Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Fit for duty: January 2019

By Sherry Dean   

Features Fitness Health and Wellness

It is important to balance your overall fitness, but strength is an important aspect of fire fighting. So, how strong should a firefighter be? That’s a question which has many answers depending on your expected performance on the fire ground.

You should be more than capable to carry out your tasks without risk to you or your crew and that means some type of strength training.

Genetics influence your strength to some capacity. Your anatomy, including muscle and tendon compliance, and muscle composition which is the amount of fast or slow twitch fibres you have, all influence strength. How well and how often you strength train also impacts how strong you will become. Other factors to consider include gender, age, height and athletic background.

An easy way to define strength is force over a period of time. Training for strength is different than training for power. Although there are times when fire fighting demands power, it is much more common for tasks to last a longer period of time which lends itself more towards strength training.

It isn’t enough to simply lift. You must lift with good form and at correct intervals to improve your strength. Lifting with poor form can lead to injury and will not develop your stabilizing muscles well enough to allow your optimal strength. More is not better. Overtraining can lead to muscular atrophy. Muscles need rest in order to recover.


Strength Standards

Strength standards are guidelines that allow you to compare your strength against a larger group of lifters. The problem with using standards is that a lot of them simply use body weight as a measure of comparison. Age and height are not typically compared. It is easier to find gender comparisons now, but many standards consider one measure only.

The back squat, deadlift, overhead and bench press are common lifting benchmarks. For bodyweight exercises the pull-up, push-up and plank are often used. Other standards may include Olympic lifts or other bodyweight exercises like sit-ups, but the standards used will depend on the organization. Using a standard can be a good reference, but remember there are a number of factors to consider. A better measure may be to compare your own results.


Periodization incorporates cycles of training performed over a specific period of time. The approach is intended to help athletes improve and reduce the probability of injury and over-training. Training regimes are based on increasing and decreasing volume and intensity through planned cycles.  

Periodization is used by a lot of lifters, but there are a lot of different kinds of periodization and it can become confusing if you don’t know what you are comparing. Some training cycles are meso or micro, short periods of time in week(s), yet some are macro and occur over a year or even years.

Traditional periodization is linear. This style gradually increases volume and intensity over a number of weeks in an annual training plan. This allows the lifter to build strength at a slow steady rate each workout. This is an excellent method for new lifters to build a good foundation of strength.

Undulating and non-linear periodization rely more on constant change. These approaches use frequent manipulation of volume, intensity, frequency and exercises. These changes can occur every week or every workout depending on the type. This training approach is good for intermediate lifters or athletes with long seasons who need to avoid burnout.

Block periodization cycles typically fall over a meso cycle (two to four weeks) and traditionally use very specific intensities to assist athletes to improve a distinct quality. There are different phases in block periodization: foundation phase (accumulation), goal phase (transmutation), recovery phase (restoration), and a taper or performance phase (realization). Don’t get too hung up on the terminology, just understand there are very specific targets over a series of blocks. This type of periodization is gaining popularity, but tends to be more popular with experienced athletes who have a solid foundation of technique and strength. This doesn’t mean block periodization shouldn’t be used by novices.

There is a plethora of information available to assist you with choosing the correct periodization. Some of the most popular include Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 and 5 x 5 training, but there are plenty of options. The best idea may be to talk with an experienced athlete and give one a try. Adaptations can be made to assist you with your personal goals.

Not all firefighters are six foot three inches tall and 225 pounds and we don’t all have to squat 350 pounds or bench 250 pounds, but we should be able to carry hose, manage hydraulic tools and lift ladders without risk.

Having a good strength training program to help us improve or maintain our strength fitness is a good tool. Set reasonable goals, maintain good form and don’t be afraid to take a new approach at an old program.

Please work hard and stay safe.

Sherry Dean is a career firefighter/engineer with Halifax Regional Fire & Emergency Service. She has more than 20 years of experience in fitness and training. Contact Sherry at

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