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PE class builds confidence, strength, & stamina
Sierra High physical fitness instructor Richard Boyd keeps an eye on students as they go through the ladder drills as part of a bodybuilding class based on the principles of CrossFit training. - photo by HIME ROMERO

Michael Crane jumped up and grabbed onto the pull-up bar.

But instead of going the standard chin-up, the 16-year-old Sierra High student pulled up his lower body, touched his knees to his elbows, and lowered his legs. He then repeated the process two more times.

Without pausing he went to the next station doing nine box jumps while his three teammates for the day did 12 ball slams, six pushups broken up by touching their chest to the ground and lifting their hands up, as well as the three knees to elbows that Crane had just finished. They then repeated the set.

Twenty minutes later, Crane - and the rest of the bodybuilding class - was sprawled out on the weight room mat exhausted and dripping with sweat. Not one teen was breathing hard, though, and none were complaining.

“I lost about 20 pounds since I started the class,” Crane proudly noted. “Everyone is telling me I’m getting too skinny.”

Crane may be skinnier but as he points out he is “more flexible and strong” than he’s ever been. He’s more alert than ever. And there’s one also more thing that’s important to him.

“I can last longer now when I ride motocross,” Crane said.

It’s a new world for high school PE

Step into Richard Boyd’s physical education class and brace yourself for some of the most confident - and diverse group - of teens you’re ever going to encounter. They all look forward to intense workouts - the jocks, the skaters, the brains or just about any other perceived high school clique you can think of. And they do it while encouraging each other and pushing themselves harder and harder even as the class goes on.

It’s all the result of SST - Speed Strength Training.

SST is crafted from the fitness and flexibility principles of CrossFit. As a result the nutrition component - or “clean eating” as Boyd calls it - resonates with teens in the class. Ask and they will tell you they’ve cut back on processed food, sugars, complex starches, and calories as a whole. It’s enough to send shivers down the spines of McDonald’s executives.

Among the ranks of the late morning bodybuilding class is Mason Merilles.

The 17-year-old is part of the Sierra High football team that just ended its postseason run.

“I’ve gotten stronger and quicker because of (the class),” said Merilles who plays defensive tackle. “I’ve also lost weight.”

He’s sold 100 percent on SST even though the Sierra High weight room looks like no other weight room a high school football player works out in. Look all you will on the Sierra High campus but you will not find one weight machine. Instead, you will find steps, free weights, pull up bars, medicine balls, kettles, weighted bars and such. The most important machine for SST doesn’t employ pulleys or weight stacks. It’s the human body.

“It’s about whole body exercise when we workout,” Boyd said.

And by that he means “every” exercise is a whole body exercise.

That’s why traditional pushups and pull-ups are modified CrossFit style to employ every muscle group and not just concentrate or several body parts at a time.

“We are the machine,” Boyd said. “Look in the mirror and you will realize you are the machine.”

Boyd said getting rid of the machine is the biggest obstacle when schools start considering switching to the program.

“Staff looks at them (the machines) and think they’ve got a lot of money invested in them,” Boyd said. “That makes it hard to get rid of them.”

Swimmer glad Sierra ditched the machines

Ashley McKinley is among those who are glad Sierra High ditched the machines.

She’s the lone girl in Boyd’s 10:45 a.m. bodybuilding class. McKinley wanted to be pushed harder and figured working out with boys would do it. She swims for Sierra High.

“It helps build a lot of endurance,” McKinley said of the class.

It’s also helped her build on her strength.

McKinley is no stranger to the concept of blending aerobics and strength training into the same workout. Her mother Angel is a step, cardio blast, and cycling group instructor at a Manteca heath club where her husband Steve often joins her for 6 a.m. workouts before both head to jobs in the Bay Area.

The Sierra classes start with a 20-minute warm-up following a short run. The teens repeat a series of moving warm ups ranging from lateral lunges, spins, full body squats and lateral jacks to high knees over a 30-foot course. There are no half-hearted efforts nor is there rushing. Each teen is concentrating on the correct form while pushing themselves as they stay focused from start to end.

Absences are rare. Excuses to get out of class are non-existent. Even those injured exercise using a modified program.

“Not one of them was injured in class,” Boyd noted as a handful of students go through modified warm-ups. “They injured themselves elsewhere.”

Prior to the 20-minute four-man workout sets, the class on this particular Thursday is doing ladders.

If nothing else convinces you that CrossFit is a game changer for PE, watching teens go through the ladder drills will.

It consists of a series of agility drills while moving through a course via a stenciled “ladder” on the mats. Skaters and bookworms move as gracefully - and often as quickly - through the ladder doing a wide variety of drills from crossovers to hops as do the jocks.

“That’s what is so great about this class,” Boyd said. “You get all types of kids that want to do it. Skaters say it makes them skate better, athletes say it makes them stronger, and others will tell you they feel better about themselves and do better in  class.”

Boyd also notes it helps when teens turn on ESPN and see CrossFit competitions where participants are doing the same things that they do in class.

If you had to zero in on one huge benefit of the program it is self-confidence.

Boyd said students learn to push themselves to discover they are capable of a lot more than they thought. That, in turn, spells over into other parts of their lives. A YouTube video featuring Sierra students in the class is filled with testimony from teens who credit the SST program to improving their grades, making them healthier, and boosting their self-esteem.

And unlike other PE classes where taunting might be a problem, you won’t hear it happen in a SST class.

That’s because the format requires students to work together.

When someone’s having a hard time or loses their footing, others quickly shout encouragement.

“Come in Mason, you can do it.” “Way to go, dude.” “You got it.”

No wonder there is a waiting list to get into PE at Sierra High.

And it’s not just teens who are buying into the SST program that Sierra copied from similar efforts at Del Campo High in Fair Oaks and Whitney High in Rocklin.

After school, Boyd opens the weight room to all comers. He gets students but also 15 teachers who are hooked.

“It (the CrossFit style program) changes people’s lives,” Boyd said.