Joe Paonessa

Canada’s Strongest Firefighter

Story by Michael Seguin
Photography by Erin Paonessa

Last month, Joe Paonessa, a local firefighter, traveled to Santa Monica to compete in the second annual Arnold Schwarzenegger World’s Strongest Firefighter Competition.

A lifelong athlete, Joe first got into bodybuilding in 2017, at age 31. “I liked the structure of it,” Joe explains. “I was diagnosed with PTSD last year, formally. I’d been getting treatment for it since 2016. It’s been beneficial to me. It’s like therapy. It helps clear your mind. You can just go hard and relieve some stress. There’s been a lot of studies about how it reduces anxiety. It’s so important.”

Joe first started lifting weights when he was around 12 or 13. However, bodybuilding involves a much more intense commitment. Especially when it comes to nutrition. “Diet is 85% of bodybuilding,” Joe states. “Following that meal plan is what gets you lean, gets you ready for that show. You have to put the work in at the gym, but if you’re not eating properly or eating the wrong foods, then it’s all for nothing. You’re going to be healthy, you’re going to be in shape, but unless you follow that structure and that diet plan, you’re not going to get to where you want to be.”

Joe Paonessa and his wife, Erin, pose with Arnold Schwarzenegger

Joe’s meal plan involved an intake of about 3000 calories a day, divided over the course of six meals, including a gram of protein for every pound of weight. And, when he’s bulking, that number can go up. “It’s hard eating that much, at first,” Joe explains. “Once your metabolism resets and your body starts burning that many calories, you’re able to take it in. But when I started, I remember dry heaving in the morning trying to get all those cups of egg whites and cups of oatmeal down. It’s a job trying to eat that much. If you’re eating takeout food, it’s easy to get a lot of calories. But trying to get that many calories while eating healthy? That’s a mass quantity.”

What’s more, bodybuilding also involves much longer hours at the gym. And, with kids and a demanding career, Joe is sometimes forced to work out three times a day. “Right now, my workouts are 90 minutes to 100 minutes of weight lighting, with 20 to 30 minutes of cardio,” Joe states. “But, near the end of a cut, my workouts can be anywhere from three hours to three-and-a-half hours. I typically get up before the kids and try to knock out some cardio, or get my weights in while they’re at school, or get another hour in after they go to sleep.”

When asked what the hardest part of bodybuilding was, Joe returns to the diet. “Just the temptation of eating all those delicious foods,” Joe states. “You really have to grapple with those cravings. But, I’ve been doing it for so many years now. You know you have to cut. You know what the end result is. And you’re able to just focus. You want to stay on track with your food. If you mismanage your nutrition, it affects your performance.”

The coin Joe Paonessa received for competing the event.

Joe has competed in a variety of bodybuilding shows over the years. However, back in December, a new opportunity presented itself.

While browsing Instagram one night, Joe happened across a video advertising Arnold Schwarzenegger’s World’s Strongest Firefighter competition. In the video, the iconic Austrian sent out an open call for all firefighters everywhere to apply.

On a whim, Joe tossed his hat into the ring. “I thought it was a long shot,” Joe states. “But, they kept getting back to me. I went through all their steps. Then they let me know that they’d selected me to go to the event.”

However, this presented a challenge for Joe. The event was only five weeks away. “I was in my off-season mode,” Joe explains. “I was planning on doing Nationals this year, but I hadn’t started my prep. I wasn’t training that intensely. So, as soon as they told me I was in, I had to rush back to the gym.”

A strongman competition is different than a typical bodybuilding show. Since the event was purely strength-focused, Joe endeavored to put on as much mass as possible. “I gained 20 pounds in five weeks,” Joe recalls. “I was getting McDonalds a couple times a day. Eating chocolate bars at night. Just getting down as many calories as I could. I was eating about 5000 calories a day. The workouts were so draining. I’ve never trained like this before.”

The event took place on January 18th, at the Santa Monica Pier in California. Matt Iseman from American Ninja Warrior hosted the event. Numerous other celebrities were in attendance, including Sofia Vergara and her husband Joe Manganiello.

As well, Joe and the other firefighters were invited to spend time at Arnold Schwarzenegger’s mansion prior to the event. “Arnold was awesome,” Joe states. “Down-to-earth. Above and beyond my expectations. Going into the event, I thought we’d get a handshake and a quick photo-op. They surprised us when they said we’d all be going to his home. We were allowed to bring our wives or girlfriends. So, we met him. He had a big cigar in his mouth. He served us food. He had his bar open. There were cigars everywhere. Me and my wife ended up talking to him, Matt Iseman and Ralf Moeller in his kitchen for about an hour. They told us stories about their charity auctions.”

All the money that was raised by the event was sent towards the Ventura County Fire Department Widows, Orphans and Assistance Fund, the Santa Monica Fire Department and the California Fire Foundation’s Firefighters Benevolent Fund. Some money was even sent to help the Australian wildfire.

The event also drew a considerable crowd. Tickets were sold out after only a couple days. However, rather than being intimidating, Joe found the sizable audience encouraging. “They’d fire you up, actually,” Joe laughs. “Everything I lifted that day was better than anything I’d done in training. The announcer would get the crowd to cheer you on. It gets your adrenaline firing.”

Joe placed third in the competition. “I was happy just to get out there and have that weekend experience,” Joe explains. “Being able to place in the event at all was awesome. It was just a fun overall experience. Watching the pros compete, seeing what they can lift, what they can do. It was surreal to be a part of that. Just hanging out backstage with all the athletes and the celebrities. At one point I was lying down on the physio table and Arnold Schwarzenegger came up and started talking my ear off about the event.”

And, the event has inspired Joe to leap back into his training with renewed vigor. “This was my first time trying to do it all,” Joe states. “It turned out well. Hopefully I can go back next year to represent Canada. It’d be cool to have a whole year of training in to see what I can do. And all the proceeds are going back to firefighters.”

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