Fitness for firefighters

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By Dedra Cordle
Staff Writer

Messenger photos by Dedra Cordle
Jackson Township Firefighter Perry Radi works on his lats during a strength and conditioning session in the training room at Station 202. The department recently hired Matt Wenning, a noted powerlifting champion, to overhaul the fitness culture.
Matt Wenning, left, performs a BioPrint on Battalion Chief Jason Burley.

The frustration was beginning to mount as Perry Radi walked out of a local gym.

For years, the Grove City resident had been searching for the perfect fitness regimen to meet his needs, one that would be challenging enough to increase his strength but one that was not so physically taxing as to hamper his mobility as a full-time firefighter.

He had thought he had found the right combination in a popular program that has amassed thousands of followers, but he soon discovered that it was just like all of the rest he had tried.

“It was a continuous cycle,” Radi said. “I would find something that would work great for a few months and then I would start to notice these little nagging pains in certain parts of my body. Then I would switch it up and things would be good again, and then I would start to notice these little nagging pains in different parts of my body.”

To make matters worse, he said, those little nagging pains brought forth at the gym would then follow him to work.

“When you’re a firefighter, the last thing you want when you’re out on a run or in a hazard zone is to think about how much your body hurts,” Radi said. “You want and need to focus on the person you are helping and the task at hand, not on your aching joints.”

So, as he sat in his vehicle, once again gingerly massaging the muscles that were burning in a way that was not-quite-right, he told himself that something had to give.

“I just hoped it wasn’t going to be my knees or back,” he said.

As Radi began to brainstorm ways to improve his fitness regimen, he remembered a name he came across while working on a collegiate assignment about innovations in fire science a decade prior. After finding out that Matt Wenning was still active in the world of personal training, he made a call to inquire about his services.

What Radi did not know at the time was that his decision would eventually bring the entire Jackson Township Fire Department onto a path for their own health and fitness journeys.

In late 2018, just as Radi was about to begin his new fitness regimen with Wenning, he was assigned to the department’s strategic planning committee. According to Fire Chief Randy Little, the strategic plan covers a wide-range of topics, such as physical and mental wellness, and establishes short-term and long-term goals with initiatives in order to meet those goals.

“It’s sort of like a wish list,” said Little. “There are programs that we want to implement that we feel would benefit the entire department, and there are programs that have been implemented that we have to scale back on due to things like finances.”

Little said one program that he had always wanted to establish was a department-wide fitness program.

“Physical fitness programs are so important because not only do we need to be strong and capable of doing a job that constantly requires heavy lifting, but studies have shown that these programs can play an important role in increasing the morale and cohesiveness of a unit,” he said.

But when Radi brought up the possibility of hiring Wenning to run a strength and conditioning program, much like the ones he ran at Washington Township, Whitehall, and Pickerington, his suggestion went into the “maybe in another year” bin.

“It happens sometimes,” said Little. “There is a lot to do in this department.”

Knowing that Radi was set to begin his regimen with Wenning, he told him to take copious notes.

“I was the department’s mini-trial run,” said Radi. “They wanted me to go out there and see what would happen.”

What did happen, he said, was something he never experienced before in a fitness program: the lack of deep and lingering aches despite the challenging movements and routines.

Wenning said that is due to his personalized approach to training those in a tactical profession.

“When I began working with the Washington Township Fire Department in 2007, one thing I discovered was that almost all of their firefighters have experienced or were experiencing pain in three primary locations – their knees, their shoulders and their backs. I knew that if I tailored their workouts to strengthen their posterior chain that it would drastically reduce those lingering issues and help prevent those injuries from occurring in the future.”

Radi, a true believer in Wenning’s ways, decided that after a year working under his instruction, it was time for the department to bring him on board.

Little felt the same.

“We had done our own research and spoke with the departments where he oversaw their strength and conditioning programs,” said Little. “Not only was Matt’s personalized program helping reduce injuries on the job but it was also saving these departments hundreds of thousands of dollars in insurance premiums and overtime, which is an absolute killer for us.”

In May, Wenning began a multi-year contract to overhaul the fitness culture at Jackson Township. Some firefighters were skeptical, to say the least.

“There wasn’t a whole lot of pushback to what I was trying to do, but I knew they had doubts,” said Wenning, a three-time powerlifting champion who also directed over 6,000 troops in strength, conditioning, and wellness for the U.S. Army.

What didn’t help was when he told them this would be a slow and steady process where they would spend the first several months learning proper movements and getting acclimated with his intricate program that includes belt squats, reverse hypers, glute and hamstring raises, planks and lots of work to target all aspects of the back.

“I told them that this isn’t something you do for 90 days and suddenly you can deadlift and bench hundreds of pounds – that’s not what we are doing and this is not what this is about,” said Wenning. “It is a program where you build strength gradually and within a couple years should be deadlifting two to two-and-a-half times your body weight.

“And that, really, is going to be one of my most important goals for them to reach. The sad reality is that the population is getting bigger and these men and women in the firefighting and rescue field are going to have to account for that. If they can’t, they’re going to get hurt, put their careers in jeopardy and be living out their retirement with constant knee, shoulder or back pain.”

Since Wenning began his fitness operation 10 months ago, Battalion Chief Jason Burley said people can always be found in the station’s training rooms now, working on movements and routines that Wenning leaves for them each week.

“It’s nice to see but also a little annoying,” he said. “Before I could go down here and workout by myself but now there’s always guys waiting to use the equipment.”

He said he estimates that 99 percent of the department has bought into Wenning’s program, but he believes there is a little less buy in for the diet portion – Wenning advised them to cut out carbs and sweets.

“I’ve been following some of his diet plan but I refuse to give up certain things,” said Burley, who has gained muscle mass and developed better sleeping patterns since Wenning came to the department. “Like I’m not going to give up chicken wings or pizza for anything.”

Though physical improvements have been noticeable throughout the department, Radi said it is the on-the-job performance that is causing the most reaction.

“We have found that the focus is more on the skill that we are performing and not the strain of it,” he said. “And that, I think, is something none of us would have expected because we are constantly doing arduous tasks.

“I think we will continue to build on the lessons that Matt has provided and that will be a true benefit for our department and our community as we become stronger and more capable of addressing their needs.”

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