Combat Fat With Capoeira

Feeling cowed by capoiera, the Brazilian martial-art dance of flying kicks and ninja combat? Beginners can get a taste with a gym-friendly version that incorporates strength training and cardio (without the hard-core gynmastics—phew!) to get you moving and kicking butt (fat).

You've seen capoeira everywhere lately, even if you don't know what to call it. The dancelike Brazilian martial art was featured in popular movies such as Ocean's Twelve, Meet the Fockers and Catwoman. (In training for Catwoman, Halle Berry became the sport's unofficial celebrity ambassador.) And on warm days in public parks and plazas worldwide, you can often find capoeira players singing, clapping and showing off to a gathered crowd. Their energy is infectious.

Invented by slaves over 400 years ago, capoeira is far from your typical martial art. Two players face each other, surrounded by a circle (roda) of other players and musicians singing traditional call-and-response songs. The players kick, cartwheel, crouch on the floor and fly through the air to catch their opponent off-guard and show him his weakness without actually making contact. They swing to the rhythm, which varies from slow to fast, and there's rarely a winner or loser. Maybe they'll trip the other player or fake a heel to the gut, but those moments are followed by a laugh and a handshake. After watching hard-bodied young men and women flip, spin and dodge one lightning kick after another, it's pretty hard for the average person to imagine joining in.

"People love watching capoeira, but they are very intimidated because it's very dynamic," says Edna Lima, a capoeira mestranda (master) who has been teaching and training for 30 years. The modified capoeira workout she teaches at New York Sports Club (and programs of its kind at Bally's and other gyms across the country) removes the scarier elements from the sport. This version gives you most of the cardio and strength-training but requires none of the combat.

After warming up with dancing and stretching, Edna teaches the same techniques she would in a regular training class. The first basic step is the ginga, a movement from lunge to squat to lunge. It feels silly but gives you a great burn in the calves, quads and butt. Ginga is the transition to kicks, most of which involve a circular motion. Meia lua de compasso begins with your hands on the floor, one leg bent, while you look back between your legs and swing the straight one in an arc behind you, drawing your body around to a lunge. Queixada is a circular kick from the side, and in armada, you whip your entire body around 360 degrees. All of this strengthens the entire lower body and torso while building flexibility and improving your sense of balance.

But if all you want are kicks, find a different sport. It's the other moves, like aú (cartwheel), that set capoeira apart. "By doing aú and other more difficult positions, you change your center of gravity and see everything in a different perspective," Edna says. These unusual positions require as much thought as they do muscle, especially when it comes time to connect them to kicks and ginga. The confidence you gain from that, Edna says, is just as valuable as burning all those calories. "In capoeira, you can't ever leave your body." Plus, these floor exercises are great for your core and upper-body muscles.

The results of this combination of aerobic and anaerobic exercise are almost immediate. "You're going to start seeing the lines of the muscles, not [bigger muscles] but definition of the body," Edna says. "And you walk taller."

While the gym version of capoeira is a great option for anyone starting out, classes at capoeira schools are actually very accommodating to beginners. You can go at your own pace while watching the experts. In a school, students support and encourage each other (unlike in your average gym). Add the singing and instruments, and it becomes a cultural experience and tough workout in one.

You can find out more about Edna Lima's classes at CapoeiraWorkout.com.

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