Firefighter Training for Real World Fitness

Embrace some irregularity in your program, and you’ll end up prepared for anything.

When you think of firefighting, what do you think of? A late-night television drama? Attractive models running into burning buildings, wearing partially open turnout coats as they jump through flames carrying 50 puppies and a nun? If you said yes, thank you for thinking so highly of firefighters, but that is not the real world of firefighting.

Firefighters are everyday individuals who are trained to protect the people in their community. These men and women have families, faults, and fears like anyone else. Television is great at portraying the human side of firefighters, but it is incapable of presenting the real world of firefighting.

What is the real world of firefighting? It is unsettled, unbridled, and uncertain. An emergency is characterized by disorder. It is the firefighter’s job to operate within uncontrolled variables and unscripted plans that have consequences beyond the next commercial break. This can mean falling debris, elevated temperatures, or building degradation. Fire removes the script from the world we live in and forces us into a world of variables. In short, the real world of firefighting is a lot like the real world, in general.

The Real World is Unscripted

We live in an age marked by excesses of comfort, convenience, and consistency. There is a preset script everywhere we go that limits the amount of concern, confusion, and contemplation we encounter. We can almost sleepwalk through life, with very little physical worry, on our paved sidewalks, with our socially-accepted habits. But is this the real world? Is the physical effortlessness that allows us to mindlessly participate in our daily mundane tasks part of the real world?

Your ancestors have done amazing things to keep you safe and make life comfortable for you. The result has become a world that is carefully constructed to fit our preferences. While convenient, this has left you at a mental and physical deficit. Do you have to think about the steps you are taking when you walk? No, because your ancestors constructed a flat surface for you to walk on that removes nearly all trip hazards. Do you have to be aware of your surroundings as you wash dishes? No, because your ancestors constructed a barrier to keep the outside world out. The world they constructed has desensitized you to the unavoidable, unexpected, and uncertain.

So what happens when there is a deviation from the script? What happens when your dog trips you, or when you see your 13-month-old approaching the stairs? You are required to rapidly react and respond to disorder and chaos. If you are untrained to operate within unexpected circumstances, you are at an elevated risk of traumatic injury, in the same way a poorly trained firefighter would be during an emergency.

How Firefighters Train for Chaos

As the lead fitness trainer for the Milwaukee Fire Department, it has been my pleasure to help our firefighters train for the unexpected, unique demands of our profession. The Firefighter Dynamic Performance Training system I developed is beneficial for firefighters, but at its core, it is about training safely and efficiently for the unpredictable nature of the real world.

The chaos of the fire scene is what makes it dangerous. Unregulated building renovations, smoke conditions, fire behavior, and more are a few of the unscripted components that make any emergency scene irregular. To reduce injuries and improve safety, we train to respond to these irregularities by mimicking the physical demands of our profession. One of the ways we do this is through irregular training implements and modalities.

Regular implements function in a consistent, scripted, and predictable fashion. As a professional, competitive, natural bodybuilder, regular implements allow me to generate consistent hypertrophic tension with little difficulty. However, dumbbells, machines, barbells, and other balanced, regular pieces of equipment do not allow me to train for the unexpected nature of firefighting or the real world. Because they are consistent in their response, they do not properly prepare you for dynamic loads. 

Irregular implements do a superior job of mimicking real world demands. 

Irregular implements function in an inconsistent, unexpected, dynamic fashion. Training with them requires you to learn how operate with loads that are shift and change during motion. As a firefighter, we constantly put irregular implements into motion. Generators, positive pressure ventilation fans, and debris are just a few of the examples. In the real world, the same is true. Carrying laundry baskets, groceries, and struggling to get that nasty dog of yours into the tub are some of the dynamic loads we put into motion on a daily basis.

Irregular implements train you for the real world by helping you develop:

  • Greater neurological excitation
  • Heightened reactivity
  • Increased stability
  • Improved biomechanical awareness
  • Movement adaptability

How do you choose what irregular implement to utilize? While there are several options, I can say that in 13 years of training for firefighting and the real world, two that continue to stand out are the Ultimate Sandbag and resistance bands.

Sandbag Training

The Sandbag trains you to adapt to asymmetrical and dynamic loads. Even when the Sandbag is at rest, it is not perfectly balanced. Rather, one side is going to be heavier or lighter than the other. When you put the Sandbag into motion, you are immediately subjected to controlled instability because of the shifting sand. Since the filler bags are only half full, the sand continues to slide back and forth inside.

Performing a movement like the high pull with a sandbag puts the filler bags into motion, which causes the sand to shift. Your body must respond to the inconsistency of the load, helping you develop spontaneous resilience. This shift occurs with every repetition you perform, which means that you are never operating in a constant, anticipated state. The result is that your body learns how to function without a script. You can also change the training stimulus by simply changing the combination of the handles you use.

Try Sandbag Drills: Instability Builds Balance And Strength for a sample of workouts and routines.

Resistance Band Training

Resistance bands are another great irregular implement for several reasons. As you place resistance bands into motion, lengthening or shortening them, you are adjusting the tension of the band. This serves several functions. One of them is that you can immediately add resistance to any movement just by changing the starting tension. Want more resistance? Start with more stretch in the band. Regular implements require you to apply more load, which is time-consuming.

Not only does the tension-to-length relationship of resistance bands allow you to easily adjust resistance, but it will train you to accelerate and decelerate. Resistance bands operate on a descending and ascending force curve. Consequently, you learn to finish each movement with the greatest amount of strength. This requires explosiveness and acceleration. Subsequently, when you return the resistance band to its starting tension, you train yourself to decelerate as the tension alleviates.

What does this mean for real world fitness? When do you want to be strongest when you’re putting away groceries? When you have them close to your body, or when you are reaching far away from your body to the top shelf? You want to be strongest at the end of your reach, because this is the place that a lot of people get injured. By doing exercises like the resistance band incline press, you’ll be preparing for exactly this type of real world function.

Go Off-Script With Your Training

The wonderful world we live in has been scripted for maximum efficiency, but it also leaves us ill-prepared for the unscripted and unpredictable. This leaves us vulnerable to injury, and decreases our ability to operate at our fullest ability. Take lessons from firefighter training strategies, and use irregular implements like the Ultimate Sandbag and resistance bands. Doing so will help prepare you for the unpredictable nature of the real world. Not only will you improve your performance, increase your safety, and enhance your energy conservation, but you’ll still be able to enjoy that late-night firefighter drama.

More ways to be ready for chaos:

Train for Uncertainty: It’s Guaranteed