Can You Become Firefighter Fit?

CarolinaFireJournal - Karen Leatherman
Karen Leatherman
08/07/2015 -

Whenever I talk with a firefighter about improving fitness, the most common comments I hear are:

  • “I walk everyday. Isn’t that enough?”

My answer: Walking every day is a good foundation, however it is not enough to improve or maintain the level of fitness that is recommended for a firefighter.

  • “I don’t have enough time.”

My Answer: You can get quicker and better gains if you do the right program in just 20-30 minutes. We waste more time talking about why we can’t than it takes to see the benefit. Just put it on your calendar and do it.

  • “We don’t have any exercise equipment here at the station.”

My Answer: Everything you need is at the station: ladders, hoses, sledge hammers, foam buckets and most importantly your body weight.


Let me introduce you to High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). HIIT is a type of training in which you alternate short, very high intensity intervals with recovery intervals. When done two to three times per week, you will see greater improvement in functional strength and cardiovascular (VO2 max) fitness. The term functional means you choose exercises that mimic what a firefighter may have to do in the line of duty.

Athletes have understood the importance of Specificity of Training for years. It also applies to the physical demands of your job.  Specificity is the principle of training that states that training should be relevant and appropriate to the activity for which the individual is training in order to produce a training effect. The principle of Specificity also implies that to become better at a particular exercise or skill, you must perform that exercise or skill.

Tabata Training which is a specific HIIT protocol of 20 seconds of very hard work, followed by 10 seconds of rest. Repeat this for eight rounds or four minutes. Take a one-minute break then repeat for a total of four to six sets. Based on your initial level of fitness, perform the following. Regardless of where you start, the ultimate goal is to move to that final category.

Based on NFPA Guideline thru, firefighter’s fitness levels fall into one of three categories:

Category 1

VO2max< 28ml/kg/min or <8 METs

(may not be able to perform all job specific task)

Using body weight only perform four sets of Tabata using the following exercises

Set 1 — Alternate Squats and Pushups

Do 20 seconds of squats as fast as you can, 10 seconds of rest, 20 seconds of pushups as fast as you can and 10 seconds of rest. Repeat four times.

Set 2 — Alternate Reverse Lunges and Burpees

Set 3 — Alternate Stair Step up/down and Mountain Climbers

Set 4 —Jumping Jacks and High Knees

Category 2

VO2max between 28-41.9 ml/kgmin or 8-11.9 METs

(can perform all job specific tasks)

Using equipment in station perform five sets of Tabata using the following exercises

Set 1 — Ladder Carry

Do 20 seconds as fast as possible and 10 seconds of rest. Repeat eight times.

Set 2 — Sledge Hammer

Set 3 — Hose pull

Set 4 — Foam Bucket carry

Set 5 — If training tower is available run up stairs for 20 seconds, 10 seconds recovery walk down.

Category 3

VO2 max 42 ml/kgmin or 12 METs or greater

(recommended fitness level for firefighters)

Perform any of the exercises listed above but add resistance by wearing weighted vest or dressed in full turnout gear. Do six sets.

These are just a few examples of things you can do. There are free Tabata Timer apps for your smart phone. If your department has a JRAT take components of the test and use in the Tabata Format. Remember each 20 seconds should be an all out effort. That is where you will see the biggest gains. Be creative and have fun.

Karen Leatherman is president/owner of Fitness Forum Occupational Testing Services. She started the first hospital-based fitness center in South Carolina where she started cardiac and pulmonary rehab programs. She has over 30 years performing exercise stress testing and has been testing firefighters for over 20 years. In addition, she was on the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), Health and Fitness Certification Committee where she travelled with a team from the U.S. to India and Hong Kong to teach and administer ACSM exams.
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