| | | Firefighters Are Not Bodybuilders Pt 2

Author / Matt Spaid

5-7 min read

In our first article, we discussed how time is of the essence for firefighters, and that their ability to perform like an athlete is a key part of the job. Power Athlete defines athleticism as “The ability to seamlessly and effortlessly combine primal movement patterns through space and time to perform a known or novel task” – and it’s very easy to see how this definition very much applies to the fire service. Like I mentioned in part 1, I want to emphasize that this is not about being against bodybuilding or hypertrophy work. However, if that’s the ONLY thing you’re doing for your fitness as a firefighter, then you are creating a large gap in your fitness and overall capacity. Do you know what lives in this gap? Pain, lack of mobility and function, health problems, and potential serious injury.

Breaking (Fire)Ground

Before we begin, let’s set the foundation. The Power Athlete methodology is built on training the 7 primal movement patters across all three planes of motion – but what do we mean when we say that?

Three Planes of Motion

The body can move through three planes of motion; these are:

The Sagittal– cuts the body into left and right halves. These are forward and backward movements.

The Frontal– cuts the body into front and back halves. These are side-to-side or lateral movements.

The Transverse– cuts the body into top and bottom halves. Twisting movements.

Seven Primal Movement Patterns

All movement – whether in the gym or outside the gym, can be broken down into these movement patterns, hence the term “primal”. These patterns are:




Vertical Press and Pull

Horizontal Press And Pull

We twist, pull, and press when forcing open a door. We swing axes, cut holes with chainsaws, pull ceilings down, and pick up large people on the floor in weird positions. We also have to crawl or walk in places we’ve never been and we can’t see…and it’s usually a little toasty. If you never train in any of these positions, then why would you expect to perform these tasks well while staying injury free?

Muscles For Show, Not For Go

Usually, the main focus of a bodybuilder’s training is hypertrophy and mass. It is not power, speed, or aerobic capacity. So while your muscles might look nice, your ability to actually put them to use may not be as great as it could be if you trained to be more athletic. And, bodybuilding tends to leave one huge component of training on the dumbbell rack – one that everyone in sport or LEO is (or should be) very familiar with: plyometrics.

Plyometrics are another part of training that firefighters should utilize, not just because they help with power development, but also because they can help greatly with injury prevention. Besides many of the visible benefits of plyometric training (speed, power, rate of force development), one of the largest benefits sits behind the scenes and between the ears.

Regular plyometric training can help in making the signals from the brain to the muscles move faster – this means your muscles will fire faster, and more efficiently. There are obvious benefits to this in sport (jump higher, explode faster), it can also help you react faster when something goes south…like taking a weird step in a smoky environment and losing your footing.

Training in Axes to Help Swing Axes

Why should firefighters train like an athlete? Well, our world doesn’t work in one dimension, and neither does our body. Training in all of the planes of motion will not only make you more fit and capable overall, it’s a huge component in filling that gap we talked about before where injury likes to live. If you never train in the transverse plane, or in a staggered/awkward stance, when the day comes that you have to lift someone off the ground that’s stuck between their tub and toilet, it’s going to be both a struggle and high risk of injury. However, if your training has included all 7 primal movement patterns and all planes of motion, this task becomes nothing more than another training day (with higher stakes).

There are many tasks on the fireground that require you to be efficient and strong in multiple planes of motion. Most bodybuilding routines involve a lot of work in the Sagittal plane and a bit of Frontal Plane, but not much, if anything, in the Transverse. Firefighters must use their bodies to perform their job, so it is important to have the ability to execute these movement patterns proficiently, in all of the planes and axis, while moving through space.

Enter: Power Athlete Programming

Power Athlete’s programming is about much more than just gaining strength. It molds you into a healthier, more athletic, fast, and powerful athlete. The methodology was developed by 10-year NFL Veteran John Welbourn and his staff, and has been used to improve the performance of people in the sport and tactical realm all over the globe.

Power Athlete offers a variety of programs, all of which are based on strength and conditioning principles (not philosophies) that develop athleticism. Philosophies tend to deal in absolutes, whereas principles allow you to sift through what is truly helpful and will enhance your performance. At Power Athlete, there is also strong emphasis on proper MOVEMENT, not MOVEMENTS or MAXES. Because, no one cares how much you squat in the gym if you can’t have it transfer over to the field or fireground. 

The programming focuses on challenging the primal movement patterns through the different planes of motion, not just forward and back (squatting/hinging) or side to side (lateral movements). In addition to sets and reps, the programs also include HOW to move the weight – not just to move it. For example, Compensatory Acceleration (moving the weight faster as mechanical advantage increases) is a key principle in Power Athlete’s programming. If you want to be fast and powerful, then you need to move the weights fast and powerful. It also follows the principle of Overload. You need to stress to progress, so to speak. It is simply the idea of doing a bit more work than what you did before, to help drive adaptation. Usually this is done in one of two ways: increasing the intensity (more weight), or increasing the volume (more reps).

One of the most important principles behind Power Athlete’s programming is SAID (Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demand). This goes against traditional plans, which usually starts with a plan and then looks for progress afterwards. For instance, you may choose an area to focus on for that particular training day (let’s say the ol’ Chest & Tri’s). The workout may consist of a Close Grip Bench Press with 3×5 followed up with some Dips 3×10 and Skull Crushers 3×12. Not a bad day. Maybe there’s a set weight, maybe not. But, your goal is to work hard, get sweaty, and feel tired. Mission accomplished, right?

Not quite. The problem with this traditional design is that your progress is determined after the training starts. Maybe you moved more weight, but you’re not really sure. Maybe you have a good pump and you feel tired, but this method isn’t very effective and it makes it difficult to track your progress. Not to mention, all of those movements are in ONE plane (Sagittal Plane). This is a method that many firefighters use. Hey, it’s better than just holding the recliners down and doing nothing…but, if you want to get more out of your training, then check out how the SAID principle works. 

The SAID principle has a backwards design. This is a method where you reverse-engineer a program to help turn your average joe into a fire breathing dragon slayer. First, you identify the goal. From there, you determine the athlete’s limiting factors and what the athlete needs in order to be successful in achieving their goals. Once you have established what will work best for them to make the most gains in the allotted time (another principle, which is known as Accelerated Adaptation), then you plan the training. This way each training day has a well established goal and you can easily track your progress. 

Firefighters, Don’t Be A Statistic

Sudden cardiac death remains the number one killer of on duty firefighters, according to a report from June 2023. Personally, I believe the majority of health problems that firefighters suffer from are due to lack of sleep, poor diet, and lack of physical exercise. We can’t do much about our sleep on duty, so make sure you are taking the necessary steps at home to get the best sleep possible. EVERYTHING gets better when you sleep better. Set a bedtime, avoid blue light, turn lights off with the sunset, and sleep in a cool, dark room. I’m a big fan of Doc Parsley’s Sleep Remedy. It helped me tremendously.

Eat real food. And remember, you can’t out train a crappy diet. Eat with abandon: meat, fowl, fish, seafood, eggs, vegetables, roots, tubers, bulbs, herbs and spices as well as animal fats, olives & olive oil, avocados, and coconut (meat, oil, flour) and dairy. Shameless plug: if you need help with your nutrition, get in touch with one of our Nutrition Ninjas here at Power Athlete. It can be extremely helpful when changing your diet to have a professional help you, especially since diet requirements vary for individuals.

Find a training program and stick with it. Obviously, this is an article for Power Athlete, so I’m going to recommend Power Athlete’s programs. If you’re a novice, then I highly advise you start with Bedrock. This is also a good option for firefighters that only train on duty. If you want a greater challenge, then check out HAMR or, my personal favorite, Dragon Slayer. While Dragon Slayer mainly has the MMA fighter in mind, I truly believe it is another solid program for First Responders. For those that still want to pack on slabs of muscle like a bodybuilder and crack sidewalks, but also want to move better, then check out Jacked Street. Again, if you need some help, get a coach! The great thing about doing Power Athlete’s programming is the community. There is an army of Power Athlete Certified Coaches ready to help those in need, and the other athletes are also extremely helpful and supportive. So what are waiting for? Head over to powerathletehq.com and START TODAY!

Related Content

Blog: Firefighters Are Not Bodybuilders, pt 1 by Matt Spaid

Programming: Power Athlete Program Selector

Nutrition: Power Athlete Nutrition Coaching

Education: Power Athlete Methodology

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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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