On September 11, 2011, Aaron Zamzow competed in the Ironman Wisconsin, running in memory of the 343 firefighters killed 10 years earlier. He trained hard for the event, and it paid off. He crossed the finish line overcome with emotion and “the honor of being a firefighter on this day in particular.”
Not surprisingly, Zamzow thought he was in the best shape of his life. But a short time after the Ironman, he found himself winded while performing basic fireground tasks. He was in great shape. But he wasn’t in firefighter shape.
For Zamzow, a firefighter/EMT in Madison, Wis., this experience reinforced something he’d learned at the very beginning of his career. Prior to joining the fire service, he had trained with elite athletes and was a bodybuilder. “But when I went through the academy, I got my ass kicked,” he says. He quickly realized that being fit for a particular sport does not necessarily prepare someone for the challenges of the fireground.
These experiences led Zamzow to create Fire Rescue Fitness, a company focused on keeping firefighters in top physical condition and fit for duty. At a session at Firehouse World in San Diego in March, Zamzow shared some thoughts on the unique fitness needs of firefighters and how firefighters can exercise in a way that better prepares them for the challenges of fire and emergency response.
5 Basic Components
In the last 15 years or so, fitness has become a hot topic in the fire service. Many departments use peer fitness trainers and the IAFF/IAFC Wellness-Fitness Initiative to encourage their personnel to exercise more. Some departments have policies that stress fitness and some even mandate on-duty time for working out. But Zamzow points out that firefighters have few resources to draw on to create workouts tailored to help them succeed in the job. “If we’re going to mandate workouts, we should at least have guidelines for what those workouts should include,” he says.
What would a firefighter workout program SOG look like? There’s a lot of different information it could include, but Zamzow recommends focusing on five critical components:
- Sound periodization and science. Zamzow distinguishes between exercise—simply working out—and training—working out as part of a plan focused on improving performance. Every workout program should incorporate a plan and a progression, he says.
- Core strength and balance. “About 50 percent of firefighters will have a back injury on-duty during their career,” Zamzow says. Many of those injuries are preventable through core strength training. We’re not talking sit-ups, but full-body movements that focus on stability, like plank pose and its variations. “Think about what you do on the fireground,” Zamzow says. “Lift, crawl, pull, hoist, slam, carry, drag, climb—all of it comes from the core.”
- Cardio training. It’s a widely repeated statistic that about half of firefighter line-of-duty deaths involve cardiac events. Zamzow builds his workouts around interval training that mimics the “go/stay/go” nature of the fireground, moving gradually toward high-intensity interval training as members’ fitness levels improve.
- Full-body strength/functional exercises. The problem with firefighters working out the way the general public does is that many traditional exercises tend to isolate muscles—back, biceps, chest—rather than incorporating full-body movements like those required of firefighters. Zamzow recommends exercises such as pushups, goblet squats and deadlifts that use several major muscle groups and challenge balance around the joints.
- Active warmup and stretching/cooldown. “The more flexible you are, the more efficient,” Zamzow says. He recommends a series of active warmup exercises such as lunges, leg kicks or bear crawls. The end of every workout should include stretching and foam rolling to work on tight muscles.
The five core elements can be incorporated into individual or crew workouts. When the crew is working out together in the station, Zamzow suggests setting up various interval stations—such as tire flips, crawling/bear crawl, carrying foam buckets up steps, holding plank position, and tire drags—to fulfill the cardio and functional exercise portions of the workout. Firefighters perform 30-second intervals followed by 30 seconds of rest, trying to push themselves as hard as they can during the “on” portion. The benefit of this type of training is that everyone can go at their own pace or level, so no one is excluded but everyone is still getting a good workout.
Zamzow also notes that a firefighter workout SOG should provide alternative workouts for those times when firefighters have had a rough shift and need to focus on recovery. “Remember that exercise can be yoga, foam rolling or stretching,” he says. “If you have an SOG that says you have to work out, it doesn’t have to be high-intensity.”
The Firefighter Athlete
Zamzow believes that to truly prioritize fitness, firefighters need to see themselves as “occupational athletes.”
“We need to work out for what we do,” he says. “Physical and mental fitness is a requirement of the job.” For firefighters who don’t see themselves as athletes, it may help to understand that being an athlete doesn’t mean having six-pack abs or huge biceps. It’s having the strength, stamina, and flexibility to do the tasks required on the fire and emergency scene.
In fact, firefighters face physical challenges greater than many athletes. “We don’t have the benefit of warmup, cooldown or even knowing what we’re going to be asked to do when we arrive on scene,” Zamzow says. “Professional athletes have seasons. We don’t.”
And that requires a workout regimen that helps you be ready every day, every call.