There Are More Fight-Inspired Workouts Than Ever, And Women Are Responsible
We talk to the owners and trainers behind some of the most popular workouts
I took my first boxing class at a fight gym. As someone who has always relied on barre and Pilates classes for workouts, to say that I felt out of my element, surrounded by punching men in a space that was smaller than some of the lobbies of the boutique workout studios I've frequented, is an understatement. As I checked in, I was thrown hand wraps, the ones that you need to know how to wrap around your hands—not the fingerless glove-wraps that have become so popular recently. "I don't know how to tie these," I said. "The instructor can show you," was the response. Except he didn't. Upon entering the space, he started the warm-up immediately, everyone ready to go with their wraps securely tied around their hands. As I looked around in panic, trying to catch the instructor's attention, one of the few women in the class stopped her jumping jacks. She pulled me to the corner and tied my wraps around my hands. "I will show you after class how to do it," she said to me. She did.
While I can blame that negative experience on the gym, or the instructor, truth is, until recently, boxing has been a male-dominated sport. It wasn't until several years ago that it became commonplace for women to participate leisurely in boxing for fitness, with popular fight-inspired studios like Rumble, Shadowbox, Overthrow sprouting in New York seemingly overnight. It has been in the last two years that more women have begun teaching in these spaces and even opening their own gyms to accommodate the increase in women interested in the workout. "As boxing was beginning to trend, we saw that it was always a male-dominated sport," says Valerie Ding of co-founding L.A.'s CruBox with her sister Bebe. "That became our fun challenge, to bring authentic boxing to group fitness, and making it accessible to women." Dana VanPamelen, who co-founded Hit House, a boutique Muay Thai fitness studio that opened this year in Manhattan, with her husband, Tyler Scott, agrees. "These past few years have marked the beginning of combat fitness classes being offered in a boutique setting and women are less intimidated to try out a typical 'man's sport'," she says.
After being introduced to Muay Thai while working as round card girl for Friday Night Fights, the petite-sized VanPamelen decided to try it for herself after seeing the "action and excitement in the ring." "My first few lessons and classes were at a traditional gym, surrounded by fighters in training camp. The workout is really intense and fun, but I found striking a traditional heavy bag very difficult—it hurts your knuckles, wrists, and shins," she says. "As a beginner, I was not skilled or quick enough for mitt or pad work with a partner. Plus, I couldn't show up to work with a black eye!" A self-proclaimed "boutique fitness enthusiast," she, along with Scott, had a lightbulb moment when she took him to SoulCycle in 2014. "It finally clicked for us: 'Hey, we can DO this. We can teach other fitness enthusiasts a skill and provide a challenging workout in a fun, welcoming atmosphere.'" Scott created the heavy bag they use in the class, Bishop, that allows participants to strike it without hurting themselves; the floors are padded, allowing for a shoeless workout. "In our studio, no one needs to hold pads for half of the class or get paired up against someone twice your size," she says.
Olivia Young founded Box + Flow, New York fitness studio offering boxing-yoga hybrid classes, after boxing for 11 years and practicing yoga for 16 and not finding a space where she could do both. "Boxing has always given me strength and confidence, while yoga forced me to slow down and feel," she says. "The combination of boxing and yoga gave me a balanced empowerment, a feeling I wanted to then share with the world, [that] idea of embracing both sides of ourselves, grit and softness, fire and water, fight and flow."
All three say that the majority of their customers are women. "Women want to feel strong and independent now even more so than before. As the world moves increasingly towards gender equality, women who have always been seen as solely domestic are now breaking out of that shell," Ding says. Not to mention how combat workouts allow women to learn defense skills, not an unimportant part of today's political climate that has left many women afraid. "Instructors focus on striking form for so many reasons; one of which is learning and understanding how and when the strikes should be used and being able to apply it to real-life situations—for example, what happens if someone's invading your space and you need to get away," VanPamelen says. "Knowing strikes that can be used as self-defense should make women—and men, and everyone—feel confident and strong."
Vulnerable, too. I've frequently found myself thinking at Hit House that, yes, the moves that I was just taught could come in handy should I find myself in a threatening situation, prompting an emotional response I didn't expect. This is not uncommon. In addition to being an amazing physical workout, boxing is a very mental sport—one where you're encouraged to channel emotions, like anger and frustrations, when hitting the bag. It also forces you to focus only on the task at hand.
"Boxing is one of the only workouts where you can learn a skill that challenges both your mind and body to push past your comfort zone and really to grow. You have to focus on the shots that are being called. It requires a lot of mental focus and attention. It also requires coordination of the hand, eye, and feet," Ding says, pointing out that it makes the brain take a break from thinking about things that may be on the mind. "You are not able to throw a punch or a shot called when you're not listening to what it is." VanPamelen says that 50 percent of Muay Thai is mental. "You are learning a new skill while remembering combinations," she says, noting that it's also a great stress-reliever. "Striking is such an awesome way to relieve stress, release aggression, and let go of all of those small day-to-day annoyances."
Young says that boxing also resets your mind, allowing mental blockage to flow so you can become strong from the inside out, as opposed to the other way round. "[Box + Flow] started with the intention of bringing mindfulness to the fight. The front door of the space says 'everything you need is inside' in hopes that we will stop fighting, resisting ourselves, so that things begin to flow in our lives," she says. "If we can rid ourselves of the mental mess we manipulate internally, we can lead more powerful lives." Not to mention, more powerful bodies.
Her way of thinking also explains why so many of the combat studios comprise a dark space with no mirrors: It allows your focus to remain on you, as opposed to competing with others. "It promotes strength physically, mentally, and spiritually in an environment with no mirrors, no judgment, and no comparison," Young says, "It is NOT about how you look, it's about how you feel. Women, and men, feel safe here, free to fight, flow, and feel."
Despite the fact that fighting is an historically male-dominated and violent sport, the studios I have frequented have all surprisingly felt like safe spaces. Before Scott adjusted my Muay Thai stance in my first class, he asked for consent before touching my shoulders. And, while at the time, to me personally, it seemed like an unnecessary precaution, I saw how menacing it could be to someone when, in a cardio class at a different studio, a male instructor came behind a female student and made her jump by adjusting her back without asking. (It should be noted that he felt terrible about it and apologized profusely to her after class for startling her.) And while there's a lot we can learn from combat sports, like consent and being able to let go of mental blockage, VanPamelen says that she's just happy that "more and more people are interested in and appreciative" of the practices. "It's a simple as, punching and kicking stuff is REALLY fun, and people are catching on to this!"
And while it is incredibly fun, there is also something powerful about walking out of class after putting all your strength and energy into just hitting something for an hour. And that's the point. "I hope women walk out of the space feeling empowered, inspired to take on life's challenges, and be strong after a tough workout that even a lot of men find challenging," Ding says. "I hope they feel inspired walking out of there knowing that anything is possible and inspired to lead the world and follow their creative dreams as females. Anything is possible."
The future (of boxing) is female.
Read on to hear what some of the other instructors behind fight-inspired workouts love about teaching and what they hope their female clients take away from their classes.
Raquel Harris, instructor at Hit House
I met a lot of women who believed that they were not strong or fierce enough to learn Muay Thai. Teaching gives me the opportunity to prove that they are. As a petite woman with a soft voice, I hope that I can be an inspiration and proof that you can be tiny but mighty.
Niki Farahani, boxing instructor at NEO U
I feel that the word “fight” is associated and used as a negative idea. However, as a woman, I have given the word a different connotation, one that makes me feel powerful and positive. Through boxing I have found the ability to fight for the strongest mental and physical version of myself, one that as a female makes me feel invincible.
I hope women who come to take STRIKE [the class she teaches] understand what a large impact utilizing their effort can do for them. That every time you attend a class, you can push a little harder. And you will ultimately increase the will to fight for yourself and your goals. You and your effort alone are victorious.
Mayra Carrasco, instructor at Box + Flow
[In boxing,] because you aren't seen as a woman or a man, you are just in charge. Gender dropped, social norms checked, you command the room stereotypes aside. Occasionally you see women who hold back. Who can't let go. Who won't lean in. Spend most of their time in a dark room, worrying about what others think. Me: In and out of class, I breath loud, bounce all around, say what's on my mind, and sweat gallons. If women can take one thing from my class it is the ability to be free, and how good it feels to feel so free.
Nikki Campbell, instructor at Work Train Fight
Boxing is naturally empowering and a huge rush. It teaches you to be strong, powerful, to make quick decisions and be confident in that decision making. Women naturally possess these attributes, and it feels amazing to teach and exemplify those traits. I get to show the people in my world that women have always been strong, gritty, and unafraid to stand in the ring and battle. That the grace, grit, and strong brilliance has always been inside of them and that they are more than capable of boxing. We can still be wrapped up in the generic ideal of femininity that we doubt how physically tough we can be. I love when a new client or member looks at me and says, "Oh I can do this!" Every woman was born a fighter—it is my great privilege to give them the tools and technique to make them a boxer.
Jennifer Chieng, instructor at Hit House
I believe that growth happens when we challenge ourselves. I want to help empower the women I teach as they undertake and develop in a challenging skill set, boxing and Muay Thai, to show them what they are already capable of doing. To witness their curiosity and interest in their own potential is the best reward.
Alicia Napoleon, head trainer and partner at Overthrow
I am a fighter, an activist, and a female. Every day I am fighting for women to have an equal platform in my sport, boxing, and just daily life in general. As a female Professional World Champion Boxer, I love bringing my passion, craft, experience, and fight to other individuals to motive and inspire.
I hope women leave my class feeling like anything is possible. If you want to be a world champion or leader of the free world, you just have to believe and do the work. Also, a little fun and teamwork go a long way. We are a lot stronger together then as individuals, but I really believe anything is possible if we set our sites on the goal and do the work to get there.
Danielle Burrell, founding trainer of Rumble Boxing
As a woman, teaching boxing—especially to other women—makes me feel very honored and humbled. I am constantly inspired by women, it fuels me to want to give that same inspiration back to the women that I train. The sport of boxing is making waves with some amazing, talented women representing. I’m so happy I get to be a part of that culture in some capacity.
Boxing is challenging but ultimately very rewarding. That release on the bag is indescribable and has really helped me get through some of life’s toughest moments. It’s also fueled my happiest moments. I absolutely love that I can help women feel free on that bag and create an outlet for them as well. When women leave my class, I want them to feel empowered, confident, and like the fighters that they already are.
Denali Pontvianne, trainer at Shadowbox
I love teaching boxing because it is such an empowering sport. I am grateful to be a woman in a leadership role in boxing because it gives me an opportunity to be a representation and inspiration for other women, especially in a sport that’s driven predominantly by men. It is important for women to see that there is a spot for them and their goals are attainable. Strength is universal, and boxing is for everyone.
[I want women to leave my class feeling their] inner strength. The kind of strength that is not seen, but felt. The kind that has you walking a little differently and gives a feeling that you can take over the world.
Bebe Ding (on the right), co-founder and head of training at CruBox
Boxing may appear to be a violent, male-dominated sport, but there is a certain grace about it, and that's what I love about teaching it the way we do at CruBox! Pairing it with music in a dark room enables one to let go of their insecurities and have fun while doing the body good. I love encouraging others, especially women, to find their self-confidence and inner badass. Plus, boxing increases response time and focus. I feel sharper, thus more capable than ever, which to me is super-empowering.
Although social media definitely has its pros, it, unfortunately, can provide a distorted reality when it comes to body image which is something that a lot of women struggle with. I hope women can come to CruBox knowing that it is a safe space for them, a no-judgment zone that was created for all types of women. And I hope that they leave feeling motivated and inspired to encourage others to find their self-confidence too!
Gina DiNapoli, instructor at Equinox and PROJECT by Equinox
I discovered The Cut at Equinox [class DiNapoli now teaches], as a student of it, at a really tough time in my life. I was working at a job I hated. I found myself going through the motions of my day-to-day life and felt like I couldn’t escape it. When I found this class as a member, it was the only time of my day that I felt like I was progressing and performing really well. It led me to gain the strength to leave my job and start a new chapter in my career. In the past, boxing has been much more male-dominant. Today, boxing is less about fighting and more about being a badass. Women are able to become so empowered by boxing. I tell women in my class to stare themselves down in the mirror and really connect with the strength they have inside themselves. I also incorporate audible breathing and encourage my clients to release their pent-up emotion in my group classes with every jab or punch. This not only gives a much-needed release but also creates a powerful energy for the entire room. It’s palpable. One of the most amazing things about my classes is that the connection to the method and each other is so strong, many of my clients form friendships outside the gym. That connection starts here. It isn’t uncommon in class to hear women calling each other’s names across the room and cheering one another on. A quick “Maria, you can do this!” goes a long way, especially when it’s not coming from the trainer but another woman in the class who wants to lift you up.
With this class, the mental benefit is the first priority, and the physical is the bonus. Physically, people have let me know Jabs [her class at PROJECT] is their hardest workout of the week, which ties back into their mental state because they come mentally prepared to challenge themselves and push past their limits. Women come to me and let me know how they’re here after a bad day at work, or that they’re readying themselves for a big job interview; the sense of accomplishment they get from their 45 minutes reminds them of how much of a boss they are. I want women to leave with the notion that they’ve surprised themselves. More often than not, you walk into a fitness class and know exactly what you’ll get. With my class, I love that my clients up their own game with every session, truly pushing harder and breaking down their own barriers.