I get asked all the time what’s the best exercise. Well, the best exercises for firefighters are not the ones that will have you looking good on the beach. They are the ones that could potentially keep you alive when you need your strength the most.
Instead of filling your workouts with exercises that will not translate onto the fire scene, pack them with these important movements. I’ve outlined the best exercises for firefighters that will increase your strength and power, prevent injury, and maybe even help you look good on the beach, too.
You will have to carry stuff around the fire scene whether it is a toolbox, saw, or hose. Don’t ever let your grip be your weak point. Some of the strongest people I know also have grips that will make you scream while shaking their hands. And don’t be surprised if some of your personal records actually go up in your bench press, deadlift, and other exercises once you start working your grip.
To execute: Stand straight up with your core engaged, shoulders back, and a weight in each one of your hands. This can be done with a trap bar, a dumbbell in each hand, or a weight plate in each hand. Walk at a normal pace to an endpoint. Keep strict form and avoid slouching or having your shoulders dip forward.
Recommended Sets/Reps = 3×20 Yards
Object Carry Up Stairs
Whether you’re fighting a high-rise fire in New York City or going up a two-story home in California, you will be going up stairs and you will never be empty-handed. This exercise will condition your legs to fight the demands that stairs can put on your body.
To execute: Stand at the bottom of a flight of stairs with a dumbbell in each hand or an object over your shoulders. Stand up tall with your core engaged. Walk as you normally would with one foot after another until you get to the top of the stairs, then turn around and go back to the starting position.
Recommended Sets/Reps = 5×1 (flight of stairs)
Sled Drag Series
Stretching a hose line and pulling a victim out of a fire puts a huge demand on your body. By doing this exercise with varied grips and stances, you’ll work all of the important muscles to execute this properly. Drags are also great because they doesn’t put a huge demand on your body and won’t leave you too sore.
- The backward sled drag is done with both hands facing each other, gripping a rope that is attached to a sled (or weight plates). Simply take a step backward, one step at a time for the desired distance.
- The lateral sled drag is done one side at a time. While gripping the rope with one hand, arm fully extended, take one step at a time for the desired distance.
- The forward sled drag is done with your both hands gripping the rope, arms fully extended in back of you. Be sure to keep a 45-degree angle from the back of your head to your heels. Drive your legs forward in a marching motion as you maintain the angle in your back and make your forward progress.
- The overhead sled drag is meant to simulate the firefighter pulling hose off of the fire engine. With the rope over your one shoulder lean forward with your core engaged and make your forward progress.
Recommended Sets/Reps = 3×20 Yards
This will strengthen your shoulders for when you have to vent a window or pull ceilings. Your shoulders are usually the first thing to fatigue.
To execute: Grasp a barbell with an overhand grip, feet shoulder-width apart, and elbows tucked in tight to your body. Drive the bar up until your arms are fully extended, and your head is driven between your arms. Pause for a slight moment, then in a slow and controlled manner bring your head back and return the bar to the starting position.
Recommended Sets/Reps = 3×10
Squatting is a movement you do everyday and also one of the leaders in strength and muscle development. This exercise will help reduce your chance of injury and should be a staple in all firefighter workout programs.
To execute: Set up a barbell on the supports of a squat rack. Step underneath the bar, squeeze your shoulder blades together, and let the bar touch your upper traps. Grab the bar with your hands as close together as is comfortable. Nudge the bar off the rack, take two steps backward, and stand with your feet a bit wider than shoulder-width apart, toes turned slightly outward. Take a deep breath and bend your hips and knees, lowering your body as far as you can (try to squat to where your thighs are below parallel to the floor). Explode back upward to the starting position. That’s one rep.
Recommended Sets/Reps = 3×6
Weighted Chin Ups
The chin up will hit a lot of the important upper-body muscles. The chin up puts a lot less stress on your shoulders than the pull up, and will ensure that when the sun’s out, the guns will be out. Don’t worry about doing bicep curls if you have a solid chin up routine as part of your program. You can use a weighted belt, a dumbbell between your legs, or a weighted vest to add resistance to the exercise to make it more difficult.
To execute: Standing below a pull up bar, grasp it with an underhand grip as your arms are extended. With your core engaged, pull yourself up until your chin reaches the height of the bar. Slowly lower yourself until your arms are fully extended again. That’s one. Repeat and avoid using a kipping motion or bringing your knees up to help you along the way. For this exercise, the more you kip, the less weight you should be doing.
Recommended Sets/Reps = 3×8
The deadlift is such a powerful exercise and translates perfectly to the fire scene. Whether you’re picking up a previously engulfed washing machine or a victim, you will be picking things up and putting them down. Once you truly master the deadlift, I promise you that you will never pick something up the same again.
To execute: Stand over the bar with your feet hip-width apart. Keeping your lower back in its natural arch, crouch down and grab the bar overhand, your hands about shoulder-width apart. Your shoulders should be directly over or even a little behind the bar, and your eyes should be focused straight ahead. Driving with your legs, straighten your hips and knees, pulling the bar to hip level as you come to a standing position. Reverse the motion to return the bar to the floor. That’s one rep.
Recommended Sets/Reps = 3×5
Dips are the perfect upper-body exercise that works some major muscles and will benefit you on the fire scene. Whether you’re hoisting yourself up through a window or over a ledge, the movement will be the same. This will benefit you more than the bench press because you will rarely, if ever, be on your back on the ground pushing something straight up.
To execute: With two hands grasping a dip bar, keep your elbows in tight touching your sides and core engaged. Lower yourself slowly until your arms form an “L” or a ninety-degree angle. Once you hit this angle, drive yourself back up until your arms are fully extended and repeat.
Recommended Sets/Reps = 3×6
Medicine Ball Slam Series
Whether you’re using your axe to vent a roof or you’re trying to force a door open, you will need to have rotational explosiveness to execute properly. Instead of doing exercises like crunches, this medicine ball series will work your abs in multiple planes of motion while increasing your power and strengthening your core.
- The overhead med ball slam begins by standing holding a medicine ball over your head. Explosively slam the ball downward to the ground right in front of your feet. Catch the ball as it comes up and return to the starting position. Repeat for the desired reps, as you slam the ball as if you’re trying to break a hole in the ground. Keep your core engaged as you move and watch out for your feet.
- For the lateral med ball toss, stand holding a medicine ball in front of you with arms extended. Rotate your hips and powerfully throw the ball into a nearby wall. Catch the ball and reverse the motion to return to the starting position. That’s one rep. Complete all prescribed repetitions on one side before switching.
Recommended Sets/Reps = 3×10 (each)
If you want a long healthy career as a firefighter and care about increasing your performance, then you should reevaluate what you’re currently doing. Incorporate these exercises first when you build your workout program, and then plug in other exercises around them.
Even if you just do these exercises and nothing more you will see some great gains in your firefighting performance. Start doing movements that matter, the ones that will keep you alive longer.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.