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From Wheelchair to World Records: Matt Wenning Uses his Powers for Good

One decade ago the Washington Township Fire Department approached Matt Wenning, a world record holding powerlifter based here in Columbus, to see if he could help reduce injury rates amongst their firefighters. Today, Wenning is helping the department save $250,000 per year in health insurance expenses.

But how?

Simple. He helps the firefighters get stronger.

Born and raised in Muncie, Indiana, Wenning was introduced to powerlifting at an early age. After being hit by a car at the age of 6, he spent the better part of two years in a wheelchair and then in a full-leg cast. Once he was cleared for exercise, his legs were too weak and stiff to join his friends for football and other team sports. So he started strength training.

With the help of a few national caliber powerlifters who happened to train at his local YMCA, Wenning made leaps and bounds on his strength throughout middle school and high school. By the time he was 17, he was attending national and world class meets.

In 2004 Wenning went pro in powerlifting, and shortly thereafter, at the age of 26, he began to set world records. In 2006, a few military officials saw Wenning featured in a magazine. He then received a phone call from a special unit in Fort Benning, Georgia– the unit invited him to come down to their base to teach them about strength training. The unit liked what he brought to the table and soon saw declining injury rates amongst their personnel. Wenning has been doing contract work with the military since then.

Wenning at his gym, Ludus Magnus, in Franklinton.

Around the same time, Wenning relocated to Columbus to train at the world-renowned, invite-only powerlifting gym, Westside Barbell. Before long, Wenning’s work with the military gained notoriety amongst the local fire departments. The first department to approach Wenning was Washington Township in Dublin. Over the past ten years, he has been collecting both the strength and insurance data for the department. Notably, as the firefighters’ strength numbers have gone up, Washington Township’s insurance expenses have gone down. When Wenning began to coach and program workouts for their 135 firefighters, the average deadlift was under 200 pounds. Today, the average deadlift has doubled to just under 400 pounds, and the department is spending $250,000 less on insurance costs.

So why does being strong reduce injury rates? According to Wenning, it’s because society is getting heavier. In the 1960s, the fitness tests for fire departments were created with dummies based on the average weight of an American male at the time, 165 lbs.

“Shit, that’s a small girl now,” Wenning remarks. And he’s kind of right. The average American today weighs about 30 pounds more than they did half a century ago, which also means that what the average male used to weigh is now what the average female weighs.  

“Today, 300 pound people are everywhere,” Matt says, he himself weighing in around 300 pounds. “That’s a big problem when you’re dealing with an average strength [firefighter] with a deadlift under 200 pounds.”

So the problem is quite simple: injuries can occur when firefighters aren’t strong enough to do their job. It follows then that the solution is quite simple too: firefighters need to be stronger. And Wenning’s data supports this. He assures me that he is one of the first people in the country to have long-term data of this kind that suggests that getting stronger decreases injury rates in the special forces. Because of the rarity of this data, Wenning has been invited to speak about his work all around the globe.

“A lot of people don’t know that we’re doing some groundbreaking work here in central Ohio,” Wenning notes.

He is now in charge of 500 firefighters’ strength training programs across Columbus and continues to help these local departments lower their injury rates and health expenses. Wenning also advises for the Seattle and Los Angeles Fire Departments, as well as a few sports teams including the Chicago Bears and the Carolina Panthers.

So what is it about his coaching that makes him so successful?

He practices what he preaches. Wenning’s methodology is based on the style of training that has allowed him to last 25 years in a sport that a lot of people burn out of in just a few years. The key component to his training philosophy is an understanding of compression versus traction (or decompression) movements. Since most everything a firefighter does in their daily life is compressive, Wenning selects mostly traction-based movements to get them stronger. For instance, instead of barbell squats which compress the spine, Wenning has the firefighters use a belt squat machine, which pulls you down by the hips.

“So I basically take the philosophy that has let me last 25 years in powerlifting, and apply it at a lower level to the fire departments, and it creates this perfect scenario,” Wenning says with a smile.

When he isn’t coaching firefighters and military personnel, Wenning is coaching powerlifters and serious recreational lifters at his gym, Ludus Magnus, in Franklinton. Since a significant portion of his time is dedicated to working with special forces, his gym member base consists of people who can train around his irregular schedule. Ludus Magnus doesn’t even have a sign on the door– Wenning likes to remain off the beaten path. His gym is not the right fit for your average commercial gym client. Walk in on a normal day and you’ll probably encounter blaring music, lots of grunting, and the occasional bloody nose.

You come to this place and it’s time to work. It’s a strenuous environment,” Wenning explains. “I find that human growth is not comfortable– it’s painful, whether it be lifting or jobs or anything else. And I try to live my life that way. I used to travel two and a half hours every weekend to lift at Westside where I was the weakest guy at the time. That’s what made me what I am today. If I was just comfortable with being the strongest guy at the Lifetime Fitness or YMCA, how strong are you really?”

Staff writer and community manager for 1812 Columbus. Creative community developer for SEEN Digital Media and Snapfluence. Loves doughnuts, kittens, barbells, and oxford commas.