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Implementing a 'tactical fitness' program

A good physical fitness routine can help prevent injuries that have unnecessarily forced many police officers into ‘medically retired’ status

The law enforcement profession presents a variety of unique physical challenges which can cause serious — sometimes career-ending — physical injury. For just one example, you may spend two straight hours seated in your squad car, followed immediately by a foot pursuit which ends in a wrestling match. Some departments are good at giving officers the time and the equipment required to work out and prepare your body physically for the many outside physical forces which will be placed upon you in the line of duty — other agencies leave it entirely up to the individual officer.

I’ve recently been in touch with some folks who have implemented a program that piqued my interest. Dubbed “Tactical Fitness” this health and wellness program targets specific muscle groups with exercises created specifically for situations officers encounter in the line of duty, with the objective of preventing injuries and health-related issues. Tactical Fitness was created by staff members of the criminal justice program at Southwest Wisconsin Technical College and instructors at Orange Shoe Personal Fitness (based in Fitchburg, Wisconsin). The program’s goal is to bring a new culture to departments and recruits using a cost-effective wellness model with stability balls, resistance bands, and TRX Suspension Trainers, a versatile piece of exercise equipment that is portable, lightweight, and can be used in a minimum amount of space.

Southwest Tech received a grant through the Wisconsin Department of Justice to offer a workshop for local Wisconsin law enforcement agencies providing Tactical Fitness training designed to give officers the tools to train their individual departments. Local agencies that participated include the Iowa Country Sheriff’s office, Dodgeville Police Department, Fennimore Police Department, Dubuque Police Department, and Lafayette County Sheriff’s Office.

Southwest Wisconsin Technical College recently partnered with Orange Shoe Personal Fitness in Fennimore (Wis.) to create a new wellness model for students in its Criminal Justice department.
Southwest Wisconsin Technical College recently partnered with Orange Shoe Personal Fitness in Fennimore (Wis.) to create a new wellness model for students in its Criminal Justice department.

Keys to Success
The program has been led, in part, by Tom Kretschman, law enforcement program instructor at Southwest Wisconsin Technical College and Scott Michel, who is the owner of Orange Shoe Personal Fitness. Due to what has been a truly nutty travel schedule in the past three months, I was unable to speak with these guys via phone, but I was able to do an “interview” with them via email. The following is a summary of our electronic information exchange.

Kretschman and Michel told me that they have identified a number of keys for law enforcement agencies to keep in mind during the implementation of a similar program they created in Tactical Fitness. Those keys begin with taking action on a daily basis to improve your officers’ fitness, not their end results. People get caught up in pursuing the “six-pack abs” and the bulging biceps that they lose focus on what the emphasis should be when integrating a tactical fitness program into a department. The department wants to have officers who are explosive, agile, and can control their bodies effectively in any physical situation. None of these require having a body carved from stone. Here are seven other fundamentals Kretschman and Michel identified.

1.) Build camaraderie into the workouts. Partnering officers up with one another not only helps with accountability, but it also helps breed tighter relationships in the department.
2.) Hold people accountable. If you don't have the expectations of the program laid out crystal clear accompanied by holding officers accountable, the program will be DOA before it leaves the meeting room.
3.) Reward for positive behaviors. Develop some type of reward system for positive behaviors (working out). Rewards can be a special pin that designates how far an officer has progressed with the tactical fitness program or any other ways your departments reward individual officers for accomplishments.
4.) Get professional help. If I need surgery on my knee, I talk with my surgeon, not my uncle. The same thing applies to integrating a tactical fitness program. Seek people who have degrees in Exercise Sport Science and can understand the physical demands of the tactical population. This will lend instant credibility to your program and show your officers that you are serious in investing into a program that will help prolong their careers and lives. Do your research and find a trainer that has worked with law enforcement agencies and understands the specific physical needs and demands of the law enforcement occupation.
5.) Be prepared to offer a program that fits all levels of fitness. Each officer has a unique level of fitness, based upon age, strength, skill level, etc. The program must be able to offer value to those officers that have a lower level of fitness, as well as to those officers that are already physically fit.
6.) Be aware of officer hesitation. Many officers have been trained in traditional fitness models that include weightlifting, distance running, etc. The tactical fitness model is a departure from such training, and many physically fit officers may be skeptical to participate in such training.
7.) Be aware of the equipment and training space needs of the program. Most agencies have very limited financial resources and limited space availability for fitness training. Agencies should research what options are available before committing financial resources towards the purchase of equipment. The tactical fitness model provides an enormous cost and space savings over many other programs.

Agencies spend a lot of time training for what Gordon Graham calls “high-risk, low-frequency events”, such as firearms, emergency vehicle operation, defensive tactics, etc. These topics must be trained, but if an agency can spend a small amount of the in-service training time instructing fitness techniques that an officer can train on his/her own time, the agency may see long-term benefits in officer performance. Physical fitness directly impacts an officer’s everyday work performance and is as worthy as any other training topic.

Potential Pitfalls
“One of the challenges is educating departments that the officers and community are at risk if the department hasn’t addressed tactical fitness,” said Kretschman. “Officers have to pass a fitness test to enter the field of law enforcement and they should be expected to maintain that level of fitness throughout their career. It appears departments often feel fitness is something that is important, but should be dealt with on an officer's individual time. Departments need to do better than that. The entire department should have a fitness plan that needs to be followed.”

Kretschman said further that the goal of the Tactical Fitness program is to change the attitude of law enforcement officers in concerning the topic of physical fitness. “At Southwest Tech, we have realized that these changes are often challenging for agencies to implement with their respective officers and have focused on shaping this attitude early in an officer’s career while that officer is at the academy level. Understanding that physical fitness is a requirement for both success in an officer’s training and subsequently in that officer’s career, Southwest Tech has made Tactical Fitness the foundation of the training program in the basic law enforcement academy. Southwest Tech has implemented training that will show the students directly how physical fitness impacts their ability to perform law enforcement duties.”

Michel explained that these potential problems can be solved by partnering with an organization that will help your department over the long-term. “Orange Shoe Personal Fitness partners with departments for one year at a time and makes themselves completely available to ensure total success. Forming a fitness program builds a long-term relationship, so choose your professional fitness partner wisely,” said Michel.

“Our biggest challenge has been working with the departments when fitness has not been mandated or even ‘brushed up on’ in years,” Michel continued. “We have programs in place that are cost-effective and will actually put money back into the departments' fitness facilities but it seems that many chiefs are still turning a blind eye to the need for tactical fitness. I’ve talked with numerous officers who know of specific people in the department who are purposely NOT called out to certain scenarios due to the fact that the officer's lack of physical condition would only compound the problem for other officers on the scene. It’s time for departments to realize that they can either make time for a tactical fitness program, or they can make time for filling out workman comp claims and defending themselves in the court of law for not addressing the demand for tactical fitness.”

Final Thoughts
Kretschman and Michel said in conclusion that it is important to address issues such as funding, location, time, and identifying the right partner organizations with whom your department is comfortable working. For example, while there are many quality fitness vendors that offer excellent training programs in their area, Southwest Tech chose to work with an organization that already had lots of experience working with the local law enforcement community. The Orange Shoe Personal Fitness staff has several years working with the Madison Police Department and has a full understanding of the specific physical challenges that law enforcement officers face in both training and work environments.

Tactical Fitness is different than traditional training — it trains officers for the function ability of the job. The focus is not on bench pressing and weight training, instead the focus is on building strength and flexibility in specific areas officers easily strain or injure in the field such as their shoulders and lower backs.

Preventing these injuries is critical for a successful law enforcement career, and programs like Tactical Fitness and a variety of others that approach the “work out routine” from a more practical perspective can give officers the tools they need to maintain themselves throughout their career, allowing them to better serve the public and minimize the potential for health related issues in retirement.

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