3 firefighter exercises you are probably not doing

These three exercises address power, biomechanics and endurance, and rotational stability — all key for firefighting and EMS duties


A few months ago I asked a room full of firefighters, who all happened to be peer fitness trainers, what their favorite exercise was. Predictably I got a different answer from each person.

One lesson from the tactical strength and conditioning world that has been hammered home on multiple occasions is that we tend to gravitate toward exercises that we like, exercises that are easy for us.

Sadly, if the exercise is easy, it's because you need more of a challenge. Your body has become accustomed to it. The exercise stimulus is not enough to elicit a change, therefore the exercise is essentially not making you any stronger.

To make gains, get stronger and build the type of endurance that will save your life requires embracing what is uncomfortable. If you find an exercise that is difficult, where you struggle or just don't get it, then that's the exercise that you probably need to do.

Over the past 20-plus years of training, I have learned to seek out these difficult exercises because that has what allowed me to work at a high level for so long.

For firefighters, what we have found is that there are three exercises that you should be doing that you are probably not. One is for job-specific power and strength, one is for good biomechanics and endurance and the third is for rotational stability.

Why these three? Firefighting and EMS calls require raw power, endurance with the ability to maintain great biomechanics and the physical ability to stop whatever motion you started while maintaining control in very diverse and dangerous positions.

Before you get fit and strong, the very first thing to do is get on the foam roller. Then do some mobility work — kettle bell get ups, step ups and crawling patterns to name just a few.

After, and only after, you are warm and mobile is it time to get strong. Always do the power work first; the rookie mistake is to blow out the stabilizers and then go heavy.

Here's a look at each of the three exercises.

Sumo dead lift
There will always be a debate on whether to sumo or traditional dead lift. From a biomechanical perspective, the sumo dead lift places less compressive load on the spine; the less load on the back the better the exercise in my book.

Go heavy here with awesome form. Pull your shoulders down and back; it's all about getting those hips forward so your legs, not your back, can do the lift.

This is a vertical lift, have someone watch your form. When you start to round your back it's time to drop the weight and refocus on form.

Do five sets of five reps with a very challenging weight. This exercise is all about load and not volume, so lower reps with more weight. To change it up, try a single leg kettle bell or dumbbell sumo to really challenge your stabilizers.

Kettle bell swing
I love kettle bells. Swings, get-ups, squats, walks, carries — the list is endless. But I am also a kettle bell traditionalist.

The swing, which is one of the best mobility, endurance, strength and overall conditioning exercises you can do is not an arm exercise. Sorry my cross fit friends, the kettle bell does not go overhead.

This exercise is all about the hip hinge, so it's not a squat and it's not a front raise. The arms become an extension of the core, which is what they are supposed to be in the first place.

Do three to four sets of 15 to 30 reps focusing in the hip drive, arms retracted back and the spine in neutral-neck packed. As you get good, progress to single arm swings.

Tall kneeling push/pull
Tall kneeling row and press are like bridges, but now you must engage your core, hips, abdominals, chest and back. These are technically counter rotation exercises that build fantastic trunk and core endurance.

Keep the glutes tight, kneel tall, head up and control your motions. Do three to four sets of 15 to 20 reps. Pay attention to which side of your body is weaker.

Use cables or a band as you get stronger and progress into a lunge position. After that, try them while walking as your partner holds a power band behind you. 

About the author



Bryan Fass is a leading expert on public safety injury prevention. As the president and founder of Fit Responder Bryan's company works nationally with departments, corporations, and state and local governments to design and run targeted injury prevention and wellness programs. He is frequently contacted for expert opinion and content contribution for all aspects of public safety fitness, ergonomics and wellness. Bryan authored the Fit Responder book used by departments and schools plus writes for numerous web and peer-reviewed journals including the NSCA-TSAC journal and EMS1.com. Bryan holds a bachelor's degree in sports medicine with over 17 years of clinical practice, was a paramedic for over eight years, and is certified as an Athletic Trainer (ATC, LAT), Strength Coach (CSCS) and the Functional Movement Screen (FMS). Fit Responder developed the nation's first validated pre-hire physical abilities test for EMS. Bryan is a sought-after speaker on a variety of topics including risk reduction, employee self-care, real world wellness and how to eat on the street. Fit Responder also offers a mobile app and program for Fire-Rescue fitness. You can reach Bryan at Bryan.Fass@FireRescue1.com.

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