One day I was resting in between sets at the gym, I noticed some guys who were student firefighters at the local community college. They were doing some pretty heavy lifts, those boys were both big and strong! Then it got me thinking, being extremely strong is great, but if you are used to power lifting, you are also used to very long breaks. This is somewhat opposite the fire ground. On the fire ground, you will typically be working near maximal effort for extended periods of time. So what’s the best strength workout for big guys in the fire service?
The best strength workouts for big guys in the fire service have to include things like functional movements, as well as a mix of power lifting/bodybuilding and being able to perform those strong movements for extended periods of time. Let’s take a closer look at each of these, and how they apply to your performance on the fire ground.
I have always trained for maximal strength and explosiveness mostly because of playing football throughout school. So even after school, the military, and while as a police officer, training for strength and explosive power was important. For football, I needed strength and explosive power as a linebacker to take on offensive lineman coming to block me. As a police officer explosiveness and strength was important in order to wrestle suspects to the ground when they would resist and even fight. The explosive power was needed when a suspect ran, and you needed to sprint to catch the suspect.
So I made the mistake in assuming the exact same things apply in firefighting and the fire ground. A lot of these things still apply and I’ll show you why.
Powerbuilding is an aspect that I brought with me from football and the military. With powerbuilding I do not separate powerlifting and bodybuilding in two separate types of workouts. This is because I am neither looking to build maximal strength in any particular exercise, nor am I looking to build maximal muscle mass. I am not a competitive bodybuilder, and I have to consider the different types of small environments I have to navigate through as a heavy firefighter. So with powerbuilding, the goal is to gain the highest levels of strength for the most reps possible at the same time.
So instead of having a 1 rep max squat of say 315 lbs, you begin to focus on your 5 rep max squat, which you might have to lower to like 275. Doing this will still make you extremely strong and keep doing it with less rest or an extended period of time.
Work capacity is very similar to what I was talking about in powerbuilding, but it’s more focused on performing those strong movements for a longer time. So while powerbuilding you are looking to build up your 7/5/3 rep max of any exercise, with work capacity you keep performing an exercise for a limited period of time. I talk more about work capacity and firefighting specific cardio workouts in this article.
So the way I would complete a work capacity workout for overhead presses, I would take a moderate heavy weight, and perform that exercise for 30 seconds to 1 minute, with about 20-30 seconds of rest. This will seriously wear you out quickly, and build the muscle endurance to keep performing that work in that time. The better you get at that time frame, the more time you begin to add, or the less rest time you give yourself.
Isometric exercises are quite interesting, and it is one of those exercises that always surprises me how well they work. So if you’re not sure what isometric exercises are, they are any exercise that you hold in place. If you are using a bench press, the isometric hold would be with your elbows bent, but not touching your chest. That awful in between place in that rep where your muscles have to work to keep the weight balanced and off your chest. During the regular movement of an exercise, you work your stabilizer muscles to a degree, but not as much as when you are holding it at a specific position.
One common isometric exercise that many people do whether or not they are in the fire service or not, is the plank. During the plank, your entire trunk has to work to keep your body off of the ground, supporting your arms, body and your legs. Have you ever noticed how much more difficult an exercise becomes when you move your arms further away from your body? That’s because your arm is no longer supporting that portion of your trunk, your trunk has to pick up the slack.
Functional exercises are something that you have as a staple in your exercise regimen as a firehouse heavyweight. Before I can start telling you about some great functional exercises, you need to understand what functional movements are. Functional movements are everyday movements that we as humans perform. Those movements are:
- Hinge (bending over to pick something up)
- Gait (walking)
I like to focus on all compound movements that focus on these seven categories to build both my strength and size. Compound movements involve using all your muscles for each particular exercise. So instead of doing bicep curls which only work your biceps, you would instead do something like rows or pull ups that use your back and biceps to complete the pull movement.
Here are some of my favorite exercises for each of these categories:
- Pull – Pull ups
- Push – Overhead press
- Squat – Weighted squats
- Lunge – few rounds of 100m lunges
- Hinge – deadlifts/ rack pulls
- Rotation – yoga, and leg rotations
- Gait- walking/biking
Strongman competitions are weightlifting competitions that use uncommon movements for maximal strengths. Similar to what is done in a powerlifting meet, where powerlifters squat, bench and deadlift for max strength. In strongman, there are atlas ball (literally a giant stone ball) events, farmer carries using an entire squat rack, and even truck pulls. I’m not saying that this is something required, but it is something that you may find fun, and at build functional strength at the same time.
I previously touched on this when I was talking about strongman competitions. Farmer carries is one of those exercises that you literally do on the fireground. Being able to pick up a heavy weight and walk significant distances with it is something you have to be prepared to do on the scene of a fire or accident. Farmer carries are done on the fireground when you have to haul heavy equipment like saws, cutters or spreaders (Jaws of life) from the truck all the way to the fire or accident scene.
Farmer carries are done by grabbing two heavy weights in each hand, and walk without dropping them for a predetermined distance. This will work on your grip strength and shoulder and trap strength.
Earlier I spoke about power building workouts, and why I enjoy doing them. When I do the 5×5, I try to go around my 70% 1 rep max, and push it for 5 sets. This builds me both in size and strength. If I want to scale back a little on the maximal strength and work on more of the endurance aspect, I could slightly lower the weight and decrease the rest breaks. You should include 5×5’s with your favorite exercises.
I keep talking about core strength, and already touched on it a little bit in this article, because your core/trunk strength is that important. Your core transfers power from your legs to your upper body. I think of it like a straw you may get from a restaurant. If you are the type to bang the straw on the table in order to pop it out of it’s paper packaging, you run the risk of kinking it. When there is a little slit from the kink, when you attempt to drink from the straw, you are not able to suck up as much as you usually could. Your core works exactly the same.
When you have a weak core, A lot of power that is being transferred from legs to your upper body is lost through your weak core. Boxers need to have a great core in order to transfer power from their legs into their arms. Baseball batters need to have core strength in order to transfer power from their legs into their swing. And as a firefighter, you need core strength when you need to move and manipulate a charged hose line, set up ladders, and even pull out victims from fires.
These are all ideas and a lot of my favorite workouts that I personally like to do to increase my performance on the fireground. Although these workouts and ideas can apply for everybody entering the fire service, I like to cater to my fellow firehouse heavyweights on workouts and methods that are kind to our knees and our size.
I have some other articles related to this one. Check them out here.