Strength Training Overview

Strength is defined as the maximal force that a specific muscle or muscle group can generate. The physical demands of firefighting often require extraordinary strength. Job analysis studies have shown that some equipment used by a single firefighter on the job exceeds 100 lbs. Additionally, many work situations are unpredictable and place the firefighter in biomechanically compromised situations, increasing the risk of injury. Strength training can help maintain a high level of absolute strength (i.e., the ability to lift external objects), strength relative to your body weight, and muscular endurance (i.e., the ability to sustain high levels of muscular work for extended periods of time). This will help decrease your risk of sudden acute injury and overuse injuries due to repetitive activities. Conversely, low levels of strength have been shown to contribute to a high incidence of sprains, strains, and back injuries found among some firefighters.


Many tasks on the job often require lifting and/or carrying heavy objects of various sizes and shapes through movements that require a coordinated effort among muscle groups. Many exercise facilities have an extensive assortment of equipment designed to isolate a specific muscle group, and exercise it under optimally controlled conditions. However, lifting tasks on the job rarely duplicate these controlled conditions. Training with dumbbells, because they must be balanced and controlled at all times, and allow an unrestricted range of motion, may offer an advantage over many apparatus in this regard.

The purpose of this manual is to recommend a basic training program that will provide the benefits of weight training and can be done on duty with the equipment available at each station. Exercises were selected to train all muscle groups through movements that are frequently required in specific firefighting tasks. The exercises should be performed in a “circuit” with only a short rest between sets and exercises. This will allow for the most efficient use of time, space, and equipment, and when done vigorously, contribute a cardiovascular training benefit.

If adhered to as prescribed, the program will help firefighters develop and maintain an enhanced level of muscular strength that will improve job performance and reduce injury risk.

This program is not intended to prepare an individual for maximal strength, bodybuilding, or high intensity sports performance. While exercising, some degree of fatigue is needed to achieve the benefits of strength training. However, exercising to exhaustion or near exhaustion, could potentially compromise job performance if there is insufficient time to recover. Therefore, repeated maximal sets and/or high volume work on one muscle group is not recommended during on duty exercise sessions.


On the average, the on-duty program will provide two strength training sessions per week. The adequacy of this depends on the level of fitness of the individual. Individuals who have not been strength training regularly will improve significantly training twice per week. Highly trained individuals will have to supplement the program with additional training to maintain or improve their fitness.

In general, most muscle groups require 2-3 days to fully recover from a moderately intense workout. Inadequate recovery time between sessions will result in smaller strength gains and possible overuse injury. If there is soreness present from a prior workout, then recovery is not yet complete, and workouts should be of a light intensity, or even postponed for a day. Alternating hard and easy workouts is a common practice. A split routine is an advanced technique for experienced lifters who prefer to work out more frequently, often up to six days per week. A higher volume of work will be given to select muscle groups on alternate days, still allowing adequate recovery time for each muscle group. This type of training may be suitable if a limited amount of time to workout is available on a daily basis, and more intense training is required, and can be safely tolerated.


Choose approximately ten exercises covering all major muscle groups. Large muscle groups should be worked before smaller muscle groups and multi-joint exercises performed before single-joint exercises. For example, the bench press should be done before triceps kickbacks, and bent-over rows should be done before arm curls.


Priority should always be given to maintaining proper form throughout a full range of motion, not to the amount of weight lifted. The additional strength gains from aggressive lifting will quickly be lost if poor technique results in injury. When beginning a program, or adding a new exercise, proper form with manageable light weights must be mastered. The effects of these exercises can be assessed during the recovery days, and help determine an appropriate level of progression.

Muscles adapt to the specific workload to which they are subjected. The workload is a function not only of the amount of weight lifted, but also the number of repetitions, speed of movement, number of sets, and amount of recovery time between sets.

Maximal strength is determined by the largest amount of weight that can be lifted unassisted with proper form one time, or one repetition maximum (1RM). This should only be attempted by experienced lifters with spotters available. A safer alternative is a measurement of an 8-repetition maximum (8RM), which is the amount of weight that a person can successfully lift eight times without assistance, but not nine times.

A program designed for maximum strength gains, will emphasize a high resistance (>80% of 1RM), low repetitions (1-6+), numerous sets (3-5+) with full recovery between sets (2+ minutes). A program designed to emphasize muscular endurance improvement would utilize a lighter weight (<70% of 1RM), more repetitions (12-15+), fewer sets (2-3), and shorter recovery between sets (30-60 seconds). Since high levels of both muscular strength and endurance are needed by firefighters, this program will attempt to combine these goals for the on-duty setting.

Although the greatest improvements in strength will be found when multiple sets are performed, most lifters will experience almost as much improvement doing as few as 1 or 2 sets, provided the intensity is comparable. Considering this, the following regimen is suggested which will provide a balance of strength and endurance benefits, minimize risk of injury, and be time efficient.


The Light Set:

– Essentially an extension of the warm-up.

– 12-15 reps of a comfortable weight (approximately 60-70% of 8 RM)

– The endpoint of the set should be mild fatigue, not exhaustion.


The Hard Set:

– 8-10 reps of a challenging weight (approximately 10RM)

– The endpoint of the set should be near failure to complete the last repetition without assistance.

Experienced or advanced lifters may wish to add additional hard sets to meet their personal goals if time allows. However, priority should be given to performing a variety of exercises and balancing fitness goals (strength, flexibility, and cardiovascular fitness) in the limited on-duty time available, rather than concentrating a high volume of work on a few muscle groups.


When only a moderate effort is required to complete the desired number of repetitions for a set, the workload can be increased.

Only one training variable (i.e., amount of weight, number of repetition, number of sets, or recovery time) should be increased at a time.

Varying training variables and exercises every month or two can help with motivation and prevent training plateaus.


A five minute warm-up of light cardiovascular exercise will increase blood flow to the muscles and reduce the risk of injury. Stretching the muscles before lifting and between sets is also advised. A similar cooldown following exercise will aid recovery.


While standing, keep feet flat on the floor, knees slightly bent and toes pointed slightly outward. The head should be level and eyes looking straight ahead. When doing exercises on a bench, five points of contact (i.e., head, shoulder girdle area, and buttocks on the bench, and feet flat on the floor) should be maintained.

When lifting a weight from the ground, use the legs and keep the back straight.


Proper breathing technique can help lifting performance and reduce the risk of injury. Lifters should exhale as the weight passes through the “sticking point” (i.e., the most difficult part of the lift) and inhale during the recovery phase. By exhaling when the weight passes through the sticking point and not before, intra-thoracic pressure is momentarily increased, which can help stabilize the lower back. However, prolonged straining at the sticking point, or breath holding throughout a repetition should be avoided.


A spotter is someone who assists the lifter in the execution of an exercise. A spotter can also be helpful in analyzing form and providing motivation. Spotters can also assist in getting the weights from the floor to the starting position and taking the weights from the lifter when the set is done. A spotter is required in any lift where the weight is lifted overhead or over the face. Additionally, heavy lifting or new or unfamiliar exercises also require a spotter. The lifter and the spotter should communicate clearly as to the nature and goals of the set. The spotter should also ensure that the area surrounding the lifter remains safe from other exercises and equipment. When spotting dumbbell exercises, assistance, when needed, should always be given above the elbow joint, and for some exercises, on the dumbbell. Specific spotting positions will be shown for each exercise, when appropriate.

Fitness Manual Table of Contents
  • Stretching & Flexibility Chapter
  • Strength Training Chapter
  • Stretch Examples Chapter
  • Acknowledgements
  • Appendices