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4 steps to achieve true fitness in fire/EMS

Use these techniques to build a great foundation of first responder-specific strength and become tactically fit


Four key components work together with the others to create the complete, fit emergency responder.


There is a lot of noise in the emergency response world – fitness, functional fitness, tactical fitness, fit for duty; the list is endless.

But what is right and what is wrong? What is science fact versus science fiction? What is really going to keep you alive on scene and after the call? Those are the questions we need to answer.

To break down what emergency-responder-specific fitness really is, we must look at four key components. Each component works together with the others to create the complete, fit emergency responder.

1. Mobility

As I am very fond of saying, you have to move well before you can move gear, tools or patients well. Mobility is a huge piece of the puzzle, yet few departments and agencies invest the time and resources into improving how well their crew members are able to move.

Case in point: After you check off your apparatus and gear at the start of your shift, what do you do to get ready? If you are being honest, the answer is coffee! While important, coffee is not a good warm-up for the physical activity to come.

All EMTs, paramedics and firefighters need to go through a short but specific mobility series that targets the areas of the body where injury is most likely to occur due to poor mobility: the foot and ankle, the hips and glutes, the thoracic spine and hip flexors.

Gone are the days of arm circles, leg kicks and neck circles. We need to make the body move in a natural fashion that encourages safe mobility while also reducing the risk of injury from training and from the job.

2. Stability

Now that you are moving, it’s time to learn how to control your body. Stability is your body’s ability to maintain a position or stop any motion that you start with good form and no movement leaks.

An example of a movement leak: As you step up into the ambulance, your knee rotates slightly inward, placing a nasty stress on the joint. You are leaking energy as you step.

Another example is one of the best emergency responder-specific exercises there is for stability: the suitcase carry. Grab a weight in one hand and walk while standing tall – do not lean over to compensate for the weight on one side.

Most responders, as they get fatigued, will lean away from the weight, leaking energy at their back and opposite hip.

To help fix the leak, I like to have the opposite hand on the back of the neck, keeping the elbow up and back to stop the cheat and recruit some more of the core. This exercise also forces the hip stabilizers to fire each time you step. Finally, make sure you go both forward and backward.

3. Power

All firefighters must get comfortable being uncomfortable, and this is especially true in the gym. I will argue that all firefighters must be able to deadlift at least twice their body weight. Why? Because you do that – and often more – on any EMS call.

When you can perfect the deadlift in a controlled environment, you are much more likely to excel and avoid injury in an uncontrolled environment.

What kind of deadlift is best? You can start with simple kettlebell deadlifts to learn the form, which is very important. Create the lifter’s wedge by tucking your chin slightly, then pulling your shoulder blades into your back pocket while squeezing an orange in each armpit.

When you have achieved the wedge, put some tension on the bar until it clicks, and hold that tension. Now imagine spreading or stretching the floor between your feet; this activates the glutes. Slowly pull the bar from the floor, maintaining the wedge. Move from the hips first.

The big question is what type of deadlift stance is best. This takes some experimentation and is very personal. I prefer sumo, as it places more load on the hips and legs and less on the back, which is better for firefighters, and arguably safer.

4. Cardiovascular

Every firefighter knows the importance of cardiovascular conditioning. Frankly, it plays a part in everything, including surviving the stress and heat of the fireground.

Getting in good cardiovascular condition is often the challenge. I encourage most firefighters to focus on the anaerobic or short burst type of conditioning, as it allows you to work hard and then recover quickly.

In a previous article I gave you one of my favorite progressions, called priority training. Another way to train this energy system is high intensity interval training or just some good old-fashioned sprints. Sprint flat, up hills, up flights of stairs and sprint on the spin bike or ergometer if you have one. The trick here is to go very hard for short periods, rest for short periods and go hard again.

By following the examples above and building from them, firefighters will be able to create a great foundation of true firefighter-specific fitness that will allow them to be tactically fit. Surviving and thriving in the fire service should be fun, with a clear goal always in sight: everyone goes home.

So, keep that chain strong!

Bryan Fass, ATC, LAT, CSCS, EMT-P (ret.), has dedicated over a decade to changing the culture of EMS from one of pain, injury, and disease to one of ergonomic excellence and provider wellness. He has leveraged his 15-year career in sports medicine, athletic training, spine rehabilitation, strength and conditioning and as a paramedic to become an expert on prehospital patient handling/equipment handling and fire-EMS fitness. His company, Fit Responder, works nationally with departments to reduce injuries and improve fitness for first responders. Contact Bryan at