Training for the Firefighter Physical Fitness Evaluation Part 2

Firefighter Physical Fitness Exam Preparation: Training

(Written by guest author: Scott Shimala)

            Last time, I wrote about the first step in reaching your goals: planning. It’s extremely important to have some goals set in place so you know where you’re headed. It’s also important to plan out your training in a meaningful, methodical way so you’re using your training time wisely and you can make as much improvement in as little time as possible. If you haven’t yet, go back and read part one.

            This part is going to focus on the meat and potatoes of the process: the training! Obviously this is what physically gets you to your goals so this is the stuff that most people find the most interesting. I’m going to go over a very basic philosophy of training, following and adjusting the training program, listening to your body and staying motivated.


Training Philosophy

            When talking about training philosophy, we can get extremely in-depth about anything: technique, programming, sport-specific variables, etc. I’m just going to give a quick note that everyone can take something away from.

            I’ve been noticing a lot of people (online and in person) trying to do all these ridiculous things in hopes that it’s the secret path to quick success: following an Olympians training program, millions of variations of a single exercise, doing something different every day, banded everything, chained everything…the list can go on. This isn’t something new either.

            The fact of the matter is, if you want to get better at something, you have to do that something rather than spending 90% of your training time doing exercises that might carry over to it.

Don’t get me wrong, if you want to get better at reverse banded sumo deadlifts off 4 inch blocks in a deadlift suit, go right ahead and do that. But if your goal is to get better at conventional deadlifts, you might want to spend a bit more time conventional deadlifting.

Now that that’s out of the way, we can start talking about following and adjusting your training program.


Following and Adjusting the Program

So you’ve got your training program all written out and you’re cruising along. One week done, two weeks done, everything’s going great…but then things start to pile up. Maybe you work a manual labor job like I do and some days are harder on the body than others. Or maybe you didn’t have enough time to cook the food you need or get enough sleep so you’re not feeling so great. Whatever the case, the first step is to take an objective look at the state your body’s in and what the best thing to do is.

If you’re like me, you don’t like to skip training. I don’t even like to skip a single rep. So when I have 5 days of training planned and I decide that it’s best for my body that I take an extra day off, it bothers me even if I know it’s for the best. If this sounds like you, just remember that the body needs time to recover. You can do all the training in the world, but it won’t do you any good if you’re constantly beaten down and you don’t let the body become stronger than it was before.

That’s the easier part of adjusting on the fly. The trickier part is what to do when you know you need to train but don’t feel 100%.

Note: If you always wait until you feel 100% to train, you’re probably going to be training 5 or 6 times a month at most, unless you’re a professional athlete. So just because you don’t feel GREAT doesn’t mean you should go home and sit on the couch.

Adjusting your training, rather than just scratching the day, is where having more training experience and knowledge on the body’s physiology come into play. Just like writing your training program these things will help you know what your body can handle in a training session whether you’re 75% or 100%.

Going along with this, there’s not really an exact science to adjusting training load. There are systems out there that can help quantify your readiness to train and they’re great, but I’ve found that just ‘’feeling’’ out my training readiness is the best thing for me. If you haven’t experimented with anything like this, check out BioForce HRV or Google ‘Training Autoregulation’.

A big focus of mine, getting ready for the PFE, was running. So, here is an example of what an adjusted running day might have looked like for me:



            Here, I took into account the fact that I wasn’t feeling great, but I knew that most of my training that day was more mentally stressful than physically. Running and bodyweight exercises can be tough, but the more aerobic nature of the activities are much easier to recover from than say, a very hard weightlifting session. For those reasons, I kept the intensity basically the same, but decreased the volume. This also gave me enough time to sleep and cook, which was starting to become a trade-off with having enough time to train.

            Your training and subsequent adjustments might look similar to this, they might not. It depends on your training program and readiness to train.

            It’s also important to know when and how to adjust the overall program in terms of exercises, training days and volume. This is getting a bit into the periodization of programming, which I won’t go very far into but I’ll tell you that my program from the first month of my training looked very different from the last month.

            As a general rule, as you progress through your training and near your competition/test, you want to get more and more sport/test-specific. For me, this meant I cut out more and more of the ‘extra’ stuff as I went along.

            Looking at my first month of training, I was doing everything from Olympic weightlifting, squats, deadlift, running, sit-ups, push-ups, benching, rowing and everything in between. The last month of my training, I was only doing push-ups, sit-ups, benching, stretching and running. That made sure I was at my peak come time for the PFE.

            There’s much more in terms of periodizing a program. If you’ve got a coach, you don’t have to worry about it. But if you want to learn more, a good start is a book called ‘Block Periodization’ by Vladimir Issurin and Michael Yessis.


Listening to Your Body

            This could have been lumped together with the previous section, but I wanted to give it some extra attention. I feel like ‘listening’ to your body can be interpreted in two different ways with regards to training:

·       What’s my body ready to do?

·       How is my body feeling in relation to pain?

I already covered the first question, so now comes the second.

In my case, I had just come off of the biggest weightlifting competition of my life (the 2015 American Open), so I had been doing almost no conditioning or bodyweight exercises. Even though this type of training is easy to recover from, I knew there was going to be a tough couple weeks and maybe some aches and pains to go along with it.

Fast forward to maybe 4 weeks into my training. I was starting to develop some patellar tendonitis and shin splints (both common in running). In my individual case, I knew that being 230 pounds wasn’t optimal for running. I also knew that I would be losing around 30 pounds in the next 4 or 5 months. The pain wasn’t intolerable and I knew that neither were going to develop into serious injuries, so I made the decision to keep going. After another 4 weeks or so, I was down 10+ pounds and both of these problems were clearing up. This is a classic example of taking the facts into consideration and knowing when and when not to hold back.

On the other hand, if I were to have a more serious issue, such as a pulled hamstring, I would know that I’d need to lay off of it. Each situation just takes some objective consideration and the forethought to consider the consequences of each decision. Would you rather take a week off and be back at 100%, or would you rather drag out an injury for 4 weeks and train at 50% until then? The answer is obvious.


Staying Motivated

            This is going to be a bit subjective and will vary widely from person to person, but I wanted to give my personal account of training for the PFE.

            From about February through mid-July I went all-out on everything to get the best results possible for every test in the PFE. You name it, I had it covered; sleep 9-10 hours per night, learn to cook and eat clean, develop and adjust my training program, weight loss, strategize on how to take the tests and train extremely hard on top of working a manual labor job 40-60 hours per week.

            With very specific goals and tests come a lot of repetition and monotony. This led to training becoming even more mentally stressful and tough. As I got closer to the testing day, I kept getting more anxious to do something different. It got to the point where I was getting really burnt out.

            I just kept telling myself ‘’Push through it, it’ll be over soon.’’ I told myself that I’d take a week or so off after the PFE, which made training a bit more bearable. Sure enough, the day came and I finished all the tests. I was so relieved and happy.

            Whether you give yourself little motivational talks, reward yourself after you accomplish a goal or something completely different, finding something that keeps you motivated, or at least going, is extremely important. It’s very tough to keep doing the same thing over and over and it can lead to a lot of burnout, but if the goal is important enough to you, it will all be worth it in the end.

            After you’ve got all your goals set, your training planned out and know what’s ahead, getting started with your training can be one of the most exciting things about working towards a new goal. There are a lot of things that you might run into during the course of your training. Knowing how to deal with them can be the difference between exceeding your goals or not even reaching them.

            Adjusting your training based on your readiness to train as well as adjusting your overall program, managing injuries, aches and pains and finding ways to stay motivated are all very important. The best thing you can do is take a step back and take as objective of a look as you can. ‘What should I do?’ and ‘What do I want to do?’ aren’t always going to be the same. As you gain more training experience and know your body better, you’ll be able to make better decisions regarding your training which will lead to reaching your goals even faster! 


Andrew Shoemaker