Fitness foundations for first responders: Approaching strength training and conditioning

Physical fitness is a perishable skill and a concerted effort to maintain fitness over time is critical


By Jay Dawes, Ph.D.

First responders have some of the most physically demanding tasks in our society. While the specific tasks vary based on their occupation, many require maximal or near-maximal physical exertions over brief – as well as extended – periods of time. Additionally, these tasks are often performed in an unpredictable and rapidly changing environment where first responders’ personal safety is at risk. Based on these demands, first responders are frequently referred to as “tactical athletes.”

Due to the physical nature of the job, fitness is typically considered a priority within the first responder population. For this reason, a fair amount of a cadet’s or recruit’s training is dedicated to developing physical fitness with the intent that they will strive to maintain fitness over the course of their career. However, once on the job, maintaining a consistent physical fitness program can be challenging.

Developing a base level of fitness will help ensure that when you are required to perform essential job tasks you can do so safely and effectively.
Developing a base level of fitness will help ensure that when you are required to perform essential job tasks you can do so safely and effectively. (Pixabay)

Although first responders must occasionally perform high-intensity work, these events may happen relatively infrequently – at least infrequently enough to maintain one’s fitness. In fact, most of a first responder’s shift time is sedentary in nature. Consequently, this can lead to a steady decline in health and fitness over the occupational lifespan unless proactive measures are taken.

Physical fitness, including strength training and conditioning, is a perishable skill and a concerted effort to maintain fitness over time is critical. For this reason, it is important that first responders find activities they enjoy, or can at least tolerate, to develop, maintain and improve health, fitness and occupational performance. Each one of these areas should be addressed to provide first responders with the best opportunity to ensure satisfactory job performance.

Step 1: Develop and maintain general health

In the most simplistic terms, health can be defined as a reduced risk of developing sickness and disease that may result in premature death. This means reducing the number of comorbidities an individual possesses, such as hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, obesity, etc. Developing a base of health is the foundation of occupational performance. Similar to other skills, we tend to fall to our level of training. Thus, if one’s health is poor, one will never achieve their physical potential.

Many public safety personnel feel their health is too far gone and nothing can be done at this point. This is why it is critical to start with small steps and progress. The following are a few suggestions for getting started:

  • Set a baseline. Take the Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire (PAR Q). If you answered yes to any of the seven questions, see your physician.
  • Activity, then exercise. Focus on increasing physical activity before starting an exercise routine. Find ways throughout your day to move more, such as parking further away in the parking lot, walk or stand while taking or making phone calls, use the stairs instead of the elevator, performing light stretching and flexibility exercises, etc.
  • Make it a game! When you disguise work with play, it is a lot more entertaining. Use a step or activity calculator to keep track of your activity. This can be used to set daily and weekly activity goals and help measure your progress. Setting goals not only helps keep you on track but also can make getting healthy more fun.

Step 2: Build fitness

If health is the absence of sickness and disease, fitness is the ability to do the things required of us without undue physical stress or fatigue. Essentially, developing fitness equates to building capacity. This is the fitness built beyond what is needed to just be a healthy person and may vary between individuals.

For some people, this will mean improving their fitness to support their ability to perform occupational tasks. For others, fitness may also include preparing the body for activities outside of work, such as hiking, mountain biking, or competing in various recreational events such as running, kayaking or powerlifting. These activities not only help build general fitness but also support job-related skills.

Developing a base level of fitness will help ensure that when you are required to perform essential job tasks you can do so safely and effectively. It is important to remember that while a first responder’s skills may allow them to adequately perform their job, fitness compliments these skills and allows them to perform physical tasks in a more effective and efficient manner. This reduces the physiological burden and stress associated with these tasks, which may reduce the likelihood of injury and extend their ability to stay on the job as they age.

The following are ways to help you get started with attaining and regaining your physical fitness:

  • Start slow! It is better to ease into a fitness program than start out too hard or too fast. Progression is the key to building fitness. It cannot and does not need to be done in a single day. Begin with light-intensity exercise and increase the intensity and/or duration of your workout sessions as your body adapts.
  • Don’t overdo it. When building fitness, it is best to leave a workout feeling as if you could have done a little more. This helps prevent overtraining and excessive soreness caused by training too hard.
  • Incorporate resistance training. Aim for a minimum of two training sessions per week and select exercises that work all the major muscle groups. Initially, even performing one to two sets of eight to 12 repetitions is sufficient to start seeing progress if you have not been training. As fitness improves, additional sets can be added to keep making progress.
  • Don’t forget the cardio. Perform cardiovascular training at least twice per week for 20 minutes. Performing unstructured intervals (e.g., fartlek training), can allow you to build fitness while allowing some recovery between higher-intensity workouts. An example of this may be jogging for two to three minutes, and then briskly walking for one to two minutes before jogging again.
  • Perform some flexibility and mobility work daily. Performing as little as five to 10 minutes of flexibility and mobility training per day not only helps improve your ability to move but also aids in recovering from previous workout sessions.

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Step 3: Improve performance

Performance is the action or process of accomplishing a task or function. For the “tactical athlete,” performance is the actual job, as well as activities performed at higher intensities to prepare for the more extreme situations they may encounter. Activities that are considered more performance-oriented usually involve speed and power. These traits increase the first responder’s opportunity for success during operations – especially in those where there is a sense of urgency or life and death. These types of activities are considered advanced and should be incorporated based on the individual’s health and fitness level.

To be fit for duty, health, fitness and performance must all be addressed. While each of the areas mentioned should be emphasized, the primary area of focus for the individual should be on developing a solid foundation of health and fitness before engaging in training programs focused on high-intensity bouts of exercise.

While we are often willing to accept this risk on the job when life is in jeopardy, it is not one likely to be accepted when an individual is struggling to just get into shape. Similar to a house, the more robust this foundation, the greater amount of stress it can tolerate.

Strength training and conditioning for the first responder is similar to training the high-level athlete. It is essential we place the appropriate amount of stress on the body to create a positive response to training. Too little and the body will not adapt; too much and it will break. Training for occupational readiness takes time, consistency and thoughtful progression of exercise intensity, volume and complexity based on the individual’s current level of health and fitness.

Here are a few considerations to keep in mind as you build fitness to increase performance:

  • Train more like an athlete. Incorporate speed, agility and power training into your workout plan. These are all skills that complement job performance and allow individuals to perform with greater efficiency. However, it is important to remember that “tactical athletes” and “sports athletes” are not the same. Tactical athletes do not always need the same volumes and training intensities sports athletes require to do their job well. Adding as little as five to 10 minutes of this form of training into a workout is more than likely sufficient for most first responders.
  • Focus more on training movements rather than specific muscle groups. When training for performance, the exercises selected should have an element of specificity to the job tasks we are aiming to improve. Therefore, focusing on specific movements rather than isolated muscle groups tends to have the best transfer to job tasks. For instance, the movement when performing a deadlift is very similar to performing a casualty extraction. Similarly, a push-up may be required to get up from a prone position when advancing on a threat (for example, a three- to five-second rush).
  • Hire a professional. The National Strength and Conditioning Association has a Tactical Strength and Conditioning Facilitator (TSAC-F) certification aimed at improving performance for first responders and military personnel. Individuals who successfully complete this certification have demonstrated they have a fundamental understanding of how to use scientific principles to improve occupational performance.

In conclusion, while it is critical for first responders to attain and maintain a certain level of fitness to be occupationally prepared, physical fitness programs within this population should be designed to support long-term success. Because of the nature of the work, strength training and conditioning should be a big part of any fitness development program. By emphasizing general health and well-being first, first responders can develop a broad base of fitness that allows them to be occupationally fit throughout their career, as well as enjoy an active retirement.

NEXT: Understanding cardiovascular risks to first responders


About the author

Jay Dawes, Ph.D., is an associate professor of applied exercise science at Oklahoma State University. Dawes has worked as a university athletic performance coordinator, strength/performance coach, personal trainer and educator for approximately 25 years. He also frequently coaches and provides sports science support to numerous elite and professional teams, as well as law enforcement, fire and military groups. His primary research interests are focused on improving the health, fitness and human performance for the tactical athletes/first responders as well as sport athletes. Dawes has a broad background in strength and conditioning, with specific expertise in training and conditioning methods for athletes and first responders.

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