By John Hofman
It’s no secret that firefighting is a physically demanding job where fitness plays an important role. Words such as “occupational athlete” or “tactical athlete” are used by many fitness professionals when discussing the type of physical training needed for job performance. Yet, most do not realize that firefighters are not athletes; they are firefighters, and that means they come in all different shapes, sizes, and abilities. What is even more important is to understand where they are in their career.
Many people today are trying to create simple solutions to a difficult problem. What is becoming even more dangerous are how certain training modalities are claiming that “their way is the only way firefighters should train.” Nothing could be further from the truth. This would be like saying, “There is only one way to vent a roof” or the “smooth bore nozzle is the only way to go.” What we need to do is to step back, look at the needs of the firefighter, assess where they are in their career, and prescribe the best fitness solution.
Firefighters go through four phases throughout their career, which we characterize with the following terms: Academy, Probationary, Firefighter, and Chief. Each phase has a different priority, which will help develop a more specific physical training program that will meet the needs of the firefighter. Let’s take a closer look at each phase.
Priority: Performance Training
Age Range: 25-29
This phase has the closest association with an athlete because the priority is performance training. Many fire recruits enter the fire academy in below-average physical shape, and it is our job as fitness professionals to enhance their performance without causing injury so they are successful within the academy.
Solution: A periodized program that encompasses all the physical requirements needed in the fire service will allow the fitness professional to develop the most effective means of training for both the class and the individual. It will also allow the fitness trainer to expose their recruits to different types of modalities that they may be able to do later in their career.
Recommendation: Create a periodized program that will complement the drill ground and enhance the fire recruit’s ability to perform. Exercises should focus on activation, mobility and stability, strength, speed, endurance, and recovery. Randomization should be avoided at all cost.
Age Range: 30-35
During the academy, fire recruits enhance their physical fitness and graduate in the best shape of their lives. Once they enter into their probationary phase, they will be expected to maintain a certain level of fitness. One problem: they are trying to learn a new job, and fitness becomes less of a priority. Learning engine operations, truck operations, EMS protocols, cleaning duties, inspections, and the occasional dispatch call can become overwhelming, and fitness ends up on the bottom of the list. It is well documented that the average weight gain during the probationary period is 28 pounds and most of this could be attributed to poor nutritional habits.
While in the academy, recruit need to consume a large amount of calories so they can maintain a certain level of energy. On graduating, most do not adjust this caloric intake and, therefore, gain weight.
Solution: To maintain their level of fitness, probationary firefighters should exercise a minimum of two days of week at 70 percent of their aerobic capacity. With three months of no exercise, probationary firefighters will lose roughly half of their aerobic ability. An exercise program should take into consideration their schedule both at home and at work, as well as maintaining their aerobic capacity. Aerobic capacity is still widely regarded as a good measure of physical fitness and has been shown to be a good predictor of death because of cardiovascular problems.
Recommendation: High-intensity intermittent training may improve both anaerobic and aerobic energy systems significantly, so we recommend performing intervals runs.
Age Range: 35 – 45
Once firefighters are off probation, they will progress into their job and, over time, realize they are out of shape. But something else happens. They grow older! As we age, we lose flexibility, muscular strength, and endurance, and our aerobic capacity begins to diminish. Testosterone production begins to slow down in males, and we start to notice more belly fat. Oh yeah, these firefighters are probably married and have a mortgage and, therefore, have even less time than in their probationary period.
Then one day during a routine call they find themselves out of breath. Just a few years ago, they were able to perform the task without hesitation, but now they are winded and struggling for oxygen. The firefighter begins to realize HE IS OUT OF SHAPE! According to the National Fire Protection Association, most injuries for career firefighters occur between the ages of 30-39. A lot of this can be attributed to the above.
Solution: Getting the firefighter to move again is our main priority. It doesn’t matter if it is jumping rope, using an elliptical, or performing a circuit. What is important is that he starts to do something to establish healthy patterns and make fitness a priority. Over time, we can adjust the exercise program. Remember, the firefighters are probably not really concerned about how they look but rather about how they feel, so we need to encourage them to do something.
Recommendation: ANYTHING! Walk, run, swim, bike–just start making fitness a priority and encourage them.
Priority: Injury prevention
Age Range: 45+
Over the years, firefighting will take its toll on your body. Low back pain, shoulder pain, and other physical injuries are very common. Even if you exercise and take care of your body, it will eventually break down. It really is only a matter of time before we all have some type of back pain, so our priority here is injury prevention. We just do not want to hurt any more.
Solution: Because the job places so much stress on the body, we should incorporate movement patterns that focus on thoracic and hip mobility. Most firefighters will have weak glutes and tight hip flexors; therefore, it is recommend that they stretch the hip flexor and strengthen their glutes. Pelvic stability becomes diminished over the years; therefore, it becomes difficult to maintain a neutral pelvis during certain activities. Include exercises such as split squats and farmer’s walk to help strengthen the lumbo-pelvic region. Finally, use a foam roller to loosen up tight muscles and “untie your knots.”
Refrain from explosive type movements such as box jumps or Olympic lifts, and focus on quality over quantity. The focus should be on getting you healthy for retirement.
As you can see, different phases have different priorities, so we cannot assume that there is just one way to exercise. Researchers have shown that one-third of all injuries in the fire service are attributed to physical exercise. Could you imagine some official getting a hold of this information and then creating a policy that declares “no exercise during work hours?” This would do more harm than good. We need to be smart about how we prescribe exercise. Just because people use the words “functional, “multi-joint,” and “multi-planar” does not mean a mode of exercising is the best choice. Let’s put the circle in the circle and the square in the square. We all walk, squat, bend, and lift every day, so our exercise routine should mimic that based on our current fitness goal– the CAREER PHASE OF THE FIREFIGHTER.
John Hofman is the strength and conditioning coach for the Sacramento (CA) Fire Department. He oversees the Wellness Centre’ coordinates the department’s medical and fitness assessments, develops recruit fitness training and pre-employment medical and fitness evaluations, and assists the department’s 20 certified Peer Fitness Trainers. In addition, he works as the strength and conditioning coach for the California Regional Fire Academy, Sierra Fire Technology Program, Rocklin Fire Department, and South Placer Fire District. He also consults with the Fire Agency Self-Insurance System of California.
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