Being a firefighter can be hard work. Firefighters need athleticism and toughness and these are tested by the firefighter physical abilities test: the CPAT or Candidate Physical Ability Test. You must be prepared in order to pass this test.
Here are 8 tips for the firefighter physical test (CPAT):
- Follow a targeted physical training program
- Wear a weighted vest while practicing
- Train for the specific CPAT events
- Watch the CPAT training video
- Try out the CPAT events by doing an orientation session
- Know the required CPAT dress code
- Eat clean and adequately before the test
- Make sleep a priority
Continue reading for a detailed guide, from the experience of a professional firefighter, that takes you through the optimal CPAT training process, including the specific exercises, events, and techniques you should consider adding to your training plan, to ensure you ace the test.
If you are interested to see the weighted vest I used to train for the CPAT and continue to use to stay in firefighter shape, check it out here.
Your # 1 priority is keeping your family safe. As a firefighter, I recommend everyone has updated smoke detectors that don’t require battery changes, like these ones from Kidde, a fire extinguisher, like this one from Amerex, and a fire escape ladder if you have bedrooms above the first floor, I recommend this one from Hausse.
Also read: Can You Fail the Fire Academy? Yes, Here’s How
1. Follow a Targeted Physical Training Program
To learn more about the fitness requirements for firefighters, read: The Fitness Requirements for a Firefighter: Explained
As a modern firefighter, your role can quickly alternate between less physically intensive activities like driving fire trucks and checking equipment, to significantly more rigorous activities. Firefighters often have to carry heavy equipment, drag fire hoses, climb multiple flights of stairs, find and rescue victims in burning buildings, or “cut line” to stop a forest fire.
Hence, an active firefighter must maintain optimal levels of fitness and agility at all times and the firefighter physical test is designed to simulate some of the physical challenges of the position. The CPAT will test all aspects of your physical fitness, pushing you to the limit and ensuring you have what it takes to do the job.
However, passing the CPAT is considered the baseline level of fitness to be a firefighter. Many fire academies will be significantly more challenging than the CPAT.
Consequently, to have a shot at passing this test, you must incorporate a training program that enhances all aspects of your physical fitness into your preparatory regimen.
Also read: How Hard is the Fire Academy? Are You Ready?
The three most essential fitness elements you must pass to scale through the firefighter CPAT successfully are:
- Cardiovascular endurance / stamina
- Physical strength and functional movement
Cardiovascular Endurance / Stamina
Many aspects of both the CPAT and actual firefighting work will place a significant demand on your cardiovascular strength and your ability to withstand extended muscle tension. Hence, one of the best ways to prepare for the firefighter physical abilities test is to ensure you are getting top-notch cardio training.
Cardiovascular and endurance training does not have to be complicated. Almost any form of exercise that gets your heart rate up and your body sweating fits the description. However, some are more efficient than others for getting your heart and lungs into shape.
Popular cardio workouts that you can incorporate into your training for CPAT include:
- Running / jogging
- High-intensity interval training
- Low weight, high rep lifting
Making any of these exercises a regular feature in your training program is sure to significantly boost your chances of passing the firefighter CPAT with flying colors.
One crucial exercise that virtually every aspiring firefighter should consider picking up is stair climbing and running. Climbing stairs with gear and heavy equipment is an essential part of what it means to be a firefighter. Hence, it’s not surprising that this laborious activity is included throughout the firefighter CPAT.
The good thing, however, is that you can prepare extensively for these aspects of the test with bouts of stair-climbing practice using a StairMaster or actual stairs in a building or stadium. Real stairs are preferred if you have access, but either will work.
Whichever route you take to your cardio program, you also get a series of additional benefits outside passing the CPAT and becoming a firefighter. Practical cardiovascular training is great for your long term health, which is especially important for firefighters. It can help:
- Increase performance with other exercise programs
- Reduce stress and anxiety
- Improve breathing and stamina
- Weight loss and improve body composition
- Decrease your risk of health issues like Type II diabetes, coronary artery disease, and high blood pressure
Physical Strength and Functional Movement
Standard firefighting gear for a U.S. firefighter typically weighs at least 70 pounds. Firefighters also have to haul ladders, hose lines, fire extinguishers, and sometimes victims and property, all in the heat of a dangerous environment.
Hence, a firefighter must have the strength and calisthenic ability to thrive in these conditions. Consequently, ensuring that aspiring firefighters have required body strength and agility is a recurring tendency throughout the CPAT.
However, practical strength training for both aspiring and practicing firefighters is not all about lifting, as the physical goals for this route varies significantly from that of a regular bodybuilder.
As an aspiring firefighter, your primary focus when it comes to physical strength training should be on a plan that enhances functional fitness as it pertains to the active firefighting. Therefore, your training regimen must incorporate movements that simulate tasks that you will perform on a call.
The most important areas for a firefighter to be strong are Leg strength, core (stomach and lower back) strength, back strength and grip strength.
In addition to a varied workout program, you can add exercise elements that include pushing, pulling, lifting, carrying, and dragging, as all of these forms of movement are crucial to the everyday work life of a firefighter.
An excellent way to add these elements seamlessly into your exercise regimen is with functional movement exercise such as:
- Farmer’s walks
- Sled pulls and pushes
- Deadlifts (Trap or Hex bar is best)
- Tire Flips
- Overhead Press
Flexibility is one of the easiest to overlook aspects of physical fitness, and few tests will test your abilities as well as the firefighter CPAT.
One reason the CPAT tests stretching abilities is because the firefighting profession has a reputation for creating sprain and strain injuries, with statistics showing that up 44% of all active U.S. firefighters have suffered at least one such injury while on active duty. The firefighter physical test, too, can often post similar results.
Adding a flexibility focus to your training regimen significantly reduces your chance of suffering an injury mid-test that can hamper your firefighting ambitions. Besides, having your body flexibility on point is a sure way to improve your fire-ground performance and increase your chances of acing the CPAT.
The best ways to add flexibility training into your regimen smoothly include:
- Pre-workout and post-workout stretches
- A mix of both dynamic and static stretching during workouts
- Standalone sessions of flexibility-focused activities like yoga, tai chi, pilates, and stretching programs
In addition to improving your chances of passing the CPAT and enhancing your performance as a firefighter, flexibility programs can also add benefits like:
- A significantly reduced chance of injury
- Shortening of injury recovery time
- Reduced duration and severity of muscle soreness and fatigue
- Improved posture, balance, and exercise form
Here is another great article that can help you with a general firefighter fitness program: Four Fundamentals of Firefighter Fitness
Firefighter Functional Fitness: The Essential Guide to Optimal Firefighter Performance is a more in-depth book on the topic. It includes over 100 pictures of the exercises with explanations, as well as advice on fitness programming, nutrition, hydration, rest and recovery, and lifestyle.
2. Wear a Weighted Vest While Training
For the majority of the firefighter CPAT test, you will be working with at least 50 pounds worth of gear and 75 pounds for the first few minutes. This is to simulate the stress and challenges of wearing full firefighting gear.
A great way to prepare for this is to get a weighted vest to train in. This is something that I personally did when I was preparing to become a firefighter and it made a huge difference. You can have great cardio from running or any other exercise, but wearing the heavy gear or vest while you move and work is uniquely challenging.
It’s hard to explain what makes this so hard. You just have to try it. If you train regularly with a weighted vest, the CPAT should be fairly easy for you.
To train with the vest is simple, just put it on and walk up and down stairs or hills for 10 to 30 minutes. It acts as a type of interval training because when you climb the stairs, you are working hard, when you are coming down it is somewhat easier.
I don’t recommend that you run with the vest on (though some people do) as all the extra weight can be hard on your joints. Walking should be enough. You can make it harder by going up steeper or longer hills, more flights of stairs, or training for a longer session. You can even work up in weight, as many of the vests allow you to remove weights to adjust the difficulty.
Here is the vest I bought: Cross101 Weighted Vest 60 Pounds. I still have this and use it as part of my regular training. It is still in great shape and should last a long time. You can get it in different weights, I choose 60 pounds to mimic the weight of my real firefighter gear and that is what I recommend.
This vest seems expensive, but it is the best value I found. You can find cheaper ones, but not at the 50 to 70-pound range that I wanted. Some of the cheaper ones looked like they wouldn’t last very long, so I opted to spend a little more money. Just think of it as an investment in your future career and long term health.
If you can’t afford the Cross101, my more budget-friendly recommendation is the RUNmax Pro Weighted Vest 40 pound. This is a little lighter at 40 pounds, but at just over half the cost, it is a good deal.
If you can’t afford this vest either, a less desirable option is to make your own. It can be as simple as putting weight in a backpack (though this is very uncomfortable). Here is a video about a guy who made his own vest when training to become a firefighter. This isn’t the best option, but you gotta do the best you can with what you can afford.
3. Train for the Specific CPAT Events
The CPAT is a pass/fail test that all aspiring firefighters must pass to get a shot at becoming an active participant on the fire-ground. Hence, it is no surprise that learning how to pass this physical test is very important to aspiring firefighters.
Consequently, the creation of the test involved a task force made up of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC,) the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF,) and ten different fire departments.
From this wealth of veteran firefighters, we get a detailed test format with eight parts designed to mimic different aspects of real firefighting. Here, you get eight events in one test that mirror all the physical demands of being a firefighter.
Hence, to give yourself a shot at sailing through the CPAT, you must prepare for each part of the test. Part of this is being fit enough to pass the test, the other part is understanding the test and all the specifics, so you don’t make mistakes or waste energy.
To help you achieve this goal, here’s a quick rundown of each test event and how best to prepare for it.
Event 1: Stair Climb
Also read: CPAT Weighted Vest Stair Climb: How To Train
Hauling items into, out of, and around buildings as well as extensive use of stairs is a vital component of active firefighting. Firefighter can’t use the elevator if the building is on fire (usually) as it would not be safe. We need to be fit enough to carry all our tools, while wearing full gear, up a high rise building, and still have energy left to work when we get there!.
Hence, it should come as no surprise that the first event in the CPAT is a stair climb. This part of the test simulates the task of hauling hose bundles or high-rise packs up several flights of stairs while in full personal protective gear and carrying breathing apparatus.
To achieve this aim, test participants must wear a required 50-pound vest as well as a 25-pound shoulder block on each shoulder for the entire duration of the climb.
The event starts with a twenty-second warm-up climb on a StepMill stair climbing machine at fifty steps per minute. Here, you get the opportunity to familiarize yourself with the stair climber as you can hold on to the railing of the machine for improved balance. You get two trial attempts with the warm-up climb, during which you must complete the ascend or fail the entire test.
Once you complete the warm-up session, you must immediately jump into the main event: a three-minute climb at 60 steps per minute with minimal use of the support railing.
Here, dismounting or falling off before time or grasping the support rail after receiving two warnings will get you disqualified, forfeiting the entire test.
How to Train
The key to acing this part of the test is extensive step training; the more pre-test stair mileage you accumulate, the better. Your options for training grounds include a stair-climbing machine, a staircase within a building, or a flight of stairs at a stadium or other arena.
To get the most out of your stair-climbing training program:
- Start small; 40 steps per minute for four minutes is a good pace.
- If you have limited stair space availability, you can opt instead to use one stair, going up and back down again one foot in front of the other.
Like we talked about above, here is where a weighted vest can make such a difference. Training by climbing stairs is great, but you need to train to do it when you are weighed down. A backpack can work, but a weight vest is better. Here is the weight vest I have and use: Cross101 Weighted Vest 60 Pounds.
Event 2: Hose Drag
The next event in the series simulates another essential part of active firefighter duty: managing the hose-line. Water weighs 8.345 pounds per gallon, so you can imagine how heavy and cumbersome a charged hose-line can be. Even dry hose has a ton of friction on the ground and can be a lot of work to move around.
Here, for the CPAT test, you drag a regulation 1¾ dry hose line across a set path to a finish line to complete the challenge. This event typically includes the following steps:
- Picking up the hose nozzle, carrying the rope across your chest or over your shoulder, and dragging it 75 feet to an industrial drum
- Making a 90° turn around the drum and running or walking to your stop in a designated box
- Once here, you must take a knee and then pull 50 feet of the hose over the selected finish line using a hand over hand pulling technique.
Potential causes for failure in this event, and by extension the entire CPAT test, include:
- Straying from the designated path
- Failure to remain on one knee during the appropriate phase of the event
- Grabbing a further link in the hose line to reduce the effort needed to drag the hose
How to Train
To train for this event, you need at least 50 feet of rope and either a weighted bag, a cement block, or a tire.
Once you have these items in place, follow these steps:
- Attach the rope to your weights
- Drag the weight for up to 75 feet
- Next, take a knee and pull in the line hand-over-hand while on one knee until the load gets to you
- Complete 8-10 repetitions of the entire program with two-minute rest intervals
Make sure you start with small weights — around 20-50 pounds, depending on your comfort level — and adjust the load to where you can match the required reps. You can increase the weights gradually until you can handle 80 pounds, which is close to what you will use on the actual test.
For the best training experience, perform this program on flat surfaces like a driveway or parking lot.
If you don’t have access to a sled or rope, this one is hard to simulate. I would train your leg strength with squats and deadlifts, as well as, make sure you have good cardio. This should be enough to prepare you if you don’t have the above setup.
Event 3: Equipment Carry
For active firefighters, carrying and handling power tools is an essential part of the game. Firefighters often have to work with equipment like chain saws, fire axes, and halligans. In the third CPAT event, you get a practical test of your ability to handle similar tools.
Here’s a step-by-step walkthrough of how the test will work:
- You will approach a designated tool cabinet
- You’ll remove two saws one at a time, place them on the floor, and then walk around a set path that includes 75ft to a drum.
- You’ll turn around the barrel, then walk 75ft back to the initial starting point.
Throughout the event, you have the option to stop and adjust your grip on the saws for a more efficient carry, as the primary aim of this task is to ensure maximum control of the power tools at all times.
Hence, if you drop the saws at any point during the test, you automatically fail the entire CPAT. Furthermore, you must walk — not run — for the whole duration of this event. Running after one warning will get you disqualified from the entire test.
How to Train
You can easily simulate this event. Just use two dumbells, kettlebells or other heavy objects of equal weight. Pick up one in each hand and walk, under control. This is called a Farmer’s walk. Increase the weight, distance, and number of laps as you get stronger.
Event 4: Ladder Raise and Extension
This event simulates the use of ladders by firefighters in hazardous environments. Hence, to succeed in this event, you must complete the full raise of a 24ft extension ladder from the ground along a designated vertical surface.
The steps involved in this event include:
- Approaching a 24ft ladder and grabbing it by the top rung
- Using the ladder rungs to lift the ladder, touching every single rung, while positioning it flush against the designated vertical surface
- Extending the ladder using a hand over hand technique on its rope halyard
- Once the ladder is fully extended, lowering the ladder back to its original position
To successfully pass this section of the test, you must maintain full control of the ladder and the halyard rope at all times, keep the ladder within the marked boundaries, and touch every rung during the raise.
Straying from these guidelines after one warning results in disqualification from the entire test.
How to Train
To effectively train for this event, since most people don’t have access to a fire department ladder, you can use ordinary weight training. This event is mostly about shoulder, leg and core strength. You can use the Overhead Press, Deadlift, and a variety of core exercises like the Plank. Get strong in these areas and you will have no problem with the ladder raise.
Event 5: Forcible Entry
During a fire, firefighters often have to force entry into locked or damaged doors, and this test event evaluates your ability to do just that. These use saws and hand tools to accomplish this. Here, you use a 10-pound sledgehammer to prove your mettle against a forced entry prop until it buzzes.
In this event, there are no time constraints, and you must continue to hit the prop buzzard until it is activated. If you drop the sledgehammer at any point during the test, you automatically fail CPAT. You must also remain inside the designated area for the entire duration of the test.
How to Train
If you have access to a sledgehammer and a big tire or something else that is safe to strike, great. Using a ten-pound sledgehammer, complete three sets of 15 swings at a target with two-minute rest intervals. The ideal height for the target is about 40 inches off the ground.
If you don’t have this equipment, you can get one here for a good price: Apollo Athletics Fitness Hammer. If you can’t purchase one, train for grip, core and back strength with exercises like Deadlifts, Pull-ups and Farmer’s walks.
Event 6: Search
The core function of an active firefighter is to help secure life and property during hazardous scenes like in a fire. Consequently, the firefighter’s job often includes searching for victims in pitch black, smoked-out buildings with little to no vision and the possibility of highly unpredictable outcomes.
This test event simulates similar blind search situations by running you through a dark tunnel maze that is only 4 feet wide and 3 feet tall. Throughout your navigation of the 64-foot tunnel, you must overcome a plethora of obstacles and then reach the exit at the other end to complete the event.
However, if you fail to complete the tunnel or require external assistance at any point during the event, you automatically fail CPAT.
How to Train
- Practice crawling on your hands and knees for up to 70ft a stretch
- During each crawl, occasionally drop to your stomach to complete a handful of 10-feet stomach-crawl stretches
- Once you can comfortably handle each session, throw in a weighted vest or backpack and ramp up the weight gradually until you hit 50+ pounds.
Event 7: Rescue
In a typical fire rescue operation, after searching for and finding victims, a firefighter must then carry or drag them to safety, and that is what event 7 simulates. Here, you get a taste for how to remove a victim or an injured firefighter from proximity to the fire.
In this event, you must drag a 165-pound mannequin from a set position, moving it 35ft, going around a barrel, and then dragging it back another 35ft back to your initial starting point.
This event offers significantly more freedom than most of the previous ones, as you can drag the mannequin however you want, one-handed or using both handles. Furthermore, you can stop and adjust your grip as often as you need.
However, the one principal disallowed act in this event is touching the barrel at the midpoint of the set path. Touching or resting on the barrel after one warning results in failure of the CPAT.
Nevertheless, the mannequin can touch the drum without any penalty.
How to Train
If you have access to a sled, you can do sled pushes and work up in weight. If not, you can attach handles to a weighted duffel bag to create your faux mannequin, then proceed with the following training regimen. You can fill the bag with weights, sand, or rocks.
If you only have traditional fitness equipment like weights, use Squats and Deadlifts for strong legs and core.
Event 8: Ceiling Breach and Pull
With the final test event of the CPAT, participants join a simulated experience that portrays how firefighters breached ceilings to check for fire extension. This involves using tools like a pike pole to break through the sheetrock and pull enough down to visualize the attic space above. So, the event involves:
- Using a pike pole to open a hinged ceiling door, pushing it up to its maximum opening allowance.
- Next, you must position the tip of the pike pole in the painted part of the door
- Once you have the pike pole properly positioned, allow the entry hatch close completely
- Then, you must complete three more repetitions of this sequence to complete the push phase
- Next, you enter the pull phase where you perform an inverted series by pulling down a prop with the alternate side of the pike pole, which has a hook for another four repetitions.
For the entire duration of this event, you must remain within the designated area, and you can only drop the pike pole once. Breaking any of these requirements means you have failed the CPAT.
How to Train
For the ceiling pull part of the event:
- Use a cable pulley set-up at any gym
- Connect a rope attachment to the top cable pulley
- Grab it with both hands and pull down with your whole body
- Increase the weight on the cable stack as you get stronger
For the ceiling breach part of the event:
Train your shoulders, grip, and legs using Squats, Deadlifts, and Overhead Press. These will make you plenty strong enough to complete this event.
4. Watch the CPAT Training Video
You can get a good idea of what the test is like by watching this video:
5. Try Out the CPAT Events by Doing an Orientation Session
The CPAT testing facilities provide access to the test course and events prior to your scheduled test day. Once you sign up to take the test, for no additional charge, you are given the opportunity to come in for two orientation sessions before you have to take the test.
Take advantage of this opportunity and at least go to one of the sessions. They will explain all parts of the test and let you try out the test events as practice, though you will not get a full, timed run through the course.
Many people don’t take advantage of this opportunity and regret it. I have seen people fail due to small technical issues, even though they were fit enough to pass. This can be prevented by going to an orientation session and watching the videos. You don’t want to lose the $150 fee for the test by failing and have to pay to take it again later.
For an additional fee, you can sign up to take a full, timed practice test session to get a better idea of how prepared you are for your real test.
6. Know the Required CPAT Dress Code
The dress code for all participants includes:
- Long pants
- Short or long sleeve shirts
- All shoes must be closed-toed
- No bracelets, watches, or other obstructive jewelry
This is simple, but again, people fail because they don’t check these details. If you show up and don’t meet the dress code, you can’t test and will lose your money.
7. Eat Clean and Adequately Before the Test
There is no overstating the importance of a healthy diet to peak performance on any day.
According to Stanford Health, people preparing for an arduous physical event should eat plenty of carbohydrates in the week leading up to it. You should also get a solid amount of protein to replenish any muscle loss you may have incurred from your physical training.
You don’t need any fancy supplements. If you have trouble getting enough protein to recover from your workouts, simple whey protein powder can be convenient and helpful. If you don’t eat dairy products a good plant-based protein powder is just as good. But no other supplements make much of a difference.
This doesn’t just mean the week of the CPAT. If you want to be a firefighter you need to prepare yourself and that means taking care of your body. This job puts a lot of stress on your body and a good diet is a super important way to help fight this. You need to try to eat right the majority of the time.
Remember to hydrate. You can lose a ton of water when you are training hard and this can have a huge impact on your performance.
8. Make Sleep a Priority
Sleep is super important. As firefighters, due to our work schedules, we don’t always get the best quality or enough sleep, but it should be a priority. This applies to the stress of a CPAT test as well.
According to a study in the U.K. by the Royal Society for Public Health and the University of Oxford, going for 24 hours without sleep is equivalent to having a blood-alcohol level of 0.1%, which qualifies as legally drunk here in the U.S. (above 0.4% is drunk).
Hence, if you understand that being drunk and a physical abilities test doesn’t mix, take your sleep seriously during your CPAT training and your whole life, because if you don’t make sleep a priority now, it only gets harder on a firefighter schedule.
The firefighter physical test can be challenging and requires that you prepare yourself. Make sure you are training correctly, learning about the test, eating right, getting good sleep and you can ace the test!
Fitness Program Book: Firefighter Functional Fitness
Training Weighted Vest: Cross101 Weighted Vest – 60 pounds
To learn more about and schedule your CPAT test: FCTConline.com
Read: How to Become a Firefighter: The Complete Guide
Read: 15 Tips for Firefighter Interviews
Read: The 14 Best Firefighter Exam Prep Books
Fire Academy vs. Police Academy: Which is Harder?
How To Prepare For The Fire Academy: 14 Insider Tips
Is it Hard to Become a Firefighter?