"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? This isn't quite what I had in mind when I set out to juice up my morning workout routine, which had grown as stale as a week-old, gluten-free bagel. 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.
I chose six places all over the Metroplex -- three in Tarrant County, two in Dallas -- specializing in different disciplines: CrossFit, trampolining, yoga, krav maga and kettlebells.
I also wanted an old-school workout -- something summoning the spirit of Rocky Balboa, Charles Atlas and the Greek god of sport, Hermes, himself. 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 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," 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."
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.
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.")
"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!)
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.
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.
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 Life Alert bracelets.
"What I really like about CrossFit is that everything is done with a group," says enthusiast David Bikowski, 34, who works for a Dallas ad agency. "You always have someone cheering you on, pushing you to do more."
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.
Yoga: stretching boundaries
After so much hopping and running, I just wanted to lie down. What better way to do that and still get a workout than with yoga, the anti-trampoline. 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. 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. 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 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. 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.
Krav maga: The choke's on me
If you're lying down during krav maga, chances are it is because you've been knocked out.
Krav maga (pronounced krahv ma-GAH) roughly translates from Hebrew as hand-to-hand combat and, unlike Asian martial arts, which 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, it was later adopted by the Israeli Defense Force.
"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 this year.
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.
But the hardest part has nothing to do with choking but with sheer stamina: The class ends with punishing sets of push-ups, boxing punches and kicks.
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 wannabe Navy SEAL to benefit.
Kettlebell: For whom the bell tolls
Often described as a cannonball with a handle, iron kettlebells -- developed by the Russians in the 1700s and available in a range of sizes -- offer more flexibility than barbells and dumbbells.
Men's Health recently called kettlebells "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. 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.