If I Knew Then: Fitness

Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to become a cop, and at about the age of 18 I decided that I really wanted to pursue that dream. In my youth, however, I was not much of an athlete and, in fact, during most of it I was the chubby nerd who wanted to play sports but did not have a lot of the talent or athleticism needed. In order to pursue my dream I had to begin with three key tasks:

  1. Quit smoking;
  2. Get in shape;
  3. Complete my high school diploma—since I quit school halfway through Grade 11.

Quitting smoking turned out to be the easiest of the three as I just did it. I quit cold turkey and never looked back. In my quest to get in shape, I started to run and over the next four years I logged many miles, ran a lot of stairs, played a lot of hockey, did some resistance training, and lost 60 lbs. During this same time, I also completed a year and a half of high school in six months. I accomplished my three tasks and now it was time to begin the process of getting myself hired.

In my pre-employment testing, I did very well on the bike test component and did OK on the other elements. As I entered training at age 22, I thought I was in pretty good shape and the fitness component of the academy involved a lot of running, which supported my belief. The reality is that I was well conditioned aerobically and had good lifestyle fitness, but I learned that I was not in good shape for the job and had little functional fitness.

What I have learned over time and as a result of foot chases (won and lost), fights, and other experiences, are two keys to functional fitness:

  • Law enforcement professionals need a strong foundation of both aerobic and anaerobic fitness;
  • Law enforcement professionals must develop an understanding of the difference between lifestyle fitness and functional fitness and focus on functional fitness.

Functional fitness refers to training the body and its energy systems in preparation for high-intensity, short-duration confrontations where law enforcement professionals often find themselves. In addition to strength and endurance, law enforcement professionals also must develop explosive speed and power in preparation for combative events. To accomplish this, officers must begin to move away from some of the traditional fitness activities often conducted in training academies and move towards more functional fitness activities that will better prepare them for their job.

Examples include:

  • Limiting the amount of long, steady-state cardio training (long, slow company runs,) and including more high-intensity interval training.
  • Limiting the traditional strength training programs that often include a number of bodybuilding-type exercises. These may help officers get stronger and look better, but they must be assessed on their degree of functionality for the realities of the profession. In the field, an officer will never be on a flat, stable surface with a weight belt, lifting straps, and a spotter. The officer will be on uneven surfaces, in positions of compromised stability with a duty belt, body armor and close to 20 lbs. of extra gear. These very conditions highlight the importance of including compound exercises, odd shape object lifting, and ballistic and plyometric training that develop explosive speed, power and functional strength.

Looking back over my 25 years as a full-time police officer and my last 20 years as a law enforcement trainer, functional fitness is something I wish I’d known about at the start of my career.

Had I known then what I know now about functional strength and fitness it would have impacted a number of areas:

  • I would have won some foot chases that I lost;
  • Some of the fights I had would have been far shorter than they were;
  • Basic tactical officer training would have been easier;
  • My body would have fared far better during numerous physical skills courses I have undertaken as a student and instructor; and
  • I would also have been a far better hockey, football, and rugby player than I was.

Regardless of your years of service, if you are not already engaged in functional fitness activities, now is a good time to begin. Here is a list of some law enforcement resources for information on functional fitness:

  • Steven Mosley – www.combathard.com
  • Louis Hayes – www.trinitytraining.blogspot.com
  • James Dinaso – www.pkcotraining.com
  • Kathy Vonk – www.loukatactical.com
  • Jeff Martone – www.tacticalathlete.com

What’s important now is to get functionally fit and stay functionally fit.


Brian Willis is an internationally recognized speaker and trainer, drawing on his 25 years of law enforcement experience as a member of the Calgary Police Service and 20 years of training experience to provide cutting-edge training to law enforcement officers and trainers throughout North America. Brian is the president of Winning Mind Training and editor of the highly acclaimed books W.I.N.: Critical Issues in Training and Leading Warriors and W.I.N. 2: Insights into Training and Leading Warriors (www.warriorspiritbooks.com). Brian serves as Deputy Executive Director for ILEETA and a member of NTOA, ITOA, IALEFI, and the Canadian Association of Professional Speakers. Brian can be reached through his website at www.winningmindtraining.com.

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