Functional Fitness For The Feds? Interview with Suzanne Marsteller, Federal Law Enforcement Officer

Suzanne Marsteller at work

Dragon Door: How did you first get involved with fitness?

Suzanne Marsteller: I have always been an athlete and involved in fitness. In elementary school, I loved the presidential contests—pull-ups and sit-ups were always my favorite things. I stuck with it and played college soccer. I ended up with a pretty bad back injury my freshman year, and since then I’ve really been into training more with calisthenics and kettlebells.

Dragon Door: When we talked during a break at the Strength Calisthenics Certification (SCC) workshop, you mentioned doing firearms instruction, along with your job as a fitness training coordinator. What does your job entail?

Suzanne Marsteller: Generally, my job as a Federal Law Enforcement Officer spans everything from sitting at a desk typing reports to serving arrest and search warrants to get criminals off the street. In order to become a federal law enforcement fitness training coordinator, I went though the certification course at the federal law enforcement training center several years ago. The particular agency I work for doesn’t have any specific fitness requirements for hiring, and the sustainability test is participation only—I would love to increase that! Our organization just started a response team which has fairly stringent minimal fitness standards. It’s been a fun transition and it will be neat to see the organization’s cultural change along with it. As a Firearms Instructor, I am trying to incorporate fatigue and stimulated physiological changes into our normal typically static firearms training program.

Dragon Door: What fitness challenges are you helping law enforcement overcome with your training?

Suzanne Marsteller: Many of our challenges specifically involve upper body strength and full body mobility. When wearing our vests, we’re easily wearing an extra 20-40 pounds because of the magazines, ammunition, and our weapon as well which can weigh several pounds. Response team members and anyone deployed in a high risk environment overseas will typically have a pistol, a rifle, a vest with all their gear, and a helmet. They also have to deal with other obstructions when responding to an incident, and that extra weight definitely has a significant impact.

I'd love to add more kettlebell training because functional movement is a huge part of law enforcement. Local and federal law enforcement spend a lot of time sitting down. Local law enforcement officers tend to sit in vehicles doing patrols and federal officers have a lot of government paperwork—if it's not in writing, then it didn't happen! So, their common issues include a forward curvature in the shoulders, low back issues, and hip flexor issues. Their lower backs have problems because of tight hamstrings and hip flexors, so I'd really like to implement a program including stretching and functional movements. This would include the hip hinge we talked about at the SCC. I feel it is an important function to teach in firearms instruction. The hip hinge and overall core strength are very important to accuracy and recoil management with a firearm—and obviously getting a good stance.

Dragon Door: What brought you to the SCC?

Suzanne Marsteller: I first found out about Dragon Door from one of the publications I saw at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center—it was in the bathroom, actually! I was immediately interested, so I held onto the magazine. As a female in law enforcement, I have a lot of pride in trying to keep up with the guys. It’s not in a competitive sense, but more because to I need the ability to pull a 6’3" 230lb man just as quickly as he can pull me—and I’m 5'3", 140lb. So, developing raw strength and core strength has always been very important to me, even though I’ve never really worried much about size or bulk. I have always wanted speed, agility, and strength.

When I learned more about Dragon Door Publications, Convict Conditioning, Explosive Calisthenics, and the Kavadlo brothers, I was intrigued! Unfortunately I had been dealing with with some neck injuries over the past couple of years, but when I saw the SCC pop up, I thought it would be a great introduction. I decided to give it a try, see how I felt afterwards, and move forward from there.
Suzanne Marsteller SCC Pull-Up

Dragon Door: From what you saw at our first ever SCC, what did you see that you thought would be helpful for law enforcement?

Suzanne Marsteller: Every little aspect of it! I loved the push ups, especially since our fitness tests are comprised of push ups, a sit and reach sit up, and a mile and a half run. The test for our response team includes pull ups, sit ups, push ups, a 300 meter sprint, and a mile and a half run—all within a specific time frame. So, with all those things in mind, I need to build that intensity. Going through all the progressions from the SCC really helps you develop. Unfortunately, I see many law enforcement officers who are unable to do a normal push up. Some may be able to do 20-30 without correct form at a decent clip but many of them really struggle to do 10 with correct form in a minute. Many agents have a difficult time managing work while trying to take care of themselves (myself included) so often, working out gets put on the back burner.

I really want to bring back the basics from the SCC, and let the officers know that they can progress and become much more functional. In our community, there’s a well known term, "officer presence". Good officer presence can be a deterrent for potential altercations. Studies on officer shootings—when an officer is either ambushed or someone picks out an officer to kill—have indicated that many times the shooter has identified certain officers. They have said, "I didn’t go for that guy because he looked squared away," or, "I didn't go for that guy because his uniform was neatly pressed and I knew he'd put up a fight." Basically, they tend to go for the officers who don’t seem to as put together, are overweight, move a little slower, or who look like they're hurting when they move.

So, building officer presence with good posture and good form—especially with strength calisthenics—is very important for our work. When you walk around confidently, and with your head up, then you tend to be victimized less. There are many theories behind it, and I firmly believe it. I make it a point, even when I'm not at work (though I don’t wear a uniform for work) I make it a point to say hi. A friend of mine actually teases me all the time because I say hi to everyone I pass. Not only is it because I am a Southern girl, but because I want them to know that I am aware of them.

And in firearms training as we mentioned before, I actually use the hip hinge quite a bit when I am trying to teach proper form. Many people really lack lateral strength when they're raising their hands up in front of them and holding on to a weapon. They can get fatigued very quickly while engaging all those muscles. So, when people want to squat into it, I can now tell them to stand up straight, hinge at their hips, and then bend at their knees. I have received a lot of very positive feedback from that cue, because it allows people to really engage their core and shoulders in a different way. This also helps them manage recoil from the weapon a lot better, too. It is incredibly helpful when shooting long guns which can quickly knock you off balance if you aren’t positioned properly when shooting.

Dragon Door: That makes a lot of sense. Usually when someone has started a movement by bending their knees, it’s easy for them to forget that they can also bend at their hips.

Suzanne Marsteller: Exactly, and when they tend to sit into the movement, it's not a very stable position. But, when you start by bending at the hips first, then your knees you will have a much stronger base.

Dragon Door: At the SCC, were there any particular cues, tips or ideas that you found to be especially helpful?

Suzanne Marsteller: Actually, the term "cue" was kind of new to me. I was lucky to have a fantastic strength coach in college so I've always been able to recognize and use good form. Helping identify someone’s issues when learning a movement pattern then being able to walk them though it is essential to their learning process. It was also great to see that while many people think they have to do 100, 200, 300 sit-ups, if they’re doing knee raises or leg raises correctly, then just 10-20 reps per set should be sufficient. I believe when you're properly engaging the right muscles, you will feel it very quickly. So it was important to learn to identify the cues to use when someone is arching their back or maybe stretching their upper body more than they need.
Suzanne Marsteller SCC Raised Lunge

Dragon Door: What goals are you currently working toward?

Suzanne Marsteller: I have my eyes set on the Iron Maiden Challenge. Pull-ups have always been very important to me. Being able to pull myself up and over something or onto something with the extra weight of our vests was a big goal of mine. Now, I make sure to knock out weighted pull ups as part of my regular routine and have no problem. So the Iron Maiden, and the other thing I absolutely want to work on is my flexibility. Ever since I was 15, I’ve been plagued with injuries. I had a total of six surgeries before I turned 27, including two knee surgeries, an umbilical hernia surgery at 15, ankle surgery from a fractured ankle when I was young, and two lumbar surgeries. Soccer wasn't a charm for me. At my size, a couple of freak accidents put me into a downward spiral. I was also diagnosed with Systemic Lupus when I was twenty and felt awful at the time. A few lifestyle changes prevented me from ever having to take medication for it, and it’s since been in remission. Fortunately, my last low back surgery was in 2001 when I was 21, and I have felt great ever since. But, the pistol has always eluded me, I've really got to work on my hip flexibility and really build up to that weighted pistol.

The bridges were very challenging for me at the SCC, but I am thrilled to be able to do them because doctor after doctor and chiropractors told me that I shouldn't hyperextend my back. Some of these are also doctors who discouraged me from any loaded exercise—so as you can see, I was not a good listener. But, I also recognized that those are normal movements for the spine, and wanted to build up to a full bridge. I even used to do walking backbends when I was a 10 year old gymnast. But, I find that I get bored working on flexibility so I have to just focus and buckle down and do it. I’ve started stretching with thoracic mobility movements, hamstring stretches, and low back stretches every day right after I get out of bed.

Dragon Door: What's the next big thing you’re working towards or trying to implement at work?

Suzanne Marsteller: I actually really hit it off with another SCC attendee, Dafna Hayman. She and I are talked about doing a destination PCC, but loved the NYC SCC so much we’re headed back there for the PCC in June. I am looking forward to it!
S Marsteller Dafna Danny SCC NYC

Something else I wanted to mention that I think some women get too focused on their weight and size—numbers on the scale. Right now, I am pushing 140 pounds, and if someone only saw my height and weight or BMI, I would be considered obese—and I know that's not the case, I wear a size 2 pants! It was great to see so many strong women at the SCC who were also confident. While I could definitely lean up a little bit, I've never considered myself fat. When I first went into college soccer, I weighed 125 and was getting pushed all over the place. My strength coach bulked me up by about 10lbs and I've held on to it ever since—and it's not a bad thing. When I lose too much, I think I look sickly. When I went to Afghanistan a couple years ago, the guys teased me and said that I needed to eat a cheeseburger! But because the weight thing has never affected me, I'd like to encourage other women to feel confident in the same way.

Suzanne Marsteller is a federal law enforcement fitness training coordinator and a member of her agency’s response team. Suzanne can be contacted via email at backgirl911@gmail.com