With the growing popularity of female UFC fighters, many women have given a thought or two to try their hand in a combat sport. But when they look on the internet for information, all they find is articles on some punch-toning nonsense or the latest cardio kick-dancing craze.
And when they walk past a martial arts academy and peer in past the testosterone-fogged windows, they see mostly men in various states of sweating and flailing. Intimidated, they keep walking to their safe and familiar hot yoga class, where women are supposed to congregate.
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But they still daydream of being a bad ass…
Ladies – if you are one of these dreamers, I am about to hand you all the information you need to know to put down the dripping yoga mats for a minute and pick up some gloves! Mixed martial arts is most definitely for women of all ages, sizes, and fitness levels.
The benefits are many: Improved fitness and strength, becoming confident and capable, and knowing how to apply your new skills in self-defense situations. Plus, you’ll be able to finally tell the loud guy in the Tap Out shirt, hunched over a pile of wings at the bar, that he clearly doesn’t know the difference between side control and a clinch and it is impossible to armlock from inside someone’s guard. Then, you can demonstrate a flawless rear-naked choke and make him do what his shirt says.
The First Challenge Is to Find a Gym
MMA typically involves a few different types of combat arts: Boxing (punches), Muay Thai (kicks, knees and striking), wrestling (takedowns and pinning your opponent), Judo (throws), and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (grappling with limb locks and chokes).
You can find all of these styles at an MMA gym. However, if there isn’t one in your area, you can also look into any of these specific types of gyms and thrive. I would steer clear of Tae Kwon Do and karate dojos, because, although they provide a good workout, they have little to do with any cage fighting success.
Pick a few gyms in your area and research them online. Check out their websites and credentials.
Look at the reviews on Google and Yelp as well as their class schedule. Do these times work for you? From there, select a few places that look interesting and give them a call or an email to see when would be the best time to go in and check the place out.
Anywhere from a free class to a one-week pass is customary. If they try to charge you a drop-in fee just to see if you like the place, forget it. They are either far-too serious or far-too strapped for cash.
Once you are in for your free lesson, look around. Is the place clean? Gyms can smell funky if you walk in on a hot night with a lot of sweaty bodies, but there shouldn’t be grime on the mirrors or dried blood stains and little mystery hairs all over the mat.
If there is grit and old band-aids in the corners – abandon ship. Fungal infections, staph, and MRSA fester in that type of environment. Professionals keep it disinfected.
If it passes the yuck test, the next thing to notice is the attitude of the instructor and the students. Is there a rapport? Is there clear communication? Is your instructor approachable and are the other students welcoming?
Perhaps bits of levity in between rounds of work? This is the kind of environment you want. One where the new student is assisted and encouraged, because we all know the sport can be harsh and intimidating for the uninitiated.
It may not be Mr. Rogers neighborhood on the first day, but as long as there are smiles and enthusiasm, that’s a good sign of a happy team.
And lastly – are there other women in the gym? Kids? Families? This is going to be a key factor in many women’s longevity in the sport.
MMA and combat arts can be demoralizing some days when you feel you’re not getting something, or you’re burning yourself out, trying to match your male partner’s strength. Having other women to practice technique with and kvetch to when times get hard is a lifeline and can keep you going.
If you really like the gym, but it lacks other women, I would suggest looking into local “self-defense seminars” in your area on the side, to meet the other women that may train at other local gyms. Or join a Women’s MMA or Grappling club online for support.
I cannot stress this enough: Try at least two or three gyms.
Once you have selected your spot, they will probably have you sign a contract that will be anywhere from three months to one year. Make sure you are aware of any early termination fees in the fine print and keep a copy for your records.
My advice is to pay a gym upfront, or monthly, by check, so they aren’t charging you at their discretion. However, if that is the best way, give them a credit card, not a debit card, so you have some unauthorized charge protection, just in case.
Chances are, you will never need it, but if any charge is disputed, a credit card is easier to freeze and ensure purchases with.
Speaking of, you will probably need some new equipment – these gyms aren’t cheap. Boxing gloves, wraps, shin guards, a mouth guard, and possibly a jiu-jitsu gi (if not, you’ll need rashguards and spats.) Be prepared for an initial investment, and ask if there are gym gloves or pads you might be able to borrow at first, while you gain your sea legs.
When you begin, you may get hit with the “I need to go to every single class and absorb every tiny detail every single day” bug, but please, pace yourself. MMA classes have a lot of high-intensity intervals and new movements that will make you feel amazing, but also very sore and very exhausted.
Exhaustion begets injuries. A good pace for the first month or two is three classes a week, and move on from there once you are ready.
It will also be normal to feel completely out of your element sometimes. You may pick up something easy, like footwork or jabs. But, something else, say takedowns or grappling, might as well be from another planet. Everybody feels this way for a while. It’ll click eventually if you keep showing up and doing the work, I promise.
The number one fear when it comes to women training mixed martial arts is of getting “beat up” or knocked around too hard by bigger, stronger men. This doesn’t happen in a reputable gym.
Training MMA is not you, stepping onto a mat, when a bell goes off and some guy flies in with a Superman punch to your head. Classes are very structured and it should not be a free-for-all. They typically start with calisthenics type warm ups.
Then, the whole class watches the instructor demonstrates a technique. You pair up with a partner and practice the specific technique for a designated time. There may be one or two more moves that either flow with or counter the move you are learning, and you practice these, as well.
You can always ask your partner to slow down or be careful. This part of class is not an exercise in strength or prowess and there is nothing to prove, as the partner is not putting up a struggle or fight. Sometimes your partner is just a heavy bag.
The final part of class is the “live” rounds, or sparring part. No beginner is allowed to jump in and wing it, they are held back to watch, or taught situational sparring (where you drill as in class, but with a partner who is resisting) until they are equipped for it.
If your gym lets you spar freely on your first day – leave. Don’t look back. And when you are ready for live rounds, you’ll understand that it’s a personality thing, not a gender thing, when it comes to aggressive partners – and you can refuse anyone if they are too much.
Other fears are being too close to men, say in Jiu-Jitsu, when it is common to be on your back, with your legs wrapped around your partner. Or in a clinch, sweaty heads pressed into one another.
Look, I’m not going to lie – if you have personal space issues, this can be a hurdle. I have had men pressed into me, pinning me to the floor in positions that unclothed might be in the Kama Sutra. We’ve sat on each other’s heads. I’ve had my hands around men’s necks, I’ve drawn their sweaty torsos into mine, I’ve held them captive between my legs.
As sexualized as this might sound, I can assure you (or perhaps disappoint you?) that it is clinical as hell. Trust me, sex is not what you are thinking about – survival and the application of a submission or well-aimed strike dominates your brain, and also – your partners.
You Have to Be Ripped, Jacked, Stacked, and Mean to Train Mixed Martial Arts?
Absolutely not! Many women fear they are too small, to weak, or not “aggressive” enough. It truly doesn’t matter when you walk in those doors. I am a 39-year-old mom of three. I’ve trained with men and women who are in their teens to twenties to forties and fifties and beyond.
All body types and sizes. All different personalities, some shy and some ready for their pro card, hell – some had their pro card. Again, this is why gym vibe is so important.
A good gym has a place for regular people looking to get in shape and kick some ass, as well as space for serious, professional-minded competitors. That is the place you will want to be and the environment in which you can learn and thrive. You should always be able to learn and improve at your own pace.
What are the benefits to women, specifically? Confidence, strength, being able to endure discomfort and fight through tough situations. Knowing when you can escape. Taking your first hit and realizing you aren’t made of glass. Being able to call yourself a legitimate bad ass.
Still Not Convinced?
If you are nervous, you can try a few soft introductions like cardio kickboxing classes, or women’s self-defense seminars in your area, usually put on by a gym that wants to encourage women to train. These are great ways to get your feet wet without a major commitment. Now, grab your girlfriend, your mom or your daughter and go give it a try!