The 3 Fs of Firefighter Conditioning: Fitness, Fat Loss and Function

Rich Meyer introduces a series of articles that will help you formulate a customized program that’s right for you and address your individual goals.


Every day, Firehouse.com, newspapers and TV news reports remind us of the ever-present dangers of the fire service and the ultimate price some of our brothers and sisters pay. One can expect to lose firefighters to traumatic causes because of the nature of the job, but news of a firefighter’s...


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Cardiovascular exercise that targets the heart and lungs is often touted as the best workout for a firefighter. Given one choice, would it be cardio? Running mile after mile is a great way to improve the health of your cardiovascular system, but it shouldn’t be the only way to train.

To obtain cardiovascular benefits, you must train at 55% to 75% of your maximum heart rate for a prolonged period. A heart-rate monitor is an effective training tool to make sure you stay within your range, but on scene do you pay attention to your heart rate in the heat of the battle? Are you telling yourself to pull the line at 70% of your heart rate in order to last the entire scene? Chances are you’re thinking, “Yank that hose so we can get it to the second floor.” You may not even work for a sustained 20 minutes, and your bottle only lasts so long anyway. After doing miles of cardio, ordinary tasks become a bit harder because your strength may drop off and you’re still out of breath after a few pulls, carries or lifts. Cardiovascular exercise only helps your ability to perform submaximal (less than your maximum force output) work. When you’re out of breath, your oxygen demands exceed your body’s ability to produce it. Therefore, you must rely on your anaerobic (“without oxygen”) system for energy.

Anaerobic training, consisting of short bursts of highly intense effort, helps prepare your body for those moments when you have to use all of your strength for one or repeated efforts. Pulling ceilings and walls, chopping holes and rescuing trapped firefighters are examples of anaerobic events requiring your ability to perform quickly with great strength and power. Cardiovascular training alone can’t prepare your body for such work. Anaerobic training prepares your body to handle these and other highly stressful situations and prevents the shock of the sudden onset of stress.

The “3 Fs” are a perfect solution to these problems for three reasons:

  • The three-step system has been designed to help you create a plan that’s right for you.
  • Rather than stopping at fitness, we’re taking a performance-based approach.
  • We’re shifting the perception of a firefighter from an ordinary gym-goer to one of extreme athlete.

In working and talking with many firefighters, we’ve discovered they fall into one of six categories (as shown in diagram above):

  1. They are fit and lean, but in pain and lack job-specific physical abilities.
  2. They are lean and pain-free, but aren’t fit.
  3. They are fit and pain-free, but need to lose body fat.
  4. They are fit, but fat, in pain and lack job-specific physical abilities.
  5. They are lean, but unfit and highly susceptible to injury.
  6. They are unfit, fat and in pain.

Categorizing your current state is the foundation for your pre-plan. The group in which you fall is where you begin your exercise program. Each component is initially treated separately then integrated later on into one program to help you achieve optimal conditioning and get you into the middle of the wheel.

As stated previously, stopping at fitness won’t allow you to attain the other benefits of this program. That’s why we’re taking a performance-based approach with firefighters. When starting an exercise program, health benefits are always the easiest to achieve, followed by fitness benefits, changes in body composition and performance benefits, respectively. The difference between fitness and performance programs lie in the training parameters. An example of a training parameter, which will be addressed in future articles, is exercise selection/movement. Fitness is only one-third of the puzzle, and by aiming for performance, you will still achieve the health and body composition benefits.

Page five of Essentials of Firefighting states, “Firefighters are not extraordinary – they are ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary situations.” Your body is ordinary in the sense that it has the same muscles, bones, organs, nerves and joints as children, elderly adults and the anatomy poster on my wall. However, the decisions you make, situations you face and actions you take are anything but ordinary. Do you think a regular fitness program is going to truly prepare you for the job? That’s why we consider firefighters extreme athletes, because there’s nothing more extreme than facing death for a living. We must be more specific when talking about physical requirements and the abilities we use daily.