The world of white collar fistfights is probably something you were first introduced to by Brad Pitt’s abs in the Fight Club basement. But for most, the closest you’ve probably come is a few forward rolls in an ill-fitting judogi; taken to the local sports hall by your mum to try martial arts as a kid, to get you away from the TV.
However, the UFC and, let’s be honest, the irresistible rise (and now decline) of Conor McGregor, has inspired a new generation of fight fans. Add to this the fact a fighter’s body – one that promises functional lean muscle and flexibility, not barbell bulk – is the physique of the moment and it’s clear to see why the popularity of martial arts classes is on the rise.
Freddy Brown of KO Muay Thai Gym believes the higher intensity fighter’s workouts (rather than your standard steady-state run every morning) is the most efficient, effective way to burn fat while building muscle. And he’s right.
A study by Colorado State University researchers found short bouts of intense exercise, like sparring, can burn an extra 200 calories over 24 hours of rest thanks to a roundhouse kick up the backside to your metabolic rate.
Not only that, the Journal of Sports Sciences revealed this type of workout boosts HGH production by 450 per cent. It’s a hormone that’s great for fat-burning, but will also help repair and build lean muscle after a tough session.
At a time when mental strength is viewed in parity with physical, the fact martial arts can boost both brain and body is an added boon. For the stressed and downtrodden worker it’s the ideal elixir, since The BMJ discovered deploying your fists of fury increases self-esteem. One Physical Educator study even revealed it reduces symptoms of both anxiety and depression. Knockout.
It’s a notion backed up by Luiz Ribeiro of London Fight Factory, who explains: “You’re really not going to have a chance to stress about work or anything else when someone’s attempting to punch you in the face.” Can’t argue with that.
To help you harness this host of heavy-hitting health benefits, here are five fighting disciplines you need to try. Come and have a go. If you think you’re hard enough, that is.
Best For: Flexibility and speed.
Tale Of The Tape: You can’t expect to land a kick to the head with tight hamstrings; so increasing flexibility is a key part of training. “Plus, training for Thai boxing enhances speed and your explosive high intensity capacity,” says Brown. This melts fat to create a modern athlete’s physique that shuns size for practicality.
It’s A Knockout: Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism research revealed Muay Thai improves both your aerobic metabolism and anaerobic glycolysis to boost stamina gains in tandem with increased muscle power. Translation, you’re fitter in every sense of the word.
Best For: Practical muscle and self-defense.
Tale Of The Tape: Real world workouts designed to prepare and train you for what might happen in dark alleyways. You’ll build the agility, coordination and strength to cope with any situation. Expect to be put under pressure by surprise attacks, coupled with lots of kettlebell training that will enhance your quick-fire anaerobic fitness.
It’s A Knockout: “It’s fitness training that also gives you a life saving skill, as opposed to fitness for fitness sake, providing calmness in adversity and boosting confidence,” says John Aldcroft, chief instructor at the British Academy of Krav Maga.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu
Best For: Pain free (sort of) fighting and total body strength.
Tale Of The Tape: Being entangled on the floor trying to figure out your opponent’s weakness will provide a mental workout, improving your problem solving ability. Plus, wrestling requires the use of every muscle and its emphasis on body position will improve proprioception, which is transferable to your lifting technique when you’re back in the gym.
It’s (Not) A Knockout: “BJJ training can be done at full power with little chance of injury as there is no striking, and ‘tapping out’ means you can stop before anything hurts,” explains Richard Martin, chairman of the UK Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Association.
Best For: Fat burning and knockout power.
Tale Of The Tape: “Boxing blends the perfect package of cardiovascular high intensity fitness, but also improves core strength,” says Shannon Jewell of Alex Fitness Gym.
This will help you absorb body blows and swing stronger haymakers; the side order of six-pack abs is pretty sweet, too. Exercising at this intensity also burns off the stress hormone cortisol to improve your mood and help you feel energised.
It’s A Knockout: The Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise journal measured the calories burned by an hour of exercise and found boxing melts around 900 kcals per 60-minute session, more than any other martial art. Or that half-hearted go on the cross-trainer.
Best For: Jack of all trades (and mastering them too).
Tale Of The Tape: This global phenomenon can kickstart muscle growth and choke out fat. Its strength is its variety: “Classes have a focus of either striking, wrestling or sparring; each one paired with an insane warm-up,” explains Ribiero.
Combining different styles like BJJ, Muay Thai and boxing, the variations ensure every class is entertaining and you’ll learn more skills than any other combat sport. Plus, build a knockout body.
It’s (Not) A Knockout: University of Alberta researchers found that while you’re more likely to receive cuts and bruises in MMA – which, admit it, you’d probably enjoy pairing with your suit as a badge of honour – the risk of suffering loss of consciousness or serious eye injury is around half that of boxing.