In part one of this series, we spoke about the "3 Fs" of firefighter conditioning: fitness, fat loss and function. The "3 Fs" system is a way for you to achieve optimal health, body composition and performance as a firefighter. This installment will remind you of the impact fitness has on firefighters, show you how to create your own fitness plan and recommend alternative ways to achieve fitness.
What exactly is fitness? Is it some tangible thing we hold in our hand or is it an image of you standing in the mirror showing off your rock-hard abs? Is it your doctor telling you that you have just passed your stress test and doesn't want to see you for another six months? In general terms, fitness is a feeling of good health or a feeling of being in good "shape."
As a firefighter, fitness helps you endure the long calls that involve a lot of work and helps you recover quickly after the big three-alarm fire so you're ready for the next one. Being fit means that you don't use as much air in your bottle and that you feel light yet strong in full turnout gear. Other benefits are listed in Table 1.
Traditionally, fitness has been achieved with aerobic exercise such as walking, jogging, stair climbing, and cycling. It is usually supplemented with light strength training (i.e., three sets of 12 to 15 repetitions per set) and stretching. Recreational and extreme sports and weightlifting are examples of activities that can also help improve your fitness, if performed properly.
Why is fitness important to you? As a firefighter, given the physical demands and unpredictability of the job, your body has to be ready at a moment's notice for every possible situation. Having a high level of fitness means you're able to perform at multiple scenes without increasing the chances of a heart attack or stroke. Your breathing rate returns to normal quickly after strenuous work, and your heart maintains a more constant rate as opposed to big peaks and valleys. Essentially, your heart, lungs, breathing tubes and blood vessels are efficiently delivering oxygen to working muscles.
Lactic acid, a waste product in your blood and a limiting factor to your efficiency, builds up quickly during intense movements and is associated with the "burning" in the muscles that are being used. For instance, if you are climbing stairs with your gear and tools, your quads (thigh muscles) and calves are going to burn from a lactic acid buildup. A high level of fitness means that your body will get the lactic acid out of your quads and calves quicker so you can get the job done swiftly and pain free. Improving your fitness also helps lower your blood pressure, thereby reducing the chances of an on-scene heart attack.
Consult Table 2 to figure out your target heart rate (THR) and use a heart-rate monitor to stay within that range during training sessions.
Three to five sessions per week of training in your THR zone can progressively train your cardiorespiratory system to become more efficient (and yes, burn more calories from fat too). Each session must last between 20 and 60 minutes, depending on your conditioning level. The length and intensity of your sessions can increase (while staying within your THR) as you become more fit.
Create YOUR Plan
Creating your plan is simple, easy and fun, and it doesn't require extensive training experience. To customize the "3 Fs," you must include your goals and self-assessment and define your variables. First, define a measurable, realistic, and specific goal. An example of a goal is, "I will decrease my two-mile run 45 seconds by Nov. 12." Measurable (decrease time by 45 seconds) means that it can be quantified during your re-test to see if you have progressed. Realistic means it can be accomplished within a sensible time frame (two months). With a properly designed training program, cutting 45 seconds off your two-mile time is a realistic goal. The specificity of your goal will help you focus on what you have to do in order to achieve it. To cut 45 seconds off your time by Nov. 12, you know you have to run two miles at least twice per week as well as strengthen your running muscles. So, take your goal and put down on paper what you need to get there!
The next step in creating your plan is the self-assessment. This will establish where your body's at now, giving you a benchmark for progress. Table 3 provides a guide for your self-assessment. Your self-assessment can be done every four weeks to see if you're on the right track
The final step in creating your program is defining the program variables. Variables are aspects of your program that can be altered for the desired results. The variables are shown in Table 4.
Putting It All Together
The final step is to combine everything you've learned thus far into your plan of attack. You'll have to consider the fitness variables, your goals, work schedule and accessible equipment. Since we take a performance-based approach, we use an integrated form that focuses on movements, not just muscles (since you don't just use one muscle at a time on the fireground). Table 5 shows you which movements target your large and stabilizing muscles throughout your body.
The circuit shown in Table 6 can easily fit it into your schedule, no matter how many hours you work in a week. Regardless of your weekly schedule, make sure at least two days in your week are designated non-training days to aid in recovery, keep your mind fresh, and enjoy time with your family and friends. Make sure you leave at least one day in between the three training days for light activity (aerobic only).
Very little equipment is needed for an effective program. We recommend having dumbbells, barbells, medicine balls, exercise bands, a bench, step or box, and stability balls. These items are reasonably priced and can be purchased at many sports or fitness stores and on the Internet.
You are free to choose exercises which correlate to the movements. If exercises become boring, you can experiment by changing your stance from normal, hip-width to a staggered stance (left foot in front of right and vice-versa). You can also change other variables, such as the speed of movement, number of repetitions or weight.
You'll be able to customize your own program according to your fitness goals by using the template in Table 6.
In the next article, we will discuss how you can train to maximize muscle gain and fat loss to improve your health.
Rich Meyer, CSCS, USAW, is a firefighter and rescue technician with the Bloomfield, NJ, Volunteer Fire Rescue Company. He is the founder of FASTBODIES Fitness and Performance and creator of FAST Responders Functional Fire Fitness program. Meyer is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the NSCA. For more information or to sign up for a free online training journal, go to www.functionalfirefitness.com.