Fitness Success for Firefighters

The time to make resolutions is behind us, and for many, those resolutions may be in full swing. However, for many people who made health and fitness a goal for the new year, it is easy to fall off the wagon. For some of you, this may be the first time in a while you're stepping foot in a gym, or this may be a time to ramp up your program which you've been working on for the better part of your career.

The most frequently asked question I get from firefighters is, "How do I get started?" Career demands, injuries, stress, bad experiences at the gym, and lack of knowledge or awareness are some excuses I hear for falling out of a routine. It would be easy for me to say, "Go lift weights and walk," as if those were the only necessary parts of any program. Since a true fitness program contains many parts, we have to take multiple steps when starting. Some are related to the physical act of exercising and some are not. A little effort before hitting the weights will go a long way.

These steps will help you achieve your health and fitness goals in 2010.

  1. Body cleanse and detoxify. Eating unhealthy processed foods and being exposed to harmful chemicals are good reasons to cleanse your digestive and excretory systems as you begin. Cleansing will allow for the absorption of nutrients from healthy foods you should be eating. Consult a nutritionist or registered dietician for a recommendation. Eat more fruits and vegetables and increase your water intake.
  2. Clean up your diet. You could be doing the world's greatest workout program, but you will only be as good as your eating habits. Reducing sugar, caffeine and alcohol is a good place to start. Also, eating smaller, more-frequent meals (four to six per day, on average) can ramp up your metabolism. However, the key is going to be a healthy shopping list. Having healthy foods around you when you're hungry is a great way to stave off the garbage foods and reduce cravings.
  3. Manage your time. Let's face it, there are only so many hours in a day. And since life doesn't just stop, you have to plan time for your workouts. Make sure you plan your workouts according to the type of equipment you have available at the firehouse, in your basement or at the gym. Variety can keep your mind fresh and progress constant. In addition, make sure you schedule time for shopping (so you don't go when you're hungry), cooking and food preparation.
  4. Set goals — and review them. Now that you're aware of how much time you have in your week for fitness, take a look at your fitness goals: to lose fat, gain muscle, get rid of pain, walk upstairs in full gear without being out of breathe and so on. Your goals will help guide your workout template and total time for each session. Think back to when you felt your best and remember the exercises you enjoyed doing and which paid off the best. Feel free to add them into your program at the appropriate time.
  5. Build your support system. Your support system will be only those people who are happy for your success and will give you a boost when you need it. This is a good time to define your "anchors" as well, so you know whom to stay away from around mealtime, or with whom not to share your success. "Anchors" are people who will constantly tear you down and prevent you from achieving your goals.
  6. 6. Assess your fitness. A medical exam and blood work will help determine your state of readiness and provide part of your baseline conditioning level. You should also assess your weight, blood pressure, resting heart rate and glucose levels. An injury history and movement assessment should be part of your overall assessment. Also, a job-specific assessment such as an obstacle course (on air, perhaps) will help establish your baseline and can be used in a few months to gauge your progress.
  7. Start slowly. You've done a bunch of work before you even touched the weights, but it's all necessary for your success. Now it's time to start moving. This is where you put your plan into action, by starting slowly. Even though quickly going from zero to 60 is a part of our job, it doesn't have to be part of your fitness program. If you haven't worked out in a while, start by exercising just a couple of times per week with minimal effort just to get into the habit of exercising. You should take the first three to four weeks to break into the habit and get past the initial aches and pains. Start with general exercises, especially some that you know, before moving on to job-specific ones. Make sure you leave room for progression at the end of each phase.

A little effort before you hit the gym will help formulate the basis of your workout program and success. If you need help, enlist the services of a qualified strength coach (not just a personal trainer) and/or a nutritionist to get you moving in the right direction.

RICH MEYER is a firefighter with Nashua, NH, Fire Rescue and the author of F.A.S.T. Responders: The Ultimate Guide to Firefighter Conditioning. He has been a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) for over 10 years and specializes in firefighter fitness, reconditioning and physical test preparation programs. For more information, see