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Best exercises to minimize injuries, improve performance

Working out not only relieves stress, but also helps reduce chronic body pain and the possibility of being injured on duty

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The PoliceOne Academy features several hours of educational content focusing on police wellness, nutrition and stress management, including “Tactical Yoga for First Responders,” “Fitness for the Lower Back” and “Nutrition for a Busy Lifestyle.” Visit PoliceOne Academy to learn more and for an online demo.

By Lt. Ricky S. Rhodes (ret.), P1 Contributor

Disclaimer: I am not a personal trainer or doctor. Consult your doctor before beginning any fitness regime.

Police officers are just like everybody else – we want to look good, perform our job to the best of our abilities and not end up looking like Dennis Franz (note to millennials: Google “NYPD Blue”).

But working long shifts, overtime and special details may seem to limit the time we have available for exercise, but the reality is you don’t need a lot of time. And you don’t need a personal trainer or a fancy gym membership to reap the benefits of exercise.

What follows are the best exercises I found you can do at home. These moves don’t require much exercise equipment – you can even use household objects like textbooks or a gallon water container.

Suggested equipment

  • Medium Swiss ball (inflatable fitness ball)
  • Two 15lb weights
  • Skipping rope

Exercises to improve your core strength

Wearing heavy leather gear on your waist all day and sitting in a patrol car for hours on end creates the potential for lower back strain and possible injury. If you have a strong back and core, you’ll minimize this risk.

When I started working with a personal trainer, these are the two moves she told me to do for my back and core:

Plank: This is a great core exercise for people with back pain since you’re not flexing the spine and risking further injury. Hold a plank for a minute either on your elbows and forearms or on your hands. We did this all the time at the academy.

  • Step it up: If the standard plank becomes too easy, challenge yourself to see how long past a minute you can hold it for. Or you can try lifting your back leg and opposite arm straight in the air while keeping your hips square to the ground. Another option is to place either your forearms or your toes on the Swiss ball.

Russian Twist on a Swiss Ball: This is a great move to help strengthen your obliques, which you use a lot when you’re rotating to get in and out of your patrol car or when suddenly turning to chase after a suspect. I’ve had friends throw their back out just getting out of their patrol car.

  • Step it up: If you’re not worried about your back, try sitting on the floor with your legs bent in front of you. Raise your toes off the floor slightly. Keep your back straight and twist from side to side with the weight in your hands.

Exercises to improve your speed and endurance

Occasionally we’re required to sprint after suspects, and sometimes this can turn into a long run. This is why it is so important to incorporate running into your fitness regime. I attended the FBI National Academy where I learned a lot about conditioning and exercise. During my first week, I found the first mile-and-a-half run tough. Once they taught us the benefits of combining distance and sprint training, I was able to run six miles without much difficulty after just 10 weeks.

Endurance runs: At least twice a week, go for a long 30-minute run at a moderate pace. You should be able to hold a conversation while you’re running.

Sprint training: Head over to your local high school’s football field or track for some sprint training. After a warm-up, start by doing three rounds of 40-yard sprints. Between each sprint, take a 15-second break. After three sprints, rest for one minute before starting again. Do this for about 30 minutes. Make sure you drive your knees and arms up high to help you move forward faster and give you a full body workout.

You’ll find alternating endurance and sprint training dramatically increases the distance you can run and reduce the time you need to recover, which is important when you are trying to talk into your mic at the end of a foot pursuit.

Exercises to improve lower body strength

The muscles in your legs and back are connected so if you strengthen your legs, you’ll also significantly reduce back pain. Stronger legs reduce the risk of injury during your endurance and sprint runs and make them more powerful.

Body weight squats: This is the best overall move to target your glutes, lower back and core. When you squat, make sure your knees don’t collapse in or out. Drop down until your thighs are parallel with the floor, but make sure your knees don’t go past your toes. If you are doing it right, it’s like sitting down onto a chair. If you have access to a gym you can add some weights by holding them at your chest or a barbell resting on your shoulders.

  • Step it up: Hold your 15lb-weights on your shoulders to give your squat some weight.

Stationary lunges: These will help stabilize your knees and legs, so you don’t injure yourself running or sprinting. They also work your core. Make sure your chest is up and your knee doesn’t go past your toes when you lunge.

  • Step it up: Hold weights in your hands at your sides and perform the squat.

Exercises to improve upper body strength

If you ever need to push a suspect off you, it can be quite difficult if you don’t have sufficient upper body strength. The good thing is you don’t need a fancy bench press or super heavy weights to accomplish this.

Push-up: If you aren’t strong enough to do a full push-up yet you can do a modified one on your knees or on an incline like a footstool. The trick here is not to pump out push-ups as quickly as you can. It’s about making the movement slow and concentrated so you really build those muscles. Go down for a count of three and pause and rise to a count of three.

  • Intensify: Place your feet on an incline, like the edge of your sofa, and perform the push-up. This will give you a deeper push-up and work your upper body and core more.

The importance of stretching

This is such an important part of your recovery! Stretching out your limbs after your workout or even for 10 minutes before bed will help your muscles release tension. When you spend several hours sitting in a patrol car, your muscles tend to tighten, which increases your risk for injury when you suddenly have to sprint after a suspect and your muscles aren’t ready. Your hip flexors are the most important area to stretch as they can get tight when you’re sitting for a long period of time. This article has some great stretches targeting that area. Also make sure you stretch your hamstrings! The more flexible your hamstrings are, the deeper your squats will get.

How to create an exercise schedule

I know what you’re saying, “This is useful information but how on earth do I incorporate it into my daily schedule?” Here’s the schedule I used to follow. It was surprising how much benefit I got out of 30 minutes a day:

  • Sunday: 30-minute endurance run
  • Monday: Circuit
  • Tuesday: 30-minute sprints
  • Wednesday: Circuit
  • Thursday: 30-minute endurance run
  • Friday: Rest
  • Saturday: 30-minute sprints and circuit

Circuit: Repeat 3 times

  • 1 min plank
  • 50 Russian Twists (25 each side)
  • 1 min skip rope
  • 15 squats
  • 20 lunges (10 each leg)
  • 1 min skip rope
  • 15 slow push-ups

Move seamlessly between each exercise without a break. You aren’t just strengthening your body but developing stamina as well. After you complete the circuit, rest for one minute and then repeat. If you want to increase the intensity of the circuit, see how many times you can complete the circuit in 30 or 45 minutes. Just make sure you watch your form, so you don’t hurt yourself. You will definitely break a sweat, and you’ll feel better too.

About the Author
Ricky S. Rhodes is a 32-year law enforcement veteran who retired from the Tigard Police Department in Tigard, Oregon, in 2014 spending the last 15 years of his career as a member of the command staff. Notably, in 2009 he was selected as the Interim Chief of Police for the Gervais Police Department in Oregon and is a 2005 graduate of the FBI National Academy. Previously, he served as a deputy sheriff with the Josephine County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon. Since his retirement, he has been working for InTime Solutions in implementation and training and is currently a sales executive and account manager in the northeast U.S.