Fighting for Fitness

Kick and punch your way to a better body

By Barbara Russi Sarnataro
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

So you didn't grow up idolizing Bruce Lee or spending your afternoons watching Kung Fu Theater on television. When you hear the name "George Foreman," you think of grills, not left hooks. You have no desire to kick anyone's butt -- well, not usually, anyway.

No matter. If you're seeking better health, more confidence, and a stronger body, a kickboxing or martial arts-inspired workout might be just the thing to get you into fighting trim.

"People see results" from these workouts, says Whitney Chapman, group exercise manager at Reebok Sports Club/NY in New York. "They have stronger legs, stronger arms, more definition, and (participating in the classes) promotes a sense of inner strength and balance."

Kicking and sparring took to the mainstream several years ago when the fitness industry caught on to the cardiovascular and toning benefits of fighting-based workouts. Thanks in part to the popular Tae Bo videos by Billy Blanks (one of the first to capitalize on the aerobics-martial arts trend), gyms nationwide began adding these types of classes to their schedules.

Cardio kickboxing classes and creative variations like Powerstrike, Fitness and Defense, and Tai Box (to name just a few), blend boxing with aerobics, teaching punching and kicking combinations for a high-powered workout that builds strength and confidence.

Most of the choreographed combinations of jabs, kicks, and blocks are done to an imagined enemy, with participants swinging and kicking into the air. But in some classes, you actually kick or punch into heavy boxing bags or a partner's padded hands.

Benefits Beyond the Physical

According to a study by the American Council on Exercise (ACE), cardio-kickboxing participants can expect to burn about 350-450 calories per hour and to maintain a heart rate at 75% to 85% of maximum -- well within the recommended range for aerobic exercise.

But that's not all. These workouts also improve strength, flexibility, and reflexes, says Addy Hernandez, martial arts expert and co-owner of KI (Karate Innovation) Fighting Concepts, a gym in Lake Chelan, Wash.

The multiple-joint movements of these workouts -- often done standing on one leg -- build functional fitness because they require coordination and balance, says exercise physiologist and personal trainer Fabio Comana.

"It forces you to have to stabilize your body," he says.

But the physical aspects of cardio kickboxing and martial arts-inspired workouts are just the beginning, Comana says.

"There is a self-efficacy that it gives a person," says Comana. "They learn some real self-defense skills they can use in everyday life."

Regional group fitness director Kendell Hogan sees that firsthand at the Crunch on Sunset gym in Los Angeles. Crunch's Fitness and Defense class focuses on boxing techniques and is taught in a ring. Participants wrap their hands, wear gloves, and work with a heavy bag.

"They're intimidated at first," Hogan says, "Then I believe they get a lot of self-confidence. They're going for it. [Women] are buying their own wraps and getting gloves."

Then there's the de-stressing effect of all that kicking and punching.

"I've never met anybody who didn't feel the release in stress and the release in anger," says Hernandez. "Once they leave, they can face the world."

At Reebok Sports Club/NY, the cardio kickboxing, POW, and Powerstrike classes appeal to many of New York's Type A personalities, says Chapman.

"You sweat, you get the heart rate up, and it requires focus," Chapman says.

Comana says boxing workouts are a great choice for beginners, as long as they work at their own pace.

"The Splash!...allows you to push yourself harder but safer."

Indeed, boxing- and martial arts-inspired classes are great equalizers, Hogan says.

"You don't have to be a good dancer or have the perfect hourglass shape," he says. And while these are group classes, they are also very individual, he says; everyone can work at their own level.

The Reebok Sports Club/NY offers a kickboxing class taught in a pool, which is even more conducive to those who are overweight, out of shape, or have physical limitations.

"The Splash! Kickboxing class is a fabulous place for a beginner because it eliminates work with gravity, it's safer on the joints, and it creates resistance through fluid, which allows you to push yourself harder but safer," says Chapman.

  • Get a doctor's consent. If you have limitations or injuries, check with a doctor before beginning any new exercise regimen.
  • Find a comfortable environment. If you already have a gym you go to that offers these classes, great. If not, find somewhere that's clean and safe, with a qualified staff that makes you feel welcome. "At a kickboxing gym," says Hernandez, "there may be a lot of guys and a lot of testosterone and that may not be the most comforting atmosphere. You've got to find a place where you feel comfortable and you enjoy going."
  • Introduce yourself to the instructor. Before your first class, talk to the instructor to let him/her know who you are and what, if any, your limitations are. Chapman says an instructor should be confident that he/she can help you modify exercises, or be able to tell you if the class is inappropriate for you.
  • Talk to other participants: Ask regulars what they like about the class. And find your own support system. "Look for people in the class that have similar physical skill levels so you can partner with them, and that becomes the support system you're looking for," says Comana. "You may feel a little uncoordinated at first but you're going to learn together and progress together."
  • Work at your own pace: Don't try to keep up with people who have more experience in the class or have a higher level of fitness. Working in the full range of motion to execute an uppercut or roundhouse kick doesn't come easily, experts say, and the potential for injury is high without proper form. At KI Fighting Concepts, Hernandez says, instructors teach beginners all the kicks and punches before they start doing combinations.
  • Keep showing up: "You improve through repetition," says Chapman.
  • Do what you enjoy. In the end, kickboxing may not be for you, and that's OK. "You shouldn't think, 'I'm going to suffer through this for an hour because I'm going to burn calories,'" Chapman says. "You'll probably burn more calories doing something you like." Still, you might be surprised at just how much you enjoy this type of class. Says Hernandez: There's no better feeling than to be at a "board meeting or buying a car, and thinking, 'You know what? I can kick your butt.'"

Published Oct. 7, 2005.
Medically updated September 2006.


SOURCES: Addy Hernandez, martial arts and kickboxing teacher; co-owner, KI Fighting Concepts, Lake Chelan, Wash. Fabio Comana, exercise physiologist; personal trainer, American Council on Exercise. Whitney Chapman, group exercise manager, Reebok Sports Club/NY, New York. Kendell Hogan, regional group fitness director, Crunch on Sunset, Los Angeles. WebMD Feature: "Kicking Your Way to Fitness" by Dana Sullivan, published June 25, 2002.

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