One thing you can say about the fire service is that nothing ever happens the way you expect it to. I think that’s why injuries continue to plague us. Think about it: We often find ourselves in odd, physically challenging positions in very extreme environments. We also perform strenuous tasks while wearing equipment that hampers our mobility.
You must be strong and flexible to work in this type of environment; therefore, preparation for the job must include superior athletic training. One of the best strengthening exercises we can do is the power clean, a multi-joint movement that builds strength and power while requiring good flexibility. I use this exercise, or some derivative of it, in all of my strength programs.
Firefighters who are unfamiliar with the exercise often tell me that there’s “no way” they’ll ever be able to do a power clean due to an old injury, their current lack of muscle strength or their age. I once had a fire captain tell me that he didn’t think he should do power cleans because they were too physically demanding and he could get injured. The next day, during a “save-your-own” drill, I observed that same captain go head-first down a ladder, then hook himself with a single shoulder to a rung and twist his entire body around—while wearing turnouts—so he could land feet first on the ground. If that wasn’t physically demanding, I don’t know what is.
He did struggle a bit with the drill, so I went up to him afterward and discussed how power cleans could help him with this drill. He understood the importance of the power clean and its relationship to what we may someday be required to do on the fireground. Remember: It’s the low-frequency, high-risk events that usually lead to problems. We won’t need to save ourselves or another firefighter during every fire, but performing save-our-own drills is critical to ensuring we have the ability to do so when needed. To successfully save our own, however, we must first have the physical strength required to rescue them. The power clean is one way to obtain this strength.
From the Ground Up
I use the Greg Shepard method from his book, “Bigger Faster Stronger,” for teaching the power clean. This book has taught more folks how to perform this movement over the last 35 years than any other resource on the planet.
A barbell and some weights are the only pieces of equipment needed for the power clean. Note: In the initial stage of learning the power clean movement, I suggest using a stick or PVC pipe rather than a barbell until you’re comfortable with the mechanics of the exercise. I would also suggest not doing more than five repetitions, because you need to concentrate on form.
The power clean originates from the ground. First, get into a squat position and place your shins against the bar or within an inch of the bar. Your stance should allow you to look forward or slightly upward. Then grip the bar, with your hands positioned just outside your knees. Keep your chest up and out, which will lock in your lower back. Keep your butt down and your knees over your toes.
Initial foot placement requires you to have your feet in a jump stance, but as you progress through the lift, you’ll end in an athletic stance with your feet in a wider position. (A jump stance is the position your feet are in when attempting to jump up for a basketball on a rebound. The athletic stance is similar to your feet and knee positions as you prepare to catch a baseball or the ready position for volleyball.)
While looking forward and keeping your back and elbows straight and knees bent, slowly raise the bar. Remember: Keep the bar close to the body at all times; don’t swing it out in front of you.
When you lift the bar over knee height, explode with your ankles, knees and hips, rapidly moving from the jump position to the athletic position. Explosively “shrug” your shoulders while bringing your elbows up as high as you can get them. As this occurs, your body will lower to catch the bar. Next, quickly bring the elbows forward in front of you while catching the bar on your shoulders.
To return the bar back to the floor, it’s OK to let the bar drop in a guided manner, if your gym is equipped with a lifting platform and bumper plates; however, since you’d never drop your equipment or a patient, I recommend that you guide the bar down in a controlled manner without a drop. In other words, train how you work.
If you want to take the power clean one step further, you can do the “clean and press.” This involves quickly pressing the bar overhead while keeping the knees slightly bent.
The Terrible Twos
The fun really begins as you get comfortable with this lift, because there’s a multitude of exercises you can incorporate into the power clean. One example: I call this exercise “the terrible twos.” It’s very simple but very effective. You can use it as part of any strength building program, but it also has cardiovascular benefits—as you will find out.
To begin, place the bar near a push-up station but make sure it’s far enough away that it’s not a tripping hazard. Once you’ve positioned the bar, do two push-ups followed by two power cleans followed by two pull-ups. Repeat these five times to complete one set. Try to accomplish this progression in less than two minutes. Complete three sets altogether.
A Final Note
If you consider all the functions and movements we perform on the fireground—everything from hose deployment to pulling ceiling to forcible entry—you’ll notice that they all incorporate some of the basic movements involved in the power clean. The message: If you know how to complete this exercise properly, your overall fireground performance will improve.
Shepard, G. Bigger Faster Stronger. Human Kinetics: Champaign, Ill. 2009.
Pocket Exercise Guide
If you’re looking for a good pocket companion to remind you of how to do certain exercises in the gym, I would suggest picking up the “Get Fit to Fight Fire Fitness Guide” by Todd Platner, an “on-fire” fitness trainer from Richmond, Ky., who has a real passion for firefighter fitness. The guide includes pictures of several exercises that you can use as auxiliaries in any strength and conditioning program. My helmet is off to Todd for a job well done! For more information or to order the guide, visit www.firefitnessxl.com.