Improving Your Fireground Performance: Firefighter Functional Fitness

By Dan Kerrigan and Jim Moss

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit.” -Aristotle

For decades upon decades, most firefighters have agreed that their own health and fitness are key factors not only in improving fireground performance but also in increasing the chances for a long and healthy career and retirement.

We couldn’t agree more. In fact, health and fitness are more than key factors; they are requirements, and there’s good reason for this. For decades and decades, the number-one killer of firefighters has been and continues to be heart disease.

Much like fireground success, for our fitness efforts to be successful, we must also apply the correct strategies and tactics to our approach. In this article, we outline the strategy of the Four Pillars of Firefighter Functional Fitness, describe their components, and tell you how you can turn this strategy into a tactical approach to improving your functional fitness.

The Four Pillars of Firefighter Functional Fitness

If we are to truly improve our overall health and fitness, we must develop a comprehensive approach. Focusing specifically on strength training or cardiovascular capacity alone will not yield the results we want. By using the Four Pillars of Firefighter Functional Fitness, we can develop a strategy for success.

Pillar #1: Physical Fitness

If you can raise a ground ladder with a high level of skill but it takes you 10 minutes to do it, you are not performing optimally. If you can expertly stretch a hoseline from the engine to the third floor at a working fire but you do not have the endurance to use it to extinguish the fire, you are deficient in your abilities as a firefighter. Simply put, our physical fitness provides the foundation for our ability to carry out the fireground tasks demanded of us.

But, when it comes to physical fitness, what is really important? It’s our strong belief that firefighters must be functionally fit-in other words, directly relate our fitness activities to what we do on the fireground.

To help you do this, we have developed The Big 8 of Firefighter Functional Fitness: core strength, cardiovascular capacity, flexibility, push, pull, lift, carry, and drag. The Big 8 is based on the philosophy that our core is our center and the base from which we work. A strong core supports every other component of the Big 8, and it reduces our chances of injury from improper use of other muscle groups.

In terms of cardiovascular capacity, we must also consider how we function. We can go “from zero to 100” in the blink of an eye (photo 1). We are often expected to work well beyond our body’s theoretical capacity and still be proficient on the fireground while doing so. We must also be able to work hard, rest, work hard again, and continue this process until the job is done. For these reasons, firefighter functional fitness emphasizes both high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and moderate-intensity endurance training for our cardiovascular system. Incorporating both approaches into our workout routines will be of the most benefit, both from a work output and endurance standpoint. Both will improve heart and lung health to optimally deal with the stressors placed on our bodies long before we arrive at the scene and long after we return.

Most firefighters lack flexibility; this is obvious from the prevalence of muscular injuries (e.g., sprains and strains) in the fire service. To be functionally fit, a firefighter should incorporate flexibility training into workout warmups, into cool-downs, and as standalone workouts.

The remaining five components of The Big 8 directly relate to functional strength by applying strength-training exercises in these categories to what we do on the fireground most often. Executing push, pull, lift, carry, and drag movements in functional-strength training serves to engage the muscle groups most commonly used to execute fireground tasks. Functionally fit firefighters focus on properly executing these common movements instead of focusing on isolating muscle groups (i.e., chest, biceps, and calves). Therefore, firefighters should use functional-strength training to improve performance instead of focusing on improving their physiques.

Pillar #2: Recovery and Rest

Lack of proper rest has been proven to have a cumulative negative effect on our bodies, regardless of occupation. It is even more important for firefighters, though, given the arduous work we do and the unpredictability of our sleep schedules. Rest and recovery come in two primary forms: passive and active. Getting enough sleep or abstaining from working out on a particular day is a form of passive recovery. Active recovery involves physically helping our bodies to recover from strenuous activity. Examples include foam rolling, stretching, and massage.

Pillar #3: Hydration

Staying properly hydrated is another key building block in achieving and maintaining a high level of functional fitness. Dehydration subjects the human body to a whole host of stresses that have to be avoided at all costs. It has been said that most people wake up in the morning already dehydrated. Those who have 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. office jobs might be equipped to handle this reality, but we firefighters must pay better attention to how much we drink, when we drink, and what we drink.

Pillar #4: Nutrition and Lifestyle

Regardless of how much effort we put into exercising, we will never be able to out-train a poor diet. Intake and portion control are important to the typical person; but for firefighters, they are not options. Research shows that firefighters are at increased risk for heart disease-more so than just about any other population. Adding other risk factors such as poor diet, tobacco use, and excessive alcohol use will only increase the risk.

We must eat sensibly: limit our intake of foods known to be detrimental to our health and eat more of what provides us with the nutrition and energy we need to do our jobs well. We do not have to completely avoid foods like ice cream, but following a philosophy of moderation is the lifestyle choice all firefighters must make.

(1) A high level of cardiovascular capacity is essential. We can go “from zero to 100” in the blink of an eye, often pushing our bodies beyond theoretical maximum heart rate. (Photo by Jim Moss.)
(1) A high level of cardiovascular capacity is essential. We can go “from zero to 100” in the blink of an eye, often pushing our bodies beyond theoretical maximum heart rate. (Photo by Jim Moss.)

Putting Theory into Practice

In each of the above four pillars there exists opportunity for success. Think of the pillars as your strategy, and then apply specific tactics to meet the objectives of your Firefighter Functional Fitness Incident Action Plan.

Pillar #1: Tactics for Physical Fitness

Learn and use The Big 8 to direct your physical fitness efforts. Try to incorporate core-strength training into as much of your regimen as you can. Examples include leg lifts, standard and side planks, static holds, tension holds, and band exercises. Core training can be done as a standalone workout (lasting 30 minutes) or incorporated into other workouts for 10 minutes.

Use a good mix of HIIT and moderate-intensity endurance training for improved cardiovascular capacity. Sprints, crawls, battle ropes, kettlebell swings and complexes, and forcible entry simulations such as sledgehammer tire strikes are examples of HIIT that can also benefit you in functional strength areas. Treadmills, swimming, rowing, jogging, and stair climbers are examples of moderate-intensity endurance training that you can incorporate as well.

Before each workout session, spend five to 10 minutes warming up. You can first use foam rolling to “calm down” tight muscles and then use dynamic stretching. Try to focus your stretching efforts on the muscle groups you plan to work on during your session. Following each workout, spend another five to 10 minutes doing foam rolling and static stretching for a cool-down. Frog stretches, hip flexor stretches, dowel chest and shoulder opener stretches, and a whole host of muscle-specific stretches can be used. Also, consider yoga as an alternative form of flexibility training that also builds core strength and functional strength. When focusing on functional strength, use movements that fall into one or more of the five components of the Big 8 (push, pull, carry, drag, and lift). Overhead presses, push-ups, pull-ups, squats, heavy carry variations, hose drags, and ceiling pull simulations are all examples of functional-strength exercises that will improve your performance on the fireground.

Pillar #2: Tactics for Recovery and Rest

A one-hour workout is only four percent of your day. What you do during the other 23 hours is equally as, if not more, important for improving your functional fitness. Passive recovery methods are easy to implement and are a vital part of the equation. In between workouts, especially strength-training workouts, rest the affected muscle groups for 48 hours before performing the same type of strength training. As for sleep (which can be elusive for firefighters), strive for seven to eight hours per night. Adequate sleep is vital for muscle repair; repair of damaged blood vessels; and decreasing our risk of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

Incorporate into your daily and weekly fitness regimens active-recovery methods alongside passive recovery methods. As previously mentioned, incorporate foam rolling into warmups, cool-downs, and as needed in between workouts to break up muscle adhesions, decrease muscle soreness, and ward off fatigue/injury. Also consider a weekly massage to relieve mental and physical stress. Proper nutrition and hydration must be integrated to get the most out of your recovery periods.

Pillar #3: Tactics for Proper Hydration

The National Academy of Sports Medicine recommends three liters (13 cups) of water for men and 2.2 liters (nine cups) for women each day. These are conservative figures and are for sedentary individuals who do not work in extreme environmental conditions. Therefore, firefighters should exceed these numbers, especially if they endure a working fire or a strenuous workout. Getting enough water can include any type of fluids-which can come from drinking water, fruits, vegetables, and so on. Although firefighters love to drink coffee, soda, tea, and energy drinks, we must know that caffeine (and sugars) in these beverages can cause excessive urination. These diuretics can predispose us to dehydration, especially if we are going to working fires.

Keep track of your daily hydration, and be proactive about it. Use a common beverage container that has fluid volume markings on its side (i.e., a shaker bottle). Don’t wait for thirst to set in to drink some water; stay ahead of the curve and drink water throughout the day. Drink water when you wake up; with your meals; and especially before, during, and after physical activity.

Pillar #4 Tactics for Proper Nutrition and Lifestyle

The difficult, but very real, truth is that poor nutritional choices are a primary culprit in firefighters developing obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol, hypertension, and other health ailments. All of these disease processes play major roles in firefighters developing cardiovascular disease (CVD). Choosing proper nutrition that specifically targets, prevents, and reduces CVD will reduce your risk of heart attack, stroke, health-related retirement, and line-of-duty deaths. With a lifestyle of balance and moderation, firefighters also should choose foods with healthy fats, carbohydrates, proteins, and fiber.

Healthy fats are mono- and polyunsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids; they include avocados, nuts, nontropical oils, oily fish (i.e., salmon and trout), and leafy vegetables. Food with saturated fat is acceptable to eat, provided that it is from the most natural sources possible (i.e., naturally raised grass-fed organic meats, eggs, butter, and coconut oil). Restrict the unhealthy fats-trans fats, which include biscuits, margarine, and most fried foods (i.e., French fries, doughnuts, and so on).

Healthy carbohydrates include fruits, vegetables, and whole grains (i.e., old-fashioned oatmeal, quinoa, barley, brown rice, and wild rice, for example). Limit refined carbohydrates-foods with white flour, white rice, instant oatmeal, junk foods, sugar-added foods, sweeteners, sugary drinks, and alcohol. America’s obsession with refined carbohydrates and sugar has caused an exponential increase in diabetes, obesity, and heart disease over the past several decades.

Healthy proteins are those from natural, minimally processed sources. Animal-based sources include poultry, fish (salmon and trout), beef, pork, lamb, and game meats (venison and bison). Plant-based sources include nuts, legumes (beans and lentils), and low-sugar Greek yogurt. Eliminate consuming overly processed proteins such as hot dogs, meat sticks, pepperoni, and so on.

Most Americans do not get enough fiber in their diet. The Food and Drug Administration recommends 25-38 grams of fiber daily for women and men, respectively. Fiber is an essential part of the diet because it provides a healthy cholesterol profile, along with improved gastrointestinal function. Research has shown that individuals with adequate fiber intake have decreased risk of developing CVD, diabetes, and obesity. Fiber-rich foods include pears, apples, prunes, figs, peas, leafy greens, beans, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.

Being a functionally fit firefighter is much more than just improving your physical fitness. Incorporating adequate recovery and rest, proper hydration and nutrition, and a lifestyle of moderation are also pillars to success. As it pertains to physical fitness, focus on exercises and movements that directly relate to fireground functions and tasks. Combining all of these elements will subsequently maximize all aspects of fireground performance, add longevity to your career, and increase the opportunity for a healthy retirement.

DAN KERRIGAN, MS, EFO, CFO, is a 30-year fire service veteran and assistant fire marshal for the East Whiteland Township Fire Department in Chester County, Pennsylvania. He is the coauthor of Firefighter Functional Fitness and an advocate for firefighter health and wellness. He is a Russian kettlebells instructor and regularly researches, presents, and teaches Firefighter Functional Fitness principles to firefighters on the local and national levels.

JIM MOSS is a career fire officer with the Metro West Fire Protection District of St. Louis County, Missouri. He is the coauthor of Firefighter Functional Fitness and an advocate of firefighter fitness and wellness on the national level. He is a certified personal trainer through the National Academy of Sports Medicine. He trains firefighters in how to optimize their physical performance, careers, and lives through Firefighter Functional Fitness.

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