In this series, fitness pros investigate how exercise trends measure up to the hype.
If becoming a sweaty mess by kneeing, punching and kicking (barefoot) is your idea of a good time, there are innumerable martial arts-based workouts to try.
I dragged – almost literally – my childhood friend, Tari, to Krudar Muay Thai in Toronto. Barre classes and walking are typically more her speed. I took a more willing participant, Davida, to Toronto Kickboxing and Muay Thai Academy (TKMT). In response to my invite, she texted, "Sure. I love trying new things."
The workout's intention will differ both within and between training facilities. As the instructor at TKMT pointed out, saying you do "martial arts" or "kickboxing" is like saying you eat "pasta." Not only do different schools of martial arts exist (from Muay Thai to jiu jitsu to mixed martial arts), but within disciplines classes exist on a continuum from traditional fighting-based training to blended fitness/technique-based workouts. If you're curious about martial arts-based fitness, identify your goal (fitness, self-defence, combat), then find a class that aligns in vibe and workout style.
What to expect
I was apprehensive before both workouts – yes, even trainers fear the unknown – but both studios were friendly and inclusive. Tari joked that she wished she had known about martial arts when she was single: She would have participated to meet men.
My initial reaction had nothing to do with the people. What hit me was the heat, the smell, the noise (the "pow" of limbs hitting pads permeates the air) and the "hard-core" vibe/aesthetic. Davida's comment summed the "tone" up perfectly: "I have a bruise … that's good, right?" The studios are sparse; other than gear and a sparring ring, both are simply large matted spaces covered in – to quote Tari – "dudes fighting each other."
Workouts are typically 90-plus minutes. The first portion is conditioning. Think skipping (catching your toes on the rope hurts barefoot), laps of the gym (forwards, sideways and backwards) and calisthenics such as push-ups, sit-ups and burpees. Once warmed up, you punch, knee and kick a partner; I loved the feeling of strapping on gloves and releasing energy. The workouts are intense. The day after, Tari said she couldn't move and hurt all over.
We enjoyed the novelty of a martial arts-based workout and left feeling accomplished and slightly bad-ass, but we are not signing up for regular workouts.
For me, such workouts are full of potential, but too long; 90 minutes is too taxing a time commitment.
Classes not only require a time investment, they require a "body investment." Jumping and kicking, especially barefoot, stresses the body. You have to consistently invest in getting stronger (i.e., go regularly and progress gradually) and devote appropriate resources to recovery. Exercise is only a positive stress if you give your body the tools it needs to recover: sleep, proper nutrition, rest and hydration.
Tari and Davida also recommend investing in your own gear; it is gross using sweaty communal gloves.
An added complication: The classes are hard to modify. Yes, instructors caution to "work at your own pace," but, as Davida mentioned, it is almost impossible for beginners to modify appropriately. Tari modified by miming the skipping, and you could walk, not run, during warm-up, but the overall speed and tone of the class is "go" for 90 minutes.
Classes typically are very front-of-the-body dominant and ignore strengthening the stabilizers needed to support punching and kicking. If you decide to do martial arts, great, just tweak your gym routine; prioritize strengthening the back of your body with exercises such as rows, reverse flies and back extensions, and train your deep core, rotator cuff muscles in your shoulders and the muscles in your lower legs and feet.
The one aspect we all loved was training in pairs. The social interaction is motivating and fun. Typically, in group exercise, you work alongside, not with, other participants. At Krudar and TKMT, we worked in pairs and took turns holding pads and "fighting" (which was comical with Tari, who is tiny, and me at 6 feet tall).
Another positive is the co-ordination required. Mastering new movements can be engaging. I loved figuring out how to stealthily move my feet along the floor "like a cat." As Davida said, the co-ordination required is positive if you have a tuned mind-body connection and want to improve your kinesthetic awareness, but negative if co-ordinating your limbs is overwhelming and frustrating.
Go knowing how the workout's pros and cons apply to your body, and have realistic expectations. Be prepared to "lean into" feeling out of your element. As Davida said, "the half-naked dudes will probably make you feel uncomfortable at first, but everyone is actually very welcoming." Plus, the only way to feel comfortable is by participating, and no matter what, just completing the workout will make you feel sweaty and accomplished.