Fitness Starts in the Gym

By Michael Krueger

There are many reasons people quit exercising, and not seeing quick results is at the top of the list. It is very difficult to continue doing something if you don’t see what you consider to be some positive changes. Sometimes the problem is that the program you are using isn’t well-suited to your goal. Following a routine for no other reason than it is what you did in high school, it is the current craze, or it is what the strongest guy in the gym is doing is probably not going to have great success. The biggest cause of failure is in not understanding how your program design will ultimately affect achieving your goal.



The ultimate goal of any strength and conditioning program for a member of the fire service is to help you become fitter so you can train to become a better firefighter. To that end, a program should address whatever shortcomings you have identified as standing in the way of this goal. You may need a routine that will assist you in losing weight, improving your cardiovascular efficiency, or gaining additional strength and muscular endurance.

Every aspect of this program must be designed with the goal in mind. That means that the routine shouldn’t be a body builder’s workout, nor should it be designed to create an endurance athlete or a football player. I have seen firefighters who insist they are fit for duty because they are tri-athletes. I point out that the physical prowess and energy requirements required to compete in their sport, while impressive, are very different than the strength and conditioning requirements of a top-flight firefighter.

The program designed for a firefighter should address the physical needs of the job but needn’t try to mimic the actual movements. Basic strength and endurance can be improved in the gym so that you can learn and train your skills in the hands-on training of simulated emergency situations. You don’t become a firefighter in the gym, but it needs to begin there.

The Basics

There are very few exercises you need to do to become strong and fit. The time investment needs to be no more than perhaps three hours per week. That includes two 45-minute strength workouts and three 30-minute cardiovascular workouts. Any more than that, and you are doing it for some other reason than basic fitness.

The whole purpose of gym training is to increase your strength, muscular endurance, and flexibility. Once you know what your shortcomings are, you will be able to address them through specific exercises. Muscular hypertrophy is not necessarily a shortcoming. Having large, bulky muscles is not a particular advantage in firefighting. In fact, if it comes at the expense of cardiovascular endurance and agility, then those big muscles are a distinct disadvantage.

That being said, there is nothing wrong with putting in more workout time. If you are participating in some other sport, you may need more gym time. You may even find that you truly enjoy the process of working out. I know people who spend an amazing amount of time at the gym. They do marathon workouts involving many exercises, sets, and reps, spending two or three or more hours per workout lifting, hanging out, and talking with other “gym rats.” This is as much their social circle as it is exercise, and they enjoy it on that level. It is better than hanging out at a tavern, but it doesn’t make them an appreciably fitter firefighter.

The Workouts

The gym workouts are designed to prepare you for the demands of your profession. I don’t have to go into what it takes to be a firefighter; you are well aware of those demands. Working out is not an end in itself but simply a means to ensure you are physically prepared to tackle the tasks of firefighting.

The simplest way to think about a routine is to include something for every part of your body, addressed in slightly different ways in each of the two workouts. This is known as a full-body workout as opposed to split routines where you work different body parts in each of multiple workouts per week. I favor a full-body routine because, if for some reason you are forced to miss one or cut it short, you can easily get back into the groove the next day without messing up an entire week’s worth of planning.

Each workout needs to include a vertical press and a vertical pull. This can be accomplished with an overhead press with a barbell in one workout and dumbbells in the next. They can be seated or standing or a combination; it doesn’t matter. Next is a vertical pull. This can be any chin-up variant or a lat pull exercise.

Now move on to a horizontal push and pull. This could be a bench press with barbells or dumbbells or a machine. There are many variants of bench presses. You could include push-ups or dips as well. For the horizontal pull, there are many types of rows available, using free weights or machines.

Next is something for the legs and back. Here is where squatting and dead lifts enter the routine. There are many ways of doing these as well. Find one that is suited to your body type and work it hard.

Finish off with some core work and you are done. This whole routine should take no more than 45 minutes from start to finish.

I have written about interval training for cardiovascular fitness before, so I won’t belabor the point. They are still the best bang for the buck and should be a part of everyone’s endurance program. Do them consistently, and you will be well on your way to exemplary cardio fitness.


In no time, you will see how this minimal investment in the gym will enable you to train your skills harder and better. The added benefit of overall improved health is simply a bonus you get for no additional effort.

Don’t make the mistake of believing that you can get into shape through skills training. You need to make the investment in strength and conditioning before you go out and work on skills. No athletes worth their name would think that they can play themselves into shape.

Leave that delusion to the beer league softball players.


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 

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