How to Motivate Firefighters to Workout

Jan. 10, 2008
The high rep, timed and paced sets of kettlebell sport exercises, can recreate the exact condition we, as firefighters, need, but with a workable progression.

Eric Liford and I were discussing how to get firefighters motivated to workout. Eric is the American Kettlebell Club's (AKC) editor-in-chief, as well as Head Coach Valery Fedorenko's right hand man. Since joining the AKC as Fire/Rescue Advisor, it's been my mission to expose as many firefighters as possible to not just fitness, but the best tool possible for the type of conditioning they need.

We decided to hold a contest and give away a set of kettlebells and a firefighter fitness seminar. The AKC supplies the bells, I do the workshop. It is a simple, but effective plan.

For more information, go to my Firefighter Fitness Essay Contest webpage.

I've been in this business a long time and have learned that, regardless of what general public's perception, the average firefighter is not an Olympic athlete who can barrel through a CPAT. Quite the contrary, these are everyday men and women, given a chance to go above and beyond. But this opportunity comes with a hefty price tag.

Studies show that we continue to lose over 100 firefighters in the line of duty every year. Just about half of those fatalities are from heart attacks. The human heart, especially if unconditioned, can only take so much. As firefighters, we haven't found a safe way to duplicate the effort put forth by the troops working a structural fire, at least not until now.

The high rep, timed and paced sets of kettlebell sport exercises, can recreate the exact condition we, as firefighters, need, but with a workable progression. Both regular weight lifting and cardio fall short for completely different reasons. Let's take a look at both:

Weight Lifting - Do a set, put the weight down and rest. How is that anything like a fire suppression effort where there's zero rest until the work is done? This might be the best way to hypertrophate or bloat muscles. Unfortunately, in this country we've been force fed this bodybuilding poison for over 50 years. High rep kettlebell work will make you exceptionally strong, as well as building crazy endurance and lean muscle. After jerking 24 kilograms (53 pounds) 100 times, pressing 100 pounds just five or 10 times seems like no big deal. Cardio - Sneakers, shorts, and a t-shirt weigh about two pounds. Full firefighter gear can weigh up to 75 pounds, more than a really heavy suitcase. Unless you get under the load, you're not training for the same event, and will fall miserably short. Cardio is a great assistance exercise to be used with kettlebells, as a supplement to heart and lung function, but the firefighter-specific work must be done under load, because that's the job.

Let's get back to the topic of kettlebells. Firefighters across this country need to embrace fitness and protect themselves, and not from just fatalities, but every one the thousands of disabling injuries that comes from overextending yourself when there's simply no other choice.

This is what I call the adrenalin factor. Everybody is amazed at how firefighters get the job done, but at what cost? The general public doesn't see the beating you take working above and beyond your actual capacity. Heart rate and blood pressure can soar into risky territory. The breathing rate is out of control, but as a dedicated firefighter, when there's work to be done, you just grin and bear it, typically working to utter exhaustion. They call that heart, ironically.

We find the strength to carry on but our bodies pay the price. From minor strains all the way to death, a physically unprepared firefighter is at high risk to him or herself. It's too bad that, in the gym, we can't exhibit just one-tenth of the motivation put forth by most members at a typical worker. The typical firehouse gym can be a ghost town.

Free Kettlebells!
Free kettlebells?!? What firefighter doesn't love a "free-o", as anything free is known on the FDNY. Free lunch, free drinks, free exercise! With kettlebells, as well as firefighter specific-stuff, specific instruction makes the system much more effective. The work in the gym is never easy, but firefighters don't fear work, it's the structured program, or lack thereof, that kills most programs. The winner of our essay contest will set an example on how simple it can be to implement a program.

Contest Rules
It's pretty basic stuff. You, or any member of your department (friend or spouse are OK) must write an essay that's 1,000 words or less on "Why Your Department Needs a Fitness Program." Entries can be submitted via email or web form. All applicants must be 18 years of age at time of submission.

The contest ends March 31, 2008 and will be judged on April Fools Day - April 1, 2008. The winner will receive a single set of kettlebells (four bells valued at $500) and a firefighter fitness seminar with me. The workshop and seminar is held at your location (or mine if necessary) and includes up to a 20 members in attendance (a larger seminar can be arranged). The seminar is valued at $3,000 for total prize of $3500. For more information, go to

Mike Stefano, a Contributing Editor, is a retired FDNY captain, is the author and creator of The Firefighter's Workout. Mike serves as the Fire/Resue Advisor for the American Kettlebell clubFor more information and firefighter task-specific training, visit Captain Mike's website at:

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