Building a Functional Fitness Program

A famous football coach was once asked what makes a good football player. His reply was simple: “Playing football makes good football players.” The same is true for firefighters.

Previously, I discussed the fact that all firefighter sports performance training must lead to enhanced performance of actual firefighter activities or it’s worthless as an exercise. Performing actual firefighter skills and movements as a training modality is referred to as “specificity of training,” and it’s imperative to producing great performances on the fireground and other emergency scenes.

Course Evaluation
Every article I’ve written connects the exercises I discuss to the fireground and how they will benefit the firefighter’s performance. So now we must ask, how do we test our performance, measure our improvement and set new goals? One good way is to set up functional courses and exercises that mimic fireground activities.

The minimal course that many of us are familiar with is the CPAT, which is a very basic course designed for the non-firefighter to evaluate whether they’re ready to begin fire service training. There are other courses that fire departments utilize for entry-level tests as well. Places such as New York and Massachusetts have developed their own physical ability tests. These courses should not be used to test incumbent personnel for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that they are basic and too easy for seasoned fire service veterans.

It’s About Adaptation
In addition to the physical side of functional training, it’s important to remember the issue of acclimatization. The only way to become acclimated to different climates/seasons/temperatures and be effective within them is to work in them. You can’t sit in an air-conditioned fire station all summer and then expect to be effective in 100-degree heat with humidity in the 90s. The same holds true in the winter months. You must prepare for the cold by working in it. Remember: All prehab and rehab precautions must be adhered to when training in inclement weather. This is part of our job and what we signed up for, so we must to be ready to go.

Many of our nation’s cities and towns also have unique features. I suggest incorporating simulated features into your functional fitness programs, such as stairs in high-rise districts, or mountain terrain if that’s part of your first response. If you’re near the ocean or other waterways and are expected to work alongside lifeguards and perform water rescues, then training in the water should be part of your functional fitness program. Note: Keep in mind that when training in hazardous conditions, you must follow all of your department’s safety protocols (absolutely no weight vests in the water, B-shift!).

Program Goals
Although we respond to a wide variety of calls, I’m going to focus on functional fitness for the everyday fire call, because it’s still the most dangerous thing we do most often in every part of the world.

When developing a functional fitness program, the training division should first meet with the fitness trainers/people in your department and discuss specifically what your department wants to accomplish via physical skill courses, because a well-designed course can accomplish a multitude of objectives. In fact, the goals of any fire department fitness program should include, but not be limited to:

  • Improved overall firefighter fitness, health and wellness
  • Decreased injuries on the fireground and during training
  • Skill development and equipment familiarity
  • Increased teamwork
  • Improved communications when performing group tasks  
  • Improved  fireground and minimum company standards performance
  • Development/improvement of leadership skills
  • Development/improvement of community relations

So you can see by this non-exhaustive list that a good fitness program in any fire department, big or small, volunteer or paid, should and will lead to a better performing fire department. In fact, it can serve as common ground among participating departments, demonstrating the need for firefighters to be in shape and fit for duty. I always say it’s where “save your own” begins.

Program Guidelines
A functional fitness course shouldn’t cost anything because you’ll be simulating and/or actually doing the stuff we always do: pulling hoses, crawling, throwing and climbing ladders, using axes and sledge hammers, carrying equipment, flowing water, etc. However, you should consider the following when designing your functional program:

  • Make it measurable. Have a plan that can be easily duplicated, then decide on how you want to measure you department’s success, such as 1) the time it takes to finish the course, 2) the number of events a participant completes, 3) the number of times a participant completes the course. Have all members of a crew or department go through the course and take an average time. You can crunch numbers for all company officers, drivers, firefighters, etc. You can also break these things down by age group, etc., so you’re comparing apples to apples.
  • Keep records; this is important for goal setting and tracking improvement
  • Don’t make it a surprise; let the crews prepare in advance. No one likes sneak attacks, and surprises have a punishment connotation to them.
  • Keep it real; don’t make up extreme skills that no one can achieve or expectations that no one can live up to.
  • Have a program ready for the folks who need improvement. We all struggle at times, so have a plan to help get people where they need to be by training your own personnel or having a qualified fitness trainer available.

Note: Like any other element of a fitness program, you’ll want to allow your firefighters to prepare for using a functional fitness course, and you’ll want to expose them to it gradually. You can’t simply put 10 obstacles in front of an untrained individual and expect them to perform if they aren’t ready. Remember: We’re trying to increase fitness through training without causing injury. Every department out there has people who will need time to physically prepare for a good functional course.

Sample Course
Here’s one example of a course that you may want to set up and use, but you can make changes or create your own course to match your environment.

Course Set-Up
For a good place to start, I’d perform the Enduro-Strength First Alarm Hose-Pull. This is a simple but very effective full-body exercise that you can easily set up at any fire department. (To read more on this exercise, visit

All of us have a functional fitness gym right in our apparatus bay, and by this I mean the fire truck itself. Firefighters can utilize the equipment off of their truck as the basis for a great functional workout. I like to pull at least one line charged with water because it can show new firefighters the challenges of deploying  a charged line, and it allows them to use the force of the hose stream as an extra workout tool.

I like to set up my courses in such a way that they can be easily reassembled for the next participant and their results can be measured so that a standard can be established.  Remember:  Measuring results is done so we can chart our own progress, not point out someone else’s inadequacies.  

I like the exercises placed in a line usually in conjunction with the truck’s tailboard.  So if possible, arrange the charged line so that it’s lined up with the tailboard as well. The imaginary line that’s even with the truck’s tailboard will serve as the starting point for all of the events.  Our first event will include the charged 150 feet of 13/4″ handline. This will be followed by 200 feet of dry 2 ½” hoseline.

After lining up the lines, place a tire and a sledgehammer on the same line but away from the hose so that it isn’t a hazard if more than one person is on the course. (I know tires aren’t carried on trucks, but they are easy to get and use, so I’ve included them in this explanation.)

Next, place your department’s standard roof ladder on the starting line, along with a ventilation fan or other large tool (or dumbbells, if you prefer) that you typically carry.

The Warm-Up

Once the course is set up, I like to perform a pre-exhaustion exercise to start the event. I position an aerial ladder and instruct the firefighters to climb it while in their turnouts. This warm-up exercise should help increase the heart rate, but it’s never performed for time, so every safety rule must be followed and strictly adhered to. You can also set up a 24′ or greater ground ladder and climb up and down multiple times to get the same effect. If you have access to a burn tower, start with some trips up and down the stairs. The important thing to remember is to use the same exercise tool (in this case, a ladder) so that everyone can duplicate the exercise.

The Drill

Once the participant is done with the climb and touches their SCBA, the drill starts: Firefighters will don their air pack, then go directly to the charged line and extend it fully out. The air pack can be on the truck or beside the truck in an easy accessible location. Once the line is fully extended, two firefighters may apply pressure back on the hoseline (by moderately pulling on it) for a predetermined length of time to simulate water flow. If you’re in an area where you can flow water, you can pick a spot and have the participating firefighter actually flow water while deploying the line.  

The firefighter will return to the base and

  1. Carry the ladder 50 feet, where they will then perform 10 presses with it at the end of the walk. (Just carry the ladder two lengths of the hoseline; it’s very simple to measure.)
  2. Return to the 2½” line and run it out the entire length. They should leave the line where it sits because they’ll be returning to it momentarily.
  3. Go to the sledgehammer, pick it up and hammer the tire 50 times. Switch the lead arm halfway through. Return to the fan (or dumbbells) and carry it 50 feet, using the 200 feet of 2½” as their guide.
  4. Return to the start of the 2½” hoseline, and bring it in hand over hand until it’s ready to be deployed again by the next participant.
  5. Doff all equipment and go for a predetermined run. I usually complete 800 meters at this point.

Note: Firefighters may use breathing air for all or part of the drill, or not at all–the choice is theirs.

As you can see, this is an intense course that shouldn’t be taken lightly, but it’s just one example of a course that your department could set up. (If your department already has a great course and you’d like to share it, please feel free to contact me!)

Simulation = Success
Functional fitness training is an awesome way to test your department’s fitness level. Simulating actual fireground activities and skills via exercises that mimic them helps ensure fire ground safety and success. And by keeping thorough records and measuring performance, this form of training will also enhance your firefighters’ fitness levels. Remember: For our purposes, a functional fitness program should always enhance fire ground performance–if it doesn’t, it’s a waste of time.

Sidebar: SCBA as a Fitness Tool?
Effective functional training will eventually allow firefighters to exercise in full turnouts while wearing SCBA. I don’t recommend using SCBA as a fitness tool all the time, because they must be kept in a ready state for obvious reasons. I do recommend using them periodically as a fit-for-duty evaluation tool. As your fitness level improves, your bottle should last longer, up to a point. One great alternative to using SCBA is a weight vest. (Note: To read more on using weight vests during training, visit

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