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Pay Now or Pay Later: The Value of Structured Physical Training

E.J. O’Malley and John Van Vorst, Fitness Instructors, Physical Training Unit, FBI Academy

There is no better time than now to address a culture change in law enforcement in regards to physical training and fitness. An organization faces two choices: it can either invest time in rehabilitation or in training. As health and fitness instructors, the authors are driven to improve the physical capacity of every student under their watch. Every day is an opportunity to create the investment for the body and mind, and everyone can benefit from that investment, regardless of their current physical fitness level or genetic predispositions. This powerful quote, sent by a former student makes the point succinctly: “What we inherit from our parents loads the gun, but what we choose to do or not to do pulls the trigger.”1 It is impossible to control how much time people devote to training, beyond the time required by their organization or agency. However, what is done in that time is the responsibility of those who lead the training. The authors argue that only through education and structure can trainers and instructors help those who have chosen to serve.

Worker's compensation, poor work performance, calling in sick, and self-efficacy issues drive supervisors in all fields crazy. Those situations cost money and lose time, neither of which law enforcement agencies have in abundance. The people faced with these issues all share a common problem—they are men and women not reaching full potential with their fitness. These individuals are banking on genetics and gambling with the health continuum. Cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and other illness or injuries are the real criminals, robbing law enforcement officers (LEOs) of their quality of life.

Prevention is always easier than curing; workplace fitness and training must be seen as a proactive approach instead of a reactive one that occurs after the harm is done. The development of structured, carefully planned physical training can eliminate many of the wellness problems that plague officers, when applied correctly and proactively.

Injury reduction literature stresses the value of assessment. The role of health and fitness instructors is to expose weaknesses in basic human movement. The FBI Academy instructors follow a checklist that addresses individual biomechanics on Day 1, before training begins, with the initial goal of training the participants to move better, increase or restore mobility, and improve stabilization. Once those initial goals are accomplished, then instructors can progress to the “big stuff” with students, such as derivatives from the disciplines of power-lifting and strongman and strongwoman; power-endurance protocols with cycling, rowing, running, and swimming; and combative activities coupled with integrated circuit training.

Two Game Changers in Exercise Science Literature

While the delivery of principles in the classroom and practical environments is constantly evolving, the principles themselves do not change. However, innovations in the field, such as the following two, can increase understanding of injury, exercise, and mobility and lead to improvements in treatment or training.

  1. Vladimir Janda was a pioneer in the rehabilitation field in the late 20th century who coined the term “lower crossed syndrome.” This issue is prevalent in Western society because most people spend too much time sitting, which results in a tight lower back and hip flexors and weak abdominals and glutes. Activities such as martial arts kicks and running require glutes to activate, but the lumbar spine will compensate if the glutes don’t do their job, creating stress on different muscles and body parts. Janda’s approach to this syndrome and exercise emphasized the importance of coordinated movement patterns, not isolating muscle groups. Defensive tactics require an integrated system of movement, so training in isolation could lead to dysfunction.2
  2. In 2006, Dr. David Swain from Old Dominion University focused his research on vigorous intensity exercise and its ability to increase aerobic fitness more effectively than moderate intensity. His research revealed that 1.25 hours per week of vigorous work would be beneficial in reducing heart disease. The emphasis should be on progression and addressing orthopedic concerns with every officer. Easier days of aerobic training are still of value, but this literature is a paradigm shift for training.3

Physical Training Standard Operating Procedures for the FBI National Academy

“As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Physical Training Unit of the FBI leaves no stone unturned with respect to one’s health. The instructors analyze movement, nutrition, stress, and cardiovascular disease risk, and students leave with the total training plan to optimize their lives. The instructors are relentless in their pursuit of making a difference for those who protect their communities. Although not a formal Standard Operating Procedure (SOP), instructors at the FBI Academy follow six principles to optimize human performance and reduce risk of injury.

Principle Number 1—Train Movements, Not Muscles
As previously stated, the most important job of the Physical Training Unit is to enhance the students’ physical competence and movement quality. Everyone deserves the ability to move correctly and efficiently as they sit, stand, walk, bend, lift, reach, stretch, and twist or rotate. Given the nature of essential law enforcement job tasks, it is easy to see how poor movement patterns can set the stage for both minor and major injuries. The job includes vigorous tasks that are multi-joint, multi-planar, and multi-directional. When the body is required to “get the job done,” but lacks the proper movement patterns, the result is movement compensation. Injuries often occur when individuals’ bodies compensate because soft tissues are exposed to unusual wear and tear. Continued exposure to compensatory movement patterns can lead to macro-trauma or catastrophic tissue failure.4

Principle Number 2—Train Your Weaknesses (Build the Quality, Then Build the Capacity)
One-size physical training (PT) programs do NOT fit all. One size fits one. Individuals will respond uniquely to physical training programs (or lack thereof), as well as sleep (or lack thereof), dietary interventions, medications, and a host of other wellness factors. Fitness assessments shouldn’t simply focus on quantity, such as the number of pushups in 1 minute, distance run in 12 minutes, or inches reached by flexing the hips and spine. The Day 1 assessments at the FBI National Academy are ever-evolving, but now focus more on movement quality and efficiency. Fundamental movement patterns such as squatting, lunging, stepping (up and down), pushing, pulling, bracing (or stabilizing the spine), rotating, jumping, and landing are the cornerstones of physical competency. To promote soft tissue resiliency and prevent injury, anyone who can’t demonstrate repeated excellence in these movement categories should not progress beyond that stage without improvement in those categories. Top performers distinguish themselves with superior movement efficiency.

Principle Number 3—You Are What You Train to Be (Be Adaptable, Rather Than Simply Adapted)
This might hit close to home for many, but consider people who exercise regularly. How many of them train the same way, with the same people, at the same time, and with the same gear or equipment for every workout? A classic example is Monday at the gym or fitness center. For many, Monday is “Chest Day,” and the training revolves around the barbell bench press, all of its derivatives, and any other exercise that works the chest muscles. This training method is notorious for creating big (sometimes swollen) chests and bad shoulders, postural distortions, and pain. People who follow this workout method are adapted to that exercise stress, but not very adaptable and prone to injuries when placed in dynamic, reactive environments. Similar is the treadmill “addict,” going down the long road to nowhere every day. Physical training programs should serve as an antidote to the pattern overload and repetitive stress experienced by law enforcement officers, rather than compounding it. The physical training sessions at the FBI National Academy attempt to provide a “reset” button by offering restorative forms of physical training.

Principle Number 4—Get Better at Interacting with Gravity
The force of gravity is trying to crush people. Gravity is always in effect, whether people are standing, sitting, or even lying down, and it would be wise to coexist with it better. After a long day behind the wheel or at the desk, how well has the typical individual’s posture withstood the forces of gravity? Research from sports science suggests that as many as 85 percent of the injuries sustained in athletic competition can be classified as “force reduction” problems, such as high-impact landings and violent follow-throughs.5 Despite this knowledge, training programs tend to focus on force production, acceleration, and action, while injuries are conversely sustained during tasks requiring force reduction and redirection, deceleration, and reaction. Jimmy Radcliffe, the long-time athletic development coach of the Oregon Ducks football team, attributes their on-field success to negotiating the ground better than their opponents. Coach Radcliffe‘s emphasis on teaching proper landings and enhancing dynamic balance has made him one of the best in the business.6 The FBI training instructors also adhere to this principle by leading most physical training standing up, competing against the undefeated force of gravity.

Principle Number 5—All Functional Training Is “Core” Training
The “core” is the musculature in and around the body’s center of gravity. Core training is certainly an overused term in physical training circles, and many different philosophies exist on how to best go about it. Functional movement training (multi-joint, multi-planar, and multi-directional) challenges the core more naturally than core-specific training. Law enforcement officers are particularly vulnerable to low back pain (LBP) disorders and building a strong core would be wise. High-risk behaviors for LBP, such as extended amounts of sitting, a flexed or hunched posture for long periods without reversal, uneven spinal loading, and suboptimal lifting techniques, all contribute to micro-trauma. It is important to note that not all tasks that require core strength are appropriate for creating it. Violently breaching a door with a heavy entry ram requires exceptional core strength, but it’s not recommended as a method to develop that strength!

Principle Number 6—Training Is Additive and Progression Is the Key
Physical work capacity, according to functional training’s godfather Vern Gambetta, is the ability to tolerate a heavy workload and recover from it.7 This is something that can be developed year to-year, with a principle-based training program and sensible progressions. Physical training programs should be sustainable for the long haul—the goal is to accumulate training with deliberate practice and create resilient, injury-resistant bodies. In this day and age, where “working out” is now a sport with nationally televised competitions, common sense is uncommon. These “games” require great fitness, but hardly constitute a sensible training program. Instead of trying to train like the pros, law enforcement officers and other individuals should build their fitness on a rock-solid foundation of fundamental movement patterns performed with extraordinary technique.

Law Enforcement Practical Safety

The FBI is constantly evaluating its physical training program, and this facilitates making changes to improve the overall quality. To understand and manage change in law enforcement safety and fitness, it is helpful to consider the questions in Table 1.

Table 1: Important Questions for Law Enforcement Training Programs
To Understand/Manage ChangePractical Examples for LEO Safety
Is the program or organization:
Effective (doing the right things)?Screening for movement quality; identifying movement compensations
Efficient (doing things right)?Choosing the proper screenings/tests; consistent evaluations and recommendations
Doing away with the nonessentials?Cutting tests and training methods that don’t predict or prevent injuries (or worse, cause them)
Doing things well that other successful organizations are doing well?Copying/adapting proper exercise progressions and teaching strategies
Doing things in bold and different ways?Investing in human capital; prevention rather than treatment
Doing things that are said to be impossible?Reversing the troubling trend of LEOs’ premature morbidity and mortality

Every officer should spend time covering the basics. Orthopedic issues and training experience should be addressed individually—every movement can be progressed up or regressed down to fit the individual’s abilities and restrictions. The Training Academy’s goal is to challenge the exercise addict as well as the novice. Progression, overload, and recovery must be planned. If these methodologies are not habitual, injury and poor results can be expected. The principles above, followed by FBI physical training instructors provide a basic guideline for how to properly and safely train law enforcement officers to withstand the pressures of their jobs and have long, healthy careers protecting their communities. ♦

1Barbara Quinn, “What Weight Loss Strategies Truly Pay Off?” The Free Lance-Star, March 2, 2013, (accessed March 21, 2014).
2“Janda Syndromes,” The Janda Approach, (accessed March 27, 2014).
3David P. Swain and Barry A. Franklin, “Comparative Cardioprotective Benefits of Vigorous versus Moderate Intensity Aerobic Exercise,” American Journal of Cardiology 97, no. 1 (January 2006): 141–147, (accessed March 27, 2014).
4Kelvin Giles, Physical Competence Assessment Manual 2011 (Movement Dynamics, 2011).
5Steve Myrland (conditional and performance coach), personal correspondence with author.
6Jimmy Radcliffe, “Strength & Power Development Concepts” (presented at the Gambetta Athletic Improvement Network workshop, Rice University, Houston, Texas, June, 18, 2011).
7Vern Gambetta, Athletic Development: The Art and Science of Functional Sports Conditioning (Champaign, Ill: Human Kinetics, 2007).

Please cite as:

E.J. O’Malley and John Van Vorst, “Pay Now or Pay Later: The Value of Structured Physical Training,” The Police Chief 81 (May 2014): 30–32.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXXI, no. 5, May 2014. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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