By Ty Wheeler
Fitness in the fire service is paramount for firefighters to perform their necessary duties on a daily basis. We often hear the term “tactical fitness,” but what does this mean? If you walk into any firehouse gym, you would see a combination of programs to keep firefighters in top shape. Traditionally, workouts in the firehouse focused around a bodybuilding type programming, where body specific and isolation exercises are performed. Although this produces an increase in muscle mass, this does not replicate the needs based on the environment in which we operate.
The term tactical fitness is usually associated with military, law enforcement, and firefighting, but what exactly does that mean, and how do we become “tactically fit”? To answer this question, we must understand what tactical means. Webster’s Dictionary defines “tactical” as “Of, relating to, used for a specific plan that is created to achieve particular goal.” Each discipline previously mentioned has a particular goal. Whether law enforcement or firefighting, we all have a specific goal which we are trying to accomplish. This can be taking down a high priority target in the mountains in the middle east, serving a warrant for arrest of a suspected murderer, or extinguishing a high rise fire; we have our goals which we are trying to achieve the safest and most efficient as possible. To complete our goal or tasks, must prepare ourselves intellectually and as well as physically to increase our advantage over the opponent.
With the emergence of Crossfit and circuit training, we are becoming diverse in the type of exercises being performed by firefighters throughout the country. These types of exercise demand high-intensity, rapid movements with little or no rest. This creates a metabolic conditioning within our bodies which replicates that which is needed on the fireground. I am not endorsing or suggesting Crossfit, but it is a source of training which you can use. Other types of exercise typically seen would include long distance running and steady state cardio, among others.
To become tactically fit, we must understand our goals and job duties we perform to create a program that fits our needs. A military solider is going to have a different program than a firefighter because of the conditions in which each respectively operate. A police officer might have to produce top-end speed and a high acceleration rate for sprinting, but he does not need to carry 75 pounds while preforming these tasks. A firefighter, on the other hand, would benefit from strength over top-end speed. National Strength and Conditioning Association terms specificity as a “method where an athlete is trained in a specific manner to produce a specific adaptation or training outcome.”2 This will depend on the type of work you perform and which programming will fit your needs.
Once you have identified your fitness needs, you can begin to tailor your workouts to become tactically fit. To determine your fitness level, determine your level of tactical fitness by taking a physical fitness test. You can find many tests online, but the most common test pertaining to firefighting is the Candidate Physical Agility Test (CPAT). Firefighting is an anaerobic activity because of the nature of energy systems, which are more active during firefighting. These activities require high force and high power output completed in a short duration with high intensity.
There are several different key components for tactical fitness. You are required to be very adaptable because of the changing environment that you encounter. The main components I will focus on here are strength, conditioning, mobility, and recovery/rehabilitation. When creating or performing your workouts, you need to incorporate these “Four Foundations” to become tactically fit.
Before I discuss specific foundations of tactical fitness, I must discuss the training program and periodization. Periodization is the term given to define the schedule of your workouts. In a typical athletic program, the athlete progresses through macrocycles: preseason, in-season, postseason, and off-season. Each one of these macrocycles has a specific purpose as it relates to the amount of work, intensities, and recovery protocols to meet the needs of the athlete. Because tactical personnel do not have a set schedule or an off-season, it hinders the tactical athlete and coach when programming specific periodization. Having to always be performing at the in-season macrocycle, we need to program the workouts with a specific goal in mind.
To become tactically fit, you need to reach a respectable level of fitness. If you are not at this point, this will be your starting point and will consist of hard work, specific nutrition, and weight loss or muscle gain protocol. Once you have reached a level of exceptional physical ability, you need to program the periodization to maintain and continue to grow, but in a more controlled manner specific to tactical fitness.
To being periodization, you will still need to create macrocycles within your program. These will consist of strength, conditioning, and endurance. Within these phases, you will also incorporate recovery and rehab to maintain your level of fitness and prevent injuries. Each one of these macrocycles will then be broken down into microcycles, which I will outline below.
For the majority of the tactical athletes, strength is going to be a major factor because of the nature of our profession. To perform the necessary tasks on the fireground, every firefighter needs to have a basic strength level. Whether carrying ladder, advancing a charged hoseline, or rescuing a downed firefighter; strength is essential in all activities and will aid in the success of every firefighter. To begin to build basic strength, the National Strength and Conditioning Association states, “To increase the strength of the muscles essential to the primary sport movement,”(2) a programming protocol of three to five sets with four to eight repetitions per exercise at two to three workouts a week is a good way to begin.
As you reach a more intermediate or advanced lifting level, you can begin to cycle through the microcycles of strength. Determining specific exercises will depend on your current status of physical ability and also your exercise knowledge. Generally, the best exercises to perform are compound lifts, i.e., squats, deadlifts, the overhead press, barbell rows, and the bench press. These compound whole body exercises are great for incorporating many different muscle groups and stabilization muscles for overall strength gain. Strength training coach and author Mark Rippetoe states that,” Properly performed, full range-of-motion barbell exercises are essentially the functional expression of human skeletal and muscular anatomy under load.”3 Although these exercises provide the most benefit, they are also very technical to perform. It is best to have good technique prior to performing these exercises or perform with your coach. These compound exercises have many benefits including, “Central nervous stimulation, improved balance, and coordination, skeletal loading and bone density enhancement, muscular stimulation and growth, connective tissue stress and strength…and overall conditioning.” Isolation exercises are good for adding mass, increasing strength in a particular weak area, or can also be used for balance improvement, but typically they benefit bodybuilding competitors.
Growth phase involves high volume exercises. The purpose of this is to build mass, but a volume type program trains with lower weights. Starting at three to six sets per exercise and 10-20 reps per set will aid in mass building. This will encourage the muscles to grow and produce more muscle fibers. The weight will be lower percentage. As seen in the graph below, growth or hypertrophy requires 50 to 75 percent of your one repetition max (1RM). Growth phases are typically going to be four weeks, but can range three to five weeks based on the timing of your periodization. Personnel who are genetically thin-framed and with low muscle mass will greatly benefit from this phase. Putting on mass will later translate into strength gains as well.
Strength phase will build muscular strength; this will encourage the muscle fiber you grew in the first phase to produce more force per unit (per muscle fiber). This requires three to five sets with a repetition range of four to eight reps. Because the reps are decreased, you are able to increase the percentage of your 1RM. Strength percentage is going to be 80 to 90 percent of your 1RM. The strength phase can last three to five weeks, with an optimal duration of four weeks. Everyone in the tactical field is going to benefit from this phase and will be the staple in most strength programs.
Peaking phase is going to test your max strength. This is completed in just one week—to stress the muscles to their capacity. You want to limit this phase to only one week because of the stress you are placing on the body with high weights. This phase is shorter in duration because you want to limit the potential for injuries. This requires one to three sets of one to three reps. You will be lifting 93 percent or higher of your 1RM.
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Conditioning is at times a misunderstood term in the fitness industry. Many people think conditioning is just cardiovascular exercise such as running or biking, but it is certainly not that simple. Conditioning is defined by Webster as, “The act or process of training a person or animal to do something or to behave in a certain way in a particular situation.” This is essentially the ability to training our bodies to perform work at a high rate with quick recovery time to perform that work again.
We can condition our bodies several different methods based on our needs. Someone who runs such as a marathon runner or road course bicyclist would benefit from cardiovascular training. For firefighting, we can incorporate high intensity interval training (HIIT), functional movement, metabolic conditioning (MetCon), or plyometric to meet our needs. Simply, conditioning is programming our bodies to perform a particular way by training it to do so. We can do this by increasing our work capacity. For firefighting, improving VO2max is a great example of improving conditioning. Other types of professions include boxing, wrestling, and sprinting evolutions. Again, your profession will determine your needs.
Mobility is the ability for our bodies to perform functional movements; it is important not only to tactical fitness but also to general health and wellness. As a society, we have very poor posture and general mobility because of our culture and way of life. As we get older, our muscles begin to tighten because of a lack of movement and a generally sedentary lifestyle; in the fire service, this will be one of the most important aspects of fitness. “Sprains, Strains, and back injuries are the leading injuries for firefighters.”7 If your body is unable to move correctly, you will be in a compromised positon when performing strenuous activities. This will prevent injuries and increase the range of motion of your joints. There are two key points to mobility I will cover here: flexibility and balance.
While on the fireground, you are going to be in compromised positions, whether you are on a ladder or on a roof. You need to have a general sense of balance to remain safe on the fireground and have meaningful movements. Everyone knows one firefighter who spends more time on the ground than standing. He is not only at risk of injuring himself but also his fellow firefighters.
To increase your balance, you can perform unilateral movements, which strengthens accessory and stabilization muscles. These movements include the Bulgarian split squat, the one-arm snatch, the stork deadlift, the single-leg glute bridge, and many more. I do not recommend BOSU® ball because the risk for injuries is greater and we do not operate on a moving object in any aspect of our job.
Flexibility is the movement of your joints and muscles to elongate the ligaments, tendons, and muscles to increase the range of motion (ROM). There are several ways you can accomplish this. Dynamic stretch is the preferred method, especially before strength training. Dynamic stretching is stretching with active movement (leg or arm swings).
Static stretching is another and most common stretch seen prior to workouts. A recent study found this type of stretching weakened the muscle over time and caused a loss of strength. This type of stretching is best done is a separate session, when a muscle has tightened because of injury. When performing this stretching method, pull the muscle until a stretch is felt. Once you reach the end point of the stretch, hold without movement for 30 seconds and release.
Ballistic stretching involves a bouncing movement. This type of stretch is especially damaging and leads to injuries of muscle and connective tissues.
The final type of stretch is Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF). This stretch involves passive and active stretching techniques. To perform PNF, a partner is recommended. Start by getting into an isometric stretch, and then hold the stretch. The athlete contracts the muscle and holds a passive prestretch at a mild discomfort for about 10 seconds. Then relax the muscle, then stretch the muscle, and repeat.
Other types of mobility would include foam rolling, lacrosse ball, roller stick, and band stretching among others. These will be discussed in recovery and rehab.
The most overlooked and under estimated aspect of fitness is recovery and rehab. As tactical athletes, our bodies take a beating. We need to take care of our bodies so we are able to perform when needed. There are four key points we are going to focus on in the recovery section, which follow.
Dehydration. Fluid intake plays a critical role in fitness and performance. Dehydration can have serious negative effects including electrolyte imbalances, which can lead to many health concerns. The role of adequate hydration is endless. “Chronically dehydrated athletes are at increased risk for poor performance and heat illness.”(2) Hydration affects fluid volume within our circulator system; flushes toxins; balances electrolytes; and improves muscular contraction, digestion, and muscle recovery. When you combine general dehydration with exercise, your fluid loss is even greater.
The Food and Nutrition Board recommends a fluid intake of 3.7 liters (L) for men and 2.7L for women per day without added workout fluid loss from sweat. As a general rule after workouts or strenuous activity, (like a working fire) you need to consume one pint of fluid for each pound of body weight lost. This is very difficult to determine before going on a run, but fluid replacement is essential and should be monitored.
Nutrition. Nutrition is often the hardest aspect of fitness. We are surrounded by daily temptations of non-nutrient-dense foods and hindered by a busy schedule. To be tactically fit, we have to have the energy to fuel our bodies. If we put poor food into our bodies, a feeling of grogginess, fatigue, and sluggishness can cause a decrease in performance and mental acuity. “Your health and performance will…benefit from every improvement you make in the quality of the nutrition you take it.”4 A lot of people assume taking supplements will produce increased muscle mass and strength. Before you even think about supplements, your nutrition needs to be on point. Eat nutrient-dense food with high-quality protein, good carbohydrates, and healthy fats, which are going to be the basis around which you need to build your meals. In the firehouse, we are known for our large meals of unhealthy food, but changing this habit can be simple. We can replace unhealthy high carbohydrate foods for healthy options such as sweet potatoes, yams, brown rice, and vegetables. This is especially important surrounding workouts. Once you have a good diet of quality food, you can then add in supplements to give you the extra boost and recovery.
Sleep. In the fire service, nights can escape us quickly. Running call after call in the wee hours of the night is not uncommon. This lack of sleep increases our risk of health issues and has detrimental effects on our bodies. Sleep deprivation can increase the mortality rate in men and women when the recommended eight hours of sleep is missed.
There are many consequences which will directly effect us and a few things we can do in order to prevent these. With chronic sleep deprivation, we are at increased risk for anxiety, depression, irritability, reduced cognitive function, and memory loss. Sleep has also been linked to obesity.
To improve your sleep, we can focus on several areas. First, set a bed time, and turn off all electronics. This will reduce the stimulation of the brain and let your mind begin to rest. Instead of looking at your phone, you can read a book. Secondly, improve nutrition. Some food we consume increases brain alertness and activity. In the fire service, coffee is a staple in all firefighters’ daily routines. You need to assess your tolerance to coffee and determine how the caffeine effects you. Some people are caffeine sensitive, and it will keep them awake if consumed later in the afternoon. If allowed, take “cat naps” throughout the day.
A 20-minute nap has many benefits to your health. Although some may want to “crash” for 45 to 60 minutes, this is not recommended. Our sleep cycles go through several stages. If we enter stages 3 and 4, our body will feel more tired when we wake. Finally, see your doctor if you believe you have a sleep disorder. The National Sleep Foundation states, “Sleep problems are often overlooked or ignored. In fact, the overwhelming majority of people with sleep disorders are undiagnosed and untreated…untreated sleep disorders have been linked to hypertension, heart disease, stroke, depression, diabetes and other chronic diseases.”5
Rehabilitation. Rehabilitation is important for those who want to become tactically fit. So far, I have talked about strength, conditioning, mobility, and recovery, but rehabilitation needs to be a staple in your life as a tactical athlete. It is inevitable that everyone is going to sustain an injury while in the field. Sprains, strains, and soreness is common for those who push their bodies to the limit everyday. We need to be able to rehab appropriately before the overuse fatigue turns into an injury. To aid in muscle rehab, we can take several approaches. Foam rolling is a must for any athlete, and rightfully so. Foam rolling requires a technique called self-myofascial release (SMR). In other words, when we push our bodies, they respond to the stress by building muscle, increasing tendon strength, and creating collagen between the fascia (outer muscle layer covering) and the layers of the skin. This will inhibit movement and causes the muscle to tighten and limit ROM. Using a foam roller, you will be able to localize trigger points and knots within your muscle to improve the mobility. This will also increase blood flow and help repair the damaged muscle. The National Association of Sport Medicine has stated that SMR benefits can include correcting muscle imbalances; improving range of motion, tissue repair, and neuromuscular efficiency; reducing soreness, and decreasing overall stress in the muscles.6 Other techniques include lacrosse ball trigger point therapy, resistance band stretching, and roller stick. All of these techniques help release tension and repair adhesions. If your tightness persists or you want to seek professional aid, chiropractors, sports massage, physical therapists, and acupuncture are all possible resources to improve your rehabilitation.
Tactical fitness has been a growing trend the past few years and will only continue to do so as we begin to focus on fitness, which will aid us in our profession. Tactical fitness is much more than just throwing a bag on your shoulders and running through a workout; it involves multiple aspects to prepare your body to preform under the harshest conditions and aid in postincident recovery.
If you are able to take the Four Foundations of Tactical Fitness and incorporate them into your workouts and everyday life, you will begin your journey to become tactically fit. There is never going to be an end point in this journey, and it is something you will need to continue throughout your life. Tactical fitness is not just working out to perform; it is also preparing yourself to survive.
- Webster’s Dictionary, 11th edition.
- Baechle TR and Earle RW (2008). Essentials of strength training and conditioning (3rd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
- Rippetoe M and Kilgore L. (2013). Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training (3rd ed.). Wichita Falls, TX: Aasgaard.
- Ivy J. and Portman R. (2004). Nutrient Timing: The future of sports nutrition. Laguna Beach, CA: Basic Health Publications..
Ty Wheeler is a nine-year fire service veteran and a firefighter/paramedic with Johnston-Grimes (IA) Metropolitan Fire Department. He has an associate degree in paramedicine and a bachelor’s degree in fire science administration from Waldorf University. Wheeler has received several fire service and emergency medical services certifications throughout his fire service career at the state and national level. He is a member of the Iowa Society of Fire Service Instructors and with the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). Wheeler is also a certified strength and conditioning coach through the NSCA. He also teaches for the Iowa Fire Service Training Bureau and will soon serve as the Iowa Director of the Firefighter Cancer Support Network.