A strong, fit, flexible, explosive, and well-conditioned police officer is a better police officer. Improved physical conditioning is correlated with lower officer injury and death rates, lower sick leave usage, lower civil liability, fewer civilian complaints, lower suspect injury rate, lower suicide rate, improved mental health, lower uses of force, and lower officer-involved shooting rate.
The first rule is to work hard and train consistently. Athletes from different sports train differently, but successful athletes follow this rule. The best program in the world won't work if you don't train consistently and put effort into your training. But you need to focus on the right type of training for your line of work.
Contrary to mythology and marketing, resistance training does not require one to "train to failure" or walk out of the gym so sore you can barely move. For patrol officers, any training that "cripples" an officer for the period post-training is to be avoided as we need to be on at all times. You can't have a "leg day" that leaves you hobbling around for three days, and Murphy's Law means the time you can barely walk due to soreness is the time you will get into the most important foot pursuit of your life. Any training program needs to account for the fact that you need to always be ready to perform.
Training needs to prepare you for the infrequent but high-danger stresses of patrol, as well as the frequent lower danger activities. Something as simple as getting in and out of your car while wearing a gunbelt and gear weighing 20 pounds or more is a cause of a substantial number of officer injuries. Proper resistance training strengthens the lower back, core, and abdominal muscles and will act as a prophylactic against such injuries.
Don't Forget the Arms
Close to three-quarters of all officer assaults happen when an officer goes "hands on" to grab a suspect's wrist, so grip strength is a crucial element of functional training for patrol officers. It also improves firearm proficiency, proficiency with "wristy twisty" movements, and proficiency with impact weapons. Increased grip strength can help you accomplish an arrest at a lower level of force without having to escalate and also decrease risk of injury to you, an arrestee, and any innocents who may be threatened by an arrestee's escape.
Also, the forearms are, apart from the neck, the only part of your physique visible while wearing a uniform, and an appearance of strength can help deter a suspect. Never underestimate those subtle — and not so subtle — visual cues that that often deter people from making a decision to go physical.
So how many officers strength train with an emphasis toward strengthening the lower back and core muscles, as well as the grip and forearm muscles? Very few. Most will focus on some "bodybuilding" type routine they read in a magazine or online and adapt that to their use.
Nothing against bodybuilders, but they train with an eye toward increasing muscle size, symmetry, etc., for visual effect — not toward functional strength. A fitness program much better suited to the LEO is one more along the lines of how athletes like powerlifters, Olympic-style weightlifters, throwers, sprinters, mixed martial artists, or Highland games athletes train.
Good training is training specific to the demands of one's sport. If you conceptualize patrol work like a sport, then you have a practical basis for choosing movements and exercises that prepare you for the demands of your "sport" — police patrol. In our view, patrol officers owe it to themselves, their families, their colleagues, and the public they serve to be as prepared as possible.
We've already covered two areas to focus on in physical training for you to become a more effective "patrol athlete" — grip/forearm strength and lower back/core/abdominal strength. Let's look at some others.
Most applications of force we will use and most force used against us will start with the officer in a standing position. zot benefits us to be strong while standing, so we should mostly train that way. Therefore, a seated military press isn't as good as a standing push press.
Using standing push press will help build overall coordination between the lower and upper body, as well as build balance and those core muscles we mentioned that protect you from lower back injuries. A standing press also works a much greater cross-section of muscle groups, has greater effects on improving bone density (which is another protective factor gained from strength training that will protect you in falls or vehicle accidents), and teaches the athlete how to receive as well as apply force to an object.
Use Large Movements
We rarely use muscles in isolation. Almost any physical demand — whether sprinting in pursuit, wrestling a suspect into compliance, dragging a downed coworker out of the line of fire, or climbing over a fence or obstacle — requires an officer to use his or her entire body, so we should train as we perform. Use multiple joint "large" movements, not smaller range of motion/isolation style movements. This follows what's referred to as "training specificity": training for the demands of the activity you'll be performing.
Improving flexibility also fits within this context. Given time, many if not most officers will be put in a situation where improved flexibility would benefit them both in successfully resolving the situation and in decreasing risk of injury. Flexibility is essential to prevent injury as it allows joints to undergo greater range of motion and muscle fibers and connective tissue to lengthen substantially with lower risk of injury. A substantial percentage of officer injuries could be prevented through improved flexibility.
Many of us are limited in the amount of time we can spend training. That's just a fact of the job we must accept and adapt to. Therefore, training should be efficient in providing the greatest benefit per unit of time spent in the gym, and multi-joint (compound) "large" movements are more time efficient. Many strength athletes make phenomenal strength gains without ever doing movements like curls, triceps pressdowns, leg extensions, calf raises, machine curls, and so forth. For our purpose, these movements waste time and use energy and time that could be devoted toward compound movements like squats, deadlifts, cleans, and push presses.
Use Free Weights
The strength demands law enforcement officers face in the field are dynamic, unbalanced, and three-dimensional. Machines only move the body through limited and often artificial ranges of motion, making their benefit to officers limited. Free weights are much better for building "real world" functional strength. Items that are even more challenging and unbalanced than a barbell such as sandbags are great as well.
Avoid machines, and instead concentrate on free weights and "strongman" type implements like hammers and logs. As an added bonus, this equipment is comparatively inexpensive. A few sandbags, a truck tire and sledge hammer, and an Olympic bar with a selection of weights, for example, will often cost less than one "fancy" machine at the gym.
Maximize Strength and Power
Lastly, we have to carry our own bodies, as well as some fairly heavy equipment with us to every call, so it benefits us to gain strength, power, and endurance efficiently. In other words, every pound of weight we gain should give "the most bang for the buck" as muscle that improves our functionality in the field. Patrol officers should train with an eye toward maximizing strength and power. Size gains will be a side effect but the goal is the strength and power abilities gained, not size for size's sake.
Extensive research confirms that training in lower repetition ranges (1–3 reps and rarely in excess of 5 reps) preferentially builds strength per unit of mass gained. To get technical, it prioritizes strength, power, rate coding, myofibrillar hypertrophy, power, ATP/PC storage efficiency, and neural adaptation over sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, lactate tolerance, and capillarity.
Training is always about tradeoffs and no training optimally improves all aspects of fitness. A person who was simultaneously training for a marathon and a powerlifting competition would perform substantially worse in both than if he were training for one or the other. So we look at the "sport" of police patrol and the physical demands and risks imposed and devise training preferentially suited to those demands and risks.
In brief, most aerobic or endurance training is decidedly suboptimal and should at least be minimized. Yes, this goes against the vaunted "Cooper Standards," but those are minimally applicable to police patrol and in general a very poor metric for measuring patrol officer fitness. The energy systems used in patrol are far more often anaerobic and thus sprinting is far more beneficial than distance running. The human animal is remarkably well adapted among those in the animal kingdom for endurance and distance running. However, training as such is decidedly suboptimal for a patrol officer. There are much better ways to build endurance and work capacity than distance running and aerobics in general. Also, when work capacity is built up through strength training, minimal training volume in endurance type activities will yield quite good results. Interval sprints with recovery jogging in between efforts or stair climbing are good options.
Considering we spend more than eight hours a day in patrol wearing more than 20 pounds of gear, doing training with weighted vests or similar equipment is an excellent way to condition the body to handle the uniform load. Using a weighted vest with 150% to 250% of the weight used in patrol will do wonders for your work capacity while wearing a patrol uniform. This makes a weighted vest another ideal part of every patrol officer's work-specific functional strength training.
Deputy P. Whitney Richtmyer has close to 30 years in law enforcement, the majority of which has been spent in patrol. He is a firearms instructor and has worked as a field training officer, detective, undercover operative, and in several other assignments. He has competed in powerlifting and Olympic-style weightlifting and taught numerous Olympic-style weightlifting seminars. He has written strength training articles for several different publications.
Will Brink has been an adjunct trainer for Smith & Wesson Training Academy, and runs the websites OptimalSWAT.com and BrinkZone.com. He is the designer of the Practical Applied Stress Training (P.A.S.T) program. His articles have appeared in POLICE Magazine as well as other law enforcement publications.