Kick Me

Martial arts made easy.

Not long ago, out of curiosity, I picked up some exercise videos by Billy Blanks, the king of Tae-Bo. What a flop. The sets were cheesy, the music was awful 1980s synth-pop, and despite their martial-arts pretensions, the routines felt more like aerobics in disguise than like kung fu. But after flailing away in my living room for a few nights, my interest was piqued, and I decided to find out more about the real thing. Which martial art teaches good self-defense tactics? Which one would give me a good aerobic workout? How daunting would it be to jump into a class as a complete beginner? And would I get pummeled by the other students?

To find out, I tried a handful of karate, tae kwon do, aikido, jujitsu, and kung fu classes in the Seattle area. I scored each one in several areas: how intimidating the class would be to a novice; how much the exercises worked my muscles; how much of an I got; whether it would develop coordination and balance; how much physical contact with other people was involved; and, of course, its value in self-defense. All ratings are on a scale of one to five, with five being the hardest, most intimidating, or most valuable.

To experts, this will look like a hopelessly biased and superficial inquiry. It is. But to beginners, it is one step toward figuring out which martial art might be right for you. Do you want a chance to kick the stuffing out of someone? Take tae kwon do. Do you want to improve your sense of balance? Take karate. Do you want to know what to do if someone tries to choke you? Take jujitsu. Just remember that if you’re jumped by a mugger, the only thing Tae-Bo will be good for is making your attacker collapse into uncontrollable fits of laughter.

Kung Fu

Reputation: 1960s martial arts movies; Bruce Lee.

Intimidation Factor: 4

In the all-levels group I observed at Seven Star Women’s Kung Fu, there were a dozen or so women dressed completely in black. (Most classes I took were co-ed.) The school wouldn’t let me take the class–I could only watch–but that was better than Temple Kung Fu, which made me sit for an interview before they’d even reveal any information on their classes. There seemed to be an active screening process to keep out those with only a casual interest.

Strength Workout: 3

After meditating for a few minutes, students launched into traditional strengthening exercises (push-ups and sit-ups) and then broke into pairs, with one person kicking pads held by the other. It looked to be decent strength training. Their arms got a good workout from the push-ups and punching; abs, from the sit-ups; and the lower body, from the kicking. It was not extreme, and nobody seemed exhausted.

Aerobic Workout: 2

After the strength work and partner work, the class broke into a few groups (according to skill level) and repeated choreographed routines called “kata,” which involve a series of punches, kicks, and blocks with an imaginary foe. The class had broken into a light sweat, but was not gasping for air.

Coordination and Balance:4

The rounded slinky movements of the dancelike kata looked specifically designed to develop grace, coordination, and balance.

Degree of Contact: 1

Almost none. No direct body-to-body contact, but plenty of punching and kicking with pads.

Self-Defense Value: 2

The moves were neat to look at, but they did not seem practical. And without sparring practice, it would be difficult to apply the drills in real life.

Overall: Kicking, punching, and an aura of mystery.

Tae Kwon Do

Reputation: World’s most popular martial art, new Olympic sport; lots of kicking; the martial art of the 1990s.

Intimidation Factor: 1

I was instantly welcomed into the beginners class at Lee’s Martial Arts. People called each other by their first name; there was laughing, joking, and none of the aloofness or self-importance of the kung fu class.

Strength Workout: 3

This rating is a little misleading. The lower-body strength workout was fantastic–my legs and hips were sore for days–but there was almost no strength training for the upper body. We used our arms only for balance and blocking kicks.

Aerobic Workout: 5

We began with everyone standing in lines and kicking into the air. Then we did a long series of running drills up and down the mats. Then there was more kicking: Turning kicks, straight kicks, low kicks, kicks with punching bags, kicks with partners … the list goes on. It was an excellent workout.

Coordination and Balance: 4

Learning how to make contact with the pad (and not, say, the face of the person holding it) was important. Balance was crucial in the sparring.

Degree of Contact: 4

At the end of class came a session of sparring (which I, alas, was not allowed to participate in). The students strapped on protective chest pads and helmets and began kicking the stuffing out of each other.

Self-Defense Value: 4

Tae kwon do emphasizes sparring and gets students accustomed to dealing with an assault.

Overall: More a sport than an art; will make short work of flabby legs.


Reputation: Ralph Macchio in TheKarate Kid; the martial art of the 1980s.

Intimidation Factor: 1

When I watched a class at the Feminist Karate Union, I asked some of the students how their class was different from the Seven Star Women’s Kung Fu class, which is held in the same building. One woman immediately said, “Oh, kung fu? That’s what the mean people downstairs do.” This class was approachable and open. And karate’s so familiar that you feel like you already know how to do it.

Strength Workout: 2

We started with sit-ups and push-ups, which were the most demanding parts of the class. The kicking and punching made for decent exercise, but I wasn’t aching the next day.

Aerobic Workout: 3

The drills (lots of punches, blocking, and kicking) provided some aerobic workout, but were not particularly intense.

Coordination and Balance: 4

Keeping yourself centered while kicking and punching develops your balance.

Degree of Contact: 2

There was some contact in the paired kicking drills with a partner and pads, but most of the physical contact came during the sparring. Yet this was nothing like the tae kwon do sparring: They weren’t clocking each other, just repeating the motions of punching and blocking over and over again.

Self-Defense Value: 2

This was entirely focused on form; no full-force contact between students.

Overall: Kicks and punches galore, with a dash of moral and spiritual teaching about self-discipline and obedience.


Reputation: A greasy-haired Steven Seagal incapacitating the enemy in Under Siege.

Intimidation Factor: 1

Despite its reputation, aikido is decidedly nonaggressive–it’s about deflecting punches and immobilizing your attacker–and there was a mellow, pleasantly upbeat atmosphere to the class.

Strength Workout: 3

No sit-ups or push-ups, but pulling and yanking on other people looked like it would build muscle, and the rolls worked on your abs.

Aerobic Workout: 2

There was little aerobic work, save for the rolling on the mats (which may explain Seagal’s ever-increasing flabbiness).

Coordination and Balance: 5

The goal is to destabilize and control the other guy, so maintaining your balance–and learning to topple your opponent–is crucial.

Degree of Contact: 4

To complete the partner exercises, you had to grab your partner, spin him this way and that, and generally come in very close contact.

Self-Defense Value: 5

Learning how to neutralize a threat was the main goal of the class.

Overall: You don’t get to land any punches and it’s noncompetitive, but you’ll learn how to knock people over.

Tai Chi

Reputation: What those slow-moving people in the park are doing; martial arts for seniors.

Intimidation Factor: 1

I found its New Age connections slightly off-putting, but it looks so easy to do that it wasn’t daunting.

Strength Workout: 2

While my heart didn’t get pumping, the slow, controlled movements did give my arms, legs, back, and stomach a good resistance workout. You may just be working against gravity, but holding your arms up in the air for several minutes will give you a new appreciation for those slow-moving people in the park.

Aerobic Workout: 0

Tai chi involves moving your body slowly in circular patterns, shifting weight from foot to foot, and lifting your arms in rounded gestures, all at a pace slower than you ever thought possible. The motions had names like “parting the wild horse’s mane” and “repulsing the monkey.” I did not break a sweat, but I was bored to tears.

Coordination and Balance: 4

Balance and control of your body position are the heart of this art.

Degree of Contact: 0

Self-Defense Value: 0

I learned how to repulse a monkey, not a person.

Overall: A yawner, slightly embarrassing to perform, but I’m sure if done correctly it brings high-quality inner peace.

Brazilian Jujitsu

Reputation: For hurting people.

Intimidation Factor: 5

Although the listing in the phone book advertised the “Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Academy,” the sign on the door said “Northwest Fight Club.” Inside the club, huge holes had been punched in the walls–some back-size, some fist-size. Huge letters painted on the wall said “TRAIN & FIGHT HARD.” The instructor, a handsome young Brazilian man, had a long scar curling out from the left side of his mouth and a fresh-looking purple one by his left eye. When I asked to try the class, he shrugged and lent me a gi (the white outfit most martial artists wear), on the back of which was a drawing of massive snarling pit bull and the slogan “PIT PULLING PURE POWER.” I wondered if I was going to need an ambulance to take me home.

Strength Workout: 5

The next day every inch of my body was sore–my stomach, arms, legs, feet, and neck. For Olympians only.

Aerobic Workout: 5

This ranks as one of the hardest and most complete workouts I’ve ever had. After some stretching, we launched directly into hundreds of lightning-fast sit-ups, crunches, push-ups, leg lifts, and scissor kicks. I was quickly panting and my face turned a deep fuchsia. We did forward and backward rolls, learned to escape from various holds, and executed the sort of belly-crawl that marines always seem to be doing in movies about basic training. After an hour and a half I felt close to death, but there was still another hour to go.

Coordination and Balance: 2

Coordination is important, but since you’re tussling on a mat most of the time, balance isn’t.

Degree of Contact: 5

After drills, the instructor paired me with Isabella for partner work. He demonstrated how to get Isabella into choke-holds and leg-locks, as well as how to escape from them. We practiced on each other. It was a little unnerving to be choking Isabella so soon after meeting her, but she didn’t seem to mind. I learned how to go from sitting on top of her with a knee in her stomach to a position where her arm was between my legs and I could break it over my stomach. The end of the class was spent with full-on grappling. Getting your face mashed into someone’s armpit was de rigueur.

Self-Defense Value: 5

Jujitsu’s few-holds-barred grappling is far more effective when push comes to shove (and worse) than standing arts such as karate.

Overall: Lots of grappling, throwing, and choking. Pragmatic, not pretty. High badass quotient.