Women have been flocking to kickboxing and martial arts-inspired fitness workouts for years, no doubt inspired by the feeling of being strong and powerful as they kick, jab and block. But learning how to fight may result in more than just a good post-workout mood. An ugly but striking statistic from the Department of Justice is that one out of every five women will be the victim of an attempted rape in her lifetime and that someone in America is sexually assaulted every two minutes. But rather than let fear paralyze them into inaction or victimhood, female fitness professionals are turning their love for martial arts into empowerment for women through self-defense instruction.
Long Island women have a lot of options when it comes to learning self-defense techniques and all offer the benefit of a good sweat at the same time.
Our top picks to get into fighting shape all strike a balance between seriousness of purpose—women will walk away with concrete knowledge—and good old-fashioned stress relieving fun. Sure, a spin class is a workout but nothing kills crankiness like round-housing a bad guy, even if this one is just a rubber dummy.
Pack a Punch
Meeting her at FSA Martial Arts on Grand Avenue in Baldwin, Cat German’s appearance might give someone the wrong idea: Petite and friendly, her small stature belies her killer instinct. “This move is somewhat lethal,” she told the attendees at a recent women’s self-defense class, jabbing Bob the dummy with an open palm uppercut to the temple.
Cat’s the daughter of FSA owner Marvin German, Jr., who teaches judo, kung fu and jujitsu when he’s not helping Cat run her women’s self-defense programs. The fighting in her blood and a love for fitness led her to found Cat’s Body Works as a way to teach women and girls as young as 12 years old how to defend themselves. Although delivering lethal blows might sound scary, everything Cat teaches is about survival. “If it comes to that, if it’s me or him, well, I know I want to be the survivor.”
Her classes take up to four hours and are a veritable crash course in protection from assault. She goes over the basics and then the rest of the time is dedicated to specific techniques and ways women can use their anatomy and shape to their advantage against bigger potential threats. Many women are drawn to the classes because they have been assaulted or know a victim. Others just want to become more empowered, to combat fear of home invasions, street attacks or college campus dangers. The younger school-aged students are drawn to the prospect of standing up to schoolyard bullying.
In the heat of the moment, potential victims are likely to forget complicated instructions. By practicing and empowering themselves with simple take-home messages ahead of time, women are more likely to feel confident enough to fight back, Cat said. Some of the biggest take-aways were the most basic: Using elbows as a hidden weapon. A would-be attacker will often grab a women’s arms as a show of dominance and to inspire fear, but even a stronger attacker is no match for a women using asymmetrical force, swinging an elbow around to break free.
In self-defense you want to end it quickly and you do things you would never see on tv. The average attack takes 12 seconds.
“Don’t back away,” Cat instructed, as attendees elbowed Bob the dummy in the face. “Keep your enemies closer.”
Marvin often finds himself reminding women not to be ginger when it comes to defending themselves. Once they jab or elbow, he urges them to go in for a knee to the groin or kick to the ankle. The sooner the opponent is disabled, the faster a victim can escape. Nothing is off limits: Cat explains how to aim for the “wind, sight and limbs,” in other words, go for the throat, eyes, legs and arms.
Cat also teaches specific techniques for close quarters self-defense, like in an elevator or narrow alleyway, and using tools like a phone or keys to help push off an antagonist by jabbing the sharp edge into his eyes or clocking the blunt sides against his head. We learned to sit on the legs of a man holding us from behind in just the right way to break his leg, hold our arms to block incoming strikes and to make sure the bad guy was down for the count before we turned to run.
“Don’t forget, a man can usually run faster than a woman. You don’t want to be in a situation where he’s chasing and coming back after you. The key is to disable him,” reminded Cat, as her father donned a mask and padded gear to role play as the attacker. After a few half-hearted and self-conscious attempts at jabbing our way free, we became a lot more inspired. The empowerment was happening, palpable, immediate. “The most important thing is your goal,” Marvin asserted. “If you want to defend yourself, and you have that confidence you can, you can fight back.”
Ready for Battle
In Bellport Village, The Workout Studio is home to another fighting discipline that offers training women can use for real world self-defense. Krav Maga comes from the Israeli military’s system of self-defense training and has seen a resurgence in popularity over the last decade for its fitness applications. Instructor Kevin Williams teaches general Krav Maga classes to a wide range of students—male, female, old and young—and stresses that practitioners don’t need to be exceptionally athletic to be able to truly learn to defend themselves.
“It has to be universal,” said Kevin, who spent years pursuing a variety of martial arts before tiring of the emphasis on form over function with tournament fighting styles. Although he became practiced at aesthetically pleasing methods like tae kwon do he could still be defeated by a “couple of thugs,” who may not have had fancy training but could fight in a real-world scenario. Because military service in the Israeli Defense Forces is compulsory for men and women, the training by its very nature has to teach people of all shapes, sizes and degrees of strength how to defend themselves.
The hour-long class incorporates fitness elements and gives attendees a cardiovascular and strength workout in addition to an arsenal of defensive moves.
“It’s very vigorous,” Kevin noted. He prides himself on his ability to give students a thorough grounding in a matter of months. In self-defense, there are no rules beyond surviving. “What you see with ultimate fighting is different from self-defense.
In self-defense you want to end it quickly and you do things you would never see in tournaments. The average attack takes 12 seconds.” Kevin offers a first free trial class to new students and attendees can expect to split the class time between warm-ups, drills, learning correct kicking and punching technique and partner hand to hand grappling. “We like to mix it up and have different people practice fighting opponents of different sizes and abilities. It’s like the real world: You don’t get to pick your attacker.”
Composed of a mixture of martial arts like muay Thai, jujitsu and boxing, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) has been capitalizing on its popularity as a spectator sport to position itself as the next full-body fitness option. To wit, three new gyms opened in New Hyde Park, Huntington and Commack in the last year.
The Huntington and Commack locations offer a three-hour Women’s Safety Course. Held every two months, often coinciding with academic breaks to attract college-aged women, the seminars offer a thorough grounding in both emotional and physical safety. According to Kristine Haugsjaa, a marketing manager for UFC who also teaches at the seminars, the instructors want to teach women how to avoid becoming victims in the first place, even in relationships. “We teach them how to stay safe in general, including in their own relationships. We give out hotlines for abuse help and resources to mentally defend themselves,” explained Kristine, who pointed out that women are assaulted by aquaintences just as often as by strangers.
Physical instruction encompasses kickboxing, ground fighting and a well-rounded mix of defensive moves. “It’s the same moves you see on TV. Women get excited when they watch and see things that they learned to do. It’s a great confidence builder.” Students, from 12 to 70 years-old, train by practicing moves on 150-pound bags and learn how to extract themselves from common assaults like chokeholds or having their arms held. Overall, the course emphasizes that the single most crucial decision a woman can make is to fight back in the first place. Indeed, some statistics demonstrate that half of all potential attackers will stop their assault once a victim resists the attack or fights back.
At the American Academy of Self Defense in Deer Park, the women’s self-defense program is based on karate. Women attending the classes work with a partner to learn and practice the offensive and defensive actions. The classes are also a fitness drill, participants work up a sweat practicing moves and kicks. Instructor Maria DiDio teaches psychological tools like strategies to diffuse a dangerous situation, the right way to yell “No” at an attacker and how to exploit his weak spot (yes, you guessed it.)
A compact powerhouse, Maria has been practicing martial arts since she was 13 years old in a range of different disciplines like karate, judo and jiujitsu. The multiple black belt was attracted to self-defense because she was being bullied in school. Maria takes that personal experience and harnesses it when she approaches women’s self-defense. “I know that feeling, of being physically and emotionally intimidated. For women, it’s also emotional. Without being mentally and emotionally prepared, the physical won’t work,” Maria said.
To train that mental aspect of the students at the Saturday self-defense seminars, she starts simply. “We start with breathing, to help them release stress.
Maria also instructs women how to use their purse, a pen, or other everyday objects they are carrying as defensive tools.
We work on screaming, to get them to be able to focus on fighting back.” The curriculum spans both verbal strategies, like yelling for help (which can deter a significant percentage of attackers), and physical moves designed to help victims extract themselves from difficult situations, like being in a chokehold. As Maria emphasizes, women don’t need to be big or strong, they just need to know how to leverage their size and use skill to their advantage.
“Use techniques, not strength,” stressed Maria. “A woman is not going to win against a man by strength alone.”
It’s about fighting smart, protecting your head and learning easy movements that are meant to end things, fast. “The attacker’s hopefully going to be on the ground holding their eyes or their head in 30 seconds. You’re not engaging in Bruce Lee fighting. It’s simple and anyone can learn how to do it,” she promised. Maria also instructs women on using their purses, pens and other everyday objects as defensive tools. “It’s a great stress reliever. You leave with a huge smile on your face.”
The biggest benefit of learning self-defense may indeed be for the mind. The hope is that students will never need to use what they’ve learned, but by learning to protect themselves, they can be more confident in their daily lives and carry that sense of empowerment forward with them. As Maria put it, “Just your attitude and the way you carry yourself can prevent you from being a victim.” Reason enough to get a butt-kicking lesson under your belt.