Health & Fitness 2007:
'Twisting crunches!" demands a wiry fight instructor during a recent adult combat fitness class in Napa. While the other students, already exhausted by the relentless work out, obediently bob their heads up and down, the instructor singles me out. "Brett," he growls, throwing a hostile glance my way. "You missed our warm-up!" I gulp. We've never met in person before. How does he know who I am?
"Sorry," I offer, meekly trailing off. This is not the time for excuses about rush-hour traffic. In no time, I'm down on the sweaty mat contorting my body, trying with terrible speed to keep up with the rest of the class. Apparently, I haven't missed the entire warm-up. I'm right on time for a series of body-ripping "combatives," repetitions that develop muscles useful for street-fighting. We do twisting crunches and walking lunges, followed by a quadricep torture resembling the Russian dance in the Nutcracker ballet.
The omniscient instructor is Lance Meltzer, who also owns this school, Main Street Martial Arts. He bases his combat fitness class on a blend of several Israeli martial arts used by that tiny country's army. Similar proprietary disciplines within this fighting genre are Haganah (meaning "defense" in Hebrew), and Krav Maga, billing itself as "the official self defense system of the Israeli Defense Forces."
What differentiates these forms of combat fitness from the more well-known, theatrical types is a no-nonsense approach to efficacy. "It's not set up for if you want to develop an artistic flair—that's more the Asian martial arts. This is strictly Israeli, which is combat in the streets," says Meltzer. "We teach very basic strikes to a particular target." The focus is on hand-to-hand and hand-to-weapon combat.
Next, we pair up for combat simulations. A blond woman in her mid-thirties wearing a black T-shirt that says "Fight" introduces herself as Stephanie and offers to be my partner. The winemaker at Far Niente, Stephanie doesn't look that menacing; after all, she has painted toenails, and, besides, she stands a good head shorter than I. But what if I hurt her by accident?
Such worry is totally unnecessary. Following Meltzer's directions, I simulate having Stephanie in a moving choke-hold. Before I have time to laugh uncomfortably at how weird it is to pretend to choke someone, she has mock-elbowed my head and pinned me by the arm so that she can "marinate" my knees without worrying that I'll get away. If all goes well, she'll pretend-break my ankle. Even though this is just a practice fight, I find myself feeling claustrophobic in Stephanie's mighty grip.
Hitting attackers where it hurts so you can incapacitate them is the goal of combat fitness. In other words, eyeballs, throat and groin are all fair game. "You can't develop your eyeball to withstand a finger. It sounds kind of brutal, but that might be the only way you can get away from someone much bigger and stronger," Meltzer says.
"Jackie Chan is not what works on the street, unless you are Jackie Chan. A kick to the groin works a heck of a lot more effectively."
Instead of pandering to a taste for fancy moves, Israeli combat fighting cuts to the chase. "This is a kind of spoon-fed self-defense," Meltzer explains. Even people without prior experience with martial arts can become proficient in two to three months to the point where they could feel confident if faced by a threatening situation. "We've taught police officers, firemen, housewives, 14-year-old high school girls and boys. It's really for everyone. It's very practical and very fun," says Meltzer.
Although Israeli-style combat classes have been available in the United States since the early '80s, the workout has only gained a substantial following during the last five years or so. In fact, not only have civilians caught on, but trainees have also included the Secret Service, the FBI and Navy SEALS. The fight tactics originated with the formation of Israel in 1948 and are still part of the mandatory military training there.
Meltzer, a retired chiropractor, began teaching Haganah some four years ago after he saw an ad for it in an issue of Black Belt Magazine. He flew all over the country to train as an instructor. Recently, he has dropped the proprietary name "Haganah" and now teaches a similar version in the combat fitness class.
Toward the end of the evening, Meltzer appears with a cardboard box labeled "training guns." Distributing yellow rubber handgun models, he tells us how to get the better of an armed attacker. I pair up with Stephanie again. She places the gun in position just under my rib and flatly says, "Give me all your money." I spring into position to disarm her, and she shakes her head. "No, you're not supposed to look at me, and you're hopping too much." We do it again. I'm still doing it all wrong.
A woman named Monica Pasquini, 26, walks by and assesses our performance. "You're moving away from the gun too much," she says. "Instead, just breathe in to create space between you and the gun." Now a high school English teacher in Rohnert Park, Pasquini started taking classes at the Main Street Martial Arts seven years ago. Soon after she started, she used tactics similar to those we were learning in the combat fitness class to ward off a sleazebag who'd cornered her at a San Francisco nightclub. "I used a technique we'd just learned that day," she says, clearly still proud, "and that worked."
Describing himself as a pacifist, Meltzer says, "Anyone can run, but [sometimes] handling the situation quickly is necessary."
"Combat fitness is getting you in shape and giving you a hammer, screwdriver and a wrench in your belt," he explains. "The others will give you the entire Allen wrench set."
Main Street Martial Arts currently offers combat fitness on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 5:30pm. $95 per month for unlimited classes, including other martial arts, or $15 per class. 1313 Main St., Napa, 707.224.6431. The facility is slated to move to the former Vallergas store at 1525 W. Imola Ave., Napa, in February.
Area centers teaching Haganah:
Schafer's ATA Black Belt Academy, 1460 E. Cotati Ave., Unit I, Rohnert Park. 707.793.9401.
Segal's Black Belt Academy Inc., 1416 Sonoma Ave., Santa Rosa. 707.568.4321.
Echelberger's ATA Black Belt Academy, 363 S. McDowell Blvd., Petaluma. 707.763.KICK (5425).
Area center teaching Krav Maga:
Fight Academy, 5675 Redwood Dr., Rohnert Park. 707.584.3812.