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Firefighter workout pumps up the pressure

Well, at least no one made me slide down a pole. Or fetch a cat out of a tree. Or fight off smoke inhalation. Those were some of the thoughts running through my head as I made my way through my first circuit of the Firefighter Workout, a new class offered at Extreme Fitness in downtown Toronto.

Every minute, my partner and I moved to one of 10 stations. We did step-ups holding buckets filled with weights, dragged an old punching bag across the studio, slammed medicine balls to the ground (to mimic sledgehammers), performed dead lifts and took turns swinging a massive rope.

Like everyone else in the class, we found ourselves winded and breaking a sweat. I can't even fathom doing anything similar with the added pressures of raging flames and saving lives. Anyone expecting low-impact aerobics had come to the wrong place.

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To be sure, the objective of the Firefighter Workout is not about training to become a professional so much as simulating some of the physically gruelling tasks of firefighting, and in so doing create a unique group class. It borders on gimmicky, but it's compelling. Firefighters must be fit to handle the job: Perform similar exercises and become fit too.

This much I can guarantee: The class will not put you in harm's way (next-day aches don't count). It takes place in a conventional fitness studio where the temperature is controlled and no protective clothing is required. It's far easier to do relays with hoses when you don't have to worry about backdrafts.

Certified CanFit Pro trainer and professional firefighter Steve Darling leads the class from warm-up (running on the spot, lunges and squats) to group drills that consist of relays across the room carrying hoses or passing weighted buckets. Then we break off into pairs and the circuits begin.

The result is a workout that some participants view as fun while others take seriously. Put another way, it's equal parts novelty and practical training, depending on what you choose to do with the exercises outside of class.

Jacque Walters, the vice-president of group fitness for Extreme Fitness, says this class has been in the pipeline for years as she slowly amassed old equipment and figured out a template.

It is loosely modelled on the Candidate Physical Ability Test for prospective firefighters who must complete a series of eight exercises in 10 minutes and 20 seconds while wearing a 50-pound vest (for the stair-climbing drill, 25 more pounds are added).

Fortunately, there is no performance evaluation during our workout; not passing out seems accomplishment enough.

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"People forget about endurance," Mr. Darling notes. "Here, we go from endurance to strength, back and forth. Everyone can work within their fitness level within 60 seconds."

He concedes that the concept of circuit training is not new, "but it's fun to promote what firefighters have to do on the job," he explains. "Some people have never even held a fire hose and didn't realize how heavy it was."

For now, the class is offered only once a week because Ms. Walters wants to gauge interest. "I'd like to see it at a couple more locations, but we wouldn't have it on [the schedule]too often. This is what we would call a specialized program," she says.

Still, as she points out, "This is the real world. Rotational movements, gravitational movements. … Core strength is about more than crunches on your back."

If this class helps people incorporate functional exercises in their routines, I'm all for it.

"People think we [firefighters]just sit around all the time and watch TV," says Mr. Darling, who does some combination of skipping, treadmill and weight training every day. "We're working on equipment all the time."

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And that's when he's not risking his life. I have even more respect for firefighters now, despite the fact I'm not entirely sold on the class. Indeed, the biggest risk to the Firefighter Workout is that, like any other novelty class, it may lose its sizzle.

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