Muay Thai. Krav Maga. Jujitsu.
Martial arts enthusiasts, fans of ultimate fighting and even those obsessed with the Jason Bourne movie trilogy understand these terms. But to most of us, these exotic - and yes, violent - martial arts are uncharted territory.
That unfamiliarity may not last much longer. Mainstream martial arts clubs and fitness studios are building on the popularity of these sports and incorporating parts into mainstream fitness. Extreme martial arts offer a full-body, cardio and endurance workout, with a dose of self-defense.
"The soccer mom wants to get in shape anyway," says Steve Del Castillo, the owner of Premier Martial Arts and Tampa Krav Maga in Lutz. "The difference is that they're getting a great workout and a person can truly defend themselves in a life and death situation."
The last six years, Del Castillo's taught Krav Maga, a hand-combat fighting system of the Israeli Defense Forces. It's designed to empower users to respond quickly to an attack. Thirty percent to 40 percent of his students are women.
Both Del Castillo and Brian Cleary, owner of Tampa's Freestyle Muay Thai, have noticed a recent increase in interest in these combat sports, most often tied to the world of competitive mixed martial arts popular online and on pay-per-view television. While most of their students remain young adult men, women looking for a different kind of workout are showing up at studios, prepared to hit and kick.
"It's not enough for me to be in shape. I like to have a reason for my workout," says Rebecca Laborde, 28. The Tampa resident started studying Muay Thai, or Thai boxing, at the suggestion of a traditional boxing coach who thought the rapid-fire rounds and swift kicks and punches would appeal to her.
As a competitive sport, this national sport of Thailand features several two-to-three minute rounds in a boxing ring. Fighters are expected to relentlessly kick and punch using the "eight weapons," their arms, legs, knees and feet. There's a scoring system.
Krav Maga, by comparison, has no specific set of rules, Del Castillo says. It's refined street fighting, with punches, kicks, chokes, bear hugs, headlocks and grabs. It incorporates parts of Muay Thai, as well as wrestling sports such as jujitsu.
He suggests that anyone interested in studying a martial art first visit a class. There are so many different styles, from meditation-based workouts to the other extreme.
"Krav Maga is something you either love or hate," he says. "Krav Maga is a type-A personality energy system."
Developing agility, power and endurance is at the heart of every Muay Thai or Krav Maga workout. Imagine two hours of solid exercise, skipping and kicking a boxing bag 50 to 100 times in a row, or getting your arms strong enough to issue a series of rapid punches to a face.
Cleary encourages his Muay Thai students to go at their own pace. The Tampa firefighter and competitive fighter knows people starting Muay Thai won't have the strength or endurance to compete. Instead, he introduces the sport's variety of crisp, swift moves gradually.
"As women, we don't learn how to throw a punch. Now I know I have strength. I can punch somebody," says Deborah Reed, who got Muay Thai classes as a Christmas present from her boyfriend. This about-to-turn-40 "soccer mom" type was intimidated initially by the idea of the class, but got hooked after the first session.
Unlike Laborde, Reed doesn't plan to compete in any of the local amateur Muay Thai tournaments. She's more interested in getting in shape. She said in four months, she's lost 13 pounds, dropped two clothes sizes and built muscle.
"Everything has moved around," she laughs.
Serious fighters like Duane Spires know how fierce true Muay Thai can be. He's sparred with Cleary, whose leg kicks are compared to swings of a baseball bat. Spires, 26, owner of Extreme Youth Sports in Tampa, got interested in the sport after growing up studying martial arts more popular in mainstream America.
"This sport focuses more on cardio and endurance. Karate and tae kwon do tend to be stop and go," he says. "Here, with the two- to three-minute rounds, you have to prepare."
Spires says despite the violent aspect of the sport, there is an art to Muay Thai.
"It's not just about ripping their head off," he says.
Reed agrees. She's gained confidence, as she's toned her muscles and increased her endurance. Traditional exercise doesn't work for her. A home gym sits unused, she says, because it's boring.
"There, I would be watching the clock."
PICK YOUR KICK
There's a myriad of choices for people interested in pursuing a martial art. Here are some basic definitions and differences within the diverse sport.
Martial arts: Any of several arts of combat and self-defense that are widely practiced as sport.
Mixed martial arts: Unarmed combat using different martial arts disciplines; includes grappling, kicking, jujitsu and striking.
Muay Thai: Also known as Thai boxing, it focuses on using the limbs as eight weapons: two fists, two elbows, two knees and two feet.
Krav Maga: "Contact Combat" in Hebrew is the official self-defense and fighting system of the Israeli Defense Forces. Designed for real-life situations, it is considered to be a modern, highly refined, street-fighting system, to be used against armed and unarmed attackers.
Karate: Japanese self-defense in which sharp blows and kicks are administered to pressure-sensitive points on an opponent's body.
Tae kwon do: Traditional Korean art of kicking and striking. Hands and feet are used to overcome an opponent, but the trademark of the sport is its combination of kick movements. It was named an Olympic medal sport in 2000.
Jujitsu: Japanese system of wrestling in which knowledge of anatomy and the principle of leverage are applied so the strength and weight of an opponent are used against him or her.
Judo: Derived in part from jujitsu, the Japanese hand-to-hand combat technique of ancient samurai warriors, it allows throwing opponents to the floor for wins and is the only Olympic sport in which submission holds allow choking an opponent or breaking an arm.
Tai chi: A Chinese system of physical exercises designed especially for self-defense and meditation.