Become an “Occupational Athlete”


As Firefighters, WE must be prepared to meet the physical demands of the various types of emergency calls we might face. In addition to mundane tasks such as shoveling dirt on antifreeze, we sometimes have to engage in the extremely physical work of lifting a 600-pound patient onto a stretcher, performing a technical rescue, or fighting a serious fire on the 52nd floor of a downtown high-rise building. The very nature of our profession necessitates that we be physically and mentally prepared to meet these challenges. Take a hard look at yourself and ask, Am I prepared? Consider yourself an “occupational athlete.” Just as serious athletes train physically for their sport, firefighters should physically train for the demands of their profession.

The metabolic equivalent (MET) is a measurement for determining the workload or demand on an athlete. In exercise science, the value MET is a multiple of resting oxygen consumption—in layman’s terms, the energy costs of an activity. A supine, fasting 154-pound person requires approximately 250 milliliter (ml) 02/minutes (min) to sustain metabolic activity. Therefore, the resting oxygen requirement is 3.5ml 02/kilogram (kg) of body weight/min is equal to 1 MET. It has been shown that firefighting activities require between 11and 13 METs, which are very high levels, as can be seen from Table 1.

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What happens to a firefighter who is physically unfit when he is called to perform at these levels? When studying the United States Fire Administration (USFA) 2007 statistics pertaining to line-of-duty deaths (LODDs), we see that of the 118 deaths that occurred, 55 of them were attributed to stress/overexertion. This is equivalent to 64 percent of the total LODDs for the year. This is alarming! Although all 55 firefighters may not have been in poor physical condition, I believe that some of the deaths of those who were may have been prevented if they had been in optimal physical condition. The USFA report states, “Firefighting is extremely strenuous physical work and is likely one of the most physically demanding activities that the human body performs.”

Also, in 2007, nearly 50 percent of firefighter line-of-duty injuries were of a musculoskeletal nature. In recent years, the fire service has made great strides in recognizing the importance of firefighter wellness. The International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) have spearheaded a drive toward improving firefighter health and fitness with the Wellness and Fitness Initiative, which addresses firefighter health and safety.

As “occupational athletes” and professional firefighters, some type of physical fitness routine is essential to our safety and survival. Physical fitness is often defined as the condition resulting from a lifestyle that leads to the development of an optimal level of cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength, and flexibility, as well as the achievement and maintenance of ideal body weight. My definition of physical fitness for the fire service is as follows: physical and mental conditioning, through proper training, that leads to an optimum level of cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength, and flexibility, that will ensure that firefighters do their job safely and efficiently.




Firefighter fitness programs should target these different realms of fitness. A plethora of exercise routines can be found in various books and publications, and on the Internet. I advocate any type of physical exercise to improve your well-being and any routine you use to improve your physical readiness to meet the demands of your job. One program that incorporates all the aspects of firefighter physical fitness demands and meets the strenuous physical requirements is CrossFit. It was developed to enhance an individual’s competency at all physical tasks. CrossFit has proven effective for training athletes to perform successfully at multiple, diverse, and randomized physical challenges. It has also proven effective for members of the military, police officers, and firefighters.Fire departments in Denver, Colorado; Alexandria, Virginia; Marietta, Georgia; and Honolulu, Hawaii use CrossFit to physically train their firefighters. This program is not just another workout “fad” or quick and easy program that takes you down the undemanding road to calorie burning or a more physically attractive body. CrossFit is difficult and intense, but exercise should not be easy. Today, everybody wants quick and immediate results. We are always looking for the easiest way to get there.

CrossFit is based on “functional” movements—movements that can transfer from the gym to activities of work, sports, and life. It incorporates balance, coordination, stabilization, speed of movement, energy systems, stamina, range of motion, muscular endurance, and strength. Think about all the essential tasks you perform on the fireground and apply them to the definition of functional training.

It is essential that firefighters have a strength and conditioning program that prepares us for being awakened in the dead of night to respond to a structure fire to quickly ascend 30 flights of stairs and to advance a charged 2½-inch hoseline. CrossFit-trained firefighters have proven in competition, such as the Scott Firefighter Challenge, that they perform at the pinnacle of their respective competition. According to Lon Kilgore, a writer for CrossFit Journal, “They are performing equivalent competition work at a lower metabolic cost, compared to their rivals, because they are performing less extraneous work.” He adds that traditional physical training used by many firefighters is often linear aerobic (running) movement and linear strength (machines). Neither of the modalities is applicable to the multiplaner challenges of a firefighter competition course or, for that matter, to the actual job demands of a firefighter.

One of the most interesting points of the Kilgore article is that CrossFit trained-firefighters use less air from their self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). According to Kilgore, “The largest single contributor to this reduction is an improvement in body control across a variety of movement patterns. CrossFit establishes and develops motor pathways relevant to sport and occupational effort.” To sum this up, the “variety” of exercises and movements performed while participating in CrossFit through your neuromuscular system are developed and refined, allowing you to perform less work while completing a task, resulting in a decrease in oxygen demand.

CrossFit’s approach to fitness has been described as “total fitness.” Again, going back to functional training, an individual who can bench press 450 pounds but cannot crawl through a window in full personal protective equipment doesn’t do any good on the fireground. Neither does a “runner” who has great difficulty throwing a 24-foot ground ladder to effect a rescue.




A truly fit firefighter should strive to meet the following fitness goals: cardiovascular/respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, agility, balance, and accuracy. Do all these physical characteristics apply to the fireground? They certainly do. Possessing these skills will not only allow you to perform your essential job tasks but also could potentially save your life or, at the very least, reduce your chances for injuries.




The nature of our job presents the possibility for unforeseen physical challenges; training for those challenges increases the chances for success. Firefighters, police officers, and the military have used CrossFit to prepare their personnel to overcome the physical barriers they face daily in their professions. Firefighters do not know what kind of physical challenges and obstacles they may face when starting the work shift. This program introduces such a broad range of physical exercise that when these challenges and obstacles present themselves, the trained firefighter is physically competent and ready to overcome. CrossFit crosses over into life outside of the job as well, whether you are playing with your children or are a member of your department’s softball team.




The human body uses carbohydrates, fats, and proteins as fuel for energy during exercise. These nutrients are converted into adenosine triphosphate (ATP) for energy. The energy released from ATP allows the muscles to contract. There is only enough “stored” ATP for about 10 seconds of muscular contraction, so the body must convert those nutrients into ATP to sustain activity.

The human body uses three energy systems for this conversion. The first two systems are anaerobic (without oxygen), and the third is aerobic (with oxygen). The ATP-CP system, used for short bursts of energy, about 10 seconds worth, requires no oxygen (anaerobic). The glycolytic system is used during short, high-intensity exercises—about several minutes’ worth. The by-product of this system is lactic acid buildup, which causes pain that limits your intensity. This system is also anaerobic. Aerobic metabolism, the third energy system, is used for long-term exercise (as the name indicates, it is aerobic).

This is just a general explanation of these systems; there is much more to them that comes into play physiologically. The point to make to the occupational athlete is that all these energy systems are used while operating on the fireground.




Although CrossFit encompasses many modalities, its strongest emphasis is on Olympic weightlifting, which trains athletes to develop explosive power and the ability to control specific objects. Olympic weightlifting trains the body to fire all the muscles at once (explosive strength) and forces the stabilizer muscles to activate toward the end of the lift. This translates into a greater ability to perform tasks such as forcible entry, breaching ceilings, and throwing ladders. Again, this type of training certainly translates to a more physically conditioned firefighter who meets the physical demands of the fireground.

CrossFit also emphasizes the “core”—the major functional aspect of the human body. It consists of extending and flexing the hip and extending, flexing, and rotating the trunk. Nearly all athletic movements are derived from the mass center of the body, the core. An individual with a solid core has been proven to be a better athlete. Possessing a solid core also reduces the chances for lower lumbar injuries and chronic back pain.

The program also incorporates basic and advanced gymnastic movements, including push-ups, pull-ups, and sit-ups. These movements force the body to rely on the individual’s body weight, which, in turn, improves balance, coordination, agility, and flexibility. These physical attributes improve performance in the following fireground tasks: ascending a ladder, self-rescue, and vertical ventilation on a pitched roof, to name a few. The program features variety, evidenced by a diverse range of exercises and movements. The workouts are short, although very intense, and replicate what we are called to do at a fire scene—engage in short and intense physical bouts.




The CrossFit workouts are dynamic, targeting the body’s various physiological energy systems and developing explosive power, strength, balance, agility, flexibility, and cardiovascular systems. Below are several examples of CrossFit workout routines:

  • Day 1: 50, then 40, then 30, then 20, and then 10 repetitions double-unders (jump rope) and sit-ups.
  • Day 2: four rounds as fast as you possibly can (timed)
    —10 pull-ups
    —20 kettlebell swings 20 kg (women, 12 kg)
    —30 sit-ups
    —400-meter run
  • Day 3: 150 repetitions as fast as you possibly can (times): medicine ball slams.
  • Day 4: 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10 repetitions of:
  • —200-meter run
    —overhead squats 95 lbs. (women, 65 lbs.)


You may not perform the same workout for several weeks. The workouts are posted on the main CrossFit Web site ( or can be obtained from various CrossFit affiliate Web sites. The workouts are posted as the workout of the day (WOD).

The average firefighter who may have a pretty good understanding of how to perform various exercises may ask, “What the heck is an overhead squat or a medicine ball slam?” The main Web site has an information section that demonstrates how to perform these movements. CrossFit personnel are available to help through the Web site’s message board. The site also has a section that explains how to get started.




Fortunately, the Denver (CO) Fire Department is in the infant stages of adopting the IAFC/IAFF Wellness Fitness Initiative; therefore, several peer fitness trainers are available to assist our members with their questions or to develop proper form and exercise techniques. If your department does not have peer fitness trainers, the local recreation center or health club may be a possibe resource for them. There are a number of CrossFit gyms around the country. Check the Web to find one in your area.

Beginners will find it helpful and sensible to “scale” the workouts, gradually working toward the goal of performing the posted workouts of the day. There are many ways to scale these workouts—reducing the weights posted or decreasing repetitions or rounds, for example. Beginners should focus on mastering the proper form for the exercises, especially the various Olympic lifts, to prevent injury and to reap the full benefits. It is far more important to learn the correct form of an exercise than to stack on the weight and risk getting hurt. When form is sacrificed for weight, the full benefit of the movement is lost and the potential for injury is increased.

Our department has officially adopted CrossFit as the physical fitness regimen for the recruit academy, with astounding results. Several of our training lieutenants have become certified CrossFit instructors. The equipment needed to train the recruits has been added to the gym in the training academy. Our recruits have not only the skill level they need to perform as a team in a fire company but also a physical fitness level that translates to excellent performance when the job demands it. Our recruits come out of the academy with an acute sense of the job’s physical demands and a solid fitness “mindset” they can carry with them through their careers. Also, many Denver firehouses have purchased the equipment so that crews can participate in this program. In these tough economic times, the cost of exercise equipment can be a barrier. It takes a minimal amount of equipment to get started in the CrossFit program, which keeps costs down.




I am a fervent advocate of any exercise routine that benefits firefighters. CrossFit is only one avenue of routines firefighters can use to achieve career benefits and lifelong health and wellness. Firefighters are athletes in every sense of the word. Professional athletes physically train themselves to earn a paycheck; we train ourselves to save our lives and provide professional service to the citizens we serve. As always, check with your physician, and have a complete physical exam prior to starting any workout program.




Foss, Merie; Steven Keteyian. Physiological Basis for Exercise and Sport, 6th ed. WCB/McGraw Hill, 1998.

Glassman, Greg., “Foundations,” CrossFit Journal, April 1, 2002

Kilgore, Lou, “Putting out Fires,” CrossFit Journal, March 2007.

United States Fire Administration, Firefighter Fatalities in the States in 2007. Federal Emergency Management Agency, C2 Technologies Inc., 2008.

JEFF LINVILLE is a lieutenant in Denver (CO) Fire Department Battalion 7, where he has served for nine years. He is a department peer fitness trainer. He has a B.A. in kinesiology, with an emphasis in fitness and exercise science, from the University of Northern Colorado.


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