Firefighter Training, Firefighting, Health & Safety, Truck Company

Introduction to Weight Training Instruction

By Frank L. Fire Jr.
 

In this column, I will layout a basic strength training program for the entire body. In subsequent columns, I will change some of the exercises around and offer different options to address different needs, such as improving power, increasing strength, and increasing muscle size.

Sound, proven principles of exercise physiology will be presented, but make no mistake—hard work is required. If getting stronger were easy, everyone would look fantastic and have body fat percentages in the single digits. It’s pretty plain to see that this isn’t the case. My intent with this column is to educate you to the point where you can tailor the basic workouts presented here to your own benefit, changing the exercises, weights, set and rep numbers, etc.

Everyone will respond to overload stresses differently. The best thing you can do is take the principles and advice presented here and find the best combination of exercises, sets, reps, weight, rest, nutrition, etc. for you.

Arguably the most basic and important principle in exercise science is progressive overload. This is the key to improvement in any exercise. All progressive overload means is that your body will adapt to the stresses imposed on it–to a point. After the adaptation has been made, if additional stress (overload) is not added to the workout, progress will stall. You can rapidly make progress if you have never lifted weights before and should be adding resistance every week, but there is little point to getting proficient at lifting the same weight you began lifting with. Your goal should be to get as strong as you are reasonably able to (genetics plays a large part in this, but everyone can make great improvements). The stronger you become, the easier your job becomes, and the less likely you are to be injured.

RM definition: An “RM” is simply “repetition maximum.” This is an easy rule-of-thumb way to determine how much weight to use and when to add weight. When I refer to a set being done for 8-10 RM, that simply means you should use enough weight so that your final repetition is the last one you are physically able to perform with good form. If you are able to do more reps, then just add weight during the next workout.

There are also times when you will calculate your RM in a movement and use a percentage of that for multiple reps of a power movement such as a push press or power clean. I will explain more when we get to that point.
 

Warm-up/stretching

You should always take the time for a warm-up before every exercise session. Take the term “warm-up” very literally. A warmer muscle is more efficient and pliable and will be more resistant to injury.

As an example, if you were getting ready to squat, you could do a few bodyweight squats, followed by a few reps with about half the weight you intend to use for your first set, then another few reps with approximately three-quarters of your first set weight. The point is to progress to your workout weight with the muscles and tendons near their optimal “operating temperature.”

Stretching can also be beneficial. The best time to stretch any muscles is after they are already warm, so you can stretch after the warm-up or even after the workout. Stretching after an intense workout can reduce the soreness that usually shows up a day or two after a workout.

Frequency of exercise

As a beginner or even an intermediate weight trainer, the type of program presented here should be done two or three times a week, with at least one day of rest between sessions. A good schedule would be for the first week, work out twice; the following week, three times; then back to twice; and follow that pattern. Note that you don’t become stronger during the workout–you actually become weaker because of muscle fatigue and tissue damage. You will become stronger as you rest between sessions, making the amount and quality of rest every bit as important as the workouts.

As we progress, I will present many more options–e.g., split routines, supersets, pre-exhaustion, forced reps, rest-pause, and many others. But for now, a whole body routine two or three days a week, performed intensely, will give you great results.
 

How much weight should I use?

I addressed this briefly in my first column, and the best answer is “as much as you can, safely.” Don’t get hung up on how much weight is on the bar. Your ultimate goal is not to win a powerlifting contest. Your goal should be to make the muscles stronger and more efficient. Concentrate on performing the movements correctly and try to “feel” the weight. Focus in on how the muscles feel when they are contracting as hard as they can. Even if you were able to bench press 400 pounds, you would be able to get a decent workout by benching no more than 250 pounds and deliberately making the movement harder. Some ways to accomplish this would be to lift and lower the weight more slowly, pausing at the bottom, taking less time between sets, etc. There are many ways to stimulate muscles into growth; adding weight to a bar is only one of them.

List of exercises

Below is a list of exercises to perform. They are all multi-joint, and most are done while on your feet. Both of these are ways to make your weight training more specific to your job. Specificity is a principle to adhere to as much as possible when deciding how to structure exercise sessions.

You will notice that we are only concentrating on five different movements to begin. This is to maximize training time and to avoid overwhelming you with options and information. We will add a large number of other exercises and options as this column progresses.

When it comes time to make adjustments to your exercise selection, make an effort to choose activities that most closely mimic your job description. This is why we are avoiding single-joint exercises such as biceps curl and leg extensions. There is a place for movements like these, but you can make great gains in strength and power without doing any specific “assistance” or isolation work. There will plenty of time for curls later.

 
Exercise
Sets
Reps
Squat
4
8—10 RM
Bench Press
3
8—10 RM
Bent-over Row
3
8—10 RM
Overhead Press
3
8—10 RM
Deadlift
4
8—10 RM
 

Squat

Muscles Trained: Quadriceps, gluteals, hamstrings

Fireground values: Strong legs and hips will help in every step you take and everything you lift and carry. Needless to say, climbing ladders, carrying hose or patients, and hauling tools or air bottles up stairs will be much easier after you are comfortable squatting with heavier weights.

Performance: This is it, the king of weightlifting exercises. If you are so busy that you only have time to do one exercise, this is the one to do. No other lifting movement will give quite as much benefit, or bang for the buck, as squatting. You may have heard that squats are bad for the knees. When you perform them correctly and after a good warm-up, the chances of hurting your knees are very small. Stand with your feet approximately shoulder width apart, with the bar resting on your shoulders and upper back. Lower your body until your thighs are nearly parallel to the floor or as low as you can comfortably go, pause momentarily, and stand back up with the weight.

Equipment needed: Squat rack, barbell

Keys to correct performance:

  • Look upward when performing the exercise; keep your head up and chest out. This will help you to keep your balance. Avoid rounding the lower back or letting your torso lean forward. You can use an additional spotter to check your body position and form while squatting.
  • Try to keep the bar in line with (over) your feet.
  • Keep your knees behind your toes; the further out your knees go in relation to your feet, the more stress is put on the patellar tendon.
  • Eliminate any bouncing during the squatting portion of the exercise (bouncing can cause knee injuries).
  •  A weight belt and knee wraps can be used but are not necessary.
  • If no rack is available, a very light bar can be raised overhead and rested on the shoulders. Just do more reps and do them more slowly.
  • Breathe regularly while doing this and all exercises. Take deep breaths in at the top and as you are lowering the weight. Force the air out as you bring the weight back up. Try to avoid holding your breath.

Spotting: The spotter should stand behind you as close as possible without interfering with the lift. If you need assistance in getting the weight back up, the spotter should place his arms under yours and around your chest and pull up until you are in the upright position. This will prevent you from folding at the waist and possibly injuring your lower back.

 

Bench Press

Muscles Trained: Pectorals (chest), deltoids (shoulders), triceps (back of upper arms)

Fireground Values: This exercise is extremely effective in building strength in the triceps, chest, and shoulders. The importance of strength in these muscles is of obvious importance in performing well on the fireground. Increased strength in these upper body muscles can improve your ability to operate hoselines, use forcible entry tools, raise and lower ladders, or move any object that might be in your way.

Performance: Lie face up on an exercise bench with your feet flat on the floor. Your buttocks and shoulder blades should stay in contact with the bench; and hold the bar with your arms extended. Lower the bar to your lower chest, pause momentarily, and press the bar back up to the starting position.

Equipment required: Exercise bench, barbell, or dumbbells

Keys to correct performance:
  • Keep your feet flat on the floor and near your body; this lets you help push with the legs.
  • Your elbows should be at approximately a 45-degree angle, not straight out or tucked in tight to the body.
  • You should lower the bar and touch your chest at the same spot every repetition, near the nipple line, maintaining eye contact with the bar throughout the exercise.
  • You can use dumbbells to perform this exercise.
  • Do not bounce the bar off your chest at any time. As in all exercises with weights, control the bar at all times.

Spotting: The spotter can assist you into the starting position (getting the bar off the rack). If you are unable to complete a repetition, the spotter should assist you only as much as is needed to complete the repetition and return the bar to the uprights.

Bent over rowing

Muscles Trained: Latissimus dorsi (middle and outer back), biceps

Fireground values: Bent over rows will give similar benefits to deadlifts including all pulling motions that may be used during such activities as forcible entry or search and rescue.

Performance: Stand with your body bent forward at the waist so that your upper body is nearly parallel to the floor, feet shoulder width apart, knees slightly bent. Pull the bar upward so that the bar touches your belly; pause momentarily and lower the bar until the arms are again straight.

Equipment needed: Barbell or dumbbells

Keys to correct performance:
  • Try to consciously pull with the back muscles, not the arms.
  • This exercise can also be done one arm at a time with dumbbells.
  • Do not let your upper body rock up and down as you raise and lower the weight; keep the upper body near perpendicular to the floor.

 

Overhead press

Muscles Trained: Deltoids (shoulders), triceps (back of upper arms)

Fireground Values: This exercise is the most basic of all shoulder exercises and will also benefit the triceps as well. This movement will help you to perform such tasks as raising ladders, setting fans, handling hoselines, and any job that requires raising objects overhead or out to the side.

Performance: Stand with feet shoulder width apart and an overhand grip just slightly wider than your shoulders. With the bar on your shoulders, press the weight overhead until your arms are locked straight, then slowly return the bar to your shoulders.

Equipment needed: Barbell or dumbbells

Keys to correct performance:

  •  Lower the bar completely so that it touches your shoulders every rep.
  • Do not lean back when pressing the weight overhead; this is a form of cheating, and it places enormous stress on the lower back.
  • This exercise can also be done with dumbbells.

Spotting: The spotter may stand behind you to assist you in raising the weight. This is a difficult exercise to spot for; as you gain experience, a spotter may not be necessary.

 

Deadlift

Muscles Trained: The entire back including the spinal erectors (lower back), trapezius (the traps are between your shoulders and your neck), gluteus maximus (butt), quadriceps (thighs)

Fireground values: A strong back is needed in all physical activities, and if yours is properly conditioned it will make it easier and safer for you to lift heavy objects such as when reloading a hosebed and moving or carrying heavy objects such as ladders, portable monitors, or patients. It should be obvious to you that a powerful back will not be as susceptible to injury as one that is weak and out of shape. You can avoid a great many lower back problems if you possess enough reserve strength to make your day-to-day tasks less taxing.

Performance: Stand with feet slightly greater than shoulder width, squat and grip bar with an underhand grip on one hand and an overhand grip on the other hand (an “alternate” grip), keep elbows outside of knees and head up. Pull the bar, straightening legs and back until standing straight with shoulders back, pause, and slowly lower the bar back to the floor.

Equipment needed: Barbell; if very heavy weights are used, a deadlift platform or rubber matting could be used to avoid damage to the floor.

Keys to correct performance:
  • Keep the back straight and as upright as possible and lift with legs.
  • Keep the bar close to your legs throughout the exercise.
  • Keep your rear end down as low as possible and head up throughout movement.

You can print the following table (CLICK HERE for PDF) and take it to the gym:

 

Exercise
Muscles Trained
Fireground Benefit
Sets
Reps
Squat
Quadricpes, gluteals, hamstrings
A strong lower body is the foundation on which all physical activity originates. Stronger, more powerful legs will make it easier to climb ladders and stairs and will enable you to exert more power when using your body to push or pull things. Carrying a hotel pack up several flights of stairs and dragging a charged hoseline are never easy but are much more manageable with strong legs.
4
8—10
Bench Press
Chest, anterior deltoids, triceps
This exercise is extremely effective in building strength in the triceps, chest, and shoulders. Increased strength in these upper body muscles can improve your ability to operate hoselines, use forcible entry tools, raise and lower ladders, or move any object that might be in your way.
3
8—10
Bent-over Row
Lats (latissimus dorsi)
Bent over rows will give similar benefits to deadlifts including all pulling motions that may be used during such activities as forcible entry or search and rescue.
3
8—10
Overhead Press
Deltoids (shoulders), triceps
This exercise is the most basic of all shoulder exercises and will also benefit the triceps as well. This movement will help you to perform such tasks as raising ladders, setting fans, handling hoselines, and any job that requires raising objects overhead or out to the side.
3
8—10
Deadlift
Back (trapezius, lats, erectors)
A strong back is needed in all physical activities; if yours is properly conditioned, it will make it easier and safer for you to lift heavy objects such as when reloading a hosebed, moving or carrying heavy objects such as ladders or portable monitors, or lifting and carrying patients. It should be obvious to you that a powerful back will not be as susceptible to injury as one that is weak and out-of-shape.
4
8—10

 

 

Frank Fire Jr. is a 19-year veteran of the Cuyahoga Falls (OH) Fire Department. He spent two years service with the Canton (OH) Fire Department. He is certified by the National Strength and Conditioning Association as a personal trainer and is his department’s certified fitness coordinator. He has been a competitive powerlifter for more than 20 years and has competed in the Firefighter Combat Challenge nearly 50 times, with a best finish of seventh at the 2001 World Championships in the over-40 division. He has also created a set of Strength and Stamina videos produced by Fire Engineering.