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How Much of a Van Damme Will My Gym’s Kickboxing Class Make Me?

Besides a good round of cardio, does all that punching and kicking of air prepare me for any kind of actual fight?

Attending college in the late 1990s and early 2000s meant that I was exposed to the full fury of Tae Bo ads every time I turned on my TV. I experienced plenty of Tae Bo IRL, too. Case in point: During my senior year, I lived in a condo just off campus with two women who would occasionally pop a Billy Blanks disc into the living room DVD player and work out while remarking about how they were “kicking some ass.”

Speaking of both ass kicking and Blanks, the innovator behind Tae Bo was at the forefront of martial-arts inspired fitness routines for longer than most people realize. He began the development of his cardio program as far back as 1982, during a period when he was winning multiple world championships in competitive karate. Once Blanks moved from Massachusetts to Southern California, he brought his unique brand of aerobic martial arts with him, and eventually gave rise to fitness classes in L.A. with lines down the street. 

Blanks’ name lends substantial credence to the idea that if anything in a classic gym environment is going to transform you into a certified badass, a cardio kickboxing class inspired by a battle-tested legend like Blanks would probably be high on the list.

Billy Blanks in 1984

What is cardio kickboxing?

Cardio kickboxing is essentially a glorified aerobics class. Obviously, there are many other forms of class-based aerobic workouts — including step aerobics, aqua aerobics and more than a dozen forms of genre-specific dance aerobics — but most varieties require you to remain in a relatively fixed space while following an instructor’s commands and moving to the rhythm of music. 

Just as in other forms of aerobics, music is nearly always present in cardio kickboxing, but many of the movements that would otherwise have been firmly rooted in dance are instead derived from combat moves, beginning with footwork and dodges, and extending to various punches, kicks and blocks.

1996 ad for a Blanks-inspired “Kickboxercise class”

What are the benefits of cardio kickboxing?

For some, the idea of a traditional aerobics class is irredeemably lame — whether you’re talking about Jane Fonda-style aerobics from the 1980s or something more modern like Zumba. Not only does cardio kickboxing add some variety to the mix while offering an option that deviates from the classic dancing path, but it’s more likely to make you feel like you’re learning an applicable skill and/or starring in your own personal Fight Club.

As with any other aerobics class, cardio kickboxers are going to burn calories, and if the intensity is substantial enough, develop a solid level of conditioning. Serious flexibility gains can be expected as well.

Will my kickboxing cardio class turn me into a martial arts master?

Not in the slightest. 

Cardio kickboxing provides you with an opportunity to make believe you’re punching and kicking the face of your archnemesis, all within a sanitized environment, and all while you match your movement to the beats of your favorite songs. This can be a cathartic way to safely release aggression and simultaneously burn some calories.

But you certainly don’t want to pretend you’re Jean-Claude Van Damme and enroll yourself in the nearest Bloodsport-level underground fighting tournament, no matter how many years you’ve spent in cardio kickboxing classes. Unless you’ve trained to put real weight behind a technically correct punch and kick — not to mention trained against authentic opposition capable of striking back — you have virtually no chance of winning in a fight against someone with even a month’s worth of proper training in boxing, jiu jitsu or mat-based wrestling.

So knock yourself out with all the cardio kickboxing classes you want to take, just don’t convince yourself that they’re going to help you knock out much of anything else.