Firefighter Fitness: Improving Performance and Preventing Injuries

A firefighter puts out a fire using water. Image Source: Steve Harryman

By Reader Contribution

Firefighter fitness is one of the key factors to improving performance and increasing the chances of a healthy and long career in the firefighting industry. Firefighting is physically engaging and dangerous work. Every year, there are approximately 80,000 firefighters who get injured and 100 who lose their lives in the line of duty. Firefighters face numerous risks like hazardous combustion products, dangerous working environments, toxic fumes, and high radiant heat.

Despite these dangers, the leading cause of death among firefighters is heart disease or sudden cardiac arrest. This statistic alone is alarming and illustrates the need for firefighters to focus on improving their personal physical fitness and preventing injuries. Being fit for duty is the number one basic requirement for every firefighter. Improving fitness will play a huge role in reducing injury and death cases that the industry suffers every year, particularly those caused by cardiac and health issues.

The question remains: How can you improve fitness and prevent injuries as a firefighter?

Improving Performance for Firefighters

U.S. Air Force Airmen from the 20th Civil Engi...
U.S. Air Force Airmen from the 20th Civil Engineer Squadron Fire Protection Flight neutralize a live fire during a field training exercise. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When it comes to improving performance, there are 8 main functional fitness movements that you have to work on to help you execute basic fire ground tasks, increase resiliency, reduce the possibility of injuries, and improve the recovery process.

They include:

  • Push
  • Pull
  • Carry
  • Drag
  • Lift
  • Capacity
  • Core
  • Flexibility

These components encompass three general fundamentals of improving fitness and performance:

  • Cardiovascular exercises
  • Flexibility-core strength training
  • Strength training

Cardiovascular Training

Considering that most fire ground activities are strenuous, firefighters frequently experience elevated heart rates and extreme strain on their bodies. Activities like stretching attack lines, performing ventilation, carrying heavy firefighter equipment and rescuing injured victims require a tremendous level of cardiovascular fitness. Engaging in high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and endurance-based cardiovascular training will help your heart, lungs, and overall body to perform harder and longer on the job.

Regular exercise is the key to improving your cardiovascular fitness. Focus on activities like running, sprinting, kettlebell complexes, swimming, biking, elliptical trainer and simulated fire ground activities like sledgehammer forcible entry and stair climber sessions to increase your cardiovascular capacity, resilience, endurance, and recovery.

Core Strength and Flexibility

Wrist straps allow lifting heavier without hav...
Wrist straps allow lifting heavier without having the grip strength required otherwise. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Core strength and flexibility are often the most neglected areas of fitness in firefighting training. However, improving in these areas often helps reduce the severity and frequency of strains and sprains while training and on duty. Engaging in exercises like yoga, hanging leg raises, leg lifts, different sit-up variations, windmill stretches, frog stretches, weighted squat holds, and Russian kettlebell getups and swings ensures that your body is highly flexible and able to maintain a strong core.

These exercises help you increase muscle endurance, reduce stress levels, improve core strength, increase flexibility, and your overall performance. Most of these exercises can be combined with your regular workout program of the day.

Strength Training

Strength training is a key component of improving fitness and performance. Instead of equating strength training to lifting weights, focus on your ability to lift, carry, push, drag, and pull. Considering the weight that firefighters carry when dressed out in full turnout gear in addition to the strength related tasks that also need to be performed on arrival at a fire ground, building strength is critical. Exercises that focus on areas of your body that demand most strength like your legs, triceps, shoulders, lats, and grip strength should be your focus.

Firefighter Trainers Check out 111 Best Kettlebell Exercises for Men and Women

These include front and back squats, battle ropes, hose pulls, pull-ups, loaded carries, rows and lunges, overhead presses, bench press, and barbell deadlifts. Practice executing the same tasks performed in the fire ground and master the basic of carrying, throwing, forcible entry using a firefighter ax, climbing ladders, and rapid intervention drills to ensure all-round improvement on your performance.

Nutrition and Your Lifestyle

Physical activity alone will not help you achieve ultimate fitness success. You should also check your nutrition, daily water intake, lifestyle, and medical conditions. These factors have the greatest impact on your overall fitness. Strive for a balance in your diet and spend time with your family and engage in recreational activities. Doing so helps you lower stress levels and improve your quality of life, which then improves your performance and job satisfaction.

How to Prevent Firefighter Injuries

English: NORFOLK (June 23, 2010) Sailors assig...
English: NORFOLK (June 23, 2010) Sailors assigned to the guided-missile cruiser USS Monterey (CG 61) participate in the commissioning of the Navy Operational Fitness and Fueling System (NOFFS). NOFFS is the Navy’s new physical fitness program that is designed to give an all around workout while reducing physical training injuries. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Matthew Bookwalter/Released) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Safety is always a major concern for firefighters both in the line of duty and during operational and fitness training. To prevent firefighter injuries, you should consider taking these simple steps:

  • Ensure safety awareness in all operational and fitness training programs. That will help reduce cases of injuries caused by a lack of knowledge and will also help you make the right judgment calls on the ground to ensure the safety of you and your team.
  • Firefighting facilities should mandate firefighter fitness and safety training on a regular basis. Engaging in regular training will definitely pay off in safety and reduced injuries. Inter-agency training is also a good option to expand safety know-how and prevent injuries.
  • Maintain the outlined SOGs/SOPs (Standard Operating Guidelines/Procedures) in all tasks you undertake. Operating without them increases the risk of injury and death. Follow updated operational guidelines and procedures of your department.
  • Follow the established safety-related rules when training, using, and even installing critical firefighting tools and equipment like fire hose adapter and fittings. Firefighting departments and leaders are required to enforce the established safety rules to ensure safety. Follow them strictly to prevent injuries.
  • Take part in full annual physicals and individual performance fitness qualification tests. Firefighting departments budget for these every year. Make sure that you take part in the examinations to ensure you’re safe and healthy as you engage in your work.
  • Update your fitness training practices and programs and adopt what is working and improve.


Firefighter fitness is the key to ensuring top performance and safety in firefighting. Ensure that you follow an effective and consistent exercise program and the established safety training procedures to improve your overall performance and prevent potential injuries.