Before we get started, be sure to watch my video I posted yesterday to take a look at why a full occupational assessment is necessary before even thinking about starting a fitness program. You can find the video here.
The occupational need for physical preparedness is no more apparent than in firefighting. You’re not training for washboard abs, or bulging biceps, or a tapered V-shaped torso, but for the ability to successfully perform labor intensive tasks under high stress. Yes, the highly sought after aesthetic characteristics may be a byproduct, but they should not be your main reason for getting in the weight room.
Look for a second at the physical demands of an office worker. On a scale of 1-10, I’d rate it as maybe a 2 or a 3. The most labor-intensive task for the day might be helping someone get a box up the stairs. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with being an office worker, but the need for fitness differs greatly when compared to those in the fire service. The on-the-scene tasks required of firefighters negate the need for maximal physical readiness.
Let’s stop for a second to think about why physical preparedness is so important to firefighters. One obvious reason is because you need to be ready, at all times, to perform various physical tasks on the fire ground. That’s a no-brainer. But our fitness need goes much deeper and more expansive than that alone. Your crew members, and the community as a whole, are trusting in the fact that you will be ready to preserve human life and property.
People are trusting in you to have the physical endurance, the stamina, and the strength to get the job done. Your teammates are relying on you to be able to pull them out of a structure if they go down. They’re relying on you to have the capacity to work under extreme environmental conditions, otherwise untenable without PPE on. The community trusts in you to be able to search a building to find their missing child, or to extricate them from a vehicle, or to help save as many of their belonging as possible.
Back to my main point. The fitness needs for firefighters differs from that of the average Joe. Whereas they are focused on looking and feeling good, you are training for functionality. That means the movements you do in the gym should be centered around improving your capacity for on-the-job tasks. Functional fitness for you means doing exercises that will improve your ability to advance a hoseline, carry a victim, climb a ladder, and search a structure for missing occupants.
So how do you improve your firefighter-specific fitness functionality? In short, by performing exercises that mimic the movements you’ll encounter on the fire scene. Deadlifting mimics lifting a victim. Using the stair machine, stepping up on a box, or squatting all mimic climbing a ladder or stairs. Hiking with a weighted vest mimics moving with the added weight of a SCBA. The shoulder press (also called military press) mimics pulling a ceiling. Bent-over rows mimic dragging a victim.
We could go on with more examples of exercises that relate to functionality, but I think you get the point. This is why I assess job function before creating an exercise program from any of my clients. Some type of physical exercise is better than nothing at all. But if you want to maximize your performance then it’s necessary to find the exercises that mimic the thing you will encounter.
Tune in Saturday when I lay out a workout specifically for improving firefighter fitness and readiness.
Jon Griffith specializes in optimizing performance for firefighters, police officers, medical personnel, and the military. He provides 28-day challenges, online personal training, and corporate partnerships that are designed around the unique needs of our emergency responders. Jon is a personal trainer, strength & conditioning specialist, full-time firefighter, and former U.S. Army infantryman.
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