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Front Page - Friday, June 2, 2017

River City: Getting a kick out of cardio

I Love Kickboxing instructor Jason Edwards demonstrates a left front kick. - Photographs by David Humber

I’m facing my opponent, my gloves raised to just below my chin, my left foot a half step in front of my right foot. Like Muhammad Ali, I’m ready to float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.

“We’re going to do a jab, a cross, a left hook and a right hook,” says Alexandra Thieme, the instructor during my first workout at I Love Kickboxing. She’s walking among several rows of Wavemaster standing heavy bags, passing people of all shapes, sizes and ages. Like me, everyone is poised to unleash fury.

Thieme slowly demonstrates the string of punches for everyone to see, then does it faster to establish a good pace. Next, the heavy bass line that kicks off “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” by the Jets fills the room and the sound of a bell rings through the speakers, announcing the beginning of the round.

“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” I tell myself as I eyeball my opponent (one of the heavy bags) and strike. I hit the bag wrong on the hooks and feel a slight jolt of pain in each wrist. Instead of channeling Ali, my inner 5-year-old comes out and whines.

“Remember to keep your thumbs up on the hooks,” co-instructor Britney Fitzgerald says. She steps up to my bag and performs a hook in slow motion so I can see. I replicate the move correctly, earning her praise.

Still, I feel every bit like the 260-pound, 53-year-old newbie who walked through the door of ILK 45 minutes earlier with butterflies in his stomach and uncertainty on his face. That was about to change, though.

A warm welcome

This wasn’t my first rodeo. From running, to working out at a gym, to home video regimens, I’ve tried to get fit. But except for running, which I love, nothing stuck.

I would start strong, hitting the treadmill and strength machines at the gym three to four times a week until I grew bored of the routine. After slacking off for a while, I’d start again but just as quickly burn out.

It was the same story with the videos. Gyms and DVDs work for a lot of people, but not me.

So, when ILK came to Chattanooga in February, opening their first of several planned locations at 1309 Panorama Dr., I perked up. There’s a plethora of options for fitness enthusiasts who shun the gym routine – Pilates, CrossFit, P90X, circuit training, yoga and more all have their fans and work well for devotees – but something about kickboxing appealed to me. It sounded fun.

While sitting in my car outside ILK prior to my first class, I had second thoughts. “The class is going to be full of pencil-thin 20-year-old women,” I thought. (I texted this to a friend. She replied, “You’re complaining?”) “Worse, I’m going to look awkward and I won’t be able to perform the moves.”

My inner 5-year-old piped up, too. “People are going laugh at you,” he said.

Thankfully, we were both wrong.

It’s not unusual to have first-class jitters and even feel intimidated when starting a new workout program among strangers. Thieme and Fitzgerald know this and immediately put me at ease.

Thieme greeted me first and then introduced Fitzgerald. “Like Britney Spears, but without the awesome dance moves,” she added, which earned her a playful punch from her partner.

I liked them already. They seemed friendly and approachable. They also didn’t do a double-take when they saw how many pounds I have to lose. I hadn’t been there three minutes, and I already felt welcome.

I relaxed more as Thieme walked me through the basics of my first workout.

Aspiring pugilists get a free pair of gloves on their first day, and can choose either black or pink. I had on a black T-shirt and black shorts, but it was still nice of Thieme to ask me which color I preferred.

Thieme said there would be a warm-up session followed by some stretching and then they would launch into the kickboxing. She then said Britney would be sticking close by to explain the moves in greater detail and make sure I was doing them correctly. It felt good knowing I’d be getting one-on-one attention rather than aimlessly flailing my arms and legs around as I tried to keep up.

Thieme also noticed I’d arrived without water and grabbed me a freebie from the cooler. As I would learn the hard way, hydration is vital to a successful kickboxing workout.

Other participants trickled in, including another guy. I felt more comfortable knowing kickboxing was for everyone, not just women and the odd male Baby Boomer. He made a beeline for me and introduced himself with a huge smile and a tight handshake, cementing ILK as the friendliest workout environment I’ve experienced.

Finally, it was time to begin. With my heart beating like I’d just ran a 5K, I jumped into the warm-up, ready for whatever was coming my way – or so I thought.

Warming up

I quickly learned that Thieme has a different definition of “warm up” than I. I warm up for a run by walking to the end of my driveway; she warms up her kickboxers by taking them to the edge of their physical limits.

As Thieme coached the class through 15 minutes of butt kickers, high knees, squats, lunges, push-ups, elbow planks, sit-ups and the bane of couch potatoes everywhere, burpees (squat thrusts), I learned that being able to run five miles does not strengthen your upper body, your core or many other muscles you never knew existed until a newfangled workout makes their presence abundantly clear.

The only exercise that didn’t make me wish I was writing an article about Henpecked, the new chicken joint on Market Street, instead of ILK were the squats. Thanks to strong legs, I breezed through those – until Thieme told us to add a jump as we rose.

“The warm-up is the hardest part,” Fitzgerald assured me. I pictured myself doing a bicep curl with a fried chicken sandwich and grunted.

Thieme polished off the so-called warm-up with sit-ups crossed with a Russian twist. “The further you reach, the more you’ll get out of this exercise,” she explained.

This brought up an important point about ILK: like any exercise program, you’ll harvest the fruit of your labors and nothing more. If you put everything you have into kickboxing class, you’ll burn more calories than if you go at it half-baked.

That said, the instructors at ILK understand everyone is at a different fitness level and, during my classes, often demonstrated less strenuous versions of the exercises. For example, when it became clear that burpees and I were not going to become fast friends, Fitzgerald told me to walk it out.

There was no judgement, scorn or drill sergeant antics to motivate me to push myself harder. As I walked in place, I saw participants who were keeping pace with Thieme, others who were taking it a little easier and still others who were marching to their own slowly beating drum.

A personal trainer once ridiculed me when I hopped off a treadmill after having chest pains. I walked out halfway through the only spin class I ever took after the instructor screamed at everyone to keep up.

I believe these were rare bad apples in an industry of professionals who are focused on helping people gradually work their way to optimal health. But I mention them here in case you’ve experienced something similar and have shied away from instructor-led programs. At ILK, the trainers show you what to do, and then, you work at your own pace under their guidance and encouragement.

After the warm-up, Thieme told everyone to grab a drink of water and then led the class through a series of stretches. Then it was time to do what we all came to do: hit something.

Cue “Rocky” theme

The actual kickboxing portion of an ILK workout consists of various combinations of jabs, crosses, uppercuts and kicks.

Thieme got everyone rolling with a simple combo consisting of a jab, a cross, a left hook and a right hook. As she was demonstrating the moves, I pictured Jackie Chan’s Mr. Miyagi in the “Karate Kid” remake teaching Dre Parker the kung fu moves hidden in putting on and taking off a jacket.

“Everything is kung fu!” I heard Chan say.

I snapped back to reality. “What?” I asked.

“Keep one hand out at all times,” Fitzgerald repeated.

After jacking up my wrists on the hooks, I corrected myself according to her instructions and executed a perfect combo. My bag barely budged (if it could have talked, it would have said, “Is that all you’ve got?”), but it felt good.

Fitzgerald was right – the warm-up is the hardest part of the ILK experience. But the kickboxing still provides an intense workout.

I went in thinking kickboxing would primarily work my upper body. I was wrong again. Kickboxing engages every part of you – from your core as you twist on the hooks, to your lower extremities as you maintain your balance, to your mind as you focus on maintaining the integrity of the combo.

As the workout progressed, Thieme bumped up the complexity and slowly added kicks. To my surprise, I never felt lost or unable to perform a move. When I did make a mistake, Fitzgerald corrected me, as she did the first time I tried to perform a side kick.

“Don’t hit the bag with the end of your foot; hit it with the top of your ankle,” she pointed out.

As she demonstrated the kick, her leg sliced the air with a perfect half circle and the top of her ankle hit the bag with a satisfying thwack. (I imagined the bag saying, “That’s more like it.”)

By the last round, which consisted of a left front kick, a double right roundhouse, a jab, a right hook, a left uppercut, a cross, a left roundhouse and a spinning back fist, I was ready.

I didn’t pull off the combo with the elegance or efficiency of my instructors – or the power of Jason, who knocked his bag over with a fierce kick, apparently after every ounce of coffee he drank before class hit his system all at once – but I did well enough to earn a high five from Fitzgerald. (The bag remained silent.)

Class ended with partner drills and more stretches. As my right leg was stretched outward and my hands were reaching for my left foot (I must have looked like I playing a solo game of Twister), my leg muscles seized and I dropped to the mat. (Right leg cramping!”)

It hurt. It really hurt, and I was barely able to pull myself up using my bag. The lesson: hydrate well before, during and after class.

Monster cramps aside, I felt exhilarated, as though kickboxing had awakened parts of me that had been asleep. The next day, I knew specifically which parts because they started complaining the moment I moved to get out of bed.

I was sore, but I didn’t care. I might have been wrong on a couple counts but I had been right about one thing: kickboxing is fun. I couldn’t wait to go back for a second round.

Shaking things up

As eager as I was to jump back in, I waited two days before returning. You can attend as many classes as you want after paying the fee, but Thieme said three times a week is a good load.

Working those sessions into my packed schedule was easy, as hour-long classes are offered Monday through Saturday. Weekdays, ILK is up before the sun with a 5:30 a.m. session and goes until 8:30 in the evening. If you leave work late and need to relieve some stress, you’ll be in good company.

I was excited about jumping back into the routine, but as my second class began, I noticed there is no routine at ILK. Fitzgerald led my second class instead of Thieme, and she used a different set of warm-ups, stretches and combos. She even played different music. (It was more heavily flavored with hip hop, but I was too busy pummeling my bag to care.)

This removed one of the obstacles I face when working out: boredom. While every fitness program can be altered from session to session, the instructors at ILK really mix things up.

The best part: I was able to plug what I had learned in the first class into Fitzgerald’s combos, so I didn’t fall behind.

As a result, my confidence level jumped. I was no longer the 260-pound, 53-year-old newbie who walked into ILK with butterflies in his stomach and uncertainty on his face, I was the 260-pound, 53-year-old prize fighter who was ready to teach his punching bag a lesson.

I earned a lot of high fives and fist bumps during my second class and gave out a few as well. Forrest King, one of the male instructors, corrected me when necessary, demonstrating that the one-on-one attention doesn’t drop off after the first session. When you sign up at ILK, you have as many personal trainers as there are instructors.

That’s probably one of the reasons the fee at ILK is higher than most gyms. You’re not on your own, slogging through a tired workout routine; You’re part of a dynamic, energetic environment in which you receive individual attention.

There are ways to mitigate the cost, though, and getting started is easy on any budget: your first three classes cost less than a $20 bill. It’s a good way to see if kickboxing is for you without dropping too much coin.

It’s definitely for me. I’m thrilled I took a chance on doing something new. If I had stayed within my comfort zone, I never would have discovered a new workout passion.

I believe ILK will be a nice addition to the Chattanooga community as well. On top of donating money to a nonprofit every time someone checks in through social media, the team at ILK collected donations for the Chattanooga Food Bank during the month of May.

Each instructor had a barrel, and the instructor with the most items at the end of the drive had to perform 50 burpees. I hope it was Rickeya Burts, whose warm-up session during my third class tested everyone’s endurance.

But that was OK. I pushed myself harder than I had during my first two workouts, and when I reached the point where I wanted to stop and go to Henpecked, Mr. Miyagi appeared in my mind’s eye, replacing a vision of a fried chicken sandwich with a new mantra that encouraged me to press through:

“Everything is kickboxing!”