Emergency Response Fitness

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

To succeed as a firefighter, you have to be tough. You might find yourself pushing past heavy debris, carrying victims from buildings and moving ladders around the fire ground on a day-to-day basis, all with 50 or more pounds of gear on. You need an enormous amount of physical and mental energy and endurance to face the stressful and life-threatening situations firefighters find themselves in every day. But training and conditioning at the firehouse often winds up being just cardiovascular exercises such as jogging and some strength training with weights. That is awesome for those that want to maintain their current status of health, but for those that want to be among the toughest on the squad, it’s necessary to go above and beyond these common exercises. 

As responders, we as a profession must embrace the fact that job-specific fitness is part of our job. It’s a requirement not, an option. You must invest in yourself now. If you are new to EMS, stay fit and healthy. If you have been in for a while and the job has taken its toll, make changes now. 

There are countless studies that clearly show fit responders get hurt less, are happier and have better overall physical and emotional wellness. Instead of making excuses why you can’t workout, make excuses why you have to. 

NOTE: Before beginning any strenuous activity, it is important for you to consult your physician if you have any medical issues and physical ailments that may prevent you from performing injury free and at your best. 

THE BASICS: Push-ups, Sit-ups, Burpees, Jogging & Stretching (Warm-up & cool down)

Staying physically fit with these exercises will help you condition yourself to withstand stressful environments and maintain the mental and physical endurance necessary to power through the most difficult of situations. It is important to review the proper techniques of each skill before attempting them to ensure safe body mechanics and proper form are used. New employees may or may not have completed the CCFES recruit training program which teaches the basics of physical training. For those who need an introduction of the basics, a video presentation of each skill is located below. 

1. Push-ups

Push-ups workout the chest and arm muscles (engaging the pectoral and triceps muscles), while building endurance for the pushing motion  push heavy obstacles. Pull-ups engage the biceps and triceps to help you lift heavier objects.

2. Sit-ups

With back injuries being one of the most prevalent injuries in public safety, it is important to continually train the core muscle groups to avoid preventable injuries. Sit-ups work the abdominal and back muscles by engaging the core. There are multiple ways to activate the core muscle groups and the video included demonstrates the proper technique to engage and strengthen your stabilization muscles by modifying a basic sit up position. 



3. Burpees 

This exercise engages leg, arm and core muscles. Burpees don’t require any equipment, and since they engage so many parts of the body, they burn a lot more calories than moderate exercise. Start with  a small number (20  ct) and work your way up to a set goal (50 ct) within a set time frame. For  example, on your first week, begin with ten (10) burpees within  one minute for  three (3) sets; add  ten (10) more every other day with the addition of two minutes each ten (10) repetitions.  By the end of the week you should have completed  forty (40) burpees within  seven (7) minutes. Each week after, begin to reduce the amount of time it takes you to complete the exercise.  Set a goal time for yourself.

4. Jogging & Incline Speed Walking

This exercise engages leg, arm and core muscles. Jogging don’t require any equipment, and since they engage so many parts of the body, they burn a lot more calories than moderate exercise. S

These four (4) exercises will make sure you are tougher than the average firefighter and ready for the next challenge.

1. Kettle Bell Swings and Sled (tire or railroad tie) Dragging

Kettlebell swings are among the toughest cardiovascular exercises. The kettlebell swing builds power, core strength and stability. It engages the lower back and abdominal muscles, and has minimal joint impact.

Sled dragging can also condition muscles, as well as build tolerance to lactic acid. Because it can be as intense as jogging is for the heart and lungs, sled dragging can be a low-impact option for increasing cardiovascular endurance.

2. Duty-Specific Workouts

Exercising or even performing basic fire station duties in your gear can help you get used to feeling the weight of your equipment and help you stay fit. Running 3 to 5 miles on the treadmill or outside in your gear can help you build cardio health and prepare you for being on the fireground. Another great exercise to do in your gear is stair climbing, which can be done on a stair-climbing machine or on actual stairs in a building or stadium.

Crawling is also a large part of firefighting, and doing bear crawls, crab walks and ladder crawls can help build core strength and stability. After you’ve practiced the basics and can keep your hips down, you can try crawling with gear on as well. Form and frequency are important when it comes to crawling, so while you should do these exercises often, make sure that you have proper form from the start.


People debate the differences between the sumo and traditional dead lifts. The sumo dead lift actually places less of a load on the spine, which makes it an easier exercise on the back than the traditional dead lift.

To do the sumo dead lift, be sure to pull your shoulders down and back so that your hips are forward. It’s important that your legs are doing the lifting rather than your back. Have someone else watch your form while you do this exercise, and once your back starts to round, drop some of the weight.

Strength and toughness can sometimes mean different things. Working out and staying fit is important, but training to build endurance and prepare for the job of firefighting will make you a better and more effective firefighter.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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!

About the author

Bryan Fass, ATC, LAT, CSCS, EMT-P (ret.), 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 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.

Company Officer Fitness

Here are four steps company officers can take to improve crew safety through better fitness.

1. Educate yourself and your firefighters
There's more information than ever available to us on nutrition, diet, exercise and weight loss that specifically focuses on the needs of firefighters. Make it a group project for you and your crew to collect and analyze what those sources have to offer.

Then have each member of your crew (and you) develop a series of short presentations of no more than 20 minutes where each crew member gives their synopsis of the why, what and how that information can be used to make improvements in everyone's workouts or diet at the station and at home.

2. Develop a plan and take action
One of the most important decisions made in every career fire station when the shift begins is answering the question: What are we eating today?

What if one of your first crew fitness projects was to plan your lunch and dinner menus for the next three tours of duty? Use the resources you've consulted in step one to develop well-rounded and nutritious meals.

Starting small and getting some success under your belts using a topic near and dear to the hearts of all firefighters (and their stomachs) can pay big dividends that make it easier to approach other topics like group workout routines.

3. Think many, not only one
One of the realities of trying to get a workout in during a tour of duty is that when the time comes to work out — in comes a call. In busy fire stations this occurrence, over time, can become a ready excuse for not working out. No sense in trying to work out because it will just be interrupted, goes the logic.

Instead of one workout, look to your informational resources to find shorter-duration workout routines, say 10-15 minutes each that can be employed at various times during the day.

4. Advocate a wellness and fitness program
If your department currently has a program, use your research to make suggestions for improvements. If it does not have a program, engage your department's leadership to begin developing one. The International Association of Fire Fighters has a website, Wellness Fitness Initiative Resource, that is a great one-stop-shop for information.

The WFI Resource was developed by the IAFF and the International Association of Fire Chiefs under the Fire Service Joint Labor Management Wellness-Fitness Initiative. The WFI Resource lets you search for successful wellness-fitness programs that you can learn from by fire department city and these initiative components.

  • Medical.
  • Fitness.
  • Injury prevention and rehabilitation.
  • Behavioral health.
  • Data collection.

Tools and ideas used by fire departments to justify costs and evaluate and implement a wellness-fitness program are also included.

Last modified: Friday, 20 September 2019, 10:52 AM