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Female Fitness for Duty: Should We Train Differently?

Written by Kathleen Vonk

There are both obvious and discreet differences between men and women in many facets of the human body and mind, whether referring to everyday people, police officers, or hardened criminals. Not only do women in law enforcement have to work alongside and get along with their male colleagues, but also with respect to physiological differences female officers must pursue and fight with oftentimes faster and stronger male criminals.

Therefore, women on the job may want to consider training not only harder but also smarter to earn respect from peers —and more importantly— win violent confrontations with criminals. This article will address some of the physiological differences between men and women, how they can affect physical performance, and how to train to overcome some of the discrepancies.

Not all men experience the differences that are about to be mentioned, as not all women fit into one category or the other. There are always exceptions. Reasons can range from body type (mesomorph, endomorph, ectomorph), to levels and types of physical activities that were experienced in childhood. Include genetics in the mix and a wide range of outcomes are possible.

Caveat: Although genetics will provide the upper limits, the choices that are made every single day will determine where a person falls within their own personal genetic window. Simply put, we can choose to eat the apple or the bag of chips; we can choose to exercise or watch television.

Physiological Differences

Since boys spend more time in puberty, their bodies grow for a longer period of time than girls, which usually results in longer limbs and torso. Within the human body, limbs/bones act as biomechanical levers, and muscles move or control the motion of the levers. Broader shoulders and longer bones have the potential to provide a greater mechanical advantage in force production, or a longer stride while running for example. Due to the elevation in testosterone levels, men have greater capacity to increase the muscle fiber diameter which is the primary factor in determining absolute strength and force production.

Contrarily, women experience an increase in estrogen and progesterone, which results in higher body fat percentage and lower lean mass-to-body weight ratio. Muscle mass can produce force, but excess body fat does little more than sit there and wait to be used as fuel. And unfortunately fat is very patient while it waits to be called upon and used. More body fat results in more useless mass to manage during physical movement. Similarly, too much muscle mass can also become a hindrance to speed of movement, which is important in power activities such as strikes and take-downs.

Due to larger body size, men usually have larger internal organs such as the heart and lungs, which allows for greater capacity to get oxygen and nutrients to working muscles, and more efficient clearing of by-products and waist products from muscle metabolism (i.e. exercise or physical work). The female pelvis is designed for child birth but the male pelvis is designed for speed, a significant difference which can equate to improved running efficiency and mechanics.

It may sound like women in law enforcement have to struggle with great odds to compete in a profession which includes physical activity ranging from simply getting out of a patrol car to chasing down and fighting with a violent felon. Although the differences are unique, they can be overcome with a lifestyle of proper physical training, adequate recovery, and healthy nutrition. Without these components, we may have a much tougher time lasting an entire career without a significant negative event. Through hard work and smart training programs, women can meet and exceed the essential and most difficult tasks in police work.

Law Enforcement Physical Tasks Identified

What are “specifics” of the physical tasks that both men and women must perform in law enforcement? When analyzed, the identified job tasks revealed that most foot pursuits were of high intensity and lasted under one minute, running incidents involved objects under three feet over which the officer had to jump and fences that were five feet or lower. Furthermore, most (75 percent) encounters in which resistance was experienced involved moderate to high intensity levels.

These statistics show that taxing the anaerobic system for short durations but at high intensities is contained within the formula for success for officers and operators; men not excluded! Interval training and plyometric exercises are unfortunately the components that are usually absent from personal fitness programs.

Most exercises incorporate two components— cardiovascular exercise at moderate intensities and resistance training (lifting weights). The missing link relative to the police profession lies in functional anaerobic activities incorporating high intensity, short duration drills. Some examples include sprinting, jumping, kicking and striking.

Beyond the Basics

Women in law enforcement encounter the same criminals that male officers do, and therefore must be able to handle, fight with, arrest, and subdue those same criminals—who are usually male suspects having the same physiological advantages mentioned above. Since female officers must chase and fight with male suspects, additional preparation and training beyond that of steady state cardiovascular exercise and resistance training may be necessary to achieve the same successful outcome as their male counterparts. This is not to say that it is unnecessary for male officers to engage in explosive plyometric training, as they would benefit greatly as well.

Incorporating functional and anaerobic intervals will train the entire body to improve strength, and power, tolerate high intensity activities, and recover quickly from such activity. After an easy warm up, intervals are usually kept short with an appropriate rest period. They are repeated several times followed by an appropriate cool down.

Using a treadmill as an example, an officer would warm up walking or jogging for five minutes. 30 second intervals could be achieved by either raising the incline, speeding up, or both, followed by 90 seconds of base speed and no incline. A total of ten interval/rest periods would take 20 minutes, and adding a five minute warm up and a five minute cool down on either end would total a 30 minute interval workout.

Benefits to Intervals and Plyometrics

In addition to improving an officer’s tolerance to fatigue, pain, and stress, the amount of calories burned post exercise would be significantly higher than if the workout consisted of steady pace exercise only. Stronger connective tissue and bones, greater heart and lung efficiency, better mental functioning in stressful situations, and shorter recovery time are all benefits of working the body at higher intensities.

Additionally, an officer will experience higher levels of self-confidence in physical tasks, as well as improvement in the ability to mobilize and control the body efficiently. Physically fit officer who know they can work their bodies at high intensity levels will also experience a psychological advantage when encountering dangerous suspects.

Mental conditioning as well as functional physical conditioning can go a long way to improving skills necessary to perform the task at hand; whether making an explosive entry and rescuing a hostage, climbing up and into a window, or engaging in a foot pursuit ending in a physical struggle. Levels of confidence, personality type, trait anxiety, experience, coping skills, maturity level, and sheer mental determination can all play a role in determining a successful outcome of any physical encounter on the job.

Being strong, powerful, and having a proficient level of cardiovascular fitness can influence whether an officer survives an incident or not, and whether that same officer recovers both in the short term and the long term. An officer may literally have the rest of her life to “win” that confrontation, and her physical skills and fitness level can greatly influence the outcome.

Only after a cardiovascular and strength base has been built, should an officer consider adding intervals into their training program. Cardio kickboxing, higher intensity aerobics classes, and boot camp fitness programs are all viable options to improve body movement management and mechanics relative to maximizing torque for more powerful strikes, takedowns, and explosive body movement.

A few simple exercises which help build a strength base include different variations of push ups and pull ups. Shoving someone who has gotten too close, pulling yourself up and over a fence or into a window, performing an officer rescue/drag—all with additional load of body armor and gun belt—are very real possibilities on the street.

All are variations of these two basic exercises. Since these are typically harder for women to perform, alternative exercises may be incorporated until full body plank push ups and unassisted pull ups can be performed with additional weight equal to that of uniform and equipment. This is usually in the 15 to 20 pound range for officers, but can reach 60 pounds or more for tactical and military operators.

If an officer had only 15 minutes each day for exercise, push ups (and variations), pull ups (with assistance and without if possible), a few core exercises, and a 3D Dumbbell Matrix would be the activities of choice. See the sidebar for details. Seek advice from a certified personal trainer for proper technique.

Kathleen Vonk is an officer with the Ann Arbor, MI, Police. She holds a BA in Criminal Justice and a BS in Exercise Physiology. She has spent the last 11 years patrolling and teaching on a bicycle. She has been an active member of the IPMBA Governing Board for the last six years and is currently serving as vice president. She can be reached at: kathyvonk@aol.com. Join us for the 14th Annual IPMBA Conference, May 1-8, 2004, in San Antonio, TX. Photos by Kathleen Vonk.

Published in Law and Order, Mar 2012

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