Writing about muay Thai fitness for a friend

A few months ago, a friend of mine asked me to write something about a fitness class he had started that is based on muay Thai fighting. I worried about conflict of interest. I decided to write it, but only publish it on his fitness company’s website.

But now that I’ve written it, I’m kind of pleased with it. I’m publishing it here, but with this caveat: I’m Derek Boyd’s friend, and he asked me to write this basically to promote his business. This is not journalism.

At the same time, I don’t think I am hiding anything in this piece, or being dishonest with my portrayal.

Here we go:

Blaring techno and fluorescent lighting seem to make the narrow room even hotter, as a bunch of young bodies throw punches into foamy red pads.

The pads are held by training partners, who try not to flinch.

Instructors Derek Boyd and Corey Sheikh yell out encouragement. “Imagine you’re lighting a fire under your butt!” Boyd says, describing one particular kick.

The two men are trying to turn the vicious combat sport of muay Thai into fun fitness.

Muay Thai is called “the deadliest stand-up fighting martial art in the world,” Boyd says. Competitors use every limb to inflict blows. “You pummel each other, you knee each other. It’s not about dodging any punches. It’s about how much damage can you take and how much can you give back. It’s a battlefield martial art that turned into a ring sport.”

But in Ottawa’s only muay Thai fitness class, there’s no combat – just conditioning. You can vent aggression and go home with all your organs intact.

In this community centre workout room, everyone’s barefoot, with gloves on. To give the pad a good smack, you have to throw your weight into your punch or kick.

The pads are “probably the best conditioning,” Boyd says, because of their stiff resistance.

“A lot of kickboxing classes, a lot of aerobics [have you] punching the air, which could get you fit, but really it’s not going to build any muscle, it’s not going to get you really toned,” Boyd says.

He prescribes punches, kicks, and combinations of the two in batches of 50 at a time.

After first running out of breath and then dealing with a rush of lactic acid, participants get a break when they get to hold the pads, clenching their knees as their partner’s foot cracks against the foam.

The teamwork in these classes is what sets them apart from other martial arts fitness programs, the instructors say.

“In kickboxing, they train with the bag. The bag doesn’t give you any feedback. The bag can’t tell you how hard you’re hitting,” Boyd says.

Many of the class members have come out with friends or partners.

Ryan and his friend Jose are interested in learning how to “spar,” or fight recreationally: “We’ve known each other for years, he was best man at my wedding… you know, there’s always that curiosity, can I beat my best friend up?”

Dripping with sweat at the end of class, Ryan says the class is more motivational than a solo gym workout. “I own every piece of gym equipment in my house but I don’t use it,” he says.

The class even convinced him to quit smoking, since he was wheezing and coughing so much while throwing punches. Cigarettes had been a habit for 17 years.

After punching and kicking till they’re red in the face, participants cap off the night with sets of abdominal exercises.

“When I first started, I’d leave class shaking every time. You have to build up your stamina. I’m feeling more up to things now,” says a woman called Jessica.

“[Derek] just made me work so hard that I almost threw up,” says one man, talking about his very first class.

The instructors have slid naturally into “good cop” and “bad cop” roles, class members say. One of them imitates Sheikh: “No water! Harder!” and Boyd: “Good job guys!”

“It’s not like we come in and put on our teaching mask and now all of a sudden we’re different,” Sheikh says. “Our natural personalities are coming out. Derek is a bit more personable – I’m personable too but I can be straight to the point.”

A woman called Sonia says she likes the encouragement. “They’re motivating, and they’re on top of you – Corey does not let you rest! You get that personal trainer kind of feel, whereas if I go to the gym, I’m not pushing myself as hard as I should,” she says.

Both Boyd and Sheikh fought muay Thai competitively for several years before starting the class. Boyd spent time training in Thailand.

These days, the two spar recreationally while focusing on the expansion of their business. They have plans to open their own gym, a second story space with large windows in the Byward Market.

Sheikh talks about “revolutionizing the way you can work out.”

Boyd says the trouble with fitness programs is that “everything is about a means to an end.”

In this case, kicking, punching — and sweating — are ends in themselves. But at the same time, they’ll still give you wicked biceps.

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