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

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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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 successful career ending due to a heart attack or stroke shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Fire service organizations have done a great job of bringing the topic of firefighter health and fitness to the forefront, but is that enough? As more information comes forth about how the cumulative effects of stress, cardiac risk factors and lifestyle habits impact your life as a firefighter, the need for a comprehensive and specific program still exists.

This is the introduction to a series of articles about a concept called “The ‘3 Fs’ of Firefighter Conditioning.” The “3 Fs” – fitness, fat loss and function – will help you formulate a customized program that’s right for you and address your individual goals. The “3 Fs” is a three-step system of conditioning that you can use to improve your health, body composition and/or performance on the job. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reports that 52 firefighters lost their lives in the line of duty in 2004 due to non-traumatic causes such as heart attacks and strokes. More precisely, 49 firefighters died directly from heart attacks. That seems like a real problem, right?

Actually, those statistics are the consequences. You must dive deeper to find the real problem, and if you look around your firehouse, you just may see with your own eyes. One of the problems lies in the choices you make in regard to food and lifestyle habits.

Whether you’re a career or volunteer firefighter, your day or shift is unpredictable and at the mercy of a random call schedule. Your days may fall into one of these two categories: busy running all day or slow times interspersed with intense moments. If you’re busy, chances are you probably have little time to sit and eat and are often faced with the decision of not eating or eating food that’s convenient and unhealthy. If you are lucky enough to have time to eat, you may buy food for your entire crew, which means the majority rules. The majority may not be your best choice, but one bad meal won’t hurt, right? One may not, but when bad choices are repeated over time, they become habits.

The other problem with food choices is that eating is commonly a social behavior, and often when firefighters sit, talk and eat, they eat for taste and comfort, not health. This habit, coupled with the rush of a busy, technology-driven life on the off days, creates an unhealthy and unsupportive environment one needs when trying to address lifestyle issues. If you do not have the discipline, determination and support from peers and family, your chances of leading a healthy life are not in your favor. The consequence of perpetuating this cycle is becoming a firefighter who will die from preventable causes.

By searching the Internet today, you can find some websites and companies devoted to firefighter fitness. If you look closely at the programs they promote, you’ll see that only a few are worth mentioning. Unfortunately, the large emphasis on firefighter fitness has given rise to simple, machine-based programs designed to train the masses without a system that creates a plan for you.

As a firefighter, your program shouldn’t look like your neighbor’s. If you have ever started a fitness program and dropped out before eight weeks, chances are it wasn’t right for you. You have inherent strengths and weaknesses that must be considered for your plan to work.

You are also built differently than your partner or superior officer. When you begin a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all program that isn’t tailored to you, it falls short of your expectations. It becomes a hassle to train and consequently you just give up on it. The downward spiral into couch-heaven begins, and you inevitably choose the lounge chair over the squat rack.

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.

In following articles, we will define each “F,” clarify how you can create your own plan and specify the best ways to train each component. The first step in using this system effectively is to honestly assess your current state. After you know where you are, following a system like the “3 Fs” will help you achieve optimal fitness, body fat and function.

Rich Meyer will present “Functional Training for Firefighters: Essential Programs for Fitness, Fat Loss and Function” at Firehouse Expo 2005, July 26-31 in Baltimore.


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.

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