Sitting as much as cops do is disastrous to say the least, but add in the duty belt and it’s a whole new level of suck. If you really want to take a whack at resolving your low back pain, you need to understand two quotes. The first from Jazz Musician Lena Horne:
“It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.”
And the second from Physical Therapist DR. Kelly Starrett:
“Your pain has a position.”
From these two ideas I came up with the concept of “uniform dynamics.” I’m looking at the body as a mechanical system that has a primary function of movement. I see the uniform as a load on the mechanical system. If you start to break down the how the load affects the mechanical system you can start to see the real issues at hand.
When we look at the duty belt it’s so easy to blame the weight, but the weight is hardly the primary offender. If we take the focus off the 10-12 pounds for a bit, we can start to see the forest through the trees and realize that the pain we have is due to position.
I like to call the issue the artificial impingement. This problem occurs in our hips because we have a large block in the front of the hip, usually a magazine pouch and Taser, but it can be anything on your belt and the belt itself.
To illustrate take your right arm and bend at the elbow through full range of motion. You should be able touch your hand to your shoulder (unless you’re super jacked). Do it again but add in a mechanical block or “impingement.” Make a fist with your left hand and put it in the crease of the elbow on your right arm and flex.
What we have here is a model for what’s going on in the hips with the belt. The difference is the spine is composed of several joints and happens to be more bendy than the humerus so our back can still work around the issue in order to sit in the squad car. This working around the issue is the position that causes our pain.
Throw on your duty belt and bring one of your knees into flexion until you start to meet resistance in the front of the hip. For most the hip starts to come on tension between 30 and 45 degrees of hip flexion. Is that enough range of motion to sit? Absolutely not but our body is pretty quick to hack this issue, so we can externally rotate our hips and sit on the side of our butt and we can use the low back to bend around the impinging blockage and still sit “uprightish.” This is really an ugly position so if you want you sit more upright and work on your posture you can leverage your psoas against the spine to overextend it and all of a sudden you’re resistance training it for hours on end. Fighting against the duty belt with muscular contraction gets old, so we start to see adaptive shorting of the psoas and now or back gets really pissed off.
The answer becomes fairly simple. Remove the artificial impingement by raising the belt. Still got your duty belt on? … good. Grab the front of the belt and pull it up out of the hips and raise your leg again. You’re much closer to 90 degrees and with that extra range of motion you can sit in a “less bad“position and save the world…with less back pain.
The high duty belt was fairly popular in the mid 1900’s era of law enforcement when they adopted the Sam Brown duty belt. The single strap was a mechanism to lift he belt out of the hips and remove the impingement. The Sam Brown belt started to be pulled from service when departments realized that it was an officer safety issue having a strap that a suspect could grab onto. For most departments the Sam Browns went into storage only to be used for ceremony and enter the modern day low hanging duty belt, an utterly unmitigated disaster of that has wrecked backs for generation after generation until present day.
The best option I can think of is ditching the belt altogether and transitioning to a load bearing vest. There’s a great debate about the appearance and fear that it looks too militarized to the public. A pretty effective middle ground solution is the suspender system.
When it comes to uniforms having a professional look that is functional and allows for good body mechanics is a difficult balance. Many departments won’t allow exterior suspenders. They also provide the same officer safety problem as the Sam Brown. The market has two really good solutions out there right now. The first is the back defender, which is what I use. It is an under the uniform shirt suspender system that conceals the straps nicely. The second is the Blauer Armorskin solution. This product uses an exterior non-load bearing vest and suspenders under the vest. Having the shirt under the vest has other mechanical advantages which I’ll get to another time.
The quick and free fix is that you can pull the front of your duty belt up and out of the hip every time you sit. Unfortunately this is just another thing to think about and the fix is only as good as your ability to do it. You can also take a little time to rearrange your belt to facilitate better hip flexion. Got something that hangs way below the belt? It probably shouldn’t be in the front of the hip…I’m looking at you Taser. This idea of the artificial impingement also explains why our more “puffy” coworkers are likely to have more back pain. With a larger belly you start to run into resistance sooner and have to compensate more to complete the arduous task of sitting. let’s be honest, if you’re like most cops you can probably stand to drop a few pounds while you’re at it.
Removing the artificial impingement is a huge step toward sitting in a better position. Let me be clear, This is not the magic bullet. It’s really just a less bad, and I think a best, current option. The uniform has other issues that I’ll address in the upcoming weeks. Even if you have the best possible uniform you still need to find a way to sit less and do some daily maintenance to your body if you’re ever going to get ahead of the problems causing your pain.