Why Firefighters Need to Train Like Athletes


By: Ian Palmer

Picture this; you’re in a room with dozens of people of the same caliber as you. You gave it your all during the physical and mental tests that come with the tedious selection process to make it into the elite and proud career so many wish they could do. You may not of had the best grades in college, but damn it, you studied every bit of material and prepared for years to get to this point. Maybe since childhood.

Then, it happens. They call you up. You get the team colors. The feeling that floods over you is like nothing you have ever felt before, and will probably never feel again. You might have even cried tears of joy and happiness. This is the day your life changes forever, when you are drafted in to an elite bond with a tight-knit team. It is a career so many has-beens from high school see on T.V. who swear they would make it if they could go back in time and try for again.

An agility ladder is a simple and effective way to practice footwork we all need on scene.

You may think this is about the NFL Draft, but you would be wrong. This is about the trip to finally becoming a professional firefighter. To be able to say you do this as a job should never be taken lightly. And realizing that the training that comes before and after being selected, whether to a professional sports team or to a fire department, isn’t that much different after all is a huge task few are willing to take on.

Let’s make some comparisons, and we’ll start with the biggest; our career length. With most 9-5 jobs in an office setting, it isn’t rare to see an employee go 50 or more years working that job. Which is understandable, as they are not being beaten up physically and mentally, or being exposed to extreme fluctuations in heart rate, and not risking any injury. Yet the common career length for a firefighter is 20-25 years. That’s if they don’t suffer a catastrophic injury. After looking at studies across the MLB, NFL, NHL and NBA, the average career length is just above five years. Obviously, this is largely due to money (if only firefighters made millions), but in the more physical sports, it is also largely due to the beatings their bodies take. Thankfully many have been wise enough to leave before they lose all quality of life after their careers.

The next comparison is physical training. These athletes train day in and day out, so they can make sure their bodies can take what is coming to them that next season, or their next game. They are doing strength work, agility work, speed work. They are pushing themselves and their teammates to sweat and to get better. They are honing their bodies to crush their opponent.

As much as I would like to see that at a firehouse, it is rarely seen. You usually find one of three things; a lone firefighter grinding it out in the gym and being the physically fit one everyone relies on to do the task they can’t. Next you have the one group of firefighters among the others that is fit and actually does push each other and sets goals together. Then lastly and unfortunately most common, is the firefighters that do nothing, that are content doing nothing, and are slowly degrading the position of firefighter from “must be fit” to “please just don’t be too fat”. The last is what we need to change. The first two is a fad that needs to spread, and spread fast.

We firefighters can’t walk into a law office and expect the people arguing court cases to do what we do. That’s why we take so much pride in doing it. Just like an MLB player can’t come to us and expect us to hit a ball pitched by an All-Star, or why none of us would line up to get tackled by an All-Pro linebacker. On the flip-side, we can walk into a locker room and ask for volunteers to do what we do, and not many hands would raise.

We are all elite in our own right. We are all playing at our highest level. We need to TRAIN at our highest level. Here’s how:

Be Agile:  Being “light footed” is something firefighters seldom think about when it comes to attributes you need to be the best at your job. Until you look at the astronomical number of slip, trip and fall injuries on fire scenes, and how chaotic things can be on or in a fire scene. Doing footwork or agility exercises, even jumping rope and developing good foot work helps you maintain upright posture and bodily alignment in not-so-often used positions, and it doesn’t only benefit you on the job, but off the job as well. No one wants to go out for two or three months because they couldn’t catch themselves after tripping on their kids’ hot wheel.

Be Strong:  It should go without saying that we need to be strong to do our jobs. I’m not saying I expect you to enter the next World’s Strongest Man competition, but I do expect you to be able to drag the heaviest member on your crew out of a burning structure. It is something many of us don’t want to think about, but needs to be brought up. If you can’t, work on it. And keep working on it until you are confident you can do this. Train the vital muscles that will help with this, which are also coincidentally the most important muscles for our jobs, such as legs, shoulders, core and your back and using a prowler sled/mini sled.

Deadlifting is a basic and effective way to increase your power and strength.

Be Powerful:  You may be asking, “What’s the difference between strength and power? Aren’t they the same thing?” Surprisingly no, but they do go hand-in-hand. To keep it short, power is your ability to perform a strong movement in a quick period of time, but strength is your ability to do that movement in any given amount of time. Think throwing a ladder versus raising it. Or lifting a victim onto a ladder in a window versus carrying them down. The first movements require power, as the second movement requires strength. To work on your power do exercises such as squat, deadlift, overhead press, short sprints, box jumps, ball slams and using a prowler sled/mini sled. Once your comfortable with these movements make them more challenging by adding chains or rubber bands.

You may have noticed I used the sled in both the strength and power sections. That is because results are based on how you use it. For strength, load up the sled with a large amount of weight and push or pull it. For power load it up with about 75% of the weight you used for the strength use, and move it with short explosive movements rather than going distance.

Have Endurance:  Would you be able to conduct a rescue if you have no endurance? What about flowing a handline while advancing? Or conduct CPR with an ambulance 15 minutes out? Of course not. Having both cardiovascular endurance and muscular endurance are vitally important in the career of fighting fire and saving lives. Luckily these are the simpler things you can work on as well. For cardiovascular endurance do exercises such as interval sprints, a long bike ride, hike a mountain, or of course, go running. To work on your muscular endurance do pushups, flutter kicks, and high intensity circuit training (think CPAT-style circuit where you are performing job related tasks).

Be a Team Player:  No one wants to work with the guy that’s greedy, selfish, egotistical or lazy. Just like any professional team doesn’t want that type of player. As a team that does everything together, from eating breakfast, going through hell on calls, and sleeping, you’re held at a certain level. If your brother or sister is visually flustered after a call, you’re expected to talk it out. If one of your team is struggling to complete a task, you better be stepping in to help. When more of your brothers want to start getting in shape again after falling of the wagon, you will be there to push and motivate. The greatest athletes remembered are enshrined not only because of their ability on the field, but also because of their ability to lead and to help their teammates.

After reading this, the words “Agility”, “Strength”, “Power”, “Endurance” and “Team Player” should not be associated just with professional athletes, but professional firefighters as well. Preach it to your team. You don’t need to be an officer to be a leader.


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