What image comes to your mind when you think martial arts and self-defense — a hulking, young muscle-bound person perhaps? That's not the norm anymore thanks to programs like FitDefense, designed to teach self-defense to everyone, regardless of their age, gender, experience or physical condition.
Today you can find martial arts classes for all ages. Even if you are not in prime physical condition to start, stick with it a while, and experts say you'll get results.
And that doesn't just mean toned muscles, but a newly developed sense of self-assurance.
"First we have self-confidence training, then skills training. If you don't have self-confidence, you can't use self-defense techniques," says Yongbom Kim, co-director of the University of Bridgeport's martial arts study program, in Bridgeport, Connecticut — the first martial arts degree program in the country.
Some people think classes labeled "self-defense" are just for women, but that's not the case, Kim says. Some young people take classes to learn how to defend against bullying. Seniors and people who are disabled gain a basic understanding of how to defend themselves, sometimes using a cane, umbrella or crutch, he says.
A full body workout
Self-defense classes provide "a full body workout that covers every muscle in the body," says Willie "the BAM" Johnson, a martial arts Grand Master who studied at the Beijing Physical Culture Institute. Johnson is an expert in many martial arts, and has starred in "Masters of the Martial Arts Presented by Wesley Snipes" as well as other TV shows and films.
Johnson says self-defense classes work the gluteals, abdominals, legs, and arms, as well as provide a great cardio workout. "You see a lot of the same moves in exercise programs, but people don't know there's a self-defense technique if you switch the purpose of it."
Even fingers are a part of a self-defense workout, says Kim. "If someone is choking your neck, a finger strike to the eyes is more powerful than a punch."
Many classes start with the basics. Basic classes are simple enough for anyone to learn quickly.
When you walk out the door of your first class, you have new tools at your disposal, Johnson says.
For some seniors, that new tool may be coupled with a cane. Jane McKenna, a fitness and self-defense trainer who teaches in Washington and Maryland, is a cane master who offers classes sometimes dubbed "cane fu."
Most participants are over 60. Some pick it up right away, but others need to improve their wrist strength, so they start with weight training.
Many people come to the classes after knee surgery or hip replacement. "They feel vulnerable and a little off-balance," McKenna says. "The training gives them confidence. If you know how to use it, a cane is not a crutch; it's a weapon."
A self-defense workout builds arm strength, which is important as people age, says McKenna.
"The stronger your arms are, the more independent you are," she says. "If you work on weights, cardio, balance and core, you will slide very easily into your older years."