The Case for Classical P.E.: A Practical Application for Upper School

By Jenny Crockett, Guest Author

“Pupils develop a well-disciplined attitude toward the ‘hard work principle’ in terms of heavy, energy-output type of activities.”

This is a quote from Stan LeProtti’s program guide for the La Sierra High School PE program. He expected his students to do hard things. He took a whole man approach to physical education to produce students who were both physically and physiologically fit, teaching the mind to lead the body. As classical educators, we expect our students to do hard things, too…at least in the classroom. But what about in the gym? 

In almost every conversation I’ve had about classical PE, people enthusiastically agree that the classical model is the better way, the best way, to inspire a generation toward stewardship of the bodies that they have been given. The question then becomes “How on Earth do I get this started?” In the last installment about classical PE, we took a brief look at the progression of physical education throughout history. In this installment, we are going to examine some practical applications and talk about how to quantify and measure success in the classroom.

A Brief Recap

The program that will be outlined in the remainder of this article is based largely on concepts learned and borrowed from the work of Stan LeProtti and the program he created at La Sierra High School. Of particular note is that this PE program was 5 days per week and made use of “off the ground” training. The success of the program made it the eventual poster child for fitness across the United States, especially after John F. Kennedy picked it up in what he called The Great National Effort. For more in-depth information about the La Sierra program, visit the Facebook page at

Most classical schools today do not have the luxury of having PE five days per week once students reach the Upper School level (grades 7-12 at Highland Rim Academy), nor do they have access to considerable amounts of equipment and/or space. So how do we successfully implement this model in a meaningful and distinctly classical and Christian? And how do we do that while working with varying physical abilities and limitations?

The Program: Grades 7-8

The physical ability of students in grades 7 and 8 can vary greatly.  Implementing a fitness-based program to accommodate those differences often requires the use of circuit workouts and the creation of levels for both exercises and expectations. The goal is not to create an elite army of super-fit teens. The goal is to instill a basic knowledge of fitness and create an environment where even the most awkward, least athletic teen can find a place to succeed. Everyone starts at ground zero, but not everyone’s ground zero will look the same.

When students enter PE I, which is composed of grades 7-8, they are introduced to the La Sierra Strength and Endurance Routine ( This warm-up should take anywhere from 12-15 minutes after the first few weeks of learning it. There is a great video that can be downloaded to teach the cues and forms of each of the exercises. It is performed with a cadence to allow students the opportunity to learn to train the breath with effort. The end of this routine also includes a short agility drill that combines fast feet and planks. Every class during the year will begin with this routine. The goal is to have this portion of the class student-led by the beginning of the third quarter.

So many portions of this drill are distinctly classical when the instructor takes the time to work through the hows and whys of each exercise. Each movement becomes a tool to use toward preparation for activity. Students learn the importance of doing each move correctly and begin to see the benefit of the consistency of the routine.  

Another vital part of PE I is learning proper forms. Students are walked through movements like squats, push ups, lunges, sit ups, wall sits, and planks. Correct running form is also a significant portion of those first few weeks. Carefully learning the cues of correct form, they begin to practice and learn the difference between the feeling of performing the movements correctly and incorrectly. A major mantra in all of my classes is “form over speed.” I am constantly reminding them that I do not care how fast you can get through a circuit if you are using bad form to complete it.  

After the first two weeks, students perform a battery of baseline tests: timed mile run, sit-ups in 2 minutes, burpees in 1 minute, wall sit (5 minute max), plank (3 minute max), and push-ups to failure. Results are recorded. These tests are repeated each quarter, and students are expected to show improvement in the first 2 quarters and improvement or maintenance in the last 2 quarters. Testing in this way allows for the vast differences in ability and development at this age. Students are basically competing with themselves each quarter and challenged to push harder and improve their abilities in workouts throughout the quarter.

(As a side note here, push-ups are a very complex movement that requires a significant amount of upper body strength not yet possessed by many students in these grades. In order to facilitate progression in this form, levels are introduced so that students have a place to begin. Level 1 equates to a quarter push up. Level 2 equates to a half push up, and Level 3 is a complete, full push up. None of these are performed with the knees on the ground.)

In the weeks leading up to testing, students primarily do circuit workouts to continue practicing form and to begin to learn how to put exercises together to help them reach their goals. Circuit workouts allow students to work at a pace that is appropriate to their ability level. The encouragement is to complete as many circuits as they can with good form in the allotted time. Many students who are not particularly gifted athletically are often surprised by what they can achieve when they learn how to perform movements. Getting a taste of success in this arena often begins to spur them to a new interest in improving their physicality. This also allows room for students to spur one another on to success.

Approaching PE in this way allows students to begin to learn how to move, how to control their bodies, how to push through the right kind of pain for the reward on the other side, and why it is important to move. They begin to appreciate what God created their bodies to do. Many begin to feel better, and there is often camaraderie in the shared experience of being sore after a really good workout. The overarching Christian distinctive is that students are learning to steward the bodies and the abilities they have been given. Another Christian distinctive is integrity as students are asked to self-report and self-manage the completion of the exercises and circuits.

The Program: Grades 9-10

In PE II, which is high school students, the expectations are raised to a higher level.  Test grades for this class are based partially on personal goal completion and partially on the performance of standards. The battery of tests that is performed in PE I is traded up for a set of standards based on basic beginning levels of achievement from the La Sierra PE guidelines. 

Students begin the first few weeks of the program reviewing and performing correct forms. They are also introduced to a set of six standards that will be performed at the end of each quarter.  

After a baseline performance of these standards, first year students must choose 2 of these standards as goals for the year. They then work with the instructor to break that down into quarterly goals, essentially creating a part of their own testing for the year. Students are tasked with keeping a goal log to record work toward their goals throughout the quarter. Completion of the goal log each quarter counts for a portion of the goal test. Second year students are allowed to choose goals outside of these standards, subject to instructor approval.

Personal goal-setting allows students to begin putting together the knowledge and experience from PE I. They get the opportunity to begin quantifying their own goals.  Students begin practicing the same skills in physical education that they are practicing in their academic classes, learning to become active participants in their own education. Goal-setting is a valuable tool that will serve them well beyond the PE classroom. They can apply the same strategies to every area of life.

The standards tests are strictly pass/fail.  For every failed test, the student loses 5 points.  Students who attempt every standard but miss the mark will earn a grade of 70.  However, that grade combined with successful performance of their individual goals still allows the student who works hard to earn an A in the class. The purpose of this combination is to encourage consistency, hard work, and diligence. The athletically gifted student who passes all of the standards, but fails to complete the goal log, will certainly receive a lower grade for that quarter.


To wrap it all up, physical education can be both distinctly Christian and distinctly classical, and all students can discover a level of fitness and responsibility they did not previously possess. There is so much more than I outlined above to a classical approach to PE. Interwoven in the physical work is a basic understanding of terms like agility, balance, flexibility, muscular endurance, cardiorespiratory endurance, strength and power. Students will also walk away with an understanding of heart rates and self-assessments that will serve them beyond the walls of the school. Not all students will choose to use them well, but the goal is students who have tools to lead a healthy life wherever God may call them to go.

At Highland Rim Academy, we are continually looking at new ways to improve our PE program and keep it tied into the mission of the school in real and practical ways.  The next step for us is a trial program for grades 5 and 6 to prepare students for Upper School PE. Keeping an open conversation with other schools who are seeking after the same goals in physical education is vital. We simply cannot miss the opportunity to teach physical education in a distinctly classical and distinctly Christian way. As with academics, this is the way it was done for centuries before we lost the way. Let’s recover these tools of physical education to revitalize the next generation and spur on a desire for healthy movement.


Jenny Crockett serves as an upper school teacher and Director of Admissions at Highland Rim Academy, a classical Christian school, in Cookeville, TN.  As a PE teacher, she has spent the last 8 years developing a program for her school that adheres to a more classical tradition.  She has presented her research at the ACCS conference and been a resource to a number of other schools across the country in search of a better way to do PE.  A certified Youth Fitness Trainer through the ISSA, she also coaches high school basketball and helps to program strength and conditioning routines for HRA athletes.

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