Firefighting: It's Not the Olympics

May 1, 2007
Training, by necessity, becomes very instinctual, nudging and pushing only as hard as will be physically and emotionally tolerated by each individual.

A wise man once said true strength is the ability to recognize your limits. As an American firefighter in 2007, it's easy to get caught up in the fictional persona of near-Olympian athleticism. But very few Olympians don bunker gear and run into burning buildings.

On the other hand, if strength is defined as fortitude of character and extreme courage then I've personally worked with many gold medallists.

Whether paid or volunteer, firefighters are not sponsored athletes. For the everyday Jane or Joe turned super-hero, the reality of shift work and a second job doesn't leave a whole lot of time for exercise. For a great firefighter exercise program, click here

The current trend of fire department physicals switching to a pass/fail variety (versus graded and competitive) has also diluted performance minimums, while volunteer firefighters barely have to pass an annual medical, with no performance standards. This has dramatically impacted my approach and firefighter training protocol.

Men and women, who've never exercised a day in their lives, will routinely show up on my doorstep declaring they want to prepare for the next department test. But it seems senseless to test push up and pull up capacity when the initial results are off the chart (on the low end). Before they can take a step out of the batter's box, these people need to define what constitutes exercise, in their own minds. It becomes as a much a mental process as a physical transition.

Training, by necessity, becomes very instinctual, nudging and pushing only as hard as will be physically and emotionally tolerated by each individual. With lower standards, the motivation to push harder is not automatic. Many would-be firefighters need to be reminded that life, including their own, is really what's at stake.

This scenario has inspired me to embrace a system of general physical preparedness (GPP) for all of my firefighter clients (as well as most others). Without resorting to complex protocols and cumbersome testing procedures, I've come to rely heavily on personal observations made during each session. Equally as important is the client's feedback, as well as logging and tracking every set for future reference.

Performance and work capacity are monitored from session to session, but more importantly the individual's ability to wrap his or her mind around the concept of extreme physical exertion is developed and nurtured.

By incorporating Kettlebells as well as other task-specific firefighter regimens (STS Training), and getting away from the more popular, hypey, bodybuilder type stuff, I've been able to develop superior protocols that have produced remarkable results. (For a great firefighter exercise program, click here - link to

Gone are the boring, timid sets of eight and 10 reps, isolating muscles and muscle groups. Enter full body STS training and Kettlebells. Strength and endurance are treated as one entity and trained simultaneously, in one giant-set. Exercising in this fashion forces you to seriously evaluate your performance level and overall work capacity.

We live in a culture that is driven by beauty and visual physical perfection, sometimes even more than performance or health. Kettlebells, as well as STS come with a dramatic caloric burn and unique ability to develop lasting muscle tone. If it's bulk you're after, try bodybuilding, but if your goals are to build a lean, healthy body with extreme strength that goes on forever, this is where you need to be.

To understand what's it's like to be a firefighter, and to experience the level of physical exertion that's felt after dragging a high-pressure hose-line into a structural inferno, please continue.

We had 10 lengths of hose stretched from our pumper (parked at the nearest hydrant) over a football field away. It took most of my breath just getting the high-pressure hose and nozzle into position. At this point my bunker gear and air-pak start to feel more like a suit of armor, plunging me into the asphalt with each step.

Minutes later, my entire unit was down on the floor, crawling, crouching, and dragging the open nozzle through the burning flat. Once started there was no turning back, and if necessary, we had to work until we collapsed. As a New York City firefighter, you know that every fire needs to be approached with that same sense of urgency or the results could be disastrous.

A hand held hose-line puts out 180 gallons every minute, and the resulting cascade of water added pounds to my protective gear. As heat levels surged dangerously high, my legs, arms, breath, were all gone, but there was one room to go. I felt the steady push from behind as the boss silently let us know it wasn't yet time to quit.

With one last desperate effort, I whipped the nozzle in the opposite direction and beat back the last bit of flame. Ripping off my mask, I gasped for air and collapsed, totally spent, but the fire went out, everyone went home, and all I did was my job.

Mike Stefano, retired FDNY captain, is the author and creator of The Firefighter's Workout. For more information and firefighter task-specific training, visit Captain Mike's website at:

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