On the Defensive


Build confidence and strength at self-defense classes that double as powerful workouts.

The connotation of regular exercise can bring to mind a monotonous drill, where your brain and body shift to autopilot. But what weekly workouts can’t teach you is how to feel empowered, confident and, above all, focused. According to Simmons Market Research, 48 percent of American women now practice some form of martial art. Such activity goes beyond physical exercise and requires both a sense of vulnerability and an appetite for learning. These four workouts are designed to leave you lean, proficient in self-defense and thirsty for more.

Muay Thai
You may have taken a kickboxing class, but there’s more to learn than a series of simple jab-cross-hooks. Muay Thai is a dynamic, whole body workout that balances both aerobic and anaerobic movements. It’s defined as “the art of eight limbs,” aka, hands, elbows, legs/feet and knees.

“In addition to punches, elbows, knees and kicks, it also uses clinch-work, which is when you hold the opponent while striking them, and permits leg kicks,” explains Katalin Rodriguez Ogren, owner, Pow! Kickboxing (950 West Washington Boulevard, www.powkickboxing.com). “Both of these combat sports [kickboxing and Muay Thai] are total body workouts.”

Muay Thai training also incorporates body weight exercises like plyometrics, jump rope, shadow boxing and flexibility, as well as work on striking and kicking pads and heavy bags. Ms. Rodriguez Ogren says Muay Thai is accessible to everyone and modifications are made for anyone with injuries or other limitations; it’s about reforming your body and learning how to practice safely. Pow! Kickboxing offers up to 50 classes each week, including traditional boxing, kickboxing, Muay Thai, jiu jitsu and krav maga.

Taking elements from dance and music, the Brazilian martial art of capoeira has been around since the 16th century. Capoeira uses complex moves with leverage, power and speed; the idea is to keep movements quick and versatile so the opponent has less of a chance to strike or leg sweep. “A capoeira combat takes place inside a circle formed by participants who clap-sing and play various percussion instruments,” explains Mestra Marisa Cordeiro of Gingarte Capoeira Chicago (1501 West Chicago Avenue, http://gingartecapoeira.org), who has trained in capoeira for 30 years and is among the highest female capoeirstas in the U.S. “The two participants in the center of the circle exchange attacks, defense and acrobatic movements and their actions in the circle are referred to as a game, not a fight,” she continues.

The less combative approach makes for a welcoming space. Not to mention, half of her students are female. “A line of one of our popular capoeira songs says, ‘Capoeira e pra homen, menino and mulher,’” Ms. Cordeiro says, which translates into “Capoeira is for men, children and women.”

Krav Maga
Developed in Israel in the 1930s, krav maga is a form of contact martial arts based on street-fighting skills. Since its inception, it’s been redeveloped to emphasize both defensive and offensive techniques and is practiced not only by civilians, but also military and law enforcement. Movements include striking, wrestling and grappling; the goal is to neutralize your opponent as quickly as possible by aiming at the most vulnerable areas of the body.

Learn the hand-to-hand combat system with the Krav Academy, Inc. (1235 North LaSalle Street, www.kravacademy.com), founded in March 2012. Students practice in a small-group format and benefit from exceptional instruction and training. The Academy recently partnered with Fitness Formula Clubs (various locations, http://ffc.com) to offer a wide range of krav maga classes.

Defined as “the way of harmonious spirit,” aikido is used to defend yourself while simultaneously protecting your attacker from injury. However counterintuitive the intention of this Japanese martial art may sound, the point is to lead the attacker away. At Chicago Aikikai (1444 West Chicago Avenue, www.chicagoaikikai.org), students first learn how to fall safely, then move on to strikes, grabs and, lastly, how to fight against opponents using throws, pins and joint locks. To condition your body for the sport, practitioners work on controlled relaxation, flexibility with yoga and endurance training. Because aikido is about thwarting your opponent as opposed to physical strength, women compete and thrive in this whole-body practice.


About Lisa Payne

Lisa Payne is a Writer, Personal Trainer and Group Fitness Instructor. After receiving her BA’s in Broadcast Journalism and Communications from the University of Iowa, she worked as a Writer/Producer at KCRG-TV, an ABC affiliate, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Lisa then moved back to Chicago to receive her Post-Baccalaureate degree and MFA in writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Lisa has since combined both of her loves: fitness and writing.