Firefighter and Candidate Fitness

Aug. 30, 2006
Building task-specific skill reduces the need for excessive strength and endurance by as much as 500 percent.

Whether you plan to take a fire department physical abilities test (C-PAT) or need to improve performance with a specific job related skill, there is a more effective way to boost real technique, and it's more effective than doggedly lifting weights or running alone. For a great weight training program, click here.

Building task-specific skill reduces the need for excessive strength and endurance by as much as 500 percent. Eliminating extra, unwarranted motion and needless effort (associated with inexperience) can dramatically reduce work expenditure.

Imagine a toddler taking his first steps. His shaky movements are far from energy efficient. His little legs waver, searching for the floor, sometimes misjudging, and always leading to the inevitible tumble. But the little boy doesn't lack adequate strength or endurance necessary for walking, but rather the motosensory skills.

Think of your nervous system as a complex grid of city streets that connect your entire musculoskeletal system (muscles and bones) to your brain. The connection between brain, spinal cord, and ultimately muscle fibers themselves, is a web of both motor nerves (signals movement) and sensory nerves (provides feedback). But in the case of our toddler, or an inexperienced adult, the roads are covered with snow and need to be "plowed" before traffic can move in either direction.

Decades of training with Olympic level athletes (both in Eastern Europe and the United States) has led to an established protocol for athletic, or task-specific, skill development. It seems that to best plow this pristine network of nerve fibers (or learn to swing a sledge hammer), first make small passes with a very light effort many times.

Later, when the roads are wide open, you can race and haul heavy loads. But if you attempt to much too soon, you'll either hit a complete roadblock, or at best treacherous, slippery asphalt, where good skills are never learned.

Learn CPAT skills, click here.

  1. The Walkthrough - learn the basic motions
    Low intensity effort ensure proper form and technique is engrained into your central nervous system.
  2. Practice Makes Perfect - perfect all aspects
    Moderate to sub-max effort comes closer to the actual event intensity, and allows you to practice at near-test level.
  3. The Need for Speed - reduce time
    Intense effort required to build the time you can move through the event. Speed and strength (next step) combine to build explosive power.
  4. Maximum Effort - build strength
    Maximum effort and power required to build on the difficulty level (intensity) of previously increased pace.
  5. The Endurance Factor - build endurance
    Intense effort with short duration cardio for short term
    Moderate effort with long duration cardio for long term

Regardless of the actual event or task you're trying to improve upon, the above 5-step process can be rigidly or losely applied. In the below example, we'll work through the preparation for a typical CPAT event, the Dummy Drag, to help demonstrate the 5-step process in action.

The Event

The candidate, wearing a 50-pound weighted vest must drag a 150-pound dummy a distance of 60 feet, while making two, 90-degree turns in under 24 seconds.


  1. Step 1 - The Walkthrough
    First you'll have to create your mock-dummy (see Companion Book, page 39) and have access to about 25 or 30 feet of open space outdoors. Without any added resistance and no vest, simply grab the dummy handle (see page 39 for Dummy Options) and walking slowly, make one rotation around the entire course (1 set).

    This is a no-rush pace that allows you to concentrate on style, technique and eliminating wasted motion. Don't rush through this step. The more difficult the skill, the more time you'll need to get comfortable with the basics.

    Do a few sets (one single rotation) of dummy drags or until you hit fatigue, rest and repeat.

    Limit practice with this event to 15 to 20 minutes (regardless of the number of sets performed) and to no more than once or twice per week. Once you get comfortable with the basic technique move to the next step, but not before 2 weeks.

  2. Step 2 - Practice Makes Perfect
    This step puts you on a first name basis with the event. Don your vest, but at 50 percent of test weight at first, and beef up your dummy with dumbbells or sandbags (also limit to not more than half of event weight).

    Work on transferring the same form you achieved during the walk through phase while increasing resistance (difficulty level) to within about 75 to 80 percent of event levels. For our example (150-pound dummy), this would mean simulating at about 115 pounds. Limit practice to 20- or 25-minute sessions, two times each week. Get proficient at this level before attempting your "game pace", but spend at least 2 to 3 weeks.

  3. Step 3 - The Need for Speed
    At this level your vest is loaded to about 75 percent of event weight or a little more. Your dummy is at about 80 or 85 percent of capacity (no more). Your pace up to this point has been relatively moderate, emphasizing form, technique, and eliminating any extraneous motion.

    However, now you'll begin to move faster, as increasing speed becomes the main focus. Start timing yourself and subsequently race against the clock. Be satisfied with very small, but steady, increases in speed. Do whatever is necessary, even if it means reverting back to lighter loads for more Practice Makes Perfect workouts.

    Set reasonable goals for yourself, based on test specifics, and attempt to complete each drag rotation in a reasonable (but shorter) time frame. Again do sets of drags to fatigue, rest and repeat. During this phase (and the next), the need to be rested before beginning is paramount, so rest as long as is necessary to completely recover. Limit practice to 20 to 30 minutes, twice each week. When you reach event goal times, proceed to step 4, but spend at least 2 or 3 weeks at this level.

  4. Step 4 - Maximum Effort
    The second part of explosive power development is achieved with more intense strength training and maximum intensity drags. Increase dummy and vest weight to max (or slightly above) and perform several sets to fatigue as in above. If necessary to reduce initial speed (that was reached in the previous phase), be sure to work on gradually increasing pace back to event level with the new resistances (once you make the adjustment). Limit practice to twice per week, 25 or 30 minutes max.
  5. Step 5 - The Endurance Factor
    In simple terms, this step allows you to back off on intensity (weight of vest and dummy) by about 30 to 40 percent of event level and work on increasing the duration of the event. Extend the length of each drag to 120 feet (versus 60). Incorporate 4 to 6 bends (versus 2). Make these changes gradually and stick with this step for 3 or 4 weeks. During step 5, alternate between Max Effort (previous step) and Endurance Factor Workouts.

Final Word

A week before your actual testing, back off all task specific training and reduce training intensity all around (on both cardio and resistance workouts) by about 30 or 40 percent. With resistance training this is accomplished by either reducing number of sets, reps or amount of weight lifted. With cardio, simply reduce distance and/or pace (lower heart rate), as well as frequency (number of workouts per week).

The acquisition of any new skill is both a physical and cognitive process that's barely understood by modern science. Through practical experience emphasizing hands on training (which is often the best teacher) we've learned how best to approach the problem.

From recreational to advanced athletes, as well as firefighter candidates and brand new probies, the ability to improve skill level shifts the burden of accomplishment on pure strength and stamina to experience and precise coordination of movement. In other words, the task feels easier and requires less actual energy expenditure to get the job done.

For more information on how to put together task-specific or CPAT-specific workout programs, please visit Captain Mike's website at

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