PT on the Net Research

Training for Policemen and Firefighters


I have a new client that is a night-shift policeman, and I have also been asked by the local fire department to start training some of the firefighters for improved on-the-job physical stamina/strength. Can you please provide some information on this?


The roles of police officers and firefighters both present the opportunity for some exciting and innovative approaches to your conditioning program. Both roles present some unique occupational demands and the need for a structured approach to training to get the best results. Though both very different in their needs, each job involves multi-planar movement, dynamic and static strength, endurance, balance, power and coordination. Through targeting each variable with a different variety of training means, it should be possible for you to design exercise programs that are challenging and enjoyable and lead to significant performance gains.

Preparatory training is often talked about in terms of two phases. These are often used when dealing with athletes training for competition, but it works well for this situation too.

For dealing with occupational specific training, we can see an easy transference of principles such as those you might apply to working with an athlete. The GPP is an opportunity to establish a foundation of training based on a needs analysis and performance assessment. In the context of this article, it would also involve some specific elements as well, in particular addressing muscle imbalances, improving movement patterns, building core stability, postural correction (where needed) and addressing lifestyle issues.

No matter who you train, some form of periodization is essential in order to optimize the results you hope to get. For targeting occupational performance, a concurrent or complex approach would be well suited, where you would use a variety of training means throughout a mesocycle (six to eight weeks) of training to address several physiological areas of improvement. In practice, this could mean training different means throughout the month, week or even throughout the workout.

Though this isn’t optimal for elite athletes, when it comes to training for year round improvement, a concurrent approach enables you to satisfy the essential criteria of any training program (specificity, overload, progression, individualization) while still preventing accommodation in the clients, or even worse, overtraining. It also recognizes the variety of demands in each role and the need for improvements in a wide range of physiological functions.

Occupational Demands of a Police Officer

The role of a police officer is not like we might think from watching World’s Wildest Police Videos. A surprisingly small amount of time is spent fighting suspects in comparison to the amount of time spent at a desk or driving (often to the frustration of many officers).

However, when they are involved in conflict, it is typically under high stress and often involves weapons, so to neglect this aspect would not be appropriate. Many officers suffer from problems with back pain, knee injuries and other afflictions that are more likely related to faulty movement patterns than anything else. For that reason, I would recommend giving due time to educating on and training effective movement and posture. In my experience, this is what the majority of police officers could benefit from most along with help on diet and coping with shift work (see below).

In particular, look at the hips and the shoulder. Lack of mobility in these areas often leads to chronic injury, and optimal movement is desirable here before increased loading and dynamic movement in the SPP.

The police officer’s physical needs are less specific in comparison to a firefighter and will involve all round improvement of physiological function. During more specific training, you could consider using short burst anaerobic training that has a crossover to chasing and dealing with a violent subject. However, in general, it is likely that you will be confronted with many of the same conditioning challenges that affect the general public.

To add a functional twist, you could consider the use of such items as a weight vest to simulate moving with a protective vest. Also consider challenging the motor skills of an officer under fatigue, as stress reactions lead to a decrease in performance of complex tasks (such as using handcuffs, CS/Pepper Spray and other Personal Protective Equipment or PPE). Reactive drills using pads, medicine balls and other aids can add challenge, fun and variety to your program while addressing this need.

Occupational Demands of a Firefighter

Every fire brigade (as we call them here in England) uses different types of fitness testing. But it is not hard to look at the job and see that a firefighter needs to have the strength and fitness to lift bodies, carry oxygen, haul ladders and hoses, climb stairs and force entry into buildings. These demands require a high level of anaerobic power and aerobic fitness as well as balance and agility. In many ways, the firefighter is the “decathlete” of occupational fitness.

As previously mentioned, concurrent periodization is the way forward for you to address this wide range of training needs. Use of exercise complexes and hybrid movements (such as a Single Arm Reaching lunge to Overhead Press) can help target different energy systems to develop the anaerobic and aerobic fitness needed. See my article Training for Bobsleigh for more on this.

As before, begin your conditioning with an assessment and don’t neglect the importance of stability and balance in order to get to the more dynamic power movements. A GPP phase could address this alongside strength work in all three planes of movement and cardiovascular conditioning. You might also consider group activities if you are training them together.

As fitness improves, you can begin to introduce more specific tasks. Remember that a lot of lordotic style, sagittal plane dominant exercises won’t have a high crossover to the occupational role, so you’ll need to be a bit more creative in exercise selection as well as selecting appropriate loads for each movement. However, dynamic multi-planar movements performed at speed require optimal kinematics and a solid base of stability before being attempted and shouldn’t be used with untrained or detrained clients.

To help you get started, I have come up with some movements you could combine into a circuit based format as part of your conditioning program. Of course, this is a long way from complete, and interval training (along with other cardio formats) can be employed alongside this type of circuit to complete your programs.

Each of the exercises I’ve chosen has a high degree of crossover to the sort of movements a firefighter will be using on the job. This list is far from exhaustive, and activities such as sled dragging, tire pulls, explosive-reactive drills and many more are all valid and well suited to this type of training.

Without teaching you to suck eggs (resistance training 101 here), manipulate your sets, reps and tempos to reflect your chosen goals. To target strength and power, err towards long rest periods (three to five minutes), higher loads (85 percent 1RM +) and lower reps (four to six). Conversely, to improve endurance and lactate tolerance (equally applicable), overload with higher rep ranges (15 to 30), lower loads (45 to 65 percent 1RM) and short rest periods (10 to 60 seconds).

Hope this helps you with some ideas.

Suggested Exercises

The Fireman's Lunge (see Figures 1 and 2 below)

The Fireman's Lunge recreates the effort of pulling a hose or similar over the shoulder. It loads the body unilaterally and also involves a kyphotic movement commonly used in many functional forward bending movements.

To be performed safely, the client should have achieved good core control and stability and have adequate range of movement through the lumbo-pelvic region to prevent excessive lumbar flexion. The movement is similar to a reaching lunge except it is unilaterally loaded with the resistance at the shoulder.

Figure 1 Figure 2

Unilaterally Loaded Step Ups (see Figures 3 and 4 below)

Being a firefighter can involve walking up a lot of stairs, again carrying objects such as axes, hoses, first aid kits and more. This traditional exercise is given a functional twist with the use of a unilateral load. The load can either be held at the shoulder or, if heavier, at the waist.

Figure 3 Figure 4

Multi Plane Deadlifts (see Figures 5, 6 and 7 below)

The premise for this exercise is simple: pick something heavy up and put it down somewhere else. Remember to monitor lumbo-pelvic movement and ensure there is good integration between the hips and lower back.

Figure 5 Figure 6 Figure 7

Dumbbell Heaves (see Figures 8, 9 and 10 below)

I stole this one from JC Santana. It’s great for lifting and dragging, whether you’re a wrestler or a firefighter. Dumbbells are held in the crook of the arms and heaved upwards and to the side for alternate repetitions.

Figure 8 Figure 9 Figure 10

Long Handled Woodchop (see Figures 11 and12 below)

Perfect training for swinging an axe or something similar, this movement develops rotational strength and can be progressed onto a similar movement using a medicine ball.

Figure 11 Figure 12

Single Arm Squat and Press with Rotation (see Figures 13, 14 and 15 below)

This movement is ideal to recreate extending a ladder overhead. Much of a firefighter’s work will be overhead so it is an essential movement pattern to address. A hybrid movement, it combines a squat and a press and can be done in a split or square stance, depending on your own preference.

Figure 13 Figure 14 Figure 15

Jump Clean (see Figures 16, 17 and 18 below)

Another JC Santana favorite, this exercise combines the explosive movement of a box jump together with a dumbbell clean to develop power and speed. This is an explosive movement and should only be attempted once the client is confident in performing the Clean and Box Jump as separate movements. 

Figure 16 Figure 17 Figure 18

A Note on Shift Work

Working shifts can be tiring and difficult. There are many different shift patterns, but it is often part of the reason behind poor lifestyle and nutrition choices that negatively affect health. It can also negatively affect hormone balance, in particular that of the catabolic hormone cortisol. Use your judgment and common sense to guide you on scheduling training to optimize results. A workout after a particularly arduous shift will need to be energizing versus exhaustive, so be prepared to be flexible with your plans.

Any conditioning program for shift-workers should involve counseling on lifestyle and nutrition habits along with coping strategies for each. Trying to find a healthy meal at 3 am can be tough and often results in the take-out option, which is rarely healthy or nutritious. You may also consider supplementation to aid sleep and stress, although a discussion of this is beyond the scope of this piece.