How-To Guide: Firefighter Stair Climb

Get ready to climb a quarter-mile straight up! Find out more about the 16th Annual Scott Firefighter Stairclimb, on March 4, 2007 at the Columbia Center in downtown Seattle!

At this early stage in my "climb", I was mostly worried about dodging panicky civilians, who were now filing down the stairs in hasty retreat, but by the time I reached the fifth floor landing I could already hear the screams.

Upon arrival, we saw dense, black smoke pushing heavily from what appeared to be a small window on the 23rd floor. Praying an elevator would be parked in the lobby waiting to transport the first alarm assignment, I was met with disappointment when my lieutenant gave my team the nod, "Start climbing, if the elevators don't arrive in a minute, we'll all follow".

Me and my 60 pounds of gear pushed open the stairwell door and started stepping. No big deal at first, one foot after the other, holding a tool in each hand, with a water-can slung over my shoulder. My mask harness began to dig in, as my quads slowly developed a dull ache. But that's when I heard those desperate screams - so I stepped on.

By the time I reached the 23rd floor I thought my legs were on fire. I actually crawled up the last five flights. The screaming turned out to be those of a terrified young woman, who happened to be floors below the fire and perfectly safe. The fire apartment itself was vacant.

As it turned out, the elevator arrived in less than a minute and the troops were safely transported to the 23rd floor, and made quick work of this routine operation. The only injury was to my toasted body. To build stair climbing, as well as other firefighter-specific abilities, click here.

That was very early on in my career, when I didn't quite understand the connection between strength and endurance. In those days, there was a tendency to separate training, to the point of being categorized as either a runner or weight lifter. Today, it's an integrated concept, especially when it comes to preparing for fire operations, as evidenced in climbing multiple flights of stairs while weighted down with 50, 60, or even 70 pounds of gear and fire equipment.

After that fateful day I set about devising some basic exercise programs, utilizing techniques I'd learned through both practical experience and endless research to help my fellow firefighters handle the almost daily stair-climb experience. To follow is an example of one of those routines.

Necessary Equipment

  1. Dumbbells
  2. Step of variable height
  3. Weighted vest (optional)

Exercise List

  1. Push Press
  2. Overhead Snatch
  3. Farmer's Walk
  4. Step Ups

Program Overview

  • This program gradually progresses you over eight weeks. The seventh week represents an unloading cycle (where you can still workout, but at a lower level). During week 8, you'll be at your peak and ready to go.
  • Continue along alternating Workout A and Workout B regardless of how many sessions are completed each week. Ideally, you'll get at least two of each, or three of each over a two-week period. Regardless, alternate between the two routines.
  • Sets are done for a timed sequence and you can count reps just for record keeping. Keep your pace as slow as it needs to be, and stop and rest whenever necessary. Keep resistance light on the Push Press, Snatch, and attempt to complete for the suggested times.
  • You can substitute Step Ups with a stepping machine, but a weighted vest would be necessary as you cannot hold dumbbells while on the machine.
  • You can continue all other cardio or resistance work if you have the time and energy. Suggested, if possible, is some actual stair climbing with a weighted vest (and or SCBA if you have the opportunity).
  • Sets are performed in an alternating sequence between the Push Press (or Snatch) and Step Ups (or Stepping). Both the Push Press and Snatch are 1-Arm moves that will require a set on each arm. Perform one set of Step Ups after the set with each arm.

8 Week Progressive Stepping Program

  • Click here for the program chart in PDF format.
  • Click here for the program chart in Word format.

The Exercises

1-Arm Push Press

Bring one dumbbell to shoulder level as shown in picture. Next, bend the hips and knees a few inches. Inhale, and get ready to explode up with the both the legs and one or two arms. Using a hip thrust (stand up quickly, driving up) lock out hips and knees as you simultaneously press the weight overhead (lock out elbow). Feel the heal of the hand push through the bell handle and be aware of the hip, knee, and elbow lockout all occurring at the same time. The inside of the upper arms should wind up near your ears in the full lockout position.

Bend at the elbow and lower bell back to shoulder, dip again and repeat another push press. This exercise builds timing, explosive power (strength plus speed) and endurance. Can be done with one or two dumb bell's and for much higher reps or minutes (unlimited number for endurance improvement), or can be used as a method to overhead press a heavy dumbbell for low reps (for unlimited strength gains). Be sure to get your timing down before increasing weight.

1-Arm Dumbell Snatch

Stand with feet at hip width or slightly wider, bell on floor in front of you. Toes are straight or point slightly out. Tighten the abs and clench the glutes (for spinal support) before you bend first at the hips and then knees to pick you the dumbbell with one hand. You can swing the bell back between your legs (hike a football type of pass) a few inches before pulling up.

Inhale just before pulling and with synchronized hip and upper body motion, pull the weight up from the floor with your legs (pop up on the toes). Allow the momentum of the pull and hip thrust to continue propelling the bell upward. Keep the arc of travel as close to the body as possible.

When the bell reaches the chest, there will be a shift of weight from your fingers pulling the bell, to the heel of your hand. Get under the still moving bell (dip you knees if necessary), and punch it straight up. Be sure your wrist doesn't bend back at the top of the move, and the bar pushes straight down through a non-bent wrist and vertical forearm. This is not simple press, the momentum from your hip thrust is the driving force.

This should be fairly easy to do for a few reps unless you attempt too heavy a weight. For most men a 15- or 20-pound bell is a good start, for most women, an eight- or 10-pound bell works nicely. Be sure to use the thrust from your legs and hips to hoist the bell overhead, instead of using pure upper body. This is a full body effort.

Remember, your back stays straight and tight, head up, shins vertical (weight on heels) glutes (squeeze cheeks) and abs (brace for punch) tight as you press the weight completely overhead (locking out your elbow). Do not arch or bend backwards as your straight arm is next to your ear. Pause for a brief second and allow the weight to drop first to shoulder level, then back to starting position (absorbing the dropping weight with your legs) Inhale sharply, reverse the direction and pull dumb bell back up once again (be sure to lead with the hips). Coordinate your breathing with your movements (exhale up, inhale down works for most people).

Step Ups

Adjust step height as indicated and face step. Alternate legs and continue stepping for minutes indicated. You'll perform one set of step ups after every one arm set of the push press and snatch (one set of steps per arm).

Farmer's Walk

This movement is so simple it needs no illustration. At the end of your workout, grab hold of 2 relatively heavy dumbbells and walk, just like a farmer carrying to heavy buckets. Perform one long set for the length of time indicated. This will provide and excellent cool down period.

Strenuous exercise can be inherently dangerous. Stop or rest if you become severely out of breath of faint. See your physician before beginning any new program.

Mike Stefano, retired FDNY captain, is the author and creator of The Firefighter's Workout. For more information and firefighter task-specific training, visit Captain Mike's website at:

Get ready to climb a quarter-mile straight up! Find out more about the 16th Annual Scott Firefighter Stairclimb, on March 4, 2007 at the Columbia Center in downtown Seattle!