August 31, 2009 / 10:25 AM / 10 years ago

Forza: The way of the stick

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) In many gyms these days, the aspiring samurai can learn the art of the sword by way of the stick, and also get a fierce cardio workout.

Ilaria Montagnani leads a Forza class at Equinox Fitness Center, New York City, in this 2007 handout photo. REUTERS/Handout

Forza, the name is Italian for strength and power, is a group fitness class based on the principles of traditional Japanese swordplay.

“I want to bring the world of martial arts to people who don’t want get a black belt, people who don’t want to hurt their knuckles or other people,” said Ilaria Montagnani, the black belt who created the workout.

In Forza, students wielding 40 inch wooden practice swords, called bokken, learn the basic cuts and strikes of the samurai while burning an average of 500 calories an hour.

“The workout is extremely authentic. Nothing has been watered down,” said Montagnani, a native of Florence, Italy.

Montagnani fashioned Forza from the principles of iaido, the ancient Japanese art of drawing the sword, engaging in sudden attack, and resolving the situation as the sword is returned to its sheath.

“In iaido, one strick and it’s over,” she said without a trace of a smile. “It’s very sudden.”

“Here we don’t do any combat. It is “Kill Bill,” she said, referring to the Quentin Tarantino movie, “in that it’s Japanese, it’s that kind of swordplay and that kind of intensity.

“But it’s not about killing,” she added. “It’s about being present. You don’t have to be a samurai or learn how to cut people up.”

So a typical class involves many calls to “En garde!” but no clashing of sticks.

The class is fast becoming a staple of gyms in the United States, Europe and Mexico.

“It’s especially popular in Scandinavia,” said Montagnani, who has trained instructors in Sweden, Russia and Japan.

“There are only about 10 moves and 13 cuts,” Montagnani explained, “So usually after two or three times, it’s like ‘OK, I get it.’ But then you have to control every one precisely. And you need the strength to stop the sword. Every time is an isometric squeeze.”

Dr. Jonathan Chang, of the American College of Sports Medicine, agrees that Japanese martial arts can offer a powerful way to stay fit.

“The workout is rigorous working both the upper and lower bodies, aiding in aerobic as well as anaerobic conditioning. This carries significant overall benefits,” the orthopedic surgeon said from his office in Alhambra, California.

But he cautions that the tools, which in the case of Forza are wooden sticks that weigh one pound (.45 kilograms) but can feel like five, put extra demands on the novice that can increase the risk of injuries.

“When well coached this should be minimized, but cannot be eliminated,” he explained.

Montagnani says so far no one has been injured taking her class. She remains confident but vigilant.

“After 12 years I know what is dangerous, what is doable,” she explained. “But you have to give them enough freedom so they can make mistakes and get through the motions.”

Ilaria Montagnani leads a Forza class at Equinox Fitness Center, New York City, in this 2007 handout photo. REUTERS/Handout

And beyond the motions?

“Focus. Concentration. You want to get to the point where the sword is you. There’s so much beauty without that extreme stuff,” she added.

“This is for the mainstream.”

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