Why Cops have Back Pain - and what to do about it

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If you have back pain, you are among millions of North Americans. As many as 85% of people will experience back pain in their lifetime, and most of those who do will experience it more than once. That is borderline INSANITY. There are many factors in play, including biomechanics, genetics and body composition, many of which we can't control. The good news is, for most people it is preventable and if you are in pain you can usually get out of pain by making a deliberate decision to fix it.

For a Law Enforcement Officer, back pain can be a significant problem and the deck is stacked against you. Between the car, the gear, and the physical demands, LEOs are pre-disposed to injury unless you take proper precautions. The nature of the job requires you to be able to go from a standstill to 100% effort immediately. You're not about to tell a bad guy "Hold on a sec, I just need to quickly do some glute bridges and monster walks." If you are going to be prepared for this rapid increase in intensity, you need to train for it and have the mobility to handle it. The nature of the responsibilities of a LEO require a lot of sedentary time and it doesn't set you up for success.

In this article I am going to break down where the risk factors are coming from and how you can take control of your body and pain. No more morphine or work leave. Time off work should be spent on the beach sipping mojitos, not laying in bed hyped up on pain killers.

How the Gear sets you up for Injuries

The Car

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The squad car might be the single greatest invention (probably second only to the modern chair) for creating back pain. The cabin is cramped and the addition of your belt and vest leave little room to spare. Your hips are in a compromised position with literally no way to stabilize your spine while you sit in the drivers seat. Your upper body is locked in place because of your vest. You can never change position because of the giant plate of glass separating you and the bad guy in the back seat, and the little room between is full of essential gear. The results? Really tight hips, immobile T-Spine (upper back) and low back pain.

I wrote about the SAID Principle in the past, which stands for Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands. Your car is your mobile office which means you spend a lot of time there. The 'Demands' placed on you are sitting in a compromised position for potentially hours on end, with extremely short breaks while you check a drivers licence or grab a coffee. The 'Adaptation' is ends up being stiff and tightened hip flexors, a locked up upper back and a hypermobile lower back.

Just because your job sets you up for back pain, doesn't mean it needs to happen to you. Prioritizing your mobility and committing to work on it daily is going to go a long way in preventing and ditching your back pain, and ultimately improving how you do your job. The more days that you are out of pain and ready to get after it the greater difference you can make in your city and your community.


The Belt

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I see the same issue from the utility belt as I do from a traditional martial arts belt. You know that stance you take when you're chatting with an eye witness? The one where you put your hands on your hips by hooking your thumbs through your utility belt and pop the one hip out to the side? Recipe for low back pain.

The reason we adopt this posture is because it is stable. Unfortunately it is stable because the belt is doing the job of your core muscles which usually work to keep you back in a safe and strong position. By using the belt we are hanging off of the joints in our back and cultivating a compromised position.

This position is called an Anterior Pelvic Tilt. It is a fancy way to describe what I like to call a 'Booty Pop' and is extremely common among law enforcement officers and athletes in general (including yours truly).

The Vest

It can save your life. It can also give you some serious neck pain, low back pain and rock solid upper back. Wearing a vest for 10+ hrs/day is eerily similar to wearing a cast. When you can't move your thoracic spine (upper back) it has a tendency to get super stiff, and forces other parts of your back to take over, and do TOO MUCH work (hello neck and low back).

The vest is going to prevent you from flexing, extending and rotating throughout the entirety of your trunk. Any time we are stuck in single position for a long time, or forced to use a single joint to do a multiple joints' job, there is bound to be trouble.


The Boots

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The vest can be compared to a cast, but the patrol boots are so similar to a cast sometimes I have trouble telling them apart.

Like the vest, they are a necessary evil. When you are kicking down doors, or in combat they are essential. The rest of the time they restrict your ankle range of motion causing compensation in your hips, back and neck. With stiffness and protection generally comes a decrease in mobility.

In order to reverse it, spending the rest of the time in flat, flexible, soft shoes is essential. Pair that with some stretching and rolling and you can undo the long shifts.



NONE of these things alone are going to ruin you. Law Enforcement has its inherent risks. The gear is meant to protect you in the short term, but long term it can be a -1. YOU have the power to prevent your injuries and stay on duty. But the only way to do it is with diligent mobility, strength and conditioning work. 


Solution: Daily Mobility and proper training program

Daily Mobility:

Daily maintenance goes a long way towards preventing and treating your back pain. If you are new to mobilization, I recommend this article: The Basics of Mobilization. It will set you up with the basics and a knowledge of the fundamental terminology that goes a long way.

    The most important take away from this isn't the specific exercises, or that you complete mins/exercise instead of 1 min, it is that you consistently work on your mobility and counteract nature of the job.

    I have put together a mobility program for you. Just plug in your email below and I will send you your download link:

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    Free Mobility Guide

    Proper Training Program:

    At the end of the day, the specific exercises you choose in your program doesn't matter. Instead, you want to follow certain training principles.

    This can be a lengthy discussion, which is why I wrote a full post on the subject: How Cops should Train. I also created and entire training program for officers looking to maximize their PAT time, as well as maximize their fitness for performance. You can find that program HERE, at LEPAT.com, who I partnered with to make the program.

    But you don't have to follow my program. Instead, you can follow the principles I outline in my post that explains how law enforcement officers should be training. They are the same guidelines I use to build programs for any of my training clients. You can read the full post HERE.

    How Cops should Train

    Thanks for reading.

    As always, if you have ANY training questions, don't hesitate to hit me up: mark@leofitness.ca

    - Mark

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    Author: Mark Murdoch, Kinesiologist, Chiropractic Student. Have questions? Email me. I want to help! mark@leofitness.ca