workouts, recipes, and general health/fitness information for our system members (and anyone else who may find them useful).
This article on functional fitness is provided by For the Brave as part of the Blog For the Brave series, a collection of articles written by the men and women that serve in the trenches with you. If you are interested in contributing an article, please contact us at [email protected]