NTOA Tradeshow: Observations and Lessons Learned. Thoughts for Moving Forward


By Rob Shaul

I spent two days at the National Tactical Officer’s Association Trade Show manning an LE Athlete booth the third week of September. Myself and Katie Wood, our head marketing and operations, answered questions about what we do, and asked questions about what LE Athletes need in terms of strength and conditioning. 

Observations and Lessons Learned

We had two types of attendees stop by our tiny booth …

First were senior unit commanders and decision makers wanting to improve the fitness of their units and departments, but not knowing where to start, and also worrying about how a stringent fitness assessment would affect most experienced officers. For example, one SWAT commander in a rural county noted that he had a part-time SWAT team pulled together from full time deputies. Some of the guys with the most operational experience were also the least fit. He liked the idea of increasing fitness and an assessment, but operationally, couldn’t afford to lose guys to a high jeopardy test. Another commander of a full time team said his guys had time and equipment to train, but no uniform program, standards, or objectives. Guys did what they wanted. 

Second were younger, fit officers their prime, but clearly upset, or downright embarrassed, by the overall fitness of their team or department. They wanted to drop the hammer via a hard, high jeopardy fitness assessment. 

Lack of fitness can lead to an unnecessary escalation of force. 

Several officers told us unfit officers can be quick to pull their weapon because they don’t have the fitness needed to first try non-lethal use of force. I had never considered this.

Lack of fitness can be hazardous.

I learned that studies have shown unfit officers, who have an unkempt appearance, and/or don’t carry themselves with confidence, are targeted by criminals who want to do violence to police officers.

Bodybuilding and Powerlifting are still prevalent in LE

We observed many officers with massive chests, big biceps and skinny legs walking by – none stopped by. I believe upper body mass is an important fitness attribute for patrol officers and detectives, but not so much for full time SWAT officers. Excess bulk slows sprinting ability, can limit agility, and can put teammates in danger if you get knocked down and they have to carry/drag you to safety. Muscle building used to be more prevalent in the military SOF units also – until the Iraq and Afghanistan wars when a weak lower body and “combat chassis” hurt performance downrange. I understand many officers are only part time SWAT – and this can allow for some mass. 

LE Athletes need Stamina

Prior to Mobile, my programming cycles for LE Officers were strength/hypertrophy and work capacity, with consideration for a power cycle. At the tradeshow I learned that an average SWAT call out is 4 hours, and had a SWAT commanders in New Orleans tell me that during Hurricane Katrina, his guys were out on call out for 6 days. Another said the extended search for the Boston bombers exposed a lack of stamina for some SWAT and other officers during that extended manhunt. Under my programming theory, “stamina” is different than “endurance.” Stamina is many short, intense events over a long work day. Endurance is the ability to go long in a single mode for a long event. Most SWAT and patrol officers need stamina, but not endurance. However, some specialized SWAT and similar teams in rural/remote areas also need endurance – examples include Border Patrol BORSTAR and BORTAC, and SWAT/SRT’s in rural states where long rucks could be involved. 

Implementing Fitness Assessments Face Many Hurdles

I had known going in that union opposition is a hurdle to many fitness assessments in law enforcement, however several officers were from areas without a unionized force, but still faced stiff administration opposition. Some of this opposition is similar to what sometimes happens in the military – old-school unit commanders come from a bodyweight/running background and aren’t open to new training modalities. Or, many LE administrations/department commanders made it to their position without any consideration of fitness over a long career, and didn’t see it as important now. Others did see its importance, but also had a simple constraint of filling their force with bodies, and knew a stringent assessment would eliminate many and make it hard to hire replacements. 

The Cooper Test is Widely Used

Many officers reported their department uses the Cooper Institute Test, or a variation of it as either an entry exam, or yearly evaluation. Many were frustrated by this test, but there was also a need to train up specifically for it. This week we build and published a Cooper Test preparation training plan.

The LE Athlete age range is far greater than the Military Athlete age range

Few military members after 38-40 years old are still operational. However, this is common for LE Athletes. On one hand, there aren’t special, slower bullets for 55 year old cops. But at the same time, while the operational demands on a older LE Athlete is the same as a younger cop fresh out of the academy, age will limit the ability of a 55 year old to handle the same intensity and frequency of training as the younger officers. This is a programming challenge for us to grind through and address, and likely means eventually we need scaled programming for older (45+) LE athletes. 

***Thoughts Moving Forward

Put developing a universal, or unit-specific fitness assessment on the back burner….

The military approach to fitness won’t work for law enforcement. The military approach includes a semi-annual, high jeopardy fitness assessment, a fitness component on evaluation reports, and training schools and selection courses which require a high level of fitness to complete. 

Think long term, and work to build a LE fitness culture, “One Officer at a Time”

A rigorous, high-jeopardy fitness assessment is an unreasonable quick fix. Time to set it aside and begin to develop a fitness culture for LE Athletes. Here’s how:  

1) Make it Easy to Train

Provide (a) basic training equipment; (b) paid time to train, and; (c) job-focused daily programming. Start by making it easy to train. 

2) Command Support 

Command support means making it easy to train (see above), and leading by example. Leading by example can be tricky, as many unit commanders have not come up with a focus on training, and will not buy-in. However, fitness leadership needs to exists somewhere in the unit. If not from unit leaders, it could come from senior and mid level officers, and even more junior, high performers.

3) Academies Can Make a Big Impact

Getting law enforcement academy staff onboard with job-focused fitness for LE Athletes can go a long way toward building this culture of fitness. The week after the trade show I spent a few days teaching our programming course and bouncing ideas of a law enforcement academy staff in Des Moines, Iowa, who deploy job-specific fitness for their recruits. This buy-in can pay dividends by indoctrinating recruits into a culture of fitness. They learn at the beginning of their careers how to train for their jobs, and then take this professionalism into the force and pass it on as they grow into seasoned law enforcement professionals. 

4) Job-Focused Daily Programming

My ideas and programming approach for LE Athletes continues to evolve and gel. I’ve got some work to do here, and am working with real-world LE Athlete “lab rats” across the nation to do a better job creating effective, transferable, practical programming for LE Athletes. I understand better now that full time SWAT teams need programming tailored to them as their jobs are different than patrol officers/detectives.  Add to this the need to scale programming for older officers.

As you can see, my ideas and thoughts are still developing. I’d appreciate any feedback and/or suggestions. Please email me: Rob@strongswiftdurable.com or rob@leathlete.com.

Subscribe to MTI's Newsletter - BETA