Fitness by force

Published 12:33 am Monday, April 9, 2012

YMCA head instructor Jennifer Jenkins leads a kickboxing class, an activity growing in popularity at the Y.

Classes punch, kick way to tone muscles

This story originally appeared in Progress 2012. Get a copy at the Austin Daily Herald.

Thwok. “Left jab.” Thwok. “Right uppercut.” Thwok. “Faster.” Thwok. “Harder!” THWOK. “Again!” THWOK!

That’s the tempo at kickboxing class. People repeatedly punch, kick, knee, strike and push a large punching bag in quick, sustained bursts. This goes on for 40 minutes. You will get tired quickly. It’s nothing short of a rush.

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Kickboxing classes are surging in popularity nationwide, particularly with women, and the YMCA of Austin is no exception. With two 45-minute classes, residents are letting off steam, learning a valuable skill and getting fit.

“It’s the way you feel after the class physically,” said Jennifer Jones-Jenkins, YMCA fitness instructor on why she practices kickboxing. “I feel so much better, and my mind feels clearer after I hit something really hard. You just feel better.”

Jones-Jenkins has taught kickboxing for three years, acting as a fitness instructor for four. She took kickboxing at the Y six years ago after she gave birth to her daughter.

“It was like a postpartum fitness thing for me,” she said. “I lost the weight and said, ‘I love this class!’”

Kickboxing is a little more complicated than it sounds. People learn the basics of boxing, like cross punches, hooks, hammers and uppercuts, in a few minutes’ time. In addition, Jones-Jenkins includes in the exercises basic martial arts kicks like a side kick and a roundhouse. Residents wrap their wrists and put on boxing gloves before warming up on the bag. Throw in some muay thai stretches, high-intensity conditioning exercises, kung fu weapon strikes and large yoga stretches, and you have an immensely satisfying aerobic workout.

Kickboxers often work out to sped-up versions of today’s Top 40 hits specifically chosen — and in some cases — mixed by Jones-Jenkins. The increased tempo helps participants keep pace and push themselves. The lights are low in the fitness room where kickboxing is held, so people feel comfortable. Kickboxers can go at their own pace as well, though Jones-Jenkins challenges everyone to keep pace.

“You can put as much or as little in if you’re not really feeling up to it,” said Kayla Sellers.

Sellers loves the intensity that comes with a kickboxing class. A former dancer, Sellers has been in kickboxing classes since her freshman year at Winona State University.

“I’m one of those people that likes to get up and move,” the 22-year-old said. “I hate just going out and running. I need someone who’s kind of telling me what to do.”

Sellers used to teach kickboxing in college, though the classes she taught didn’t have bags. She thinks the Y classes are much better because of the resistance people get from hitting heavyweight bags.

“It’s much more fun to actually hit something,” she said with a laugh.

Kickboxing class can still be an intense experience for Sellers, depending on the day. By the 10-minute mark, Sellers is gearing up, getting into the music. By 20 minutes, she’s focusing on her second wind, pushing through her exhaustion.

“That’s how you improve,” she said. “When you’re tired, you have to keep going.”

By 30 minutes, Sellers concentrates on pushing herself. When the class winds down and stretches begin, Sellers feels accomplished.

Kickboxing classes are twice a week, but the Y offers cycleboxing classes — which interchanges stationary cycling with bag work — almost every day. With so many residents ready to strike, kickboxing classes are here to stay.

“It’s intense,” Sellers said with a smile.