Fighting yourself fit: My 6-week fitness challenge

What happens when a middle-aged writer joins a boxing gym

“This is how I want you to hit me. Don’t hold back. Remember, real people hit me all the time.” (Photo courtesy of RockBox)

RALEIGH — I threw a punch and made solid contact with my opponent’s midsection. I felt the jolt up my arm to my shoulder. My technique was clean. It was a hard punch.

Dread descended on me almost immediately.

Oh no. I thought. I just killed Jennifer.

Jennifer was the amateur MMA fighter who taught our class. She was less than half my weight. Actually, if she lost a little — not too much — and I gained a little, she might be one-third of my weight, or close to it.

Jennifer stepped away from me and threw up her hands, signaling for my classmates to stop what they were doing.

“Everyone,” she announced, and I was relieved to hear that she could still speak.

“I want you to watch Shawn,” she continued. “This is how I want you to hit me. Don’t hold back. Remember, real people hit me all the time.”

She turned and faced me again as she concluded her remarks.

“You can’t hurt me.”

I was in one of my first RockBox classes. The franchise had opened a gym around the corner from my house, and it appeared to be Peloton for fighting. Their gym didn’t have a ring or allow sparring. Heck, they didn’t allow you to just walk in and work out on your timeline. They offered 50-minute classes with a wireless mic-wearing trainer guiding you through workouts while music played and funky colored lights flashed overhead.

I’d covered combat sports for years and worked out in actual boxing gyms — dirty, gritty places located in the back of transmission repair shops. They were the types of places where the “Law & Order” detectives have to go to interview the wise, grizzled trainer who always seems to be sweeping up the gym late at night.

RockBox had a Roomba. This was going to be boxing aerobics for office workers — fancy Tae Bo. But it was close to my house and would get me in shape, so I signed up.

I didn’t make it through the first class.

Jennifer had us run. She made us do up-downs, high knees, shadow boxing.

Years ago, I was captain of my high school wrestling team and can vividly remember wondering why we did jumping jacks at every practice.

“They do nothing,” I can remember saying as my teammates nodded. “They’re not even an exercise.”

Now, deep into middle age, I take back everything I ever said about jumping jacks. At some point in the intervening years, while I was doing other things, jumping jacks became incredibly difficult. Jennifer seemed to know this and had us do them.

After about 20 minutes, I was out of breath, drenched in sweat and thinking this was a pretty good first class.

“OK,” Jennifer said. “Now that our warm-up is over, let’s get our gloves on.”

Midway through our actual boxing class, my vision began to telescope and I could feel the blackness closing in. I took a knee and drank some water.

The first few classes were held outdoors in a park because they were still finishing construction on the “studio” (they don’t call it a “gym”).

Jennifer gathered us in a circle at one of those early classes and had us all introduce ourselves and explain why we signed up for the class. Most of us mumbled something about “wanting to get into shape”. Then, one woman spoke up loudly when it was her turn.

“I want a six-pack.”

As a group, we all decided that, yes, that was the best answer anyone could give, and it would become the goal for all of us.

When we finally moved inside, there were a few new twists to our workouts waiting for us. They had the giant ropes to lift and snap, which are a staple of every fighter-training highlight video. They had weighted sleds to push, like football linemen. There were dumbbells, kettlebells, speed ladders (which always made me consider running for the door and paying the $12 cancellation fee) and, of course, row upon row of punching bags.

The coaches also gave us nutrition plans — suggested diets, shopping lists and recipes. I’ve learned to make cauliflower crust pizza. (“It’s not as bad as it could be,” was the review from one of my daughters.) I’ve also cut bread out of my diet, replacing it with something called Ezekiel Bread — which, if you ever made bird feeders in elementary school where you cover popsicle sticks with something sticky and roll them in seeds, that’s what Ezekiel bread is.

The trainers created a supportive, nurturing environment, often getting down on the floor next to you to help you do the last few reps. They’d also explain that if you don’t breathe while exercising, you’ll burst blood vessels in your eye (which I learned, by experience, is not pleasant, although it looks pretty fierce).

“Did you die, though?” they’ll ask as you collapse into a heap when the horn sounds ending each round.

It’s a bit tough to feel like we were making any progress because, as the class improved as a group, the trainers made things more difficult. So we always felt just as exhausted at the end. But clearly, we were getting into shape. I can now do the sit-ups and throw the jab-cross at the top of each rep. I can also hold a plank for the entire 90-second round.

I’ve also lost 16 pounds in the first month and a half of class and can see muscle development in my arms and legs.

I don’t have a six-pack yet, but at the end of “core day” (a phrase I’ve come to dread as much as “jumping jacks”), I can see and feel where it will be — eventually.

Who knows, maybe someday I’ll even hit hard enough to make Jennifer worried. Just like a real person.