Make P.E. Great—For The First Time? PLT4M Raises The Game With Personalized Physical Education

*This piece appeared originally on Forbes.com.*

Written by Guest Author: Michael B. Horn is the author of several books, including his newest book, Choosing College.


Make P.E. Great—For The First Time? PLT4M Raises The Game With Personalized Physical Education

When I first began researching the field of online learning in K–12 education, I was surprised to learn that one of the most popular online offerings was physical education (P.E.).

P.E.? How could that be done online?

But when I stepped back and reflected, I remembered that for many middle and high schoolers, traditional P.E. is a miserable affair.

In Alia Wong’s article for the Atlantic, “Gym Class Is So Bad, Kids Are Skipping School to Avoid It” she chronicles several of the reasons why, as P.E. creates opportunities for “abuse, whether because the class forces them to use a locker room, where adult supervision is limited, or because it facilitates the teasing of overweight or unathletic kids.”

It also all too often lacks a clear purpose. Do we grade people on whether they can make a hockey goal and acquire skills? On whether they follow directions and do the best they can in different units? Or whether they simply move around?

But in online PE, the goal is reasonably clear. It’s to help students develop the habits to be healthy adults over their lifetimes with a commitment to exercise. Nothing more and nothing less.

Students can attain “mastery” by doing a certain amount of physical activity each week, setting goals and improving. The market of wearables and mobile phones have gradually become assets in helping track the fitness habits of students and helping them figure out how to build the habits and motivation to attain critical goals. The “online” or virtual part involves the reporting of results to one’s teacher online, reflecting and receiving coaching online, setting goals online and programming more fitness routines online.

As a CrossFit enthusiast since 2011, that was something around which I could wrap my head. Which is why I became so intrigued a couple years ago when I saw a new education company being incubated in my gym, CrossFit Tilt in Waltham, Massachusetts, that was dedicated to serving students in schools with tailored approaches to training delivered through an online platform.

What started as a platform to help high school athletic coaches with limited resources institute sound basic strength and training programs for their athletes with expertly taught pointers on the proper form for lifts that, if executed poorly at high weights, could lead to injury, has quickly become much more.

It’s now bringing the benefits of online P.E. into brick-and-mortar schools to create what you might call “blended learning” P.E.—physical education personalized by the power of technology to allow each individual to develop at the path and pace that makes sense for her in school. The goal isn’t just to prepare students for competition, but to prepare them for life.

Given my CrossFit-informed worries of sedentary students sitting on computers all day, to me it is blended learning at its finest.

PLT4M is building a research-based fitness program that aligns to each state’s fitness standards from 7th grade through the college-bound high school athlete and pairing it with an online platform that enables P.E. teachers and coaches to create a tailored playlist of workouts and lessons for each individual. Educators can also customize the different programs based on their school’s specific available equipment and space to create a program that will not just work for an individual student, but also for a class of them who need different supports.

At Glenwood High School in Illinois, P.E. teachers were working with a class of mixed-grades and abilities, which, as any teacher in any subject knows, is quite the challenge. Needing to find a way to provide individualized weight training for every student within one class period, Glenwood’s teachers were using a mix of websites, whiteboards, and pen and paper to personalize. It was chaotic and confusing.

The teachers at the school turned to PLT4M’s online management tool to deliver all the programmed content directly to students’ school Chromebooks. With flexible scheduling and grouping, students were given workouts tailored to their grade, experience level and ability. And the teachers were able to gather near real-time information from the students on how the workout had gone so they could continue to tailor the fitness regimens for each learner.

What’s more, as in most cases when blended learning is done well, the teachers were able to focus far more on teaching and could spend their time engaging with and supporting their students, rather than focusing on administrative tasks.

Although virtual P.E. might work for some, given the amount of time most students will continue to spend in schools, personalizing P.E. with the aim not to build the best athletes, but to build the best and healthiest human beings for life who have supportive, healthy relationships with their teachers, is a welcome development that could start to make P.E. great—for the first time.

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SMR for Mobility & Recovery

Widely used and often the focus of hot training takes, SMR (or Self Myofascial Release), is a warm up and recovery mechanism we believe in here at PLT4M. SMR is by no means a be all end all cure for mobility, recovery, or performance goals, but when used in conjunction with a balanced training program, it can be a very useful pre- or post-workout tool.

But what is it, really?

Self Myofascial Release is just a fancy name for a massage you give yourself, often performed with a foam roller or other instrument. We are simply applying pressure to the muscle with slow controlled movement.

But why? In an attempt to make a long story short, the theory is as follows…

1. Your muscles are surrounded by a soft, fibrous connective tissue called Fascia. You can think of it like a strong but flexible sleeve of sorts, that surrounds all components and compartments of the body to maintain integrity, support, and protective structure.

2. When irritated (through intense exercise, poor movement or posture, lack of regular stretching, or even emotional distress) the fibrous tissue sometimes forms adhesions. Essentially, the fascia and muscle fibers have become stuck together. These adhesions restrict muscle movement. This limits an athletes flexibility and range of motion, and can cause soreness. These adhesions are often referred to as knots or trigger points.

3. By applying pressure, we incite blood flow to the tissue and work to break up those adhesions. The goal is to stretch and loosen the fascia so that it and the muscle may more freely, independent of one another. Returning this relationship to its original state improves mobility by maximizing muscle range of motion while reducing soreness and speeding up recovery. We can also apply the same principle to breaking up scar tissue within a damaged muscle.

While there is a distinct lack of official research on the topic, our experience and that of many top-level coaches and athletes indicates a certain value in adhering to this belief.

So how should you go about it?

To put it most simply: you really can’t do it incorrectly. Blood flow is the name of the game. So long as you are applying pressure to soft-tissue areas, you are increasing blood flow to the area. In the videos linked below, we walk you through 2 very basic foam roller progressions to get you started!

Lower Body: https://youtu.be/1I7CFtAGoeE

Upper Body: https://youtu.be/NDbI4AfaDAE

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High Knee to RDL Stability Drill

A great combination of activation and single limb balance, this drill is much like a SL RDL in that it is unilateral flexion and extension of the hip. Here, though, we are adding the element of a high knee drive during extension and our focus is on slow, smooth movement and perfect balance without a counterweight.

Starting in a hip-width stance with soft knees, drive one knee up towards the torso while balancing on the other leg. Then, take the elevated knee and reach back out behind you while initiating and hinge of the hip, bringing the torso forward. The ultimate goal is to achieve something of a “T” position, with back leg fully extended and inline with a flat back, parallel to the ground.

Keep the movement slow, and try to hold at the bottom for a full second or longer. If you must, rest between reps by bring the foot back to the ground. To make it more difficult, keep your weight balanced on the stationary leg throughout the set.

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Teaching Jump Rope

Back as a first year PE teacher and high school strength coach, one thing that surprised me most was the inability of many students and athletes to jump rope. I had assumed that jumping rope was a universal skill kids picked up along the way during childhood. Turns out, that’s not necessarily the case. Again and again, I ran into kids who had serious trouble performing this basic plyometric movement and were embarrassed enough by the inability that they would avoid the movement altogether.

Jumping rope is an extremely valuable tool for athletics and basic healthy living alike. It promotes full body proprioception (or body control), develops simple plyometric ability, promotes proper soft mid-to-forefoot strike, does wonders for the ankle and shoulder joints over time, and can be used for metabolic conditioning. It’s also a movement that can be practiced anywhere, by anyone. Given these benefits, it behooves us to teach all of our charges how to jump rope with consistency and efficiency.

The first step in teaching it to new athletes, is finding an appropriate length rope. When placed under one foot and held up along the body, both handles should be roughly armpit height (from here, athletes will find their own personal sweet spot when it comes to rope length).

Once athletes have ropes in hand, our next step is grip and hand positioning. Instruct athletes to maintain a loose grip between the thumb and forefinger with the rest of the fingers “just along for the ride”. Hands should be held out from the body at roughly 45 degrees, at about waist height.

Then, we set up the swing. Make sure athletes avoid trying to move the rope with large shoulder circles. Movement should be limited to the wrist – elbows should be kept close to the torso. “Flick” the rope with snappy wrist action as opposed to shoulder circles.

Lastly, we focus on the jump. Our athletes should be instructed to hop lightly up and down on the mid-forefoot area. Feet and legs should remain together. Avoid piking the feet forward, or pulling them backwards in a semblance of a donkey kick.

In the end, the best way to learn is to try! Make sure students know that failing is an important part of reaching success and have at it!

Want to see how we can help you train your students & athletes? Request a free demo!

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Teaching the Thruster

The Thruster.

Arguably one of our favorite movements, as well as one of the most challenging in almost any training scenario. The thruster is a true full body movement that combines a full-depth squat with a press to lockout overhead. It is a serious “bang for buck” movement when it comes to athletic development.

Most obviously, it develops raw strength through a complete range of motion. Athletes see gains in the below parallel front squat action as well as the shoulder to overhead press. Being such a compound movement, though, the thruster is also super demanding of the core. Midline stabilization is as much a part of the movement as anything else.

It also doubles as a power development movement. Basically, the thruster is a dynamic coupling of individual strength pieces. The power transfer from our squat through a strong hip extension (like a push press or jerk) to make the bar weightless is what allows an athlete to perform reps at volume without experiencing undue fatigue. We are working to improve power output and economy of movement.

Also worth mentioning is the mobility component. The front squat and the shoulder to overhead press both require and work to develop range of motion and stability within almost every joint in the body.

Lastly, and certainly not least, the thruster can be used in a conditioning or stamina sense for the entire body. At light loads, the movement can be performed repetitively at high speed (anaerobic capacity) or for serious aerobic volume. Or it can be performed at heavier loading for less reps within a larger set of movements. We are able to train an athlete’s ability to move his or her body, as well as an external load, under general fatigue, in a number of different settings.

Being such a useful movement, it behooves us to teach it in a comprehensive fashion. First, we must always begin by making sure our athlete has a solid understanding of proper squat and press mechanics. If we’ve mastered the air squat, and understand a simple push up, then we can add a pvc and begin to drill the thruster itself.

Instruct the athlete to bring the pvc up to the shoulders in a full grip. Elbows should be high, the goal is to keep the upper arm parallel to the floor in this front rack position. Have the athlete complete 5 good front squat reps. If these are good, we can work on the press.

With the bar back at shoulder height, instruct the athlete to take a slight dip (torso remains vertical, just a slight bend of the knees). Then, squeeze the quads and glutes violently to get the bar “weightless” and finish by locking out the arms with the bar overhead. Bar should always end over the middle of the athlete’s body – not out in front or behind.

Once we’ve gotten comfortable with the overhead portion, we can put these two pieces together. Cue the athletes to drive up with the legs aggressively out of the front squat and finish with a full lockout.

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Teaching the Front Squat

One of the 3 most common loaded variations of our standard air squat – the Front Squat is widely regarded as the most “athletic” of the weighted squat movements.

While we believe that any and all squatting has great benefit to performance, the Front Squat is indeed a great lift which comes with a host of benefits beyond basic below parallel strength. Due to the “front rack” positioning of the barbell, a vertical torso is not just helpful but required. This means that hip and ankle mobility become an even greater part of the equation. As does midline stabilization (aka core strength). Lastly, the front rack position itself is one requiring some coordination and upper extremity mobility.

When attempting the Front Squat for the first time, there are a few main coaching points to keep in mind when teaching the front squat:

1. Hand placement – the front rack is a difficult position for many athletes to get into. Instruct them to take a wider than shoulder width and loose finger grip. The bar should rest on the meat of the shoulder, not the collarbone. We address front rack mobility development in other videos.

2. Elbow Height – this is the most common issue for new athletes. We want to keep the upper arm as close to parallel to the floor as possible. Use visual, auditory or tactile cues to get them to keep the chest proud and elbows high (the “2 Potato Rule”). One great cue is to tell your athletes to lead from the elbows on the way out of the bottom of their squat, cueing them to drive the elbows up.

3. As always, we recommend that athletes master the basic squat first before attempting any loaded variations. Even more important, though, is to maintain our 4 points of squat performance during every loaded rep. We never add weight to an improper movement!

The key to development is to master the basics…then master them again!