fighting fire

3 best cardio workouts for big guys going to the fire academy

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I was sitting in my car parked outside of my house this past summer, beyond excited because I had received a conditional offer from a full time career fire department. At the same time as I was excited, I was also filled with concern. That’s because I knew that I haven’t ran, or done any kind of cardio exercise in a long time. So I wanted to know what are some of the best cardio workouts for big guys going to fire academy?

3 best cardio workouts for big guys going to a fire academy are going to involve a mix of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), steady state cardio such as running, strength training, explosive movements and building core strength. It is important to have a good mix of these and not focus on only one aspect of fitness, because the fire ground requires us to perform at very high levels for extended periods of time.Let’s go a little deeper on each of these.

If you’re reading this, you may be one of a few types of people, but I am going to only name two. Either you are preparing for the fire academy and are super excited like I was, but are nowhere near in shape the way you need to.

Or you are looking to attend the fire academy at your local community college to take your fire classes. I want you to know that the fact that you are here, is putting yourself a step ahead of the competition. I want you to know that I am not an expert or scientist or a doctor, but I do know what has worked for me very well, and I don’t tire quickly at 6 foot, 270 lbs.

Long Distance Running

long distance runner

As much as I hate long distance running, even short distance ones, depending on the type of fire academy you will be attending, or aspire to attend, there is a VERY good chance you will be doing a lot of running.

Even though running is not the only form of steady state cardio that you can do to supplement your entire cardio building process, it is important because you need to build up that muscular endurance that you will face while running. So in my own fitness routine, I do include a medium to long run around once a week. 

Another benefit that you will get from running is that you will be able to get your working heart rate zone. Why is this beneficial to you? Well, when you are running at a decent pace and you’re sucking or gasping for air, that heart rate is going to be the standard of where you need to get your heart rate when doing other workouts.

When I run, after about 30 minutes of running my heart rate tends to be in the 120-140 zone. Now when I want to get some cardio in on an assault bike, or rower machine, jump roping or even jumping jacks, my goal is to get my heart to at least 120 bpm. Once I have it there, I will keep it up for 20-30 minutes, and it would be just as good as if I went out on a long run.



Sprinting is an amazing way to both build leg strength, and even endurance. With sprinting, you will have to be a little careful. That is because if you do not have good form, you can end up creating bad running habits. For example, landing on your heels instead of the balls of your feet. Over time this will bring a lot of stress on your body.

The effect sprinting has on your body includes some serious muscle building, as well as calories that will keep burning for a while after you have finished your sprinting session. This of course implies that in your sprints, you’re not dogging it, and you are actually putting in some hard effort. Essentially you should not be able to hold a conversation during your. Also, these sprints should be quick and hard, with recovery enough to catch some of your breath. Otherwise, you will start affecting your performance negatively.

Hill Sprints

Hill sprints is a form of sprinting that will humble anyone. Although it is one of the more tougher forms of sprinting, it is also the easiest on the joints & best for beginners.

The incline teaches your body the proper way to lean in a sprint. Think about it, as you run up or sprint up a hill, or decent incline, you have to lean forward in order to keep your center of gravity under you. The more you do it, the more it becomes muscle memory, and that will directly correlate to your runs and sprints.

Fartlek Runs

Fartlek runs is something you probably have done before, but maybe never knew the name of the running  style exercise. It is running at a certain speed for the majority of your mileage. At some point you turn up the speed and then return to your original speed, sound familiar? I have personally found this to be somewhat fun and helpful especially when running as a group. The way this would typically work in a group run is that everyone is running in some form of  single file line, and the last person in the file sprints to the front while everyone else maintains the normal running speed.

Running this way you are both sprinting, and running, with the added peer pressure to not quit, because everyone else will be waiting on you. Fartleks don’t always need to be done in a group, you can do them by yourself. A popular one is running from light pole to light pole. This is what I typically do if I’m not wearing headphones where I can hear my timer tell me when it is time to run again. I will run up to every second light pole, and rest one light pole that I find on my running route.

Strength Training for cardio


Strength training is another very important aspect of preparing yourself for the fire academy. You’re going to need strength to carry all the weight that a firefighter typically carries. It is very common to be wearing and holding up to 75 lbs of gear and tools that you need for a fire and/or a rescue operation. You also need to fight through the heat that is trapped in your turnout gear. You’re trapped body heat may not seem like a big deal right now, but I can assure you that heat is the great equalizer, and if you are not prepared for that type of stress on your body, you’ll find out very quickly once you start to do any kind of work while in turnout gear.

Power Building

You may have heard of this or you may have not. I’m sure that you have done some form of powerbuilding at some point in your life. The sport of powerlifting is about being able to lift the most weight possible, while bodybuilding is all about building up your physique. Although both go hand and hand, and you cannot get one without acquiring some of the other, the goal is different in both approaches.

Most of us heavyweights in the fire service are not looking to become pencil like firefighters. We like to look and feel strong, and this definitely has its advantages. 

In the fire service, you will be expected to perform strong powerful movements repeatedly for long periods of time. So think of doing a compound movement like the overhead press at 50% of your max, non-stop for 1 min, and then take 1 minute break. The goal is for you to eventually build muscular endurance to where you can just keep doing that exercise without taking breaks in that one minute work period.

Once you are able to do it, it’s time to either move up in weight, lower rest time or increase the work time. When you do these exercises, you will train like you will play. You won’t be doing bicep curls on the fire ground, but you sure will be doing a lot of pulling and pushing and carrying a lot of weight.

Core Strength

core strength

I personally don’t enjoy working my core much, because I have the tendency to feel like there are more important exercises I could be doing, than working on my core.

Nothing could be furthest from the truth!

The core is probably the number 1 muscle group that is absolutely essential to your strength, endurance, and even longevity far into your career and retirement. One of the biggest and most common injuries firefighters suffer from are back injuries. You will be exposed to years of strain on your back from your equipment, if you are not taking care to strengthen your core.

How would highly suggest that you take a pilates class near you, or even hop on youtube and try and complete a 10 minute session. Do NOT make the mistake of underestimating the strength that most of the women on youtube teaching pilates have. I can promise you, this will humble you, but it will make you better.

Hypoxic Training

firefighter with scba

Hypoxia is the medical term for the lack of oxygen to your body’s tissue. When you hold your breath, your body and tissue are still using the oxygen your respiratory system just brought in a breath ago, and the by-product is carbon dioxide (CO2). When your nervous system detects rising levels of CO2 in your bloodstream instead of a balance of both CO2 and O2, your desire to breathe kicks in.

When you are on an SCBA (air pack) you have limited air supply. And when you are starting to run low on air, your body will start to sense the rising levels of CO2. The reason I love hypoxic training is because it teaches my body and I to remain calm when the sensation of high levels of CO2 starts to kick in. 

In a structure fire, you can literally die from two breaths of the smoke. Smoke from burning structures tends to have cyanide in it, due to the things that are burning and are not meant to be burnt (like TVs, couches, etc). Being comfortable in an uncomfortable situation (not enough air in your pack) can literally save your life if you ever find yourself in that situation.


Hopefully this was a helpful guide for you on some great cardio exercises you can do, to prepare yourself for the fire academy. It’s not always easy or fun doing cardio, but it is a requirement of our profession, and it is something uncomfortable you need to get used to.

If you liked this post, make sure to share this with others you know getting ready for the fire academy. Check out my post on best strength training exercises for big guys like you and I in the fire service.


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