A Black Belt Takes a LesMills Body Combat Class

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Good lock of the kick, but y’all need to turn your hips and point your toes down…then again, what do I know. I’m just a black belt.

Two years ago I wrote a review of the ballet barre class my gym introduced in early 2016. I’ve since gotten the hang of it, have become pretty proficient in the moves, and have seen some improvement in my core and leg strength. I usually did a little barre and swimming on the side while I took 5-6 taekwondo classes per week.

Now that my taekwondo training has dwindled to next to nothing, I need something else to keep me in fighting shape. About 2-3 months ago I started taking Body Combat at my gym. Body Combat is one of the latest parts of the Les Mills gym class machine, which now includes 16 different branded classes that are taught at gyms across the world. There are certain “versions” that are released every few months, which keeps both the certified instructors and participants on their toes.

Spoiler alert: I LOVE IT. I’ve taken my share of aerobics classes over the last 20 years, but I’ve never found one I wanted to stick with for the long term. Barre is turning out (no pun intended) to be one of those classes, and it looks like Body Combat will be the same. The course purports  to combine techniques from boxing, Muay Thai, taekwondo, capoeira, and karate (sorta). I like to think of it as a technique class as opposed to specific practice on things like self-defense, poomsae, or fighting. It both helps me hone my well-trained skills and let’s me spend time on techniques I rarely or never get to practice.

So what is the experience for a trained martial artist in a Body Combat class? Training pickiness aside, it’s an excellent high-intensity cardio workout, which keeps me in good cardiovascular shape for my sporadic appearances in sparring class. It hits all the major body parts–legs, butt, core, arms, shoulders and back and offers enough variety that it’s very difficult to get bored. Hell, yesterday my Tuesday instructor threw in a flying side kick! Most of all, it is pure FUN! Having absolute fun is something I’ve missed over the past six months in my taekwondo classes.

I recommend that any martial artist go into this class with an open mind and a goal of refining the basics and building speed and strength. They simplify some techniques (for example, roundhouse kicks and side kicks are only done on the front foot, there’s no turn to the back kick, and their “front stance” is most decidedly NOT a front stance)…and that’s okay. This is not meant to be for only those who have advanced fighting training.

The simplicity of the techniques gives you the opportunity to tweak and refine the foundational skills that you still rely on as a black belt. I’m short and have a hard time hearing the instructor with her muffled mic, so I intentionally plant myself in the front in every class so I can see her. The added benefit is that I can watch myself in the mirror as I punch, kick, lunge, and throw knees and elbows. I have a visual target when I punch to the side of the head or snap kick to the torso. There’s lots of repetition, so I can make tiny changes every time I strike, and I definitely take this technique training with me back to my traditional taekwondo classes.

Another benefit is this class breaks me out of my taekwondo rut. We will sometimes go through an entire tkd class without doing one hand strike, and those who know me well know I loooooove hitting shit with my hands, even if it’s just the air. My favorite breaking techniques are hand strikes, and I try to punch as often as I can in a sparring match. From a practical point of view, I’m most likely going to be using my hands in a real self-defense situation, so even though my Friday instructor is just dazzled by my head-high roundhouse kicks and the occasional spin kick I throw in (meh), I’m paying more attention to the technique of my punches and elbow strikes. And in Body Combat there are so many punches…oh the punches…so many punches…

Finally, theres’s a sense of both anonymity and camaraderie I get in Body Combat that I don’t get in taekwondo. In taekwondo I’m either an instructor or a student, and I’m constantly communicating with students or other instructors. I can’t go to class and just be. As much as I love the closeness I have with my other black belt instructors and students I also want to be left completely alone once in a while when I’m working out. There’s certainly no pressure for me to teach at the gym, nor is their pressure to perform (although most of that pressure comes from me). Sometimes I get funny looks at the gym when I’m warming up before class with a form or two, but that doesn’t bother me. I’m enjoying silently critiquing myself in the side and front mirrors. Extra practice!

Some days in taekwondo I look into the (sometimes) listless eyes of my students and realize none of us want to be there. We’re all tired of the routine. I have to repeatedly remind my black belts to do simple things like keep their hands up and bend their knees with a snap kick, which is frustrating and tiresome. None of that in Body Combat. Sure, the technique is kinda terrible, but people work their butts off. Hands are up all the time (and I think it’s cute how some of the women will wear MMA gloves). Feet are moving all the time. People are eager to keep up and try their best. I’m punching, kicking, kneeing, and elbowing my ass off like a good second degree black belt. Everyone wants to be there because they know it’s their workout and no one else is going to do the work for them. We all have off days, days when we’re tired and bored, but I wish I could see more of that self-motivation in taekwondo.

If you’re a martial artist needing a supplement to your training, give your local gym’s kickboxing class a try. You may be surprised at how much you like it.

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Back in White

peek-through-a-hole-carlos-caetano

Tonight was my first taekwondo class in about a week and a half. I took off two Fridays ago to spend time with my parents and it seemed like a good idea at the time to skip the entire following week. As I’ve said in previous posts I was burned out. I needed a break from taekwondo, even though it was more of a mental break than physical.

I was very tempted to stay home tonight. I am still privately dealing with a painful situation that has taken a great toll on me. I had sunk into a deep depression, and interacting with the world seemed difficult and uninteresting. My couch and Netflix were beckoning, but I thought that if I got on that slippery slope of skipping class after class I might sink so low that I’d never go back, which would be tragic since I’m so close to black belt. The more I isolate myself the darker my mood and my outlook become.

“Were you on vacation?” Grandmaster asked brightly, teasing me a little for my long absence. I smiled shyly, shook my head, and muttered something about having a bad week. He slung his arm around my neck in a half-hug and then pushed me out onto the mat to warm up. I was quiet at first, keeping my distance from my classmates, listening to their jokes as I twisted my body and slung my limbs around.

Monday is cardio night, so I was dreading the thought of jumping, spinning, and kicking with sluggish legs and clogged sinuses, but I held up surprisingly well. Suddenly I had lots of energy, kiyahp-ing loudly, jumping as fast as I could, and attacking the focus pads with vigor. The A/C was broken, but instead of complaining I welcomed the heat. I felt like the past weeks’ stress and sadness were being squeezed out through the sweat pouring down my face and back. I was home. The problems I’m facing won’t disappear with one class, but it was such a relief to lift it off my shoulders, if only for an hour.

Adult Swim

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Elvis’s back stance is way too wide and he needs to keep his knife hand fingers together, but we’ll give him an A for effort.

I haven’t written a plain old “class diary” in a few weeks, and I can’t think of a better night than tonight’s debut of the adults only class. This may not sound like a big deal to those who belong to a mega-dojang, but we are a very small school. A new student (especially and adult) is an addition to be celebrated, and we ache from absences and drop-outs.
NOTE: This is intentionally a longer post than usual. I’m including details from tonight’s class in case any of my fabulous readers are martial artists and wish to use these techniques in their home dojang.

The nice thing about belonging to a small school is that there is a deep sense of camaraderie and in turn a deep sense of obligation and accountability. Barring a vacation, family visit, or illness I rarely miss class. During a recent stressful period I did stay home more often (a dark mood is a tempting bedfellow), but after the fact I realized that I needed taekwondo and my little dojang community more than I knew. I don’t just do it for myself. It’s gotten to the point that I show up for my instructors and classmates. It’s like my job, which I happen to enjoy very much. I don’t just show up for a paycheck; I show up for my boss and my team. My work and taekwondo comrades are counting on me just as much as I rely on them.

As I’ve stated in a previous post, taekwondo more than other martial arts tends to attract the kiddie set. A new adult student is like that extra Christmas present that’s tucked behind the tree, the forgotten one you don’t notice until after the wrapping paper is crumpled haphazardly into a paper bag and most of the cinnamon rolls have been eaten. Suddenly your afternoon is brighter. You can guess my excitement when my instructor announced his intent to hold an adults only class last Friday.

It didn’t quite go as planned. In fact…nobody showed up. I was there in spirit but had a very good reason to be absent. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. We tried again tonight, and it was a resounding success. There were seven students (remember, we’re a really small school) ranging from orange belt to black belt and ages from teens to late sixties. As usual I was the token girl. Unlike the nights where I have advanced red and black belt class after sparring I wasn’t bone tired and brain fried by the second class. We were all enthusiastic and cheerful, and I was actually disappointed that the hour flew by. I could have kept going. My instructor was just happy that for once he heard more ki-yaping than chit-chatting.

First we warmed up with some light cardio and then moved into some jumps, which were meant to simulate jump front-snap kick and jump roundhouse kick. The sticking point is to hike both your knees up high so your feet are in a neat point and you gain some serious air. With roundhouse you want to make sure you turn your hip over, which is both a little scary and a little fun mid-air. If you try it at home be sure to land lightly with your knees bent, hitting first with the ball of the foot and then curling down to the heel.

We then did some work on the ballet barre. Yes, we have a ballet barre in our dojang, and it’s a fantastic training tool. With partners we stretched our legs straight into the air, mindful to keep our shoulders and hips square to the wall as we grasped the barre behind us. Then we moved onto a an exercise that hits a few techniques: facing the barre at a 45 degree angle, flex the foot that is closest to the wall. Fling your leg straight up behind you, heel out and torso dipping toward the ground. It’s a great stretch that warms up the hips and legs and gets your body used to being tipped over for side and turning back side kicks. Be sure to keep your foot flexed and slightly turned inward with toes curled to practice for the side kick foot position. My instructor bemoaned the fact that his phone’s camera wasn’t strong enough to snap a photo of all of us mid-kick.

Finally we did my favorite barre exercise, one that my instructor created several months ago to help me with my spin kick. Standing parallel to the barre, grasp the barre with the arm that is furthest away, i.e., cross your body. Then spin out towards the shoulder closest to the wall and either swing a straight leg through the air or pop it up into a spinning hook kick. Return to the ready position with a roundhouse kick.
This improved my spin kick so dramatically that I am confident enough to use it for breaking technique at my upcoming bo dan test.

Then we moved on to hand-to-hand drills. We began with what I can’t describe any other way than “the blocking game.” My instructor took pity on my fellow classmates and threw himself to the lions as a sacrifice, i.e., I have dense bony little forearms that hurt like the dickens when they’re slammed against somebody else’s arm so he took one for the team and let me bang up his forearms. It’s great practice for sparring, when you don’t have time to do full blocks. Facing your partner in front stance, both right legs back, raise your left arm as if you’re going to do a low block, fist held tight. Smack your low blocks together, then cross your arm the other way and do low blocks again. Still using the left arm (both partners), flick your forearm into an inside-outside block and finally pop it up into a high block, smacking your arms together with each block. Low block, low block, outside-inside, high block. Then one partner will step back with the left foot and the opposing partner will step forward with their right foot. Same thing on the right side, and keep moving forward (or back if you are in the Ginger Rogers role). My instructor and I have done this several times before, so we got into a good groove fairly quickly. Pretty soon we were sliding back and forth furiously, breathing rapidly and lulled into the rhythm of our slapping arms. We glanced up to realize that we’d left the other students in the dust. My instructor wandered off to help my classmates and I admired the red welts forming on my arms.

Then we practiced blocking punches from the ready position, which is a little more realistic than someone throwing a punch from a static front stance. We played around with blocking and grasping the wrist, twisting our opponent towards the ground. It was a good lesson in gauging distance. I tend to grab too far up on the arm if I’m not paying attention or get sloppy. We continued the lesson in precision and distance as we practiced a few one-steps. It wasn’t so much about doing it “right” as it was about doing it “smart.” We explored issues that can’t be delved into as much when the kids are around—correct distance, positioning yourself based on your size, making sure you’re grounded enough that you won’t inadvertently lose your balance as you throw an opponent to the ground.

We finished with some target practice on the bags, again practicing distance and precision. Slamming your foot into a dense bag is much different than slicing it into the air. We took turns improvising different techniques–a roundhouse here, a ridge hand there, a sliding side kick followed by a spin kick. Once in a while we’d giggle with the self-consciousness only seems to affect the adults rather than the kids in taekwondo class, but we were having fun and experimenting. The most impressive move of the night was by a giant of an orange belt, a lanky fellow well over six feet who makes the little kids’ jaws drop when he wanders in with his motorcycle helmet tucked under his arm. He lurched toward the bag and whirled into a heavy-footed 360 roundhouse, bashing the bag with a sickening thud. It wasn’t the most precise or graceful 360 I’ve seen but I certainly didn’t want to be on the receiving end of it.

There are many fun, exciting, rewarding ways to spend a Friday night. Tonight was pretty high up on my list. I can’t wait to go back next week. The best part actually happened as I was driving home (listening to Snoop Dogg, naturally). Something inside me shifted and I realized that I don’t even care if I get a black belt. That’s not what’s driving me anymore. I just want to keep doing this. I want to keep learning and improving my skills and sharing it with the people around me. I’m home.