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Safer and Stronger: Which Self-Defense Class is for You?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
My husband has trained in martial arts on and off for years. Still, when he suggested our four-year-old daughter try it, I was hesitant. “Are they going to teach her to fight?” I asked. “They will teach her to defend herself,” he answered.

That’s all I needed to hear to convince me it was a good idea. Fast forward five years, and her Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu class is now one of her favorite activities. The class not only teaches her skills needed to defend against an attacker, but it also gives her the confidence to stand up for herself.

Witnessing the mental and physical benefits both my kids and husband experienced, I decided to jump on the bandwagon by enrolling in Muay Thai kickboxing. An avid runner, I was looking for a new kind of workout that would challenge my muscles, but I was also interested in learning tools I could use if ever confronted with a situation where I needed to defend myself or protect my kids. A year later, I can attest that martial arts classes are solid workouts that will get your blood pumping (sparring for 5 minutes sounds easy until you actually do it), and I’ve learned techniques that I can call upon if faced with a dangerous situation.

Protect, Defend and Get Strong

Jeff Robison, head coach and owner of Club MMA in Cincinnati, Ohio, has been teaching self-defense and martial arts classes to people of all ages for more than 13 years. “No one is too young or too old. Martial arts teaches kids life skills, while introducing them to physical activity at the same time. It teaches how to be a good sport, how to win and lose, and how to be tough physically and mentally," he says. "You’re never too old to start. One of my oldest clients is 70. It’s about your mindset. Physically your body can do it; it’s convincing your mind you can do it.” 

Self-defense classes have risen in popularity in recent years. More college students are learning to protect themselves on campus, kids are learning how to defend against bullies and strangers and women are preparing themselves in the event of an emergency.  

For those torn between taking a one-time self-defense seminar or enrolling in martial arts classes, Robison says there are several advantages to taking the leap and fully committing to classes. “The difficulty with self-defense classes is that it’s not easy to practice something like a poke to the eye. It’s much easier to incorporate self-defense techniques into martial arts classes," he explains. "I try to talk about these concepts as much as possible during class to apply what students are learning [in class] to real-world situations.”

One of the biggest differences between martial arts and traditional exercise is that it’s not only a great workout, but students also learn respect and the skills to protect themselves. Most classes offer a belt-ranking system, which provides a visible sign of a student’s progress.
While some disciplines such as Karate and Jiu-Jitsu wear a gi, others do not require a specific uniform. If you’re trying a class for the first time, check with the instructor before purchasing any equipment to see what’s expected, since each class is different.

A Mixed Bag of Mixed Martial Arts Options

A wide variety of martial arts classes incorporate self-defense as a cornerstone of the discipline. Each martial art has its own specialty, so finding a class that works for you will depend on your interests and needs. Five common classes are likely to pop up as you research the right class, each of which has its own challenges and pace. Each of the classes below start at a beginner level, so the class you choose is really going to depend on personal preference. The amount of contact (meaning actual kicks and punches) will vary greatly depending on the class and training facility. Consider observing a class before participating to make sure it meets your expectations.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu: A form of martial arts focused on ground defense. The premise is that a smaller, weaker person can defend against a larger and stronger attacker by using leverage and proper technique. This is good for someone who doesn’t want a lot of high impact activity, but also isn’t intimidated by close contact with others.

Muay Thai: A combat sport that originated in Thailand, Muay Thai uses stand up striking and clinching techniques. Students are taught diversity in striking, using both hands and feet. If you’re interested in the challenges that boxing provides, the kicks incorporated into Muay Thai take that one step further.  
Taekwondo: A Korean martial art that focuses on fast kicking techniques, emphasizing speed and agility. This practice advocates the relax and strike principle, meaning the participant relaxes the body between movements, then tenses the muscles to perform the technique, which simultaneously increases power while conserving energy.  

Karate: Developed in Japan, karate is primarily a striking art which uses punches, kicks and open-handed techniques to defend against an attack. Karate can be practiced as a form of self-defense, as a combat sport or as an art of self-development. Karate focuses more on hand strikes, while Taekwondo focuses more on kicking.
Krav Maga: Originally developed for the Israeli military, Krav Maga encourages students to avoid confrontation if possible, but if not, to counter in the quickest and most efficient way. Attacks are aimed at the most vulnerable parts of the body, designed to defend against chokes, strikes and grabs.

Robison offers a few tips when searching for martial arts classes:
  1. Tour the facility and take note of how clean it appears. How well the staff cares for their equipment is an indication of how well they care for their members.

  2. Can they accommodate your needs? Do they have the classes you’re interested in at the times you have available? Do they have experienced staff who can provide workout modifications if you need them? 

  3. Go with your gut. If it feels like a good place, it’s probably right for you. Everyone succeeds when they are in a place of comfort that makes them feel welcome.
Most facilities offer an introductory program to try it out before you sign a contract, which gives you an opportunity to see what the program is like without a long-term commitment.

Martial arts has been a great addition to my exercise program, challenging my body to push itself in new ways. Even though I can run six miles without getting winded, I still can’t hit pads for more than a few minutes before I’m gasping for air. It’s been empowering to learn to defend myself over the last year, and my experience continues to give me the confidence in knowing that I’m strong and capable of being tough—even as a mother of four!