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Functionally fit

In the world of strength and conditioning training, firefighters are considered to be on the same level as extreme-sport and elite athletes.

September 28, 2011 
By Todd Aitken

In the world of strength and conditioning training, firefighters are considered to be on the same level as extreme-sport and elite athletes. Therefore, the training style that firefighters require for their physical development is very similar to what athletes rely on to excel in their sports.

Athletes employ functional, movement-based exercises to develop their bodies as a whole, from the inside out. This type of training is optimal for firefighters.  Functional training is developed from techniques designed by physiotherapists in order to rehabilitate their injured patients. Sport-conditioning coaches use many of these same techniques to develop their athletes, while also including balance, speed, quickness, power and anaerobic conditioning.

Photo 1: Tim Lisecky, a firefighter at Toronto Pearson International Airport and a combat challenge athlete, performs a lunge using a 12-kilogram ViPR, a new product being used in sport conditioning centres to train athletes. The lunge is a functional, movement-based exercise and the ViPR provides three-dimensional resistance, similar to lifting a ladder.   
Photo 2: Lisecky performs towel-grip bicep curls while standing on a smart balance board. Functional training (standing on a balance board) combined with traditional exercise (bicep curls) helps firefighters strengthen their core and stability.
Photo 3: Lisecky lies on an anti-burst stability ball, strengthening his core, while building his pushing muscles with dumbbells.   
 Photo 4: Lisecky’s legs are under tension while he performs a standing chest press on a BOSU while using smart toners. Photos by Todd Aitken


Functional-training exercises strengthen the core muscles (the muscles around the trunk and pelvis). Firefighters need to have a strong core to improve balance and stability, which are essential to smooth movement patterns. The core stabilizes the spine and trunk, allowing for powerful movement throughout the body. Weak core muscles lead to poor posture and increase the likelihood of lower back pain or injury.


Movement-based exercises develop the muscles as a group, not individually or in isolation (see photo 1). This produces better motion patterns, increasing athletic performance by training the muscles in the manner in which they will be used in the performance of a particular skill or movement. The use of several muscle groups to move two or more joints through a range of motion increases the caloric and metabolic output. Consequently, the body changes its composition by adding lean muscle and reducing body fat.

Functional training requires firefighters to develop internal stability and to maintain body alignment and centre of gravity (see photo 2). A goal of functional training is to allow firefighters to move and control their bodies at a variety of angles and on a variety of surfaces. This type of training enables firefighters to react to movement challenges within diverse physical environments. 
A training environment that is more relevant to the real world will have a greater carryover to functional activities. The firefighters’ combat challenge was developed to simulate the physical demands of real-life fire fighting by having firefighters perform a linked series of five tasks: climbing the five-storey tower, hoisting, chopping, dragging hoses and rescuing a life-sized, 175-pound “victim.”

Case study
I work part time at Twist Sport Conditioning in Mississauga, Ont., where we train a considerable number of high-performance athletes in a variety of sports. We have several firefighters who come to train with us to be better prepared for the physical demands of their work. In January, we took on Tim Lisecky, a firefighter at Toronto Pearson International Airport and a combat-challenge athlete. Lisecky has been competing since 2004, and set his goal to be grouped with the top competitors in the field. “I felt that in order for me to achieve the goal that I set for myself, I needed to train like an elite athlete,” he said.

We discovered a couple of muscle imbalances and weaknesses in Lisecky. Previously, Lisecky had been following a more traditional style of weightlifting, geared toward bodybuilding rather than athletic training. He was very strong but his upper-and lower-body muscles were not linked together, which is a typical result for athletes who perform much of their training on machines and sitting or lying on benches. Individually, the muscles of the upper and lower body are strong but, when they have to perform together, there isn’t much carryover. Traditional, machine-based training focuses on the development of stronger primary, mover-muscle groups, an approach that can lead to internal imbalances and weaknesses.

 “I was humbled after my first training session at Twist,” Lisecky said. “I had always done heavy weights sitting or lying on a bench, but when I did the same exercise on a stability ball, I could not believe how much more difficult it was. I had to lower the weight of the dumbbells substantially at first until my core strengthened, but now my entire body feels a lot stronger and is working together. I feel that I am better-prepared not only for the combat, but also for my duties as a firefighter.”

Lisecky had a strong foundation; his muscular strength, aerobic capacity and body composition were all good but we needed to develop secondary fitness characteristics, such as dynamic balance, speed, agility, co-ordination, explosive power and anaerobic conditioning.

The first order of business was to develop core strength and rotary power in the standing position, as well as ful-body strength. When firefighters are advancing a hoseline and carrying or hoisting a hose pack, they are either standing or crawling. To develop a direct application to the functions involved in their work, firefighters need to perform exercises that mimic those movements or muscle involvement. When firefighters advance a hoseline, they step forward, typically with the hose over one shoulder and the nozzle in that same hand. The core is engaged to stabilize the upper body while the legs and glutes work to move the hose forward. The muscles of the upper and lower body are working together, with the power originating from the core.
Here is an example of an exercise progression that we used with Lisecky: the chest press.

Lisecky had been using a seated and lying chest-press machine to strengthen his pushing muscles. To perform this exercise, he had been lying on a bench, pressing the weight up over his chest in a single plane of motion. The pushing muscles (chest, triceps and shoulders) were being worked, but in isolation.

We substituted the bench with an anti-burst stability ball to strengthen the core and provide internal stabilization, while still training and strengthening the pushing muscles. We had Lisecky lie on his back with his shoulders on the apex of the ball, his legs bent and his feet on the ground (see photo 3). Using dumbbells, he gained a greater range of motion in his shoulders. His body was then working like a machine, with the core, the leg muscles and the gluteal muscles acting to stabilize the body. Once his core and legs were strong enough to stabilize his body, we increased the intensity by using a single arm to press the dumbbell. This progression increases the intensity and recruitment of the core stabilizing muscles.

In addition, we had Lisecky perform a chest press in the standing position using resistance tubing (smart toners). To perform this exercise, Lisecky stood in an athletic position (feet shoulder-width apart, chest up, shoulders back, knees slightly bent) using a toner (band) or cables to perform a chest press. To keep his body stable while he was performing the exercise, his legs were under tension while his core was engaged. This type of exercise links together his upper and lower body muscles to make them work in conjunction (see photo 4).

To increase the intensity and complexity of this exercise, you can perform a multi-joint squat-to-chest press or use a single arm to perform the press. This will increase the activity of the core muscles in very much the same way that advancing a hose line would challenge them. You can also increase the complexity by adding instability. Stand on a BOSU or on a single leg while performing the chest press.

 Since January, Lisecky has seen positive results, both in his performance, and in his correction of muscle imbalances and weaknesses. He has increased his full-body strength, foot speed, agility, endurance, full-body power, core strength, dynamic balance and anaerobic capacity.

“Overall, my strength, power and athlete co-ordination have improved tremendously since I started to do athletic training,” Lisecky says. 

Todd Aitken has served for 10 years with the Scugog Fire Department in Ontario and is a captain at Toronto Pearson Fire Department. He works part time at Twist Sport Conditioning Centre where, as a coach (TSCC-Gold), he trains elite athletes and firefighter combat challenge participants. E-mail Todd at

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