• From the Field with Mark Abel
    Mark Abel, PhD, CSCS,*D, TSAC-F, is an Associate Professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Promotion at the University of Kentucky where he conducts research to improve the safety, health, fitness, and performance of tactical athletes.
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  • From the Field BannerFrom the Field | Mark AbelMark Abel, PhD, CSCS,*D, TSAC-F

    Mark Abel is an Associate Professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Promotion at the University of Kentucky. Abel conducts research to improve the safety, health, fitness, and performance of firefighters and law enforcement officers. 

    He has served as a paid on-call firefighter and has participated in the Firefighter Combat Challenge. Abel has experience in training firefighters, athletes, and the general public. He is the Chair of the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) TSAC Special Interest Group (SIG).

    1. What tactical population do you currently work with?
    Currently I conduct research with structural firefighters, campus police officers, and urban Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) units.

    2. How did you get started in the TSAC (Tactical Strength and Conditioning) field? 
    I have always had a passion for the fire service. After graduating from high school, I served as a paid-on-call firefighter in my hometown. However, my career path ultimately led me to pursue a PhD in the field of exercise science.  
    Now, as a professor and researcher, I have the opportunity to apply my knowledge from exercise science to enhance the health, safety, and performance of firefighters and law enforcement officers. I feel truly blessed to be able to work in a dynamic field that allows me to combine two of my greatest passions.  

    3. What resources do you utilize for continuing education? Are there any resources your recommend staying away from? 
    The resources I utilize for continuing education include attending the annual Tactical Strength and Conditioning Conference and NSCA National Conference as well as reading the TSAC Report, the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, the Strength and Conditioning Journal, and other scholarly journals. Most importantly, it is critical that through education and experience we become good consumers of information. Just because someone is doing something, does not mean it is appropriate, safe, and effective. If you are uncertain about an exercise or practice, consult a reputable and reliable source. 

    4. If you where hiring someone in your field, what would you look for?   
    Some of the qualities that my best workers possess include the following: responsible, independent thinker, experience with strength and conditioning exercises and assessments, willing to accept constructive criticism, confident, and willing to correct exercise technique.  
    5. Please describe the regular duties included in your position? 
    Although I teach exercise science classes and engage in academic service, a large part of my job involves conducting research with tactical populations. As such, I guide undergraduate and graduate students as they conduct research projects to answer important practical questions related to tactical operators’ health, safety, and performance.  
    Duties involved in these research projects include developing a collaborative relationship with the targeted tactical population (e.g., fire or police department), identifying an appropriate research question, submitting ethics paperwork, collecting data with tactical operators, analyzing and interpreting data, writing manuscripts and disseminating the data in publications, and presentations at conferences. Some of the research projects involve conducting strength training interventions, while others utilize cross-sectional assessments of various behavioral (e.g., physical activity level) and physiological outcome measures.  
    6. What are the two most important things you have learned; that you wish you knew when you were starting your career?    
    The first thing I have learned is that the psychological aspects of exercise participation cannot be underestimated. Although there are some tactical operators that are motivated to exercise, there are many more that are not. It is important to develop a strong understanding of theoretical models for exercise participation and to identify the facilitators and barriers (logistical and psychological) for exercise.  
    Work with the targeted population to develop incentives to exercise or participate in various wellness activities, from focus groups to understand what the participants like and dislike about the program, get support from administrators to provide time to exercise and have them exercise with the operators, etc. The “best” program may be the one that is able to engage the most tactical operators.  
    Second, conducting research is extremely valuable as it guides our practice; however, it is extremely time consuming and very frustrating at times because there are many factors out of your control. I have learned that patience and resilience are vital qualities for researchers.  

    7. What recommendations would you give someone who is looking to start a career in TSAC?      
    Establish a foundation of knowledge to work in the field of tactical strength and conditioning. The TSAC-F certification is a great start and demonstrates to employers and tactical operators that you have the requisite knowledge. Also, if you have not been employed as a tactical operator, shadow a current operator and ask to perform their job tasks so you can experience their job and design effective exercise programs and assessments specific to these tasks.
    8. What do you believe are the top three physical requirements for this population that must be addressed in a proper TSAC program? 
    For structural firefighters the fitness requirements are somewhat unique in that the job tasks require the full spectrum of physical fitness characteristics, including aerobic and anaerobic endurance (e.g., stair climbing, load carriage), strength (e.g., lifting equipment), and power (e.g., advancing hose lines, forcible entry, victim rescue). 
    9. What steps do you go through when writing a program for the population you work with?     
    To design an appropriate program I start by conducting a needs analysis. A needs analysis is critical as it identifies the physiological and biomechanical demands of the job (and common injuries). Next, I select a periodization strategy that is most appropriate for this population (e.g., nonlinear or block training). Then, based on the information I have gathered from the needs analysis and periodization strategy, I select the exercises and set the appropriate exercise parameters (i.e., amount of repetitions, sets, rest periods, etc.). 

    10. What are some critical factors in getting tactical athletes to buy into a strength and conditioning program? 
    1. Get administrative support. Have mid-level supervisors and administrators exercising with the group. This sets a great example and improves moral—maybe the most important factor in gaining buy-in to a program.
    2. Understand who the tactical athletes are. Why do they want to exercise (i.e., for general health, weight loss, performance, aesthetics, or competition)? Consider these things when designing the program.
    3. Develop realistic and feasible goals for each operator. Assess these outcomes and provide regular feedback.
    4. Make exercise fun and exciting. Plan ahead in your periodized program to make regular changes in the exercise selection and routine to keep things fresh. Unmotivated operators lose interest quickly if they are doing the same thing every day.
    5. Develop incentives based on participation (e.g., t-shirts, trophies, cook-out, vacation days, discounts on health insurance premiums, etc.). Create competitions between fire stations based on exercise participation rates or improvements in performance on measured outcomes on fitness assessments or task-specific challenges (i.e., obstacle course of firefighting tasks).
  • Disclaimer: The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) encourages the exchange of diverse opinions. The ideas, comments, and materials presented herein do not necessarily reflect the NSCA’s official position on an issue. The NSCA assumes no responsibility for any statements made by authors, whether as fact, opinion, or otherwise. 
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