Changing the Traditional Landscape of Middle School Fitness and Physical Education Spaces

Changing the Traditional Landscape of Middle School Fitness and Physical Education Spaces

By Dan Hutchison, MS, ATC, CSCS

With the recent emphasis on youth fitness and youth sports performance, middle schools have taken more initiative in beginning the strength and conditioning process for individual and athletic development through structured sports training times and physical education (PE) classes.

A variety of PE and fitness environments exist and fall into three distinct categories:

  • Category 1 – An area consisting of selectorized weight equipment and cardiovascular machines.
  • Category 2 – The gymnasium or multi-purpose space.
  • Category 3 – Nothing.

Category 1 spaces have been fortunate enough to have funding available for a certain amount of equipment, and since it is a middle school that consists of children between the ages of 11 and 15, most PE instructors, coaches and even parents would choose to go with machines to reduce the likelihood of someone getting hurt.  In some or perhaps most cases, PE instructors haven’t been formally educated in the fundamentals of strength and conditioning, or functional performance training, so the easiest method for teaching students how to ‘push’, ‘pull’ and use their leg muscles is to put them into a machine.  In addition, cardiovascular training has taken the ‘adult fitness box’ approach of simply having a child get on the treadmill, stationary bike, rower, or elliptical machine and raise their heart rate for 30-40 minutes, or just try to maintain movement while talking to their buddy on the next machine.

Category 2 consists of using a space able to hold 20-40 kids that usually involves various games or activities (line soccer, dodge ball, etc.) performed as one large group.

Category 3 uses outdoor space, if available and if the weather permits, or PE just isn’t required or even offered.  Agree or disagree, this is typically the set up in this environment.

All of these categories of settings have existed in the middle school world for a number of years with minimal push-back or an urgency to change.  The health and wellness status of our younger population is already projected to be sedentary, overweight, underactive, and/or obese by the time they reach adulthood and/or middle age.  The current recommendation of 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity has somewhat gotten lost to additional classwork, more after school structured activities, the emphasis on early accumulation of college requirements, or as mentioned PE not being offered or required.

Is there a better approach to middle school movement education?

The importance we put on physical fitness and health literally ‘shapes’ our youth as they become adults, and guides them in making better choices with not only physical activity, but also with nutrition, alcohol consumption, drug use, and other important life decisions.  The underlying theme is not if we put a child in a machine or on a piece of cardiovascular equipment are they suddenly going to become sedentary or obese, which is absolutely not the case.  The goal is to show our youth that they can participate in a number of exercises that are functional to ‘life’ movements, and that better adapt the human body to tolerate the many circumstances they will face as adults.  In other words, kids can function on and figure out the various exercise machines they may come in contact with if they decide to join a gym or fitness center as adults; lets challenge their functionality through open-space, movement-based exercises that promote body awareness, balance and strength.  This movement education will develop athleticism in both athletic and non-athletic youth.

Category 4: The Performance Center concept

This adds a fourth and optimal category to the mix, which consists of 3 main areas for challenging youth physical development.  The best approach is to have these areas in one dedicated space, but it can also work very well added to a gym or multi-purpose room, or a combination of the two.

  • Open space – turf space, gym, or mulit-purpose room.
  • Plyometric area – Jumping and landing areas for lower body coordination and development.
  • Resistance devices – Applications that utilize bodyweight and variable resistance (i.e., cords or bands) to offer multi-directional movement through pushing, pulling, rotating, squatting and lunging.

Category 4 will be recognized as the ‘Performance Center’ model in the middle school environment, offering the optimal set-up for both athletics and physical education.  This is not to take away the importance of ‘game-playing’ and/or ‘free-play’, during recess or PE, since these two areas have proven to be extremely beneficial for physical literacy, motor skill development, muscle strength increases, and endurance characteristics…..and they are fun!

In the following sections, each area of the Performance Center model will be explained so the reader can understand the importance for long-term youth development.  In addition, the secondary goal is to promote and encourage additional physical education instructor education in the areas of human performance, exercise science and strength and conditioning so they can be better versed in setting up circuits, exercise stations, and consistent testing to optimize the training/educational space.


The open space concept offers a multitude of exercise applications from learning dynamic warm-up routines, practicing change-of-direction drills, to having an adequate place for post-class flexibility and recovery.  The open space concept also offers an area that is ‘unstructured’.  Instructors and coaches can perform all sorts of functional movements, whether it be a game of color tag, or as a skill-specific area for practicing ground ball fielding (baseball), short passing drills (soccer), or lacrosse stick work.  In the classroom setting, the open space provides an area where the instructor can teach movement skills for running and jumping, or add cones, ladders or hurdles to teach agility and change-of-direction.  By having and using an open space, whether it be turf, the gym floor, or a multi-purpose room, students learn how to control their bodies in ‘space’ through various drills and exercises.


The plyometric area may consist of a specific floor-based pattern system (see Perform-X™ TraK-X™ inlayed and above-ground platforms) that lays the fundamental framework for balance, proprioception, and ‘fast’ feet, or the area may consist of simply boxes, barriers or hurdles.  The unique, pattern-based system offers a dedicated area for balance and footwork development, both through bodyweight exercises and variable loading (i.e., resistance cords) drills.

Plyometrics, by definition, involve any movement, vertical, horizontal or lateral, that places the muscle in a stretched or lengthened position, followed by an immediate contraction or shortening of the muscle.  Regardless of intensity, this mode of exercise attempts to mimic athletic competition movement, i.e., running, jumping, or throwing, as well as everyday human movement, i.e., walking, stair climbing, fall prevention, etc.  Similar to these movements, if plyometrics can be properly progressed to allow adequate adaptation of soft tissue (muscles, tendons and ligaments), individuals are better positioned for athletic improvement, and can reduce the likelihood of injury during various sport and PE tasks.

By having a dedicated plyometric area, small-group training concepts can be utilized through time or repetition based jumping, and built-in progressions.  Students learn body awareness qualities, again, while controlling their movements in space.  Plus, they can now be challenged, in a fun way, to improve their day-to-day performance through repetition counting with and against their classmates.  A little competition never hurts!


The great thing about categorizing this area as “Resistance Devices” is kids don’t perceive it as ‘weight lifting’.  Utilizing resistance devices like cords or bands offer multi-directional movement variations that do not occur in a selectorized weight machine, and they are noticeably less expensive.  Variable resistance cords allow kids to understand the various movement patterns involved in both life and athletics.  We never push, pull or lift an object the same way every time….we push high or low, we pull at various angles, we press overhead, we lift objects from very low depths, and we do multiple tasks with one arm or one leg.  All of these variations can be performed with resistance cords at different resistances, angles, positions, and speeds.

Speed is another interesting component of using resistance cords in the middle school setting.  By timing the drill, kids are forced to move the cord/band at higher intensities.  This promotes body awareness, enhances body control, and increases metabolic rate, i.e., the kid’s breath heavier, their heart rate increases, and they might start sweating!!  Loading and intensities can be manipulated easily, safely and consistently, so no two days are the same.  This versatility goes a long way in keeping classes and practices fun, promoting physical activity, and educating kids on the many ways to perform one movement.  This gives them the freedom and knowledge as adults to perform these movements effectively and not solely in a machine.


The landscape of machine-based strength training and physical education at the middle school level is changing for the betterment of our youth.  As kids have become adults, their reliance on machines to improve fitness has diminished with more emphasis on movement, resistance applications using cords and free weights, and conditioning through short-burst, high intensity efforts with short recovery.  The concepts outlined above fall into these catagories but are targeted toward a younger population with the types of devices (i.e., resistance cords), the space (open turf or gym area), and the circuit/timing approach.  Establishing the fundamental framework for kids aged 11-14, positions them to make quality choices in living a holistic and healthy life.


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