Training Officers the Right Way and Reducing Injury

In the beginning of my career, I was a training officer at the police academy. My primary goal was one word, output. For one hour, three times a week, I required every recruit to put out as much effort as was humanly possible. Warm-up and stretching was minimal, and my program lacked planning, attention to technique and gradual progression. My training sessions resembled the disorganized workouts of a rookie personal trainer.

Throughout the next few years of training, I witnessed recruits from every academy class sustain a variety of injuries. These injuries ranged from painful shin splints to pulled hamstrings, to torn ACL’s and a handful of cases of heat exhaustion. I soon realized that there had to be a safer and equally as demanding way to produce greater outcomes and less injury. Upon further investigation, speaking with friends and colleagues in agencies and departments across the country, the academy setting notably was not the only location where assistance was needed.

Law enforcement departments across the country are searching for ways to reduce injury and encourage healthy lifestyles. Programs implemented in these departments are made with great intentions, but often need fine-tuning.

If you are experiencing injury from officers regularly, ask yourself two primary questions:

  • What am I doing wrong?
  • How do I fix It?

Every injury that happens during your training session is yours to own. If you take responsibility for the quality of training, you will improve your final product. So, here are a few concepts that will guarantee you better results and make department heads happier with you for not destroying their prospective 30-year investments. This investment may reach into excess of several millions of dollars. When viewed in this perspective, training cannot become a liability.

  1. Educate yourself. Gather information from books, papers and conferences in the field of strength and conditioning. Pay close attention to what the experts in the field have to share. Some recommended reading includes:
  • Coach Rogers titled The Top Ten Things I Apply To My Training Program is a great read to put things into perspective.
  • Books such as Dan John’s Never Let GO and Can You GO.
  • Mike Boyle’s Advances in Personal Training,
  • Kelly Starrett’s research and writing on mobility – stability and self-preservation are instructional gold that should not be overlooked.
  • Gray Cook and Lee Burton’s fieldwork and research in functional movement screening and movement pattern are industry standards that at minimum should be reviewed.

These coaches are at the forefront in the field for tactical athletes. Learning more about these topics will help build safer and more effective training plans. In addition, you owe your officers the most current and relevant fitness programming knowledge to take with them throughout their careers. By educating yourself, you can educate them.

2. Incorporate proper warm-up procedures before any and every workout. The system I have consistently utilized is borrowed from strength and conditioning guru Mike Boyle of Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning. Mike Boyle’s warm-up is made up of the following components; foam rolling major muscle groups, static stretching and dynamic stretching to be done in that order. Many professionals in the field have completely erred in their understanding of static stretching along with foam rolling. Please refer to his published material in particular, Advances in Functional Training for more information.

3. Focus on proper technique instead of high reps and rushing to beat the clock. If you fail to focus on technique when you begin to add load (weight) or stress (time), injuries fall from the sky like a Midwestern hailstorm. This hailstorm can be avoided if sound techniques of exercises are emphasized in the beginning and throughout your fitness program. As a training officer, take personally the health of your officers. They are your responsibility.

4. Understand that progression is a vital part of your programming. The body needs time to strengthen and adapt to the stressors that are applied. Injuries occur if no time is allotted to strengthen and adapt before moving onto heavier stressors. For instance, in a six-month program, training intensity would increase every two months. The concept of progression can also be conceptualized in terms of phases. For example, phase one may encompass the first two months of training as the base training phase. This phase emphasizes technique, endurance and strength. Phase two is a two-month intermediate/medial phase. Conditioning is a primary focus in this stage. Basic concepts from phase one are utilized, but stress is introduced in the form of weight and time constraints. Long runs will turn into sprints and external weight manipulation such as fireman carries, kettlebell work and partner drags. You will build strength and efficiency with minimal injury because of the slow progression. Phase three is the high functioning stage lasting for two months. In the high functioning stage officers are ideally injury free and performing at their highest level on all tasks.

5. Be certain that your programming makes sense. Schedule heavy load days separately from speed days. Schedule speed days at the beginning of the week. Understand the concept of energy depletion and that high-energy workouts should be situated separately and at the beginning of the week from other less depleting workouts. Lastly, plan to train different muscle groups on different days. Muscle groups should not be subjected to continuous load without time for proper recovery.

6. Maintain realistic expectations. Understand that injuries and setbacks occur during a training program from time to time. The key is in the reduction of such adversities. Take a look at the participants in your program and notice the varying degrees of physical fitness and body morphologies. Maintain an appropriate standard, but remain flexible in the way that you attain benchmarks. Require consistent effort and progress, but remember there is individuality in each officers’ journey. Your ability to provide the personal attention many participants need is limited. If possible, offer your time before or after scheduled training sessions for corrective exercise demonstration to assist that officer on their physical journey. Understand that training in a group or team setting can be a challenge l, so keep things simple. Take heed to the famous acronym of K.I.S.S (Keep It Simple Stupid). I have no idea who thought of this beautiful phrase, but I’ve found that following it makes life a lot simpler. Realistic planning in the beginning along with recognizing your limitations with the group will keep you progressing in the right direction.

The concepts described are in no way an exhaustive list of the qualities a good fitness program, but applying the concepts will aid in reclaiming broken programs and enhancing well-functioning ones. An output-focused perspective places blame on the officer for their injuries when it is likely the injury is a result of a training officer’s inability to emphasize, demonstrate, and disseminate proper instruction.

We cannot prevent all injury but we can certainly take steps to reduce it. Stay focused and stay safe.

Darrell Burton has trained instructors from over 100 Law Enforcement departments across the country. He is a two-time recipient of the Law Enforcement Advisory Committee’s Award for Instructional Excellence and one time recipient of the Basic Academy Outstanding Instructor Award. He has over 10 years of Law Enforcement and Case Management Experience. He holds a Masters Degree in Interpersonal Therapy Social Work from The University of Michigan and a Bachelors Degree from Fresno State University in Criminology. He is currently a Training Officer at San Mateo County Probation Dept.. and Academy Instructor/Training Officer at The Academy South Bay Regional Public Safety Training.

He can be reached at

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