Strength Training at the Firehouse

by Joseph Rodriguez | May 03, 2023

locking out a deadlift at the firehouse

I am a firefighter and an apprentice coach at Starting Strength San Antonio. My fire shift work schedule is 24 hours on and 48 hours off. Due to this schedule I occasionally have to train at the firehouse in order to complete all of my workouts for the week. Training in the firehouse weight room can be slightly difficult because workouts are frequently interrupted by one or two runs, but it is always a lot of fun. It’s good times to hang out and talk with the boys between sets, especially since on my days off I usually train in my garage gym with my wife, four year old son, and ten month old daughter.

Don’t get me wrong, my garage gym at our home is my favorite place in the world. My wife is a good, competent lifter, to whom I occasionally serve as a technique and programming consultant (I like to live dangerously). My kids are great training partners, but my son is a bit of a daredevil on his bike, and likes to climb and jump out of trees in the front yard. My daughter usually eats dirt, poops her pants, needs a bottle of milk, and has to be put down for a nap before I can finish my squats.

My beautiful wife is perfect and a joy to train with (see, I am not a complete imbecile), but needless to say, the parental obligations can be rather trying on my patience during a taxing training session. Now I am not saying that we don’t have these same issues at the firehouse, but at least Jay can wipe his own ass, Stephen can toddle off to his bunk when he gets fussy, and if Scott’s squat form is atrocious, I may express my disappointment in his poor performance as passionately and profanely as I choose.

We have a good group of lifters at the fire station. I train the basic barbell lifts according to the Starting Strength Method. Jay does his gym bro workout consisting of cardio on the treadmill, bench presses, and curls. Stephen practices the Olympic lifts and is a recovering CrossFitter. Jojo is a lifelong lifter, well versed in every training methodology from Starting Strength to CrossFit to 5/3/1 to bodybuilding to Westside Barbell. Scott exercises for health and general fitness. His workout consists of a sampling of the barbell lifts, bodybuilding, and CrossFit.

Somehow we all manage to train and coexist in the same weight room. Each firefighter trains however they like to train. The primary goal is to be a strong capable member of the team. Although we do not all follow the same program or do the same workout, training together and doing hard things on a regular basis builds a solid foundation of trust and respect among the team. In between sets it is fun to agitate one another, talk family, tell stories, engage in epic gym bro discussions on weightlifting, and occasionally learn something from each other.

The wonderful thing about Starting Strength Gyms is that all of the same framework to build a positive team relationship among the lifters is there: a group of high quality like minded individuals gather together to do hard work towards a common goal. Recognizing this, I strive to create the same community of camaraderie and friendship that I love most about the firehouse in the classes that I coach.

I remember one afternoon in the firehouse weight room when Scott and I were lifting together. I racked my last set of squats, sat down on the bench, took off my knee sleeves, and I was just fixing to get ready to do my presses when I noticed this odd rhythmic breathing coming from the vicinity of the dumbbell rack. To my great dismay, I looked up to see Cap waving a pair of 5-pound dumbbells around like they were pompoms. Cap witnessed my visage transition from a look of consternation to my signature head shake and eye roll of exasperation as I looked to the heavens in search of patience. Scott asked me “Why Joseph, whatever could be the matter?” I boomed, “You’re doing it wrong!” I then proceeded to ask him, “Just what are you hoping to accomplish by waving those little 5-pound weights around?” Scott went on to explain to me that he had injured his shoulder several years ago and that a physical therapist buddy had given him a long list of stretches and exercises to perform with light weights in order to rehabilitate and strengthen all of the little muscles of his shoulders.

I went on to explain to him that if I were him, seeing as he now had full range of motion with no pain in his shoulders, I would learn how to do barbell presses in order to get stronger and reduce the chances of future injury. I briefly summarized the concept of the stress/recovery/adaptation cycle and concluded by saying, “With all due respect, setting aside the fact that you look ridiculous, you are wasting your time. You can wave those little 5-pound dumbbells around for hundreds of reps in every possible direction, but those tiny weights don’t cause enough stress to drive your muscles to adapt to get stronger.” In short, despite my blunt tactless effort to persuade him to another course of action, Cap was unmoved. He said that doing things his way was working just fine, I said OK, and we let it go at that.

Now the very next morning we were all busy at work doing morning clean up (at the end of each 24 hour shift fire crews clean the station and trucks in preparation for the oncoming shift). I was mopping the kitchen floor when I heard a grunt of exertion coming from the direction of the kitchen pantry. I looked up from the task at hand and to my great delight I saw Cap standing there struggling to tear a heavy black garbage bag from its roll. I said, “Huh, that must be a 6-pound test.” Cap proceeded to laugh his ass off and acknowledged that I just might have a point.

Shortly after that little episode, Cap asked me to teach him the barbell lifts. He is in his mid 50s, 5’ 11” tall, weighs 195 lbs and is in good shape from doing his hodgepodge of bodybuilding and CrossFit style exercise. I first taught him the squat, press, deadlift, and bench press. I then put him on the novice linear progression training on a one day on and two days off schedule (he only trains at work).

I started Cap out with very light weights and progressed more slowly than necessary (making 2.5 lb increases for all lifts each workout) entirely because he was deathly afraid of injuring his back. So he isn’t doing the program optimally, but even when imperfectly applied, the program will yield results if you work hard. Last shift after squatting 232.5x5x3, benching 200x5x3, and performing chin-ups for 3x5 with a 25 lb kettlebell hanging from his waist, Scott marveled at the fact that he is stronger now than he has ever been in his life. He has made tremendous progress.

The same man that used to think that deadlifting 225 would cause his spinal vertebrae to spontaneously combust, was walking tall because he deadlifted 280x5. Cap asked me what I thought about that. I said, “Well, my wife can deadlift 300x3x2. So you’re not quite fit to carry her sports bra just yet, but you’re doing alright. We’ll get you there.”

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