Any guy who’s ever watched professional boxing has wanted, at some point, to earn a boxer’s chiseled, powerful physique and test himself in the ring—until, that is, the punches started landing. But the only practical way to get that combination of full-body training—bottom-up strength, speed, agility and cardiovascular endurance—was to join a gym and commit yourself, Rocky-style, to a one-on-one trainer. But with the rising popularity of UFC and mixed martial arts, many black-belt-level gyms—boxing, mixed martial arts, Jiu-Jitsu and Muay Thai (a badass ancestor of kickboxing) places—have expanded their offerings to include programs for the average Joe looking to develop a fighter’s raw fitness. And most of your standard gyms offer basics classes such as kickboxing. Here’s how to get a kickass workout without getting your ass kicked.
How to Choose Your Class?
Most gyms offer group classes modeled after combat sports. For the most part, these classes are “choreographed and the instructor is bouncing-off-the-walls energetic,” says Ryan George, a New York personal trainer and fitness instructor who also teaches Muay Thai at Coban’s Muay Thai Camp (teamcoban.com). “There’s not much technique involved and rarely any focus on sparring or getting better.”
For example, if the word cardio is in the name, it’s probably a dance-y class set to music, à la Tae Bo. But if boot camp or bag work are in the description, you’ll likely be doing some of the same stuff as actual fighters. (If you really want to fight, though, you’ll need to find a specialty gym.)
Says Work Train Fight (worktrainfight.com) founder and lead instructor Alberto Ortiz, the first order of business is to look at the instructor’s teaching philosophy and background, and consider other indicators as well, such as updated equipment and consistent, well-run classes.
And while many new boxers and fighters naturally gravitate toward former fighters as trainers, Ortiz cautions against it, pointing out that physical skill doesn’t always translate to teaching ability. “Punching the pads and holding them are two different angles,” he says. “It’s the difference between being an actor and being a director.”
DON’T BE A DOUCHE BAG
When it comes to sparring, remember: “You’re playing at sparring,” George says. So trying to hurt someone isn’t cool. “It’s gym etiquette that if you go too hard, they have the green light to make you pay for it.”
PUNCH OUT RIGHT
1) Arm Yourself With Combat 101: Most gyms have roughly three levels of classes: beginner-friendly sessions run boot-camp style, where you punch and/or kick bags and mitts, jump rope, do body-weight exercises, etc., but don’t fight; intermediate classes where you start out shadowboxing then learn more advanced techniques and combos before advancing to technical sparring; and advanced fight classes, for those who really embrace the sport and want to excel in it—and, perhaps, compete.
2) Stay Loose: In combat classes more than any other genre, being flexible—the surefire way to stave off injury—is paramount. “If you’re really tight,” George says, “it’s tough to let the movements flow.” Combat sports are about power, yes, but they’re also about speed. So stretch beforehand and try to stay loose throughout the session. You’ll be faster, expend less energy, and have the best chance of avoiding getting hurt.
3) Focus on Your Hips: “Being able to generate and drive power from your hips is probably the most important thing when it comes to almost any combat sport,” says George. Proper punches, kicks, and throws all draw their power and effectiveness from the hips.
QUICK DOS AND DON’TS
DO Remember to breathe. The root of most form mistakes is your overactive brain. Calm down, focus on your target, and don’t worry about how you look. “Who cares if you look like crap?” Ortiz says. “Even Mike Tyson looked like crap the first time he hit a bag.”
DON’T Swing for the fences during instructor pad work. “They’re called focus mitts,” Ortiz says. “The point is to keep your eyes focused on the target and move when the trainer throws a punch, not throw all your weight at my rotator cuff.”