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Benefits of Functional Strength Training in Physical Education

This is an excerpt from Functional Strength Training for Physical Education With HKPropel Access by Nate J. VanKouwenberg.

Quality PE fitness units should incorporate all five components of fitness to provide a comprehensive experience (figure 5.1).

Functional strength training covers all these bases. Although there is plenty of room to introduce additional fitness activities such as distance running, biking, swimming, yoga, and more, implementing functional strength training in physical education by following a sequential road map will provide students with a safe, all-encompassing experience that can be applied to a lifetime of wellness.

Figure 5.1 Five components of fitness.
Figure 5.1 Five components of fitness.

Challenges of Implementing Functional Strength Training in Physical Education

Despite overwhelming evidence pointing to the benefits of implementing sequential functional strength training in PE units for students of all ages, it is often much easier said than done. Most teachers do not operate in their own silo, so making significant program changes requires several people in a building or districtwide department to agree and work together. Unfortunately, people who are not willing to devote the time and effort necessary to implement changes are the biggest hurdle in adopting new concepts such as functional strength training in physical education. Although our profession is full of driven, dedicated, and progressive teachers who are willing to do whatever it takes to provide a meaningful experience for students, there are still plenty of stereotypical old-school “gym teachers” out there, just waiting to collect their pensions.

While giving presentations on functional strength training in physical education to countless teachers over the past several years, I have heard every excuse in the book, particularly from those who would rather just stick to traditional, machine-based fitness units. Change can be difficult, and it often requires a great deal of extra effort; therefore, much of the hesitation is valid. However, some stubborn teachers dig their heels in and refuse to consider change, perhaps out of pure laziness and lack of pride in our profession. Regardless of the situation, passionate teachers who are driven to implement functional strength training in physical education must find a way to get as many people on board as possible.

Here are some of the most common excuses and reasons for hesitating that I have heard over the years. Having an answer or possible solution to these in advance can help break down barriers when speaking to teachers who may be on the fence.

“If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. This is what we’ve always done.” It is our job as physical educators to always be on the lookout for the latest and greatest activities to offer our students. Teachers should have enough pride in our profession to change with the times and offer cutting-edge programming that will have the greatest possible benefits for students into adulthood. Earn your paycheck.

Teachers may need to learn new skills and concepts. Learning new skills and concepts takes additional time and effort, but again, it’s what our students deserve. With adequate guidance and resources, it will be much less work than most people think.

Teachers may need to demonstrate skills they are uncomfortable with or may not be able to perform due to physical limitations. This excuse has been the biggest hurdle I have faced over the years. People like to teach activities they are comfortable with. When teachers are not confident in their own ability to demonstrate functional skills due to physical limitations or a lack of previous exposure, they tend to put up a massive wall. The good news is that teachers do not need to demonstrate these exercises in class! Teachers can use video demonstrations (see HKPropel for examples) and ask highly skilled students to demonstrate for them. This has been a game changer for teachers who have put up roadblocks due to their own insecurities.

Districts have limited budgets and space for physical education. Functional strength training requires a fraction of the space and money that traditional fitness machine units do. As we will discuss in later chapters, all you need to teach quality functional strength training units is some open space and a few free weights. No bells and whistles are necessary.

Teachers think they need to be a certified strength and conditioning coach or personal trainer to teach functional strength training. Functional strength training units in physical education should focus on fundamental skill development and basic fitness concepts. With the step-by-step road map and accompanying resources in this book, any qualified PE teacher can present this type of training safely and effectively to students. Certified strength and conditioning coaches and personal trainers apply these skills and concepts to specific personalized goals and needs at a more complex level than should be introduced in the general PE setting.

Teachers think that teaching functional skills will require more classroom and behavior management. I have actually found that the opposite is true. In my experience, I have been able to keep students more engaged and motivated by teaching them these fun, exciting, and self-fulfilling functional skills compared to traditional machine-based circuits. I believe students are much more likely to misbehave if they are given a list of machine exercises to complete on their own over a period of time, without any feedback or introduction of new skills.

Teachers, athletic directors, and PE directors do not want to waste money they spent on selectorized machines. Selectorized machines not only provide fewer benefits than functional exercises, but they take up a lot of valuable space and are extremely expensive compared to free weights. Therefore, when department leaders ask me how to improve their teaching space to implement functional strength training, I usually start with suggesting they get rid of most of their selectorized machines. People usually have a very hard time parting ways with several thousand dollars’ worth of equipment, regardless of the situation. We will discuss facility design and equipment needs in later chapters, but except for a few machines that target functional patterns for populations with special needs and for elderly community members, I believe this equipment is a waste of space. Some options to get rid of selectorized machines without a total loss include buy-back programs with equipment distributors, community yard sale events, and donating to local organizations for tax credit. The return will most likely be pennies on the dollar, but it’s better than nothing.

Tips for Implementing Functional Strength Training

If you are reading this book, you are most likely passionate about implementing functional strength training in your current or future professional role. Although districtwide change requires a team effort, every department needs someone like you to take the lead. Here are some useful strategies that have worked for me in the past when trying to motivate hesitant teachers to give functional strength training in physical education a chance.

Start With Small Changes

Although you may want to give your program a complete overhaul right away, if you’re dealing with difficult people and other potential hurdles, you may be better off making gradual changes to start. Once people see these changes in action, walls will start to break down, clearing a path to long-term change.

Know When to Bend

If a teacher who is putting up roadblocks feels strongly about keeping something in the program that you would like to remove, it may actually present an opportunity to gain trust and additional support. As long as it is safe for students, compromising in these situations can go a long way.

Speak Like a Coach

Many PE teachers also coach in the district. I have found that many of the teachers who resist change care more about their coaching position than their PE day job. Pointing out that functional strength training can drastically improve sport performance and decrease the risk of sport-related injury can be a huge selling point.

Gain Support from Athletic and PE Directors

Every district is different, but most top-notch PE programs have top-notch leaders at the helm. It is much easier to get everyone on board with change when it starts at the top. Start by selling the benefits of functional strength training to program leaders, then create a plan for districtwide implementation.

Realize That You Can’t Win Them All

Unfortunately, no matter what you do, there may be people who flat out refuse to adopt these program changes. If you have done your part to help relieve hesitation without any success, you may need to move on without them. Although districtwide consistency is ideal, exposing some of your students to these concepts is at least a start. There is always the chance that reluctant teachers will slowly come around after seeing functional strength training in action.

More Excerpts From Functional Strength Training for Physical Education With HKPropel Access