Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Fit for Duty: Slow and steady doesn’t always win the race

By Sherry Dean   

Features firefighter fitness firefighter training Sherry Dean

The amount of time spent working out is not always a good measure of effort or results. If you compare two athletes, one who worked out for two and a half hours and the other who was in and out of the gym in 45 minutes, which one had the better work out? It’s impossible to answer because there is no way to know what you are comparing. Evaluating your workout depends on your goals.

If you are attempting to build muscle density then slower, heavier, strength-based workouts will be effective and provide good results. Endurance-based workouts are comprised of moderate exercise conducted over a longer period of time. Interval training lends itself toward improving cardiovascular efficiency and endurance with improved strength. This is similar to emergency scene tasks that are shorter in time frame and intense in nature.

Interval training combines short, high-intensity bursts of speed and effort with recovery or rest phases repeated during one exercise session. Alternating intense and light activity builds stamina and endurance, tends to burn more calories and can reduce the frequency of injury. Short rest periods during vigorous activity helps to reduce the accumulation of lactic acid pain. The short break periods or reduction in intensity give muscles the opportunity to redistribute the lactic acid, allowing athletes to continue pushing hard throughout a workout.

High intensity interval training (HIIT) follows the same structure as regular interval training, but pushes the heart rate closer to its maximum. Tabata is a great example of HIIT: 40 seconds of work and 20 second of rest for eight rounds (a four-minute total time). Both interval training and HIIT are recommended on alternating days, or targeting different body parts if workouts are done on consecutive days.


Science supports the benefits of interval training. Muscle cells are broken down in a way that promote energy production and improve physiological efficiency. The benefits of an interval workout can be measured in the body for more than 24 hours after a workout. Calories can be burned at a higher rate for up to two hours after an interval workout.

Having a solid base of overall aerobic fitness before performing high intensity and interval training is recommended. Set goals that are within your ability. If you are a beginner or new to interval training, balance your effort and exertion enough to be able to continue through your workout. The target of interval training is to engage in elevating your heart rate to between 80 and 85 per cent of your target heart rate. Perceived exertion is a good gauge of effort. On a scale of one to 10, you should be aiming for an eight. You shouldn’t be able to engage in conversation while working and you shouldn’t be able to keep going for an extended period of time. Rest periods or reduction of effort will be needed to be able to move on to the next stage or movement.

As firefighters, it is beneficial to train in the same fashion as we work. Interval training accomplishes physical benefits and task benefits. Participating in interval training requires less time to accomplish the same work load and can reduce the repetitive stress on your joints. It is known to increase V02 max, endurance and strength which will improve our performance on scene.

The following is a six round (three rounds for beginners) workout with a 30/15 second work/rest ratio. Rest periods can be increased to 30/30 or reduced to 30/10 depending on your overall fitness and the amount of effort you are putting into each movement. During your rest periods, you should be moving to your next station and recovering enough to be able to start the next movement.

Keep track of your reps in your first two rounds and attempt to maintain those numbers throughout your workout. Move quickly through each rep or movement to elevate your heart rate to 85 per cent maximum effort.

  • Station 1 – Treadmill/rower with high intensity. It should be difficult to maintain the chosen speed for much more than the 30 seconds it takes to complete.
  • Station 2 – Pull-downs, pull-ups or chin-ups.
  • Station 3 – Burpees, full body on the ground with a small jump when getting back to your feet.
  • Station 4 – Weighted reverse lunges (kettlebell or dumbbells)
  • Station 5 – Box jumps or step ups.
  • Station 6 – V-ups (add a medicine ball or light weight to increase intensity)
  • Station 7 – Dumbbell clean and press
  • Station 8 – Tricep push-ups. Hands and elbows remain close to your body.

1-minute rest between rounds.

Work hard and be 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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