Women are turning to boxing for fitness—and something more.
RILEY WON’T PUNCH ME, no matter how much I beg him to.
It might be because I’m a girl, but more likely, he doesn’t want to encourage me, the woman he met moments ago who appears to be in the throes of some weird, misdirected midlife crisis. He lifts his boxing gloves, and I hit him in his abs. My fist bounces off. He shakes his head.
I turn fifty this month. It’s a time for self-reflection or perhaps for socking the crap out of something. Riley, a 26-year-old with kind eyes, auburn flecks of hair in his brown beard and tattoos of trees up his left forearm, moves like a lynx around the ring. My new quest has nothing to do with self-defense or fitness. At this point in my life, I’ve experienced more than my share of bruising and maybe I just want to know for once when the punch is coming—I want to have signed up for it, instead of it being a surprise. More than that, I want to fight back, without apologizing or being swallowed by guilt.
But Riley won’t punch me. When we finish sparring, I ask him about the trees tattooed on his arm, which appear to be from different seasons, or perhaps the same tree inked in spring, summer, and fall, with a few sparse leaves clinging to the third and last tree. He tells me they remind him of where he comes from. “You come from trees?” I ask. He takes off his gloves and leaves me to come to my own conclusions.
I turned to boxing because the midlife monotony of motherhood, domesticity, aging parents and a stagnant career were eating away at me. Running and the elliptical bored me. I needed adrenaline. Of course, a six-pack of abs and a rock-solid behind wouldn’t hurt either. And I’m not alone. Boutique boxing is exploding in popularity in major cities, with the Title Boxing Club franchise reporting a 10-fold increase over a two-year span.
The rise of women’s interest in boxing encompasses all age demographics and is being driven by role models who are, well, models: Adriana Lima, Cara Delevigne and Gigi Hadid. Joe Buckner, owner of Beautifully Savage, a boxing gym in Fort Collins, notes that anyone can participate in boxing, but that his studio does in fact have more women clients than men—a trend that’s being driven by more than just a yearning for a beautifully sculpted body.
Sure, boxing works every muscle group, provides a great cardio workout, and torches calories at a rate of 3:1 compared to jogging for an hour—a pugilist workout can exceed 1,000 calories. But for women, it’s more than that: It allows a them to hit something, which most women have never done before, and teaches them self-defense. Buckner says, “Everyone fights something: depression, obesity, fear, poverty, loss. The bag has no feelings and doesn’t care how hard you hit it. I mean, who doesn’t want to hit something every now and then?”
Beyond anger and stress management, boxing provides an insane and unparalleled full-body workout. ESPN tested 60 different sports based on their required athletic skills for their “Degree of Difficulty Project,” and boxing came out on top. Case in point: Beautifully Savage’s 45-minute Fighting Shape class includes cardio, resistance training and tons of core work. The class jumps rope, hits the 100-pound heavy bag, shadowboxes, punches mitts with a trainer, and utilizes battle ropes, kettle bells, plyo boxes, sandbags and medicine balls. The workout finishes with core strengthening drills. “It’s challenging and exciting,” says Buckner. “It helps with mental toughness. It improves self-esteem and confidence. It gets people in the best mental and physical shape of their lives and it’s fun.”
Buckner believes that one of the reasons the sport is so addictive is that it gets people away from their generic training programs. “Clients enjoy mixing it up,” he says. “They enjoy actually learning how to box, the technical aspects of footwork and head movement, as well as the practical skills of evading an attack and delivering a punch properly.” Plus, you can’t beat the physical results. Boxing works the aerobic and anaerobic systems of the body. So, it adds muscle, burns off fat and increases leanness. Repetitive twisting and punching with tightened abdominals strengthens the core, which Buckner says is great cross-training for golf, tennis, football, and other sports where core strength is critical.
After my first workout, I could barely lift my arms, and my legs ached in a way they hadn’t since I ran track in college. Abdominals and obliques protested the next morning as I tried to sit up to get out of bed. Shaky as I was, I felt stronger, more capable in my body than I had in years. For Christmas, I asked for and received wraps and 12-ounce Everlast boxing gloves. I got them in pink and wasted no time using them to slug Riley, my Adonis sparring partner, in his perfect washboard stomach.