Boots on the Ground: Realizing Physical Potential while Combatting Reality

by Jay Dawes, PhD, CSCS,*D, NSCA-CPT,*D, FNSCA, Ryan Holmes, TSAC-F, and Charles Kornhauser, TSAC-F
TSAC Report June 2017

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Most law enforcement officers are physically taxed, mentally exhausted, and emotionally overwhelmed. As such, a complexity exists with a requirement to match the need for physical fitness in a demographic that lives their lives in a potential state of general exhaustion.

In conversation, likely no one will ever dispute their desire for any law enforcement officer (LEO) to be fit, or at least more fit than the suspects they may have to deal with. Similarly, it is unlikely that recruits enter the profession of law enforcement with the belief that they can be overwhelmingly unfit and still be successful at their job. The public will constantly reiterate that should they be in a dire situation, their desire is to be “rescued” by the fittest officer possible to ensure their own personal safety. While logical arguments as to why fitness is so important for LEO can be made, the reality is that most LEO are physically taxed, mentally exhausted, emotionally overwhelmed, and live their lives in a state caught somewhere between sedentariness and “fight or flight.” However, LEO are expected to be polite and calm while engaging with the public all while being aware of potential escape routes that an individual may take if attempting to flee, watching the subject’s hands for potential weapons, making sure they are clear from traffic lanes or potentially distracted drivers, taking notes of the conversation that will often inevitably lead to courtroom testimony, having a plan to defuse a volatile situation, and then having the recall to convey all of this to dispatch over the radio. Not to mention they are doing this all while wearing approximately 25 lb of tactical gear. This is one of many typical situations a LEO will be involved in on any given day. Research by Orr et al. found that one of the most common tasks carried out by police officers was checking a person’s bona fides (confirming a person’s identity and intent), a task that encompasses all of the above officer expectations (2). Ironically, this is one of the more relaxed, or mundane, situations an officer will encounter. In reality, a LEO’s job is similar to that of a lifeguard in that most of the job is fairly routine until they are required to fight for their life or someone else’s. Additionally, the stress from remaining hypervigilant throughout the entire work shift may leave officers feeling physically and emotionally exhausted being in a constant state of elevated stress. Based on these factors, along with family and other social pressures, the reality is that physically demanding training is the furthest thing from what they want to do after a long shift (e.g., over 8 hr). In fact, research shows LEO may have reduced levels of motivation to engage in exercise following a long shift (1). As such, a complexity exists with a requirement to match the need for physical fitness in a demographic that lives their lives in a potential state of general exhaustion.

At the Colorado State Patrol (CSP), the fitness needs of uniformed officers are addressed from two different perspectives: 1) recruit training, and 2) incumbent members performing the daily duties of a law enforcement officer. Given the less formal and structured approach to fitness for incumbent officers as opposed to recruits, this population will be discussed first.

With some of the challenges of an officer’s ability/desire to maintain a degree of relevant fitness already presented, the question becomes how to both motivate an officer and how to hold them accountable for their level of fitness. The CSP initiates this process through education and transparency by explaining to Troopers returning for required training why their fitness is important and how they can efficiently improve their fitness level. Regarding education, the agency describes the established relationships between the components of fitness (power, muscular strength, muscular endurance, and aerobic capacity) and work performance. This educational process is intended to reduce complacency. Second, the CSP requires mandatory fitness testing, and all uniformed Troopers are required to participate and give maximum effort. At this time, these tests are non-punitive and are utilized primarily to provide the Trooper information related to their health, fitness, and performance. However, these tests are currently being utilized, in conjunction with measures of occupational performance during simulated job tasks, to develop a defensible fitness testing battery. The mandatory nature of fitness testing parallels the responding of a Trooper to an emergency call wherein fitness may be the link to a successful outcome.

Once a Trooper has clear and valid information as to why their health and fitness are critical to job performance, they are provided with an assessment of their fitness relative to other LEO performing the same job. The CSP has done this through the development of CSP-specific percentile rankings (Table 1). The data represents all CSP participants, regardless of age and gender, that was collected as part of departmental process. This information and reality check aid in creating a fitter workforce. All Troopers are required to go through this process once annually.

Recruit training is a different issue altogether as recruits are required to follow a specific and formal program as part of their training to be an incumbent officer. When an academy class starts (two times per year, a spring class and a fall class) the CSP is introduced to a group of people (usually approximately 30 recruits) who come from widely varied backgrounds and greatly differing physical abilities and levels of athleticism. The CSP instructors begin the course of training similarly to incumbent Troopers by offering the recruits as much information as possible.

This information allows them to gain a greater understanding of their current fitness levels compared to their peers and serves as a motivational tool for them to take responsibility for their health and fitness. As the CSP instructors educate the recruits on anatomy, physiology, endocrine processes, and the importance of physical conditioning for their career success they begin to gather the tools to aid in their successful completion of a rigorous, but scheduled, and curriculum-based Physical Training (PT) program. The practical portion of the PT program begins with simple and slow paced movement clinics. The instructors address areas such as the hip-hinge movement pattern, the squat, the deadlift, the power clean, and overhead pressing movements. The instructors then progress by first teaching them in an unweighted manner (e.g., using light weight bars, PVC pipes, and dowels), to loaded movements as recruits demonstrate proficiency. The instructors also cover basic bodyweight movements, such as pull-ups, and the fundamentals of proper running form. These movement clinics are offered with the goal of reducing the incidence of undue injuries. PT is an obvious area of injury liability; however, by taking a few small educational and familiarization steps before initiating an intensive program, injury potential can be significantly reduced. This is not only observable from a subjective manner, but also forms the basis for future research to objectively quantify injury and injury potential.

After the successful completion of the introductory movement clinics, the CSP instructors start a general conditioning block of a fully periodized program. While in the general conditioning block recruits become more comfortable with running, calisthenics, and dynamic stretching movements. After approximately two weeks of general conditioning the training moves into a strength and hypertrophy block wherein the instructors focus on developing dynamic strength through loaded movement patterns. Out of every four days of loaded training recruits spend a full session de-loading and working on conditioning and agility. Through this model fatigue becomes less of a concern and fatigue-related injuries are nearly non-existent. Once the recruits are proficient in the loaded movement patterns the instructors spend the next block focusing on high intensity interval training (HIIT) styled training wherein intensity becomes a requisite characteristic of a training session. Again, after the entire group is safely proficient in the HIIT model the instructors begin to add some “Striking” elements to their training sessions. This leads recruits into the beginnings of their Defensive Tactics training that occurs during a two-week block. Realizing that PT does not exist in a vacuum and rather is part of a bigger picture of training has been a key to the success of this PT model. Once the recruits complete Defensive Tactics training the instructors begin to give them the tools to program their own training sessions. Again, education is a key component to this portion of the schedule. By educating recruits on programming fundamentals they gain the tools for success once they have graduated the academy and have joined the ranks of a working Trooper.

Table 1. Combined Fitness Assessment Results Ranked by CSP-Specific Percentiles

*Data based on 2014-2015 fitness assessments (n=520-564 officers)

Percentile Ranking

Obstacle Course

Vertical

Sit-Ups

Push-Ups

Grip

Leg/Back Strength (Lb)

Plank Time

Beep Test (Level)

95

161

25.45

50

63

68

493

225

8.4

90

170

24.16

46

58

65

467

204

7.7

85

176

23.29

44

54

63

450

190

7.2

80

182

22.57

42

51

61

435

179

6.8

75

186

21.96

40

48

60

423

169

6.5

70

190

21.42

39

46

59

412

160

6.2

65

193

20.95

37

44

57

402

153

5.9

60

197

20.45

36

42

56

392

145

5.7

55

200

20.02

35

40

55

384

138

5.4

50

203

19.55

33

38

54

374

130

5.16

45

207

19.08

32

36

53

365

122

4.9

40

203

18.65

31

34

52

356

115

4.7

35

210

18.15

30

32

51

346

107

4.4

30

213

17.68

28

30

50

337

100

4.1

25

220

17.14

27

27

49

326

91

3.8

20

225

16.53

25

25

47

313

81

3.5

15

230

15.81

23

21

45

299

69

3.1

10

236

14.94

21

18

43

281

55

2.6

5

245

13.65

17

12

40

255

35

1.9

 

The last few weeks of the academy’s PT program are spent supervising the recruits as they participate in a “self-directed” program. By giving them the foundational tools to be successful in an exercise program through the first 19 – 20 weeks of an academy program, they are more likely to continue their life-long progress if they are allowed the freedom to exercise in a way they most enjoy while under the guidance of a qualified PT instructor. Under the watchful eye of a certified TSAC-F®, recruits can grow in their understanding of how to most appropriately program their own training.

Some of the keys to the success of this approach to physical training are found in the tracking of information, the measurement of progress, and the useful feedback from program participants. With the aid of external agencies, the CSP has validated the effectiveness of the program which shows improvements in recruit performance from initial academy entry to incumbent status, with recruits often performing at a level higher than those of incumbent officers. Two research papers on these results are currently being prepared for submission. At multiple points through the academy, PT assessments are performed measuring a recruit’s vertical jump (power production), 1-min sit-ups, 1-min push-ups (muscular strength and muscular endurance), and a 20-m multi-stage fitness test or beep test (aerobic capacity). Through the monitoring of a recruit’s performance of these basic tests the CSP can assess their progress throughout the program. In addition to PT assessments, the CSP can monitor the recruit’s level of fatigue and perceived difficulty of a given workout. Through this self-reported monitoring technique, the CSP can potentially avoid “overtraining” recruits but still give them the best opportunity to progress physically while still engaged in all their other training obligations. For instance, if it is noticed that recruits are reporting consistently a high rating of perceived exertion (RPE) on consecutive training days, the training schedule can be adjusted to a less intense/ or recovery session to ameliorate fatigue levels. This is a form of nonlinear flexible periodization, which can be referred to as “reactive periodization.” Again, PT does not exist in a vacuum. The final step in the feedback loop is the critical feedback of the recruits and their opinions of their progress, and the difficulty and demands of the program. By utilizing these mechanisms of monitoring and evaluation the CSP believes they have created a truly successful PT program that prepares recruits for the physical demands of law enforcement.

In summary, the CSP attempt to address the challenges of fitness in law enforcement by utilizing education and modern scientific-based methodologies that have proven benefits for LEO. Nothing is perfect, as is the case with the CSP fitness program; however, by limiting personality driven approaches (i.e., sessions based on an instructor’s personal preferences), accepting critical feedback, putting the interests of the welfare of the personnel first, and continually seeking improvement the CSP feel that they are on the right track to holding a model for others to adapt to their own agency’s unique needs. The National Strength and Conditioning, and specifically the TSAC program, have been nothing less than instrumental in guiding the development of a PT program that the CSP has found to, anecdotally, increase a recruit’s performance while decreasing rates of injury. The TSAC program has allowed the CSP to educate an entire agency on the benefits of a comprehensive fitness program and a healthier lifestyle in general. As the CSP goes forward, the fitness standards unit in the CSP is excited to further the endeavor of improving the health and fitness of the entire tactical community.

This article originally appeared in TSAC Report, the NSCA’s quarterly, online-only publication geared toward the training of tactical athletes, operators, and facilitators. It provides research-based articles, performance drills, and conditioning techniques for operational, tactical athletes. The TSAC Report is only available for NSCA Members. Read more articles from TSAC Report 

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References 

1. Hinton, B, Stierli, M, and Orr, RM. Physiological issues related to law enforcement personnel. In: Alvar, B, Sell, K, and Deuster, PA (Eds.), NSCA’s Essentials of Tactical Strength and Conditioning. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 577-604, 2017.

2. Orr, RM, Wilson, AF, Pope, R, and Hinton, B. Profiling the routine tasks of police officers. Journal of Australian Strength and Conditioning 24:80, 2016.

Photo of Jay Dawes, PhD, CSCS,*D, CSPS,*D, NSCA-CPT,*D, TSAC
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Jay Dawes, PhD, CSCS,*D, CSPS,*D, NSCA-CPT,*D, TSAC

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Jay Dawes is an Assistant Professor of Strength and Conditioning and the Coordinator for Athletic Performance at the University of Colorado at Colorad...

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Ryan Holmes, TSAC-F

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Ryan Holmes has over 18 years of law enforcement experience, serving in various capacities throughout his profession with the Colorado State Patrol (C...

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Charlie Kornhauser is a 10-year veteran of the Colorado State Patrol (CSP). He is currently serving in the role of the Physical Training Coordinator f...

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