The police culture has historically been diametrically opposed to the concept of its members being fit.
While it’s not that police agencies or individual officers aren't enthusiastic about working out, or that agencies don’t want their officers being fit, quite the contrary, it is the officers’ lifestyle that can prove to be a detriment to sustained fitness. Certain aspects of police fitness have been getting better in the past few years based on general public knowledge of health and exercise; newer members have grown up in the age of instant fitness “knowledge” available on the internet. Unfortunately, there will always be some things about the police culture that will probably be detrimental to your workout routine, regardless of how educated those in law enforcement become.
Rather than write about what exercise routines to do (which always just ends up just being the author's personal opinion), I thought it might be cool to share some of the fitness pitfalls in a career timeline-based format which will shed light on the things to come for rookies just coming into the police world and probably get a chuckle from those of us that have spent our lives being cops.
In this series of articles, we’ll start off with the academy and move on from there in stages. Keep in mind, these experiences and phenomenon may not have been the path of all law enforcement officers, but I’m pretty confident that most of the veteran officers reading this will acknowledge at least some parallels.
Working Out and Burning Body Fat at The Academy
You are going to get skinnier and weaker in the academy.
Most American police academies are long on running and calisthenics and short on muscle building workouts. Almost all recruits end their academy time nice and skinny for their graduation photos because they have burned off a lot of fat, and subsequently, quite a bit of muscle doing all that running, all those jumping jacks, burpees and mountain climbers.
The secret is, police academy physical training programs are designed to remove body fat from recruits and maybe tone them up a little within a hard 6 month window. The workouts that they have you do in the academy are designed to improve your fitness to the extent that you will pass state-mandated PFTs, to make chubby recruits temporarily fit, and to an extent to punish you.
Pull out your academy group photos and see how skinny you and your classmates all were. That's probably because the workouts you did didn’t account for building raw strength. Realistically speaking, ask yourself how fit and strong could someone possibly get in 6 months (especially doing exercise sessions that are mixed with a strong dose of negative reinforcement)?
Here’s lies the problem: on your first night on patrol, you could wind up wrestling with a 240 pound parolee who has been lifting weights in prison for the past 5 years. And here you are, a new officer, in your most emaciated post-academy form, attempting to subdue him without the benefit of physics on your side. Does anyone think you can just shoot this unarmed monster because he’s currently bigger and stronger than you? Watch the news lately? You can’t. You will go to prison, where you will see this man again, but this time without any toys on your belt.
You will need brute force and strength to do police work sometimes. I’m pretty sure you won’t be able to mountain-climber most criminals into handcuffs, and you’re kind of not allowed to run away from the situation, which basically eliminates the two types of physical preparation that you just mastered in the academy. You can always try the department approved wrist locks, throws and takedowns, except for (spoiler alert) they don’t work if there is a large strength deficit between you and an opponent.
I am telling you this because I know it to be true, as I have seen many thousands of people physically taken into custody. Of the percentage of detainees that did resist, almost all of them required a degree of physical strength to subdue them. I am not a martial artist or trained fighter, but during my time on the job, I did become an expert at using leverage and my strength to subdue arrestees.
Building Strength at the Police Academy
So, how do you prevent graduating the academy weaker than you went in? Eat larger amounts of clean-burning, healthy foods than you are used to, in order to account for the caloric deficit that will occur. Lift weights a few nights a week after work or on weekends. During my academy in the 1990’s (pre-wellness) we would go to diners and pizza shops in the area on our meal break and I still graduated 20 pounds lighter than my usual weight.
You are going to burn a lot of calories in the academy because of steady workouts and mental stress, so feed your body a little more good stuff so it doesn’t need to feed off your muscles. Assess the amount of PT you are doing after the first few weeks of the academy and then start calorie and nutrient counting, not to lose weight but to keep good weight on.
A few academies out there are getting more progressive with functional PT programs in recent years, but for the most part, recruits who were bodybuilders initially return to bodybuilding after the academy, crossfitters back to crossfit etc. The recruits in the middle, for whom the academy was their first exposure to organized physical training, graduate and make sure they never even think of the exercises they did there during PT and qualifications.
I get it. I entered the academy after 10 years of steady exercise routines and I excelled as one of the top physical performers, and even so, I didn’t do another sit-up or push-up until it was time to take physical qualification tests for specialized units 4 years later. There was just too much negative reinforcement associated with the standard PT exercises, and I was simply sick of doing them after 6 months. I did, however, go right back to distance running and weightlifting immediately after the academy (my comfort-zone essentially) and so training-up for these PT tests was no big deal.
For the recruits who don’t have a pre-existing conditioning program in their lives prior to the academy, I suggest finding some physical exercises you like doing and jump right back in the saddle after the graduation party.
In the next section of this series we will examine the role of fitness during your first few years on the job, and how fitness can make these formative years go A LOT smoother.
Thomas Longa retired after 22 years in law-enforcement, the last 15 of which were as a member of the NYPD Emergency Service Unit’s Apprehension Team (A-Team) He currently works training SWAT teams nationwide.