Cardio kickboxing and traditional martial arts. Both can give members a good workout while letting them workout their aggression. But which one is right for your club? The pros and cons of each.

A new craze is sweeping the fitness industry. It's cardio kickboxing - martial arts set to dance music - and it's becoming more popular by the day.

Variously called aerobic kickboxing, cardio kick, fitness kickboxing and kardio karate, this form of exercise has received a boost from the success of Billy Blanks' TaeBo tapes and is beginning to appear in clubs all over the country. It's still a loosely defined activity: Some classes use boxing gloves and mitts, some use punching bags, and others use nothing at all. But as long as an aerobic exercise incorporates kicking and punching, it's considered cardio kickboxing - and it's probably the most popular program in the club.

Though a definite moneymaker, the cardio kickboxing craze brings up several concerns for club operators: How does cardio kickboxing compare to traditional martial arts, and how is it affecting their popularity? Can it be considered a form of self-defense? What kinds of instructors make the best teachers? And how can you reduce the risk of a member getting injured during a high-energy cardio kickboxing session?

"The pros of cardio kickboxing is that it's new and it's different, and it adds some fitness benefits that you may not get from other forms of exercise," says Richard Cotton, chief exercise physiologist at the American Council on Exercise (ACE) in San Diego. "It's very dynamic - it's a flexibility workout, an aerobic workout and a strength workout all rolled into one."

Adds Colleen Mayo, fitness director at the Rochester, N.Y.-based Mid-Town Athletic Club, "It's one of the hippest classes being offered. There's some-thing about it that people like. They can get out their aggressions in a way that they can't in a regular aerobics class." In fact, this aspect is so important that Mayo jokingly predicts that "any class can be made popular with the addition of punches.

"The traditional martial arts are no lightweights when it comes to fitness benefits, though. While martial arts such as tae kwon do and karate may have had some elements stolen by cardio kickboxing, they're still more effective for improving agility, coordination and range of motion. And the traditional martial arts offer more than rote exercise. "It's very much a discipline when you get involved in the true martial arts," Cotton offers. "There are benefits beyond that of the stimulus of the work-out because of the discipline and the structure."

Traditional martial arts are grounded in a philosophy that cardio kickboxing doesn't have. "You're committing to much more when you commit to martial arts," says Cotton.

That particular aspect may actually be a drawback as far as clubs are concerned. People are flocking to cardio kickboxing classes partially because they don't require the commitment that martial arts do. Club owners have noted that members don't want to wear the gi (the traditional martial arts uniform) and show deference to instructors who may be 20 years their junior. Cardio kickboxing has no subservience to a "master" and no belts that advertise the wearer's beginner status - and that's part of the appeal for members who are intimidated by martial arts.

As a result, it may be difficult to get enough members to join martial arts classes to make them profitable. "The biggest drawback to martial arts is its inability to attract adults," asserts Joseph Jonas, owner of South Side Fitness in Manitowoc, Wis. "It's a great exercise, but people are afraid to go and try it." South Side Fitness offers classes in hapkido, a Korean martial art. (See Know Your Art.)

Cardio kickboxing has attracted hordes of female exercisers who may have been intimidated by the macho image of traditional martial arts. That's the good news. The bad news is that because of the exercise's grounding in the martial arts, women may feel that they're learning to defend themselves in a cardio kickboxing class. In reality, self-defense claims may be overblown. Despite a recent New York Times article praising cardio kickboxing for its ability to train exercisers to "kick away pounds and assailants," when asked whether cardio kickboxing counts as self-defense, Cotton says, "No. Absolutely not."

Although cardio kickboxing is based in the martial arts, the emphasis is more on a high-energy workout than in teaching the proper way to execute a martial arts move. "People think of it as a form of self-defense," says Jonas. "So they do really well in cardio kickboxing, and then think that they can go out on the street and kick everybody's butt. That's the biggest con to cardio kickboxing."

This isn't to say that cardio kickboxing offers nothing in the way of self-defense. Cardio kickboxing classes increase confidence and fitness levels, which are key elements of self-defense training. "I know I feel more confident about myself and that I might be better able to defend myself after taking this class," says Mayo. "Even though it's primarily aerobic, you are learning how to kick and punch. It's just not quite as instructional-based as martial arts."

Besides boasting true self-defense benefits, the traditional martial arts tend to be safer than cardio kickboxing. According to Jonas, in martial arts the exerciser is more aware of what the body is doing, leading to a reduced risk of injuries. Martial arts classes also offer more hands-on instruction and smaller classes, which make for safer, better-supervised sessions, says Rob Raju, president of Axiom Health and Fitness Center (formerly a Powerhouse Fitness Center) of Fairfield, N.J. "When you move from white to black belt, the progression is safe and supervised," he says. "As opposed to the cardio kickboxing, where it depends on the instructor's background."

Cardio kickboxing, with its lightning-fast twists, pivots and kicks, is considered a higher-risk exercise. It's easy for members to underestimate the rigors of cardio kickboxing, and because these trendy new classes attract a lot of beginners, the chances of someone being injured are higher. "Anytime you do anything that provides greater fitness benefits, there's usually an associated increase in risk of injury - much like the difference between walking and running," says Cotton. This means that cardio kickboxing may not be the best choice for someone who hasn't exercised since completing his high school gym requirements.

With all the buzz surrounding cardio kickboxing, Raju believes that many clubs will be prone to adding potentially risky classes without careful fore-thought. "As an industry, clubs rush to put something trendy on the calendar and just have their instructors start teaching it - perhaps before they're ready," he says.

As a first step in warding off injury - and liability - ACE suggests that clubs inform exercisers that even a basic class requires above-average endurance, flexibility and strength. Cotton also advises clubs to conduct up-front screenings of members to make sure they have the clearance to join an exercise class. But these liability forms are a double-edged sword, according to Jonas. "If anyone were to get hurt and come back and sue you, you're in trouble if you don't have the form filled out," he says. "But if you do have it filled out, it doesn't stand up too far in court. A lot of courts will find that people don't read the forms; they just sign them over and that's it. So if they don't fill it out, you're in trouble - but if they do fill it out, it isn't going to help you much anyway."

Since release forms may not provide enough protection against liability, the best way to combat injury is with qualified instructors who can provide appropriate support for beginners. Instructors can minimize risk by offering beginners an orientation and proceeding slowly. "It's important at the beginning of class for instructors to find out who's new to the class," says Cotton. "That way they can keep an eye on the beginners and make sure they're taking care of the needs of the entire class." Another tip, if participation is high enough to warrant it, is to offer separate classes for beginning, intermediate and advanced exercisers. It may even be a good idea to have more than one instructor per class. Mid-Town Athletic Club, for example, has a second martial arts instructor in the class to walk around and help people with their kicking technique.

According to Jonas, a proper warm-up and cooldown are essential for reducing injury. He also suggests that the instructor warn new members not to jump right into the workout. "You have to start a bit slower and feel it out so you know what your body's capable of doing," he says.

Mayo's trainers, for example, instruct exercisers to do a knee instead of a kick if they're having trouble keeping up. They also have a member at the front of the class as a role model demonstrating alternate low-impact moves.

A qualified cardio kickboxing instructor can attract members, reduce the risk of injury and provide a good work-out for participants. But here's the million-dollar question: Who makes a better trainer for cardio kickboxing classes - an aerobics instructor or a martial arts expert? Aerobics instructors are adept at leading and encouraging a class, but may not be proficient in the martial arts technique. Martial arts trainers, on the other hand, while adept at teaching the moves, may not be as skilled at leading a group. "I don't know a lot of martial arts instructors who can put together dance routines," laughs Jonas.

Having a trainer who's proficient in the basics is important - but just as important is their attitude, according to Mayo. "Personality is huge in this class," she says. "It's got to be someone who has an element of toughness to them." Mid-Town's best instructor, says Mayo, was originally an aerobics instructor; the club had a martial arts trainer teach her how to kick and punch. "The reason she's good is because she's got push and she's willing to be tough. The worst thing you can do is get a person up there who's got a wimpy punch. People want to see toughness up there, because that's what the attraction is."

Mid-Town Athletic Club also has an instructor who's trained in boxing. "His classes are still good, but he doesn't have the same personality, the same energy," says Mayo.

So the answer to which type of trainer makes a better instructor is neither - and both. "I think an aerobics instructor who has had past martial arts experience would probably be the best instructor," suggests Jonas. Almost everyone with a martial arts background agrees that cardio kickboxing instructors should have some foundation in the martial arts to understand the moves and body mechanics.

To get the most qualified instructors, clubs need to screen their trainers and check for references and certification. Cardio kickboxing classes are popular enough that there's a demand for trainers. This means that more and more instructors are becoming certified - but also that the competition for good instructors is increasing.

Likewise, when hiring a martial arts instructor, consider credentials. A black belt isn't enough. Check where the instructor got the black belt and ask if he has received certification from an organization within his discipline. Popular styles are often supported by associations that test high-ranking practitioners before allowing them to teach.

So whether you're offering cardio kickboxing or traditional martial arts, make sure you have instructors who know what they are doing. With all of the punching and kicking go on, an unqualified teacher could create an unsafe environment. Don't take a chance. When approached by instructors with questionable credentials, do yourself a favor: Kick them out. By considering the safety issues, you'll have fitter members - and fitter profits to boot - whatever program you choose.


Know Your Art

Although the Yellow Pages lump all martial arts under the category of "karate," Asian fighting styles are quite diverse, showing the influence of many cultures. Below are brief definitions of some of the most popular disciplines.

* Hapkido: This Korean style combines striking, high kicks, throws and grappling into a well-rounded system.

* Jujitsu: A Japanese art that relies on grappling and joint locks to disable opponents. Offshoots of this style are judo (which emphasizes throwing) and aikido (an art in which the practitioner uses the momentum of opponents to knock them off balance).

* Karate: Literally "empty fist," this Japanese style is known for its straight, strong strikes. Karate styles include shotokan and gojo ryu.

* Kenpo: The late Ed Parker, the martial artist who taught Elvis Presley, popularized this karate style in the United States. Although its influences come from China and Japan, kenpo is often described as an American martial art.

* Kung Fu: Loosely translated as "hard work," this term refers to the martial arts of China. Predominantly cursive and flowing, the Chinese styles often mimic the movements of animals with punching, clawing and kicking attacks. Kung fu styles include hung gar, crane and praying mantis.

* Tae Kwon Do: Literally translated as "the way of foot and fist," this Korean style relies on strikes to overcome opponents. High kicks are a staple of this art. Tang Soo Do is another Korean style known for the striking prowess of its practitioners.

Other, more obscure styles do exist, but be careful. The rarer the martial art, the more difficult it is to find out if an instructor is reliable. Some of these styles include:

* Aikijitsu: Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido, used this style as the cornerstone for his style. However, few true Aikijitsu experts exist today.

* Jeet Kune Do: Although he studied wing chun (a Chinese kung fu style that isn't based on animal movements), Bruce Lee created jeet kune do (literally: "the way of the intercepting fist") in an attempt to correct the flaws he found in styles that relied on rote training. Since Lee's death, many people have come forward as jeet kune do experts, but their claims are frequently suspect.

* Muy Thai: Thailand's popular form of kickboxing, this sport allows fighters to attack with elbow and knee strikes as well as the regular punches and kicks. Since it differs from American kickboxing, not many fighters in the United States are proficient in this style of combat.

* Ninjitsu: While many people would like to think they have mastered the art of the ninja, it's almost impossible to find a teacher with experience in the techniques of Japan's stealth assassins. Stephen Hayes is one of the few legitimate American masters of this rare style.