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June 30, 2020 10 min read

If you were anything like us, chances are that when you were young you really wanted to be a firefighter when you grew up. And it’s easy to see why.

Whether you’re a firefighter now or not, you have to admit that the image of a group of men battling a giant blaze is pretty badass. When it comes to work, there are few jobs that stand up so blatantly to such an immense force of nature. Not to mention all of the life-saving work that firefighters do when it comes to disaster management and life-saving work.

These first responders truly are heroes in our society. But, as you can imagine, it doesn’t come easy. 

Not only do firefighters have to battle immense fires, but they’re also doing this while carrying at least 50 pounds of weight on their backs in the form of PPE equipment. Add in a radio, thermal imaging camera, box light, and a set of irons, and you’re looking at closer to 75 pounds.

So, while you might not see many firefighters entering your next bodybuilding competition, you can bet they have to be just as fit and strong. While we’ve looked at superheroes in the past, it might be even more telling and informative to talk about the real-life heroes that protect us from disasters.

A Routine Fit for Firefighting 

If you’re a firefighter right now, the routine down below will help with conditioning and functional strength training. Nearly half of all firefighter deaths on the job are due to heart attacks, which isn’t surprising if you think about it. Put a person exerting themselves to their fullest in an extremely intense environment, and your heart is going to be working overtime.

But even if you’re not a firefighter and aren’t even looking to be one, the workout below is fantastic for a good total body workout that’ll leave you functionally fit. We’ll go through what makes “a good firefighter workout”, a good firefighter workout, below—but remember that these benefits will extend to everyone, not just those in the firefighting position. 

These exercises also take a lot of inspiration from CrossFit. This is because of its greater emphasis on functional fitness through its use of high-intensity interval training, plyometrics, powerlifting, gymnastics, and calisthenics. All useful skills to have under your belt if you plan on battling the blazes.

Core Strength and Balance

There’s probably no way to measure someone’s overall fitness (and especially functional fitness) than by looking at their core strength.

Your core will be activated any almost every scenario when it comes to using your power in everyday things—or not so everyday things, like kicking down a door or trying to lift a beam.

Along with a strong core comes a strong balance. In the hectic environment of a house or forest fire, where every second counts, there’s no time at all to be losing your balance. Not only can it put yourself at risk, but also others around you. A strong core will make sure that you’re ready for everything that life (or a house fire) might throw at you. 

Most full-body exercises utilize the core in some way. But if you’re looking to place a major emphasis on it, make sure to utilize some of these exercises in your workout routine: 

  •         Russian twist
  •         L-sits
  •         Plank with reach
  •         Side plank with side raise
  •         Cable chop
  •         Crunch to medicine ball throw

It’s also a good idea to utilize sandbags wherever you can, or other objects that don’t balance as well. It’s no secret that a lot of traditional gym equipment has been designed to be comfortable and to allow the body to lift or push as much as it can. This is useful when it comes to doing one type of movement, but not as useful when looking at the dynamic motion necessary in an emergency situation.

By making this wobbly or more difficult to grab on to, your stabilizers will have to work overtime in order to keep you upright. While you might not be able to lift as much for as long as with a traditional lift, it will help you when it comes to putting your training to real-life use.

But a good core strength does more than just give you abs….

A fireman running upstairs. 

Back Work

Lower back pain is the most injury for firefighters, and the number one reason firefighters are forced to retire early. Not only do your abs have to be strengthened, but so does your back and posterior chain. This includes muscles and joints such as the glutes, the shoulder girdle, hips, hamstrings (pretty much your entire lower body), and abs.

An emphasis should also be placed on the shoulders specifically, and the stabilizers in the region. A firefighter’s shoulders require a lot of heavy lifting and a lot of heavy loads to support, so it’s important to maximize the strength gains in this area. The improved posture will just be the cherry on top of a well-functioning physique.

Exercises that are good for this type of back work, include:

  •         Reverse dumbbell flys
  •         Cable face-pull
  •         Seated cable rows
  •         Chin-ups 

Cardiovascular Conditioning

We’ve already mentioned how a majority of firefighters who die on the job, die from heart attacks. While awful, it’s telling of the environment they’re forced to work in and the exertions they put their body through to get the job done.

Both aerobic and anaerobic conditioning comes into play here.

For the former, you need good aerobic training in order to keep going over the amount of time you’ll be needed for. If you’re fighting a forest fire, you might need a lot of gas in the tank for a longer period of time. These are things like long-distance running, or biking—anything that’s considered cardio. So, you better be hitting the treadmill if you want to the full physical prowess of a firefighter.

However, anaerobic training is just as important. This is shorter bouts of exertion that are more “explosive” and get your heart rate up to a higher level. High-intensity interval training is a good example, and one that you can utilize in almost any activity—all it depends on is your intensity.

“Difficult on the training ground, hard on the battlefield,” really rings true here—even though we don’t doubt that’s is pretty hard on the battlefield as well. The important thing to keep in mind is that good cardiovascular conditioning has a laundry list of benefits; a list that extends even longer for those working in heroic jobs such as firefighting.

Full Body Functional (Explosive) Strength Training 

And obviously, you’re not going to get far without at least some strength. But it’s much more than just strength. 

We’ve been dropping the term “functional strength” quite a bit, but what does it actually mean?

Functional strength is the strength you need for the physiological demands of real-life activities. That doesn’t mean the strength you need to do a perfect squat, and definitely not the strength you need when using the leg-press machine. 

This type of training not only helps you become stronger, but also more flexible, agile, and better equipped to handle daily feats of athleticism (even if you might not think they’re considered, “athleticism). This type of training includes exercises such as;

  •       Push-ups
  •       Bodyweight or goblet squats
  •       Lunges
  •       Pull-ups

But there’s also a need for explosiveness, especially when looking at something like firefighting. 

There’s a very small chance you’re going to need to 20 jumps all in a row when you’re firefighting, or even in daily life. But there is a pretty good chance you might have to lunge, or jump, in a single, explosive leap—at least once.

This type of training is different from regular training since it emphasizes your fast-twitch muscles and necessitates a routine that has these “explosive” movements. The classic example of an exercise that builds explosive strength is the deadlift.

The deadlift, while many variations exist, really just comes down to lifting something very heavy off the ground—it really can’t get any more basic than that. And as such a fundamental, basic, move, it really does come in handy in everyday life. And it’ll especially come in handy when firefighting and you either have to lift someone, or lift a rafter or beam off of something (or someone).

However, there are many other movements that introduce variation into training explosiveness. The medicine ball is an extremely useful tool to utilize since it can be used in many different ways, while also being more unwieldy than other gym equipment (having similar benefits to using sandbags in this regard). Some movements that are recommended would be:

  •         Med ball movement
  •         Med ball slam
  •         Med ball squat to overhead throw
  •         Med ball jump squat
  •         Bench jump
  •         Single leg hop 

Utilize Multiple Planes 

While we’ve looked at the main parts of a good firefighter workout routine, there are still some nuances worth mentioning that can be used to brush up on the above.

One of the most significant is the importance of using different planes of movement in your workouts.

The most common, as you might’ve guessed, is the movement of going front to back. For example, lunges utilize this plane—but can also be easily spiced up by adding other movements.

While this is the most common motion in the iron temple, it is definitely not something that’s functional—especially in a burning house. A firefighter needs to be able to turn on a dime and be able to have a full range of motion in every possible direction.

It’s useful to have these ranges of motion mirrored in your workouts, so you’re ready for absolutely anything that might get in your way. You might want to consider adding some of these movements into your routine:

  •         Front lunge going into a side lunge
  •         Reverse lunge going into a side lunge
  •         Single leg deadlift to side lunge
  •         Push-up with an added rotation
  •         Push-up with an added dumbbell row

This brings up to another important principle to keep in mind when trying to get firefighter-swole…. 

Importance of Unilateral Training

Working out one side at a time, or unilateral training has both the flavor of functionalism as well as hitting the core, hard. 

When it comes to the functional fitness aspect of unilateral training, it’s difficult to imagine a firefighter holding onto the same thing in each hand. Maybe we need to brush up on our firefighting manuals, but as cool as a dual-ax wielding firefighter might sound, it probably doesn’t happen.

What’s more likely to happen is a heavier object in one hand, and a lighter one in the other. Something which barbells don’t really train for since both your arms are attached to the same load.

Which is another aspect of unilateral training that comes into play—it helps your body become more balanced. Even if you think you’re doing everything perfectly when it comes to training, your body will always betray you somehow and start using your stronger side to make up for the weakness of the weak side.

Not only will one of your sides remain weaker than the other, but it’ll also become progressively weaker as you continue training. That is, unless you introduce some unilateral movements to contain your sides and hit them on an individual basis.

Furthermore, unilateral training also places an emphasis on your core. If you’ve ever tried holding something really heavy in one of your hands but not the other, you’ll know what we’re talking about. Unless you don’t brace yourself and activate your trunk, your body will flex over to one side. And while flexibility is important, it’s better to train it up than to have it accidentally (and painfully) done to you.

Flexibility and Warming Up

It’s important to do warm-ups before every workout session. Whether that comes in the form of a run on the treadmill or a short stretching session, it’ll help not only your current workout, but it’ll also help you in the long run. 

Warm-ups prepare your body for movement, they boost your heart rate, allow for more blood flow to your muscle, and also increase your core temperature. Not only that, but they also improve the functions of your nervous system.

In the long term, your mobility and flexibility will also thank you. The more flexible the joints and muscles in your body, the greater your range of motion, and the greater your range of motion, the less chance of injury and more gains in some areas. This is especially important for any physically demanding job like firefighting. Any injury can put you out of work for a while and can even lead to early retirement, so injury prevention is paramount. 

Proper and regular stretching is one of the best ways to avoid this scenario.

A firefighter.

A Firefighting Circuit

Below is a short circuit you can do to condition your body in the way a firefighter would most benefit from. It utilizes aspects of all of the principles we’ve talked about above but remember that it’s relatively bare-bones. It’s just as important to introduce variation and into your workouts. 

Over the Shoulder, Medicine Ball Cleans: A great movement to simulate having to pick up and lift oddly shaped loads, the medicine ball clean is a terrific addition to any workout that’s inspired by firefighting.

Off-loaded forward lunges: Without a balanced load, you’ll have to fight to keep yourself upright in this movement. Add in a twist with a side or back lunge and you’ll be hitting many of the same principles we’ve covered above.

Push press: The pushing motion is essential to firefighters, so it’s important to build up strength in this department. While a relatively fundamental move, the push press is great for functional strength needs.

Kettlebell deadlifts: As we mentioned above, the deadlift is an unparalleled exercise to build the necessary explosive strength to run into burning buildings and save people. Not to mention that your physique will also thank you as well. 

Rows: Rowing is a fantastic cardiovascular workout that’ll get your body up to the conditioning that it needs. Not to mention that it’s full body and low-impact, so you don’t have to worry about missing anything or injuring yourself.

American kettlebell swing: This is a great movement when it comes to shoulder mobility and strengthening your back and your core. If you’re finding this range of motion too much right now, you can get into the groove of things by starting with a Russian kettlebell swing that only brings the weight up to eye level. 

Fighting Fire with Fire

The work of a firefighter is a noble job that necessitates a very high level of physical fitness and explosive power. And it’s no surprise, as these brave men and women regularly fight one of nature’s most destructive forces.

But whether you’re a fire chief at a large fire department or not, the principles that we’ve outlined above can get you in amazing shape with the proper training program—whether you’re just planning to hit the beach this summer, or if planning to put out any fires of your own.