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CrossFit Physical Training

Written by Jonathon Barba

As extensive as the general literature is on physical fitness, few references are available regarding physical fitness training regimens specific to the needs of law enforcement officers. Knowing the responsibility of police agencies to provide appropriate service to the communities they serve, police departments must recognize the need to incorporate and institute fitness programs that emphasize the physical development of their recruits and incumbent personnel.

After a review of job descriptions and job-task surveys in over 150 law enforcement agencies, Collingwood, Hoffman, and Smith provided a list of frequent and critical physical tasks. A critical task is defined as “a task that places the officer or the public in jeopardy due to the officer’s inability to either provided needed duty or their failure to apprehend a suspect.” Critical incidents lead to a potential property loss or damage or potential loss of life or injury. While the frequency of critical tasks tends to be low, there is a high risk of liability if officers are unable to perform these tasks.

Various aerobic and anaerobic fitness components allow officers to perform these tasks. The fitness factors that determine the ability of an officer to perform essential physical tasks are absolute strength for the upper body, explosive leg strength, dynamic strength of the abdominals and upper body, trunk strength, extent flexibility, endurance and aerobic power, anaerobic power, and agility.

The goal of those specializing in training law enforcement officers then becomes the development of a program that directly aligns the training protocol with the physical demands of law enforcement.

Ultimately, the goal becomes to develop a training program that fits the needs of law enforcement officers, is as efficient and effective as possible at improving aerobic and anaerobic fitness levels, and is not as time intensive as more traditional concurrent training methods.

A common mistake is to think that physical training becomes more satisfactory and attractive according to the number of exercises used. With this in mind, it is not uncommon to see individuals wasting the short time given to physical training on exercises that are of little value.

One possible solution to this problem may be the implementation of a fitness program, such as CrossFit®, which primarily incorporates weight lifting (Olympic lifts, power lifts and their variations), gymnastics (bodyweight exercises), and metabolic conditioning into intermittent, ultra-short high intensity interval/circuits into the training regimen. This is done in an attempt to simultaneously improve an individual’s aerobic and anaerobic fitness by primarily training in the glycolitic, or intermediate, metabolic pathway.

Three metabolic energy systems exist in muscle: the phosphagen (short-term) energy system, the glycolitic (intermediate) energy system, and the oxidative (long-term) energy system. All three energy systems may be active at any given time; however, the extent to which each is used depends primarily on the intensity of the activity and secondarily on its duration. Each metabolic profile can be targeted by manipulating variables for exercise and rest intervals.

Balancing the effects of the three pathways largely determines the how and why of the metabolic conditioning called for in the CrossFit program. Favoring one or two energy systems to the exclusion of the others and not recognizing the impact of excessive training in the aerobic pathway are arguably the two most common faults in law enforcement fitness training.

Aerobic training benefits cardiovascular function and decreases body fat. It allows one to engage in moderate, low power output for extended period of time. This is valuable for many activities. However, individuals engaging in excessive aerobic training also witness decreases in muscle mass, strength, speed, and power.

It is not uncommon to find marathoners with a vertical leap of only a few inches and a bench press well below average. Aerobic activity also has a pronounced tendency to decrease anaerobic capacity. This does not bode well for the law enforcement officer interested in total conditioning or optimal performance.

Like aerobic activity, anaerobic activity also benefits cardiovascular function and decreases body fat. Additionally, anaerobic activity is unique in its capacity to dramatically improve power, speed, strength, and muscle mass. Anaerobic conditioning allows one to exert tremendous physical force over a very brief time. The aspect of anaerobic conditioning that bears greatest consideration, is that anaerobic conditioning will not adversely affect aerobic capacity.

Greg Glassman, the founder of CrossFit, believes the key to developing the cardiovascular system without a corresponding loss of strength, speed, and power is through the use of high intensity interval training. Interval training is a well-known method for improving fitness, and can best be described as high-intensity intermittent exercise.

The theory behind high-intensity interval training is that by participating in these interval training sessions, individuals can work at higher physical intensities than they could have if they had worked continuously at lower intensities as intermittent exercise allows a higher total volume of high intensity work than work preformed continuously.

However, the duration of the recovery period is insufficient to permit full recovery, so the individual is forced to cope with increasing levels of exhaustion, thus developing muscular endurance. Within the Crossfit Program, lactate threshold will be trained for a systemic rather than regional tolerance of blood PH (lactate), in other words by changing modalities, thus allowing the individual continue to do work.

The CrossFit program was created to deliver fitness that is, by design, broad, general, and inclusive. CrossFit has become the principal strength and conditioning program for the Colorado State Patrol. The CrossFit program focuses on developing power, cross-training with multiple training modalities, and constant training and practice with functional movements.

The CrossFit program attempts to improve the 10 physical skills most commonly associated with physical fitness: cardio-respiratory endurance, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, accuracy, agility, balance, and stamina.

CrossFit attempts to improve each of these 10 physical skills by combining elements of weight lifting, gymnastic exercises, and metabolic conditioning into an interval training system. The goal is to prepare the officer for any number of random tasks. The CrossFit program does not produce specialists; rather it provides the officer with the fitness necessary to perform extremely well at a variety of tasks.

In the broadest view one sees a three-day on, one day off pattern. Glassman contends this allows for a relatively higher volume of high intensity work than the many others experimented with. With this format the individual can work at or near the highest intensities possible for three straight days, but by the forth day both neuromuscular function and anatomy are exhausted to the point where continued work becomes noticeably less effective and impossible without reducing intensity and increasing the risk of injury.

The chief drawback to the three-day on, one-day off regimen is that it is not in synch with the five-day on, two-day off pattern that governs most law enforcement training academies. Since a majority of law enforcement academies, including the Colorado State Patrol, run their programs within a professional setting, a five-day on, two-day off regimen has been developed.

The program workouts are comprised of three distinct modalities: metabolic conditioning (“M”), gymnastics (“G”), and weightlifting (“W”). The metabolic conditioning are Monostructural activities commonly referred to as “cardio,” the purpose of which is primarily to improve cardio respiratory capacity and stamina (VO2 Max).

The gymnastics modality is comprised of body weight exercises/elements or calisthenics and its primary purpose is to improve body control by improving neurological components like coordination, proprioception, balance, agility, accuracy, and to improve functional upper body capacity and trunk strength.

The weightlifting modality is comprised of the most important weight training basics, Olympic lifts, power lifting, and their variations where the aim is primarily to increase strength, power, and hip/leg capacity.

The workouts themselves are each represented by the inclusion of one, two, or three modalities for each day. Following the five-day on two-day off model, days one and five are each single modality workouts whereas days two and four are comprised of two modalities each, and finally, day three is comprised of three modalities.

In every case each modality is represented by a single exercise or element, in other words each “M,” “W,” and “G” represents a single exercise or element from metabolic conditioning, weightlifting, and gymnastics modalities respectively.

When the workout includes a single exercise (days one and five), the focus is on a single exercise, element, or effort. On the single element days (one and five) recovery is not a limiting factor. For the “G” and “W” days rest is long and deliberate and the focus is kept clearly on improvement of the element and not on total metabolic effect.

For the two element days (two and four) the structure is typically a couplet of exercises performed alternately until repeated for a total of three, four, or most commonly five rounds and performed for time. These days are “task priority” because the task is set and the time varies. The workout is very often scored by the time required to complete five rounds.

The two elements themselves are designed to be moderate to high intensity and work-rest interval management is critical. These elements are made intense by pace, load, reps or a combination of each. Ideally the first round is hard but possible, whereas the second and subsequent rounds will require pacing, rest, and breaking the task up into manageable efforts (intervals). If the second round can be completed without trouble the elements are too easy.

For the three element days the structure is typically a triplet of exercises, this time repeated for 20 minutes and performed and scored by number of rotations completed in twenty minutes. These workouts are “time priority” because the individual is kept moving for a specified time and the goal is to complete as many cycles as possible. The elements are chosen in order to provide a challenge that manifests only through repeated cycles.

Ideally the elements chosen are not significant outside of the intense pace required to maximize rotations completed within the time (typically 20 minutes) allotted. This is in stark contrast to the two element days where the elements are of a much higher intensity. This workout is difficult, but managing work-rest intervals is a marginal factor.

Each day has a distinct character. Generally speaking, as the number of elements increases from one to two to three, the workout’s effect is due less to the individual element selected and more to the effect of repeated efforts.

The Colorado State Patrol Training Academy has been using the Crossfit system exclusively since October, 2003, with phenomenal results. The Academy staff has seen significant increases in absolute strength, explosive leg strength, dynamic strength, trunk strength, extent flexibility, endurance and aerobic power, anaerobic power, and decreases in body fat in patrol cadets.

Additionally, during dynamic high-risk/low-frequency training exercises, such as Red Man, the cadets trained using the CrossFit protocols consistently outperform their counterparts using more traditional methods of physical training. In other words, they have developed the aerobic and anaerobic capacity to fight longer and harder. CrossFit’s approach to fitness prepares officers for the real-life rigors of law enforcement.

Jonathon Barba is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and in charge of the fitness program with the Colorado State Patrol. He may be reached at jon.narba@cdps.state.co.us.

Greg Glassman is the founder of CrossFit®, which is headquartered in Soquel, CA. He may be reached at greg@crossfit.com.


Published in Law and Order, Jun 2005

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