The 3 Fs of Firefighter Fitness: Part 4 - Functional Firefighters: How To Maximize Your Performance on the Fireground

Rich Meyer reviews one of the most important tools you have in your possession on the fireground: your body.

Your body is another tool of the trade which you always carry on a job. If you do not constantly train your body, you will not be able to function optimally, and you may be putting yourself or one of your teammates in danger. Think about the tools you grab when you're going to work: halligan, axe or...

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Using the above methods in training lets you condition your body in various angles that you might use on the fireground. When your brain and body learn a pattern of movement that you establish during training, you are less likely to hurt yourself on the fireground. As you progressively increase your strength and stability in these movements, your performance on the fireground increases because the tasks become easier. When movements become easier, they do not tax your heart as much.

A complete FT program utilizes a continuum to progress the intensity and degree of difficulty, which helps enhance your movement and functional strength. Whether you're a beginner or advanced trainee, the functional continuum always applies. By using this system of progression, you can create an endless amount of exercises for long-term results. Table 1 shows the functional continuum.

Functional training incorporates various types of equipment, and since the goal is to prepare your body by simulating movement, not muscles, FT can use just about any safe implement for training. Tools like sledgehammers, sandbags, hose bundles, ladders or staircases can add variety and specificity to your FT program.

Some inexpensive pieces like exercise bands, chains, medicine balls, balance boards, stability balls, and kettlebells (cast-iron cannonballs with handles) complement the usual equipment seen at many firehouses. These pieces do not take up much space and are relatively inexpensive.

FT Program

To improve your functional strength, core lifts like squats, lunges, step-ups, deadlifts, pull-ups, dips, overhead presses, rows and push-ups are excellent choices. These traditional lifts will help improve your coordination between muscle groups and condition the muscles commonly used in firefighting. One way to make these lifts functional is by looking at the functional continuum. Table 2 is the progression from a traditional to a functional squat. (Note: Most of your walking and running patterns are performed with one leg, so to prevent injuries to your lower body and lower back, you must make sure you can function on one leg. Also, if you run to stay in shape, one-legged training will ensure your hips are working to keep your knees and ankles in line.)

We can integrate traditional and functional exercises in various ways depending upon your goal. Using the superset method as shown in Table 3, we can stack a traditional and functional exercise to help you improve your strength, stability, power, balance and coordination.

In session 1, the traditional exercise is done before the functional exercise. Rest for 30 to 60 seconds between exercises (i.e., A1 and A2), and 60 to 120 seconds between pairs (i.e., A and B). During session 2, you can reverse the order for a different feel by doing the functional variation before the traditional exercise. Rest periods should be the same. Conditioning can involve a sled or heavy tire and rope to drag and pull, while a sledgehammer can be used to chop and swing for three to five minutes non-stop.

In keeping the rest periods short and performing a lower-body/upper-body push and upper-body pull movements, you will improve your fitness level and condition your entire body in a short time.

Using a functional training program, you can better prepare your body to perform functional fire-related tasks on scene and lessen the chances of injuries. Simultaneously, you can improve your body composition and fitness levels through the combination of exercises and varying rest periods. Remember, your body is like a tool, and it must be sharp and ready to go.

Progression - Variable
Slow Fast - Rep tempo
Simple Complex - Exercise selection
Stable Unstable - Base of support
Low force High force - Resistance
General Specific - Movements
Correct execution - Bodyweight to
Increased external resistance - free weights

Traditional - Progressive - Functional
Squat - Split squat - One-legged squat

Table 3. THE Superset Method
Session 1: Sets/Reps
Warmup (calisthenics): 5 minutes
A1 Squat: 3 x 6
A2 One-legged squat: 3 x 12 each leg
B1 Overhead press: 3 x 6
B2 OH medicine ball press with rotation: 3 x 12
C1 Barbell row: 3 x 6
C2 Dumbbell row w/rotation: 3 x 12 each arm
Conditioning (sled drags): 3-5 minutes
Cool down (stretching & massage): 5-10 minutes