Women and boxing are two words rarely used in the same sentence – until now. Nicola Dall’Asen, a boxing convert, explains how it changed her body and her confidence and brings you three boxing workout classes to try in the Capital
One day when I was 15 years old, I was lazily flipping through TV channels on a summer afternoon when I stumbled upon a Mixed Martial Arts fight. I had recently quit volleyball after an eight year run and it had left me feeling lost and looking for something new in my life. Watching two guys in a cage hit and throw each other to the ground and making it look so natural had me convinced. I simply thought, ‘I have to do that.’
I wasted no time: that week I found a local kickboxing gym nearby, bought a year’s membership and just about every piece of gear I’d ever need. I was too excited to get in the ring that I don’t even remember feeling nervous in my first class. Turns out, hitting stuff comes very naturally to me. I came back the very next day, and the day after that, and the day after that. It was official: I had found a new love. I ended up training at that gym for three years until I had to move away for university, and there I became a much better version of myself. I gained confidence far beyond my years, fully realized that women shouldn’t be held back just because they’re women, and got stronger, more flexible, and really toned.
I gained confidence, learned that women shouldn’t be held back just because they’re women, and got stronger, more flexible, more balanced and really toned.
I’m not the only one reaping the benefits. Last week, a jury heard how sex attacker Mark Willis. 39, repeatedly punched and pushed a 25 year old woman over into a garden. But his victim had been kickboxing for two years and managed to throttle him with her legs until he passed out.
Indeed, women’s participation in boxing and other fight styles is rising dramatically. The 2012 Olympic Games were the first ever to include women’s boxing, and Nicola Adams’ gold medal win for Great Britain caused a huge surge in female participation. Before the games, 19,600 women were boxing once a week and after them in 2013, this soared to 35,100, according to Sport England.
Meanwhile in the U.S., MMA fighter Ronda Rousey is making headlines with every fight, and has become arguably the most talked-about fighter in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the largest fighting promotion company in the world (probably because she’s an undefeated champion and a majority of her fights have ended in less than a minute). An incredible feat, considering the UFC has only been hosting women’s fights since early 2013.
Even celebrities pick up the gloves from time to time. Angelina Jolie, Eva Mendes and Kourtney Kardashian have all been known to go to town on some focus mitts.
Growing up expected to play with dolls instead of wrestling in the yard can make women feel discouraged to participate in boxing all those years later.
Despite the hefty increase of female boxers in the media and in the professional realm, many are still hesitant to try. Women who are newcomers to boxing can be shy or fearful compared to men of the same experience level. Why? Claire-Marie Roberts, a Sport and Exercise Psychologist at the University of Worcester says this can stem from societal expectations subtly placed on women by things like advertising. ‘Men are expected to be aggressive and hostile and women are expected to be meek and be people that conform,’ Roberts said.
Thanks to the gender roles put in place, many women have much less experience in aggressive roles and situations, putting them far out of their comfort zones in a boxing gym, she explains.
‘Women in general suffer more from a lack of confidence in new situations. I think the anticipation in not knowing what to expect is often the inclination for that [shyness], they don’t really know how to behave in that situation, where men may have developed those sort of skills in play when they were younger,’ Roberts said.
It makes sense. Growing up expected to play with dolls instead of wrestle in the yard can make women feel discouraged to participate in boxing all those years later. But take it from a convert, while being in unfamiliar territory might be tough at first, the rewards of boxing make it more than worth your while.
Before I stared kickboxing I was self-consious about my own body, unsure about what I wanted from life, and constantly irrationally angry.
Before I started kickboxing, I was self-conscious about my body, unsure about what I wanted from life and constantly, irrationally angry. Without it, I might still be those things today, five years later.
Once I started training, I began to feel less and less concerned about the way my body looked because I was so proud of the power I discovered it was capable of. Looking at older pictures of myself, though, I realize I really did get in fantastic shape. I have always had really strong arms and legs, but they had never been defined and toned like they were after six months of kickboxing. I could run without losing my breath, I had killer balance (absolute bliss for a lifelong awkward tall girl), and I walked with my shoulders back, finally unashamed of my broad, 5’11” frame.
According to Roberts (who was a sports psychologist for Team GB during the 2012 games) the physical benefits of boxing and martial arts include improvements in cardio-vascular health, muscle tone, coordination, flexibility, posture, deep breathing, which all help with weight loss.
I played volleyball competitively for all those years, and even though I spent summers conditioning (lifting weights and running until I puked), I never felt as fit as I did after a few years of fighting.
At the gym, I was at most times the only girl (and the youngest person) in the room, and I was severely underestimated by newcomers who had never watched me train before. They would scoff at the idea of hitting or getting hit by someone so young and so… female. Even in easy drills, men who didn’t know me would always shy away from throwing so much as a light jab at me.
‘But you’re a girl… I can’t hit you.’ A phrase I heard more times than I can comprehend, always leaving me laughing angrily with my face hidden in my gloves. How was I supposed to get any better if everyone coming through the gym only went half speed with me?
I had to put my timidity aside and learn how to ask for what I want, with no hesitation and no apologies.
I had no choice but to ask for people to hit me. ‘Go on, hit me. Please? Harder, it won’t hurt, trust me,‘ I would often find myself saying. I had to put my timidity aside and learn how to ask for what I want, with no hesitation and no apologies. It’s probably the most important skill I learned from fighting, and now when I picture my little teenage self begging for someone to hit me, I realize I actually really enjoyed having to prove myself like that.
I also really enjoyed the surprised look on the face of men who didn’t think I would hit back.
Professional boxer and MMA fighter Holly Lawson had a similar experience. You wouldn’t think it from her striking and inspiring Instagram posts, but she says before she became a fighter she was introverted and insecure. Boxing, of course, changed all of that.
‘Boxing taught me to let that go and just be. I had to believe in myself, I had to be sure of myself, and by giving me the reason to be more outgoing, it allowed me to grow as a person,’ she said. ‘Basically it enabled me to grow my confidence and of course with that, your personality will grow as well.’
MORE: How Holly Lawson transformed Rosamund Pike’s Gone Girl Body
Roberts says that training in martial arts serves as a great form of ventilation, so women who are easily frustrated can let it out and clear their heads.
‘Martial arts tends to have a positive effect on emotional stability. You tend to become a little bit more level-headed,’ she said.
Martial arts tends to have a positive effect on emotional stability. You tend to become a little bit more level-headed.
For me, this was huge. Having a place where my aggression was encouraged helped me learn to control it, making me a much more effective leader and communicator and work and at school. I learned to channel anger and aim it towards my goals; it felt like after years I was finally the only one inhabiting my own brain.
I learned to channel anger and aim it towards my goals.
As you can imagine, all these changes in your mind and your body will cause your confidence level to skyrocket. There’s also something about knowing you can hold your own in a fight that makes you feel like you can do literally anything.
‘There’s an aspect to making your body do what it isn’t naturally inclined to do,’ Lawson said. Our natural reaction to danger — as humans and particularly women — is to flee. So when you tell yourself ‘no, I am going to stand here and face danger and fight,’ it can be a very liberating thing. You’re literally making your body do what it isn’t programmed to do.’
You’re literally making your body do what it isn’t programmed to do.
You take the skills you’ve learned and the characteristics you developed in the ring and apply them to your real life, and suddenly you’re unstoppable. Standing up for yourself, asking to be treated as an equal, and constantly working at improvement all become second nature; your comfort zone expands exponentially and trying new things goes from unnerving to exciting.
Okay, so I talked you into it. How do you get started?
Get on that search engine right now. ‘Boxing gyms near me,’ should give you more than a few options to try, and most of them will let you take a class for free. Finding a gym or a coach that you like can make or break your boxing experience, so keep trying until you feel really comfortable with where you are.
Take the skills you’ve learned and the characteristics you developed in the ring and apply them to your real life, and suddenly you’re unstoppable.
Just like people, no two boxing gyms are identical; finding that one that’s right might take time, but we tried a few gyms around London and now I’m going to play a little matchmaker.
3 boxing classes for every need
Healthista sent three testers to try out boxing classes around the capital and report back
Tester says: ‘I’m completely new and not sure what I’m getting myself into’
She tried: FIGHTZONE
I was apprehensive about my boxing session. It was always something I wanted to try but I thought I’d look pathetic with my scrawny arms.
I walked in to Fightzone to find a gym with a minimalist interior of different coloured mats, weights and a boxing ring and a load of men. Eeeek. The boxing class took place on the blue and red mats at the far right corner of the gym, separated from the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class by a row of boxing bags. You’ll get so involved with throwing punches, you forget that you’re surrounded by men.
There were four guys and two girls (including me) participating in the Friday class, which ran from 6 – 7.30pm. This may seem small but if you’re anything like me, a typical Friday evening equals a few drinks. But don’t worry, if you can’t make Friday, you haven’t missed your chance as there’s plenty of classes to choose from throughout the week, whether it’s lunch time or evening. So, if someone at work really peeves you off, Fightzone is the place to vent some anger out with your fists (without getting fired).
Fightzone is the place to vent some anger out with your fists (without getting fired).
The six of us began with five minutes of jumping rope. It was clear that the guys weren’t beginners by the technique and pace they skipped – fast, very fast with the smallest jumps you’ve ever seen. Then we moved onto the fun bit – sparring.
I was paired with Ainslee, who was her fourth lesson in and roughly the same size as me. I think the coach, Paul, could tell we weren’t giving it our all so he grabbed a couple of pads and started doing different combinations with us which incorporated uppercuts, left hooks and right hooks.
MORE: The best boxing gear for women – what to buy before hitting the ring
This was helpful because he gave direction and motivated me to hit as hard as possible. When a tall, muscular guy is behind the pads, you’re not scared that your punches are going to have any negative impact on his health (as I was with Ainslee, and vice versa) so it definitely helped me push myself more and I really got into fight-mode.
Paul was encouraging, friendly and informative. He taught me to always ensure my feet remain wide apart for balance and always have the right foot slightly more forward as this will enable easier movement (whether that’s you going in for a punch or moving away). Also, when you go for a left or right hook, twist your hips – this may sound obvious but I initially was rigid and then learnt to move with fluidity. The movement in your hips will provide more power. Another beneficial tip is to keep at least one fist in front of your face at all times and the arms close to the body as this will give you more speed.
Between the sparring sessions, we had to do exercises such as sit-ups, press-ups and planks for two minutes.
I managed to make contact a few times, go me.
I then had a one on one sparring session with Paul. He was only allowed to move out of the way and not hit back, (hey, I didn’t make the rules). Paul was adamant that I try to hit him as hard as possible, and not hold out. As you can imagine, he was quick on his feet, ducking out of the way but I managed to make contact a few times, go me. Paul was full of praise, even when I jabbed him in the shoulder as he said that by hitting your component’s arm, it will become tired and so they’ll be less able to protect themselves or use it to attack.
I thoroughly enjoyed the session at Fightzone, much more than expected. It was fun and made me feel empowered and refreshed afterwards. Boxing is definitely something I’ll be doing again.
Tester says: ‘I’m new but I’m all-in’
She tried: MAUY THAI GYMBOX
‘I’ve always wanted to learn to box but the one time I tried it I got so winded when someone kicked me, that I never went back. But as I get older and my life gets more and more subscribed, a little voice in my head gets louder and louder. It whispers: ‘You need to punch things.’ I recently joined the new Gymbox gym that opened in Stratford Westfield, just down the road from Healthista Towers. Classes are busy and almost impossible to book and one lunchtime there was no class available except Muay Thai. Let’s be clear, this means Thai Kickboxing, probably one of the most fierce and feared martial arts on the planet. But hey, I wanted my money’s worth.
‘The class was taken by Carlton Tieu, from Team Tieu who run all the Muay Thai classes for Gymbox. Their reputation is one of seriousness and fierceness and the power with which Carlton’s small, sinewy and agile body kicked the bejaysus out of his partner’s sparring pad during the first demo skyrocketed me into the realms of ludicrously T.E.R.R.I.F.I.E.D. The class was made up of eight men and two other women who paired up with each other, leaving me with Mark, a rugby player. Great. We were told to get sparring pads – holding them while Mark kicked and punched was enough of a cardio workout to have sweat dripping into my eyes – and get cracking.
as I get older a little voice in my head gets louder. It whispers: ‘You need to punch things.’
There followed an hour of intense cardio kickboxing into the pads along with drills of jabs, crosses, hooks and upper cuts and many combinations in which we used both our arms and legs. I sweated like a horse and can still remember the sheer terror of being so outside my comfort zone as Mark punched my pads, sending them soaring, that I felt like someone else. Someone with more guts. The guts to fight and punch and kick. Plus, the sheer concentration required to carry out the combinations of left jabs, right hooks, left kicks and so on means you can’t think of anything else – not the deadline or the shopping or dinner – as I tend to do in other exercise classes. Afterwards, feeling beaten and a little bruised (Mark really could kick) I felt like: ‘Wow, I did that.’ It was priceless.
Tester says: ‘I’m experienced — throw me in there’
I tried: FIGHT FACTORY
If you already know what you’re doing, or you just want to fully throw yourself into this boxing thing, you need the real deal. When looking at gyms, look for a mixed or advanced level class.
I went to a mixed-level boxing class at Fight Factory in London. It was an 90-minute class, during which we had about 15 minutes of warm up (running around the mat and jumping rope) before we partnered up for several drills (just practicing combinations back and forth on each other), bag work, and sparring.
Everyone at this gym really knew what they were doing — for the first time in years I was learning from experts instead of helping beginners — which was much needed because I was transitioning from Muay Thai to traditional boxing, two very different disciplines. There were maybe 20 people in the class, so there wasn’t much time for one-on-one time with the instructor, but he still made his rounds around the mat to make sure everyone’s form was correct.
I was really surprised that there were plenty of other women there, even in their Brazilian Ju-Jitsu class, which is even rarer to find women in. So obviously, this gym is a must-try for the get-right-to-it girl.
MORE: The best boxing gear for women — what to buy before hitting the ring
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