Not Your Typical Physical Education Teacher

TAGS: physical education, Chase Karnes, training

Sam Luker is a middle school physical education teacher at South Marshall Middle School in Benton, Kentucky. He serves as the founder and coach of “Starting Strength,” an afterschool strength training program for middle school students at his school (athletes and non-athletes welcome). He also holds the position as middle school basketball coach and assistant track and field coach working with the throwers. Prior to joining South Marshall Middle School, Sam worked as a strength coach/personal trainer at Argonauts Fitness working with athletes and the general population.

Sam assisted EliteFTS team member Justin Cecil at Murray State University, where he was an assistant strength coach for three years. He is no stranger to elite athletics. He was a high level high school soccer player turned competitive powerlifter. Sam has most recently tried out Strongman training. He is CSCS certified and holds a bachelor’s degree in physical education from Murray State University.

From the interview below, you’ll understand why I feel it’s important that Sam was interviewed. The things he is doing during his personal time with his physical education class to better kids is amazing. Physical education teachers from across the world should follow his lead.

CK: Sam, could you tell everyone a little bit more about yourself and your background?

SL: I’m 26 years old. This is my third year teaching since graduating from Murray State University in 2007. In July of 2008, I attained my CSCS through the NSCA. Although I’ve been in the teaching field for three years, this is my first year leading my own physical education (P.E.) program. Through my years spent training athletes at Murray State and my time spent training clients, I’ve sought to blend what I’ve learned into the P.E. classroom. Although I love personal/team training, I saw teaching as a way to have 20 or more guaranteed “clients” hourly. For now, or so it seems, the retirement is still quite good. With what time I do have after teaching, I hunt, fish, and train. I have a very “red neck” attached to my “meathead” you might say. I compete in powerlifting in the 165-lb weight class and have been working toward some Strongman competitions lately. My best raw numbers in the gym are a 495-lb squat, a 315-lb bench press, and a 555-lb deadlift.

CK: First and foremost, how do you feel your P.E. class varies from the traditional P.E. classes that everyone takes?

SL: Back when I was in P.E., we typically did some static stretching, ran a couple laps, and played a game for the day. If you were athletic, good. If you weren’t athletically inclined, too bad. It was more like survival of the fittest. The worst thing for kids coming up is to feel like they have failed in some aspect. Be it on a test, on the field, or in my classroom. No one likes to fail.

I structure my class so that everyone has a darn good chance to succeed, given they try. I feel this is the driving force with the kids wanting to participate daily. Even the “Sally cone guarders” can make progress and succeed at a given task. I also try to create an environment that breeds movement. I’ve downloaded a bunch of current music (kid-friendly). When a certain song comes on, they just seem to work harder. It’s kind of like cranking up Pantera before a big deadlift. Anyway, I play this while the kids are working at their fitness stations or playing games. I use it as an auditory cue as well. I stop the music when it’s time for them to switch. It just seems to put them in a mindset to work.

CK: What does a typical P.E. class consist of?

SL: The first 20–30 minutes is geared toward physical fitness. This isn’t just for a one-week unit. This is 20–30 minutes daily. Kids have the attention spans of fruit flies, so I have broken the gym down into 4–6 stations that address aspects of physical fitness—muscular strength, muscular endurance, body composition, flexibility, and cardiovascular endurance. Each group spends 4–5 minutes working at each station. Then they move on to the next one. This way we can address a number of structured exercises in a time sensitive manner, and due to the short amount of time they spend at each station, they work hard in each area.

Here’s a sample of our stations:

1. The Toweler (a blatant knock off of the Prowler): Students push a 45-lb bumper plate wrapped in a towel across the gym floor for a given distance.
2. Push-ups

A. Hands placed on stage
B. Hands place on bleacher
C. Standard push-up on floor
D. Clusters of 3 X 5 with chains

3. Chin-ups

A. Body rows: Here we hang barge ropes off of the basketball goals, and the students pulls his body weight at various angles.
B. Rope pulls: Barge ropes are tied to the bleachers while students sit on a towel and pull themselves across the floor toward the bleachers.
C. Chin-ups

4. Agility ladder: Students create various foot patterns and build coordination and then speed with the given foot patterns.

5. Climbing rope/high jump: These two are used interchangeably because we only have one big mat.

The climbing rope is a good overall indicator of strength and body composition. The students are urged to set PRs on knots until they reach the top. This lets them see progress even though they might not be able to touch the top yet. It’s pretty awesome to see a classroom full of kids clap when they see another kid succeed and reach the top after putting in weeks of work.

The high jump is just what it says. We have high jump standards and a safety ribbon that the kids jump over. They will do this all day trying to outdo each other.

After the stations are complete, we either introduce a new skill in order to play a game or review rules/procedures and jump right into our game for the remainder of the time. I think it’s ridiculous how many educators throw kids into a game simply after reviewing the rules while doing nothing to build the actual skills to functionally carry out the game.

CK: That sounds like one great P.E. class—much different from what I recall doing, that’s for sure! Tell me a little more about this afterschool program, “Starting Strength.” What is it about? What’s your philosophy with it? How many kids are in it?

SL: I'll be the first to say that I’m not the most original with names. The name for the program came from Mark Rippetoe’s book, Starting Strength. I actually use those same methods to coach the barbell lifts taught in his book. I personally have nothing to do with Mark, but I will say that the book and DVD are top notch in covering all aspects of the squat, bench press, and deadlift.

Back when I was in middle school, I started weight training. I didn’t have any adult supervision or direction. I just caught a bus to the high school and lifted until I heard my dad honk the horn outside. If I got hurt doing something, I quickly learned not to lift that way again. “Starting Strength” is my way of giving back to the strength game. I would have killed to have someone help me do real lifts and do them correctly at that age.

In terms of a philosophy in addressing the lifts taught, everything starts with lifting your body weight. If you can’t hold a body weight squat, why in the world would I want to put a load on your back? I spent the first two weeks just drilling body weight movements and technique with the students as a whole before we ever brought barbells into the picture. Currently four of the five stations still deal with body weight movements. I personally oversee and coach barbell lifts at the last station. We have anywhere from 40–60 kids on a given day. The students know how to run each station and what is expected of them while I’m coaching. This is what allows me to deal with such a great number of kids and not have complete chaos. Currently, due to other coaching obligations, “Starting Strength” only runs on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3–4 p.m.

CK: That’s a ton of kids! And this is a non-mandatory afterschool program, correct? So while most middle school kids are catching the bus home to eat Ho Ho’s and Ding Dongs and watch hours of television, these kids are choosing to train. That’s awesome! What would you say is your main goal with this program?

SL: That’s right. It isn’t mandatory. They choose to be there. And good question—at the heart of it, I want to build stronger and more confident kids.

CK: What one thing do you want a kid to walk away from this with?

SL: This is the hardest question to answer because the iron molds so many characteristics, depending on the individual. We literally have kids showing up who have no friends and they work beside starters on the basketball team. The things that go on here reach so far beyond lifting weights. If I could point to one thing, I would hope that the kids would develop an “I can” attitude. All too often, I hear the words “I can’t” before something ever starts, and it’s disheartening to an extent. There have been days, weeks, and months for me where nothing seemed to be going right. But my training kept me sane. If the kids can find a positive outlet to deal with life’s stresses, that would be a major plus as well.

CK: Great stuff! I’m assuming you teach health in conjunction with P.E.? Do you have to teach the food guide pyramid junk, or are you allowed to teach practical nutrition?

SL: I just taught my nutrition chapter this week. In short, I point to the food guide pyramid and say, “Children, this is what the food guide pyramid looks like. I do not personally endorse or follow its recommendations. However, it is a good model for breaking the foods down into their groups.”

Personally, if the meat/beans group were switched out with the grains group, it wouldn’t be half bad. But judging from our kids’ waistlines, 6–11 servings of processed grains aren’t what America’s youth needs daily. It would be awesome if Precision Nutrition developed a curriculum to be taught in the schools geared toward helping kids understand food choices. Until then, I hand out John Berardi’s “Ten Habits to Eat By” on the first day of our nutrition chapter and explain why this is the better option to build a diet around. If I have any doubters, I get out my lunchbox and we have show and tell.

What’s the number one thing you see wrong with 99 percent of the P.E. programs in schools these days?

SL: This is where I get on my soapbox. All of the bunk (and I really wouldn’t say ‘bunk’—the word in my head is much more colorful…brown actually) activities such as scarf juggling, cup stacking, corn hole, ping pong, Wii, Dance Revolution, and exclusion games have no part in physical education curriculums. I worked in a setting one time where these activities were the norm. Then we tested the fitness levels of the kids and they did horribly. Wonder why? Little Billy sat on his duff and increased his “hand-eye” coordination for an hour with cups. No one ever got strong playing Nintendo.

CK: What would you change about the typical school systems (P.E., recess, lunch) if you could just snap your fingers and make it happen?

SL: I’ll hit on P.E. and lunch here. The biggest problem I see in typical P.E. programs is a lack of student involvement due to equipment. No one goes into a math class with 30 kids and just one math book. P.E. gets put on the back burner in many schools because program improvement isn’t a priority to the P.E. teachers themselves. That and I really wish gyms were built without basketball in mind, much like the pictures of “gymnasiums” of the 1800s. When sports took priority over fitness, much was lost.

If all of the products containing corn left the lunch menu, we would have much healthier kids. It’s sad to watch kids gain weight over the school year, knowing that such a great deal of things on their plate are either highly processed carbs or corn-based products.

CK: What tips do you feel you can offer to other P.E. teachers who may be reading this article?

SL: First and foremost, be the example. If you aren’t in shape, strong, or athletic, kids pick up on that. If you’re teaching them about proper diet, they had better see you eating that way. If you’re coaching them on how to get strong, by God you had better be strong.

CK: What about parents? Are there any tips you can offer them to help their kids get better in physical education classes?

SL: In a perfect world, all kids would have a barge rope without any knots in it tied to a tree in their yards. Then they would pull their body weight up off of the ground until they got strong enough to climb it. I had a kid climb to the top of the rope in about ten seconds using just his hands. When I asked what he did at home, he told me his dad put a rope up in the tree and told him to get good at climbing it. This is a good indicator of strength in relation to body composition. In the words of Wendler, if you can’t climb it, “you’re weak, fat, or hurt.”

Parents need to find out what activities interest their kids. Then they need to get their kids involved in as many of those activities as possible. I see far too many kids get a negative view on physical activity/athletics simply because parents push too hard. Parents need to find something their child likes to do and do that with him. Again, it falls on to someone setting the example.

CK: Thanks for taking the time for this interview. I feel you have a lot to offer others. Where can people learn more about you or contact you?

SL: Thank you, Chase. I can be contacted at or Hopefully, when and if my schedule slows down, I can add more content to the blog.

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