Editor’s note: This article presents an informal way to assess firefighter fitness. Individual scores should not be used against any firefighter or as part of a performance review.
Around my department, the crews (on their way to the weight room) talk about getting “FRF”—Fire Rescue Fit. What is FRF, and even more importantly, are you it?
Most firefighters, when asked whether they’re fit, will think about how much weight they can lift or whether they’re overweight. But being “firefighter fit” is much more than that. Being able to lift heavy weights doesn’t necessarily mean you’re that strong. When talking about firefighter fitness, you are only as strong as your weakest part. As firefighters, we must not only be able to lift a lot of weight; we must also have good muscular endurance, great core and grip strength, and the ability to recover quickly.
The challenge that we as fire rescue athletes face: How can we measure all of those attributes?
Skills & Traits
There are really two aspects to job performance when it comes to being a “fit” firefighter. There is the skill aspect—being able to efficiently force doors, cut roofs, raise ladders and drag heavy objects. Then, there are the other fitness factors, the physical traits such as strength and power, that will determine how skilled you could potentially be.
As rookies, we must pass the Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT). But for many of us, that will be the last time our fireground fitness is tested. More progressive departments may require an annual stress test or medical screening, but few put firefighters through an annual test that incorporates actual fireground activity.
In the absence of national physical fitness standards for firefighters, it’s up to each company officer to ensure that their crew is fit for duty. In this article, I’ll introduce you to five fitness assessments that I believe can provide a snapshot of firefighter fitness. An easy and informal way to assess your fitness level is to perform these five tests in the order listed in 30 minutes, add your scores and see how you measure up.
Test #1: Wall Squat (Functional Mobility)
Most people sacrifice mobility and flexibility training for working on their beach muscles. Yet the more mobile you are, the better you can move your joints through their full range of motion and the less likely you are to be injured. This wall squat test will reveal functional limitations in your ankles, hips and lower and upper back—places where men especially tend to be tight and inflexible. Most people don’t do well on this test because they have a rounded back or inflexible ankles.
How to test: Stand facing a wall with your feet shoulder-width apart and toes 2 inches from the base and slightly turned out. Squat down as low as you can, keeping your feet flat, chest up and back naturally arched. Do not let any part of your body touch the wall.
- Able to full squat in control = 3 points
- Squat halfway down = 2 points
- Less than half way = 1 point
- Fell over = 0 points
Test #2: Standing Broad Jump (Power)
Muscular power has been identified by research as an important aspect of sport and firefighting performance. Power helps the fire rescue athlete quickly drag heavy objects like hoseline and victims. The broad jump is one of the purest gauges of raw power. It requires several muscle groups throughout the body to fire at once. The stronger and more explosive you are, the more force you’ll generate and the further you will jump.
How to test: Stand with your toes on a line and your feet shoulder-width apart. Dip your knees, swing your arms and jump as far as you can. Measure the distance from the starting line to where your toes first hit. Note if you step back, that distance is your score.
- Jump greater than 8 feet = 3 points
- 7-8 feet = 2 points
- 6-7 feet = 1 point
- Less than 6 feet = 0 points
Test #3: Deadlift-Curl to Press (Muscular Strength/Endurance)
Firefighting is a highly physical job that requires a high level of strength and anaerobic endurance. An aggressive interior fire attack, scaling a ladder with heavy equipment and tools to ventilate a roof, lifting or dragging an unconscious victim all require a high level of both strength and anaerobic endurance. Anaerobic endurance refers to your ability to work at near-maximal intensity in bursts in sub-minute bursts. The more efficiently you utilize oxygen, the more effective you can be on the fireground.
How to test: Use dumbbells that total roughly 30 percent of your body weight (that’s 60-pounders if you weigh 200 pounds) and hold them by your sides with your feet shoulder-width apart. Keeping your back naturally arched and your head up, push your hips back and lower your body until your thighs are parallel to the floor (deadlift). As you stand up, curl the dumbbells to shoulder height and then press them straight overhead. Return to the starting position and repeat as many times as possible in 1 minute.
- Get 20 reps or more in 1 minute = 3 points
- 16–19 reps = 2 points
- 12–15 reps = 1 point
- 11 reps or less = 0 points
Test #4: Plank (Core Strength)
A strong core transfers to a stronger athlete. All movement starts and is supported by the core. Most people think of a strong core as having a nice six-pack, or toned abs, but the truth is that the abdominal muscles are a very small part of the core. The core actually consists of many different muscles that stabilize the spine and pelvis, and run the entire length of the torso. When these muscles contract, they stabilize the spine, pelvis and shoulder girdle and create a solid base of support to generate powerful movements. A strong core distributes the forces of stressful movements and protects the back. You can’t be fire rescue fit if you don’t have a strong core.
How to test: Lay on the ground with your elbows directly below your shoulders. Lift your hips and put your weight on your toes and forearms. Your body should form a straight line from your shoulders to ankles. Prepare your core by contracting your abs as if you were about to be punched. Hold this position for as long as you can. When your hips sag or your knees touch the floor, you’re done.
- Hold plank for more than 3 minutes = 3 points
- 2 to 3 minutes = 2 points
- 1 to 2 minutes = 1 point
- Less than 1 minute = 0 points
Test #5: 1.5-Mile Run (Aerobic Endurance)
VO2 max, or maximal oxygen uptake, refers to the maximum amount of oxygen that an individual can utilize during intense or maximal exercise. It is one factor that can determine an athlete’s capacity to perform sustained exercise, and it’s linked to aerobic endurance. This measurement is generally considered the best indicator of an athlete’s cardiovascular fitness and aerobic endurance. The 1.5-mile run is a measure of aerobic power (cardiovascular endurance). The objective in the 1.5-mile run is to cover the distance as fast as possible. Note: Do not take this test unless you can run at least 20 minutes continuously.
How to test: Run all-out for 1.5 miles (six times around a standard quarter-mile track, located at many schools and some parks) and record your time. You can also perform this test on a treadmill. When running on the treadmill, be sure to let your arms swing freely at your sides (do not hold on to the handrails). Keep the incline of the treadmill level at zero. You or your partner need to record the time on the treadmill when you complete 1.5 miles at your testing speed (keep in mind it takes a few seconds to increase the speed of the treadmill).
- Finish in less than 10:30 minutes = 3 points
- 12–10:30 minutes = 2 points
- 12–13 minutes = 1 point
- Greater than 13 minutes = 0 points
How Did You Do?
As mentioned, these tests are not meant to be a formal assessment of your fitness, but in my experience, if you score 14 or 15, you’re likely among the most fit in the fire service. A score of 10–13 indicates that your current fitness regime is serving you well in preparing you for the fireground. A score of 9 and below means you need to hit the gym and improve your level of fitness—try to incorporate more intervals and full-body resistance training.
Over the last 10 years I’ve had the privilege to work with numerous fire rescue athletes of varying ages and fitness levels. The FRF scoring system was created from this experience. For example, a 35-year-old firefighter who runs a lot scored a 9. She had great endurance and core strength but lacked muscular strength and functional mobility. This was indicated by her lower scores in the wall squat and deadlift-curl to press. Another 28-year-old firefighter/medic who lifts weights consistently scored an 11 on the FRF test. He had great power and strength but lacked functional mobility and endurance, indicated by his lower scores in the squat and 1.5-mile run. Both of these individuals are “fit,” but after completing the test they recognized that they could improve on certain aspects of their fitness level.
The main goal of any assessment is to determine where an individual can improve. Company officers and firefighters should use these tests to motivate their crews and departments to improve their overall levels of fitness and ultimately be “fit for duty.”