By Michael Krueger
Far too many people believe that mimicking an athletic, sport, or skill movement in the gym will improve that movement in competition. Repeatedly, studies have shown this is not the case. In fact, the only thing that will improve performance outside of practicing the skills of your sport is strength training.
Facts of the Matter
As you subject your body to additional stress, it adapts. If you want to run faster or longer, you need to run faster or longer. If you want to swim smoother, faster, and more efficiently, you will need to swim in that same manner. If you want to be an elite firefighter, you need to practice all of the skills associated with firefighting.
So where does that leave fitness training? It puts it right where it should be--that is, at the beginning, and continuing throughout your life.
Weight lifting makes anything you choose to do better and easier. Being strong and muscularly balanced allows you to move quicker, faster, and surer than you would without the strength you gained from lifting. Having a desirable muscle-to-weight ratio allows you to maintain stability and helps to prevent injuries.
Aerobic endurance activities give you a solid cardiovascular base and healthy and efficient heart and lungs. It is obvious that this imparts a performance advantage to any activity you chose to partake in from taking a walk, working in the yard, playing with your kids, transporting a large victim down multiple flights of stairs, or battling a structure fire for many hours.
It would seem that trying to mimic a movement in the gym would improve performance in that activity. Unfortunately, movements are so specific that it just doesn’t work that way. Most activities require a degree of skill to perform well, and the only way to develop that skill is through repeated practice on that particular movement pattern.
Take raising a ladder, for example. When looking at the movement, it is obvious that it requires shoulder, back, core, and leg strength. All of those can be developed in the gym. Overhead presses, dead lifts, and squats would all be beneficial in developing the required strength, but to become proficient at raising a ladder, you need to raise that ladder over and over again. It is a skill that must be learned and then practiced. The strength you gain from working in the gym is necessary, but it is necessary for everything you do in life and is not exclusive to any specific job performance.
Having adequate strength and endurance allows you to practice and perform at your best. If you get fatigued while training, your performance will degrade and your focus may drift. Next thing you know, you are getting chewed out for screwing up or worse: You end up hurting yourself or someone else.
In the Gym
The movements you need to work on in the gym are not the same moves you will employ in your firefighting training. They use the same muscles but not in any specific way. It seems so obvious, but in recent years we have developed a mindset that implies that all gym work should be “functional.” Exercises aren’t functional in isolation; strength is functional, and endurance is functional.
Functionality needs to be applied on the training ground. Learning to move fully outfitted in turnout gear is functional training. How could I possibly train you in the gym for that? The main contribution I make is to improve your overall strength and endurance and then let your training officers take it from there.
In no way am I trying to downplay the contribution strength and conditioning bring to the table. I can’t think of anything, whether you are a firefighter or not, that will improve your life more than exercise. What I am trying to say is that first you must be fit and strong and then you train to be a firefighter. If you come into this profession with less than optimal fitness, or if you let your fitness slide once you are on the job, you are placing an undue burden on your departmental trainers and those around you who must now drag you along. This is not the time or the place for remedial fitness training.
With that in mind, what kind of condition are you in now? Do new recruits look at you and marvel at your physical condition? During drills, do they watch and learn as you methodically complete every skill with due diligence, enthusiasm, and a quiet confidence born of hours of fitness and skills training? If not, why not?
Life on the Outside
So much of your life is defined by being a firefighter. It doesn’t matter if you are a full-time career firefighter on a large urban department or one of the unheralded volunteers on small town and rural departments. You are all part of the same family. To this day, I still have an unbreakable bond with every U.S. Coast Guard member past and present--and that will never change. It doesn’t matter that I served “four years and out” as opposed to a career of 20 or 30 years. Once you are part of it, it is a part of you, and that will never change.
The fitness that you can gain while training to become a firefighter or while serving as a fiefighter is something that will benefit you for your entire life. By your example, you can impart the importance of being fit and strong to your children and grandchildren, thereby having a positive effect for generations to come.
Imagine years after you are gone, your great-grandchildren crediting you with imparting a family legacy of health, fitness, and service that has permeated every aspect of their life no matter where they live or what field they have chosen to enter. You can show them the importance of being fit and strong and being able not only to take care of themselves but also to serve others. Now that would be an incredible legacy.
You have chosen a selfless vocation. Most people don’t think about firefighters and emergency responders until they need one. Sure, there are personal benefits to what you do, but there are risks and stresses that other vocations simply do not have. You don’t go into firefighting for the pension; you do what you do because want to serve. The fact that you need to be physically fit, strong, and healthy to perform at your best is a bonus. The strength and fitness you develop will serve you in all aspects of your life in and out of the fire service.
I am a personal trainer. Because of my vocational choice, I need to maintain a high degree of physical fitness. I get to work out, be strong, and look good and have it be a job requirement.
You are in the same situation. You absolutely need to be in top condition to do your job well, and it benefits you and your family now and for years to come; it doesn’t get better than that.
Michael Krueger is an NSCA-certified personal trainer. He got his start in fitness training while serving in the United States Coast Guard. He works with firefighters and others in and around Madison, Wisconsin. He is available to fire departments, civic organizations, and athletic teams for training, consulting, and speaking engagements. He has published numerous articles on fitness, health, and the mind-body connection and was a featured speaker at the IAFC’s FRI 2009 Health Day in Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at MKPTLLC@gmail.com.