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The good fight

Can a Winnipeg boxing club's intensive six-week training program really change your life?

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 Tracy Tjaden trains on the bag at the Pan Am Boxing Club. She graduated from the high-intensive, six-week Fight Club, a program that pushed her beyond her limits.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Tracy Tjaden trains on the bag at the Pan Am Boxing Club. She graduated from the high-intensive, six-week Fight Club, a program that pushed her beyond her limits. Photo Store

"We have met the enemy and he is us."

-- Walt Kelley

 

In our most honest moments, we'll admit this is true.

But this was not the enemy I had in mind when I ventured into Winnipeg's Pan Am Boxing Club. I wanted to learn to defend myself, to throw a punch in the event I was backed into a corner. I wanted to toughen up.

Fresh out of my membership at perky GoodLife Fitness, I found walking into Pan Am for the first time to be intense and intimidating. Pan Am, housed in the basement of a historic landmark building in the Exchange District, is a real boxing club -- with an actual ring in the centre and framed pictures of Muhammad Ali on the walls. The leaders yell out commands at a breathless pace throughout hour-long classes that begin and end with military precision. Regardless of skill level, everyone in the class is pushed to their limits. You quickly learn those limits are moving targets.

 

If boxing at this club isn't challenging enough for you -- or if, like me, you have no idea what you're getting into -- you might find yourself signing up for a unique six-week training program here called Fight Club. While it is not about violence or beating anyone up, there is an enemy: you -- in particular, your laziness and any lack of faith you have in your own courage, inner strength and physical power.

First, Fight Club is not some underground cultish brawl club, and you can talk about it all you want (if you sign up, you may talk about little else). What you can't do is give up -- that is the first, second and only rule and it is there for you.

Like many contenders, I signed up to improve my boxing skills and shock my body to a higher level of fitness, within my own genetic constraints. I have always longed for one of those lithe yoga bodies and long, silky straight hair. But my hair is naturally curly and mostly unruly, and my body type is what I describe as the "farmer's daughter" -- built for hard work, with a natural inclination to store calories for those long, cold winters. (Of course, I'm not homesteading like my great grandmother did, so those calories just hunker down and overstay their welcome.)

I'd been a member at Pan Am for about four months and had the toughest workouts I'd ever done, but somehow Fight Club was tougher. This program is intense; contenders bond as they sweat and curse and support each other through what many describe as the physical challenge of their lives.

But if you're going to pick the fight of your life, Fight Club is a fine battle to choose.

 

-- -- --

 

"Let us show you how strong you can be."

This Pan Am slogan ultimately snagged me. I would like to say the club did show me how strong I can be, but it's a work in progress. I'm so much stronger than the first day I walked into the club, but now I've had a glimpse at how strong I could be. Harry Black, Pan Am's ripped head coach and president, reminds us: The bar is always moving. Work hard, get better and then push harder.

Fight Club Six, which ran last fall, included 42 contenders, about half of whom had participated in previous Fight Clubs. At the beginning of each week, we'd learn about that week's theme (cardio, weights, core, heavy bag, etc.) and receive some instruction on eating, sleeping and hydration to support our training.

The brainchild behind Fight Club, recruiter and human-resources consultant Susan Scott, says she started the program four years ago as a way to help members achieve results.

"I recall very clearly a discussion I had with a longtime member who said they worked out all the time, and worked hard, but no matter what they did, nothing was changing," says Scott, who is a trainer and the club's marketing director.

The workout requirements are challenging, but because they gradually increase the number of required classes each week, it is somehow doable. We started Week One with seven hour-long classes, plus two 20-minute weight training sessions; by Week Four that had climbed to 10 classes, one session on the weights and one hour-long spin class.

Scott and Black match all contenders with a mentor/coach who worked out with us, answered questions and kept us on track.

Liz Pham, my coach and two-time Fight Club veteran, says the best part about mentoring is watching your contender transform.

"Fight Club is a difficult program designed to put you through a simulation of how a fighter trains and prepares leading up to a fight," says Pham, who has been boxing for three years. "It's inspiring as a coach to watch your contenders give it their all and be part of the journey of their transformation."

Pham kept me going through long stretches of planks and push-ups, running countless stairs carrying a 15-pound medicine ball, endless skipping, wind sprints, technical sparring, bag work and much more.

Fight Club requires a serious time commitment -- occasionally we were doing three classes a day. Some contenders took time off work; all made adjustments.

And in the end, there are winners -- but no losers. Fight Club is a competition based on solid fitness metrics. The male and female winners achieved the greatest improvement in several weighted categories, including body-fat percentage, weight, hip/waist measurement and body mass index (BMI).

"Our metrics are based on best overall health, and not about appearance," says Scott," noting BMI is weighted higher than weight, which is ranked lowest at five per cent. Hip/waist measurement is weighted high because scientific research indicates it's a direct warning sign of heart attack, stroke and other serious health conditions. Body-fat percentage is also given a strong ranking in the overall equation. "It's commonly understood in health and fitness circles that a lower body fat will result in a healthier, fitter person," she notes.

The male and female contenders who improve the most are deemed winners, but if you finish Fight Club, many would say you have achieved greatness. Consider these stats: The 42 contenders in Fight Club Six lost a total of 550 pounds and 186 inches over six weeks. It's shocking, especially when you consider how much time many people can spend working out without achieving measurable results.

"It may not be about inches lost or pounds dropped, but someone may now be able to do 10 push-ups when before they could do one. Some women achieve their first pull-up," says Scott. "The experience has been described to us as life-changing, which is not something I take lightly."

Boxing is hard. I've been at it for almost a year and I still have a very low comfort level with hitting people and getting hit during light sparring. But surprisingly, this seems fine. I'm making beginner mistakes and following a typical learning curve. If I stick with it, I believe I'll conquer these and graduate to a fresh set of challenges.

The body is adaptable. I didn't think a person could sweat as much as I did during Fight Club. I also laughed, cried (twice, due to fear of quitting, then a basic emotional meltdown) and hit so many walls that I stopped noticing.

The support, empathy and encouragement from our mentors, fellow contenders and club leaders kept us going. I grew to love it when the instructors yelled at me; it meant they believed I could push harder, do better. And I did.

You can, too.

 

The next Fight Club will begin in May. Call Pan Am Boxing at 204-957-7666 for more information.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 6, 2014 0

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