Functional Fitness

If you want to go to the next level and optimize your physical fitness and make it job relevant, read on.

Do you believe physical fitness is a relevant component of your job? If you don't, you're mistaken. We are occupational athletes. We need to make physical fitness part of our lifestyle. Most of us engage in some type of physical activity, but how much of that is geared toward enhancing our job performance? How about our survival?

Sports trainers have long understood the value of sport specific training. Military trainers have long embraced the concept of mission specific training. How about cops? What kind of physical fitness programs should we engage in to optimize our job specific fitness?

This article is not intended to be a comprehensive guide to physical fitness. Instead, I want to stimulate your thoughts regarding the composition of your exercise program by offering two important fitness concepts.

Before I introduce these two critical concepts, let me say this: Something is usually better than nothing. Often, the excuse for not maintaining a high level of fitness is related to time constraints, followed by fear of injury or boredom. This leads to personal fitness programs that are less than optimal, but nonetheless, better than nothing. So if you are doing something vs. nothing, keep it up. If you want to go to the next level and optimize your physical fitness and make it job relevant, read on.

Functional Fitness

When we examine the physical activities and demands of our profession, we find things such as lifting, dragging, pushing, dodging, sprinting, climbing, striking, and grappling, to name a few. Our fitness programs should focus on enhancing our ability to engage in these activities. In other words, we need job relevant or mission specific exercises.

While we will most likely derive some health benefits from regularly running four miles, is that activity directly transferable to our jobs? Almost all of us would answer no, because we don't routinely engage in tasks that require us to run four miles as part of our daily jobs. However, we frequently operate under the assumption that a general level of physical conditioning, such as that derived from running four miles, will suffice. But like sports athletes or military personnel, our conditioning should be specific to our needs.

What do cops need? To put this question into perspective, think of the most physically demanding, high-risk activity we engage in: fighting. We have all been in that prolonged fight or struggle that in reality lasted two to three minutes but felt like an eternity and left us completely exhausted, and sometimes injured. This is because the energy systems our bodies use to meet these physical demands are not enhanced by the typical "workouts" cops do.

Likewise, the movements we engage in to fulfill our "workout" are usually not the same as those we engage in during a fight. Our training programs must replicate the demands our jobs place on our bodies. Here are two concepts to help you gain job relevant, functional fitness.

Concept 1: Change Your Intensity

Cops need power, agility, speed, strength, balance, and endurance. Long duration, low-intensity activities, such as extended distance runs, do not promote the first five qualities, and develop a type of endurance that is actually counterproductive to our physical needs. A short distance foot chase, followed by a struggle with your suspect to gain control, requires explosive movement and a different type of endurance: anaerobic endurance.

Dr. Izumi Tabata, a former researcher at the National Institute of Fitness and Sports (Japan), found that high-intensity interval training produces significant improvements in anaerobic capacity, which raises anaerobic endurance. This is important, because sprinting and fighting tax your anaerobic energy systems, and therefore, improving your anaerobic capacity is a highly job relevant fitness goal. Additionally, high-intensity interval training improves your aerobic capacity, giving you a dual fitness benefit. Conversely, traditional aerobic training has been shown to have no effect on improving anaerobic capacity.[PAGEBREAK]

Tabata developed an exercise protocol based on short rest intervals between work periods. His protocol involves a 2:1 work to rest ratio. Whether you strictly adhere to that or not, the principle of high-intensity work periods punctuated by short rest intervals is the basis for this critical concept. Engaging in high-intensity interval training (HIIT) will have the greatest impact on your functional physical fitness. This has the added benefit of getting more done in less time.

Functionally, you will benefit more from a 20-minute interval run or exercise circuit than a 45-minute low intensity (60 percent to 70 percent maximum heart rate) workout. You can take just about any form of exercise (calisthenics, heavy bag work, swimming) and break it into high-intensity work-rest intervals.

Concept 2: Change Your Movement

When we look at typical strength and conditioning programs, we find they are heavy on movements that are single joint, muscle specific, and single plane. For example, bicep curls or leg extensions. These are great for developing specific muscles or portions of muscles, but they do not accurately replicate job specific strength needs.

Realistically, law enforcement officers use multi-joint, multi-planar movements to get their jobs done. Look at the simple acts of getting in and out of your car, or taking a suspect to the ground. Both activities require the coordination of multiple muscle groups, and require movement on multiple planes. Let's examine each of these movement characteristics more closely.

Multi-joint, or compound, movements involve the use of multiple muscles and joints in a coordinated fashion. An example would be the six-count burpee (superman squat thrust). The movement engages core muscles, chest, arms, shoulders, and legs. The movement should be done in a controlled yet explosive manner to develop speed, power, and strength.

Multi-planar movements involve exercises that move the body on one of the three planes of movement: sagittal (front to back), frontal (side to side), and transverse (rotational). Perhaps the most neglected yet critical of these is the transverse plane. Too often, we overwork our muscles on the first two planes, which limits our functional range of strength and motion, and leaves us susceptible to injury.

For example, wall ball shots with a medicine ball are a great multi-joint explosive exercise. You can enhance this exercise by adding a twist to one side, working your muscles on the rotational or transverse plane. This develops the stabilizer muscles on the transverse plan as well as the sagittal plane. To put this into context, think about the movements associated with many takedown techniques, or as I mentioned earlier, the simple movement of getting in and out of the car.

Maximize Your Training

As I said in the beginning of this article, for most cops engaging in some type of fitness program is arguably better than doing nothing. But you can be so much more effective on the job if your training aims to strengthen the types of movements and endurance needed on the street. If you start to incorporate high-intensity interval training and compound, multi-planar movements into your fitness regimen you'll be well on your way to improving your overall physical performance on the job.

There are many resources available to guide you as you enhance your training. The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) has a program designed to develop operational fitness for law enforcement officers, called Tactical Strength and Conditioning (TSAC). Carl Bialorucki, of Pursuit Performance Training, has an excellent program specifically developed for law enforcement officers that covers all aspects of fitness performance. Both entities emphasize job relevance and put science behind their methods, which is important (although beyond the scope of this article).

Developing functional fitness is an important way you can enhance your safety on the job. Please remember, it is always wise to see your medical professional before you make a decision about changing or starting a fitness program. 

Sgt. James Harbison is the Basic Academy Coordinator at the Contra Costa County (Calif.) Office of the Sheriff Law Enforcement Training Center, where he teaches defensive tactics and physical fitness.

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