How to achieve 'functional fitness'
No matter what kind of shape you’re in, what’s important now is to prepare for the fights and foot pursuits that are sure to happen on your next shift
Ever since I was a kid I wanted to become a cop and at about the age of 18, I decided that I really wanted to pursue that dream. In my youth, however, I was not much of an athlete and in fact, during most of it, I was the chubby nerd who wanted to play sports but did not have a lot of the talent or athleticism needed.
In order to pursue my dream I had to begin with three key tasks:
- Quit smoking
- Get in shape
- Complete high school
Quitting smoking turned out to be the easiest of the three – I just quit cold turkey and never looked back. In my quest to get in shape I started to run and over a remarkably short period of time, I logged many miles, ran a lot of stairs, played a lot of hockey, did some resistance training and lost 60 pounds. I had quit high school in eleventh grade, so while I was getting in shape, I also completed a year and a half of classes in six months.
I had accomplished my three tasks and now it was time to begin the process of getting hired.
In my pre-employment testing I did very well on the bike test component and did okay on the other elements. As I entered training at age 22 I thought I was in pretty good shape, and the fitness component of the academy involved a lot of running, which supported my belief. Although I was well-conditioned aerobically and had good lifestyle fitness, I soon learned that I was not in good shape for the job and had very little functional fitness.
What I’ve learned over time – and as a result of fights, foot pursuits (won and lost), and other experiences – is that there are two keys to functional fitness:
- Law enforcement professionals need a strong foundation of both aerobic and anaerobic fitness
- Law enforcement professionals must develop an understanding of the difference between lifestyle fitness and functional fitness (and then focus on functional fitness)
Functional fitness refers to training the body and its energy systems in preparation for high-intensity, short-duration confrontations that law enforcement professionals often find themselves in.
In addition to strength and endurance, law enforcement professionals also need to develop explosive speed and power in preparation for combative events. To accomplish this, officers must begin to move away from some of the traditional fitness activities often conducted in training academies and move towards more functional fitness activities that will better prepare them for their job.
- Limiting the amount of long, steady-state cardio training (long, slow company runs) and including more high-intensity interval training
- Limiting the traditional strength training programs that often include a number of bodybuilding type exercises – these may help officers get stronger and look better but in the field, an officer will never be on a flat, stable surface with a weight belt, lifting straps and a spotter
In a foot pursuit or in a fight, the officer will probably be on uneven surfaces, in positions of compromised stability, wearing a duty belt, body armor, and close to 20 pounds of extra gear. These conditions highlight the importance of including compound exercises, odd shape object lifting, as well as ballistic and plyometric training that develop explosive speed, power, and functional strength.
Looking back at my 25 years as a full-time police officer and years as a law enforcement trainer, functional fitness is something I wish I had known about at the start of my career.
Had I known then what I know now about functional strength and fitness it would have impacted a number of areas including:
- I would have won some foot pursuits that I lost
- Some of the fights I had would have been far shorter than they were
- Basic tactical officer training would have been easier
- My body would have faired far better during numerous physical skills courses I have undertaken as a student and instructor
Regardless of your years of service, if you’re not already engaged in functional fitness activities, now is a good time to begin. What’s important now is to get functionally fit and stay functionally fit.
This article, originally published 02/26/2010, has been updated.