| | Firefighters Are Not Body Builders pt 1

Author / Matt Spaid

5-7 Min Read

While some bodybuilders may happen to be firefighters, the inverse is nowhere close to true: not all firefighters are bodybuilders. But, should firefighters be considered athletes? This has been a hot debate over the last few years in the tactical trainer world. While they aren’t playing for points on a field, they are using their body to accomplish a goal. They may not be getting paid to wear spandex in a stadium, but they are being paid for having to perform difficult and dangerous tasks at a moment’s notice. A common phrase in the fire service in regards to pay is that we are not paid for what we ARE doing, but for what we could POTENTIALLY be doing.

Well, the same could be said about our fitness training. We need to be prepared for the worst. When the worst does happen, we need to be able to lift odd, awkward objects FAST. Firefighters need to be prepared to accomplish a wide variety of tasks while under fatigue, wearing heavy gear, while trying to breathe through a mask. Just like how no one cares how much you bench on the football field, no one cares how big your muscles are during an emergency, if you lack the ability to be useful. To paraphrase the French philosopher John Welbourne, “Strength sits on a lonely island without Power, or the ability to display it.” 

Every Second Counts for Firefighters

Let’s say you’re dispatched at 1:00 A.M. to a 2-story structure fire with victims thought to be in the upstairs bedroom. The victims trapped are known to be 2 children and an elderly, overweight female. Between being woken up from a dead sleep and getting that information dump, you get a huge adrenaline dump and your body goes into fight or flight mode. Hopefully, you are also strong mentally and know how to calm your nerves and perform under pressure (almost like an athlete in the Super Bowl, right?). 

While en route, you are tasked with throwing a ladder to the second story window to perform a search. If you’ve never had to throw a 24’ extension ladder by yourself with gear on, it is no simple task…unless, you’ve trained for it. Just this task alone will require a lot of upper body strength, balance, coordination, speed, accuracy, and you’ll be working in multiple planes of motion. 

The ladder is usually stored high, so the firefighter must reach overhead and lift a heavy, unbalanced load, then turn and walk with it. From there, throwing the ladder to the window can be done multiple ways. There is the safer, but also slower, 2-man method in which one person anchors the ladder while the other lifts it. When every second counts though, grabbing the ladder, moving quickly to the window, and then throwing the ladder from your shoulder and raising it in the same motion (combining primal movement patterns seamlessly and effortlessly) is often going to be the best option. Some departments actually don’t even allow this. But, if you’re in a smaller department like me, then the 2-man method often isn’t even an option. Many firefighters get hurt performing tasks like this, and why is this? A large factor is the gap in their fitness training.

It is especially important to stay calm in a scenario like this. The more fit you are, then the easier it will be to calm your mind. Firefighters will sometimes forget that their victims aren’t wearing any gear and can cause more damage to the patient by moving them to an area that is a much higher temperature or handling them like a rag doll. Sometimes, the best method for patient removal is to utilize webbing and drag them to keep them lower (sled drags, anyone?) and out of the more hazardous environment. Either way, utilizing proper lifting techniques will keep both the firefighter and the victim free from further injury. So, what happens if you aren’t strong enough to get the ladder down by yourself? What if you can carry the ladder, but you have to move so slow and unstable that you drop it? What if you get to the victim and are so exhausted that you can’t even get them out now?

Everybody Wants To Be A Bodybuilder…

This article may ruffle some feathers, however this is not my intention. If you’re a firefighter and you’re getting after it in the gym then good on you…you are doing more than what a lot of firefighters do when it comes to their fitness training. Keep it up.

My goal with this article is to help firefighters realize they can improve their health, get out of pain, and perform their job-specific tasks more efficiently if they focus on training like an athlete. I’ve been in the fire service since 2013, so I am very passionate about helping firefighters perform at the best of their ability. I also know what the job entails, and what type of training best carries over to maximizing your job performance.

You’re not going to arrive at a victim during a search in a structure fire and be fresh and ready to go. You’re going to be exhausted and adrenaline is going to be pumping like crazy, so hopefully you’ve trained your ass off so that you can complete the job. I don’t want to be the guy that couldn’t save someone due to not being fit enough. Many will say, “well, with adrenaline going I’ll be fine.” As both a firefighter and a combat veteran, I can tell you that mindset is complete bullshit. You don’t rise to the occasion, you fall to the level of your training.

So, I would argue that while Firefighters are not athletes in the traditional sense, they do fall in the category of being a “tactical athlete”, along with police officers and military members An athlete is an individual who is trained or skilled in competition that requires physical strength, speed, agility, and/or stamina for executing a specific task. That certainly sounds like another way of describing the requirements to be a firefighter. Firefighters need to be athletic. The job requires a good balance of cardiovascular and respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy. 

Now, let’s look at Power Athlete’s definition of athleticism: “The ability to seamlessly and effortlessly combine primal movement patterns through space and time to perform a known or novel task.” Again, this sounds like a great way to describe a characteristic needed for firefighters. Sometimes we get good information from dispatch and have a general idea of what we’re getting into. Other times, not so much. However, the more athletic you are, then the better you’re going to be at performing just about any fire ground task, known or unknown. If strength is never a weakness, then certainly the same can be said about athleticism.

But Nobody Wants To Lift Heavy Ass Weight

So, what’s wrong with bodybuilding for firefighters? Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love some hypertrophy work, and there are a lot of good benefits to it. All of those curls help us fill out our T Shirts to look good in uniform. Plus, chili tastes better when you stir it after an arm pump (that is one of the secrets to winning a cook-off). But, if you’re a firefighter and your training only has you moving through one plane of motion, and you never focus on aerobic capacity or power output, then you’re not living up to your full potential…and very well could be a liability instead of an asset.

Be mindful with your training on duty, especially if you are new to lifting weights. You can’t improve your strength if you aren’t recovering, and sleep is one of the top ways to recover. Lack of sleep can inhibit muscle growth. If you’re on duty, then it may be best to keep things a bit more simple and set the intensity back some while training. This will, of course, vary per individual. However, the excuse of not working out at all on duty in case of structure fire is one that irks me; it’s only for the weak. There is no reason that you can’t at least walk on a treadmill for 10 minutes while on duty. And, if you think doing a short little workout will completely wreck you if there’s a fire, then this is indicative that you might need to do some extra work off-duty. What are you going to do if a double house fire drops?

One more thing about training while on-duty. Save the bunker gear for skills and drills, not the weight room. Do football players bench press with pads on? Do hockey players perform back squats with ice skates? Negative. The gear not only limits your range of motion, which can cause all sorts of problems, but it’s also covered in contaminants (all turnout gear has PFAS, which has been linked to cancer and other diseases). So, maybe do a workout in PT gear, and then do some sort of a fire skill in bunker gear (and shower afterwards…don’t be that nasty guy that never showers).    

Fitness For Work, Fitness For Life

My fellow firefighters, I cannot stress the importance of your physical fitness. It is not just a key factor for the job, but it’s incredibly important for your life. I want my firefighters to be happy and healthy at home and on the job. Not only is this job difficult physically, but also mentally. I have suffered severely from PTSD, and my physical fitness was one of the things that helped me rise above my struggles and get back on the right track. It is a constant battle with a monster that I keep at bay by smashing weights and blasting tunes in my garage. Along with your mental health, keep longevity in mind as well. Become more durable and follow HAMR with Power Athlete so that you can still BE THE HAMMER long after retirement.

Related Content

Podcast: PA Radio Episode 639: Training Firefighters For The Unknown

Podcast: PA Radio Episode 631 – 6 Tools To HAMR Tactical Training

Blog: Fighting Fire With Fire by Raven Winters

Programming: Power Athlete HAMR

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Matt Spaid

Matt Spaid is a Firefighter, Strength Coach, and a Marine Corps Veteran. He began working in the fitness industry in 2012 as a CrossFit Coach. This experience led to training a wide variety of athletes while learning different aspects of health and wellness. He is a firm believer that in order to be healthy and strong, you must have a balanced approach through the body, mind, and spirit. This outlook led to embracing the Power Athlete Methodology and eventually becoming a Power Athlete Certified Coach.

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