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Conquering the CPAT Step Mill Drill

This article looks at the traditional graded step mill drill used in the CPAT testing process.

This drill is specifically designed to help a firefighter candidate pass the first leg of a traditional CPAT, the graded step mill. Most departments use a three to five minute time frame, with a 50 to 75 pound weighted vest. The same drill can also help in the field, lest not we forget what's most important, functionality at an actual fire.

There are a few simple rules:

  1. No leaning or touching of hand rails other than a brief brush to regain balance, with warnings given
  2. There's a brief warm up from a few seconds to three minutes
  3. Step pace is about one step per second, or 60 steps per minute
  4. Failure to complete the test results in disqualification of the candidate
  5. Sometimes used a medical exam, where heart rate is measured

If you have access to graded step mill, take advantage of it. Start with a light vest and work up. Letting the body gradually adapt is the safest way to go. For day in and day out training, the following routine can really produce results - even without a step mill or real stairs. Repeat up to three times per week. Learn how to pass the CPAT by clicking here.

Exercise One: Box Stepping
You will need an exercise step or sturdy box. Be sure it's stable and don't take anything for granted - test thoroughly. As a firefighter candidate you need to learn that if you're hurt the game is over. Sometimes there are no second chances. Box height can range from eight to 14 inches. I feel anything higher becomes an altogether different workout.

If you don't have a weight vest, hand-held kettlebells or dumbells will suffice. At the same time you'll be challenging grip strength. Start with one bell, and later add a second. If using a vest, limit initial weight to half of what you expect to see on your test. Add weight in small increments as you progress.

Mark your step at about six or seven inches from the edge. With each step, be sure to not allow your toes to extend beyond that line. A graded step mill forces you to stay on the balls of your feet (think of a narrow escalator step), transferring most of your weight to your quads (front of the thighs), and that's exactly what we need to replicate.

Pace should be about one step per second, and start at anywhere from two to five minutes. Use this as a baseline to establish your own specific limits (variables are length of set, weight carried, height of step, pace, total reps, reps per leg without switching).

Most candidates start at the following level:

  1. One three-minute set of stepping (preceded with one set of swings)
  2. Holding one bell (approx 25 pound)
  3. One step per second
  4. Step height of about 10 inches
  5. Alternate legs with each step

Exercise Two: Kettlebell Swings
Swings are best performed with professional grade kettlebells. If you don't have access to a pro grade bell, you can use any kettlebell or dumbbell to start out. Swings are explained in detail in the below video link. Follow directions closely. Attempt to do an equal number of swings on the left and right side. Start slowly and work up gradually over time. Don't underestimate the power of the swing to deliver intensity. See video for more details.

Alternate Exercise: Squat Thrust
If you don't have access to kettlebells, you can opt to go with the squat thrust as a viable alternative to the swing. See video for more details.

Check with your physician before starting any new exercise.

MIKE STEFANO, a Contributing Editor, is the author of The Firefighter's Workout Book and American Kettlbell Club (AKC) Fire/Rescue Advisor. For more information on kettlebell and firefighter workout programs, visit To read Mike's complete biography and view their archived articles, click here.