Using mini workouts to improve physical intelligence

Look back in time and the everyday demands of the world automatically traditionally created a physically intelligent person. To be physically connected to the natural world through the body and culture used to be vital for survival. Then came industrialization and the information economy. Now we don’t have to be physically sophisticated to eat, survive, or earn a living. That’s great to some extent, but the byproduct is that most of us have become more alienated from our deconditioned and objectified bodies.

It is then helpful to think of physical education as training to claw back our physical intelligence not in the typical sense of pure fitness or performance, but in the sense of putting us back in balance with the physical world. We, like music teachers, help students learn, understand, and master an instrument while also helping those students build and improve that instrument. We must train the body and mind in the same way.

» Learn more about microdosing and mini workouts for physical education in the upcoming GAIN Post-Pandemic PE Workshop with James Marshall and Andy Stone.

Introducing the mini workout

How do we achieve these goals? One method is the mini workout, which aims to develop movement intelligence and physical structure through short exposures to movement. In this article, I will show how to create mini workouts that are challenging, engaging, and effective.

If used regularly these will improve coordination, cardiovascular fitness, and muscular strength. A well-constructed mini workout demands focus. The aim is to stay in a zone of challenge to keep the students engaged and learning. It is important for the teacher to have many steps of the exercise progressions in their repertoire to lead the students along this path. A progression doesn’t always have to be physically more demanding. A variation that the students haven’t used before is often enough.

The mini workout structure is simple, which serves several purposes. One, it enables enough repetition to help improve the skills. Two, it allows the students to follow along easily and to go at their own pace when ready. Three, it allows for an important balance between variety and repetition. If there is too much variety there is little learning or improvement, too much repetition and there is boredom and again little learning or improvement. You need to hit a sweet spot between the two. Finally, it is easy for the teacher to program and add simple challenges and changes from set to set.

Tips on planning mini workouts

Work in sets: Our mini workouts are divided into sets where we combine different movements. Each workout consist of three to five different sets depending on the age and fitness of the students, with rest in between each. It can be helpful to add music and have the students sit when they finish; then starting a new song with each set. This format also works well for younger students, and can also be adapted in the weight room with older PE students. With our fitter wrestling athletes we might go through each set multiple times.

Use rep ranges: Many times we will give a range of reps for a movement. This is a simple way to give the students choice and allow students to find their own level of work. We also let them go at their own pace by telling them the exercises before the set begins and having them sit when finished.

Finish with simple: When planning a workout, coaches always tend to make each element a bit more complex. In many cases, however, it can help to end with something simple. The simple version of an exercise at the end of the workout is a good choice especially if it is a challenging movement or the students are getting sloppy and fatigued. It allows them to come back to something familiar they can execute with quality. An illustration of this is in the second example below, where donkey kicks are used at the start, and then brought back at the end of the workout as well.

Teach: We do a quick demonstration for new movements or reteach problem movements. All exercises should be done deliberately; the right level of physical/coordination challenge is critical. If the exercises are mindless, you may improve physical structure, but you are not working on underlying physical intelligence or enriching body awareness or its connection to the environment. We use the mini workout in every class but vary the focus. Rotating between lower body, upper body, and ground agility workouts, but this is by no means the only way to organize these.

Examples of mini workouts

How you set up each set is important. Below are three examples of how I set up mini workouts. Even more examples, including videos of most of the exercises listed, are also available on my YouTube channel.

In the first example, you can see how each set addresses the theme of the session a little differently. In the first example, the core of the workout is a slow single leg squat that challenges balance, coordination, and strength. Variations of this are included in all four sets. This movement is also easily modified, so all students can have success.

The single leg exercise is then always paired with a fast, explosive jump to give a well rounded leg workout. In between the single leg work and the jump are skipping and side shuffles. These give a rest between the leg work, and challenge movement patterns at the same time.

It works well to use four exercises, two pairs of two exercises. There are two leg movements one slow one fast and two skipping variations one forward/backward and one sideways.

Example 1: Lower body strength and coordination focus
Set 1
  • Piston squat x 3-5 left/right
  • Skipping fwd/bkwd x 5-10 skips
  • Broad jump x 4-6
  • Side shuffle x 5-10 steps left/right
Set 2
  • Piston squat w/ knee hug x 3-5 left/right
  • Skipping w/ jumping Jack arms fwd/bkwd x 5-10 skips
  • Broad jump (jump from two feet land on one) x 4-6
  • Side shuffle w/ jumping jack arms x 5-10 steps left/right
Set 3
  • Piston squat to lateral lunge x 3-5 left/right
  • Skipping w/ alt arm reach to sky fwd/bkwd x 5-10 skips
  • Broad jump (jump from one foot land on two) x 4-6
  • Side shuffle alt arm reach to sky x 5-10 skips
Set 4
  • Piston squat to lateral hop x 3-5 left/right
  • Skipping w/ Jill arms fwd/bkwd x 5-10 skips
  • Lateral jump to broad jump x 4-6
  • Side shuffle w/ Jill arms x 5-10 steps left/right
Example 2: Upper body strength and coordination focus
Set 1
  • Push-up x 5-10 (use modified push-ups as needed)
  • Bear crawl 5 steps fwd/bkwd
  • Donkey kicks x 5
  • Crab walk 5 steps fwd/bkwd
Set 2
  • Straight body roll to Push-up x 5-10 (use modified push-ups as needed)
  • Sideways bear crawl 5 steps fwd/bkwd
  • Turtle to donkey kicks x 5
  • Sideways crab walk 5 steps left/right
Set 3
  • Push-up w/ opposite hand to opposite foot touches x 5-10 (use modified push-ups as needed)
  • Straight leg bear crawl 5 steps F/B
  • Rev turtle to donkey kicks x 5
  • Crab walk w/ opposite hand to opposite foot touches 5 steps F/B
Set 4
  • T Push-up (alt arm reach to sky & maintain low, straight body x 5-10
  • Low knee bear crawl 5 steps fwd/bkwd (teaching pt. knees tennis ball height off ground)
  • Donkey kicks x 5 (kick as high as possible on this set, handstand height if possible
  • Crab walk in table top positions (hips to sky) 5 steps fwd/bkwd
Example 3: Ground agility- rolling w/ coordination focus
Set 1
  • Roll back squats x 5 (also called deck squats or egg rolls)
  • Fwd/bkwd jacks
  • Side rolls in tuck x 4
  • Fwd/bkwd Jills x 5
Set 2
  • Roll back squat to forward lunge x 6
  • Fwd/bkwd single leg hopping jacks 5 (forward on left backward on right)
  • Side rolls to lateral lunge x 4
  • Fwd/bkwd Single leg hopping jills x 5 (forward on left backward on right)
Set 3
  • Roll back squat to lateral lunge x 4-6
  • Fwd/bkwd single leg side hopping Jacks x 5 (forward on left backward on right)
  • Side rolls to lateral hop x 4
  • Fwd/bkwd single leg side hopping Jills x 5 (forward on left backward on right)
Set 4
  • Roll back squat to 180 pivot x 4-6
  • Fwd/bkwd single leg hops w/ alt arm reach to sky x 5 (forward on left backward on right)
  • Side rolls to lateral bound x 4
  • Fwd/bkwd single leg side hops w/ alt arm reach to sky x 5 (forward on left backward on right)

Remember the goal

Remember what we are trying to accomplish when students walk into our class. Movement creates and develops who and what they become; it is primary in creating knowledge and understanding of the world. We must help them to move better. The body is not Brother Ass, as Saint Francis described it, an object to be overcome or mastered. What Joseph Campbell said about our place in the universe can be said about the body “thou art that.” As teachers we must resist the urge to only optimize and perfect the body for performance. The mini workouts along with a movement rich warm-up, and games for fun and variety will do much to help our students move better in the world.