Firefighters are human all-terrain vehicles. Think about it: We’re expected to perform in every type of weather, temperature and terrain. And when we work in these varied environments, we’re more than likely carrying some kind of tool or device to help us accomplish our task. In addition, we’re likely wearing clothing that’s not ideal for the extreme physical activity we’re called to perform, especially when in the wildland/urban interface (WUI). Even in suburban areas, there are obstacles on roadways or around homes that we have to jump or leap over in order to access a specific location or a victim/patient.
Emergencies aside, simply jumping down from an apparatus while holding a piece of equipment or while wearing PPE can be a challenge. So is it any wonder that firefighters are prone to knee injuries and back pain? The point: As a firefighter, you must be physically prepared for anything that comes your way. One way to do this is to include plyometrics in your training program.
How It Works
Plyometrics, to the untrained eye, may look like just a bunch of jumping around, but once you try this type of training, you’ll realize in a hurry that it’s a physically taxing workout that will help train your body to keep up with the many varied tasks firefighters are called to perform. Plyometric training will also train your body to change directions in a split second, and it may be used for both the upper and lower body.
Basically, plyometric training involves performing explosive jumps and pushes to develop muscle power. As described in the USA Weightlifting Sports Performance Guide, three things take place when an individual begins this type of power training:
- The muscles begin to work together, or synchronize, to perform tasks.
- The muscles will recruit more cells to help perform the task at hand, which increases functionality of the muscles and helps them overcome the stress placed upon them.
- As functionality increases, so too does muscle efficiency and speed of performance. In other words, if your muscle becomes stronger, it becomes more functional. And, as you become better trained— meaning you don’t fatigue as rapidly—your efficiency improves so you can stay at your task longer. As you stay at your task longer without needing rest, you’ll accomplish more in a shorter amount of time.
Adaptation in Firefighter Terms
In a nutshell, that’s how adaptation works. By adding more “muscle” to the original group, they were able to respond faster and take care of the job more efficiently. And by adding more muscle to the body through plyometrics, you will be able to perform your job more efficiently as well. But remember: Just like firefighters, your muscles must be trained well, so they know what to do when called upon to perform.
Tools to Use
Regarding what equipment you’ll need, I like to use cones to jump over, because they’re usually readily available at most fire stations. When setting up the cones, I like to keep them 18 to 24 inches apart to give myself enough landing room, but you can adjust that measurement to make it more comfortable for you. And as you advance, you can change the distance between the cones to add extra work for yourself.
If you don’t like cones, you can purchase plyo boxes as a substitute or you can make your own. Twenty years ago, a fellow firefighter made me a box for plyometrics, and I still use it today.
If you’d like to use cones, but your station doesn’t have any, borrow some from a neighboring department, a neighboring police department or your public works department. Tip: Get cones in every size so you can vary your stress levels occasionally.
There are different levels of plyometric exercises (beginning, intermediate and advanced), but no matter what level you’re at, in order for plyometrics to work, you must perform the exercises rapidly. It’s recommended that, whether you’re jumping or pushing, you should explode from the starting point within a quarter of a second. Plyometrics tries to capitalize on the energy that’s stored in a muscle between flexion and contraction. The stored energy will dissipate in about a quarter of a second, so time on the ground when working the lower body or the amount of time right before making an upper-body push must be extremely brief.
Below, I describe some plyometric exercises for each level. Remember: Part of the fun is to make up some of your own variations with the equipment you have.
- Jumping rope: Perform jumps with both feet touching at the same time (double toe touches) and then single toe touches, meaning you use only your right foot, then only your left foot. You may also alternate your feet during the single toe-touches.
- Stair hops: Find a set of stairs or stadium steps. Quickly jump up them, doing 5–10 reps. Again, you can do double- and single-leg hops.
- Seated medicine ball catch and throw: While sitting at the edge of a bench, have a partner throw a medicine ball to you and then quickly push it back to them in a bench-press motion. Do five sets with 10 reps each.
- Overhead squat and jump: Extend arms overhead holding a light to moderate medicine ball. Lower into the squat position and quickly jump up. Do this for 5–10 reps.
- Push up over a medicine ball or 6" cone: Lie on the ground, chest down, and place a small cone or medicine ball to one side or the other. Then move into the push-up position, and quickly push up with your arms to move your body over the obstacle. Go over and back three times in succession.
- Squat/jump/medicine ball catch and overhead press/throw: Jump as high as you can, then have a partner toss you a medicine ball and immediately throw it into the air, getting as much height on the ball as possible. This is best done with two partners and two balls. Perform 5–10 reps.
- Box jump/medicine ball catch and throw/depth jump to long jump: Jump up onto a box and have your partner throw a medicine ball to you. Then throw the ball from the chest, drop to the ground and follow quickly with a standing broad jump. Get as far and as high as possible from the start in order to get the maximum benefit. Repeat five times.
- Depth jump with forward or side hops: This exercise basically mimics the way we get off a truck. Begin by standing on a box or other sturdy object. (You can do these off a tailboard if you have a non-slick surface below you.) Step down and quickly jump either forward or to one side to build strength in the legs and glutes. As you improve with this exercise, add more hops after the initial depth jump. To ensure you’re getting good height, place cones in the direction of your hops either in front or to the side of your depth jump and then quickly double-hop over them.
- Three hops and a box jump: Set up three cones at 6 to 12 inches apart, then jump over the cones and end by jumping up onto a box/platform.
- Push-ups to double boxes: Put two 6–12" boxes on both sides of you while lying in a push-up position. Quickly extend your arms in a push-up motion in order to move your body weight up onto the boxes. Perform 5–10 reps.
As firefighters, our job demands that we not only remain in top physical shape, but that we also grow accustomed to climbing, running, jumping, etc., whenever the circumstances call for it, so we must constantly keep our bodies in a ready state for that level of activity. Plyometrics is one tried and true way to ensure that we can keep up with the demands of the job, and keep ourselves safe and healthy in the process.
Baechle, T, Earle, R, editors. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. Human Kinetics: Champaign, Ill., 2000.
USA Weightlifting Coaching Accreditation Course Sports Performance Coach Manual. USA Weightlifting: Colorado Springs, Colo., 2003.