The Firefighter Fitness Pentagon: Part 3 – Muscular Strength and Endurance

Rod Hammer discusses how increasing muscular fitness will allow you to perform fire suppression activities better and reduce on-the-job injuries.


Everything you do during fire suppression requires muscle activity. Whether you are pushing, pulling, lifting, bending, holding, carrying or even just standing, your muscles are active. It is because of this activity that you are able to function on the fireground. Each task you...


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Everything you do during fire suppression requires muscle activity. Whether you are pushing, pulling, lifting, bending, holding, carrying or even just standing, your muscles are active. It is because of this activity that you are able to function on the fireground.

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Each task you attempt to perform requires different muscles to activate in a different manner. Simply walking around in your bunker gear requires activity from your abdominal, back and leg muscles. Add to that the extra weight of a hose pack and then start climbing stairs and you see an increase in muscle activity of the already burdened back and leg muscles. Deficiencies in muscular fitness may lead to poor performance or even injury. Conversely, increasing muscular fitness will allow you to perform fire suppression activities better and reduce on the job injuries.

Several researchers have quantified the strength requirements of fire suppression. In 1992, Gledhill and Jamnik measured weights and forces of many fireground activities. They found the most common activities included lifting and carrying objects up to 80 pounds, pulling objects up to 135 pounds and working with objects in front of the body weighing up to 125 pounds. While these may be the most common, we all know that there are extreme events that we may encounter as well. If your 240-pound partner collapses, you have to have the strength and endurance to pull him out of harm’s way. It is critical that you maintain a strength program to have the necessary strength and endurance to safely perform all aspects of your job.

Muscle activity can be divided into two broad categories: strength and endurance. Although the two categories are related, it is important to identify the differences between them. Muscular strength is the maximal ability of the muscle to contract. Strength is the heaviest thing you can lift one time.

Endurance is somewhat different. It is the ability of your muscles to persist in an activity. Endurance is the number of times you can repeat a movement or length of time you can maintain a contraction. If you apply these definitions to weightlifting, strength is how much weight you can lift one time, while endurance is the number of times you can lift a lighter weight.

You should now be able to classify fire suppression activities into either the strength or endurance category. Activities that are not sustained such as hoisting a chain saw, raising a ladder and advancing a charged line are strength activities. Repeatedly tearing at a ceiling with a pike pole, directing a water stream from a handline or stabilizing a ladder are endurance activities. Your ability to persist in doing many different strength activities during fire suppression could be considered one big endurance event. Strength and endurance are not mutually exclusive.

Assessment. Muscular strength and endurance can be measured to give you an idea of where you stand in relation to yourself and other firefighters. I will describe several assessment methods, then provide you with reference values for each test.

Two tests used to determine muscular strength and endurance are the one repetition maximum (1 RM) test to measure strength and the YMCA bench press test to measure endurance. Maximal testing requires the user to find a weight (through trial and error) that is the most he or she can bench press one time.

According to researchers, the 1 RM test is safe for adults if no other pre-existing musculoskeletal issues are present. Safety should be the first concern when testing muscular strength. It is important that the firefighter maintain good form while performing the test. When performing the bench press, the back should be firmly pressed against the bench. Arching the back must not be allowed. Do not perform this test if there is or has been a back or other musculoskeletal injury that has not been cleared by a physician. The 1 RM test described by Kramer and Fry is conducted as follows:

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