Fitness for Firefighters

Physical fitness is a subject about which many firefighters have questions and many other people have answers, yet the twain never really seem to meet as often or as neatly as one might expect.

The reason, of course, is precisely that there are a great many answers, instead of just one. It would all be so much simpler if there were only that magic pill, the perfect, one-size-fits-all workout routine or fitness program that would keep you in shape throughout your years as a firefighter.

The fact that there are many options and variables to consider does make setting up an exercise routine more demanding. It also makes the results much more pleasant and versatile. The wide range of choices can help keep you from getting bored with your fitness program. It also provides the flexibility to address new demands as they arise, whether you are rehabilitating an injury, going back on the line after some time in a non-suppression role, or taking up a new off-duty activity such as kayaking or rock climbing.

No two firefighters start out with the same fitness level or the same personal goals; thus, firefighters' exercise programs will vary widely. The basic principles of a good training program, however, are the same for everyone. Your program should be comprehensive, tailored to your own particular needs and interests, and interesting or enjoyable enough that you will actually carry it out. (And, of course, you should never undertake any new physical activity against your doctor's advice.)

This article, which first appeared in Firework, the print newsletter of Women in the Fire Service, focuses on the following areas:

What's in a well-rounded program?

Most of us never have enough time in our lives for all the things we want to do, So, we often end up making some part of fitness a lower priority -- which most of the time means we just don't do it. Women who feel they are under scrutiny at work regarding brute strength (and their perceived lack of it) may become intent on weight training, and ignore the other physical demands of the job. Or we may readily take part in the activities we're good at or enjoy -- perhaps running or bicycling -- and somehow not manage to find the time for the ones we find tedious, like stretching properly, or hitting the weight room.

Nonetheless, all firefighter fitness programs should include some type of weight training, activities for cardiovascular (aerobic) fitness, and flexibility conditioning. These three elements not only reflect the characteristics we need in order to function well at work, but also interact with each other to maximize fitness and prevent injury. At a minimum, firefighters should be doing weight training twice a week for both the upper and lower body; an aerobic workout of 20-45 minutes at least three times a week, and stretching or other flexibility activities several times a week.

Fortunately for our busy schedules and demanding lives, these do not all need to take place in a gym-type setting. As will be discussed later, many aerobic activities can be incorporated into our recreational time, either alone or with friends and families. And even incorporating "incidental workouts" into your daily routine -- for example, stretching while you watch television -- can maximize your time and help make fitness a regular part of your life.

Strength training

Your muscles will work more efficiently, and much more safely, when they're warm, so don't neglect warm-ups. On weight-training days, start by jogging or getting on a stair-climbing machine, stationary bicycle, or other aerobic trainer, for five minutes. Then, take the time to stretch briefly. You should take five to ten minutes for this, and make sure to include all of the major muscle groups, not neglecting your back. Only then are you ready to do your weight routine. Once you've finished, take twenty minutes for your "cool-down" stretches.

Women often enter into weight training loaded with misconceptions and the baggage of social pressure. Some women may still subconsciously believe that women can't really be physically strong, and thus give themselves excuses for not working out as hard as they are capable of doing. But a workout that doesn't really push your limits is a workout that will not produce the gains it should. Go into the weight room convinced of your own potential, and determined to take maximum advantage of each moment you spend there. Be strict about your lifting technique, and get the most out of each repetition of an exercise. If you haven't lifted weights before, you are likely to surprise yourself with what you can actually do and how quickly you develop new strength.

The other element of social pressure that still affects some women is the idea that they don't want to start looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Fortunately, this is not likely to happen. It takes body-builders months and years of concentrated effort, as well as some help from their own genetic makeup, to sculpt their bodies so dramatically. Even for those who are trying to achieve it, it doesn't happen overnight. If you happen to find your weight training routine is giving you bigger biceps or shoulder muscles than you'd like, all you have to do is change your workout to focus on other areas.
In any case, concern over looking "too muscular" should never deter you from working out to maintain the strength you need for your job. Strength should be a priority not only for the sake of your own performance, but also because, as one woman firefighter said, "You'll get an amazing amount of mileage at work out of looking strong." If male firefighters still have concerns about working with women, those concerns usually center on strength. Can they trust that you won't let them down in a pinch? Looking fit and muscular shows your commitment to the job and provides an important positive message to your co-workers.

There is no substitute for weightlifting -- either free weights or weight machines -- to build your muscular strength. Even if you dislike it, you will not be able to eliminate it entirely from your training program. If you can't force yourself to do more than the bare minimum of lifting that you need in order to stay strong, you may want to investigate the martial arts or Pilates training, which focus on body control and develop overall strength.

Even old-fashioned exercises like push-ups, pull-ups, and sit-ups can help, if they're done regularly and conscientiously. Nor are these as limited as they may seem at first glance. Try increasing the difficulty of push-ups by putting your feet on a couple of phone books or a footstool. Pull-ups will be more effective if you add a flexed-arm hang or "negative pull-ups" to the end of each set. (For negative pull-ups, stand on a chair to get your chin above the bar, then let yourself down slowly, using only your arms.) And sit-ups can be done in a variety of forms, or on an incline, to vary their intensity and work slightly different abdominal muscles.

Cardiovascular/aerobic training

For cardiovascular fitness, you have many more options to choose from. If you work out indoors, your gym probably offers a range of stair-stepper machines, treadmills, stationary bicycles, and rowing machines. It may also have an indoor tracks, a swimming pools, and group sessions for spinning and many different forms of aerobics. Where the climate is friendly for outdoor activities, the possibilities are still greater: running, rollerblading, bicycling, swimming, rowing, skiing, and ice skating are just a few. Finding a friend to take part in these with you will make them even more enjoyable and keep you motivated.

Whatever activities you choose, make sure you're working out at the right level. Your basic guide to how hard your cardiovascular system is working is your pulse. Subtract your age from 220 to obtain your theoretical maximum heart rate, and then adjust your aerobic workouts so that you get to 70-80% of your maximum within the first few minutes, and stay there throughout the workout. Again, sessions should be from 20 to 45 minutes in length, plus time for stretching before and after.

Designing a program that's right for you

It can be confusing to set up a workout routine for the first time. Which exercises are best? Should you do lower weights and more repetitions, or higher weights and fewer reps? The trainers at your gym, or the fitness instructors at your school, are an obvious place to start, and are used to answering questions and to setting up workouts aimed at specific goals. You can also take advantage of resources available online, or in libraries and bookstores, where there are literally hundreds of offerings on all aspects of fitness training.

To tailor a fitness program to your needs as a firefighter, take a look at what you do at work. What tasks leave you the most exhausted? Are there jobs you avoid because you feel unconfident about your strengths, or areas where you feel you're not up to par? If the problem is not a lack of skills or training, working on the basic physical strengths behind the tasks may help dramatically. Choose exercises that will work the affected muscle groups in similar ways to the task. For example, if you find your shoulders get overly tired when you're pulling a ceiling, overhead pulldowns may help strengthen the appropriate muscles. Again, trainers at your gym should be able to help you figure out which machines or exercises will give you the best results.

If have no particular areas of weakness but just want to keep generally fit for the job, you should still tie your workouts to the job's demands. Urban firefighters, for example, may need to focus more on weight training, particularly for the upper body, while those involved in wildland fire may want to emphasize aerobic conditioning, and will probably intensify that training as the fire season approaches.
If you are not on the job yet but are training to prepare for it, talk to people who are already firefighters. If you have a choice, seek out women who are roughly your size and shape, and ask them what kind of workouts they would recommend. Firefighters who have helped train female applicants before may also have some very useful suggestions.

Once the physical abilities test is just a few months away, your general fitness program should change to one that is specifically tailored to the test's requirements. Review the written description of the test's components, or (even better) have a trainer look at it, and design a workout that simulates it as closely as possible. (See "Minneapolis Walks the Walk" in the August 2001 issue of the WFS newsletter, Firework, for one example.) If practice sessions are available for the test, go as often as possible to learn the skills and techniques involved, and adjust your workouts to address any problem areas.

Again, no program will be perfect for everyone. Find the things you love to do, and concentrate on them, supplementing them as needed for a balanced program. If you love lifting weights and hate running, lift weights often, and add in aerobic activities like spinning, step aerobics, water aerobics, or swimming. Don't be afraid to experiment with different activities. If your gym charges extra aerobics classes, they will usually let you take at least one class for free, to see whether you like it.

Changing your fitness program

When your workout starts getting boring, you should change it. Once you find a routine that seems to work, it's easy to get stuck in a rut, doing the same thing for months or even years on end, being burned out about lifting and just forcing yourself through it because you know you should. But many experts say that your body adapts to any given exercise after about three weeks, and you will make greater gains if you change it at that point: even just switching from barbells to dumbbells, or to a different machine, can help.

You will certainly need to change your routine if it starts getting easy, or if you find you've reached a point where you're not making noticeable gains. If you don't want to stop doing the particular exercises you're doing, then add weights or change your pattern of repetitions to keep challenging yourself.

Also consider using the prospect of an upcoming vacation to re-energize your workouts. Pick a vacation that will require you to be in shape, whether it's backpacking the Appalachian Trail, snowshoeing in Quebec, sea kayaking in Baja, or just looking good in a new swimsuit. With a new, positive goal in mind and a clear purpose for your workouts, they will feel much easier and you will have more energy for them.

Another important reason to change your fitness program is age. As we get older, we often find our bodies start to lose some of their resilience; it may also simply be that years of minor injuries and stresses accumulate to where we just plain can't do what we used to do. It's important to continue working out as you get into your 40's, 50's and beyond, and adjust your workouts appropriately. Longer warm-ups become essential.

You may find it helps to change from free weights to weight machines. While these do not provide all the benefits of free weights, they can be kinder on the body while still letting you maintain muscular strength.

Be patient with your fitness training as you get older. Don't expect the gains to come as quickly as they did when you were 25, or to be able to get back in shape as quickly as you did then. Also remember to allow yourself a more generous recovery time after each workout.

The human body was designed to last for a lifetime. Even if its designers didn't have in mind hauling hoses into burning buildings, carrying people on stretchers down steep stairways, jumping out of airplanes, or hiking out of forests with hundred-pound packs, it is a remarkable machine that can be adapted to these and many other tasks. Proper care and feeding, including a good lifelong fitness program, are the least you can do for it.

Thanks to fitness advisors Lisa Van Buskirk and Linnea Anderson for their valuable input into this article.

This article was adapted from material that originally appeared in the December 2001 issue of Firework. It is copyright © 2001 Women in the Fire Service, Inc., and may not be reprinted without permission.




© 2006 Women in the Fire Service, Inc.

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