Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Firefighting and The Two Factor Model

by Grant Shymske | July 09, 2024

firefighters spraying water

The fire service is simultaneously a family and a professional team, and in that spirit each member tries to contribute what they can to make the team better. I have only been a firefighter for about three years now, but I have been a professional strength coach for over a decade, so I have been making efforts to contribute on that front. What I have noticed in my efforts to implement a solid strength program at my fire department are the striking similarities with the common myths and misconceptions so commonly encountered in the fitness industry.

Rip’s paper on The Two-Factor Model (TTFM) is one of the most useful and actionable intellectual tools Starting Strength has produced, right alongside The Novice Effect, and establishing a useful definition of strength. Understanding TTFM gives a strength coach the ability to detect bullshit training fads and misguided programming quickly and effectively; it is an indispensable tool for your coaching toolbox. While TTFM was originally framed in the context of sports performance, it could be easily reasoned that the same principles apply to physical skilled trades like firefighting as well.

Walk into any firehouse and there will be a stack of magazines on the common room table or on the top of the toilets. In almost every one of them there will be a section touting the latest workout routine “Especially designed for firefighter fitness!” – whatever that means. Invariably in these firefighter-specific workout routines there are also advertisements for fitness certifications, claiming to make you a personal trainer specially educated in the nuanced and hyper-specific fitness requirements of a firefighter.

Last year, my department was sold an equipment package for testing prospective firefighters known as the the Firefighter Physical Ability Test – FPAT. This package is essentially some modified gym machines painted red with a cool name and retails for a knee-buckling $35,000. It should be obvious that the myth of "profession-specific functional training" is just as pernicious and profitable as the "sports-specific functional training" we are all familiar with.

As with sports-specific functional training, the phenomenology (what actually happens) does not line up with the mythology these companies and programs are peddling. Myself and my small but growing contingent of training partners at the department follow the TTFM, meaning we train the squat, deadlift, press, bench, and Olympic lifts and then we practice our firefighter job requirements (throwing ladders, forcible entry, moving hoseline, ventilation, searching, etc.).

Interestingly, we hold many of the top scores on our department’s assessments. We crush the FPAT, because the kettlebells, sled, and sledgehammer in the test are like child’s toys to a strong person. We regularly score in the top percentile in air consumption tests (a circuit of firefighter tasks done in full kit on air, the goal of which is to accumulate the most work possible on one cylinder of air), because the force production required of the tasks is so far below our capacity that we consume less air to complete them – on and on, example after example.

The lesson learned here is that a physical trade is no different than a sport. If you want to be a better more effective firefighter (police officer, soldier, whatever) it is most efficient to train human movement patterns in ways that utilize the most amount of muscle mass over the greatest effective range of motion to allow you to move the most weight – to get stronger, and then go practice your profession the exact way that you will be expected to perform your duties in the field. Hitting a tire with a sledgehammer while in full kit on air neither makes you stronger, nor does it make you better at venting a roof with an axe, it just makes you tired and sweaty. It looks kinda like firefighting, but that's all.

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