Strength VS Fitness for Firefighting

Ask 10 different firefighters what is the most important aspect of fire-ground operations and you will get 10 different answers.  You’ll hear things like experience, focus, a good plan, an accurate size-up, technique, basic training and knowing your equipment, a strong aggressive attack, defensive operations.  The list would go on and on and will be debated forever.  What we don’t hear about as often but is just as heated is the debate of what is the most important aspect of physical preparation for firefighting.  Some of the arguments I have heard are:

Fires can last a long time, you need aerobic endurance and lots of it.

You don’t ever work at a steady pace, you need to train using high-intensity intervals.

If you can’t lift the equipment then you can’t do the job so you better have a high level of strength.

You don’t do anything once on the fire-ground so you should train with higher reps when lifting weights.

The longer you can go on a bottle the better chance you have of completing your task, or worst-case, surviving.

Firefighting tasks are often one sided so train that way.

It’s hard to argue with any of these points, really.  The thing is, they all contradict each other in practice.  Endurance training is in direct competition with high-intensity intervals, or lactic training.  High reps is in competition with maximal strength training.  So what’s the answer here?  Who is right?

They all are…you better be good at it all.

A firefighter is known as a jack-of-all trades.  Firefighters don’t specialize in one specific area or skill.  They can’t.  They respond to too many different situations and have to have a general understanding of what they are getting into.  The senior firefighters seem to know something about everything.  I remember thinking when I first started “These guys know everything.”  Shortly after running a number of calls I realized that they actually know something.  This is because of experience.  They’ve done stuff.  They’ve done their training in many different areas.  The reason I bring this up is because they didn’t get this way overnight.  Sure, when you come out of training you’ve learned a lot in a very short period of time, but it just scratches the surface and it takes time to become seasoned.  You can’t start in station one day and the next day work on everything there is to know about auto extrication, fire attack, elevator operations, building construction and be an expert by the end of shift.  If you don’t know the basic assembly of a car you better work on that first, because that’s your biggest problem.  It’s important to understand your weakness and work on that area first, but also trust that with time and work you will become competent in all areas.

There will certainly be those guys that really do know everything about pumping, or elevator construction or forcible entry techniques, but while they may be the expert in that area, there is some aspect that they simply have a general understanding of.  But that’s the key, they still understand the areas they aren’t specialized in.  They’re good at it all, maybe not great, but good enough to do the job.  Hopefully by now you’re understanding where I’m going with this.  You have to make your weaknesses strong and your strengths even stronger.  We are all going to be better in some physical areas than we are in others and it is important to play to your strengths and keep improving them.  It is also important that your weaker areas aren’t your downfall.  Be great in some areas but at least good in all.

So how do you do this?  There are two ways to program.  Work on all areas at once or train in specific blocks.  It is my opinion that training in specific blocks is the most effective.  As I said, physical attributes on the opposite sides of the spectrum compete against one another and training all areas simultaneously generally does not lead to significant gains in any area quickly, rather mediocre gains in a few areas over a long period of time.  The best method is to train in 1 to 2 months blocks (if you have no specific event to prepare for in the very near future I suggest 2 month blocks).  This is not to say if you are working on your general endurance you will not lift weights or train for any strength, just that the bulk of your training will be geared towards this goal and you will use methods that will produce specific adaptations that will improve your endurance.

Assuming you are going to take the periodization route and train in specific blocks you will need to determine your strengths and weaknesses.  Deciding which area to focus on can be quite simple after running a few tests.  I have chosen these based on what I feel is important to complete firefighting duties safely and effectively.

Endurance and Aerobic Fitness Measures:

Your resting heart rate should be lower than 70, preferably in the low 60s.

After a bout of exercise your heart rate should be able to return to 130, or close to it, in about a minute – even after near maximal exertion.

You should be able to run a mile in under 8 minutes (or an equivalent test).  Some departments use this as a entrance physical test.

Strength Measures:

You should be able to bench press, squat and deadlift your body weight (if your bodyweight does not make this a possibility then fat loss would be your number one priority mainly for health reasons – such as not falling victim to a heart attack during or after a fire)

With your grip of choice you should be able to complete 5 body weight chin ups

Having the ability to hold a plank for 1 minute straight is a must, 2 minutes is preferable, 3 is best – anything longer doesn’t really matter, if you can hold for 3 minutes straight then it’s time to work on torso strength

You should be able to hold your body weight in your hands and walk for 100 meters.  The general population should be able to walk for a few feet, you have to carry heavy tools for long distances.

Anaerobic Fitness Measures:

Your 500 meter row time must be below 2 minutes

Run 300 meters in under 70 seconds, rest for 5 minutes and repeat with less than a 5 second drop off (75 seconds)


Understanding how to program for your weaknesses.

Obviously, your first instinct would be to attack the thing that you are worst at, which is right.  Whatever area you are not meeting these minimum standards in I would suggest working on.  If you meet all of the standards for each measure in two areas but are falling short in 1 or more measures in another area then your program should be tailored to bring that lagging area up to par.  But what if you are short in two areas? Or all three?  This is where you should start with a general endurance block focusing on cardiac ouput workouts, High Resistance Intervals, High Intensity Continuous Training, Threshold training and the Tempo method for resistance training.  No idea what these are?  I will write about them in time – but if you need info now email me at or pick up a copy of Joel Jamieson’s book Ultimate MMA Conditioning.  This book is the top resource for energy system development and is not just specific to MMA.  After your general endurance block you can go into either an anaerobic fitness or strength block depending on what was worse off.  The reason I suggest a general endurance block first is to build a solid foundation for increasing anaerobic fitness but increasing your aerobic fitness also helps you recover quicker from strength training.  The above tests are in my opinion, baselines and can be scaled to measure for maximum performance standards.  At this level, I feel that this simply helps to protect you and your crew but we can certainly strive for far greater than these standards.

Before this becomes a novel rather than a blog post I will end it here.  There are thousands more words to write on this topic – describing each training method, outlining the difference in energy systems, how much strength is needed, where is strength needed for firefighting but those topics will have to wait.  For now, I hope you will agree that we can’t train just one way all the time and that we need to be constantly challenging our weaknesses but also working to improve upon our strengths.  Firefighting is unpredictable and we need to be prepared for the things we can’t prepare for by dedicating specific training blocks to making us good at everything and great at some things.

4 Replies to “Strength VS Fitness for Firefighting”

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