On a typical Tuesday night, when most of my friends are headed to Spin or yoga class, I put on a groin guard and grappling gloves to get punched, kicked, and choked — voluntarily. This might sound like some kind of underground club for masochists, but it's actually one of the best workout classes in existence, and it can save your life. I'm talking about Krav Maga, the self-defense system widely used by the military, law enforcement, and, weirdly enough, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie (it's not every day you get to lump all those groups together). I've been completely hooked on Krav Maga ever since the first attack I thwarted in class nearly five years ago, and I think more people should share my (very healthy) obsession.
My first foray into Krav Maga was in 2010, when I was avidly obsessed with action movies, especially ones involving seemingly invincible spies (the Bourne trilogy is my all-time favorite). Believe it or not, I actually applied to the CIA, the FBI, and the NSA that Summer. (Still haven't heard back yet, guys. Did my applications get lost?) With my pipe dreams brutally dashed, I decided to settle for the next-best thing: turning my life into an action movie, starring myself.
The first Krav Maga school I tried out laid a great foundation for my Krav Maga training, but I found it to be too fitness-based and not focused enough on the actual techniques. The next school I tried, the Krav Maga Institute NYC (KMI), has essentially become like a second home to me. I am indebted to KMI and its team of knowledgeable, skilled, and hilarious instructors for helping to shape me into the woman I am today. (Plus, there's not another bunch of people in the world I'd rather do pickle backs with.)
While having such top-notch teachers is crucial to your experience, it's ultimately the system itself that will transform you — physically, mentally, and even spiritually. Here are all the reasons I'm obsessed with Krav Maga and why you should be too.
Given that the system was originally developed for the Israeli armed forces, you know it has to be pretty effective. Krav Maga means "contact combat" in Hebrew, and that's exactly what it is. Developed by Imi Lichtenfeld in the 1940s, when the Israeli Defense Forces were concurrently forming, Krav Maga was designed to be yet another weapon in a soldier's arsenal. In other words, your body is a weapon, and it can defend against anything, including guns and knives.
Since then, the system has been adapted for law enforcement and civilian use, but the fundamental principles remain the same. Some of the most important principles for civilian practitioners include defend and counterattack simultaneously, be as aggressive as possible, and don't get hurt.
To put it even more simply: you're fighting for your life. Even though it's known as a self-defense system, Krav Maga practitioners must also learn fundamental fighting skills — how to properly punch, elbow, kick, etc. It's as much an offense system as it is a defense system.
However, what is perhaps paramount above all else, for KMI and any true Krav Maga school, is safety in training. Yes, students are encouraged to display explosive aggression and are being "attacked" constantly, but the system was also designed for its practitioners to train without getting hurt. And not getting hurt is Krav Maga's primary goal.
It's Reality Based
What distinguishes Krav Maga from other martial arts is how realistic and practical it is. The confrontations we deal with in class mirror the real world — muggings, sexual assault, bar fights, etc. — not controlled scenarios that involve another martial arts practitioner and a matted arena. That's also why Krav Maga is not a competitive martial art, like Muay Thai or jujitsu, because the techniques are designed to inflict maximum damage. However, that's also what makes it so effective.
To truly simulate real-life threats, we often practice stress drills in class, which can entail a circle of people pushing into you with punch pads and screaming in your ear or surprise attackers trying to stab you at unexpected times. Sometimes we simply spin around 10 times before performing a defense. These drills are designed to exhaust our bodies and disorient our senses, so that we can practice the techniques under stress. In real life, your attacker is not going to wait for you to get in position before launching an assault, so you better be prepared to fight back under unideal circumstances.
Anyone Can Learn It
The beauty of Krav Maga is that it's designed for anyone and everyone to learn. It doesn't matter if you're 6'5" and 300 pounds or 5' and 90 pounds. I had the privilege of chatting with Darren Levine, chief instructor of Krav Maga Worldwide and one of the highest-ranked instructors in the world, who told me, "One thing that instructors must always remember — Krav Maga is a system for everyone. And just because you have the physical ability to do something, it's not Krav Maga if only 10 percent of your students are also able do it. Krav Maga is for everybody."
In fact, one way to think of Krav Maga is that it's the great equalizer. The system's techniques allow the 90-pound girl to neutralize the 300-pound guy by focusing on the attacker's vulnerable points. And you don't need any prior martial arts experience to become proficient.
"The more simple the techniques, the more direct, the less fuss, the more effective," Levine explained. "That's how you measure the technique, not through your ego or how fancy you look doing them."
It's a Great Workout
If your body is a weapon, then you'll want to make that weapon as strong as possible. Think of Krav Maga as the metalsmith who not only forges the sword but also fortifies it to make it as lethal as possible. (You are the sword, in case that wasn't clear.) In every class, we have a warmup, power drills, and exercises that combine cardio and strength training at intense intervals. So not only are you learning the techniques that will help save your life, but you're also conditioning your body to carry out those techniques more effectively and last longer in a fight.
And for those who are more fitness-focused, KMI offers an Elite Military Fitness class, which is what I imagine Navy SEAL training to be like; Combat Cardio class; and a kettlebells class. Truly dedicated students who can fit all of these classes into their schedule will go from civilian to Jason Bourne in a matter of weeks.
It Will Help You in Other Areas of Life
It's only natural that once you've gained some physical confidence, that confidence will carry over into other areas of your life. Developing mental resolve in handling hypothetically threatening situations, strengthening your muscles with strikes and power drills, and gaining a better understanding of your body and its instincts are all working toward optimizing you as a whole, and you'll notice the benefits extending far beyond class.
I asked Patrick Lockton, director of KMI and the first instructor I met at the school, for his insight on this. Lockton said, "The interesting thing is that we did a survey on this about two years ago. We asked our students what they felt were the three main benefits of their training at KMI. We were expecting them all to say weight loss or being fitter, or 'the self-defense and fighting skills saved me and my friends' or something. They actually didn't focus on those aspects at all. By far the most common response to the question was boosting self-confidence."
How exactly does getting attacked over and over again boost one's self-confidence?
"The training changes people's psychological patterns and opinions of themselves, others, and life in general," Lockton said. "Strange things happen when you realize you are capable of a lot more than you thought."
Indeed, Krav Maga is like a doorway into a new part of yourself. Once that doorway's been cracked, the rest of you comes flooding through and suddenly you feel like you can accomplish anything.
"The KMI mind-set helps people start believing in themselves, and this can make a huge difference in someone's life," Lockton continued. "Students can easily translate their success in training to success in their lives."
You Will Make Life-Long Friends
Besides learning invaluable self-defense skills, you'll also be experiencing an unparalleled kind of camaraderie in class. Nothing brings people closer like going through physical and mental hell together for the sake of self-improvement. Everyone, even the ones who are normally curmudgeons in their normal lives, are supportive and positive in class. It's kind of hard to be a jerk when you're getting kicked in the groin. And if you can get past beating each other up (one of my friends in class kicked me in the ear once), you can probably get past anything.
Over the last two and a half years, I've made friends with people from all walks of life, of all ages and backgrounds — financial analysts, scientists, nurses, etc. These are people I normally wouldn't meet and get to know in my normal life, but after taking turns putting each other in headlocks and blood chokes, you kind of want to give them your firstborn.
And there's honestly no bonding experience like our Krav Maga tests, which determines if you're ready to go up a level in training (think of belt tests in karate). These are grueling four-hour-long tests that combine technique display, exercise drills, and hardcore conditioning — the easiest level ends with 50 burpees. "Intense" is an absurd understatement. But when you're drenched in sweat and on the verge of vomiting and you look around you at everyone else going through the same thing, and when your testing partner puts their hand on your shoulder and says, "You got this," you feel like you would do anything for these people.
My fellow classmates are more than just the people who train next to me at the gym after work; they're my family.
It Can Save Your Life
In case this hasn't been emphasized enough, Krav Maga can save your life. If you live in a densely populated city with a high crime rate, it might actually come in handy one day (but hopefully it won't). Even if you don't — even if you've never encountered physical danger in your entire life — you never know when a threat might present itself. And if you happened to have applied for an intelligence agency and they decide to finally call you back, well, Krav Maga will come in handy then too.