Whether you’re looking to increase strength, confidence, coordination, or you’re just after a kickass cardio workout, kickboxing will keep you coming back for more. The flexibility of the term has contributed to the sport’s tremendous popularity.

You’ll find kickboxing classes focusing on everything from cardio conditioning and elements of dance to self-defense, martial arts, and one-on-one competition.

But deciding which kind of class to attend is just the first step in preparing to raise those fists for the first time.

“Kickboxing” is something of a catchall term. In Southeast Asia alone, the word can refer to Cambodia’s Pradal Serey, Lethwei from Burma, the Filipino Yaw Yan, or the tremendously popular Muay Thai. All of these kickboxing styles allow the use of elbows and knees during fights.

However, in the U.S. kickboxing is more a blend of boxing and karate. It strictly prohibits strikes with anything but the hands and feet. Attacking an opponent’s groin, legs, or back is also off-limits.

Kickboxing isn’t just a good way to shred calories and build muscles. It also improves balance, coordination, and flexibility. And, research suggests cardio kickboxing might help strengthen bones to ward off osteoporosis in the future.Stone TM, et al. (2018). An evaluation of select physical activity exercise classes on bone metabolism. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5955325

Think you’re up for the challenge? Get ready to come out swinging with these tips:

Determining your own goals, abilities, and aptitudes is an important first step before any undertaking. It’s especially important before beginning a new exercise regime.

Do you want to just improve cardiovascular health, or overall conditioning? Do you want to learn real-world fighting, competition sparring, or are you more interested in a non-combat class?

“Some gyms incorporate dance, but most offer either cardiovascular classes or fight classes, where you’re getting hit. Some people don’t like that,” says Miguel Ortiz, a personal trainer at Lifetime Fitness in Atlanta.

Research different styles and decide what you’re after. If you’re especially interested in becoming combat-ready, it might be a good idea to schedule a one-on-one session with a trainer who can help with your technique.

Once you know what sort of class you want, speak to a few different teachers. Read some Yelp reviews, and maybe even observe a class before signing up.

Watching a class is the easiest way to find out what their lessons consist of, if the gender and age mix is appropriate for you, and what qualifications the teacher holds.

Ideally, the teacher is a former professional fighter or is certified by an organization such as the American Council on Exercise, the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America, the International Kickboxing Federation, or the International Sport Karate Association.

If you’re concerned about your fitness level, consult your doctor before beginning a new sport, particularly if you have a chronic condition like asthma, diabetes, or obesity.

Kickboxing can be more intense than a normal exercise program. Classes may challenge your body in ways it’s not yet used to.

“Everybody’s welcome, but they need to be brutally honest with themselves and their teacher about their faults and their limits,” says Ortiz.

When selecting a gym, also find out if you need to buy any kickboxing gear. Though unlikely, some classes may ask their students to purchase ankle supports, boxing gloves, or headgear.

Protecting your head and face is important if you plan to engage in actual sparring. Injuries to the teeth, jaw, lips, and cheekbones are common in contact sports like kickboxing.Polmann H, et al. (2019). Prevalence of dentofacial injuries among combat sports practitioners: A systematic review and meta-analysis. DOI: 10.1111/edt.12508

Clothing shouldn’t be too loose or too restrictive. Most active gear is fine, just leave the baggy sweatshirts at home. A water bottle and towel will also come in handy.

Eating well is always a good idea, no matter your sport of choice. But one study of kickboxers and runners finds that a Mediterranean diet which is heavy on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fish — might improve your workout performance and help you trim down faster, if that’s your goal.Soldati L, et al. (2019). The benefits of nutritional counseling for improving sport performance. DOI: 10.23736/S0022-4707.19.09507-0

Ortiz recommends plenty of carbohydrates30 minutes to an hour before the workout. Choose foods that digest slowly, like beans, brown rice, or sweet potato, and a small amount of fast-absorbing carbs, like fruit or juice.

Carbohydrates are a great source of energy. Fueling up before a workout by eating 6 to 10 grams of carbs per pound of bodyweight will maintain your blood sugar levels, and keep up your muscles’ energy stores.Evolution Nutrition. (2015). Pre- and post-workout nutrition for strength training. https://www.acefitness.org/education-and-resources/professional/expert-articles/5930/pre-and-post-workout-nutrition-for-strength-training

Of course, it’s also critically important to be completely hydrated before any tough workout. Dehydration can reduce your mental and physical performance. Backes TP, et al. (2016). Fluid consumption, exercise, and cognitive performance. DOI: 10.5604/20831862.1208485

Drink water before, during, and after your workout — about 1 cup every 15 minutes.

There’s a reason martial artists are stereotyped as spending a lot of time sitting cross-legged in monasteries. Just a few minutes of meditation can help improve your attention and focus, which could give you an edge when sparring.Norris CJ, et al. (2018). Brief mindfulness meditation improves attention in novices: Evidence from ERPs and moderation by neuroticism. DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2018.00315

Mindfulness and martial arts are complementary. China’s Shaolin monks, who practice kung fu, might be the best known example.

But there are Buddhist monks across Thailand who consider kickboxing an integral part of mastering their focus and presence of mind. Even if it’s just 5 minutes, give meditation a try before you arrive at the gym.

Want to give kickboxing a try, but not quite ready to hit the gym for a class? Give Miguel Ortiz’s kick butt kickboxing circuit a shot right at home — no equipment required.

Repeat the circuit below 4 times, with a 1-minute rest between each circuit.

It’s important to remember that whether cardio-focused or full-contact, a kickboxing class is not a kickboxing tournament — it’s just practice. The students are there to learn a new skill, get in shape, and have fun.

While the contact aspect can be daunting, remember that there’s no obligation to do anything you’re not yet comfortable with. There’s also plenty of time to improve.

“I tell students to come in with an empty mind, and to leave half full,” Angel says. “That way, there’s always room for more learning.”