Krav Maga: It’s exercise with a kick of self-defense (By Dan Vergano, USA TODAY)

“I didn’t like to sweat,” admits Anne Goldberg. “But I was turning into a couch
potato, watching TV and eating snacks. I had to do something.” Something that, in a little over a year, dropped her from a size 10 to a size 5, started her wearing sleeveless dresses and taught her how to toss a mugger over her head. “And I actually have abs now,” says the 30-year-old Los Angeles banker.

Her secret, long known to law enforcement types and stars such as Jennifer Lopez and Christian Slater, combines popular cardio workout classes with techniques from a hard-core self-defense program. Called Krav Maga (krahv muh-GAH) Fitness, it’s an exercise class that also features punching-bag workouts and fastpaced calisthenics.

“Really, it’s for anyone looking for a dynamic and interesting way to get fit. It’s not just another cardio class,” says John Whitman, who heads Krav Maga Worldwide Enterprises. Krav Maga started overseas as the Israeli army’s self-defense system, which emphasizes unarmed defense against armed attackers. From a handful of centers two years ago, about 40 locations nationwide now teach Krav Maga programs, with 100 more planned to open in the next year.

Variety knocks out boredom
The program’s fitness classes differ from standard aerobics classes not just in their self-defense inspiration (like Tae Bo, the kickboxing-derived cardio class), but in their constantly changing patterns. Instead of a routine, fitness buffs get a workout that constantly varies from week to week, more aerobic workouts one week and more bag work the next, in an effort to keep people intrigued and interested in Krav Maga classes.

“People get bored, the body gets bored when you
work the same muscles the same way always,”
Whitman says. And despite the military origins of Krav
Maga, “we’re not drill instructors,” says Michael
Margolin, who heads the fitness branch of Krav Maga.
“We let people go at their own pace but add a little
positive encouragement.” Goldberg concurs: “They really build into workout
combinations and teach you how to properly throw punch or a kick.” Her favorite sessions are called “Combatives,” in which participants punch, kick, elbow and knee heavy bags to music. Other classes might
teach 15 minutes of aerobic kickboxing, then switch
students to another room to run circuits of punching bags, push-ups, and running in and out of obstacles.

“It’s not step class,” Goldberg says. Hard-core self-defense available, too
If you’re interested in the basic self-defense classes
that Krav Maga made its name with, you’ll find them at
most, if not all, of the new centers. An aerobic workout
from those classes would only come with time, says
David Kahn, a New York instructor, as students learn
to string together long sequences of kicks, punches,
elbow and knee strikes to targets, then practice them
repeatedly to build them into stunningly fast combinations.
“Go through a series of those drills repeatedly, and it gets tiring real fast,” Kahnsays.

Fitness experts stress that any exercise done for a half-hour most days offers almost immediate health benefits. Recently, though, martial arts such as karate and judo have emerged as solutions for people who want their exercise strenuous and interesting, says exercise physiologist Andrea White of the University of Utah- Salt Lake City. Krav Maga represents the leading edge of the trend, offering what students such as Goldberg call an intense and involving fitness option.

“Martial arts can be enjoyable, beneficial and therapeutic,” White says. People who dutifully schlep to the gym and don’t enjoy the process often drop out, she says, so any intrigue added to a workout by a self-defense flavor can only help. Whitman is careful to say that no Krav Maga fitness class teaches all the skills of standard Krav Maga self-defense classes, but the strength and stamina developed there would complement such training.

The classes also dispense with the spiritual
aspects stressed in some martial arts as well, he adds, so they are not intended for people seeking any kind of mystical enlightenment.
“I was surprised how much I liked it,” says exercise physiologist Samantha Heller of New York University. Taking a self-defense-oriented class with a friend last week, she found her instructor careful to explain the proper mechanics of each motion, and he was able to show her how to work around a shoulder injury.

“Believe it or not, I will probably go back,” says Heller, who describes herself as “very picky” about exercise instruction, teaching five classes weekly herself. ‘Not everybody can teach’
Some physiologists, such as Mark Andrews of the Lake Erie (Pa.) College of
Osteopathic Medicine, caution that workouts with punching bags, especially heavy bags, require a slow buildup and aren’t for novices. Explosive kicks and punches can trigger soreness in untrained students. That makes proper instruction and a willingness to take it easy on newcomers, especially out-of-shape ones, a must for classes based on martial arts. “Be careful,” he says. “Understand your level of fitness — no physician can do that — and have an idea of what you can accomplish” when beginning such training.

“My only fear is that if this becomes very trendy, then gyms will hire anybody who says they can teach Krav Maga,” Heller says. She worries that poorly trained instructors will teach people to kick and punch incorrectly, which could lead to a rash of sprains and worse injuries among novices.
Margolin agrees, saying the key to Krav Maga’s success will be ensuring the new centers have well-trained teachers. Instructors have to undergo lengthy training and certification at the program’s Los Angeles headquarters, with check-ups every six months to retain their license. “Not everybody can teach, but everybody can do Krav Maga,” he says. “It’s a blast really, a lot of fun.”

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