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Kick and punch your way to a better body

So you didn't grow up idolizing Bruce Lee or spending your afternoons watching Kung Fu Theater on television. When you hear the name "George Foreman," you think of grills, not left hooks. You have no desire to kick anyone's butt -- well, not usually, anyway.

No matter. If you're seeking better health, more confidence, and a stronger body, a kickboxing or martial arts-inspired workout might be just the thing to get you into fighting trim.

"People see results" from these workouts, says Whitney Chapman, group exercise manager at Reebok Sports Club/NY in New York. "They have stronger legs, stronger arms, more definition, and (participating in the classes) promotes a sense of inner strength and balance."

Kicking and sparring took to the mainstream several years ago when the fitness industry caught on to the cardiovascular and toning benefits of fighting-based workouts. Thanks in part to the popular Tae Bo videos by Billy Blanks (one of the first to capitalize on the aerobics-martial arts trend), gyms nationwide began adding these types of classes to their schedules.

Cardio kickboxing classes and creative variations like Powerstrike, Fitness and Defense, and Tai Box (to name just a few), blend boxing with aerobics, teaching punching and kicking combinations for a high-powered workout that builds strength and confidence.

Most of the choreographed combinations of jabs, kicks, and blocks are done to an imagined enemy, with participants swinging and kicking into the air. But in some classes, you actually kick or punch into heavy boxing bags or a partner's padded hands.

Benefits Beyond the Physical

According to a study by the American Council on Exercise (ACE), cardio-kickboxing participants can expect to burn about 350-450 calories per hour and to maintain a heart rate at 75% to 85% of maximum -- well within the recommended range for aerobic exercise.

But that's not all. These workouts also improve strength, flexibility, and reflexes, says Addy Hernandez, martial arts expert and co-owner of KI (Karate Innovation) Fighting Concepts, a gym in Lake Chelan, Wash.

The multiple-joint movements of these workouts -- often done standing on one leg -- build functional fitness because they require coordination and balance, says exercise physiologist and personal trainer Fabio Comana.

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Ensure you're exercising hard enough to get a good workout, but not strain your heart.

While you are exercising, you should count between...

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