One thing you can say for sure about firefighters: We’re always carrying, pushing, lifting, prying or manipulating something. And the resulting physical stress placed on a firefighter’s body is compounded by the fact that we often perform these tasks in turnouts and with SCBA on our back.
Entry-level fire service physicals require participants to wear either SCBA or a simulated SCBA by wearing a weight vest during the test. So even at this early stage, the fire service emphasizes the importance of performing challenging physical tasks while carrying extra weight.
Any firefighter who’s done simulated fire department work, such as sledgehammer hits or hose pulls, while wearing turnouts and SCBA, and then did the same work without wearing them, knows there’s a striking difference between the two. So a truly effective firefighter fitness program must always progress to a point where firefighters can perform fireground tasks while wearing full PPE, and even while breathing air.
One way to help get your body into this type of superior firefighting condition: Train with a weight vest.
The Benefits of Using a Weight Vest
I like weight vests for a variety of reasons: They’re much cheaper than SCBA, and using them will help prevent wear and tear on the SCBA. They’re easily adjustable, so many different people can use the same vest (although I suggest buying your own so that you can use it off- duty, too). One vest manufactured by weightvest.com will last you your entire career–but don’t give it away because you can still use it when you retire as an anchor for your boat. I’m kidding, of course, but you can keep training in it or give it to the next generation of firefighters in your family. I’ve had the same vest for 15 years; it has few signs of wear, and I use it at least three times a week.
Weight vests can be worn over warm clothing in the winter and over a T-shirt in the summer. They’re easy to don and doff, so they fit easily into a variety of functional fitness scenarios. A good weight vest will also allow you to remove and replace the weights inside it. I personally like the 50-lb. vests because they closely match a firefighter’s average equipment weight. But why stop at just one? To wake up a few more neuromuscular connections, I recommend throwing on additional vests when you’re physically ready for the challenge.
I’ve written before about the adaptation theory of exercise, which simply states that the body will react to the stresses placed on it, so that over time, it will adjust to the stress by formulating new neuromuscular connections. The weight vest helps facilitate this process. When you train in a vest, you’re automatically placing more demand on your body. A simple run up a flight of stadium steps will become much more demanding if you do it while wearing vest. In fact, any exercise you’ve mastered without a vest will suddenly become new and more challenging again.
CPAT & Red Card Tests
If you’re just starting your fire service quest and you’re training for the Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT), then training with a vest is imperative. You’ll be asked to perform the entire test with added weight on your body. You’ll have to wear 75 lbs. of added weight on the stairmaster and 50 lbs. for the remainder of the test. I’m always amazed at the look of surprise on the test-takers’ faces when they put on the vest for the first time. There’s this sudden realization of how difficult fire department training really is.
For departments that perform wildland firefighting operations, the vests are perfect for use during the Red Card pack tests, because you can just remove a couple of weights and administer the test. Hiking in a vest through rough terrain is an ideal way to get ready for the wildfire season. Note: If you’re doing this, remember all the standard safety rules: Bring plenty of water, let people know where you are, bring a charged cell phone (and for you B-shifters, leave the snakes and bears alone!).
Over time, as you train in your vest, your stamina will improve; you’ll be able to continue wearing it for longer periods of time and perform more exercises while wearing it. But what you’ll really appreciate is when you train without it, you’ll feel super-human. This alone will bring you back to the vest time and time again, which is interesting because it’s how you feel without the vest that will make you want to train more with it on.
First Starting Out
When first using a weight vest, you may only be able to keep it on for a few minutes before wanting to take it off. With this in mind, I suggest staying in an area where you can take it off and continue your workout. The last thing you want to do is get 10 minutes out on a trail and have to take off the vest and drag it back to your starting point.
A track is one good place to start this type of workout because it allows you to use the stadium steps as well as the track and not worry about dropping the vest in a remote area. If you’re interested in or participate in wildland firefighting, eventually you’ll want to get into working in rough terrain, but for starters, a track will work fine. For extra exercise, shovel sand in the long jump pit. Just remember to keep the sand in the pit and leave it how you found it.
Track the length of time you can exercise while wearing the vest and create goals for yourself. When you’re able to run and/or exercise while wearing it for about 30 minutes, you should have a good idea of your physical limits, so try switching to running on a trail.
Measure Your Results
With any strength and conditioning program, you’ll want to measure your results so you can see how you’re progressing within your program. Some areas to track improvement when wearing a weight vest include
- The length of time the vest is worn;
- Your time improvement on functional exercises when wearing the vest;
- Your time improvement at a later date when not wearing a vest; and
- The amount of work accomplished while wearing the vest.
To keep your measurements organized, try creating a simple weight vest training log or chart. You can do this with any exercise, such as hose pulls, stadium steps, pull-ups, push-ups and squat thrusts. Sometimes you may just track repetitions and total time, such as with the push-ups and pull-ups, because the time in the vest really isn’t a factor for these types of exercises. The fun part about this is you can be as creative as you want.
Hose Pulls in a Vest
If you recall the first-alarm hose pull exercises that I developed in my Enduro-Strength Training Program, those are ideal exercises to perform while wearing a vest if you want to track not only functional fitness performance, but also time improvement. (For more information and instruction on the first-alarm hose pull, check out “Let’s Get Specific: Hose-related exercises that help you improve your performance on the fireground,” February 2011 issue, p.110.)
When you first start doing hose pulls, it’s not uncommon to need to rest after just the first pull. As you improve over time, however, you’ll wear the vest for longer periods of time; eventually you’ll end up wearing turnouts and a vest. And when you get really proficient, you can throw on an air pack and see how that goes. At each phase, you’ll check your progress for time and amount of work performed. The full first-alarm hose pull is three pulls in a row–so it may take a few months or longer to progress to using a bottle and breathing air.
What It’s All About
The weight vest is one of the best firefighter fitness tools out there. It’s easily adapted to any skill or exercise–all you need to do is select the one you want to perform and you’re on your way. If you’re in the market for a vest, consider those made by weightvest.com. I’ve used theirs for years and have always found them to be top-quality products.
Remember: Beyond the manufacturers, the exercises and the exercise log, the most important thing to keep in mind–because it will keep you coming back and continuing to exercise–is to have fun. If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, what’s the point? So be sure to select a location, an exercise and a weight vest that are right for you. And, as with all exercise, for a little extra motivation, try working out with a friend or to your favorite music. If you enjoy what you’re doing, before you know it, you won’t even feel the extra weight you’re carrying.