Periodization for Firefighters: Part 3 – High/Low Days

If you haven’t picked up on it yet, I’m kind of pushing the conjugate method as an effective way to lay out a program for firefighters.  It helps the firefighter meet the varied demands of the job with their training.  This method is appropriate for those with a bit higher of a training age (the industry term for experience) who have graduated from the concurrent model.

If you are totally lost right now go back and read part 1 and 2.

All good now? Great!


This time I’m going to hold your hand through high and low days and next time I’ll share a very simple system to start designing your workouts.

First off, if you’re training 3 times per week on the concurrent model you probably don’t need a high/low schedule.  Training 3 days and “resting” for 4 provides plenty of time off to recover.  When we start adding in extra training days we should be looking at varying the demands to ensure proper recovery but still accumulating some extra volume to push performance.

One of my favourite quotes from Joel Jamieson is:

“If you train so hard that you can only get in 3 solid workouts a week, that leaves 4 days you’re not training and that’s a conditioning killer.”

Again, we are talking about those trying to boost their fitness level.  Varying the demands through the week leads to greater improvements whereas adding in another crushing workout on top will probably do the opposite in the long run.

Let’s also be clear about something before we move forward. This high/low thing doesn’t mean 1 workout that destroys the back of your pants and 3 sessions of ribbon twirling. The low-day workouts are still challenging and contribute greatly to the desired outcome. The high days are going to be a bit more work and will be the most specific to the current goals of the program.  If everybody grinds through the hard workouts then it’s what you do with your low-days that is really going to make the separation.  High-days are like your leaps and bounds and low-days are the subtle nudges, that extra step.  Info, clarification, sharable quote, cliché.  Check, check, check and check.

The breakdown of high versus low days will depend on your training age and how often you are training per week.

You’ll generally have a 1:3 ratio for 4 days per week and a 2:4 ratio for 6 days per week.  5 could go either way at 1:4 or 2:3 depending on your training age.

For example, if max strength is the focus for the month and you’re training 4 days per week then we could be looking at a max loading day for the “high day”, which is probably obvious but now we have 3 more workouts that we are classifying as low.  I’d probably have a second loading day at a lower intensity – say 85-90% of the max loading day or even a speed/dynamic day with 50-60% of max load but moved for maximum speed.

The final two days could be split into a general strength day and an aerobic day consisting of a movement circuit or tempo repeats for aerobic recovery.  These 3 low-days are all going to support the high-day.

Notice we didn’t program max loading, max loading, max loading and some hypertrophy work?  Or worse, max loading and a 12k run?  We’re looking for the minimum effective dosage on the low days even more than the hard days.  We’re aiming for tough but not necessarily hard.

It’s important to keep in mind that we only have a limited capacity to recover.  Constantly trying to smash your PR day after day will only break you down and limit your progress.  This high/low strategy goes a long way once you’ve earned the right to use them.  Leaps, bounds and nudges.

If you’re barely putting in the minimum work or you’ve just started training then a high/low day won’t be applicable to you.  Your high days won’t be hard enough and you don’t need low days yet – you just need to put in some work to create a baseline from which to build these days on.

Once you’ve been training for a year consistently or you have increased your training volume to 4+ days then experiment with high and low days in your week.

How does this relate directly to firefighters?  Well, the typical shift schedule is quite varied.  A high/low day schedule is perfect for working with the demands of shift work.  A good idea is to program low days for on-duty workouts or for workouts the day after a shift.  High days can be programmed effectively for the day before a shift.  Using the example from above a week might look like this:


Sunday – on shift – Low: General Strength

Monday – OFF

Tuesday – High: Max Loading

Wednesday – on shift – OFF

Thursday – OFF

Friday – Low: Sub Max/dynamic Loading

Saturday – on shift – Low: Tempo repeats


If you work the 24 hour shift schedule and get a string of days off then you could even add a second high day into that week to capitalize on the extra time off with normal sleep. Using the shift schedule I’m on, a week off following my Thursday shift, it might look this this:


Friday – Low: General Strength

Saturday – OFF

Sunday – High: Max Loading

Monday – OFF

Tuesday – Low: Sub Max/dynamic Loading

Wednesday – OFF

Thursday – High: Max Loading

Friday – on shift – Low: tempo repeats


This example turns the week into an 8-day cycle to accommodate the extra high day. The next week would follow the previous example week.  If the previous two weeks were pretty tough or busy then I will recommend sticking to the single high day during the week off and focus on execution and recovery during that week.  It’s called playing the long game.  Turning 1 extra high day into a low day or off day because you’re feeling wiped won’t negatively impact the outcome.  I generally try to schedule the high days after what should be a good night of sleep at home in my own bed and if I haven’t had too many of those, then maybe it’s not best to schedule that high day.

Deciding on frequency and the number of high/low days can take some experimenting and fine tuning.  Most importantly, experience, goals and life demands should be taken into account.  It’s great if you program a 2:4, 6-day schedule but if you can only handle a 1:3, 4 day training week then you’re going to be much better served with the 2 extra days rest.  Always reassess how your programming is working for you and modify as needed.

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