Crossfit and the Fire Service

By Ed Hadfield

Throughout my professional fire service career, I have been involved in some form of athletics. Over the past 26 years, weightlifting has been the primary base of those athletics, but I have also used numerous other sports to enhance fitness. I have performed running, mountain biking, playing football for the Los Angeles Heat, softball in the Firefighter Olympics, and even participated in professional rodeo. Part of this quest was to remain fit and conditioned for firefighting. The other reason was the simple joy of competition.  

It is widely accepted that a firefighter’s tasks are physically demanding and that high performance is primarily based upon the level of fitness. Fitness and conditioning are not based on the amount of time working out; rather, it is based upon the sum of work performed and enhancements made in work capacity during that time. Simply stated, it’s not quantity–it is effort and quality. As a firefighters, we are “occupational athletes” who are required to remain in peak condition and maintain a high level of overall fitness at all times. This is the expectation of our community and, rightfully, the expectation of our colleagues.

The functions of a firefighter are demanding and strenuous work. The tasks associated with those functions require us to do uncommonly well in very uncommon circumstances. Failure is not an option as we are often the last line of defense. The ever-changing aspect of the job creates situations in which our physical capabilities will be taxed beyond imaginable belief. Because of the flexibility required to handle complex situations, we must acquire a functional level of fitness.

If one were to distill the needs of the occupational athlete into an applicable fitness definition, it would be: “A fire service functional fitness program should be designed to provide strength and conditioning in a manner which is constantly varied, provides simple functional movement, and performed at high intensity. The goal of this program is to improve conditioning, fitness levels, and provide a foundation to increase work capacity across broad time and modal domains.” Sounds great, right? If you think that is exact definition of Crossfit, you would be correct. You see, Crossfit provides fitness programming while increasing overall levels of performance because of the simplicity and functionality of its approach.

 Crossfit is not an exercise program that bases its programming on mono-structured metabolic conditioning (such as a treadmill, elliptical machine, or exercise bike) followed by unilateral strength movements (including dumbbell lateral raises, bicep curls, and seated rows), all of which are inadequate and do nothing to meet the demands placed on our bodies during firefighting. I have seen many firefighters with great “beach” muscles who aren’t strong enough to raise a 35-foot ladder in full gear. I have also seen professional triathletes who are gassed after going through the first bottle of air and spend the rest of the fire in rehab.

Many progressive fire departments participate in and encourage department-sponsored medical wellness programs. In these programs, personnel are tested to determine their oxygen consumption (VO2 )max score, which is assumed to be a good measurement of a person’s fitness level.

A basic understanding of such measurement is that the maximum oxygen uptake is measured as the barometer for how efficient your body is at transferring the oxygen that you breathe into your blood stream to replenish your aerobic exercising muscles. Accurately measuring VO2 max involves a physical effort sufficient in duration and intensity to fully tax the aerobic energy system. In athletic testing, this usually involves a graded exercise test (either on a treadmill or on a cycle ergometer) in which exercise intensity is progressively increased while measuring ventilation, oxygen, and carbon dioxide concentration of the inhaled and exhaled air. VO2 max is reached when oxygen consumption remains at steady state despite an increase in workload. This is only one clinical indicator of overall conditioning and is not an indicator adequate fitness for the fire service, however.

Sports science has proven that the number of variables affecting VO2 max (including age, gender, fitness and training, changes in altitude, and action of the ventilatory muscles) make it a relatively poor predictor of performance. There are too many variables in efficiency and fatigue resistance to use it as a measuring tool for overall fitness. The primary reason this is such a poor indicator of general conditioning and fitness is simple: fitness and conditioning are much more than cardio endurance and oxygen uptake.

CrossFit’s use of three different standards or models for evaluating and guiding fitness provide a greater understanding of why it is well-suited for the fire service. Collectively, these three standards define the CrossFit view of fitness. The first is based on the 10 general physical skills widely recognized by exercise physiologists (See Below). The second standard is based on the performance of athletic tasks. The third is based on the energy systems that drive all human action.

Each model is critical to the overall CrossFit concept and programming model and each has a distinct use in evaluating an firefighters overall fitness or a strength and conditioning regimen’s efficacy.

Ten general physical skills:

  • Cardiovascular endurance
  • Stamina
  • Strength
  • Flexibility
  • Power
  • Speed
  • Coordination
  • Accuracy
  • Agility
  • Balance

As it relates to fitness and conditioning for the fire service, firefighters need to be proficient in all of the aforementioned physical skills. The beauty of Crossfit is the program allows the individual to use his strengths while exposing weaknesses that can be augmented and improved through multiple disciplines. Simply put, if strength is your weakness and endurance is your strength, then your capacity to accomplish work will only be a strong as your limited ability and strength will carry you.

We all must recognize there is no single workout program that trains for perfect fitness. The motivation for the three standards is simply to ensure the firefighter is exposed to and provided the broadest and most general level of fitness and conditioning programming possible. The first model evaluates our efforts against a full range of general physical adaptations. The second model focuses on breadth and depth of performance, while the third is programmed to measure time, power, and energy systems. It needs to be said that Crossfit programming for the fire service is deliberately broad, general, and inclusive. It is NOT a specialized program which will enhance specific areas of fitness and conditioning such a power or endurance. In fact, the Crossfit mantra of “constantly varied, functional movements executed at high intensity” specifically identifies the lack of specialization. Crossfit programming for the fire service is designed to create fitter, better conditioned occupational athletes that are capable of performing work over a greater period of time while under load more efficiently. This can only be accomplished if we continuously train our bodies and provide the proper nutrients to combat the challenges of our profession and continue to do uncommon things uncommonly well during arduous circumstances.

EDWARD HADFIELD has more than 25 years of fire service experience and serves as a division chief. He is a frequent speaker on leadership, sharing his experiences within the fire service, and also with corporate and civic leaders throughout the United States. He created and teaches company officer development programs and is a specialist in truck company operations, firefighter safety and survivability, and mission-focused command tactics. He was the 2004 California Training Officer of the Year. He has developed state and regional truck company academies in California, Washington, and Oregon.


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