MMA fitness challenges everyday people to get into fighting shape

— Julie Bruce was looking for something to punch up her workout when she stepped barefoot onto the mat at Life Time Fitness.

“I had been doing a lot of running and high-intensity spin classes and had hit a plateau,” said Bruce, 49, a financial consultant from Shakopee, Minn.

That’s when she discovered Life Time’s “Fight Shape” class, which put her body to the test as she learned to grapple, strike and execute takedowns. “I was thinking, ‘I really don’t want to hit anybody or anything,’” she said, “but I went to the class and I was like, ‘Oh, this isn’t so bad.’”

Bruce is learning mixed martial arts, the fast-growing combat sport popularized by the Ultimate Fighting Championship. In the UFC, two fighters square off inside a cage, attempting to harm each other with a mix of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, wrestling, boxing and other fighting styles. Victory is often decided by a brutal knockout or a suffocating chokehold.

But Bruce doesn’t want to fight. She just wants to get fit.

Unlike the hulking stars of the UFC, Bruce is among a growing number of MMA enthusiasts who come in all ages and physiques. Increasingly, the classes at local gyms are populated by women and even children.

“There’s still a stigma around the sport that there’s going to be blood everywhere, that it’s going to smell,” said Merrick Morland, MMA coordinator for Life Time Fitness. “The majority of people joining (the classes) have no intention of getting into a fight. They want to cut weight like a fighter.”

Fitness lovers have always looked to combat sports such as boxing and kickboxing for a fast-paced cardio workout. But as MMA’s fanbase grows, some boxing gyms are ceding time and space to the sport. These workouts are the latest example of the extreme fitness trend that has made Tabata, P90X and Insanity so popular.

“It’s huge right now,” said Dalton Outlaw, co-owner of Elements Boxing & Fitness in St. Paul, Minn., which recently expanded its offerings to include MMA training. So huge, in fact, that the UFC - the sport’s premier fighting league - has branded its own line of gyms specializing in MMA fitness. It has 96 locations nationwide and 85,000 members.

“They want to be able to train without getting a broken nose or getting hit in the eye,” said Adam Sedlack, the chain’s senior VP.

In a typical class, beginners learn the basic moves they might see in a professional bout on TV. Students might learn how to escape a “rear naked choke” (a chokehold applied from behind by an opponent) or the proper way to deliver a leg-sweep takedown. They’ll also throw stiff jabs and kicks at pads and punching bags.

As with any extreme exercise, injuries can happen. At the beginner level, there’s the possibility of twisted knees, muscle sprains or bruises. In the advanced classes, which might include sparring, blows to the head could result in concussions.

Boxing and kickboxing training aren’t the only combat sports feeling competition from MMA. When it comes to kids’ classes, move over karate and taekwondo.

May See Xiong of Burnsville, Minn., said her son Lucas, 10, used to take taekwondo lessons but switched to MMA and hasn’t looked back. Her other son, Lex, 7, has joined him in classes at two local gyms. Xiong and her husband enjoy watching UFC fights at home on TV.

The action piqued the interest of her boys: “My son said, ‘Well, I want to learn how to do that, too,’” she said.