By Lamar Tooke Academy Instructor for the Rappahannock Regional Criminal Justice Academy
Regional Criminal Justice Academies across our nation have one of the toughest jobs to do in the law enforcement business. A crucial part of that job is to bring their students to a high level of physical fitness. Students attending regional academies do so from numerous departments and agencies with the attendant influences from those diverse areas and backgrounds. They will graduate onto streets where every day across our nation 180 law enforcement officers are assaulted adding up to 66,000 each year! Often the single most important thing they have to rely on is their own strength, agility and endurance. What they learn and experience at the academy concerning physical fitness training should prepare them for the rigors of their profession and the remainder of their lives.
Like the main root of a tree, physical training has connections to all aspects or branches of every basic course within the regional academy system, from general health and discipline to stress management to enhancement of performance. Fitness enhances concentration and boosts the ability to perform the main line skills of our law enforcement officers. A fit officer will shoot, drive and defend themselves better by relying on the base of their own strength, flexibility, agility and endurance. Physical fitness is indeed the taproot of the regional academy training program with associations beyond the physical domain into the academic life and cohesion of the student body and their ability to perform as a team.
The fitness program must be carefully planned and tailored to address each student body as they enter the academy system. It must have objectives, like any part of the academic program, yet fitness requires flexibility in approach and method to accommodate a varied level of student fitness.
Fitness is the capacity to adapt and respond favorably to physical effort when that need arises. Developing the ability to quickly adapt and respond requires a basic fitness program focused on the key areas of strength, flexibility and endurance. Muscular strength involves the muscles or “flesh” of the body, which is about 50% of the body’s weight, and simply stated, it is the ability to “respond” with the greatest amount of force that can be exerted in a single effort. Building strength requires a program that overloads the main muscle groups of the body so they adapt by becoming stronger.
Flexibility, on the other hand, is the range of movement of a joint or series of joints and their associated muscles. It is the ability to move a part of the body through the full range of motion allowed by the joints. While it is closely associated with strength and flexibility, cardio respiratory fitness, or endurance, is the functioning of the cardiovascular and respiratory system in unison to provide oxygen, and therefore energy, to the large muscle groups of the body.
Endurance is needed for prolonged rhythmic use of the body’s large muscle groups. In a foot pursuit, which results in a grappling situation with a suspect, law enforcement officers have to call upon all aspects of fitness; most of the time going from a resting posture to full effort in just a few seconds. Some two thirds of confrontations experienced by law enforcement officers end up on the ground in a struggling match, generally in unfriendly environments. To emerge successful, officers must have the strength, flexibility and endurance to overcome their opponent or risk the possibility of becoming one of those law enforcement officers killed every 54 hours on our nation’s streets and highways.
Improvements in strength, flexibility and endurance can be made through physical exercise that is intense, has an appropriate duration for the students involved and is frequent enough to tax their level of fitness. Vigorous physical fitness should be conducted 3-5 times per week as part of the normal academic schedule with a fairly equal or balanced emphasis on all three area of fitness. In most regional academies, the ideal situation allows a frequency of three days per week for fitness training, usually in the morning hours. Also, a three-day per week schedule permits an important 48 hours recovery time between fitness sessions.
Fitness training intensity is how hard one exercise, or the degree of effort put into the training. It is probably the single biggest factor in fitness improvement. Intensity can be measured in lots of different ways with some of the more common ones being the maximum number of repetitions performed, amount of time required to complete an exercise, such as running 20-30 minutes, or the number of repetitions per set of exercises. For the regional academy, “timed sets,” offer one solution to the many levels of fitness represented in the diverse student population normally enrolled. The “timed sets” method is the proper performance of as many repetitions as possible of a specific exercise in a specified time frame. For example, the maximum number of pushups performed in 30-60 seconds followed by recovery time and then performance of another timed set. In this fashion all students can get the most from the exercises performed regardless of their level of fitness. As students progress the intensity can be increased by lengthening the time frame or duration of the exercise, decreasing rest periods between sets or increasing the number of sets performed.
Duration is the amount of time the exercise is performed. For cardio respiratory exercise and improvements of endurance, this period should be at least 20-30 minutes of effort in general terms and specifically performed at 70% of the training heart rate, where those specific techniques are a routine part of the training program. Most academies cannot afford more than approximately one hour out of the daily schedule for physical training and in many academies this would be during three days each week. Such a schedule leaves approximately one half hour for strength and flexibility improvement. It is precious time that must be wisely used. One wise choice is “ability groups” for exercise, especially endurance training.
Fitness training using “ability groups,” like timed sets, is a technique well suited to the regional academy setting, or for that matter, any training site that has a diverse student population with equally diverse levels of fitness. For example, from the diagnostic times of a standard running course, usually one to two miles in length, fitness leaders can group students of similar abilities for the purpose of exercise. Unit or class runs are excellent for developing cohesion and a sense of spirit, but these do not challenge the more fit of the student body. Ability groups allow the necessary intensity for all participants to improve their fitness levels. If necessary, both methods can be used by beginning runs in formation to a predestinated point where the class is reformed into ability groups on the return leg.
Even more important than “timed sets” or “ability groups” techniques is the “proper training sequence.” For a productive exercise program and minimizing injury, a progression of warming up, stretching, exercise and completing the sequence by stretching and cooling down is a sound fundamental sequence for a basic physical fitness program. Warm up periods of 5-7 minutes raise the body’s temperature and heart rate, while preparing the large muscle groups and joints for exertion. Low impact warm up efforts such as brisk walking, running at a slow to moderate pace and stretches are sound methods to prepare for more vigorous static stretching, which gradually stretches or lengthens muscles and tendons around a joint through the range of motion. This improves flexibility and prepares muscles for exercise.
Static stretches should be targeted or focused on those muscle groups that will be used during the exercise stage of the sequence. Static stretches should be reached in a moderate to slow and deliberate movement and held 15 to 30 seconds. Ballistic stretching, or the use of bouncing and bobbing motions should not be considered for the students of regional academies. This form of stretching should be left to those at much higher levels of fitness since ballistic movements can produce injury. Once a period of active static stretching has prepared the body, exercise, using timed sets or ability groups, can then focus on strength, flexibility or endurance training, appropriate to the fitness level of the students.
If each exercise session includes a running activity, then a combination of unit and ability group runs should be used on various days to build cohesion and challenge the diverse levels of endurance. The duration and intensity of exercise should be at a level appropriate to student fitness. Following the exercise stage should be a period of passive stretching, which uses equipment or a partner to achieve a range of motion beyond that which the student could normally attain. This period of stretching and cool down generally lasts 5-7 minutes, or until the heart rate returns to less than 100 beats per minute and heavy sweating stops. I emphasize that stretches should be held with the assistance of a partner for 15-30 seconds. Passive stretching after exercise can produce outstanding results in flexibility, so use the partners.
Regional academies have a tough job in bringing together a fitness program that is challenging, yet suitable to the diverse student bodies enrolling from their region of responsibility. Fitness training, with its far-reaching implications extending well beyond the academy, influences every aspect of a student’s life at the academy and their personal and professional lives beyond. We owe them no less than to prepare them physically, as well as mentally. With the average student age at regional academies approaching thirty, the “when I was in high school” cliche will not get them to the mark. The law enforcement leaders of tomorrow must face a progressive and aggressive physical training program that challenges and prepares them for their time “on the road.” More importantly, it should prepare them to undertake, at their own initiative, a program of wellness.
Lamar Tooke (colonel, U.S. Army retired) is the Special Training coordinator and Fitness Trainer for the Rappahannock Regional Criminal Justice Academy in Fredericksburg, Virginia. He holds an MA in Human Resources Development, a BA in Psychology and is a graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College and the U.S. Army War College. He served in a variety of command and staff positions in the Continental United States, Vietnam and Germany during a thirty year career in which he learned, developed and practiced physical fitness training techniques and methods.