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BODY WATCH : Kick off the Flab : The Martial Arts Might Let You Get the Drop on an Attacker--and Drop a Few Pounds Too.

August 09, 1994|CHRIS RUBIN

What sort of fitness program helps you fight off both flab and bad guys?

Martial arts.

Dozens of academies across Southern California teach self-defense techniques from all over the globe, from boxing and karate to more exotic forms, such as Israeli Krav Maga, Brazilian capoeira and French savate.

Mainstream gyms such as the Sports Connection and even the sweaty old YMCA offer classes for men and women of all ages.

"We get a good turnout for our boxing, kick-boxing and Kung fu classes," says Tamara Provance of the Hollywood-Wilshire Y. "People really like it."

Martial arts--some of them thousands of years old--are also leaping in popularity in Bruce Lee and "Karate Kid" movies and on television, from ESPN to pay-per-view Ultimate Fighting Championship programs on cable.

Studying any of the martial arts can build self-confidence and give you the skills to defend yourself. And doctors, chiropractors and mental health professionals say there may be other benefits as well.

If you're burned out on--or bored by--pumping weights and climbing fake stairs, the defense disciplines combine a body-toning workout with mental focus and personal safety. The basic moves of kicking and punching work the whole body, and classes should begin and end with stretching warm-ups.

Lt. Joe Lombardi of the Beverly Hills Police Department holds a black belt in the Korean art of tae kwon do and has studied a couple of other martial arts. He is "wholeheartedly in agreement" that martial arts can provide a tremendous workout, and that the skills can and should be used for self-defense under certain conditions.

"If someone is holding a gun to your head, give up your car or money," he says. "But if you're attacked, you can fight back and have a chance."

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Capoeira is a graceful hybrid of combat and dance created a couple of centuries ago by Africans in Brazil. It's probably the most acrobatic and visual of the martial arts--with plenty of flips, cartwheels and handstands. Mestre (master) Amen Santo runs a capoeira academy at the Brasil Cultural Center in Santa Monica.

To prepare for the twists, kicks and cartwheels, the capoeiristas move two by two across the floor in dance-like steps. As Santo sings and bangs out rhythms with congas, tambourine and berimbau, two people enter the circle, join hands, and then cartwheel into action with a series of sweeping kicks, feints, lunges and more.

Personal trainer, massage therapist and acupuncture student Rod Ussing has studied capoeira for more than 18 months. He appreciates the Brazilian style as much for its art as for its almost complete physical workout.

"You get a complete workout with a variety of movements, and work more muscle groups than in the martial arts that just use kicking and punching," Ussing says.

Also, capoeira doesn't have much contact, so it's less shocking to the joints. And its graceful moves promote the flow of axe (energy) through the body.

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So that one may walk in peace. That's how grand master Imi Lichtenfeld sums up the purpose of studying Krav Maga (contact combat), a form he created for Israeli troops nearly half a century ago.

A star athlete and coach in his native Czechoslovakia, Lichtenfeld studied the instinctive reactions to various forms of attack and then designed defenses around them.

Students work out in sweats rather than the ghi of most Asian martial arts, although the kicks, punches, elbows and knees of Krav Maga frequently resemble those forms. Most of the time, students pair up and take turns attacking and defending, using heavy pads to absorb the punishing blows.

According to U.S. chief instructor Darren Levine, who has been teaching for more than 10 years, Krav Maga requires less training than other self-defense techniques because "you go with what is already in you--instinct."

Levine and his wife, Marni, the highest-ranking female instructor in the country, teach at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. DEA and FBI agents and the Beverly Hills Police Department SWAT Team have taken classes.

Krav Maga is one technique that's strictly about what works on the street--it is not a sport.

"If you want to kick someone in the head, knock him to the ground first and then kick him in the head," says Levine, scoffing at the effort wasted on flashy moves in some other disciplines.

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Another once-obscure form finding popularity is savate, kick-boxing with a French accent, which dates to the 17th Century.

Ed Monaghan, who teaches savate at Boulevard Health Club in Los Angeles, says it combines some of the best kicks and punches from other martial arts.

In Monaghan's classes, students strike the classic boxing pose, with gloved hands raised. Punches are pretty much out of boxing, too, but kicks to the knees, thighs and lower body pack most of the punch.

Monaghan is working at Boulevard with Tony Cortes, who trained Linda Hamilton for "Terminator 2" and continues to train her several times a week.

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