Fuelled by a last-ditch bid to shape up for the festive season, I’m on a semi-health kick right now.
I’ve ditched my morning lattes for green tea and whittled down all alcohol options to just red wine (the almost healthy one). I’ve also picked up kickboxing again and have been trying to go three times a week, a decision that means I now spend a lot of the time struggling to get up stairs. While my thighs might not be thanking me for the sudden and unexpected change in affairs, I already feel healthier for it and also slightly smug (a sentiment that will undoubtedly fizzle out as quickly as my newfound enthusiasm for exercise).
Last night at Springhealth Kickboxing we tried the flying roundhouse kick, a brilliantly efficient and potentially devastating manouvre that aims right for your opponent’s head. Essentially this kick is all about showmanship: your opponent moves in with a one-two punch and you respond with a jab to the stomach, left hook, right cross – and wham! – the flying roundhouse as the final, signature flourish.
Sadly, it also requires quite a bit of dexterity and speed, something that I still struggle to deliver after 10 months of training. My flying roundhouse currently looks like a slightly feeble knee-level pirouette but I have faith that one day, many years from now, it will one day mature into a fully-fledged combat move – and in the meantime, I can have fun getting dizzy with my many enthusiastic but flawed attempts. Entertainment guaranteed.
September 24: Picking back up
On Saturday I went to my first kickbox class in literally ages (as you can probably tell, from the lack of blog posts) – and it was great, I hadn’t realised how much I had missed it!
The warm-up session was, as ever, full-on and it quickly hit home how much my fitness had flagged in the past 2-3 weeks. I’ve been to the gym a couple of times but it’s really no match to the frenetic pace of kickbox drills. After about 5 minutes I was exhausted and that was before we got to the whole holding one leg/arm out during press-ups bit and seeing how many burpees we could do in half a minute. You’re supposed to be able to do at least 15, but I’m languishing at around 12…
By the time we got round to ab exercises, I was seriously struggling. I swear I could actually hear my stomach crunch in protest during the stomach crunches and there was no way I could rotate my shoulders round from lying position (a sort of half sit-up) with my partner standing on my toes. One to try at home, maybe?
ABOVE: For red belt, you have to hold the abs plank for 2 minutes. Not as easy as it looks...
It was a relief when we moved onto actual kickboxing but even there, some of my moves were noticeably rusty. We practised jabbing, hook punches, ducking and the one thing I still can’t do – double right/left roundhouse kicks. I’ll need to nail it in the next few weeks, along with some other new moves – including flying hook kicks and ankle kicks - in order to get my red belt. The main transition, however, will be in terms of fitness and for this I’ll have to put in some serious graft in form of three classes a week. After feeling the effects of Saturday’s session, I know this won’t be easy but I’m determined to knuckle down and finally get that elusive red belt. Judging from the effects of the weekend class – and how much more impact it has than a regular workout – my body will thank me for it!
Obviously this isn't a description of my own stomach, but rather a recent article we did on how to get Jess Ennis' fab abs.
Her incredible body is just one of the many brilliant things about Jess and other Olympic champions at London 2012 (not least the golds - 25 and counting!) but it is something to be noted - since it's hard to conceive just how much work goes into achieving it.
Building your core is an important part of kickboxing too and we do a lot of stomach exercises, especially in the Saturday mixed level classes. The last one I did involved your partner standing on your toes while you lay down and rotated your shoulders clockwise and anti-clockwise for about a minute.
I'm not sure what its official name is, but it was pretty much as painful as it sounds - especially when followed with another minute of cycling stomach crunches.
Still, my abs felt like they had worked a bit afterwards: maybe ten more years of this and I'll get a stomach like Jess's?!
August 6: new kickbox moves
I've just got back into the rhythm of kickboxing classes after a bit of a break. I always seem to slack off after a grading, which is never a good idea as you always have to work twice as hard coming back and the return session is a real shock to the system.
Anyway, we've got a load of new moves to learn for red belt, including a spinning hook kick - an impressive-looking move where you spin round 90 degrees then throw your leg round and hook it in, aiming for the stomach of your opponent.
Sadly, when I tried it out it wasn't so impressive and involved a lot of spinning around in giddy circles with my leg floating somewhere near knee level. The team were as usual brilliant and spent ages going over how exactly to point my leg and spin round from a left hook into a kick. I still haven't got the hang of it - I think the key is to go really quickly and not think about it too much - but it's one to try at home (or in the park, to strange looks).
The other move we tried I enjoyed much more: it's delivered like an uppercut in that you crouch down with your chest over one knee to begin with - then punch straight forward and up, like a superman arm (or even better: Usain Bolt's lightening sign without the pointy bit).
I'm aiming to get to a few tabata classes in the next few weeks as well - all this Olympic action is really making me feel like doing more exercise: plus I'll never get to red belt without upping my fitness in a serious way!
August 2: sexism and sport
Today I wrote a response piece to a ridiculous column in the Telegraph that questioned the place of women in contact sport - specifically judo - following Gemma Gibbons' silver medal win. Thankfully, blatant sexism on this level is rare and I've never come across it in my experience of kickboxing.
There's about a 50-50 balance of men to women in the gym where I train and although I'm nowhere near sparring level yet there are plenty of women who do get involved in it, partnering other men, women - whoever. It's simply a non-issue, which is exactly the way it should be.
Though while we're on the topic, please do take a look at Stylist's Fair Game campaign and sign our petition for equality in sports coverage.
July 30: kickbox video!
So here's the video of me and Springhealth's Audi Kinga that went into Stylist's Olympic blippar issue. It's a bit cringeworthy in parts but probably the best way of showing exactly what I've learnt so far - from roundhouse kicks to left hooks, cross pucnhes, jabs, ducks and slips. Watch out for Audi's amazing mid-air kick (over my head) midway through...
July 24: Weight and more
Today Stylist's Olympic blippar issue came out, with a nice little summary of how we've all got on with our Olympic challenges. Out of the eight people who took up sports at the beginning of this year, three have kept it up and so officially "passed" - me, deputy editor Susan Riley (who did a one-min yoga sideplank) and online assistant Lauren Smith (who did the London marathon and a triathlon).
There's a bit of a question mark over me passing as I haven't actually got my red belt yet (per the actual challenge) - but hey, details. We also got our essential stats measured by the same Fitness First expert who took tested us back in January - for body fat, lung capacity and that sort of thing.
Worringly, I've actually put on weight since then - by around 3-4 pounds - but I'm hoping that either that's down to me going on holiday quite a bit in last six months (never a kind thing for my body) or more optimistically, maybe it's muscle weight? That's what everyone has been saying when I mention this - more as a way of reassuring me, but I'll take it.
ABOVE: Kickboxing has taken 1mm off my triceps!
On the plus side, my body fat (previously at 30.5% and described as 'on the high end' by the Fitness First guy) has gone down to 27.94% and the mass on my triceps has apparently increased by 1mm. So all that sweat at least had some physical pay-off, even without total commitment and my admittedly crap diet.
I'll now be continuing kickboxing to get my red belt, which will hopefully happen in the next few months - and I've stopped going on holiday now so I might even get a bit more toned with it, fingers crossed!
July 13: Packing a punch
This week, Stylist ran an interview with the talented Natasha Jonas, who is set to make history this summer after becoming the first female British boxer to qualify for Team GB’s Olympic team.
Asked what it’s like to punch another person, she was typically honest:
“It’s hard. One of my main issues is that I’m too nice; my coaches say I don’t have that ‘finishing’ instinct. We’re all there to do a job, but at the same time you are fearful of doing someone permanent harm or damage. So you have to put your emotions aside and let your sporting instinct take over.”
It got me to thinking about my own experience of kickboxing to date. Most of the time I’m so focused on technique, I forget it’s actually a martial art and the point of it is to physically fight someone else. Some of the punches are pretty brutal: for instance, the upper cut aims to slam up into your opponent’s chin or nose and the left body hook goes for the kidney area (which can end up in temporary paralysis of the diaphragm – i.e. being winded). And nearly all the kicks seem to be targeted at either the stomach or the side of the head.
ABOVE: Natasha Jonas
Many people who ask me about kickboxing assume I fight on a regular basis – and expect to see black eyes and bloodied knuckles - but the truth is, we’ve only just started to do sparring. It’s all very controlled and “light”; we aim punches at one another in stomach area and block them using our arms and elbows. The punches aren’t hard but it’s interesting to see how your instincts kick in; I still find it quite hard to just hit someone (the last time I did it was probably with my brother, aged about 12) and am always a bit surprised when this part of it comes into play. So it’s reassuring to know that even a pro like Natasha admits that punching that can be tough – and I get her point that it’s more about mentality than anything else:
“You have to be a certain type of person to be able to get in the ring and compete, and to keep going, even when things are going bad. There are people on the team who, skill-wise, are better than others, but then there are those who have the will to do well, and that’s why they do.”
Clearly I’m a LONG way off competing in a ring but even if I had the skill, I’m lacking the competitive spirit. Part of the reason I love kickboxing is the adrenalin rush you get from it but I’m far too chilled and lack the sort of grit and determination that would see you through a fight. I just don’t have that drive that tells me to smash an opponent and can’t imagine I would, unless I was being mugged or something. Maybe I need to work on developing a ruthless streak but in the meantime I’m happy to sit back and admire the likes of Natasha and other professional boxers/kickboxers who really can pack a punch.
July 11: kickbox on camera
Above: Audi has over 100 fights under his belt... a natural match for me!
Today I filmed a kickboxing session with world kickboxing champion Audi Kinga, one of the instructors at Springhealth. Not only is Audi a brilliant kickboxer, he’s also – like all the team at the gym – extremely patient and spent time going over our exact moves before we faced the cameras. We did some shadow boxing, some actual boxing and then some punches on pads – my favourite bit because you get to throw your punches hard and it makes a really satisfying cracking sound. We even managed to choreograph in a few kicks without me falling over, which is practically a miracle (although a disclaimer here: I have no idea how it’ll look).
By far the best bit was when Audi did a series of incredible flying jump kicks over my head. My instinct was to run away from this, but he could actually do it from the same spot so all I needed to do was stand there – probably with my mouth open. I can’t even begin to imagine the amount of ab planks, press-ups, star jumps etc. that went into achieving that kind of dazzling move, but fair to say it was impressive. The video will appear here in a few weeks’ time, so stay tuned and big thanks to Audi for filming with me… !
June 28: one belt down, one to go
Two days ago I took my white II grading. The good news is I passed – horray! The bad news is I have no idea how I’ll make it to red belt when this one practically finished me off.
I went into the session psyched, both with nervous energy and the gallon of coffee I’d drunk beforehand (because I read somewhere it improves performance up to 11%). This turned out to be a bad idea, as not only was I bouncing off the walls, I was also sort of light-headed in a naseous way; not a great look for the 80+ minutes of intense exercise that followed. Gradings are notoriously tough but you can’t really envisage how hard it’ll be until you’re there. And afterwards you don’t really know how you made it through; it passes in a bit of a sweat-fuelled blur.
Above: The second bit of red tape on my white belt is the only evidence I have of 80 mins of exercise hell
We started off with a gruelling round of warm-ups: squats, star jumps, burpees (what felt like hundreds of them!), lunges, press-ups, punches and jogging/ducking. This was followed by jumping side kicks (45 seconds on each leg), the abs plank (held for 1 and a half mins) and actual kickboxing: first shadow boxing, then with partners and finally “light” sparring.
The hardest part by far was the sheer level of stamina involved and the actual kickboxing. We’d been warned beforehand that anyone who wasn’t up to scratch would fail and I was really aware that, with my dodgy non-versatile kicks, I was borderline. I also found it difficult to remember set routines that were called out – for example, right cross, left hook, left upper cut, left hook body, double right roundhouse – in my weird, adrenalin-fuelled state of mind.
Because of this it actually came as a relief when we came to the straight-forward exercise bit. Even the dreaded abs plank wasn’t too bad in the end - I just welcomed the opportunity to stay in one place for a while and catch my breath. And sparring, which sounded so scary beforehand, was also alright. We did this in pairs, with one person aiming punches at stomach level and the other person blocking shots in crouch pose. The tricky thing with this is not receiving the punches, but throwing them convincingly. Even though you’re not doing it hard and it’s controlled, it’s still quite anti-instinctive to punch someone in the stomach and it takes a while to get your head around it.
ABOVE: I'm still 10 years or so off this type of show-stopping move: kickboxing at its best...
To finish off, we had five minutes of circuits including alternate lunges, squat jumps and ab planks. As predicted, this was a nightmare and by the end my thighs were shaking so much I thought I they might just fall off. Oh, and there were "can can" kicks before that - where you have to flip your legs up straight from the knee to hit the gloves of your partner: my calves are still feeling it now... I know I always say this but I have actually never worked that hard in my life.
All this makes grading sound full-on – and it was! – but it was definitely worth it when we were told we had all passed (nonwithstanding the fact I probably would have cried if I hadn’t, by that point). I got 14.3 points out 18, with points lost on some of my kickboxing moves and also not going low enough on squats.
I’ve still got a long way to go and loads of moves to learn and I definitely need to do something drastic to shape up my kicking technique (or actually getting a technique at all would be a nice start). But six months ago I would never have managed this grading - I'm frankly amazed I've made it this far and it’s all thanks to the brilliant team at Springhealth. Without their encouragement and apparently endless patience, I would have retreated to the comfort of my old, burpee-free life a long time ago. Instead, I’m still heading red – in theory at least….
June 21: white II inbound
It’s just over a month to the Olympics and while most of the Stylist team have long since given up their challenges, of the three of us left I’m lagging sadly behind…
My colleague Lauren has just completed her triathlon – on top of the London marathon –making her something akin to gladiator in my books (albeit minus the massive muscles), and our deputy editor Susan is well on her way to achieving her side plank yoga challenge.
Which leaves me and my increasingly elusive red belt. To get there, I still need to do another in-between grading (white II) and then train for a whole new level of fitness, technique and sparring to get red – in just over four weeks’ time.
Above: I don't look like I'm doing a lot here but trust me, I'm concentrating... intensely
Just writing that seems a little insane and I have no idea how I’ll achieve it but for now I’m keeping an open mind. My white II grading is set for next week and involves a string of daunting targets including:
- Holding an abs plank for a minute and a half
- Doing hopping sidekicks for 45 seconds on each leg
- Three minutes of circuits (lunges, star-jumps, press-ups and more)
- Actual kickboxing and effective padding
There are several things that alarm me about this. Firstly my stomach HATES ab planks and I can seem to hold that position for more than 1 min (although for anyone also struggling, a good tip from Springhealth team: it’s much easier to hold with no socks on). Secondly, I lose what little sense of co-ordination I have completely under pressure, which is not good news for the padding part, where you have to move your hands/feet left, right, back and forth in different combinations to receive your partners’ punches/kicks. Thirdly it’s graded on an 18-point system and you have to get at least 12.5 points to pass.
And lastly, those who just did the grading at the gym are full of ominous chat about how tough it was, how they barely survived it and one particular bit that involved standing with your back to the wall while someone aimed punches at you – and you have to block them. I asked one of the trainers about this and they didn’t deny it – but compared it to American football and said it was not as bad as it sounded. Which wasn’t that reassuring. Frankly I haven’t felt this scared since high school hockey games (but at least then I had shin pads and a gum guard on my side…)
June 6: Holiday training
I’ve just had the last week off training in Paris and Amsterdam, which is bad news as far as my fitness levels are concerned. I’ve only just mastered the warm-up routines without actually collapsing and am terrified of losing that. I’m a firm believer in the fact that holidays and work-outs don’t mix (and secretly look askance at those people who feel the need to jog when they could be sunbathing) but sheer panic meant for the first time ever, I did a bit of practise abroad. We’re not talking bench presses or 5am runs here, but some random attempts at sidekicks and ab planks in my (small) hotel room.
My boyfriend jumped at the role of impromptu “trainer” to time me, but his on-going commentary – “why are you grunting?” “mind the TV!” “what is THAT?” – was not exactly the encouragement I needed. I’m not sure I actually got any benefit out of it but at least it made me feel better on my third canal-side beer of the evening (not to mention all those Parisian cakes)…
Above: Just one of the many non-kickbox friendly treats on offer in Paris
May 29: Fighting fit
This week has been an endless whirl of exercise, like parties only healthier and with far less call for Nurofen. I’m not sure I’ve ever worked out so hard in my life – not a huge statement given my track record, but still.
On Monday, still psyched from my first personal training session, I did THREE classes in a row at Springhealth. This might have been a mistake in retrospect but I think I was in a weird state of mind. I started out with a Tabata workout. As I’ve talked about before, this is a high intensity workout involving 6 x 4-minute bursts of activity with 1 minute breaks in-between. It was just as tough as I remembered it, but with a good combo of different activities; we pushed weights above our heads and sweated our way through rotating lunges, side planks, leg swings and more. To kill a bit of time, I then joined a beginners’ class – which should have been easy, but I still floundered a bit (as is apparently my style when it comes to kickboxing). To finish, it was my usual white belt class; this was toughest of all and even the warm-up involved jumping over hurdles… madness!
Needless to say my thighs and stomach were killing me after this onslaught of unexpected exercise. I gave them a bit more food for thought with another mid-week class followed by personal training session no. 2 with Alex. This time we worked more on kicks, including the double roundhouse, sidekicks and flying roundhouse. Since I began kickboxing, the kick part has been my Achilles Heel (no pun intended). I don’t seem to have the leg strength to throw them with any weight or conviction, let alone in the right direction and height. And my body doesn’t tilt in the right way to support them, so everything seems awkward and unbalanced.
Above: me struggling with an erm, sidekick. The hair in face situation didn't help
I’ve noticed some people pick this aspect up straight away and can effortlessly swing their legs up with exactly the right angle – using their hips to generate the movement – so it’s definitely do-able but will take a lot of effort on behalf of me and my lead-like legs to get there.
The rest of the PT session was spent doing punches on the pads, which I love, and endurance exercises. Every time I said I couldn’t do something (like 50 kicks in a row on each leg), Alex made me do it anyway, which is another reason why one-to-one sessions are worth it; if I was on my own, I would definitely have cut myself some slack. Again, after it finished I felt amazing and a bit like I imagine Madonna might do after yet another frenetic biceps work-out: a bit smug but also glowing with health.
Above: This is actually Madonna, circa 1991
May 28: Personal Training
“Are you ready to suffer?” – These were my personal trainer’s first words as we began a one-to-one session this weekend.
I think he was joking (half) but it pretty much summed up the fear I was feeling having a.) never done personal training in my life before and b.) spent the last month slacking off classes/going on holiday/eating and drinking large amounts of delicious but deeply unhealthy treats. Caipirinhas, pesto-topped pizzas, mocha cookie crumble frappucinos and more have all played a major part in my life lately, while press-ups and burpees have been notable by their absence.
But desperate times call for desperate measures and with my red belt challenge now less than two months away, it was time to call in the cavalry. For me, that meant Alex Lawson, the founder of Springhealth Kickboxing where I train and pretty much the most energetic person I know. I haven’t worked that much with Alex so far and before the class I was full of nerves – would I collapse halfway through and be unable to continue? Or would I embarrass myself by exposing just how weak my kicks are?
ABOVE: Getting into the swing of things during my first ever personal training session...
The first few minutes were reassuring as we went about a simple warm-up routine of lunges/star jumps etc. There was a slight awkward moment as it emerged that I still can’t do a press-up properly (I usually do it from the knees, which is no effort whatsoever). But we went over how I should hold my body just off the floor for 5-6 seconds at a time – and by repeating this, I should get the technique in a week or so (I’ll report back on this!).
Then we moved onto kickboxing itself and 40 minutes “on the pads” (kicking and punching hard to someone wearing giant handpads). I always think it’s the circuits and warm-ups that’s the truly exhausting part but this was intense! But it’s also fun and exhilerating and when I wasn’t busy desperately trying to catch my breath or re-gain my balance, I actually really enjoyed it. It was great to be able to hone in on the more dodgy aspects of my technique, like my jab punch. Apparently I’m not corking and angling this nearly enough – and for every time I didn’t do it properly, I had to do (my own weird version) of a press-up. After a while of this, I actually started to get it and think about the punch before I threw it (“proving punishment works,” according to Alex).
ABOVE: It didn't take long for my face to go a weird shade of red and stay that way for several hours afterwards
Then it was time to try out kicks and the area I feel least confident about. We really worked on the roundhouse kick (see pics below!) and how exactly the kick should be angled to keep balance and aim accurately for the side and head of your opponent. After going over it again and again, I had just about got the technique – or more importantly I had an idea of how it should feel and what muscles it works when I do it right. I still have absolutely no power in the kick and could barely tickle someone with it - let alone seriously challenge them - but apparently this part will come with practise. We also tried out some new techniques, like a body hook punch (where you squat down to left or right and deliver hook to the body) and duck pivot (ducking from your opponent and moving around at the same time), which I haven’t tried in a while. We ended with 100 straight punches (I couldn’t believe it at the time and kept on questioning whether I really had to do it – by which point it went up to 160 straight punches - next time I’ll stay quiet!) plus a round of ab crunches and other circuit exercises.
ABOVE AND BELOW: Spot the difference! Alex's roundhouse kick and my own rather more feeble version of it...
Penalty press-ups aside, it was a brilliant session and a total wake-up call to me on the benefits of personal training. I always assumed this would be a more full-on version of the bigger class, but it’s much more detailed and concentrated than that. You really get to focus in on problem areas and put your fitness levels to test under intense scruntiny. There’s no room to escape or hide in the background but at the same time it wasn’t as scary as I thought. All my nerves were replaced by energy/exertion and Alex seemed to know exactly how much to push me so I would be challenged without actually collapsing. I felt a bit light-headed at some points but surprised myself by enjoying the pads session as much as I did. It was great to be able to really go for it with the full force of all the punches we’ve been taught, plus reassuring to troubleshoot by going over exactly what I wasn’t doing right and solve it then and there.
The best part was afterwards. I was completely tired but also full of energy in a way I haven’t been in ages. Is this what it feels like to be fit?!
May 22: - time for Tabata!
Above: My Tabata class was about as painful as this looks
Last night I tried out Tabata for the first time. It was sort of by accident – my original kickboxing class was moved and replaced by this, a high-intensity training method that is famed for its carb-burning potential.
At first I jumped at the chance to take part and was actually sort of relieved I wouldn’t be doing a kickboxing warm-up. After all, how difficult can a few short bursts of activity (with rests in-between) be? It sounded like a breeze next to our usual kickboxing sessions, plus it's 20 minutes shorter.
How wrong I was. Tabata is exhausting. Totally physically draining. In fact I don’t think I’ve been so tired since my last kickboxing grading – and that almost finished me off. The reason why it’s 40 minutes not an hour is probably because most people wouldn’t last that long.
The idea of the class is that you do set exercises eight times in a row for 30 second blasts with 10 second breaks in-between. There's then a one minute break, followed by another exercise eight times in a row, and so on. There are six exercises in total.
It doesn’t sound that challenging I know, but in practise it was near-on impossible. Each exercise targets a different area - stomach, biceps, thighs etc. To begin with I was lulled into a false sense of security by the apparent simplicity of each move. High jump while swinging your arms up and down? No problem! Except after three bursts of this I was in pain and by the eighth round I could barely move either my arms or legs, let alone up or down. The same went for when we lay on the ground and held our arms and legs up in the air and our heads just off the ground. It woke up muscles in me that I never even knew existed.
By far the most difficult exercise was the last one, jumping push-ups. This is basically pulling your legs into your chest and out again from a push-up position. Again it doesn’t sound too bad, but it took all my strength to very slowly drag (no way I could jump) my legs in and out while staying upright.
The good news in all of this is that Tabata is incredibly good for you. There are different versions of it, but the gist is it tones and burns fat a lot more effectively than longer but moderate-level fitness activity (like jogging for an hour on a treadmill).
"With Tabata, you work extremely hard, at around 85% of your maximum aerobic capacity," Dax Moy, the personal trainer who recently advised the Stylist team on their Olympic challenges, explains. "The type of activity is not as important as the intensity.”
The upshot? Yes, Tabata is painful and leaves you a sweaty, exhausted mess – but as workouts go it’s quick and effective and definitely worth a shot, even for the exercise-shy (i.e. me). If I can summon up the courage, I might even give it another go.
April 24 - Saturday training
On Saturday I tried out a mixed ability class for the first time. Now that I’m officially “white 1” level (one up from complete beginners) it means I can join in with this weekly session, which is open to everyone apart from fresh starters.
To be honest I could have joined the class at any point since I got my white belt in early March, but working up the motivation to exercise at weekends is usually a bit of a losing battle. Every week, I tell myself I’ll go and then – well, I just don’t.
So I felt both a bit smug as, armed with my pink gloves and a healthy dose of Red Bull, I made it along to the weekend class at Springhealth Kickboxing. I couldn’t believe how many people were already there; the class was massively popular with over 30 kickboxees of all levels turning up for training. Clearly, they don’t share my ambiguity towards weekend exercise.
We started off with a punishing schedule of warm-ups: burpees, press-ups, lunges, squat jumps, star jumps and more. This was followed by an excruciating four-minute stomach work out. I’ve always wanted a more toned stomach, so was quite into this, in theory - it was just a shame I was so feeble about it. Probably with more practise it’ll get easier and it definitely helped doing it in a big group.
Above: A class in session at London's Springhealth Kickboxing gym
Onto the actual boxing and I was worried I might be paired with some black belt genius and come out with a broken nose or something. But of course it was nothing like that. Everyone was very friendly – and also in the same position of having to juggle set kick/punch routines with bursts of exercise.
This is something I’ve noticed coming into classes more and more as I move up a level: instead of just exercising at the beginning and end of classes, we do it throughout and in-between kickboxing. This was especially true of the weekend class, where we did a set kickboxing routine, followed by 100 straight punches, 10 burpees, another kickboxing routine – and so on. At the end I was literally exhausted. True devotees could choose to go on and attend the Tabata class just after kickboxing but I opted to gracefully quit while I was ahead (as in not on the floor).
I will definitely go to the weekend class again though. I really did feel much better afterwards and I even ended up doing a jog on Hampstead Heath the following day – a previously unheard of experience but one I was surprisingly up for given my earlier bout of exercise.
April 18 – 100 days to go
With under four months to go to the Olympics – and meeting my challenge of getting a red belt – I thought I’d list what techniques I’ve learnt so far (in my own, slightly non-technical terms). Here goes…
One-two (corking punches with alternate arms from your face and towards your opponent's face)
Hook (bending your arm and hooking it across the body, swivelling your shoulder so it’s facing your opponent)
Cross (corking your arm forward and across at head level)
Jab (like a straight punch but quicker and not as extended in movement)
Upper cut (thrown from squat position, moving upwards towards your opponent’s chin)
Spinning back fist (jumping round 180 degrees and extending your arm out to hit your opponent with the back of your hand)
Roundhouse (tilting your body to the side, bending leg on knee and extending pointed toe towards your opponent’s side)
Front kick (bending your leg at the knee and moving upwards and forwards, hitting your opponent square-on with the flat of your foot in one fluid motion)
Jumping front kick (as above, but with an added jump on other leg at beginning to add impact to the kick)
Side kick (tilting your body to the side and pulling knee into chest to kick out and behind you, towards opponent)
Side kick touch (as above, but touching the ground with your foot in-between kicks to build up momentum)
Flying roundhouse (like a roundhouse kick but carrying on through, with your leg spinning up and over in a rainbow arch)
Axe kick (extending leg upwards and forwards from the knee – like a roundhouse – then pulling sharply down in a straight line)
The most important thing with any of these moves in learning how to engineer your body to give them momentum. So nearly all will involve moving your shoulders and hips forwards or backwards to push through on a particular kick/punch . The same applies when you are blocking specific punches/kicks – especially when you duck and swivel around on a lower level. I have quite a bit of work to do on this front as I'm so busy concentrating, I’m apt to be quite ridged and am constantly being told to move my body with the moves (my trainer actually compared it to Salsa dancing at one point in an attempt to make me move smoothly!)
In an actual fight situation, people would move around as they threw their moves – and this is something we’re starting to work on now, either moving diagonally as we throw particular punches or kicks, or taking it to a different level (swivelling down and back up again). Doing this on top of remembering the particular kick/punch sequence usually plays havoc with my coordination so I still have some way to go on this as well – although it will be crucial when it comes to red belt grading!
April 10 - Flying roundhouse
Yesterday we tried out a flying roundhouse kick - an absolute killer of a move which involves kicking your leg up in the air and spinning round at the same time. The way our teacher, Alan, described it was a bit like doing a header in football (something I've never really mastered, but hey). The idea is you just throw yourself into it with lots of energy and conviction, without really pausing for thought.
However there is quite a lot of technique involved as well. You have to tilt on one side, lift your leg up and bend at the knee - then kick upwards and outwards with pointed toe and pull round and over, so you end up facing the opposite direction. Apparently, the quicker you do this the easier it is - although it inevitably ended up with me spinning round in giddy circles and staggering all over the place. Not quite the slick moves I was hoping for , perhaps, but I enjoyed it all the same.
I had a look for photos on the net that might accurately show this kick and this is the closest I got. Needless to say I wasn't smiling as much in my own attempts...
April 2 - the gloves are on
I don't know whether it's a deliberate move on behalf of our kickboxing trainers but every session at the moment seems to bring with it an ever more sadistic form of circuits - or as I see it, exercise hell.
Last night saw us puffing and sweating like crazy (yes, it was a beautiful sight) as we attempted to punch high in the air from a kneeling position for 30 seconds before holding the plank position for 30 seconds - but while moving our arms up and down. We then punched high again for 30 seconds before doing press-ups for 30 seconds. And so on.
Embarrassingly, I was the only person in our group who couldn't do the plank bit while moving my arms - I just don't seem to have the muscle to pull myself up, especially when I'm wearing gloves. So instead, I floundered around awkwardly on the ground for a bit not really doing much of anything before resuming punching.
In yet another sad moment, I found out the press-ups I've been doing all this time barely scatch the surface of what an actual press-up is. I always wondered why I always found them fairly painless - and it turns out, I've been doing them all wrong. My chest is anywhere near the ground and my arms aren't placed wide enough. Yesterday I did them properly for the first time ever and finally felt some pain in my biceps - a sure sign I was on the right track.
Still, horrendous circuits aside I am still loving kickboxing training at Springhealth; and yesterday represented a small landmark as I brought my first ever pair of kickboxing gloves! I couldn't resist going for the pink pair (pictured above and below), although I am slightly alarmed by their size. Weighing in at 10oz and roughly twice the size of my head, they seem massively unwieldy. I can't imagine punching anyone accurately in them and last night confirmed my fears as I ended up throwing wild off-shots or coming dangerously close to smacking my opponent's face/stomach as I have no real control at all. It's not the most promising start but I cherish my gloves either way and they now have pride of place on my dining room table (slightly out of place but I'm proud of them)...
March 21: moving on up
Post-white belt and my kickboxing jaunts continue – and one level up, it’s definitely tougher.
We’re now learning how to throw punches and kicks at different levels and moving around at the same time, integrating basic techniques with tactical sparring. Most of the time I’m too busy trying to hold my leg up without wobbling, let alone notice where or how high I am. When we have to shadow box while moving around (as they do in actual kickboxing matches) I end up running around in circles with my partner and randomly throwing punches – which needless to say, is not the most elegant look.
But we’ve learnt some great new moves including the uppercut, which is apparently one of the most devastating techniques out there (although it’s far from that when I do it). It involves crouching down with your shoulder at an angle over the opposing knee and both fists by your head. You then swing one arm directly upwards in front of you, towards your partner’s chin or nose – which made for an interesting practise session with a few colourful near-misses. We’ve also tried one-on-one sparring with the trainers wearing hand pads, which is great because you get to put a bit of power into kicks and punches as they call out a series of moves.
The daily slog of lunges, press-ups and burpees continue in warm-ups - only now we have to hold the plank position while moving our arms up and down, which is pretty much as harsh as it sounds. Still, I’d better get used to it as this weekend, I’m planning to do a kickboxing session followed by 30-minute Tabata session. This high-intensity interval training has received quite a bit of media coverage recently and the method of bursts of activity followed by rest is claimed to be far more effective than say, a long session on a treadmill. Sunday Times magazine described it as a “brutally tough” form of exercise in a focus piece last weekend, which hardly fills me with encouragement...
March 9: white belt!
I am now the proud owner of a white belt - and officially licenced by WAKO (World All Styles And Kickboxing Orgs)!
My belt and grading book... woo hoo!
All v. exciting but not achieved without real pain... in fact I'm still struggling to make it up stairs after Wednesday night's marathon grading session and am not fully convinced I'll ever be able to walk properly again...
The trainers said they would intensify our usual workout by 10-15% for the test, but actually felt like 200%. For what felt like hours (but in fact was about 20 mins), we lunged, squatted, did endless star jumps and press-ups and TWO one-minute-long planks. I literally thought I was about to pass out... in a cruel twist we were told that each time we made a mistake, not only would we incur individual burpees but penalties for the entire group. Luckily this didn't happen but it was enough of a threat to push me way beyond my usual threshold for exercise torture.
After the first round of workout hell was over we went onto group sparring practising punches (one/two, left and right hooks, jabs, crosses) and kicks (front kick, side kick, back kick, roundhouse) in set routines that got progressively more difficult. Then just to top it all off we did a load more jumps and lunges - and just when we thought we were done, we all had to squat for a minute on tip-toes with our hands reaching upwards. Which doesn't sound that bad in writing but trust me, it was horrific and my thighs did not thank me for it.
Anyway, like many things in life the pain was worth it as we all got given our belts and moved up to the next level. It was only after we got all celebratory and euphoric that I realised how far I still have to go. If I struggled this much to get a white belt, getting a red belt by July will require some serious hard work. As the teachers pointed out, I still have various "coordination issues" (!) and will need to step it up in a big way if I'm to stand any chance of achieving my goal. This means attending all three classes a week if poss, cleaning up my (admittedly poor) diet, getting some personal training and also buying some gloves and bandages for my hands (the bit I'm most looking forward to, as I'm quite talented at shopping).
In the meantime, I want to celebrate this tiny milestone by thanking all the team at Springhealth Kickboxing. They truly are fantastic, especially Alan, who has run our beginners' class and is possibly the most patient person I've ever met - and Alex, who runs the whole show with massive enthusiasm and skill! Here's to the challenges ahead...
March 7: judgement day
Today marks my very first kickboxing grading session and frankly, I'm a little bit terrified... For some reason, the fact that we would be tested this week took me completely by surprise. We've been talking vaguely about grading in our group at Springhealth Kickboxing for some weeks now, but (perhaps in denial), I had it in my head that it was still some time away.
The fact that I've been away the last week in South Africa didn't help. Going on safari was amazing but unless you count hauling a rack sack around as exercise, it didn't do much for my fitness levels. So in my first kickboxing session back on Monday, it came as something of a shock to hear grading was just two days away...
I'm not even sure what this will entail, only that there'll be a set of people watching us as we go about our moves. As I have to do everything at least twice to get it right - and constantly muddle my steps, energetically spinning round the wrong way or ducking in the same direction as an incoming punch, this doesn't bode well.
We also have an intimidating-sounding "three minute circuit" at the end, which involves lots of lunge jumps and squats as well as holding the plank position (pic below says it all) for 30 seconds. This for me will be the most challenging part as I haven't yet got through it without hitting the floor. Maxitone sent me some protein shakes a few weeks back so I'm considering making one of these to see whether it helps - I've never tried one before but now may be the time to start...
In the meantime, I am just going to concentrate on swinging my hips and body behind my punches (which we're always reminded to do more) and hope that gets me through. Wish me luck!
February 16: on sidekicks and calories
One month into my kickboxing challenge and though I can still barely lift my leg above knee-height (let alone keep it straight or balanced), I’ve got to say it’s the most fun sport I’ve ever tried. Fun and sport are two things that have never gone together in my vocab before – but in kickboxing I burn calories without even noticing it. That’s not to say the endless squats, press-ups and burpees aren’t painful, just that they’re so mixed up with actual kickboxing moves that I don’t focus so much on that I-can’t-do-this moment that has invariably seen off all my previous attempts at exercise.
On the topic of calories, one kickboxing session is supposed to burn 830. Given how much we sweat through the whole burpees/sit-ups/star jumps regime - not to mention the actual kickboxing training - I can well believe that. Coupled with a healthy diet, it would definitely get you toned and trim over a period of time.
Anyway, last night we tried side kicks, which are tricky. You basically lift your leg at a 90 degrees side angle to your opponent and kick away and almost behind from yourself. It's difficult to explain in words, so I've found this video of third-degree blackbelt and kickboxing champion Linda Josefson demonstrating it. The words she uses vary a little, but the concept's the same...
February 9: the real deal
They say learning is like rowing upstream; unless you push yourself forward, you drop back. This is certainly the case with kickboxing and I find myself having to concentrate fiercely in order to take in all the moves, then practise them again and again - and every time I miss a class (there are three a week), I have to work doubly hard the next time round.
Sometimes, however, it helps to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Having just perused YouTube, I found this video of Alex, the person who runs my gym, in a proper kickboxing match - with a referee and everything. He's the one in the red, basically kicking the ass of the other guy, whom he aptly refers to as a "poor lad."
Watching this reminds me just how powerful and amazing (and slightly scary) kickboxing can be. It all depends on a series of very quick, slick moves. Clearly it takes years and years of training to get to this level - and for someone who still can't touch their toes, I needn't concern myself with combat situations anytime soon.
But it's inspiring all the same - and an extra incentive next time we're told to do 50 hook punches followed by 10 burpees etc. etc.
February 5: moves and stuff
So far at Springhealth Kickboxing, I have learnt:
- Basic defence position (feet apart at shoulder’s length, legs bent with left foot in front of right, back heel up, fists by face)
- A one-two punch
- A left and right hook
- Running up cuts
- Roundhouse kick
- Front kick
- Blocking for all the above kicks/punches
For me the front kick is the easiest (you just lift your leg in front of you and push forward with a flat heel) and roundhouse kick (where you pivot round and kick at an angle, to the side of your opponent's body) the hardest. We also do this practise kick where you lift your leg at 90 degrees then kick it out from the knee again and again, tilting your upper body for balance. This is a very common martial arts move, apparently – we generally start off practising it with a bar for support, then hop forward and try to do it for 30 seconds stand-alone. This for me, is a near-on impossible task. I wobble all over the place and my thigh starts aching like mad; there’s no way I can continue kicking my leg properly, let alone do it with speed and any strength. Only the (hypothetical) thought of super-toned pins gets me through. At the moment my legs feel like lead rather than elastic, but who knows, with all this frenetic training, maybe one day they will do this... ?
February 2: stepping it up
Yesterday was my most hardcore kickboxing class to date. For one whole hour, I attempted to jab, cross and throw front, side and roundhouse kicks; all with regular spates of push-ups, burpees, squats and running up-cuts (where you basically run on the spot and punch upwards in circles as fast as you can) in-between. It was FULL ON.
The change in tempo came when Alex, founder of Springhealth Kickboxing, joined our regular beginners’ session, alongside our normal brilliant and super-patient instructor, Alan. Alex has spent 16 years in kickboxing – both as a trainer and instructor – and radiates high-level energy. When you watch someone of his calibre doing the moves, you suddenly realise what martial arts is about.
There’s a real technique and power behind every single punch and kick - all the more so if you’re on the receiving end of it. You move your body in perfect and calculated formation in order to attack and defend. And the speed and energy required is just incredible; you have to anticipate every move and think on your feet, constantly dodging, ducking and moving back and forth.
As far as practise sessions went, it was an eye-opener. At the moment, I’m still at the level where I’m randomly flailing my arms and legs around in some chaotic interpretation of what has just been demonstrated to us. And I’m also a bit self-conscious about practising my moves, which clearly is a no-go in the field of combat. I can hardly hope to devastate my opponent with a series of slick moves if I’m nervously giggling or apologizing half the time...
I end the session exhausted and exhilarated – although I’m nowhere near either getting a red belt or even touching my toes properly, I reckon I’m hooked to this whole kickboxing shebang…
February 1: I hate burpees
One kickboxing session down and I’ve suddenly discovered a whole new form of exercise torture: burpees. God knows why I haven’t heard of these before as everyone else I speak to seems to have – but I’m guessing my complete lack of familiarity with the inside of a gym might have something to do with it. Anyway, burpees (and why are they called that? because they make you want to burp?!) are a very effective form of full-body exercise, thus crucial to my mission. And they look like they should be easy (squat, jump down, jump back up! – come on kids, fun!) but require way more puff than my body has in it. By the time I finished randomly kicking my legs out 10 times in a row, I was sweating profusely and had gone a weird shade of reddish purple. A quick glance round my class confirmed no-one else was struggling… in fact they seemed to enjoy it. Scary.
Burpees aside, my second stab at kickboxing at London's Springhealth gym was as much of an adrenalin rush as the first one. We did more one-two punches. And kicks (although this one was tricky for me as I kept on trying to point my toe balletic-ally instead of bending my knee and pushing out, the way you’re supposed to). And even a right-hook! By the end we were able to do this whole routine in pairs, where we punched, kicked and ducked in formation – albeit with no force whatsoever on my part. But it still allowed me to practise back home on my boyfriend, who was simultaneously amused and alarmed by my boisterous re-enactment of what we’d learnt. Little does he know I may soon be a model of kickboxing: like the rather dapper chap pictured below…
January 25: let kickboxing commence
So finally, finally – I made it to my first kickboxing class on Monday night. And it was absolutely brilliant! I had no idea what to expect when I arrived at the Springhealth kickboxing gym in north London. I chose it because the person who runs it, Alex, assured me I could get a red belt in six months’ time and seemed remarkably unfazed by my complete lack of fitness/prior experience. First impressions were both reassuring and vaguely alarming: the gym was abuzz with super-fit looking individuals casually throwing a few dynamic moves and limbering up with the kind of confidence that suggests a lifetime of working out. There was also a photo of Morgan Freeman on the wall, being trained by the gym team on the set of one of his movies. I began to envisage a session where I was lingering at the back, hopelessly out of place amid a group of pros and movie stars. But luckily, when the time came, it was nothing like that… I was joined by four other women and a boy for my beginner’s class, all at exactly the same level as me – i.e. total amateurs. Our two trainers took us through a series of fitness exercises, all of which revolved around mini-punching and bouncing moves. They were friendly and patient, creating an atmosphere where anything seemed possible as long as we put our minds to it.
We then got started on some actual kickboxing techniques – something I wasn’t expecting from the first session. First up was a one-two punch, which basically involves throwing two punches quickly in succession while swinging your body at the same time to give it momentum. Posture is very important to the whole fighting shebang; you have to keep your legs a shoulder length apart with your back heel up, always bouncing instead of walking, and with your fists clenched at about chin level. It’s surprising how quickly just adopting that stance and jumping about a bit can make you feel like boxing pro. But of course there’s a lot more technique than that: you really have to concentrate on the movement of your body and the structure of the moves. Several times I was alerted to my “chicken arms” (yup, I’m all about glamour) as I unknowingly raised my biceps out instead of keeping them fixed by my body. We end the class by doing a (very loose and slightly unconvincing) one-two punch followed by a kick. An actual kick! And because we train in pairs, we also learn basic defence moves to fend off punches and kicks. Feeble I may have been, but I really felt great at the end of the session – like I was getting fit without even noticing it. Even the press-ups and sit-ups we finished off with didn’t seem too painful and I went away with a bit of a glow – my kickboxing adventure has begun…
January 20: the waiting game
Here I am, nine days into my challenge and admittedly, it’s not been a brilliant start. I was full of good intentions, I really was – but a bout of post-Christmas flu left me duvet-bound and gorging on Lemsip for the past week and a half… and now that I feel human again, I can’t quite believe the enormity of what lies ahead. Basically I’ve got from now until 27th July (just over six months) to transform myself from something of a bed slug into a kick-ass kickboxing champ. I’ve found a couple of agency snaps to illustrate just how gigantic a leap this is going to be (below) - and also as a rather genius way of further distracting myself from the task at hand.
Having finally made it back out of bed, I am now about to embark on my first exercise of the year: a session at my gym’s swimming pool. I know this is hardly the most momentous of starts but it’s meant to gently ease me into action ahead of my first real task, which will take place on Monday night – my first kickboxing class! I’m already several weeks behind everyone else on the course and no doubt my lack of practise will be transparent – but at least it will be a start. AT LAST. And you’ll be glad to know I’ve already worked out my soundtrack for working out. Britney, of course. Because you can’t beat a bit of Britters for sheer, get-down-with-it motivation. And my other gym tune staples, Black Eyed Peas’ Mas Que Nada and Basement Jaxx’s Do Your Thing. They’ve got exactly the right sort of oomph in the baseline to somehow inspire you to move. So that’s music sorted. Next stop: actual moving. Wish me luck for Monday…
January 11: mission impossible?
I may as well come clean on this from the beginning.
I chose kickboxing as my Olympics challenge sport not because of some latent skill for powering my legs or throwing my body into improbable positions at the drop of a hat. I chose it because it sounds cool. And it sounds hardcore. When you tell people you’re taking up kickboxing they immediately act impressed (or for those who know me better, bemused). It elicits a raised eyebrow or two, usually accompanied by a once-over appraisal as if to say, “I didn’t know you were capable of it…” Which of course, is the salient point. For although I’ve really enjoyed telling people I’m taking up kickboxing and musing it over – comfortably reassuring myself that this is my get-fit solution nailed for the New Year – I haven’t given much thought to actually doing it. Up until now, I’ve been content to daydream of the kickboxing pro I’ll miraculously morph into in six months’ time; only as this challenge begins in earnest has it dawned on me that I’ll physically have to put some effort in…
And what an effort it will be. A London-based kickboxing expert I spoke to last week assured me that getting a red belt by the Olympics was possible. Perhaps he wouldn’t have been quite so confident if he knew I was the least flexible, least sporty and least physically feisty person I know. This isn’t an exaggeration. For as long as I can remember, I have been unable to touch my toes and have been deeply envious of those people who can effortlessly shine in more combative sports (school games of hockey usually found me running away from the ball). I know that kickboxing is more to do with physical strength and discipline, but the fact that I’d put literally no money on myself in a fight situation surely doesn’t bode well either. So this is going to be a challenge for me in the biggest sense of the word. Theoretically I will work my way through two other belts before getting to the red one, will be tested on my technique and fitness (currently languishing in the below zero levels) and may even try my hand (or should that be legs?) in ominous-sounding “touch contact” situations.
What am I hoping to get out of it? Besides branding myself a pro at kickboxing (naturally), some kind of genuine ability to muster power from my body would be nice – plus, I’m hoping that the two weekly kickboxing classes I have planned on top of personal training will provide me with the kind of toned, lean physique I have always yearned after but never achieved in a lifetime of skipped gym classes and vast consumption of all things chocolate, pizza and red wine. Beyond the Olympics I may well go back to my life of complete physical ineffectualness and all-round laziness: but in the meantime watch this space - because one rather scared and completely inexperienced person is about to enter the high-calibre world of kickboxing. I’ll keep you updated with my progress, in all its humiliating detail, here…