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Functional Fitness, Part 1

You have probably heard the hot new term floating around the fitness profession, but what exactly is “functional fitness”? It’s exactly that—functional. It is that which serves a purpose and makes sense. Functional training will help develop the necessary strength, power, and balance for performance on unstable surfaces in the unpredictable environments in which officers operate.

Rarely does a forcible arrest take place on an ideal, flat, soft surface, and often we must negotiate these altercations in and around obstacles and on less-than-ideal surfaces: snow, ice, grass, dirt, gravel, off camber, etc. For public safety officers, functional training can be described as training that will assist in performing physical skills on the street, more explosively, more efficiently, with as much force as possible, and with reduced risk of injury.

Functional training will give us the best possible odds of sustaining the fight at high intensities, complete with all the unplanned events and surprises that a real fight on the street can include. That is unlike choreographed DT drills in the mat room and unlike a predictable bout on a treadmill or a controlled weight-lifting session.

An added benefit to intense functional training is that the calorie burn can be off the charts if so chosen, and even though appropriate rest periods are incorporated into each routine, the heart rate stays elevated during recovery, thus improving and maintaining the cardiovascular system also.

The key to developing and maintaining explosiveness is to train explosively: train slowly, be slow; train quickly, be quick; train explosively, be explosive. Yes, training slowly has its place in physical fitness, such as in high weight / low rep resistance training for brute strength or body building. Slow, steady cardio has its benefits as well, such as fat burning and cardiopulmonary rehab.

However, “power,” which incorporates an element of speed, is a finely tuned balance between resistance (weight) and speed. The fastest sprinters are not the biggest, most muscular athletes, and neither are the very thin and light distance athletes with little muscle mass. Optimal power falls somewhere in between.

Velocity is the rate of change of position. Absent trunk rotation, punching someone straight out in front of you would be an example of linear velocity. Since our limbs are fixed to our bodies at specific points of origin, most of our strikes are done with rotation about those fixed points or axes, i.e., the point at which the arm attaches to the torso at the shoulder, or where the thigh attaches to the pelvis at the hip.

Power relative to delivering strikes with the greatest amount of rotational power develops with maximal rotational or angular velocity. Whether throwing a ball, swinging a bat, golf club, fist, baton, or foot, that rotational power starts from the ground and works its way up the body and out to the extremity that is rotating. The body itself relative to the ground and acts as the very first axis about which we rotate to swing the bat or throw the punch.

Imagine if you tried to punch somebody and kept your torso rigid with no rotation—you would have very little power by the time the fist met the nose, and you would surely suffer the consequences of an inadequate strike. Training the body to improve rotational torque is an enormous benefit to applicable job tasks on the street, and it requires rotational movement in a fitness routine.

A solid fitness base should be built before incorporating interval training, plyometrics, and functional training into any routine. If you’re just starting out, work your way up to a solid cardiovascular base: work up to running 30 minutes per session, 3 to 6 times per week or more. For weight loss and management, this should eventually increase to an hour each day, 5 to 6 days a week. Other forms of cardiovascular training are acceptable as long as your heart rate is elevated and sustained at 80% of your max (max heart rate is figured by subtracting your age from 220).

Build a solid strength base with resistance training. Start out with a full-body workout using your personal 15 rep max, then progress to 10 rep max lifting. You can continue to progress to higher weight and lower reps to build muscle mass and raw strength, but wait until you’ve built this base before incorporating intervals and plyometrics into your functional training routine.

Start to incorporate intervals into your cardio workouts. For example, warm up for 5 minutes, do 20 minutes of intervals, then cool down for the last 5. For your intervals, go hard for 30 seconds then easy for 90, repeat 10 times for a total of 20 minutes, then cool down for 5 minutes. You can increase speed, elevation, or difficulty level for your intervals.

If you’re working on a stair stepper, don’t hang onto the rails because this defeats the purpose of climbing steps. By not holding onto the rails, you will have to support your entire body weight, which will result in a higher calorie burn and a higher cardiovascular ROI.

Once a cardiovascular and strength base has been built, you’re ready to integrate functional training into your workouts. Start out by using just your body weight, then gradually progress to light dumbbells and increase as you feel necessary. The body was meant to rotate. Start to incorporate core rotation into your training for added power development and injury prevention.

Much emphasis is placed on perfect form in weight lifting with good reason. However, if you have no lower back issues, move the way you would out in the field. When you reach into the trunk to retrieve a box of flares or an evidence kit, you most likely round your back and reach down in front of you while doing so. Hence, train the way you move in life and you may avoid injury while performing such tasks.

For example, while doing fast stationary lunges with light dumbbells in your hands, reach down as if you’re tying your shoe lace while rounding your back—just like you do in everyday life, and just like you’re bending over reaching into the trunk. This is much different than keeping perfect form with appropriate spinal alignment as required when squatting with heavy weight.

Kathleen Vonk has been a certified police officer in Michigan since 1988, currently with the Ann Arbor Police. She designed and implemented the Police Wellness Instructor Course for the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards, for which she is a subject matter expert, consultant and instructor-trainer. See She has been the primary fitness instructor for the WCC Police Academy in Ann Arbor Michigan since 2001. She is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), Health Promotion Director by the Cooper Institute. She earned a BS in exercise science and a BA in criminal justice. She can be reached at

Published in Law and Order, Mar 2009

Rating : 9.0

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