It’s no secret that police officers have physically demanding jobs. Similarly to other first responders, the job of a police officer is calm until it's not. This is one of the biggest reasons police officers need to be prepared for any situation they could be called to. One of the best ways to stay prepared is to constantly be training and improving your fitness levels.
If you or someone you know is a police officer, you certainly remember the police academy. While states and districts differ on exactly what physical training looks like in the academy, no doubt it included push-ups, sit-ups, running, and other bodyweight movements. If you are like many police officers, this may have been the point at which you felt the most in shape and had your highest fitness levels. While each department monitors fitness levels differently following graduation from the academy, it’s pretty safe to say that your fitness levels are much more in your control and not in the hand of your instructor following graduation.
What does this end up meaning? Oftentimes, fitness levels take a drop, and police officers spend less time in the gym or performing physical training; however, physical fitness should be a top priority for police officers and really for all people. We’ve all seen the stereotypes of police officers - overweight and eating doughnuts. While certainly not always true, let’s flip the stereotype to high-caliber officers with elite levels of fitness. It’s worth it, let me show you why.
Why Should A Police Officer Train?
Quite simply, there are a ton of reasons to train. Weight loss, gain strength, build muscle, improve heart health, improve mental health, release stress, avoid injuries, and many others. The thing is, though, is that each of these benefits of training is for what we will call the general population. People who aren’t first responders, members of the military, or those whose jobs don’t require physical performance or high levels of fitness. We already know that exercise and training have incredible benefits for the general population, benefits that certainly apply to police officers as well. And, honestly, for those reasons alone, we could write and write about why to train.
However, let’s look at some of the specific reasons why police officers need to train and prioritize fitness.
One of the biggest reasons is the nature of the job.
While probably not every day, police officers need to be prepared for foot chases, physical altercations with suspects, and performing difficult tasks under stress - all in the name of public safety. This is just the tip of the iceberg, but you certainly get the point and know what we are talking about here. Quite simply, employees such as a salesman or a librarian don’t have to consider these things when they get dressed in the morning. So how do we make sure that our police officers are best prepared for these instances? After all, it’s not like they are announced the night before or you get an email saying tomorrow is going to be an intense day. It's important to constantly be prepared so when the moment comes - whatever it may be from violence to a medical emergency - you are ready.
There are also some more long-term health risks that police officers are especially at risk for that physical training can significantly help with. One of the biggest health concerns is obesity. Let's look at some alarming statistics.
A 2014 study found that over 40% of police officers, firefighters, and security guards were obese, the highest for any job category. Another study suggested that “Overweight and obesity were more prevalent among law enforcement personnel than the general population.” Again along the same lines, “Among nine Midwestern states in the U.S., nearly 83% of police officers were overweight (BMI > 25).”
Why do police officers have this higher likelihood of obesity?
Well, there are a lot of factors here, but a large part of it is due to the nature of the job and the work environment. Here’s what I mean. If we think about the schedule of a police officer oftentimes it is not consistent. While schedules certainly vary across departments, they generally consist of eight to twelve-hour shifts in vehicle that span across all seven days and twenty-four hours. This makes two critical pieces of health much harder to achieve, sleep and nutrition. Obviously, shifts that interfere with normal sleeping hours are not good for your overall health. Poor sleep is linked with obesity as it disrupts your body's normal processes and less of your optimal sleep hormones are being released.
Now certainly there are ways to improve your sleep quality as a police officer through naps and getting quality sleep when you can, however, working night shifts is not ideal. Nutrition is also affected. You certainly can pack meals to take with you in your vehicle. You can take advantage of healthy eating through meal prepping, but unfortunately, that is not all that common. Poor food choices as well as selection options make eating the right foods difficult as a police officer. However, at the end of the day, what you eat is still in your control, even if fast food is easier.
Obviously, we all know that exercise fights obesity. Simply not being obese is going to drastically improve your ability to show up when it counts as a police officer. Getting rid of the extra weight can make all the difference on call as well as just the day-to-day relief your joints will feel. Exercise combined with a caloric deficit and better nutrition choices is a great place to start.
Obesity is also a major factor in heart disease. The Harvard School of Public Health said, “Police officers face a 30-70 times higher risk of sudden cardiac death when involved in stressful situations – which, let’s face it, is an everyday possibility.”
Another study found, “Officers are 25% more likely to die (or suffer a disability) from heart disease than from a violent suspect.”
By prioritizing physical training and improving fitness levels, you will not only be more prepared for the day-to-day as a police officer, but you will also be fighting against obesity and ultimately heart disease.
Another study found, “Some of these modifiable risk factors [for cardiac incidents] include obesity, high blood pressure, smoking status, poor nutrition, poor hydration, and lack of physical activity and physical fitness.” Physical training has a direct impact on essentially the entire list.
Police officers have a stressful job, no doubt - responding to violence, looking out for public safety, and running toward an emergency at any hour. When you signed up for this career there was a certain amount of risk that you assumed. However, much of that risk can be negated through sleep, nutrition, stress management, and exercise. The primary focus of this article is on exercise so let’s dive into what that looks like for you.
How To Train?
So first off, what are our goals? Training to get a sweat in is fine if you are a part of the general population. However, your fitness has a direct impact on your health and safety, the safety of your fellow police officers, and the citizens you are serving. While not a police officer, San Bernardino Fire Department engineer Ryan Starling says, "We're signing up to do this. Our job is demanding,” he said. “People are counting on us – it's not our choice. I always say, as soon as you take the oath, you lose the right to be out of shape."
While your fitness has direct impacts on your life both short and long-term, it is also important to remember who is depending on you as Starling notes.
What are common reasons or goals people have for working out? I’d suggest wanting to look a certain way, wanting to achieve a standard (315lb squat, running a 5k, etc.), or wanting to achieve a certain quality of life (fight disease, be able to run in their 70s, etc.). Now certainly, most people have multiple goals when exercising and not one specific goal. But what should yours be as a police officer?
As far as goals, I suggest the primary goals for a police officer to be performance and preparedness. I think before we go further, we should take a step back and talk about a mindset shift.
The mindset I want you to adopt is that of an athlete. Think about it - what are the goals of an athlete? They certainly vary from athlete to athlete, but the primary goal of training for an athlete is to be prepared for practice and ultimately games or competition. When an athlete trains, they know how much weight is on the bar and they know how fast they are running, but those numbers aren’t the end goal. On the other hand, a powerlifter is very concerned with the amount of weight on the bar as that is his or her goal, and a track sprinter is also primarily concerned with their 100m time. A football player for instance cares how much he squats and cares how fast he can sprint, but he should care only as much as it relates to how it helps him perform on gameday.
So how does this relate to a career as a police officer?
I would argue that your primary concern as a police officer in training should not be how much weight you lift or what your mile time is. These are things you should know and be aware of; however, your “sport” is performance on calls and being able to do the things necessary to accomplish the task and ensure the safety, as much as possible, of those involved. I would argue that you should approach training with even more respect than an athlete because it is much more than just a game.
So, if your goal is to be able to perform on calls, we should train you to do just that. But what does that look like?
While we can’t know exactly what your next call will be, we have a general idea of things to be prepared for. Some of the more intense tasks include foot chases, physical altercations ending in custody, and focus under physically stressful situations even including shots fired. There are a few areas we want to focus on in training - strength, high-intensity interval training, and some form of combat training.
Strength is critical as a police officer - from being able to apprehend and arrest suspects to performing daily tasks and intimidation. You may have only subconsciously thought about it, but the bigger and stronger you look the less likely suspects will push your limits. I guess there’s just something about big muscles that create natural intimidation. Who knew curls could make your job so much easier?
How do we build strength? We could write an entire article about this, I mean many, many books have been written about this question. Let me attempt to simplify it for us.
We build strength by lifting weights through full ranges of motions multiple times a week over a long period of months and often years, while progressively adding resistance.
Let’s take a deeper look at this definition.
No doubt you can build muscle and strength with bodyweight exercises like pushups and pullups - you probably did this when you were in the academy. However, eventually, you will hit a wall in your strength. It is important to lift weights in order to continue to get stronger. This can look like using a barbell and weight plates, dumbbells, kettlebells, or even a weight vest. The idea is that you want to add additional resistance that you could not achieve solely from body weight.
Full ranges of motion.
We’ve all seen the guy who does half-squats and doesn’t touch his chest on bench press. Yes, you are still getting some work in, but you are missing the full benefits of the movement. Lifting weights through full ranges of motion while using multiple muscle groups and across multiple joints is a great way to build strength. Exercises that fit this criteria - also known as compound movements - will give you the greatest benefit for your time. Some exercises here include squats, overhead shoulder press, bench press, bent-over rows, and deadlifts. Each of these exercises is working multiple major muscle groups and multiple joints.
Multiple times a week.
Let me be clear, you don’t have to bench press two or three times a week to see progress in your strength. However, you should be bench pressing once, squatting once, performing bent-over rows once, and so on. You want to make sure you are hitting the major groups - push, pull, hinge, and squat. This varies considerably among plans, but performing multiple compound lifts throughout the week is a great place to start.
Over a long period.
This is the hard part - or easy if you become addicted. Anyone can work out once or twice or even for an entire week; however, in order to see real strength gains it takes months of consistency. You may see strength gains in the first week or two, and that is great. These are what we call “newbie gains” - basically strength gains that are more neurological than actually adding muscle mass. Consistency really is key here.
Finally, adding resistance over time.
Progressive overload is the technical name for this. It is important to continue to increase the weight and repetitions as you get stronger. The only way to continue to get stronger is to continue increasing the resistance in your training. Whether that means adding ten pounds to your squat sets or sticking with the same weight as the week before but adding two additional reps. You probably won’t be able to increase your weight and reps every week, but the goal is to keep progressing slowly in order to continue to build strength.
While strength is crucial to an effective training program for police officers, it is not the only piece.
High-Intensity Interval Training
Your job as a police officer is not to be a strongman or powerlifter. No offense to strongmen and powerlifters, but oftentimes they are incredibly strong but struggle with more cardio-intense movements. Although to be fair, if you were as strong as Brian Shaw, I’m not sure any suspect would ever try you.
However, in order to be best prepared for any situation, you need to be strong but also able to use your strength when you are tired. You need to be able to sprint. You need to be able to breathe well for short, moderate, and long periods of time. For this reason, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) is necessary. If you are unfamiliar with HIIT, it is essentially working really hard, getting your heart rate up, taking a short rest, and repeating. You can vary the interval periods, the exercises used, and the duration of the workout in order to reach the desired stimulus. You are going to want to vary your durations with some workouts being an all-out sprint for 2-6 minutes, some workouts lasting 30+ minutes, and some in between. As far as exercise selection, the world is your oyster. Ideally, we want to use movements that are going to mimic your job. Including exercises like running, farmer’s carries, burpees, squats, pushups, and lunges can be a great start. You may hear this type of training also called functional fitness or even CrossFit. Each word means something slightly different, but the goal is to be able to move your body and external loads under fatigue.
The final piece I want you to focus on is highly specific to police officers.
Whether you are performing training with your department or decide to join a Brazilian Jui-Jitsui studio, it really doesn’t matter. The point here is that your job can require you to defend yourself at any point and at a certain point you can’t out-muscle or out-strength suspects who have better technique and know how to fight.
Another huge benefit here is that combat training is incredible for building endurance and improving your cardio.
The point of sharing these three aspects of training is to give you the tools to know what type of exercise program you should be doing. This is not the place to write an entire exercise program, however, if you are looking for some guidance, check out Mountain Tactical Institute. They write entire programs specifically designed for police officers and offer sample workouts to give you a better idea.
Okay, now you have an idea of what to do, where should you train?
Where To Train?
You have a few options here and it’s primarily personal preference.
If you have the space, this can be an incredible option. We all know the schedules of police officers can be less than ideal, so eliminate the time spent driving to a gym and make the best use of your garage or spare bedroom.
While you can get a great workout in with running and bodyweight exercises, I’d recommend your home gym have a few essentials - a barbell and bumper plates, dumbbells, and a rack with a pull-up bar. If you have additional space a few other pieces of equipment like a couple of kettlebells, a bike, a rower, a sandbag, and a plyometric box would be great.
If you don’t have the space or budget for a home gym, your neighborhood gym can do just fine. I would recommend a CrossFit gym primarily because it is going to be much easier to do HIIT there. The space and equipment will be more in line with your training goals. However, even going to a Planet Fitness or similar gym, you can get a great workout in. These gyms may work better with your schedule too as they often are 24/7.
While not the case at every department, training with other officers daily or at least multiple times a week is a great way to build accountability and push each other mentally and physically.
If your department doesn’t have a place to train like this or you are responsible for getting additional equipment for your department please contact us. We love the first responder community and all they do for our us civilians and our country. We want to get you the gym equipment you need.
We have a specific program designed to build gym packages for police officers and all first responders.
We know underfunding is a real problem, and we are focused on getting you the equipment you need at a price that is under budget.
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Chizewski, Annmarie, et al. “Fitness Fights Fires: Exploring the Relationship between Physical Fitness and Firefighter Ability.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 9 Nov. 2021, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8625752/.
Morris, Jarrett. “One Cop's Fitness and Nutrition Principles.” Police1, 11 October 2022, https://www.police1.com/wellness-week/articles/one-cops-fitness-and-nutrition-principles-gLTbgEM2cGrLuQsd/.
PlanIt Police. “3 Most Common Patrol Schedules for a 100+ Person Police Department.” PlanIt Police, November 2017, https://www.planitpolice.com/blog/schedule-examples-for-a-100-person-police-department.
Police Health. “Heart Attacks: In The Top 5 Causes Of Police Officer Deaths. The Statistics Are Alarming.” Police Health, https://policehealth.com.au/heart-attacks-top-5-causes-police-officer-deaths-statistics-are-alarming.