The 3 Fs of Firefighter Conditioning: Part 5

April 1, 2006
In the conclusion of this series describing fitness, fat loss and function, Rich Meyer details how to cover your bases.

It’s 3 A.M. The bells sound and in a flash you’re on the rig and out of the firehouse. You finish putting on your airpack, listening to the radio, and begin sizing up the scene in your head. The last thing on your mind right now is whether you’re fit for the fight you’re about to encounter. Are you thinking about how much weight you had on the bench press last night? Are you thinking about how you should have been working out before? Probably not.

This series of articles has given you a pre-training assessment to establish baseline levels and help you clearly define your physical fitness goals. We’ve also given you programs to improve your fitness, fat loss and function. In this fifth and final installment, we will review the “3 Fs†of firefighter conditioning – fitness, fat loss and function – and give you an idea as to how you can integrate all of these programs into one time-efficient program to cover all of your bases.

To demonstrate how this program works, we are working with several firefighters in New Jersey who have seen excellent results after as few as seven sessions. We can see a difference in how they handle the exercises, but they see the difference in performing their fireground tasks, recovering between tasks and air consumption. One firefighter lost nearly eight pounds with just two sessions per week.

Reviewing the “3 Fsâ€

Fitness, often defined as a feeling of good health, is the part of our system that pertains to your health, energy levels and cardiovascular system. The benefits of a fitness program include reduction of blood pressure, cholesterol, body fat, anxiety and chances of a heart attack. Being fit means your endurance will allow you to recover quickly and maintain your work efficiency for your entire shift. Circuit training is the best way to increase your fitness level using total-body workouts and higher repetitions per each set of each exercise.

Fat loss is the second of the “3 Fs†and often the hardest to battle. Stress, poor eating habits and lack of exercise all contribute to higher body fat levels, which are linked to heart disease, diabetes and stroke. Some issues regarding fat loss are discipline to eat the right foods at the right time, peer pressure, support from colleagues and family, and plateaus reached after periods of time.

The five parts to your fat-loss plan are proper nutrient intake, strength training, cardiovascular exercise, supplementation and professional assistance. To lose body fat, you must burn off more calories from exercise than you take in from food. By reducing your caloric intake no more than 500 calories below your maintenance level and adding consistent, progressive exercise to your life, you will see fat-loss changes over time. Remember that if you lose too much fat too quickly, your body will rebound and put on the same amount or even more just as quickly. Other recommendations for fat loss include eating breakfast, drinking more water, eating four to six meals per day, and avoiding refined carbohydrates like white pasta, white rice and cookies.

Functional training can help prevent injuries and improve performance of firefighting tasks. Your body is one of the most useful tools you carry when you arrive on scene. In order for your tools to operate properly, they must be sharp and trained properly. Your body is no exception. The greatest transfer of effect from the gym to the fireground occurs when you mimic fireground activities in your exercise program. An example of this is dragging a weighted sled some distance to simulate dragging hoselines. Other examples are crawling in various patterns and climbing stairs with dumbbells to simulate a multi-story situation.

When you condition your body in angles similar to those to which it is exposed on the fire scene, you are less likely to get hurt. In the same way, when you’re training at the same intensity level, over time, your work on the fireground is more tolerable. This will also help your body adapt to the intense environment and reduce your chances of a heart attack. Your functional program, just like all others, must be progressive to let your body handle that stress over time. Equipment used in a functional program includes power sleds, sandbags, chains, medicine balls, hoses, sledgehammers, stability balls and dumbbells.

Putting It All Together

We can now take this system one step further. You already have a 12-week program in hand just by looking back at the previous articles. The last phase of the system is integration of all the previous “3 Fs.†Using this system will help you improve fireground tasks, recover between calls, stay healthy and prevent injuries. It will also help you lose body fat – provided you’re eating properly and improve your work capacity.

In order for this phase to cover all of these bases, timed intervals are used rather than repetition ranges (such as 12-15 per set). By using timed intervals, you can improve your work capacity by doing more work in the same amount of time by either doing more repetitions or using more weight. Over the course of this phase, the work intervals will increase as the rest intervals decrease. Work-to-rest ratios are important to note since they will target different aspects of performance. This type of system stimulates your anaerobic and aerobic metabolism and will keep you strong, build muscle to burn calories and improve your cardiovascular system.

The Basics

Using a circuit-training style, we can arrange the order of exercises that target abilities (such as agility, strength and flexibility), body regions (upper and lower, core) or movements (push, pull, lift, carry, drag or crawl). Start the phase with short work intervals and equal or longer rest. For example, the first week can include 30-second work intervals and 30-second rest intervals (these are called “30s.: 30s.â€) During the second week, you can use 45-second work intervals with 30 seconds of rest, and in the third week, you can progress to 60 seconds of work with 30 seconds of rest. This phase can conclude with work intervals being 60 to 90 seconds long and rest being between 15 and 20 seconds. As you rotate through the circuits, have one firefighter rest in each round to keep the time. Precede every session with a five- to seven-minute dynamic warm-up involving balance, flexibility and coordination exercises. Leave the static stretching until the end.

The optimal length of each session should be 45 minutes. However, the duration of your session is a variable that can also be progressed (from 30 to 60 minutes) once your conditioning level improves. The length of intervals will determine how many rounds of each circuit you complete in accordance to whatever duration you’re using. For example, if you’re in week one and using 30s.: 30s. work-to-rest ratio, you might be able to get three circuits of four exercises each for three rounds each in a 45-minute session. An example is given above.

Each firefighter will be strong and weak in different areas. When using this system, you must choose an appropriate weight for yourself and use a speed that allows you to move for the entire interval to individualize each station. Even though we’re using the same exercises, you will have to adapt each to your own strengths. For example, if you want more total body strength, use more weight to overload your body. As you get stronger, you’ll be able to move the weight quicker which improves your work capacity. If you’re OK with your strength, but want more “burn,†select a moderate weight and move faster for the entire interval. Afterwards, you should be breathing hard.

The idea that exercise must involve machines and endless hours of running on a treadmill is wrong. Your training routine must be specific, practical, efficient and fun (S.P.E.F.). Progression is important, and integration can be fun. Using functional exercises that closely mimic the tasks you perform on the fireground will help you move better, prevent injuries, and reduce your chances of suffering a heart attack or stroke.

Being a firefighter is anything but ordinary, so an ordinary fitness program won’t completely prepare you for the job. Your body is one of the most precious tools you carry with you each time you pull up to a scene. If you never take that for granted and consistently exercise, you’ll reduce your chances of ending your career early due to medical complications or injuries. Good luck, stay strong and live long!

Lessons Learned

  • An ordinary physical fitness program will not fully prepare you for the rigors of firefighting.
  • Circuit training is the best way to increase your fitness level.
  • Exercise consistently.
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 fitness coaching. To receive a free training journal, go to

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