Self-Defense for Fitness

Self-Defense for Fitness

From kickboxing to Krav Maga, martial arts classes can help keep you safe – while whipping you into shape. What to know before signing up.

By Anna Medaris Miller, ContributorDec. 11, 2015, at 10:09 a.m.More

Self-Defense for FitnessMore

AVITAL ZEISLER’S LIFE was beginning to change for the better. At age 19, she had just begun college courses and was looking forward to pursuing her dreams of dancing or working in another creative profession. “I was really excited to begin the next chapter of my life,” she remembers. 

Then, she was sexually assaulted.

“I was just completely broken inside, mentally and emotionally,” says Zeisler, now a 26-year-old in New York City. To cope with the trauma, she tried therapy, creative writing, going out with friends and various fitness classes and competitions. “I tried everything to heal myself – and nothing worked,” Zeisler remembers.

Everything, that is, except self-defense. At the urging of her dad, Zeisler enrolled in Krav Maga, a type of self-defense used by the Israeli military. She progressed through the classes as far as possible, even becoming a certified instructor and teaching in Israel and New York. “Self-defense … was a way for me to do something positive [and combat] the violence,” Zeisler says.

Still, it wasn’t enough. Not all the techniques fit her “personal mission to find out if a woman could defend herself against a larger and stronger attacker,” she says, and so she modified them to suit her needs. For example, one hair-grabbing maneuver involved the defender on the ground, but Zeisler found a way to protect herself while staying upright.​ “I really assessed whether I could have used concepts in a real-life scenario,” she says, “and quickly realized that simplicity is survival for self-defense.”

Zeisler then​ created a self-defense program of her own, launching The Soteria Method in 2013. The practice is​ a “360-degree approach to self-care through self-defense. fitness and empowerment” that  aims to equip women with the mental and physical skills to keep them safe without compromising their femininity, Zeisler says.

“Self-defense has to be about creating and protecting a life that I love,” says Avital Zeisler, founder of The Soteria Method. 

One of the method’s lessons​, for example, teaches women how to defend themselves while wearing heels or by using a purse. Most emphasize movements that strengthen and tone the upper body, core and glutes, while also providing a cardiovascular workout.

“I found a way to enhance and get the body that I wanted as a woman,” Zeisler says, “while still having the fundamental movements that could allow me to survive on the street.”

Why fight to get fit?

Self-defense programs that double as a workout are nothing new, but they’re gaining popularity, says John Graden​, the founder and CEO of the Martial Arts Teacher’s​ Association and author of “Who Killed Walt Bone,” a book about a 1970s karate school. Thanks in part to the popularity of mixed martial arts ​and the Ultimate Fighting Championship,​ “interest in martial arts is at an all-time high,” he says. “Parents see it as the​ ideal ​supplement to their children’s education, especially with reduced recess and physical education; adults see it as fitness with the benefit of getting in shape.”

Merging martial arts and fitness not only teaches students to protect themselves while getting fit, but it also engages their minds in a way most standard fitness classes don’t. For example, many martial arts classes begin with an acted-out scenario – say, three men approaching you at an ATM – rather than a warmup or stretching session. Then students debrief with their instructor and learn how to protect themselves in such situations. Unlike some workouts that are difficult to get your mind into, Graden says, ​”you’re immediately alive in that class.”​ Zeisler sees this mental shift among her students too. “Instead of focusing on how many reps [they] have left, they’re focused on the form and the survival aspect of it,” she says.

For Samantha Thomas​, a 24-year-old forensic technician in Largo, Florida, self-defense offered a new challenge to her tired gym routine. After stumbling upon ​C.O.B.R.A. Fit – a 10-week course in kickboxing, strength-training and nutrition – about four years ago, she was hooked. “It’s not like any other workout program out there,” she says. In fact, she liked it so much that she moved on to C.O.B.R.A’s self-defense program, a 10-week course dubbed “a police academy for civilians” that draws on martial arts, law enforcement, close-quarters combat techniques and the psychology of criminal intent​. Thomas still practices at least four times a week, and she earned her orange belt last month. For her, the best part of the program is its real-world applicability.

“Working with the police station, I see what happens to people who don’t have any training,” she says. While she hasn’t had to use her skills in the real world, she’s prepared if that changes. “That alone,” Thomas says, “is a comforting feeling.”

Finding the Best Program for You

Self-defense programs vary widely, but many have a common thread: to teach students to “neutralize an opponent using as little energy as possible,” says Tiffany Cunin​, the YMCA regional director of group exercise in the District of Columbia. In other words, instead of learning to attack someone, students learn how to avoid an attack or protect themselves should one occur, she says. Most programs can also be considered exercise. After all, Cunin says, “an element of being fit is being able to defend yourself.”

Here’s what to know about a few programs before enrolling:

  • Krav Maga: Developed for the Israeli military, Krav Maga is “designed to teach extremely effective self-defense in the shortest possible time,” according to Krav Maga Worldwide. Students learn “hand-to-hand combat defense techniques,” Cunin says, such as disabling a weapon or blocking a choke. For Zeisler, the discipline was a great introduction to the world of self-defense. “It’s a realistic approach to personal security,” she says. Plus, it’s a workout. Whether your priority is self-defense or fitness, Cunin says Krav Maga is “a perfect mix of the two.”​
  • ​The Soteria Method: When ​women come to one of Zeisler’s workshops, they often expect to learn poses and get a workout right away. But first, Zeisler talks to them about their instinctive reactions in threatening situations and how those can be manipulated and improved through training. “I show them how to transform their bodies into weapons that are efficient and effective under pressure,” Zeisler says. She also teaches them how to simplify survival strategies and adapt them to real-world scenarios – “because that’s the difference,” she says. “When it comes to self-defense … it’s [about] how to survive and neutralize the situation as quickly as possible.” ​If you can’t attend one of Zeisler’s workshops (she hosts them for schools, companies, small groups and events), take heart: You can take courses digitally or read Zeisler’s book, “Weapons of Fitness: The Woman’s Ultimate Guide to Fitness, Self-Defense, and Empowerment.”​ She’s also starting a​ teacher trainer program so that women throughout the country can teach the method.
  • ​C.O.B.R.A.: As Thomas discovered, C.O.B.R.A.’s self-defense program – which stands for Combat Objective Battle Ready Applications – prides itself on practicality. You won’t wear a belt or bow; you’ll train your mind and body to react effectively in moments when you’d typically fight or flee. “It’s designed just like the police academy, but you’re not learning how to arrest people or drive cars,” Graden says. “It’s pure self-defense and has a small fitness component.” C.O.B.R.A. Fit, on the other hand, is the opposite: mostly fitness with a small self-defense component. 
  • Kickboxing: Kickboxing usually draws people looking for a good cardiovascular workout, Cunin says, and it delivers. “If somebody’s looking for a form of martial arts [that] offers a very strong fitness background, a lot of conditioning, kickboxing is that kind of class,” she says. While kickboxing punches and kicks can be used in real-world scenarios, self-defense tends to take the backburner to exercise in these classes – particularly if they’re “cardio kickboxing” programs in which instructors don’t need any training in fighting to teach, Cunin says. To find a high-quality kickboxing class, look for places ​that focus exclusively on the exercise – rather than gyms that only offer one or two kickboxing classes a week, says Graden, who recommends Empower Boxing​​. “The more the school or facility is focused on fitness kickboxing, the better typically the experience is going to be for the students,” he says.
  • Taekwondo: This ancient martial art – developed over 1,000 years ago – “is a nonaggressive and ethical system of self-defense,” according to the American Taekwondo Association. It’s a “striking, kicking” form of martial arts that focuses on speed and agility – and breath control, Cunin says. “Breathing has an impact on how much power the body is able to exert as well as how the brain functions when it is in a fight-or-flight situation.” Taekwondo typically attracts people who commit to progressing through the various stages, she adds. “It’s a great way to interact with people who are like-minded,” Cunin says. “They want to hone a skill and become proficient in a very unique skill.”
  • Brazilian jiujitsu: You might recognize jiujitsu​ maneuvers from Ultimate Fighting Championship matches, Cunin says. The martial art typically involves a lot of on-the-ground techniques such as joint locks and choke holds that give practitioners power over their opponents – even if the opponents are bigger and stronger. ​”Ultimately, you’re trying to get the other person to submiss,” says Cunin, which makes jiujitsu is a great cardiovascular workout.
  • Capoeira: If you’re more into dancing than fighting, Capoeira might be for you. The Brazilian technique is a mix between martial arts and acrobatics and is “fascinating to watch,” Cunin says. ​”Sometimes people refer to it as a performance or a game.” But don’t be deceived: Capoeira isn’t easy. It involves quick, complex movements – like gracefully dodging a kick – and requires speed, power and flexibility, Cunin says. While students don’t typically take it solely for self-defense purposes, the skills they gain can help them in threatening situations. “It helps individuals become more agile, more powerful, quicker and more mobile,” Cunin says.

​Still not sure which martial art is for you? Graden suggests sitting in on any program you’re interested in joining before signing up. Ideally, instructors should make you want to come back and think about the concepts between classes, while the seasoned students should inspire you. “I always recommend watching a class first and looking for people who have been there for a while,” he says. “They’re basically you in the future.”