Firefighter Candidate Fitness

May 1, 2006

You've just completed the five-minute step mill segment, and your oversized weight vest feels like it weighs 500 (versus 50) pounds. No time to think, you hit the stop-button, and head for the next event, hoping you won't lose breakfast on the way.

Sound familiar? This is the same scenario I'm faced with over and over again. Young men and women, with plenty of desire, knowledge, and even motivation, but without the physical capacity to score well. How do you get past this final hurdle to the job of your dreams?

Before You Start

First, realize that there is no sense in crying about failures. Learn from them and start training for the next one. Maintaining a positive attitude is a must if you're going to have any shot at passing some of the larger department's more competitive exams.

Second, get a clear understanding of what the test is all about. For example, the FDNY utilizes multiple events all performed in a sequence. The candidate proceeds directly from the dummy drag to the hose pull event, to the search event, to the forcible entry event, and on and on.

Be sure you know the dynamics of each event and if possible gain access to a mock practice site (sometimes provided by major municipalities). Ask around and find out if any local organizations offer support or training. Also be sure to check the internet. Most departments have websites, and they'll post detailed descriptions of testing procedures. Get the entire test mapped out on paper way in advance.

Make three lists. Can't pass, pass but need to improve, and ace the event. Obviously, work most on your weaknesses, but don't take your strengths for granted. Continue to cultivate what you're good at and use it whenever you can.

Develop A Plan Of Action

Based on testing details and your strengths and weaknesses list, design your own CPAT prep exercise plan.

Building long-term endurance levels is usually not necessary, but may become more important at the training academy where they tend to run the probies every day. More importantly, concentrate on building strength and mid-range endurance of two to 10 minutes, depending upon the variables of your particular test.

You'll either need health club access, or just a set of free weights for use at home. Both will do just fine. Again, concentrate on movements that clearly mimic your departments test, but tend to build a lot of strength. Exercises like squats, step ups, push ups and rows usually work really well.

Don't work at too high a rep range, as it's just as important to build strength as endurance, no more than 10 reps on any set with perfect form is what I prefer for most CPAT prep programs, and this is standard for all of my clients (with a few exceptions).

Try and do full body workouts, especially at the beginning, and group sets together (of different exercises) to get the effect of going from one event to the other, but don't over do. Rest when needed to regain strength.

Pay special attention to grip strength. Forearm builders like reverse curls, but most free weight workouts require tremendous forearm involvement, so usually no special exercises are necessary. If you find your overall grip needs building, try pinching two weight plates between your thumb and four fingers while your arms hang at your side. Walking around is encouraged for sanity. Start light (use a pair of fives or tens) and work up. Also work on increasing hold times up to one minute or more.

Support Plan

Keep yourself fresh by eating right, getting plenty of sleep and rest, and be sure to NOT overtrain, as this is usually what destroys most programs.

And don't forget to stretch. Remember, this is an agility test! Don't get too complicated, but try and learn a few basic stretches that will keep your hamstrings and hips loose. Also be sure to stretch your chest, especially if doing a lot of pushups (master pushups for the fire academy).

Keep cardio to a minimum, unless weight loss is an issue, and even then, don't go too crazy. Preferably, learns the ins and outs of fitness interval training, and build endurance specific to your test. Fitness interval training works something like this:

  • Get on your machine of choice, or walk or run. Start really slowly, after about 3 minutes, pick up the pace for about one minute or more. Slow down when winded. Once rested, repeat the entire cycle for up to five times, or make each cycle longer. Limit cardio sessions to a total of about 20 minutes.

The above has been an overview on how to physically prepare for most CPAT's across the country. I hope it helps you get a better understanding of what you need to do to score well enough become a career firefighter.

Captain Mike Stefano, formerly of the FDNY, offers firefirefighter workouts and CPAT prep programs to men and women from across the country via his online custom workout plan. For more information, visit his website at:

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