Sunday, September 7, 2008

7 Strength & Conditioning Tools for Firefighters, Part 1

Seven Strength and Conditioning Tools for Firefighters, Part 1

By C.J. Brown



Have you ever grabbed one of those muscle magazines while waiting to check out at the supermarket and skimmed through it? They are filled with pictures and workouts of bodybuilders with awesome genetics who train with the primary purpose of looking good in a Speedo. Bodybuilders are impressive. They work hard and must be disciplined to attain their physiques. However, firefighters have no reason to be following these types of workouts.

A firefighter is an athlete. I feel the need to expand on this. A firefighter is a survival athlete. Firefighters, like athletes, are expected to perform, not just look good naked. We are called upon, at any given time, to have the strength of a powerlifter, the agility of a football player, and the stamina of a marathon runner. Our efforts are needed for the survival of the citizens that we protect as well as ourselves. The place of the fire creates obstacles and requires tasks to be performed that are physically demanding in all aspects of fitness.

Specializing in a specific strength or skill would be detrimental to a firefighter. Our strength and conditioning must be broad in nature. Therefore, it is imperative that our physical training reflect this as well.

A firefighter knows the importance of carrying and using tools. We all remember our officers reminding us as rookies to make sure we always grab a tool as soon as we exited the truck. Tools can be used to help firefighters overcome obstacles, and they can assist them with certain tasks.

Here are seven tools found in the fire service that represent principles for a firefighter’s strength and conditioning program:

1. Halligan tool—be versatile and incorporate variety

The halligan has been a staple tool in the fire industry for its multiple uses. Forcible entry, search and rescue, and shut off utilities are just a few of the tasks where it can be used. Variety is essential for a firefighter’s strength and conditioning training for several important reasons. First, we must never forget that our job is a very dynamic, ever changing event. Many of the principles we follow are similar, but everyone knows that every call is different. In the fitness industry, some want to promote only one way of training. 

Let me explain…in order to be successful on the internet, marketing experts advise businesses to sell their products to specific niches. For example, instead of selling something general like shoes, you might need to specialize. In order to be a success on the information
superhighway, you might sell all-terrain hiking shoes that are designed for hot weather and glow in the dark. Okay, I know I’m being a bit extreme, but it’s true. In fact, I’m no different. I want to provide information for a specific niche as well—firefighters. 

The fitness industry is not exempt from this trend. Many online trainers promote their style of training as all you need to do to be in the “best shape of your life.” There are different schools as well, some promoting body weight exercises only or only weights or kettlebells, or only high reps or low reps.

I believe many of these trainers are much better experts in their individual fields and are much more knowledgeable than I could ever be. Often, I will seek advice from them about their style of training to increase my knowledge of a certain strength training tool or program. However, I believe firefighters should incorporate a variety of training modalities and never conform to only one way.

Firefighters can use these experts to help them incorporate ideas into their workouts but only as small pieces to a much larger pie. We need to be well-rounded athletes ready for whatever the next call will bring. Therefore, the equipment we use for training must contain variety.

2. Use the big guns, or the master streams—multiple joint exercise

At times, firefighters encounter a lot of fire and will receive an order to pull out the “big guns” or the master streams. The concept of more fire, and therefore, more water is a fairly easy concept to understand. Our strength training should follow this as well.

A firefighter is the ultimate athlete. He uses his whole body to perform tasks at the site of the fire. Firefighters hardly ever perform a task where they only use a single joint movement, and I have yet to see an exercise machine at a fire.

In order to mimic firefighting, we must incorporate multi-joint exercises into our training programs. For example, exercises such as cleans, snatches, squats, pull-ups, presses, and rows are good choices. Not only do these movements transfer more to firefighting, but they also give you the most “bang for your buck.”

If you are short on time, like many of us, these exercises will work the entire body much faster than single joint movements. These movements, also known as compound movements, produce the most strength and muscle mass. The majority of the exercises for firefighters should be multiple joint, closed kinetic chain exercises.  

3. Crew integrity—do not isolate
This idea goes with number two. From the first day at the academy, we are taught the importance of staying together to always maintain crew integrity. Freelancing is not only very dangerous, but it is also not as productive when it comes to the overall goal. Let me explain.

There may be one firefighter who becomes the lone ranger and is doing his own thing. Perhaps he even looks good to Joe Citizen, but he could be hurting the overall objectives and goals directed down from the chief. For example, this firefighter could be shooting water through a window thinking to himself that this is a defensive fire when there are actually crews inside. Incident management must come from the top, and crews must stay together, working synergistically toward the same goal. The sum is always greater than all of the parts. 

The same is true with our strength and conditioning. We must stop training the body as parts—pectorals, biceps, triceps, back, and quads—and instead train the body as a whole. The brain actually understands movements, not muscles. The brain understands commands like push, pull, rotate, jump, and swing. There are very few tasks in firefighting that will require the use of only a certain muscle. Muscles work together as a unit on the command of the brain (the chief) to accomplish an overall goal.  

Remember, we want strength that can transfer from the gym to the site of the fire. The human body consists of over 700 muscles, 206 bones, and 164 joints. It is imperative for us to use these together to become athletically fit and functionally strong. Firefighters must never be all show
and no go. 

Stay tuned for part two.

C.J. Brown is a graduate student in fitness and human performance at the University of Houston and the owner of Firefighter Gym, a strength and conditioning gym focusing on the needs of today’s firefighters. He has been a firefighter and paramedic for the city of Houston since 2000. C.J. can be reached at or

Elite Fitness Systems strives to be a recognized leader in the strength training industry by providing the highest quality strength training products and services while providing the highest level of customer service in the industry. For the best training equipment, information, and accessories, visit us at

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