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Photo: Penn State

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 (and its students) 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.

The Need-to-Know

“Kickboxing” is something of a catchall term. In South East 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 which allow the use of elbows and knees during fights. In the U.S., however, kickboxing is more a blend of boxing and karate that strictly prohibits strikes with anything but the hands and feet, as well as attacking an opponent’s groin, legs, or back.

Your Action Plan

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

1. Set a personal goal.
Determining your own goals, abilities, and aptitudes is an important first step before any undertaking, but 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 senior kickboxing instructor at Crunch. 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 technique.

2. Find the right class — and instructor.
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. This 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, they are former professional fighters or are 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.

3. Be honest about what you can handle.
If you’re concerned about your level of fitness, it’s always wise to consult your doctor before beginning a new sport, particularly if you suffer from chronic conditions like asthma, diabetes, or obesity. Kickboxing can be more intense than a normal exercise program, and 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.

4. Get geared up.
When selecting a gym, it’s also smart to find out if it’s necessary to purchase any kickboxing gear. Though unlikely, some classes may ask their students to purchase ankle supports, boxing gloves, or headgear. In any event, clothing should be neither too loose nor restrictive (most active gear should be fine — just leave the baggy sweatshirts at home), and a water bottle and towel will likely come in handy.

5. Fuel properly.
To fuel up before an evening class, Ortiz recommends plenty of carbohydrates: food that digests slowly like beans, brown rice, or sweet potato at lunch, and a small amount of fast-absorbing carbs, like fruit or juice, 30 minutes to an hour before the workout. Carbohydrates are a great source of energy, and fueling up before a workout (ingesting up to one gram per pound of bodyweight) will keep oxygen in the blood and maintain energy levelsEffects+of+a+high-carbohydrate+versus+high-protein+meal+on+acute+responses+to+hypoxia+at+rest+and+exercise.+Charlot,+K.,+Pichon,+A.,+et+al.+Laboratoire+des+Réponses+Cellulaires+et+Fonctionnelles+à+l’Hypoxie,+Sorbonne+Paris+Cité.+European+Journal+of+Applied+Physiology,+2013+Mar;113(3):691-702.. Of course, it’s also critically important to be completely completely hydrated before any tough workout.

6. Start on a peaceful note.
There’s a reason martial artists are stereotyped as spending a lot of time sitting cross-legged in monasteries: Meditation can help improve focus and reaction times, which could give you an edge when sparringEffects+of+mindfulness+meditation+training+on+anticipatory+alpha+modulation+in+primary+somatosensory+cortex.+Kerr,+C.E.,+Jones,+S.R.,+et+al.+Harvard+Medical+School,+Boston,+MA.+Brain+Research+Bulletin,+2011+May+30;85(3-4):96-103.Immediate+and+long-term+effects+of+meditation+on+acute+stress+reactivity,+cognitive+functions,+and+intelligence.+Singh,+Y.,+Sharma,+R.+&+Talwar,+A.+Department+of+Physiology,+All+India+Institute+of+Medical+Sciences,+New+Delhi,+India.+Alternative+Therapies+in+Health+and+Medicine,+2012+Nov-Dec;18(6):46-53. Mindfulness and martial arts are complementary, and while China’s Shaolin monks, who practice kung fu, might be the best known example, there are Buddhist monks across Thailand who consider kickboxing an integral part of mastering their focus and presence of mind. Give it a try before arriving at the gym.

The takeaway

It’s most important to remember that whether it’s 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, and there’s 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.”

18-Minute Kick-Butt Kickboxing Workout

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 below circuit four times, with a one-minute rest between each circuit.