Physical Education From The Past

The video below highlights an early physical education program from La Sierra High School in California. As you watch the clip, you may be surprised at the physical ability of the teenagers seen within. Many youngsters today are not aware of the tremendous physical strength that was often on display in previous generations. As I have said many times before, strength is not new.

A related article from a 1962 magazine can be accessed by clicking the image below (courtesy of this site).

As I watched the video above, I wondered how many high school students today could perform such feats as easily as those seen throughout the clip. Call it a hunch, but I’m guessing the percentage is quite low. Today’s youngsters are more apt to play videos games than do anything that is physically challenging. Many schools have even removed physical education from the required curriculum. And while I could easily go off on a rant about our educational system, I will refrain from spiraling out of control in that direction.

There is more than enough to rant about by focusing solely on the physical ability of these teens from the 50s and 60s. So many of today’s young trainers and so-called gurus spend their days arguing trivial details regarding health and fitness. You know the type. They spend their days citing research conducted on three field mice to hide the fact that they can’t do anything remotely impressive and have never trained anyone. They’ll spend all day searching the PubMed database to find something that in some way justifies their latest argument.

Meanwhile, we can look back over fifty years ago to a much simpler time. The young men seen above thrived long before today’s supplement saturated world of fitness. These individuals didn’t spend their days arguing over rep ranges, supplement stacks, periodization models, and exercise equipment. They thrived on the basics. They worked hard. They remained consistent.

The results that came from their approach are easy to see. Hard work with the basics has always been an effective model for physical development. While many become lost in today’s often confusing and contradictory world of fitness, others continue to grind it out with a simple yet challenging approach. They don’t get lost in trivial details. They don’t succumb to paralysis by analysis. They work today, always eager to come back and work hard again tomorrow.

I doubt our nation will ever see a physical education program like that seen above, but we can still learn from their approach. The average person can do very well with a very simple exercise program. The specifics of the program usually means less than what the individual is willing to put into the program. A highly determined person who continually puts forth a true effort will succeed with almost anything.

Don’t get lost in the details and don’t be fooled to believe that you need all of the answers on day one. Start with the basics and expand your repertoire over time. The results will come soon enough as you continue to put in the work.


“People who pride themselves on their complexity and deride others for being simplistic should realize that the truth is often not very complicated. What gets complex is evading the truth.” – Thomas Sowell


  1. The gym class of today consists of playing games and taking a few written exams.

    I feel that it should be more about learning and executing hard intense physical exercise as well as proper nutrition education. Basically gym class should allow everyone the knowledge of 90% of all personal trainers out there. I do not believe it should be all about having fun and playing games because the point is totally missed we spend more time throwing or kicking balls at each other than we do learning how the body works adapts and changes through proper exercise and diet not to mention all the positives that come from such.

    I find it sad that we really have to reach and search for true information on physical fitness and diet, I was in the same boat I had no idea about nutrition or physical fitness until I started hanging around boxers and mixed martial artists. It wasn’t until then that I furthered my own education and awareness on the matter and what a world that opened up for me!!! My point is this is something that should have been instilled in me during highschool! And we wonder why we have such a poor health epidemic in our country, it all stems from lack of education.

  2. What I like about this clip is that while the movements have a skill element to keeop the challenge and interest up it is not so high as to constitute a technical challenge in and of itself (for example, climbing using wooden pegs is a difficult skill but not so much as learning a musical instrument). Meanwhile the fun element is really high and will sustain the student’s interest. Good find, Ross.

  3. “Don’t get lost in the details and don’t be fooled to believe that you need all of the answers on day one. Start with the basics and expand your repertoire over time. The results will come soon enough as you continue to put in the work.”

    Agreed. Hard work and knowledge of the basics go a long way. A little bit of knowledge of the rep ranges, proper execution of the basic exercises, diet and sleep is all one needs when starting out. Everything else, like the number of sets or training frequency, one has to find out for him/herself by paying attention to the progress or the lack thereof. It will take some time, but you’ll also learn a lot about your body in the process.

  4. My daughter came home the other day and told me that for PE they watched a movie about sports! I swear to God I am not making this up WTF!!!
    Thank goodness I have them in brazilian jiu jitsu 3x a week so they can get some real sweat going.

  5. I wonder how many of those kids stuck with it when they got older.

    Most of those were not your standard exercises, either.

    Good stuff!

    1. What bobzilla writes is the point of my series called The Aging Athlete Project.

      Suggested by a 4th generation orthopedic surgeon because “it’s a growing new field in orthopedic medicine,” ‘The Aging Athlete’ is a compelling look at an astounding phenomena. Former high performance athletes — including military personnel and stage performers — tend to stop doing regular, wellness enhancing physical activity the first day they leave their former calling.

      Only about ten percent of the ‘athletes’ wind up pursuing lifetime fitness. Since fitness and diet drive wellness, many of the 90 percent experience dysfunction, illness, and obesity. This first book of the proposed series of aging athletes books examines the lifetime pursuits and mindset of 9 engaging male athletes whose fame was in the 1950s through 2000s. Why are they wired differently than the other 90 percent who hang up the running shoes and never get into their own program of lifetime physical activity and recreation? Some of the featured athletes:

      1. Ken Shamrock, b. 1964, MMA fighter once dubbed ‘The World’s Most Dangerous Man’ by ABC News, who still participates in exhibition fights even though he admits to being 60 percent of his former self.

      2. Sam ‘Bam’ Cunningham, b. 1950. After a 1970 ‘Civil Rights football game,’ at the U of Alabama, Alabama’s assistant coach remarked, “Sam Cunningham [then a USC sophomore fullback who is considered a class act] did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King did in 20 years.”

      3. Billy Hayes, b. 1947, of ‘Midnight Express’ fame — a standout tailback in high school and martial artist in college — says yoga was a lifesaver during his 5 years in a Turkish prison. He hasn’t missed a day of yoga since 1970.

      4. Billy Mills, 1960 10,000 Meter Olympic Gold medalist. The only American to ever win that race and only the second Native American to earn a gold medal in the Olympic Games.
      Billy has been called the most famous living Native American.
      Testimonial for Sifu Slim’s ‘The Aging Athlete.’

      Even this group at MotivationMovie and La Sierra HS-type programs are missing the boat. They may create top or elite fitness juniors (a blessing to our young people), but they haven’t shown me they can create Maintenance Fitness people for life. I have interviewed older people who were elite fitness juniors. My study results show the same sad statistic, less than 10 percent are still engaged in sustainable, maintenance-oriented fitness or intentional physical activity on a regular basis.

      Why do we teach people to floss their teeth, clean their rooms, speak in public, and pass tests, yet we allow them to graduate high school never having shown they have been taught how to do a daily maintenance fitness program on their own or how to work it into their increasingly busy schedules.

      I don’t even hear this from
      Christopher McDougall ( Author ) [ Natural Born Heroes: How a Daring Band of Misfits…

      But his book does come closer to the natural movement and being fat-adapted that I preach.

      I am challenging you to open your mind and hear what I have to say.

      The new movement is here and I’m inviting you along to join it. If we are successful we could revolutionize natural movement and natural lifestyle.

      Hope your read my stuff and help the movement.

      Good on you, Ross, for writing “Never Gymless”


      Sifu Slim

  6. That was very cool! Even more surprising, at least to me, is that the program only took 15 minutes a day. It would be so easy to replicate it now, if the will was present. (Maybe it can’t trump video games and current diet habits, but at least it would be a good start.) It seems to have been exceptional back then as well, unfortunately.

  7. This was fantastic Ross, thanks for posting. I tried to dig up more on this program. It was created by a man named Stan LeProtti and these kids only exercised, albeit vigorously, for 15 minutes a day!! That one blond haired kid on the parallel bars was jacked! I love reading about the exercise programs from the 50s and 60s very interesting stuff. Thanks again.

  8. Not surprisingly I did not see one overweight kid in the group. Just imagine a photo of this group alongside a photo of similar school age kids today.

  9. Wow, that’s rigorous! I never knew they were so much more keen than youngsters are today, I kinda wish my school was like that, and it’s shame that’s been lost in the 21st century, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be brought back! 🙂

  10. While I do train with weights and have been for quite a long time, I feel the types of routines done by these high schoolers back in the Sixties are probably more beneficial for overall fitness. Of course using weights in conjunction with these types of exercises gives you the best of both worlds and is probably the best route to take. Glad to see these types of fitness routines have made their way back in the last dozen years or so, and I know by incorporating these types of routines into a weight training and running program has improved my fitness levels immensely.

  11. Jeez I know for most of my time in high school I couldn’t do the stuff they were doing, especially that wall climb with the pegs!

    I really like the takeaway here; consistency really trumps everything else. I know I’ve suffered in the past (and even recently!) from over analyzing everything trying to make sure I was doing the best workout, only to be drawn away to the next best thing

  12. @Felix

    It’s like anything else in that the more you do something the better you become at it. There are people who think they are in shape if they run 20-25 miles a week. But if that is the only exercise they do, the only thing they’re in shape for is to run some moderate long distances. They probably would be just as weak in the upper body as a person who sits around all day. You could get some buff weight pumper who benches 4 plates on each side and he could have a hard time climbing a 30-foot rope if he never does any other exercise other than weight training. You could get someone who could pump out hundreds of reps of bodyweight squats but would struggle to squat with a barbell equal to their bodyweight if their only exercise was high rep bodyweight stuff. Better to be well rounded than just a one trick pony.

  13. Things were so much simpler then. No video games. No obesity epidemic. No school shootings. Very few drugs. Much fewer teenage pregnancies. Of course, things weren’t perfect. Some kid probably fell off the climbing wall and that was the end of that….

    It’s hard to say what we could do differently today to recreate the “good old days”. People were frugal, tenacious, and had more discipline back then because their parents lived in the Great Depression and probably both world wars.

    Unfortunately, I think we are going to have to learn things the hard way if we don’t wake up.

  14. This may be strange or simply just me, but I totally want to try that peg exercise. That looks like a great test and fun as well.

  15. To many of us who went through La Sierra’s PE program, today’s interpretation is a bit amusing. We didn’t have a choice, LaProtti was dogmatic and authoritarian. There was heavy peer pressure and almost no regard for a student’s strength or health limitations. If you couldn’t pass muster, it was down to the lowly white trunks, who were basically the cast-offs. LaProtti practiced favoritism. The blue trunks were his success story. The golds and purples, his elites and the requirements for pull-ups, etc. to achieve elite colors was staggering. I was content to wear red because it was a saner and calmer place to get through the program.

    The vid doesn’t show all the apparatus we used. From arms-only rope climbing to the ceiling in the basketball gym to the up and down, 30 ft. In length parallel bars… we had to do calistetics in perfect vocal sync and when indoors, floor slaps and foot sounds also had to be in perfect unison. We were drilled as if in the military (Vietnam was a word we barely knew) and some of the PE elites did give demos to our military.

    It looks cool as a video but, given a choice, I would’ve skipped the miserable experience.

    1. Looking at the performance requirements anyone who could do red was probably in pretty good shape. I don’t know how anyone qualified for Navy Blue. That 5 mile man lift and carry must have been grueling.

  16. BLAST FROM THE PAST! While it must have been a super grueling program to put up with on a daily basis, my hunch is that years later many of the kids who went through LeProtti’s PT class really appreciated it for the discipline and physical exertion it demanded. Many schools, like my own small liberal arts college, emulated the Sierra program though probably not with the same rigor. We were only required to take the 5 days-a-week physical training course two out of our four undergraduate years–although not a few guys had to repeat year(s)or make up ground in a campus summer program since their overall point scores fell below minimum grade standards. Some of our more gung-ho students even took the course as an elective in their upperclass years in order to continue pursuing their gold or navy blue trunks if they hadn’t earned them in their underclass years. Juniors and Seniors who excelled in the PT program–and had earned gold or navy blue trunks with maximum points in their underclass years– were selected as the SDI’s or student drill instructors who monitored all underclass sessions(and any upperclass ones)together with the Senior DI staff. These privileged students were considered superior even to the varsity athletes on campus and held up as the physical ideal to aim for. They received military style respect and address from the entire student body. Another aspect of my college’s adaptation of the Sierra program was the strict uniform code required by our instructors. Students were posted for calisthenics by their color group rather than as a mix of colors. This code was rigorously enforced–no tee shirts & no colored socks & no underwear (only athletic supporters were worn). But unlike the Sierra program we were required to wear white UPPER canvas sneakers (except for the afternoon detention sessions when deficient or delinquent students had to wear black uppers just as a mark of punishment). All students in the program (no matter what their grade level) had to abide by uniform hair-length regulations–as I recall, a low-level flattop for underclassmen and something like a high-and-tight cut for the upperclassmen. Students executed loud and uniform repetition counts (as explained in the previous post)and sung-out original cadences as directed and led by the SDIs. All-in-all it was an aggressive PT program both physically and mentally and most of us students responded to its demands with serious attention and enthusiasm (if not always 100 percent)! Since this was the era of the military draft and the Vietnam War, many of our graduates had no difficulty with Army or Marine Corps Basic Training and excelled in the military ranks. We were like most kids our age prone to complain now and then about our PT program–but if truth be told we appreciated its difficult challenges and long-term benefits.

  17. I was there. I am one of those in one of the photos of Look Magazine. I was a in 10th grade at the time when Look magazine came out to take photos and I was a “Blue” at that time. In my freshman year I had tested out “red” the first semester, and then “blue” at the end of that first year, so I started out as a “blue” at the beginning of the 10th. But, it didn’t last. I could not make blue that semester and returned to red the remainder of the year. I was determined to get back. At the end of that year I re-tested and made it back to blue. I felt vindicated. In my junior year first semester I surprised myself and tested out “purple.” Then in my last semester of the 11th grade I surprised myself again by testing out “gold.” I remained gold my senior year. I was in the elite group. There were only about 20 of us in the whole school.

    To be sure, it was work. Early on, there were days I dreaded going to class just because I knew I would be sore the rest of the day. But after a couple of years, it became easier as we became more fit. I can only say this. It was not about building muscles. It was about developing the muscles we had. It was about developing confidence. It was about learning about achievement. I saw scared young over-weight soft freshmen come into the program as “whites” only to develop themselves into lean fit young men. It did not happen overnight. But it did happen.

    When I went into the military, I maxed all their PT tests. It was easy. It was a snap. I was made squad leader. I was sent to Officers Candidate School and became an officer. I realize that fitness program was more than just about fitness. It was discipline that developed into self-discipline. It was developing self-confidence to do anything with your life. After the military, I went on to college and law school. Me – whose father only had an 8th grade education. I feel my acquired attitude was passed on to my children. My youngest is now an attorney and a special agent for the FBI. Only 1 out of 9000 applicants ever make that.

    This fitness program was not simply building muscles or about fitness – it was about building the “I can do it” attitude. Now that I am in my late 60’s I have little of that fitness ability left. But I have been married 45 years now and seldom have to go see a doctor. To be sure, this fitness program was really about building character.

    1. I’m filming a documentary on La Sierra High’s PE program with a large team that consists of La Sierra Alumni, PE historians, and legislators who want to see quality PE brought back to our schools today. I’m really interested in speaking with Dan or other Alumni who would like to share their story.

      This is the crowdfunding video that shows clips from La Sierra. Although the speech of JFK in this film has been heard from many (audio only), this is the only digitized film (where you see his face) that we understand exists at the moment. The entire reel was found in Stan LeProtti’s collection, which we obtained the rights to use for the film and its promotion. Thank you to everyone who is trying to bring back quality PE and teaching parents that we should all “Expect PE” in our schools again…and not settle.

  18. I know personally there was many home movies taken of the program during the years I was there. We would have visitors from all over, including military, just about each week. LeProtti had maps on the wall of his office with colored pins showing each location in the US and the world where they had taken on his program. It was impressive. I remember Sal Mineo (actor killed) came to the school with several others and spent the day filming us all. When the weather was excessively bad, LeProtti would set up the projector in the gym and we would spend the class watching many of these other movies. That happened a few times I can recall. There was many more of these movies. Anyone know what happened to them?

  19. I thought that PE was all about can you change your clothing, work a combination lock, and stand around for 50 minutes???

  20. Nice find. Glad to see JFK Physical Fitness Challenge id not totally dead. My High School, Baltimore County, Maryland, in the 1960’s set many track and field, cross country, football, wrestling, and others, that many of those records made it to state and national levels and are still standing unbroken to this day! We owe it to the JFK Fitness Program for this feat.

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