Video: The Fight Club

Watch this diverse group of martial artists cooperate and compete.

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A simple explanation for the surging popularity of martial arts-based workouts: Our unchecked stress levels make us want to punch and kick things. A more sophisticated one: This category encompasses some of the most efficient, effective styles of fitness.

Just ask the experts featured in our video above: “Martial arts involves all the important elements of movement, including coordination, strength, balance, and breath control,” says New York City-based group fitness instructor Phoenix Carnevale, who has trained in karate, Muay Thai, boxing and MMA grappling.

Across the category, the body types are strong but lean, powered by cardio engines rivaling those of distance runners. The movements are graceful yet kick-ass, requiring intense coordination and concentration. And the mental effect is cleansing and empowering—a form of therapy sans the couch.

Each session is a total-body workout, too. “Punching and kicking techniques obviously work the arms and legs, but it’s the effect they have on the core that stands out,” says group fitness instructor Alex Lawson, who has won a world kickboxing title and owns and runs Springhealth Kickboxing & Tabata in London. “Working through all the planes of motion with rapid movements puts a varied and high workload on the core.”

And the sheer focus and concentration required ups the physical challenge. “Using the brain makes the heart work harder,” says Equinox specialist trainer Anthony Fletcher, who also coaches at Snipers Thai Boxing in London and is a C class competitor. “My clients tell me they could never do this level of work by themselves—running on the treadmill or using a cross-trainer is never going to give you the stimulation and concentration needed for Muay Thai.” 

Newcomers to the category have the option of starting with one discipline—and our experts suggest working one-on-one with a coach—or testing out a hybrid group fitness class. The Cut, Equinox’s latest signature programming, “is a rhythmic mix of boxing, kickboxing and sports-specific conditioning elements without the use of heavy bags or gloves,” explains creator and Florida-based group fitness instructor Christa DiPaolo. We wanted to create a format that welcomes both newcomers, who haven't punched or kicked before, and also make it challenging enough for seasoned athletes.”

Don’t be surprised if you fall completely in love. “I am currently preparing a 32-year-old lawyer (who just happens to be female) for her first amateur fight,” says Lex Igwe, a London-based Equinox boxing specialist and former Royal Marine who holds three middleweight boxing titles. “Having the nerve just to turn up to a class and join in is a respected hurdle in itself. But if you think turning up is the hard part, then you’re in for a surprise—a beautiful one at that.”

Try this DIY session from London-based personal trainer and professional Muay Thai fighter Georgina Starkie, who trains under fellow Equinox trainer and pro Rob Lynch:

Choose 3 exercises and execute on a timed structure with a timed recovery. (Starkie says: “Similar to rounds in a fight to practice both mental and physical endurance!”). She recommends:

1. Continuous straight air punches and high knees (1.5 minutes)

(30 seconds recovery)

2. Traveling leap-frog jumps (1.5 minutes) 

(30 seconds recovery) 

3. Planks (1.5 minutes)

(30 seconds recovery) 

Repeat for 3 to 5 sets.

*Says Starkie: “This can be broken down and made easier or more difficult with the intensity of the exercises and the times of the work and recovery.”