Weight lifting in the fire service

CarolinaFireJournal - David Howell
David Howell
04/21/2013 -

If you’re already lifting weights why not do it with optimal results. This article is for the firefighter who is lifting weights and wants to know if they are doing the right lifts to become better at their job. The first thing you have to accept is that as firefighters we are athletes. We must train for performance. With personnel cuts happening every day, today’s firefighters are asked to do more work. You can either complain that it is not fair or do something to prepare yourself. Many firefighters like to lift weights to stay in shape. Let’s analyze where weight lifting in fire service is and where it needs to be for the future.

Firefighters are unique creatures who love more power. Bigger diesel engines, bigger capacity pumps, extrication tools with more cutting force and the list goes on. However, when it comes to human power we can often be as stubborn as a donkey. It is not my intent to even touch the subject of out of shape firefighters, that is a whole other matter. My concern is the firefighters who crave horsepower/muscle power.


David Howell performing the clean and jerk in turnout gear.

Most weight lifting is designed for fitness models or body builders. Sure six pack abs look nice but are you training for show or for go? Firefighters must perform the most rigorous tasks in the worst possible conditions with life and death on the line. We need to be smarter than the average gym rat that spends more time in front of the mirror than doing real work. Your body is a complex machine that requires stimulation for adaptation; the better the stimulation, the better the adaptation. The better the adaptation the better you perform on the fire ground. If you are not prepared the fire ground will own you. Don’t be the guy with the six pack abs sitting in rehab while the other guys are on their third cylinder.

Okay, so how do I become more dominate on the fire ground? There are two key elements — training and practice. Training is adapting your muscles, bones, connective tissue, nervous system and energy delivery systems to perform at a higher level. Practice is performing the skills that you would perform on the fire ground as close to realistic as possible repeatedly until you become more proficient. I will focus on training and save practice for another day.

So how do you train? There are so, many avenues to go down. Magazines are constantly throwing routines and suggestions on how to get fit. Your buddies at the gym are always showing you a new exercise. There are more machines in the gym than an automobile assembly line. As I said, firefighters need to train like athletes. You need to become explosive and powerful. So what should we do?

Stop body building and start power building. All those machines and dumbbells are for guys trying to look powerful. Bodybuilding is all show and no go. I like to call it training the glamour muscles. There is actually more harm than good in some of this type of training. Have you ever seen the guy who curls and bench presses so much that he looks hunched back? Those large tight muscles on the front of his body are pulling his back so hard that it is destroying his posture and setting him up for back problems. This guy also wears the baggy pants so; you can’t see how skinny his legs are. Sure, developing muscle hypertrophy (making the muscle bigger) is going to make you stronger. It will not make your more powerful. If you train your muscles as individuals they won’t work as a team when performing complex tasks. If you train your body as whole you can achieve great success in athletics. Again firefighters are athletes, not body builders.

So, if you’re buying in you are probably asking what I should do. This is the bottom line no more games truth —Olympic weight lifting. This includes the Snatch, Clean and Jerk and all the training it takes to be good at those lifts. This is why. Most power in the human body is generated from the hips. There is and never will be any human motion capable of generating and training the type of power these lifts create. Here is a very brief overview of what the lifts can do for you.

Firefighter Michael Mabe performing the Snatch.

Cardiovascular System

Olympic lifting improves the performance of your cardiovascular system. Wait, what? Weight lifting is cardio. In a Clean and Jerk or Snatch the barbell moves from the floor to overhead, which means you’re moving a heavy load several feet. Every muscle, bone and ligament in your body is used, including the core stabilizers. The burden this puts on your energy production systems will leave you out of breath sweating porously and your heart will be beating out of your chest. A good day of heavy Olympic lifting is like doing wind sprints. There is much more to this than can be explained in this short of an article. But the bottom line is unlike bodybuilding you can get a cardio workout while you lift. So from a fireman’s stand point and the need for efficiency in a workout Olympic lifting sets the precedent.

Full Body Workout

The Olympic lifts are a full body workout. As you add weight, and believe me this will be slow, your entire body will get bigger, stronger and faster. Body building trains muscle independently away from the whole. If you over train one area you place the machine (your body) out of alignment. Just like the guys in the gym who are front dominant with all the bench press and curls. Their posture is compromised and their ability to generate power is diminished. Even if you train proper symmetry of the muscles you are not training the muscles to work together. In order to generate power your body functions as whole. The buzzword in fitness for some time now is “the core” or “core training.” No core work out will ever top the overhead squat, which is a part of the Snatch. Holding heavy weight overhead and squatting with it requires more core strength than any make shift workout you see on TV.

It’s a Quick Workout

Although it takes time to learn the lifts the results pay off in time spent. A Olympic workout is so taxing you will be lucky to go 30 minutes before you’re spent. A firefighter’s time is valuable. You never know when that next call is coming. You can get your lift on and hit a whole body workout with some cardio mixed in just by Olympic lifting.


Olympic lifting is one of the safest sports. How can that be, you are throwing weight over your head? Well for one, you will have a hard time over training with Olympic lifts; unlike bodybuilding, where you can use spotters, and assisted machines to push beyond your limitations. Olympic lifting requires self-discipline. You have to operate within your abilities. There is no cheating a lift. If you make a mistake, the weight is not going up. There are spotters or benches to help you or correct you. So the gains will be slower and more controlled. However the power you will be able to generate will be well worth it.


The number to factor in injury prevention is flexibility. The Olympic lifts are some of the most challenging movements in relation to flexibility. In order to do them properly you have to be as flexible as you once were. We were born with flexibility. Young children can create power through leverage not big muscles. If you have toddlers you know what I’m talking about. These little guys and gals can lift things that make you scratch your head. Over time our western life style destroys our natural flexibility and we lose power and leverage. The Olympic lifts help you get it back. This is so important in injury prevention and longevity in the fire service. Elite flexibility can reduce your injuries and keep you strong well into the last years of your career. Body building stiffens you and leads to injuries which, in some cases, could shorten your career

If you’re still reading you probably are interested and are thinking, where and when can I get started. Start by doing some research. There is a wealth of knowledge on these lifts on the Internet and YouTube. The best thing to do is to find a USAW (United States Weight Lifting) coach. There are other programs that use Olympic lifting. However, a USAW certified coach is going to give you the best opportunity to succeed at the lifts.

Visit www.teamusa.org/USA-Weightlifting.aspx to find lifting clubs in your area. If you need help getting started e-mail at [email protected].

Captain David Howell has 11 years of service with Horry County Fire Rescue in South Carolina. He is currently the Captain of Little River Fire Station 2. He is a Certified USA Olympic weight lifting coach.
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