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4 keys to developing functional strength for on-duty encounters

Training for muscular strength will allow you to produce more strength in subject control and defensive tactics situations

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Police officers, get the most out of fitness training by making muscular strength your primary focus.

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It’s easy to get overwhelmed when designing a fitness plan for police work. Law enforcement work requires many physical attributes such as cardiovascular endurance, muscular endurance, flexibility, mobility, metabolic conditioning, anaerobic power, agility, and maintaining a lean body composition. An officer should train all of these areas of fitness. However, training them all at once can lead to being adequate at all of them and excelling at none. Officers will get the most out of their physical training by making muscular strength the primary focus and foundation of their training.

Think of your body like the engine on your cruiser. Training for muscular endurance or cardiovascular endurance will allow you to get more miles per gallon. Mobility and flexibility training will help keep the engine from breaking down. Training for muscular strength however adds more cylinders to the engine. When you have to go code three and punch the gas, you want to get there as quickly as possible. When your body has to go code three in a use-of-force encounter, you want to end that encounter as quickly as possible.

Training for muscular strength will allow you to produce more strength on the job in subject control and defensive tactics situations. Increasing strength will allow an officer to impose his physical will in a more powerful manner and restrain subjects quicker, shortening the length of use of force situations. Here are four keys to training for strength.

1. Focus on movements, not body parts

When officers discuss training, we often talk in terms of body parts. Leg day, chest day, and back day are common set ups. To develop strength, shift your focus from individual body parts to the movements you are performing. Don’t think about working your arms, legs, chest, or back. Instead work on the basic human movements: the squat, push, pull, and hinge (deadlift or kettlebell swing).

We never use just one body part when we are applying strength on duty, but we do use these movements. Having a stronger push and pull will make you stronger in subject control and defensive tactic situations. Increasing your squat strength will help you sprint faster, jump higher, and have a more stable base. Focus on the movements and you will have better functional strength on duty.

2. Make performance your primary goal

We all want to look good and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, focusing on increasing measurable performance goals such as strength or power should be the primary focus of any officer’s training. If you increase strength or power you will also increase your muscle mass and you’ll get the aesthetic results you want as a byproduct of your strength. Focus on increasing the amount of weight on the bar instead of the aesthetic results.

When it comes to exercise, supportive equipment is non-negotiable

3. Follow a strength training program

Developing strength won’t happen on its own if you are designing your own workouts. To get the most out of your strength training, follow a dedicated strength training program.

Beginner strength training programs: The two most common strength training programs for beginners are a 3x5 program like Starting Strength or a 5x5 program like Strong Lifts. Both programs follow a three-workouts-per-week format and focus on compound lifts such as the squat, deadlift, press, and bench press. You will be incrementally increasing the weight on the bar each workout and both programs have you squatting every workout. Both programs are an effective way to develop strength and become familiar with the big lifts.

Intermediate strength training programs: There are many options for intermediate or advanced strength training programs. My two favorites are Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 and the Texas Method. Both programs focus on the same compound lifts as the beginner programs listed above and require three or four workouts per week. Both programs are brutally effective, however I prefer 5/3/1 for police officers. The structure of 5/3/1 allows for more scheduling flexibility to accommodate an officer’s hectic schedules.

While the program excels with four workouts per week, a busy officer could condense the program into two workouts per week when OT or court time limits gym sessions. The nature of the Texas Method requires a volume day and an intensity day that have to be spread at least three days apart. This protocol is effective, but provides less scheduling flexibility for officers.

4. Track your training

Tracking your strength training in some form of a training log is essential so that you can review your progress. Following crime statistics are important in evaluating law enforcement work and your strength statistics are equally important to evaluating your success in the weight room. If you don’t track it, the workout didn’t happen. There are multiple options for training logs.

A simple pen and paper log is the easiest method, however there are some free high tech options available. If you follow one of the beginner’s programs, Strong Lifts offers an excellent free smart phone app on both Android and iPhone that allows you to track your progress and includes video demonstrations of the lifts. If you are following Wendler’s 5/3/1 there are multiple spreadsheets available free online. This one is my favorite.


I am by no means suggesting that an officer only train for strength. All areas of fitness mentioned in the first paragraph are important and an officer should not neglect any of them. Flexibility and mobility work can be done in your down time in front of the television.

Cardiovascular work can be done on off days. Bodyweight exercises are effective for developing muscular endurance and make great accessory exercises. Metabolic conditioning is a great way to burn fat and improve body composition and compliments strength training if it is done immediately following a strength workout.

Being the strongest officer on your shift doesn’t matter if you can’t move effectively to apply that strength. However, making muscular strength development the focus of your physical training will give you the foundation to be a strong, powerful officer and able to excel at all areas of fitness.

This article, originally published March 21, 2016, has been updated.

George Vrotsos has worked in Law Enforcement since 2007. He is currently employed by the North East Ohio Regional Sewer District and is sworn in through a local Sheriff’s Department. George has a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice from Kent State University and he is certified as a Physical Fitness Specialist through the Ohio Peace Officer Training Commission. George is not a medical professional. Please consult your doctor before starting any fitness or nutrition plan.

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