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Is The Smokejumper Physical Fitness Test Eliminating Good Women Firefighters From Smokejumping?

by Chuck Sheley (Cave Junction '59) |

There are conclusions that a person can come to by using everyday life experiences. No lab experiments or scientific documentation needed. This is called a common sense conclusion. The current pull-up requirement for women smokejumpers is, in my opinion, not based on common sense.

There is no question that in this day and age women should be part of the workforce, including smokejumping. In July 1936 Russian Zoya Trukhina became the first woman smokejumper years before we had smokejumpers in the U.S. (Smokejumper Oct. 2009).

During the last 17 years of my 32-year firefighting career, I ran the Type II Crew Program on the Mendocino N.F. We put out 10-13 crews a summer and trained over 3,500 rookie wildland firefighters during that time. We drew heavily on Chico State and University of California, Davis students, as well as some of the best graduating seniors in the Chico area.

At a time when the USFS was strapped with the Consent Decree, we had 33 percent women and minorities in the program and produced some outstanding firefighters. Twenty-three went on to become smokejumpers and some are still at it today. One became a Smokejumper Base Manager. I mention this to emphasize the quality of people we were able to put into the field.

I found out that, as in teaching, if you raise the bar the students will respond accordingly. We emphasized physical conditioning and increased the amount of field training. Many said that their weekend of field training was as hard as any fire they went on. It was just shorter.

There was no way that I could put people into the field with experience that would match a Hotshot crew. But, I could put people into the field that could compete with a Hotshot crew physically.

Two of the women from the Type II program went on to smokejumping and one is still on the job 21 years later. I had hoped to have one of them become the first woman smokejumper but I missed that by a few years.

Looking at the number of female firefighters that I have trained, I have always felt that smokejumpers are missing the boat with their physical fitness requirements. It is almost physically impossible for a extremely-fit female over 160 pounds to become a smokejumper.

Now, you’re going to wonder where I’m coming from. Many of my best females, out of the hundreds that I trained, were over 160 pounds. They could swing a wicked Pulaski, which, I’ve always felt, is the #1 firefighting tool on the line. They could also work the chain saw or swamp for the sawyer.

What specific item would be the one that would keep them from becoming smokejumpers had they wanted to pursue that job? It is the seven pull-up requirement.

With my background in Physical Education (36 years) and coaching (52 years), I’ve worked with many elite female athletes. One teacher I worked with was the National High School record holder in the javelin and was on many teams representing the U.S. in international competition. She was very strong but could only do three pull-ups. Why? We’ll get to that later.

Pull-up vs Chin-ups

It is time that I make sure you understand that there is a difference between pull-ups and chin-ups. Most people don’t realize that pull ups and chin-ups are not the same thing.

Pull-ups have the palms facing away from the person and chin-ups have the palms facing the person. Chin-ups use the biceps in a stronger line of pull so most people can do more chin-ups than pull-ups. For the lower number range individuals, I’ve found that a person who can do three-five pull-ups can do six-eight chin-ups.

I’ve seen various film clips of smokejumper rookie testing and have noticed that, in many cases, they are doing chin-ups and not pull-ups. Yet the fitness standard calls for pull-ups. There is a big difference.

The next time you are in the gym, try the pull-up grip and the chin-up grip on the lat pull-down machine and see the difference.

If the tester does not know the difference between the two items or does not care or intentionally modifies the requirement, how important is the pull-up requirement for smokejumpers? Do they make the rookie stop with complete arm extension after each pull-up or do they let them “bounce” into the next repetition?

In testing middle school girls, we knew that a single pull-up put them in the 99th percentile. Boys who did five pull-ups were at that same level. Yes, there is a large difference between the potential physical strength and performance between male and female.

Upper Body Strength in Men vs Women

Women’s lower body strength tends to be more closely matched to men’s, while their upper body strength is often just half that of men’s upper body strength. Various studies have shown female upper body strength at 52% of that of a male.

Do men really have more upper body strength than women? Read from an article by Cristen Conger (internet):

“For a glaring manifestation of biological sex differences in strength, look no farther than the pull-up. The process of hoisting oneself eye-level with an overhead bar is no big deal to plenty of men. Not so, however, for women. In fact, the Marine Corps require male recruits to complete at least three chin-ups in order to pass their physical entrance exam, while female hopefuls aren't asked to execute a single one [source: Parker-Pope]. That isn't letting military women off the hook easily; the female body simply isn't optimally built -- what with weight distribution and less testosterone-fueled muscle mass -- for that exercise.”

Why the Difference in Upper Body Strength Between The Sexes?

Hormones play a role in the development of muscle and strength. Women have a tenth of the testosterone of men. Men, naturally average more lean body mass and less fat than women, and typically have a wider shoulder frame which helps provide a leverage advantage.

Studies have shown what we know from common every day living: the female does not possess the amount or even the potential to have the amount of muscle as a male.

I took one of the most fit women at our local gym and tested her pull-ups. She could bench 250 pounds but could only do two pull-ups. She was extremely well muscled, but a lot of that muscle was in the hips and legs. I’m sure she was squatting a tremendous amount of weight during her workouts.

Two Elite World-Class Women Athletes

Jennifer LaBaw

Recently I was talking to Wes Brown (CJ-66). He mentioned that his niece, Jennifer LaBaw, was one of the top CrossFit athletes in the nation, placing 6th in the 2011 Reebok CrossFit Games.


CrossFit is a strength and conditioning program that has become very popular in the last ten years. Many law enforcement agencies, military special operations units, fire departments and elite athletes are using the program. It is a high intensity fitness program that constantly changes the mix of exercises between aerobic, body weight and weight lifting. One of its key goals is improving fitness across broad time periods. The program uses similar routines for the elite athlete and grandparents, the difference being load and intensity.

I sat down for 20 minutes with Jenny at the gym where she is a professional trainer. At age 32 and 150 pounds, she can do 12 pull-ups. And, yes, she knew the difference between pull-ups and chin-ups. As we talked, Jenny said she knew many women who could do seven pull-ups. However, as we talked and I threw in 160 pounds and the age factor (five years of fire experience even before applying to smokejumpers), it became evident that we were talking about two different things. She was talking about elite, highly-trained athletes and I’m talking about experienced, female firefighters.

Emily Azevedo

A few years back, I was fortunate enough to coach Emily Azevedo in the hurdles at Chico High School. She later went on to U.C. Davis where she set the women’s hurdle record.

Since then she has become one of the top bobsledders in the world, winning a silver and a bronze in the World Championships. Recently, she and her pilot won the silver medal at the World Cup. I use these accomplishments to show that we’re talking about a very elite athlete who trains year round under the auspices of the U.S. Olympic Committee. Emily is the brakeman, which requires a tremendous amount of speed and leg strength. Size also helps, as she is 5’8”, 175 pounds.

During her collegiate years, she could do five pull-ups. Training as an Olympic athlete, she is up to 10 pull-ups. However, please realize that she is training year-round and competing at world-class levels.


If we know that women can only achieve half the upper body strength (hormonal limitations) as men, why do we require them to do seven pull-ups, the same as the men? Since men have the potential for double the upper body strength of women, if pull-ups are that important, why not set the requirement at 14 for male smokejumper candidates?

I would say that being able to pack 110 pounds of gear off a fire is a very important part of the job. Packouts might not be as big a part of the job today as in the past but, in my opinion, lower body strength (hip and leg) is key to doing the job on the fireline. Women are able to get a lot closer to men in lower body strength than upper body strength.

With all the changes in strength and conditioning in the last 20 years, is the smokejumper physical fitness test outdated and in need of revamping? Would we get a better evaluation of a rookie’s fitness level by incorporating a measurement of weight to strength ratio (Repetition Max divided by body weight) into the test? Would the smokejumper program benefit if the trainers at the bases were educated and to run a CrossFit type program?

An investment in a program where there is an emphasis on “core fitness” and increasing strength from the core out, in my opinion, would reap dividends in fewer injuries and more strength and endurance on the job.

That said, I think we should put more emphasis on lower body and core strength in the smokejumper physical fitness test. Allow the woman over 150 pounds to do three pull-ups and see how she does packing 110 pounds or operating a chain saw. The smokejumper organization will not get women who are less qualified if they change the pull-up requirement. By allowing bigger women into the program, they will actually open the door for stronger female firefighters to get into the game.