The 3 Fs of Firefighter Fitness: Part 4 - Functional Firefighters: How To Maximize Your Performance on the Fireground

March 1, 2006
Rich Meyer reviews one of the most important tools you have in your possession on the fireground: your body.

Your body is another tool of the trade which you always carry on a job. If you do not constantly train your body, you will not be able to function optimally, and you may be putting yourself or one of your teammates in danger. Think about the tools you grab when you're going to work: halligan, axe or hoseline. The task will be completed if the appropriate tool functions in the right situation. In these scenarios, success is highly dependent on the function of the tool. Firefighting overall is highly dependent on the ability to function physically.

Behind your gear and your experience/decision-making, your body is one of the most important tools you have in your possession. In certain situations in which you have no tools and must act quickly, you must depend on your body functioning properly to get yourself out of trouble. Your body must also function properly so you can perform other fire-specific tasks like climbing stairs and ladders and searching for victims.

The human body contains over 700 muscles, 206 bones, numerous tendons and ligaments, and various joints. The different articulations of joints, where bones meet, are situated in different directions to let your body move in various degrees of free motion. Movement is the outcome of an impulse, which involves a high degree of coordination between your brain, nerves, joints and muscles. If one part breaks down along the path or is not working properly, the result is faulty or inefficient mechanics, which leads to injuries or poor performance.

Since lifting heavy objects or carrying tools properly is often the furthest thing from our minds on the fireground, faulty mechanics lead to increased incidence of strains and sprains. Faulty mechanics also increase our energy demands for simple tasks, which zaps our strength and endurance for more critical jobs. Sometimes, we think about tightening our abs or using our legs to lift and carry, but in the heat of the moment, our actions become more reactive. If our body is not prepared for this, we pull muscles, sprain ankles, or tear our knee or shoulder ligaments.

Fitness Vs. Performance

The distinction between fitness and performance is key to understanding a functional training program. Fitness is often thought of as being in good shape, managing healthy body fat levels, lacking disease, and having energy throughout the day. Performance is defined by your ability to accomplish a task. On the fireground, performance is key to successfully mitigating the situation. Being fit and healthy is a great way to prevent illness and lessen your chances of high blood pressure. However, performance or functional training prepares your body to handle the physical demands on your body and physiological systems. A performance program will help improve your function in two key ways:

  • Preventing injuries and enhancing graceful movement
  • Making sure your body's physiological systems work efficiently so you can easily perform tasks without dramatically increasing physical stress to abnormal levels

Other benefits of performance training will be improvements in your health and fitness. Essentially, it's the biggest bang for your buck.

Functional Training

Functional training (FT) is the performance aspect of our "3 Fs" system of firefighter conditioning. Functional training is a system of training that prepares your body for specific demands of firefighting by simulating fireground tasks in your workouts. An example is the sled drag. The sled is a useful tool to simulate dragging a charged hoseline from different angles. This specific exercise depicts the essence of FT. Training with the sled in a progressive system will undoubtedly help you drag charged lines on scene.

Another piece of equipment our firefighters use in training is PVC pipe. You can cut, drill and fill pieces to mimic the weight and shape of tools. We use a three-foot piece of pipe with a bolt at the end. We attached a piece of webbing and a small carabiner clip to the pipe, which we then attach to a cable column to mimic pulling ceilings.

Using the above methods in training lets you condition your body in various angles that you might use on the fireground. When your brain and body learn a pattern of movement that you establish during training, you are less likely to hurt yourself on the fireground. As you progressively increase your strength and stability in these movements, your performance on the fireground increases because the tasks become easier. When movements become easier, they do not tax your heart as much.

A complete FT program utilizes a continuum to progress the intensity and degree of difficulty, which helps enhance your movement and functional strength. Whether you're a beginner or advanced trainee, the functional continuum always applies. By using this system of progression, you can create an endless amount of exercises for long-term results. Table 1 shows the functional continuum.

Functional training incorporates various types of equipment, and since the goal is to prepare your body by simulating movement, not muscles, FT can use just about any safe implement for training. Tools like sledgehammers, sandbags, hose bundles, ladders or staircases can add variety and specificity to your FT program.

Some inexpensive pieces like exercise bands, chains, medicine balls, balance boards, stability balls, and kettlebells (cast-iron cannonballs with handles) complement the usual equipment seen at many firehouses. These pieces do not take up much space and are relatively inexpensive.

FT Program

To improve your functional strength, core lifts like squats, lunges, step-ups, deadlifts, pull-ups, dips, overhead presses, rows and push-ups are excellent choices. These traditional lifts will help improve your coordination between muscle groups and condition the muscles commonly used in firefighting. One way to make these lifts functional is by looking at the functional continuum. Table 2 is the progression from a traditional to a functional squat. (Note: Most of your walking and running patterns are performed with one leg, so to prevent injuries to your lower body and lower back, you must make sure you can function on one leg. Also, if you run to stay in shape, one-legged training will ensure your hips are working to keep your knees and ankles in line.)

We can integrate traditional and functional exercises in various ways depending upon your goal. Using the superset method as shown in Table 3, we can stack a traditional and functional exercise to help you improve your strength, stability, power, balance and coordination.

In session 1, the traditional exercise is done before the functional exercise. Rest for 30 to 60 seconds between exercises (i.e., A1 and A2), and 60 to 120 seconds between pairs (i.e., A and B). During session 2, you can reverse the order for a different feel by doing the functional variation before the traditional exercise. Rest periods should be the same. Conditioning can involve a sled or heavy tire and rope to drag and pull, while a sledgehammer can be used to chop and swing for three to five minutes non-stop.

In keeping the rest periods short and performing a lower-body/upper-body push and upper-body pull movements, you will improve your fitness level and condition your entire body in a short time.

Using a functional training program, you can better prepare your body to perform functional fire-related tasks on scene and lessen the chances of injuries. Simultaneously, you can improve your body composition and fitness levels through the combination of exercises and varying rest periods. Remember, your body is like a tool, and it must be sharp and ready to go.

Progression - Variable
Slow Fast - Rep tempo
Simple Complex - Exercise selection
Stable Unstable - Base of support
Low force High force - Resistance
General Specific - Movements
Correct execution - Bodyweight to
Increased external resistance - free weights

Traditional - Progressive - Functional
Squat - Split squat - One-legged squat

Table 3. THE Superset Method
Session 1: Sets/Reps
Warmup (calisthenics): 5 minutes
A1 Squat: 3 x 6
A2 One-legged squat: 3 x 12 each leg
B1 Overhead press: 3 x 6
B2 OH medicine ball press with rotation: 3 x 12
C1 Barbell row: 3 x 6
C2 Dumbbell row w/rotation: 3 x 12 each arm
Conditioning (sled drags): 3-5 minutes
Cool down (stretching & massage): 5-10 minutes

Session 2: Sets/Reps
Warmup (calisthenics): 5 minutes
A1 Lateral Lunge: 3 x 12 each leg
A2 Lunge: 3 x 6
B1 Stability ball pushup: 3 x 12
B2 Dumbbell chest press: 3 x 6
C1 Towel chinups: 3 x 12
C2 Lat pull down: 3 x 6
Conditioning (sledgehammer): 3-5 minutes
Cool down (stretching & massage): 5-10 minutes

Rich Meyer, CSCS, USAW, is the author of FAST Responders: The ULTIMATE Guide to Firefighter Conditioning and owner of FASTBODIES Fitness and Performance in Bloomfield, NJ. Meyer is a firefighter and rescue technician with the Bloomfield Volunteer Fire Rescue Company and is available for private, company or fire department physical fitness coaching. To receive a free training journal, go to

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