Safety & Health

Tips to Improve General Fitness for Firefighting

Train for necessary movements and the lower your chance for injury

Dr. Jeanna LeClaire Hill, PT, DPT, ATC, CSCS, USAW-L1SP,

Functional fitness and High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) are popular ways to exercise these days.  Exercise regimens such as CrossFit, Hard Exercise Works, OrangeTheory, and Fit Body BootCamps are examples that use these principals in their workout programing. Function and intensity are great, but it’s important for firefighters to consider what functional movements and what intensities are important for their jobs, daily tasks, and goals. The motions firefighters need to be efficient in include the following: lifting objects from ground, climbing, carrying, pulling, pushing, lateral swinging, lifting overhead, and maintaining endurance. Those motions should be efficient with gear on, at fairly high intensity, with the duration mimicking a call length, and in various weather situations depending on geographical location. Doing bicep curls and sit-ups are not functional exercises that help with your career.

Here are a few tips to improve general fitness for injury prevention and career livelihood as a firefighter:

Practice engaging your core while imagining someone punching your stomach. You would want to be braced and secured with normal breathing. (Normal breathing is the key to add in movement.) This transverse abdominus activation is your internal back brace to prevent injury when on a call or during training.

Perform push/pull exercises. If you can access a gym that has sleds to perform push/pull exercises, this will help you with hose drags and pulling a body while strengthening. 

Perform shoulder to overhead movements. This is necessary for ceiling breach tasks, lifting ladders, putting equipment on trucks, etc. When practicing shoulder to overhead movements, select a safe weight you can perform 20 repetitions at a time for 3 sets. Proper form supersedes weight. You can use barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, or actual fire equipment. Also be conscious of neck position, as cervical injuries may be aggravated with overhead motions. If you have any pain/numbness/tingling in your arms, neck or shoulder blades with this motion, stop and see a physical therapist for further investigation. It is better to stop injuries before they stop your ability to perform your job.

Practice lifting objects from the ground with proper form. Deadlifts have a bad repetition for injury. Your job, however, requires lifting patients and objects from the ground fairly frequently.  You can practice a traditional deadlift or practice lifting fire equipment and putting them on a “shelf.” You can simulate this by putting fire equipment on shelves or higher boxes. The goal is to use proper form when you lift your equipment needed to work. Do not just bend from your knees but also be conscious of your lumbar back position. Again, proper abdominal bracing before lifting is vital for safety. Stop if you experience any low back pain or symptoms down your leg.

I suggest finding a gym that can allow you to perform these motions during high-intensity workouts whether in a group setting or solo. I also suggest periodically working out in gear.  Working out in gear outside can further simulate your job demands when weather permits. Heat index measurements need to be taken into consideration if you are in a hot and humid climate to ensure safety. According to the PBG Fire Rescue EMS Standard Operating Guidelines, take caution with heat indexes of 80 to 90 and take extreme caution with heat indexes of 91 to 100. Working out in high heat indexes requires increased fluid intake, frequent rest breaks, and knowledge of heat stress to avoid fatigue, faintness, cramping, and heat stroke. Limit heavy work to 15 minutes or less.

Supervision from an experienced professional is ideal to decrease the chance of injury. If you feel limited in your workout space or need qualified supervision, don’t be afraid to look for a new workout location. When working out in your station, make sure you are practicing motions with actual gear and equipment. The more you train for necessary movements in necessary situations, the lower your chance for injury.

Dr. Jeanna LeClaire Hill, PT, DPT, ATC, CSCS, USAW-L1SP, graduated magna cum laude from Towson University with a bachelor of science degree in athletic training and then earned her doctorate in physical therapy from the University of Maryland School of Medicine. She is also a certified strength and conditioning specialist and a USA Weightlifting Level 1 sport performance coach. She has experience working with multiple fire departments for injury prevention lectures, workshops, annual fitness assessments, and ongoing job-specific workout programming. Dr. Hill also owns and operates Hill Physical Therapy, LLC onsite CrossFit First Step where she offers concierge level physical therapy and personal training specializing in spine conditions. She has experience co-owning a CrossFit affiliate and helping firefighters prepare for their CPAT exam.