Please consult with your doctor or health care professional before attempting any of these exercises.
Police officers are just like everybody else, we want to look good, we want to be able to perform our job duties to the best of our abilities and we don’t want to end up looking like Dennis Franz from NYPD Blue. Also, we are not as lucky as firefighters, who get paid to workout.
I want to take you on a quick little journey to the past. Here is a picture of me back in my early days in the force. I was fit as a fiddle; I could run 5 km in under 20 minutes, bench press my body weight and could hold my own in the boxing ring.
The reality of patrol work soon caught up to me; long periods of time sitting and poor food choices caused my physical fitness to suffer. I realized I wasn’t going to be able to keep in shape, unless I made some serious adjustments. I compensated by exercising before or after my shifts and followed a strict routine. Many officers make the excuse that they are too burnt out to exercise, but the reality is that exercise combats adrenal fatigue, actually preventing us from burning out.
When it comes to choosing a fitness regimen, we need to look at what we want to accomplish. We already said we want to look good, but we also need to build our routines around what we want to get out of our bodies. Many of us probably need to shed a few pounds and we also want to be able to perform our job duties to the best of our abilities. That is why I chose a program with no frills…it just gets down to business. These are the principles I follow:
Don’t get me wrong, endurance is important. However, it is often overemphasized in most fitness programs. It is much easier to spend 30 minutes on an elliptical then it is to perform the exercises that build functional strength and speed. Police work requires short bursts of speed and agility. It is not very often that we need to run a marathon.
Forget all the machine cable flies and bosu ball training. Those things have a place, but should supplement your compound lifts. Compound movements are exercises that target multiple muscles groups; they give you the most bang for your buck, are the most functional and burn the most calories. Isolated moves, such as bicep curls, are good if you want to enter a bodybuilding competition, but they will not help you lose weight and they will not be effective if not paired with compound movements.
Intensity vs Volume:
Don’t fool yourself by thinking that 2 hours in the gym is going to get you twice as fit as 45 minutes of solid work. Think about training smart and efficiently vs. doing as many exercises as possible. This is where compound movements at high levels of intensity come into play.
Following these 3 principles you are going to:
- Burn more calories by increasing your metabolic rate for more prolonged periods than just cardio or endurance training alone. AKA burn fat while you are doing nothing.
- Build functional strength that helps you perform job duties, everyday tasks and reduce the chance of injury
- Build muscle definition
- Increase your energy levels and vitality
Okay, so what are the exercise you will need to master? If I were to do only 4 lifts for the rest of my life they would be:
Standing Military Press
Many people would argue that bench press is more superior than military press, but how often do you find yourself lying on your back needing to push something off of you. Without a doubt, bench press is a great exercise, but if I had to choose between the two, military press is just more functional. It is going to work your shoulder muscles and triceps predominantly, but it will use your core and legs for stability. The military press is the ultimate test for upper body strength.
Place a barbell at chest height on a squat rack and grab the bar slightly wider than shoulder width apart and with your palms facing forward. Bring the bar off the rack placing it at the top of your chest, just below the collarbone. Have a slight bend in your knees
From your starting position lift the bar overhead until your arms lockout. The bar should travel slightly forward and up. Lower the bar down to your collarbone and then press the bar back up to your lockout position above your head and slightly forward.
Inhale as you descend and exhale as you push the bar up.
I just said if there were only 4 lifts I could perform for the rest of my life they would be the following, but if there was only 1 it would be the squat. That is because it’s so functional and works all the largest muscle groups in your body in one movement. Squats work your glutes, quads, hamstrings, hips and best of all they build your core. I never saw abs until I started squatting and that’s because the act of balancing weight while keeping your core engaged is so effective, it could be the only core movement you need. Before attempting to add any weight, master the movement with just your bodyweight:
Chest up, head forward with a hip width stance with the weight in the heel of your foot.
Keeping your torso upright and your weight in your heels, begin to lower your body by breaking at your knees and descending as if to sit in a chair. You may feel like you are going to fall backwards, but use your core to keep upright. Try to keep your knees from driving too far forward and going past your feet. Descend until your thighs are parallel with the ground and then drive through your heels to return to your starting position.
Inhale as you descend and exhale as you push yourself back up
Once you can comfortably do 3 sets of 20 bodyweight reps with perfect form, it’s time to add some weight. Barbell squats are the gold standard and most effective. Grab the bar shoulder width apart and squeeze your shoulder blades together. Move your body under the bar and rest the bar on your traps (below your neck and above your shoulder blades).
A whole novel could be written on this lift alone; it is one of the hardest to master, but reaps amazing benefits. The deadlift gets its name from the act of picking up “dead” weight off the floor. This move is going to work your whole posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes and lower back), your upper back, core and grip strength.
One of the greatest aspects of this exercise is how functional it is. It teaches you how to correctly lift things off the floor without the threat of injury. If you have back problems, especially lower back, its often because your back muscles are stabilizers are not strong. This is especially common in patrol officers who spend a lot of time sitting on duty, the muscles begin to deteriorate. The deadlift is going to help rebuild this strength and keep your posture in check.
Begin learning this exercise by using a wooden dowel or a very light bar. Only once you have mastered the form begin to add weight.
Approach the bar on the ground so that it is centred over your feet, standing hip width apart. Bend at the hip and grab the bar with alternate grip (one palm facing forward and the other towards you – this gives you the best grip) about shoulder width apart or just outside of your shins. Your spine should be straight and you upper back and lats nice and tight. NEVER round your lower back.
Take a deep breath and brace your abdominals. Do not try and lift the bar with your arms, but drive through your legs like you are pushing the floor away from you. The purpose of your arms is to just hold the bar steady and close to your body. As you push through your legs and the bar begins to lift, keep the bar as close to your shins as you can. Once the bar is past your knees, drive your hips forward and stand upright, while pulling your shoulder blades together.
Take a deep breath in your starting stance and use that air to brace your abdominals, Exhale at the top of the lift.
Can’t do a pullup? No problem, most people struggle on this one. Being able to do pullups or even a pullup is a goal for a lot of people. They train your back muscles and in particular your lats. Because pullups, like deadlifts, require you to maintain your grip for the entire duration, you are going to get some crazy grip strength. Strong lats and grip is essential for being able to fire your firearm steady and handle recoil.
Grab a pullup bar with your palms facing forward a little wider than shoulder width apart. You can play with the grip width: wide grip is going to work your lats more exclusively, a closer grip is going to recruit your pecs and biceps. Engage your lats to pull yourself up until your chest reaches the bar. Lower yourself in a controlled manner until your arms are fully extended.
Inhale deeply at starting and then exhale as you pull yourself up. Inhale as you lower yourself and then exhale as you pull up again.
Can’t do a pullup or want to be able to do more?
Grab a stool so that you can start your pull up at the top position. In a very slow and controlled fashion lower yourself until you are fully extended for a count of 5 seconds. Use the stool to bring yourself up to the top position again and repeat. Begin by doing 3 sets of 10 repetitions. This is surprisingly the most effective and fastest way to learn to do a pullup or increase the number you can perform.
A lot of gyms have an assisted pullup machine, which does exactly what you think it does. The lower you set the weight, the less assistance you will receive. Set the weight where you are still doing most of the work, but will help you through your “sticking points” or areas where you struggle to lift yourself. This is also a great way to increase the number of pullups you can do. Once you can’t do anymore unassisted pullups, switch over to the assisted machine and finish your set.
I’d like to include a final note on cardio, because it is essential to have a balance of strength, agility and aerobic fitness. The problem is that most people approach cardio the wrong way and opt for long durations of low intensity exercise on an elliptical or bike. What if I told you can actually burn more calories by doing less? I recommend doing a Cardio HIIT program. Sprint at a high intensity for 30 seconds, followed by a 60 second jog or walk. Repeat this 10-15 times and you will burn twice as many calories in 15 minutes than you did in 45 minutes on the elliptical.
Another option is hill sprints. These are great because it builds strength, protects the hamstrings and strengthens your posterior chain. Hill sprints are a real grind so they are going to test your discipline and mental stamina. The great thing is once you are done, you feel like you really accomplished something.
Let me know in the comments below what you are currently doing for exercise or how mastering these exercise is coming along. I’d love to hear your stories and be part of your fitness journey!