Medical News

What ‘Fitboxing’ Is Missing

Outside the door, I heard a flurry of thudding that reverberated back through the floor. I looked at my friend, then stepped in behind her. The room was damp and stuffy, despite a fan droning loudly in the corner. Six people were dispersed across the floor, weaving to their own rhythms. I was 18 and hadn’t been to a gym more than twice in my life; this was my first boxing class.

Though I was the least fit person in the room, the coach put me through all the drills: shadowboxing in front of the mirror (fine), punching a bag (cathartic), light sparring (rough). The coach struck my nose, my forehead, my jaw, my abdomen as he reminded me to keep my hands up and to keep moving. My legs were screaming; even a gentle tap on the nose stung. (It didn’t help that mine’s been broken since I was 7.) I realized that I liked martial arts anyway.

I wasn’t trying to be an amateur fighter, but I wanted to keep getting stronger and quicker. In this boxing class held at my college gym, and at the gyms I found to train in over summers, sparring was a given. The whole point of training was to get better at landing punches (and eluding them) in the ring. I liked to feel myself improving concretely every time I stepped back in to face a real opponent. But after graduating, I discovered that the experience I’d had that first day, an immediate induction into boxing by light sparring, was almost impossible to find.

Over the past several years, the popularity of “fitboxing” classes, which involve intense cardio, strength training, and ab workouts, has skyrocketed. These classes might look a lot like boxing, but they have a key difference: For the grand finale, you get to punch … a bag. Many of these gyms are entirely “noncontact,” and the few that do let you spar tend to charge extra for it. I asked Bryan Corrigan, my coach that first day, what he sees as the value of sparring—why had he started me on it the very first time I’d boxed? “It’s the whole mind game behind boxing and the science of it,” he told me. Yes, getting hit can be scary, but you learn to keep your calm and be strategic in the face of it. Without sparring, “that gets lost.”

For a long time, boxing gyms were, by nature, fighting gyms: You couldn’t find one without a ring. “In the beginning, we only had professional players and amateur fighters,” Bruce Silverglade, the owner of Gleason’s Gym, in Brooklyn, New York, told me. Many gyms were in low-income areas, and many of the people who fought in them were new immigrants or members of minority groups. Some viewed the sport as “a positive alternative to the streets.”

By the time “fitboxing” started to gain ground, that landscape had shifted. Many professional boxing matches had moved to pay-per-view TV, some fans had come to question the sport’s inherent brutality, and others were gravitating toward MMA fights. Professional fights were harder to find in New York and other storied boxing cities; those shows had moved largely to Las Vegas. Many free programs such as Cops and Kids, which made boxing accessible and provided a pathway for promising fighters from underserved neighborhoods, had also shrunk or shut down altogether. People inside and outside the sport were contending with boxing’s violence, and the brain damage that often resulted.

Meanwhile, fitness classes everywhere were exploding: barre, hot yoga, spinning. Fitboxing soon joined the ranks, and enough white-collar professionals were interested to start a sea change: Michael Hughes, the head trainer at Church Street Boxing, in Manhattan, New York, dates this shift to about 2012. Boutique boxing gyms sprang up to cater to this new clientele; many old-school fighting gyms had to revamp their offerings too. “Today, probably 85 percent of my members are businessmen and women that are just here for conditioning workouts,” Silverglade said.

And most of these newer boxers just weren’t interested in sparring, gym owners told me. As a result, now even many more traditional boxing gyms either don’t offer sparring or separate it out from their regular classes. Joey DeMalavez, the owner of Joltin’ Jabs, in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, explained that sparring is simply not profitable, especially when gym owners have to contend with increasing rents and high insurance costs. “There’s just not enough people that want to get in there and do that,” DeMalavez told me. “To offer sparring into a regular boxing class will scare a lot more people than it’ll help.” What people really want is the experience of boxing without the possibility of getting hit.

The fear concerning safety is real, and it makes sense. Katalin Rodriguez Ogren, the owner of Pow! Gym Chicago, acknowledges the tension. “An old-school boxing gym doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a safe training environment,” she told me in an email. While these gyms will give you what Rodriguez Ogren calls an “authentic” experience, many “don’t understand injury prevention, or have the education to provide safe training classes,” she said. That’s not to say gyms can’t be both safe and authentic to boxing. With sparring (as opposed to actual fighting), the point is not to hurt someone or knock anyone out; it’s to hone accuracy and reflex. You take knocks where your defense is weak, and there is always a risk of accidents, much as in any sport, but the shots are not full power. Being hit and being hurt are different.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting a boxing-inspired workout—all of the boxing coaches I spoke with agreed. It has some very real fitness benefits: It’s good cardio and can build strength and coordination. But fitboxing is not growing in popularity alongside boxing; it’s overtaking boxing. The few authentic boxing gyms I was able to find in Manhattan and Brooklyn can cost more than $100 a month to join. And boxing without sparring is a fundamentally different activity. “I kind of look at it like, Zumba is super fun and I love Zumba, but I’m not going to go to a Zumba class if I actually want to learn how to salsa dance,” Rodriguez Ogren said.

The risk of getting hit gives you direct, instant feedback about how much better you’re getting—and an extra boost of confidence and reward when you find that you are. “In order to keep you safe, you rely on your skill,” Peter Olusoga, a senior psychology lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University who has a background in sports and exercise psychology, told me. “The confidence boost that you get from seeing yourself improving and feeling more competent is really beneficial.” Although simply rehearsing boxing moves, as in fitboxing, can give you a taste, sparring enhances that feeling. Actually trying to hit another person, and keep yourself from being hit, represents a higher level of difficulty and intimacy with your sparring partners.

When I asked people in the boxing world what they consider the inherent value of sparring, many spoke to the discipline gained, or the visceral lessons it offers in dealing with adversity. But for me, it’s even more basic. A boxing-inspired workout is a great way to get in shape; sparring is a mind game. No matter how much I do it, I’ll still get hit, but I can now hold my own in the ring (mostly). I may never want to fight, but sparring is more than a workout—it’s a form of problem-solving that’s equal parts mental and physical. If you’re interested in boxing, I suggest slipping into the ring and actually trying it out.