Cranston gym trains aspiring firefighters to take heat of fitness test

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Dreams to become a firefighter can be shattered in just eight minutes.

That’s the time limit to finish the Rhode Island Physical Performance Assessment (PPA) for entry-level firefighters, a physical fitness test administered by the Rhode Island Association of Fire Chiefs that is required by most cities and towns in the state – including Cranston and Warwick – in order to enter a fire academy.

It is for this test that Olympia Fitness, located at 10 Worthington Road in Cranston, has crafted a unique, specialized training regimen in order to help aspiring firefighters pass.

Since 2011, the gym has helped 22 training firefighters from Rhode Island and Massachusetts pass the PPA – which entails six “evolutions,” or phases, meant to test the strength of every muscle group involved in the potential workload of an active firefighter responding to an emergency.

The PPA encompasses hauling a 14-foot, 30-pound ladder, lifting a 50-pound hose pack up and down a flight of stairs twice, carrying a 29-pound cutting saw up and down the stairs (all without use of hand railings), using an 8-pound sledge hammer to strike a weighted block 5 feet along a railed track, pulling a fully-charged fire hose with nozzle 100 feet, completing 42 total reps of an 80-pound pull and 45-pound push station (simulating pushing and pulling ceiling tiles) before the grand finale – dragging a 225-pound dummy a total of 100 feet over concrete and carpet surfaces.

All of the above is also performed wearing a 50-pound weighted vest to simulate turnout gear, breathing apparatus and accessories worn during regular firefighting – and, again, they must do all this in under 8 minutes to pass.

The staff at Olympia – formerly named The Way: Human Performance Institute before an organizational shift – provide access to a 185-pound dummy with pull straps, a hose pack nearly identical to the one in testing and have a specific training program which targets all the muscle groups that need to be trained to do well during the test. They offer both an eight-week and 12-week program for $500 and $750 respectively.

“We can’t pass the test for them, but we provide all the tools for them to succeed,” said Mike Lefebvre, strength coach at Olympia.

Lefebvre explained how one potential firefighter recruit came in and was clearly out of shape. Part of the training program was running on a heavily inclined treadmill, with a mix of other cardio and strength training exercises. He wound up graduating.

Lefebvre could recall two Warwick residents recently passing the fitness test after training at the gym – Brandon Waterman and Michael Moan – both children of active firefighters in Warwick. They said that six of the last seven to train at the gym with the fitness program designed for the PPA have passed the test.

Olympia’s specialized personal training doesn’t only benefit potential firefighters, though.

“I love that place,” said Matt Centore. “I've made a lot of progress, and I think part of the reason is that love going there. I love the environment.”

Matt has cerebral palsy, but has discovered a new love for working out since his dad, who also happens to be head coach of the Cranston East football team, Tom, introduced him to gym owner Steve Zarriello and Lefebvre.

“They've been great for him,” said Tom. “It's been one of the best things for Matt, not just for his ability with cerebral palsy, but for his confidence. He's bought into something that’s made him stronger and feel better about himself, and that's been really good for him.”

Matt said that he has gone from lifting 5-pound dumbbells in a bench press lift to 30-pound dumbbells, just since he started attending the gym regularly in January. He has no intentions to stop his training now that he has seen the results.

“Some stuff I never thought I'd be able to do, I can do now. It's been amazing,” he said. “I tell myself I’m not stopping until I get to 100-pound dumbbells in each hand. You never feel like you're done. It's almost addictive to come back and keep progressing.”

Zarriello has also volunteered time for the past few years training with the Cranston East football team, providing tips for recovery after games and doing some training programs during the season and the off-season. Tom said that the instruction has had a noticeable improvement in the team’s game time readiness and recovery following games.

Zarriello motioned to a growing batch of collegiate flags displayed on the wall during a visit to the gym on Monday – representative of high school athletes they have trained that have gone onto top divisional college programs. The schools include, so far, the University of South Carolina, the University of Miami, Navy, the University of New Hampshire and The University of Connecticut (UCONN).

Providing guided strength training in a friendly setting to student athletes is exactly what Zarriello confirmed he hopes will be the bread and butter of Olympia Fitness for years to come.

Tom Centore is an advocate for that cause, and said that he was hopeful that their training programs could be expanded to more sports teams in Cranston, as they could help the students become stronger, healthier and less prone to injuries.

“I think that's one thing I would love to see maybe someday down the road. [Zarriello]’s invested in the city of Cranston and especially in our school,” Tom said. “They've been terrific to us.”

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