Self-Defense for Fitness


From kickboxing to Krav Maga, martial arts classes can help keep you safe – while whipping you into shape. What to know before signing up.

Avital Zeisler’s life was beginning to change for the better. At age 19, she had just begun college courses and was looking forward to pursuing her dreams of dancing or working in another creative profession. “I was really excited to begin the next chapter of my life,” she remembers.

Then, she was sexually assaulted.

“I was just completely broken inside, mentally and emotionally,” says Zeisler, now a 26-year-old in New York City. To cope with the trauma, she tried therapy, creative writing, going out with friends and various fitness classes and competitions. “I tried everything to heal myself – and nothing worked,” Zeisler remembers.

Everything, that is, except self-defense. At the urging of her dad, Zeisler enrolled in Krav Maga, a type of self-defense used by the Israeli military. She progressed through the classes as far as possible, even becoming a certified instructor and teaching in Israel and New York. “Self-defense … was a way for me to do something positive [and combat] the violence,” Zeisler says.

Still, it wasn’t enough. Not all the techniques fit her “personal mission to find out if a woman could defend herself against a larger and stronger attacker,” she says, and so she modified them to suit her needs. For example, one hair-grabbing maneuver involved the defender on the ground, but Zeisler found a way to protect herself while staying upright.​ “I really assessed whether I could have used concepts in a real-life scenario,” she says, “and quickly realized that simplicity is survival for self-defense.”

Zeisler then​ created a self-defense program of her own, launching The Soteria Method in 2013. The practice is​ a “360-degree approach to self-care through self-defense. fitness and empowerment” that aims to equip women with the mental and physical skills to keep them safe without compromising their femininity, Zeisler says.

One of the method’s lessons​, for example, teaches women how to defend themselves while wearing heels or by using a purse. Most emphasize movements that strengthen and tone the upper body, core and glutes, while also providing a cardiovascular workout.

“I found a way to enhance and get the body that I wanted as a woman,” Zeisler says, “while still having the fundamental movements that could allow me to survive on the street.”

Why fight to get fit?

Self-defense programs that double as a workout are nothing new, but they’re gaining popularity, says John Graden​, the founder and CEO of the Martial Arts Teacher’s​ Association and author of “Who Killed Walt Bone,” a book about a 1970s karate school. Thanks in part to the popularity of mixed martial arts ​and the Ultimate Fighting Championship,​ “interest in martial arts is at an all-time high,” he says. “Parents see it as the​ ideal ​supplement to their children’s education, especially with reduced recess and physical education; adults see it as fitness with the benefit of getting in shape.”

Merging martial arts and fitness not only teaches students to protect themselves while getting fit, but it also engages their minds in a way most standard fitness classes don’t. For example, many martial arts classes begin with an acted-out scenario – say, three men approaching you at an ATM – rather than a warmup or stretching session. Then students debrief with their instructor and learn how to protect themselves in such situations. Unlike some workouts that are difficult to get your mind into, Graden says, ​”you’re immediately alive in that class.”​ Zeisler sees this mental shift among her students too. “Instead of focusing on how many reps [they] have left, they’re focused on the form and the survival aspect of it,” she says.

For Samantha Thomas​, a 24-year-old forensic technician in Largo, Florida, self-defense offered a new challenge to her tired gym routine. After stumbling upon ​C.O.B.R.A. Fit – a 10-week course in kickboxing, strength-training and nutrition – about four years ago, she was hooked. “It’s not like any other workout program out there,” she says. In fact, she liked it so much that she moved on toC.O.B.R.A’s self-defense program, a 10-week course dubbed “a police academy for civilians” that draws on martial arts, law enforcement, close-quarters combat techniques and the psychology of criminal intent​. Thomas still practices at least four times a week, and she earned her orange belt last month. For her, the best part of the program is its real-world applicability.

“Working with the police station, I see what happens to people who don’t have any training,” she says. While she hasn’t had to use her skills in the real world, she’s prepared if that changes. “That alone,” Thomas says, “is a comforting feeling.”

Finding the Best Program for You

Self-defense programs vary widely, but many have a common thread: to teach students to “neutralize an opponent using as little energy as possible,” says Tiffany Cunin​, the YMCA regional director of group exercise in the District of Columbia. In other words, instead of learning to attack someone, students learn how to avoid an attack or protect themselves should one occur, she says. Most programs can also be considered exercise. After all, Cunin says, “an element of being fit is being able to defend yourself.”

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