What We Tried: Krav Maga, the official hand-to-hand combat system of the Israeli Defense Forces. Krav Maga prides itself on being a practical, easy-to-understand way to defend yourself in the face of imminent danger. In Krav Maga class, students wear street or workout shoes, and the only "form" is that "anything goes."
Where: Krav Maga Worldwide in Los Angeles, which has multiple training locations. Their motto: "Get in shape, go home safe."
For How Long: Classes are normally one hour long, and range from strength and conditioning classes to boxing bag classes to sparring classes.
What It Helps With: It's a cardio and strength workout that puts you in survival mode. Instructor Gabe Khorramian started the class with a bunch of explosive calisthenics exercises: jumping jacks, sit ups, push ups and mountain climbers, as well as some boxing and defense basics, which are great cardio moves that got my heart pumping.
Then we went straight into partner work. One person unleashed a storm of punches and kicks onto a partner holding up a pad, then we'd switch and repeat. Because Krav Maga is for real-life situations, Khorramian prefaced each move with an example of when and how it could be used.
"Say you're at an ATM, and someone approaches you from the side," Khorramian said before the first exercise. "Are they a friend, or do they want to hurt you?" Then we made our hands into fists and practiced turning to the side before punching our partners' pads in the throat area.
It's called the side hammer fist, and it's demonstrated in the video below:
"Now you're on the street, texting, when someone approaches you head on," he continued as a segue into the next exercise: fast, multiple kicks to the groin until the threat is neutralized.
The scariest situation? Active shooter. Khorramian made half of us get on the floor in a push up position and close our eyes. Then, when he said "Go!" we opened our eyes, jumped up to standing position and ran to locate our partners, which he told us to imagine were either victims held hostage (if you were in law enforcement) or an exit (for the rest of us). Once we located our partners, who were still holding pads, we pummeled them with more kicks and punches.
How'd It Feel: Scary. By the end of the class, my head was pounding and I had burned 464 calories, according to my heart rate monitor. But I was also a nervous wreck and a little amped up, in an unpleasant way. I walked out of class feeling empowered, thinking that I had the strength to kill someone. The only problem is that I also felt that somebody out there wanted to kill me.
I discussed my post-class fear and anxiety with senior instructor Michael Burton, who has practiced Krav Maga for 11 years and taught it for seven. Burton is from Chicago and used to work as a club bouncer, which explains why he's been in about 100 street fights in his life.
"Fear is absolutely common, and it's real," Burton reassured me. "Our objective is to get people past that fear." The hope, then, is to train yourself to the point where you can make tough, split-second decisions to defend yourself and your loved ones -- while getting a good strength and cardio workout in, as well.
"Think about how a real situation would be so much more stressful," Burton concluded. "If you're in fear and you freeze, it may be too late."
How to disarm a knife-wielding attacker:
What Fitness Level Is Required: There were people of all shapes and sizes in the beginner class I attended. Khorramian was very attentive to beginners, but it is a high-intensity workout if you want it to be. Another new person in my class had to sit out halfway through the session because she hadn't eaten any breakfast that day, and she was feeling faint.
What It Costs: The first class is free at the Krav Maga Worldwide Sherman Oaks location (where I went), and membership is based on monthly dues that range from $125 to $200. Discounts are available for active military, law enforcement and college students.
Would We Go Back: Yes, and here's why: When I was in elementary school, a bunch of dads volunteered to be living punching bags for one afternoon while a self-defense instructor taught us how to punch, kick and bite our way out of dangerous situations. It was terrifically fun and I had a great time stomping on the feet of my friends' dads as they playfully tried to put me in headlocks.
Later that school year, when an older boy ordered me to stand against the wall so that he could punch me in the stomach (my sin: I had flicked a bit of glue into his hair on the day he had just gotten it done), I obediently got up and braced for my punch quietly. And I got it -- a hard one that winded me and left me crying. When I finally told my parents about what happened weeks later, they were distraught.
"But what about that self-defense class?" they cried.
Exactly. One class, one time, is probably not going to prepare a child for the (likely) scenario that they will be a victim of some kind of assault by the time they turn 17.
I'm not sure if a steady routine of Krav Maga would have prepared 8-year-old me to do anything differently, but 28-year-old me now knows that I'm strong enough to break someone's pelvis with repeated kicks to the groin (called the Krav Maga handshake).
"If you can avoid a confrontation, that's always better," Burton cautioned. That means giving up your wallet, watch or other possessions an attacker might ask for. "But if someone says, 'Get in my car' or 'Go down that alley' -- any kind of second location -- go for the weapon and do what you can. No matter what, you're in peril."
Bottom line: I'd definitely send my future, non-existent children to Krav Maga classes (yes, there is a kids' program). And I wouldn't mind joining them, too. But I'd follow it up with some yoga or other calming, meditative activity afterward, to take the edge off after class.
But first, here's how to escape a kidnapper's bear hug: