"Are you wearing a cup?"
Those aren't the first words you want to hear when some random dude, all athletic and fit, is about to choke you into blackout and kick you in the family matters. The half-moment of silence that preceded my response -- "uh, no" -- was filled with surprise and dread.
Was this how I was going to go out? Strangled to death in a far north Dallas strip mall? At the hands of a student in a class for a brand of martial arts -- krav maga -- most people haven't heard of and don't know how to pronounce? And, to make matters worse, I'm completely cupless -- unlike this guy who, when he taps his groin and there's the clear sound of plastic, plainly had a little more foresight.
This isn't quite what I had in mind when on a hunt to juice up my morning workout routine, which had grown as stale as a week-old, gluten-free bagel. Same-old exercises done the same-old way, in solitary while listening to Sirius XM or zoning out to CNN or Matt Lauer on TV. (Note to my gym: I actually like you a lot. It's not you, it's me.)
So, I decided to mix things up a little, find some classes around the Metroplex that would push me out of that comfort zone -- and maybe even be a little bit fun. With the New Year right around the corner, it seemed right to start working on this resolution ahead of time.
I chose six places all over the Metroplex, specializing in different disciplines: Crossfit, trampolining, yoga, krav maga, kettlebells and a hardcore, bootcamp-style circuit called Psycho Gym. (Whatever doesn't kill me makes me stronger, right?)
I also wanted an old-school workout -- something summoning the spirit of Rocky Balboa, Charles Atlas and the Greek god of sport, Hermes, himself. No big-screen TVs. No banks of computerized machines. No zombie slow-walkers on ellipticals in rapt cellphone conversations about grabbing drinks at Sfuzzi. I want the soundtrack of clanging metal and brute strength ringing in my ears.
Turns out, I'm not alone. More people are looking to kick up their workouts a notch, with women diving into weight-training and more men discovering to the benefits of group classes after years of dismissing the likes of Jazzercise and aerobics, says Men's Health fitness editor Adam Campbell.
"People were talking about lifting weights in the '90s, but women weren't sure if they wanted to do it. In the last year or two, that has really changed. Look at stuff like P90X and Crossfit, they've become really popular," he says. "[With group workouts], there's always been an appeal but what's different now is that men, who weren't into group workouts, are doing really tough workouts with lunges, push-ups and those types of exercises and it brings a whole new meaning to the term. It's now a tough challenge as opposed to what they might have thought as a 'girlie' challenge."
To top it off, more people these days want to be pushed to their physical cliff. "People are looking to get their butts kicked," Campbell continues. "You see the trend of the obstacle races, like the Tough Mudder, where people are looking for those challenges ... They're tired of doing a set in a gym, resting for two minutes, and doing another set."
Sing it, brother.
And that's how I find myself getting choked one recent sunny morning -- and getting to do some choking and groin-kicking of my own in return.
But that's not where my adventures in gymland began.
Crossfit: the Fit of the land
So I call up an acquaintance, Ian Blair, one of the owners of Crossfit214, a former auto garage turned sweat factory filled with weights, kettlebells and pull-up bars on Ross Avenue, north of downtown Dallas. Crossfit, a multielement exercise program founded in 2000 that includes strength training, conditioning and cardio workouts, is rugged -- especially for newbies.
That's why his gym now has classes called Foundations, which are designed to get people ready to tackle full-on Crossfit.
"We realize not everyone knows how to do Crossfit and [in the regular classes], there wasn't enough teaching time," he says.
Ah, baby steps. This seemed like a good a place to start.
About 15 or so of us gathered outside the building one evening and one of the first things we were asked by the instructor was what kind of animal we wanted to be.
Since we were getting ready to go for a short run, I chose cheetah. A little wishful thinking never hurt, right? Considering most everyone there proved to be faster than me, sloth might've been a more appropriate choice.
The first part of the class was devoted to stretching, technique and philosophy. And then we got down to the tough stuff, like front squats with heavy weights and four sets of box jumps (jumping up and down from a 20- or 24-inch box), alternating with four sets of kettlebell swings. That was followed by another run. That last sequence reminded me that I really need to look into getting one of those LifeAlert bracelets.
But it's exactly this type of bracing workout I was looking for, and the kind that attracted someone like David Bikowski, 34, who works for a Dallas ad agency. "I was pretty out of shape and decided to do something serious about that," says Bikowski, who has been going to Crossfit214 since July, and says there's no way he could have handled a traditional Crossfit workout right away.
"What I really like about Crossfit is that everything is done with a group," he says. "You always have someone cheering you on, pushing you to do more.
"After you go for a couple of months, you start to meet people and make friends. You're working out with people who are friends, instead of walking out of a Gold's Gym where you know nobody."
The social element can't be underestimated, says Mens Health's Campbell. "It's a way to bond, similar to the way sports teams bond in high school."
And it does gladden your heart when those who have finished their final run are standing there applauding as you drag yourself across the threshold, your lungs feeling as if they are about to explode. Mostly, though, I was just happy to still be upright.
Crossfit214, 4226 Ross Ave., Dallas. 214 989-6313; crossfit214.com
Foundations classes are offered 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday and 7 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Thursday.
Cost: $159 for a monthly membership; there's a complimentary introduction to Crossfit class 7 p.m. Wednesday
Trampoline: jumping to conclusions
Urban Air Trampoline Park in Southlake may not exactly fit my old-school requirement. If anything, it's straight-up preschool -- there were children everywhere and let's just say the place was, um, not quiet.
But, since I was there to get my bounce-house on, I suppose it was appropriate. Urban Air, which opened in October 2011, offers adults-only trampoline fitness classes that combine the traditionalism of exercises like push-ups, sit-ups and squats with the kineticism of getting airborne.
The place is wall-to-wall with built-in trampolines at floor level, with thick padding separating each trampoline surface, designed to cut down on the risk of injury if you do fall. (Though it should be noted that some trampoline parks across the country have been sued over alleged injuries. Urban Air has a warning on its website that reads: "Trampolining is an action/extreme sport and is an inherently dangerous activity. Jump at your own risk and jump within your ability.")
But I was less concerned about breaking my neck than breaking a sweat -- which I was doing in buckets. Thankfully, there was no Olympics-style twisting and twirling required, just standard exercises with the added bouncing to crank up the intensity.
"It's a great cardio workout," says co-founder Michael Browning. "Ten minutes of jumping is equivalent to 45 minutes of jogging. NASA used to make their astronauts work out on trampolines to get ready to go into space." (Hey, maybe it is old school!). "It's high-cardio, muscle-building, and you can do stabilization core exercises, and it's low impact. People don't anticipate how hard it can be," he adds. "It's a lot harder than it looks. They're worn out at the end."
Kathy Smallwood of Southlake admits she was intimidated the first couple of times she came to a class at Urban Air. "My face was deep red, and I was out of shape," she recalls. "After awhile, I didn't care.
"I lost 10 pounds and toned up a ton," says Smallwood who has been going for a year. "It was perfect because of my gymnastic background and I'm getting old and running is too hard on my joints ... I try to get all the moms to come." "
Smallwood advises that even though the trainer and some of the younger regulars may jump into orbit, newcomers shouldn't worry about equaling their heights. The point is to just keep moving.
My legs felt like cooked pasta 24 hours after this workout, but the trampoline class may be the most fun I've had while allowing someone else to torture me for an hour. "We get that all that time," Browning says.
Urban Air Trampoline Park, 325 Commerce St., Southlake. 817-203-8686; urbanairtrampolinepark.com
Boot Camp is offered at 9:30 a.m. and 7 p.m. Tuesdays and 9:30 a.m. Thursdays; Zumba is offered 7 p.m. Wednesdays
Cost: $10 per class; unlimited fitness classes for a $34.99 monthly membership
Yoga: stretching boundaries
After so much hopping, I just wanted to lie down. What better way to do that and still get a workout than with yoga, the anti-trampoline. With its roots deep in Indian spirituality, yoga is more about meditation and pose than moving and jumping.
But, despite the quietude, you still sweat, work and strengthen your core, as I found out when I went to Karmany Yoga's popular 75-minute Friday Night Live sessions in Fort Worth.
Each week, there's a different theme -- Wine and Vinyasa or Haikus and Handstands to Wipe Out Hunger, in which participants had to bring a can of food to donate. It all brings a sense of humor into the ancient discipline.
The night I went was in honor of Diwali -- the Indian festival of light that takes place every November -- and the studio was festooned with candles. In keeping with these symbols of generosity of spirit, classes at Karmany have no set fee; they're all donation-based.
I wasn't thinking much about Indian holidays while trying to shoehorn myself into some of the more difficult traditional poses like the Crow. But yoga instructor Amber Shumake, one of two leading the crowded class that night, says Karmany is about updating tradition as well.
A follower of Forrest Yoga, a school of practice developed by living American yogi Ana Forrest, Shumake says this style is more applicable to today's modern world. "Yoga has been around for however long and this contemporary style, having a living creator, she's constantly modifying and working with doctors to make sure it's going to be healing."
For example, some of the neck movements have been altered from traditional poses. "Today's average person sits behind a computer or desk all day. Craning your neck to look at the ceiling is not beneficial," she says.
The best thing about yoga, compared to other workouts, is that -- if you've done it correctly -- you don't feel sore or tight later. Instead, you feel more limber and loose, as if your spine is breathing.
Of course, getting to that point isn't always easy. I was sweating so much -- the number of people and the candles weren't helping -- that the woman on the next mat must have thought I was a human faucet.
But when you're near the end, lying on the mat in the relaxing corpse pose while the indie-folk sounds of songs like James Vincent McMorrow's Higher Love waft through the room, the pretzel-twisting poses slowly fade into memory.
Karmany Yoga, 2735 S. Hulen St., Fort Worth. 817-689-5642; 5014 McKinney Ave., Dallas. 214-564-7772; karmanyyoga.com
Friday Night Live is offered at 5:30 p.m. Fridays at the Fort Worth location. Check the website for the schedule of other yoga classes.
Cost: Donations. For students taking one or two classes per week, $15 a class is suggested. For those taking three or more classes per week, it's $10 a class.
Krav maga: The choke's on me
If you're lying down during krav maga, chances are it is because you've been knocked the hell out.
Krav maga (pronounced krahv ma-GAH) roughly translates from Hebrew as hand-to-hand combat and, unlike Asian martial arts, which (like yoga) have a basis in old-world spirituality and philosophy, it exists primarily as a form of intense self-defense.
Developed by Hungarian-Slovakian boxer/wrestler Imrich Lichtenfeld in the early 20th century as protection against roving anti-Semitic thugs, it was later adopted by the Israeli Defense Force where Lichtenfeld became the military school's head instructor.
"The best way to put it is krav maga is all martial and no art," says longtime instructor Jack Bolowskie, who runs Krav Maga DFW with schools in Far North Dallas and East Dallas and with a school planned for the Uptown/Oak Lawn area next year.
"It's recognized as a reality-based self-defense program. I'm not talking down traditional martial arts. I'll never say anything bad about them ... but people come to krav knowing this is something that, if they get into a bar fight or home invasion, they'll know how to take care of themselves. Secondly, krav is a pretty good fitness exercise also."
So, my krav session starts off differently than any other workout I've done. I have to try to touch either shoulder of any of the other 15 or so classmates and, following that, try to step on their toes. With all their bobbing, weaving and defensive postures, it's hard to pull off -- while simultaneously trying to keep anyone from touching my shoulder or foot.
Later, we're paired with a partner for boxing and kicking drills. Then comes the choking.
The premise is that you've got to disable an attacker who has their hands around your throat, which means finding the spot on their hands that's most likely to get them to loosen their grip, and then you kick them in the privates for good measure.
To add another layer of difficulty, we have to stand with our eyes closed, anticipating an attack from our partner but not knowing exactly when -- and we're expected to respond efficiently and with force. But the hardest part turns out to have nothing to do with choking but sheer stamina: The class finishes with punishing sets of push-ups, boxing punches and kicks.
A few days later, I catch up with my choking partner, Robert Miller-Ortega, 36, a Richardson video-game designer, Army vet and longtime martial-arts practitioner, who has been doing krav maga for a couple of years. So what's the appeal?
"I used to think I was pretty fit. I've been going since I was 18, running, the Army, and all that sort of stuff," he says. "But it wasn't until you have to apply this stuff that it's, 'Whoa, dude,' and you are a disillusioned paper tiger."
He also sees it mirroring modern reality. "We're addressing real world situations and simulations, which is why we do the chokes, why we do the guns, the knives, the bats and the ground-fighting," he says.
(For the record, no, they're not using real weapons).
Despite krav maga's macho reputation, the class is a good mixture of men and women and Bolowskie says you don't have to be a wanna-be Navy SEAL to benefit. "The idea is that you can start in any physical condition and build up to wherever you want to be with the caveat that you have to pace yourself," he says. "Predators are looking for the weakest link in the food chain ... This really is designed for all abilities and you just have to modify things to accommodate those people."
Krav Maga DFW, 4043 Trinity Mills Road, Suites 118/119, Dallas, and 718 N. Buckner Blvd., Suite 128, Dallas. 972-838-0948 or 469-667-3076; kravmagadfw.com
Cost: A free introductory trial class for adults is offered at both locations. See website for details. Registration required. Regular training sessions run between $89 and $139 a month.
Kettlebell: For whom the bell tolls
Of course, you could just clobber the bad guys with another Eastern European invention: the kettlebell. Often described as a cannonball with a handle, these iron weights -- developed by the Russians in the 1700s and available in a range of sizes -- offer more flexibility than barbells and dumbbells.
Earlier this year, Men's Health called kettlebell classes "the trendiest thing in weightlifting since protein shakes." Shelley Williams of Hurst is counting on that because she recently opened Get Kettlebell Fitt gym. "[Kettlebells] offer strength and cardio building in all the same workout in half the amount of time [of a regular workout] but with the same result," she says.
Accordingly, her workouts are just a half-hour, as opposed to the usual hour workouts. "It's a fun, upbeat and fast workout," Williams says.
My half-hour session consisted of a warm-up and then three exercises -- dead lift, row, and swing -- repeated three times. On paper, it doesn't sound too challenging, but the reality of maintaining proper form and the repetition proved exhausting.
"Because of the mindset of personal trainers, they think you need to use all this equipment for results. But you can use your body weight to get amazing results," says Williams, a personal trainer who had been offering instruction in kettlebell at gyms until striking out on her own. "You just have to do it the proper way. With a kettlebell, you can just buy one and do all the same workouts without all that equipment."
Get Kettlebell Fitt, 522 W. Harwood Road (inside My Salsa dance studio), Hurst. 972-339-8123; getkettlebellfitt.com
Classes are 11 a.m. Monday, Wednesday and Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, and 5:45 p.m. Wednesday
Cost: $8 per class for introduction to kettlebells; $10-$12 per class for intermediate and extreme classes
Circuit: Psycho killer
This was the one I was dreading the most: Psycho Gym.
Just the name of this Deep Ellum space (there's also one in Farmers Branch) is enough to conjure up visions of the arena scenes from the TV series Spartacus, complete with baying, bloodthirsty crowds, brawny guys sporting whips and tridents, and lots of people not coming out alive. Their website has video of people pulling a car with ropes for heaven's sake.
Fortunately, my Psycho session wasn't quite that unhinged -- no automobiles needed to be moved -- but it was no Saturday-morning picnic, either. This circuit-training session consisted of 15 exercises -- including dead lifts with kettlebells, rows with kettlebells, a push-up/pull-up combo, a yoga-style plank pose on a medicine ball and something called a bear crawl where you walk on all-fours frontward and backward -- with as many reps as possible within 30 seconds. That's repeated three times with minimal rest between the three sets.
It's all part of the Psycho psychology, though co-founder Travis Williams says the video on the website showing extreme workouts with tractor tires and sledgehammers doesn't tell the whole story.
"When you shoot the video, you want to show the variety of what we can do. But when people come to us we tell them that everything is adjustable," he says. "You're not the only one out of shape and you're not on your own."
Psycho was launched in 2007 because Williams didn't like the mainstream approach of standard gyms. "I met a guy who was using kettlebells, started working with him and saw improvement," he says. "So, we wanted to offer some stuff you couldn't find at other locations: battling ropes, tires, and things like that."
Guess I'm going to have to work my way up to the car.
Psycho Gym, 2550 Elm St., Dallas. 214 536-4496; 4611 Langland Road, Suite 104, Farmers Branch. 214-536-4496; psychogymdallas.com
Classes run daily between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m. except Sunday at the Dallas location, 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. except Sunday in Farmers Branch. The Dallas gym has a 9 a.m. Saturday kettlebell workshop for first-time clients.
Cost: Sign up for a free trial class on the website. Month-to-month rate is $165-$185 per month.
As in everything else, trends in fitness come and go, and the current penchant for taking exercise to the max may wax and wane. The brighter the flame, perhaps the higher the burnout. No doubt, there will be injuries as some push themselves over the edge.
"There's a danger level with everything," says Psycho's Travis Williams. "If you have out-of-shape people who haven't done anything jumping into something too extreme for them, there's always going to be the threat of injury."
(It goes without saying that, before launching into any rigorous exercise program, you should check with your doctor first. Not everything is for everybody.)
Then there's the expense -- places like Crossfit214 and Psycho Gym, with their $150-plus monthly fees, aren't for the low of bank account. Another recession and, bam, it's back to doing jumping jacks at home.
But observers say what matters most is not necessarily going extreme but participating in some form of activity at whatever level at which you are comfortable and learning to perform the movements correctly.
"When people see all the possibilities that are out there, they get excited," says Campbell. "It's a challenge for trainers when people jump from program to program, doing something random.
"[But] five years from now, will we be doing the same workouts? Probably not," he continues. "I'm doing different workouts from what I did five years ago. But were those bad workouts I did five years ago? No."
For Crossfit fan David Bikowski, he has no plans to change. "I'm going to stick with it as long as I can physically do it," he says.
Trampoline enthusiast Kathy Smallwood sums it up this way: "It's the thing I look forward to every week."
As for me, I wouldn't mind trying them all again. But next time, I'm definitely bringing that cup.