Physical literacy and health are the most important subjects of any person’s development. They are intimately linked to our intellectual and personal growth. Overwhelming evidence indicates that with more physical activity, learning will increase. More importantly, emphasizing movement and health is the right thing to do amid the epidemic of lifestyle-related illness and chronic physical limitations.
Nothing is deadlier and more debilitating than the habits we program into our youth. Comfort and complacency reign as their bodies and minds are starved for refinement.
Physical culture honors our nature, and is the only way we can fully realize and express our potential. Physical preparation is the gateway to all other improvements. Our physical health leads to mental health, intellectual creativity, and personal growth orientation. Regardless of where we are, all of us can begin our path to health and make daily incremental changes toward improvement.
I have created a program called Bold Spirit Physical Education to offset the physical limitations indoctrinated by our cultural habits. The training is built with a focus on process and quality to bring a meaningful physical practice to our youth. It will train mind and body, while instilling values and inclinations to spur an inspired life of possibility.
The Last Time We Tried It
John F. Kennedy once declared: “A country is as strong as its citizens. And I think that mental and physical health, mental and physical vigor go hand in hand.” This was the backbone of his push to prioritize physical education in schools. His vision took root in a handful of experimental schools, most notably La Sierra High School in Sacramento, California. The students of this school were forever changed by this system. Grades skyrocketed as actual confidence and right mindset were refined.
Tony Asaro, La Sierra High School Class of 1967, explained that what fueled this revolution was the belief that if America was physically healthy, it would be “mentally, spiritually, emotionally, and patriotically healthy.” By all accounts, the transformation was experienced across the board. As Mr. Asaro explained:
“Within three months of participating in this program, the body and mind were transformed into positive, best-effort teammates. The other teachers loved the PE program because student focus improved, grades went up, and character traits were valued.”
Seeing what has already been brings a new level of belief in what could be. When we immerse our lives in full physical expression, we find that a limitless experience in our intellectual world follows. When we prioritize physical education, all the world becomes a playground, and we insulate ourselves from the chronic mental and physical pains which have become commonplace in America.
The Bold Spirit Physical Education Program
I’ve explained the terrible consequences of ignoring health in schools and explained the need for everything from standing desks to more recess. I’ve provided a broad examination of what a restructured P.E. and health system may look like. Today, I’ll dive into how I would do it. My next few articles will suggest a specific progression and philosophy that I think all students will benefit from.
We must start with an understanding of where we are and who we are. Even those with a training background will likely be disconnected from their bodies and dealing with the chronic imbalances of western society. This plan is made for this world; for 12-22 year olds who have spent seven or more years in shoes and chairs—unlearning natural human movements and natural physical development.
Results will not come overnight. Even in Mr. Asaro’s time, it took a full three months to see dramatic change. Today’s kids have even more to overcome, from resetting their metabolism and hormones, to physical restrictions and immobility, to the incessant distractions of the digital age. These problems will only be overcome with clarity and persistence in training new habits.
It’s all about daily, incremental movements in the right direction. After daily implementation of these processes, we can begin to shed a lot of the foundational monotony. When the body begins to operate as it should, a lot of the less-fun training can be shed.
The only implements of this system are those that allow considerable movement potential. All that is recommended are kettlebells, parallettes, monkey bars, sleds, ropes, peg-board walls, balls to play games, and obstacle course implements. These require us to manipulate our own body in space and require an emphasis on mastery vs. simply pushing harder. There is a bit of nuance to this approach that is far more human and more transformative than traditional gym classes.
We will start each day with a long variation of Jerzy Gregorek’s Happy Body mobility program. His system is 18 exercises split into three blocks of six, which are repeated as circuits. We will layer the implementation of these methods to allow time to teach correct execution, while not spending the entire physical education block on just mobility. The intense focus and breath work help it serve as a sort of meditative warm up.
Then we’ll move to my Block 0 isometric hold circuits. Beginners will rapidly increase in strength through this alone. The block 0 concept will eventually move to light tempo work with kettlebells.
At the end of each physical education block, we will simply play. This program initially requires an uncomfortable level of focus for people not used to prolonged attention. This is very general physical preparation, and so it will pair well with games that feature a wide array of reactive human movements. At this point, I remove the teacher as much as possible, and encourage self-direction in games. Obstacle courses and relays will fit here, and can incorporate loaded carries, bear crawls, monkey bars, rope climbs, sprints, wheelbarrow pushes and pulls, and many other fun challenges.
If I were to have a group of 40 year olds I would progress the same way. Play is essential. It forces the body to move in three dimensions, to maintain reactive ability, to jump, run, and build general aerobic capacity.
We will not sit, unless to the floor with frequent movements. Each day’s training and play will promote novel challenges.
I’m sure this seems elementary, but without this foundation, none of the future methods will hold nearly the weight. As Gray Cook says, we would be placing fitness on dysfunction. The chinks in our armor would show, and we’d have to work backwards. Eventually, both the Happy Body warm up and Block 0 concepts will be phased out of the daily rotation, and used sparingly as tools for refocusing and remembering the foundational lessons.
As we progress, we’ll move to a focused immersion in the Simple and Sinister kettlebell program created by Pavel Tsatsouline. Along with this, we will begin daily practice in bodyweight progressions such as the handstand, front lever, and airborne squat. These will be short practices that steer away from failure and exhaustion, but promote exploration and familiarity with bodyweight.
The beauty of a focus on total-body skills is that it teaches correct, functional use of the body. It also paves the way for infinite progress. Early on, there is an intense focus required to learn movements like the Turkish get up and handstand. There is far more attention and awareness required of where each limb is in space and how very large differences are made with varying degrees of tension, hand placement, and other small shifts. The progressions and ability to add challenge within these movements is nearly infinite, while creating far greater transfer than laying on a bench ever could.
At this level, we will maintain a fundamental movement warm up that also features a short obstacle course of monkey bars, rope climbs, crawls, and carries. As before, each day will end with free play.
Here we learn a few more skills, progress those we’ve already learned, and continue to improve strength, speed, agility, and conditioning. We focus on building a balanced and dynamic human, rather than a powerlifter who can’t touch their shoulders and is destined for a triple bypass, or a marathoner who can’t do a push up.
We’ll start with a quick movement flow a la Max Shank. Then a basic kettlebell warm up of swings, goblet squats, and halos, followed by a few Turkish get ups. Then we’ll move to a modified daily version of Max Shank’s Ultimate Athleticism program. This plan emphasizes 15-minute blocks of training where two skills and one mobility element are practiced. It is built around four exercises and their progressions and regressions: the L-sit to handstand, the front lever, the airborne squat, and the deadlift. In the power section which precedes the first training block, we would pair kettlebell snatches with a mobility exercise.
Some days we will vary the program and insert challenges, games, and obstacle courses, but this general template has the capacity to be varied endlessly, and has proven to offer phenomenal performance and life carryover. This final level offers the opportunity for endless progression, refinement, and further exploration.
There will be no black belts or kudos given out. There may be considerable difference between someone beginning level three and someone who has been here for a couple years. The reward is the practice and the process of daily development. While compliments are always recommended, no more recognition or ego-stroking is necessary. From here, a world of sport performance, movement capabilities, and self-understanding are available to each student. If they want to go get RKC certified, I imagine they’ll thrive. If they want to train for a marathon, they’ll have the mental tools and physical foundation to do so.
Ditch the Fluff and Make Better Humans
At the core of inspired human development is a physically strong human being. Physical literacy must become our first priority in education, just as it was in our early life. It’s our most natural inclination to develop more physical skills, to play, to use our body to chase food, flee predators, and interact with nature. It is the body’s experiences through which we have context to understand the rest of the world. It’s not crazy to act in the way your body was meant to act; it’s crazy not to be a human when all your biochemistry is programmed in this direction.
We could solve most of our society’s problems by replacing the fluff in education with this system. Movement is essential to cognitive development, making us more creative and optimistic to see the possibility of the world. It makes your presence more joyful and infuses your life with energy, affecting your performance in interviews, affecting your ability to focus on each task, affecting your efficiency, and affecting the positive influence you have on those around you.