Stronger is Better

Firefighting is one of the the most physically demanding jobs there is.  I often joke that we’re basically professional athletes; we get paid to perform a physical job at a high level on demand.  In the last two posts I discussed the importance of a good cardio base and shoring up weak areas.  In this post I am going to address what I consider the most important physical attribute a firefighter can possess: Strength.

Mark Rippetoe has the best explanation on why strength is the most important attribute to have as a person.  If you’ve never heard him talk about it look up the Starting Strength Youtube channel.  I am going to try and summarize his take on strength using a firefighter analogy.

Take two firefighters each weighing 200lbs; one can run a 6 minute mile for 3 miles but cannot deadlift their own body weight, and one that can deadlift 2.5x their body weight and can run a 12 minute mile.  Now put them in 20lbs of fire PPE, plus a 40lb SCBA, plus another 20lbs of tools.  Who do you think is going to perform more work on the fire ground?  The firefighter who can deadlift 2.5x their body weight will far out-perform the runner.  Here is why.

While the runner may have a much better level of endurance and cardiovascular efficiency, their strength lies in an activity that is not done under any load.  They are simply moving their body weight over ground at a high speed.  Once you put that 200lb firefighter under a load that is nearly half of their body weight they will not be. Able to move efficiently or perform repeated tasks under that load because it is so close to their maximal ability to handle load.

On the other hand, the firefighter who can deadlift 2.5x their body weight is strong in an activity that puts them in a far heavier load that what they experience while in their firefighting ensemble.  Because they are under a submaximal load they are able to repeat tasks time after time without fatiguing because the weight of the gear is light compared to their overall strength.

Self Experiment

When I entered the fire service almost 9 years ago I was a runner.  I could run a sub 9:00 mile and a half, and had run in multiple long distance races.  During the academy I was always at the front if the running groups.  However, when it came to fire skills training in gear I noticed that I was getting smoked by fire cadets who I could leave in the dust on a run.

Fast forward to when I came out into operations and I had a rude awakening at my fire box alarm.  While the adrenaline helped, I was still getting my butt kicked by relatively basic tasks.  Now, I wasn’t exactly a weakling, but I wasn’t extremely strong either.  After that fire I talked with a firefighter who I thought was incredible on the fire ground.  He pointed me in the direction of Starting Strength.

I followed the Starting Strength model of training for a little over a year and got significantly stronger.  As my strength increased I noticed that I was able to work harder longer on the fire ground.

After a year or so of Starting Strength I noticed that I was starting to plateau on my strength gains.  I just couldn’t seem to get my numbers up on my squat, deadlift, or bench so I transitioned into Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 program.  With 5/3/1 my strength started to improve again; and a lot!

I followed 5/3/1 for a couple of years and got a lot stronger, and saw my performance on the fire ground go up; however, during those 3 years that I was working on strength I completely ignored cardio.  I wanted to focus completely on getting stronger, and was fortunate that the cardio foundation that I had when I started carried me for 3 years.

I got a wake up call though when my truck company was first due at a 3 story apartment fire that turned out to be a battle. I happened to be wearing a heart rate monitor during that fire, and saw afterwards that there was a 5 minute window where I was working at a heart rate of 205 BPM!  That’s when I realized that working on cardio was no longer about my work capacity, but my overall cardiac health.

That’s where I turned to the Westside Barbell Conjugate Method and Conjugate Tactical.  This was a system/method that allowed me to continue to build strength gains while training cardio and work capacity all at the same time.  I will go into greater detail about the Conjugate Method in another post.

Lessons Learned

After nearly 9 years of training myself physically to be the best firefighter I can be I have taken away a lot of key lessons.  First, you must have a cardio base to start with.  Without it you will inevitably overtrain, get injured, or your strength training will not be as efficient as it should be.  If you’re a wannabe cadet, cadet, or rookie get yourself a solid base of cardio and work capacity.

Second, I learned that being stronger really is better.  If you are not strong enough to carry out fire ground tasks repeatedly under load then you’re pretty much useless on the fire ground.  Stick to hiding at a hydrant.  You must constantly strength train to be a good firefighter.

How strong is strong enough?  I aim to maintain or work towards the following benchmarks:

  • 1.5x bodyweight bench press
  • 1.75-2x bodyweight squat
  • 2.25-2.5x bodyweight deadlift
  • 3 pull-ups with full firefighter ensemble and SCBA

Finally, it’s not enough to only be strong.  You must be able to not only put that strength to use repeatedly, but you must also be able to recover from strenuous work only to do the same work again.

If want more information on any of the training programs above I have a write up on each in my instagram.  Also, if you want more detailed information or have questions on training please feel free to contact me via Instagram @adapt_forward_fitness or email

Make yourself into a better firefighter.  Get stronger.

Work hard, train hard, Adapt Forward.