The fitness test: A combat approach to improved health ... with mitts and pads

The advantages and disadvantages of combat sports as aids to getting into shape.

There are, in my opinion, very few sports that provide better all-round fitness training, or are more satisfying, than combat sports. Having said that, I fully acknowledge that getting hit by a foot or fist, no matter how well protected you may be or how gentle your opponent, is not everyone's idea of fun. Which is why I decided to give the Fitness O2 MMA-Fit (Mixed Martial Arts) class a try. The bi-weekly strengthening and conditioning class is taken by Tam Khan, an MMA fighter and Gracie Jiu-Jitsu student who knows only too well the physical demands of the sport and provides participants with an introduction into the basic elements of standing and ground striking, using focus mitts and kick pads rather than each other to practice on.

Perhaps more importantly, it also delivers a non-stop intense cardiovascular workout - which I discovered last Wednesday at Safa Park as the sun fell, the humidity rose and I found myself lining up for the warm-up. "When I say, 'one', touch the ground with your left hand, 'two', use your right hand, 'three', both together and when I shout 'jump' you stretch right up," Khan instructs before about 12 of us, male and female, took off around the field.

After several laps we line up again and Khan demonstrates a 'sprawl' - a technique used by MMA fighters to avoid wrestling take-downs, which involves falling quickly to the floor with your hips down and chest up - before springing straight back up again and running quickly on the spot. We run and sprint on the spot, hands up in a defensive position, and sprawl whenever instructed. This is no mean feat after two or three attempts but everyone else is giving it their best shot so I am determined to keep going.

Burpees - meaning variations on push-ups which involve jumping up into the air, springing down into a push-up and then jumping back up again - follow. So do more tuck-jumps, squats and lunges, wheelbarrows, running on the spot, push-ups, and a cruel variation on the already difficult Pilates 'plank' which involves moving up on to your fists and then back down on to your forearm - great for the abdominal muscles and the arms.

This evening there are a couple of newcomers and, despite his physically imposing frame, Khan is also fully aware of individual's genuine physical limitations. While he will push you to your limit, he offers those who have pre-existing injuries or niggles, or those just returning to a fitness programme, gentler alternatives where necessary. Among the newcomers is Jacqueline Sahoy, a 44-year-old Jamaican expatriate and mother. For Ms Sahoy, who says she had some background in martial arts, though has not practised for a decade, the appeal of the class is its no-nonsense approach to fitness and meeting like-minded people.

"I wanted to train in MMA but I didn't want to go to the gym," she says. "It's nice to be outside and meet people in the same kind of mindset." Having lost 20lbs last summer through eating carefully, she wants something "to get me going". "I find working out at the gym kind of boring and maybe I would do 30 minutes but here you have to keep going for the hour," she says. Warm-up complete, I pull myself up and grab a pair of focus mitts as we pair up for the striking element of the class.

We take it in turns to run through a round of basic punch combinations to begin, with one person wearing a pair of gloves and the other a pair of focus mitts. We follow with another punch combination, each before introducing a knee into the mix, for two or three more rounds. After the punch combinations we head to the ground for one round of ground-and-pound to finish. One partner lies on their back holding focus mitts while the other squats above them - gloves on, knees bent against the other's hamstrings - and rains down punches on the mitts, at various speeds and counts dictated by Khan.

Finally, the hour almost up, it's down on the ground for some more abdominal work to finish. Quintin Fitchell, a 25-year-old South African expatriate and MMA fan, will be coming back for more workouts, he says. Training under Khan - someone who has been in the cage and has first-hand fight experience - was important in choosing the class, he adds. "For me personally that was a big thing," he says. "To have someone who drives me but who also has been there and done it. I can go to the gym and have some pumped- up guy train me but I wanted to [train with] someone who knows what it's physically all about."