WEEKEND ATHLETE | There's a style of MARTIAL RTS that's right for you.
AFTER spending several months watching her 6-year-old son, Stephen, learn kung fu, Evelyn Garvey of Lenoir, N.C., wanted to join the action. "I was attracted to the workout and beauty," she says. "When I get home, I'm drenched in sweat. My arms hurt--and it feels wonderful. I'm in my forties, and you feel as if you've done every kind of workout. It makes you feel young again to find something totally new."
With martial arts' steep rise in popularity, you'd think it really was a fountain of youth. It's one of the fastest-growing sports in the U.S., with about 5.4 million Americans taking part in some form, up 6% from 1999, according to the National Sporting Goods Association.
One of the reasons most often cited for the popularity of this sport, say instructors, is that martial arts can soothe our harried psyches. Says Rick Faye, who runs the Minnesota Kali Group, in Minneapolis, which specializes in kickboxing: "It can be great stress relief. One clay, students will go just for the exercise. Another day, they're wailing on the pads. We had a woman kicking the pads and yelling, `Give back the ring!'"
Martial arts are not all the same. There are styles to appeal to all ages, sexes, sizes and strength levels. "You can continue to practice throughout your whole life," says Ron Viavattene, head instructor at the Judo Club, in Newton, Mass., who has been practicing judo for 40 years. In fact, there are so many choices, you may be intimidated. Here's what to expect from some of the more popular ones:
Tae kwon do consists of kicks, blocks and punches that improve flexibility, and it's the best workout for your legs and buttocks. You'll practice kicking technique and footwork, then get sweaty when sparring. There's plenty of opportunity for competition, in which you earn points by kicking your opponent in the chest more often than you get kicked back.
Judo is great for competition, strength and self-defense. It focuses on throwing your opponent off balance and then tossing him or her to the ground, as well as on grappling. Although people of all sizes can participate, it can be frustrating at first if you're smaller than everyone else.
Aikido involves a lot of throwing, falling and rolling, too. But instead of relying primarily on strength, you execute complex, spherical moves that use the energy of your opponent's attack to bring him down. "You get out of the way and unbalance the person," says Judy Brady, a third-degree black belt from Orlando who is not quite 5 feet tall. "If you do it right, you do not have to exert so much energy."
Kickboxing can be best for a fast-paced, full-body workout. Thai boxing, one of the most popular styles, permits kicking, punching, kneeing and elbowing, but the moves are watered down a bit from the deadly version practiced in Thailand. Real kickboxing is much more concerned with techniques and fighting strategies than "cardio kickboxing" aerobics classes, which choreograph kicks and punches to music.
Kung fu, made popular by martial-arts icon Bruce Lee, has a bit of everything--punches, kicks, blocks, takedowns, grappling and even the use of weapons (knife, staff, spear). With so many different skills to learn, it can take longer to earn a black belt in kung fu than in any other martial art. This ancient Chinese martial art is itself divided into many variations.
Hapkido combines the best of many martial arts, using kicks, strikes, joint locks, throws, weapons and, like aikido, energy-redirecting concepts. It's great for self-defense.
Tai chi features slow, graceful movements that flow through a set order (called forms), It helps improve your flexibility, coordination, balance and relaxation, and it's especially popular among older people. It can be helpful if you are coming off an injury, have arthritis or want to improve your mental focus. But it's probably not suited to you if you want a fast-paced, competitive workout.
Karate, which means "empty hand" (no weapons), focuses on fast and hard punches, strikes, blocks and kicks. Like kung fu, it comes in many different styles.
Off you go
PICKING A STYLE is easy compared with picking a school. In addition to looking through the Yellow Pages under "Martial Arts," you can check Black Belt magazine's dojo directory (www.blackbeltmag.com).
Some schools require you to sign a contract for a year or more. Try to avoid this--you could get stuck paying even if you lose interest or get injured. Instead, look for schools that charge $40 to $90 a month no matter how many classes you take. Also beware of extra costs. Most clubs charge $50 or less for the uniform, but some jack up the price. "I've seen some selling uniforms for as high as $500," says Charlie Robinson, a seventh-degree black belt in judo who teaches at the Twin Cities Judo Club, in Yuba City, Cal.
Exam fees add up, too. Some schools expect you to take a belt test every month--inflating the number of belts needed before becoming a black belt--and charge $30 or more for each test. Most clubs will charge you a fee, but some have fewer belt levels than others and pressure you less to take the exams.
Select a sensei
ASK ABOUT the instructors' qualifications. "Some people get a black belt and open up a school, but they don't know anything about teaching," says Clinet Furr, head instructor at Blue Ridge Kung Fu, in Lenoir, N.C. Most styles of martial arts have no formal teacher training. Students work their way up through the ranks and usually start to assist with instruction once they reach the black-belt level, which often requires a certain amount of teaching experience before advancing to the next degree.
Find out how long an instructor, or sensei, has been teaching the style you wish to learn. Then watch a class and talk with some students to see whether you are comfortable with his or her teaching method and the personality of the school. The U.S. Judo Association has a coaches' certification program. Go to www.csprings.com/usja/ coachList.htm to verify whether an instructor you're considering is certified.
Don't expect to start at an advanced level. It usually takes at least four or five years to become a black belt in most versions of the martial arts. Judo novices spend a lot of time learning how to fall without hurting their bodies. In tae kwon do, you can spend months learning kicks, punches and blocks before you spar with anyone. At Minnesota Kali Group, everyone begins with the Phase 1 course, which introduces kickboxing fundamentals. "We don't do sparring in the beginning of Thai boxing," says Rick Faye. "We're hitting the pads and jumping rope. The instructor is teaching the mechanics--knees and elbows in sequence and shadow boxing. Then you hit the focus mitt and Thai pad." People proceed at their own pace in his class--a flexibility you may want to seek when picking a school. "I get people who came off the couch and haven't done anything," he says. "Others are triathletes."
Finding a school where you'll be comfortable is key. Blue Ridge Kung Fu is family-oriented (even hosting movie nights for kids) and has plenty of adults in their thirties, forties and older. Another kung-fu club in a nearby college town is filled with young men and is much more competitive. Minnesota Kali Group has co-ed and women's-only kickboxing classes, but no classes for kids. Others mix adults with kids.
All of the Asian martial arts have strong traditions, and many go back centuries. At most clubs, you'll bow when coming on and off the mat. Some schools foster a formal atmosphere, where students practice in silence, do kneeling bows throughout the workout, and hold the head instructor in cultlike reverence. Others are much more informal.
What is the program's focus? Some martial-arts schools are "belt mills" that promise if you pay a certain amount of money, you'll get your black belt in a mere two years. Belt exams can be a great goal-setting motivator and a way to measure your progress, but you may not be in a hurry to hustle through the ranks. Some schools stress competition more than others. The excitement of competing attracts many people to judo and tae kwon do, and some clubs focus on it more than others. For example, there are judo competitions every month for interested students in Boston. --Reporter: ERIN BURT
Lankford, Kimberly. "GET YOUR KICKS." Kiplinger's Personal Finance Magazine Nov. 2001: 112. Academic OneFile. Web. 29 Oct. 2009.
United States Judo Association - USJA
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