Fit & Fierce
Working up a sweat with Memphis Kickboxing
Story by Doug Gillon | Photos by Madison Yen
“I like Mondays because I don’t want to come in on Monday,” she says, “but I’m always glad I do.” Her start came through a recommendation from her fiancée to try a new workout. One class and Phillipart was hooked. The classes provide her with both aerobic and strength training needed to prepare her for Spartan Races, and the group motivation necessary to get through a Monday.
“I’m competitive,” she says. “So seeing other people in the class, I think, ‘I want to beat you, you’re obviously the best one so I want to get better than you’ It helps to have that peer pressure in your head.”
Phillipart is part of a mass of Memphis moms, dads and millennials flooding martial arts gyms for fitness kickboxing classes: an accessible program based on real kickboxing training that combines kicks and punches on a heavy bag with abdominal exercises plyometric exercises, toning exercises and even some yoga.
“Man, it took off quick,” says David Ferguson, owner of Memphis Judo & Jiujitsu, Memphis Kickboxing and Collierville Kickboxing. “Kickboxing’s hot right now. It’s probably the hottest workout going right now, and the reason is that it gets real results. It gets the average person in shape in a short amount of time, and it’s fun.”
Ferguson runs four facilities offering more than 100 fitness kickboxing classes per week: the 24,000 square foot mothership of Memphis Judo and Jiujitsu in Bartlett, two Memphis Fitness Kickboxing locations in Midtown and East Memphis, and the brand-new Collierville Fitness Kickboxing in Collierville.
Classes are taught by one of about 15 instructors, most former fighters. Harry Johnson teaches classes at the Bartlett location on Mondays, Phillppart’s favorite day of the week.
Johnson’s class starts light, with fast-paced pop music and pep talk. Heavy bags hang in a square pattern, six long and five across. Trainees arrive, get ready and fill in to their own bag. Some stretch, some talk, some pace. At 6 p.m. sharp, Johnson gives three loud whop! whop! whops!, and everyone is ready to start.
The class alternates between heavy bag punch-and-kick combos and floor workouts like pushups, lunges and leg lifts. Johnson calls out combos and exercises about every three minutes, while floating between bags to give instruction and encouragement.
“Every class is different, and we want that. We want that variety,” Ferguson says. “That’s why people love the way we do it. You can come in to a different location, at a different time, get a different instructor.”
Classes have a few constants. Light warmup, at least 60 percent bag work and clean, energetic music.
“We don’t want people doing a ton of pushups, this isn’t a boot camp class,” Ferguson says. “People like bag work because it keeps their heart rate up and they like punching and kicking something.”
Johnson’s Monday class is mostly loose. The stout pair of women in the back punch a little slower than the hulkier men towards the front. When Johnson approaches the ladies, they get tense for a second. He compliments their jabs; they smile.
“I don’t just check on you when you do wrong,” Johnson says to the pair. “I check on you when you do good! I’ll tell you when you do good, but also when you can do better.”
Everyone works at their own pace, but every person’s workout carries an individual intensity. The sound of the bags, the speed of the floor work, all varied until something kind of magical happened.
At about 22 minutes in, everything lined up. For almost 20 seconds, those sixteen or so bags sang with a thump-thu-thump that made for the most intimidating version of an Usher song ever heard. And then, the synch was gone, but the workout kept going. Some stayed quick, some slowed down, but everyone kept moving.
Even when not totally in synch, everyone is obviously aware of the flow around them -- just like Phillippart says. While moving at different speeds, the group dynamic keeps the entire unit flowing.
“It's like a big team, and you don't want to be the one slacking,” Ferguson says. “You want people to look at you and say “man. they’re really putting in some effort.’ It’s positive peer pressure.”
The motivation doesn’t read as intimidating. The attendees use their bag as a focal point, fixed in their circle while feeding on the energy around them.
“This class is expertly designed to benefit someone of any body type and any fitness level,” Ferguson says. “It’s a motivating workout. You have motivating instructors, and you build off the energy you get from each other.”
According to Ferguson, it’s this combination, plus a lower price point ($59 a month for unlimited classes) that sets fitness kickboxing apart from other surging fitness programs like crossfit or Pure Barre.
“We offer a good rate compared to other boutique gyms,” Ferguson says. “It’s really sad that a lot of these types of classes have been priced out of people’s budgets. We like to keep the price low so people can enjoy the benefits.”
It’s those benefits that Phillippart, the veterinary tech, gets every week. Since the first time she came in two years ago, she’s seen improved coordination and technique, and come to crave her workout.
“It also helps that it’s right down the street,” she says.
With four locations now, Ferguson’s gyms and their popular, free-flowing program are close enough for a whole mess of Mid-Southerners to enjoy.
Kristen Phillippart kicks her way through Mondays.For the past two years, the 5’4” redheaded Bartlett resident enters Memphis Judo and Jiujitsu at 4 p.m. for a 50-minute fitness kickboxing class, where she punches, kicks and sweats before heading to her night job as an emergency veterinary technician.