9 exercise tips for female cops

If I could go back in time and give my younger self one piece of advice, it would be to have trained smarter — to evaluate the goal and develop a smarter approach


How many times have you wished you could go back in time and get a do-over, knowing then what you know now? High school, college, the early days of your career — this time with the added benefit of the many “life lessons” you have since learned to guide you. In most respects, I wouldn't go back for any amount of money, but there is one area where the benefit of a little hindsight would be appreciated right about now.

I wanted to be police officer from the time I was 13. At 21, I became a state trooper. At the age of 27, I became a special agent for the FBI. At 30, I set a goal to become an operator on the SWAT team. I obtained a copy of the SWAT physical standards test and set out on a mission. I have always been an athlete, and was running marathons, half-marathons, and half ironman triathlons. I was in pretty good shape and had a respectable base.

Had there been any women on the team, I’m sure I would have asked for some advice, but there weren’t — so I got advice from the guys. I lifted heavy, ran hard, and ran up a huge bar tab at GNC. It worked. At the top of my game I could do 75 pushups, 18 pull-ups (three with a 50-pound plate) and leg press more than three times my body weight. I made the team, trained hard, and learned more than I ever expected. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my law enforcement career, and something I would not trade for anything.

Paying the Price Later
It did, however, come with a cost. As I stand in transition, I can look back over one shoulder and still see the years that saw peak physical performance. I look ahead and see the more moderate health and wellness practices that will take me into retirement. I will be carrying a little baggage with me, however, as I go — namely, a handful of bulged discs in my lumbar and cervical spine, nerve damage in my left arm and hand, and a left wheel in need of a total knee replacement. I reflect on some of the more outrageous training practices and realize I simply wasn’t built to withstand that. There must have been a better way.

In our bulletproof 20s, 30s and 40s, none of us wants to hear about the fact that these frames we walk around on have to last us for the rest of our (hopefully) very long lives. On one hand I applaud and so admire the hard-core training ethic of CrossFit athletes, and the insane performance increases being made by athletes in traditional, non-traditional, and extreme sports. I also have the utmost respect and admiration for those women willing to challenge themselves to meet the demanding physical standards of law enforcement tactical teams and elite military special forces units. Truth is, though, that I am concerned about the adverse effects that some of these pursuits will have on women’s long-term health and wellness.

If I could go back in time and give my younger self one piece of advice, it would be to have trained smarter — to evaluate the goal and develop a smarter approach, considering the fact that I plan to need all these parts for at least another 40 years. Parts do wear out. And the more you tear them up, the more challenging your life later becomes physically. I don’t know if I would have listened to such a caution back then, but in the odd event I can keep even one woman from overtraining to the extent of serious long-term injury, I’m willing to issue it here, now.

Don’t misunderstand. Resistance, endurance, and high-intensity training are good. In our industry, they are critical to survival and being successful during use of force encounters. But they can be trained smartly and with some (even just a little) consideration for the potential for long-term harm. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that repeatedly running on a concrete surface in full kit, with a weighted vest, will adversely impact connective tissue. We used to call it a “gut check.” Now I just call it dumb. I understand the philosophy behind grinders and gut checks, and you definitely need to train in your gear. But with a little thought, you can train hard without exposing yourself to unnecessary risk of long-term injury.

Had I known someone like Kathleen Vonk of LouKa Tactical Training, back then, she would have been the ideal resource to exploit for training smart. Kathy has been a sworn LEO since 1988, holds a BS in Exercise Science, and currently sits as the Fitness Chair for the National Tactical Officers Association. Kathy suggests the following:

1. Proper form and technique: With traditional resistance training exercises such as pull ups or biceps curls, controlling motion will reduce joint trauma at the outer boundaries of the range of motion.

2. Cross training: Incorporate something different at least once a week. Repetitive weight-bearing activity can take its toll on connective tissue, so train differently to maintain symmetry with connective tissue structure and function. For example, if your preferred form of cardio is running, substitute cycling or swimming once or twice per week. This will give those normally used cardio muscles a break by using them differently with other activities, and allow them to develop strength and endurance in a different manner.

3. Interval training: Include intervals of short bursts of high intensity activity with longer bouts of lower intensity activity. This can increase tolerance to lactic acid and raise the ceiling at which lactate starts to build up in the working muscles. This can equate to an officer being able to work (fight) at very intense levels for longer periods of time. It will also result in a higher 24-hour calorie burn because the body will require more energy in recovery, post exercise.                            

4. Plyometrics, Olympic lifts, or other forms of explosive (but controlled) movements: Using proper program design, incorporate some form of explosive exercise. This will improve explosive movements during a forcible arrest, fight, or sprint on the street. Consult a trained professional for proper technique, progression, and program design.

5. Recovery days, proper work-to-rest ratios: Incorporate appropriate work-to-rest ratios for optimal gains, as the rest period is of utmost importance in order to achieve 100 percent output during the work period. Muscles require adequate time to repair themselves after high intensity workouts which include explosive activities such as sprinting and plyometrics. Build rest days into a schedule so that the body will be recovered before explosive activities resume. A schedule doesn’t have to be on a seven-day calendar, but can be an eight or nine-day cycle.

6. Proper nutrition (carbohydrates, protein, fat, water, vitamins and minerals): The body requires proper nutrients in order to repair and become stronger, faster, and more efficient. Depriving the systems can negate gains and slow progress. Natural sources such as fruit, vegetables and lean protein are important to achieve goals.

7. Adequate sleep: The body repairs itself when it is resting, so adequate sleep is paramount.

8. Listen to your body: There is a difference between discomfort and pain, so if something hurts – stop doing it. Rest, ice, elevate and compress (RICE). If it doesn’t improve, seek medical attention.

9. Have patience: Gradual gains are long-term gains and make recovery easier, and a healthy body is always fit for duty. Remember we are always “in season.”

Remember that moderation in everything leads to a healthy, fit, and comfortable life, on and off duty, during and after your career. 

About the author

FBI Special Agent (Ret.) Patricia Thompson is a former firefighter/EMT, and has been a law enforcement officer for 30 years. Prior to her employment with the FBI, Patty was a police officer and State Trooper in Ohio.  She holds a BA in Political Science from Wright State University, and a Master's degree in Organizational Leadership from Northcentral University.

As an FBI Special Agent for the past 23 years, Patty has been assigned to the Miami and Los Angeles Field Division's working fugitives/violent crimes, gangs and public corruption. She is an FBI instructor, certified to teach firearms, firearms instructors, police sniper, defensive tactics, arrest tactics, chemical weapons, ballistic shield and physical fitness. As Adjunct Faculty at the FBI Academy, she also taught Instructor Development and Leadership Development. Patty was the first female member of the Miami Division SWAT Team and the first female in the history of the FBI to be trained and certified as a SWAT sniper. 

Patty is a recipient of the Director's Award for Outstanding Contributions in Law Enforcement from the Attorney General for her investigative work, as well as several awards from the United States Attorney's Office for successful criminal prosecutions in both Florida and California. Throughout her career, Patty has provided training to FBI Agents as well as state and local law enforcement officers throughout the U.S. and Europe.  Patty is a member of the International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors, and a graduate of the Force Science Institute. She is currently Adjunct Faculty for the University of Tennessee Law Enforcement Innovation Center and the developer of Building Warrior Women: Leadership Tactics.

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