Walking into the Forteza Fitness club in Chicago's Ravenswood neighborhood is like strolling into a cultural time machine.
On some days, the time machine takes us back to Victorian England, circa 1895, as instructors teach bartitsu, a mixed martial art popular in late 19th century Britain, which includes elements of jiu-jitsu, bare-knuckle boxing, French kick-boxing and combat techniques that utilize a cane or walking stick.
On other days, the time machine goes back even further, as instructors teach traditional European martial arts techniques like armizare, an Italian form of sword fighting dating back to the medieval era; or sabre fencing, which goes back about that far too.
And while these ancient fitness and self-defense techniques may seem like the personal trainer's version of a historical re-enactment, participants say they're actually much more than that.
"This is actually much better than working out in a health club because it's a full-body workout," said Heather Hilchey, a Chicagoan who studies swordplay and fencing at Forteza. "And it's much more fun than a health club, because you have an opportunity to play with swords and interact with other people. You're not just on a machine by yourself."
"It's historically relevant, and it's also great for your body," added Jessica Wilson of Chicago, who takes bartitsu classes at Forteza. "You're not just building muscular strength. You're improving your coordination and agility with these classes."
Throughout North America, personal trainers and martial arts experts have been increasingly using these older techniques to help get their clients in shape and teach them different methods of self-defense. Clubs like Forteza in Chicago, the Northwest Fencing Academy in Eugene, Ore., and the Academie Duello in Vancouver, B.C., have recently opened primarily to provide training in these disciplines.
Academie Duello director Devon Boorman started teaching sword fighting almost 20 years ago and says that the spike in popularity is a recent phenomenon. "When I started, there were probably less than 10 instructors teaching historical swordplay in North America, and virtually no one was teaching bartitsu," Boorman said. "Now there are well over 100 people teaching swordplay, while dozens are teaching bartitsu."
"There isn't a major city in North America that I can't go to without finding someone teaching one of these disciplines to a group," Boorman added.
It's the sheer novelty and fantasy factor which first attracts novices to these activities.
"Movies, stories in popular culture and video games definitely play a role in the increase in interest in these older martial arts, especially swordplay," Boorman said. "So there are people who say 'I'm attracted to this idea, but I don't want to be sitting on the couch playing a video game'. Taking a class in swordplay or bartitsu allows them to act our their fantasy."
But instructors and participants say the ultimate appeal of these classic martial arts disciplines is the ability to engage the entire body in a workout that can't be replicated in a health club.
In swordplay, fencing and bartitsu, instructors say that the body's core, leg and arm muscles are all engaged, leading to more natural strength.
"It's very easy with powerlifting to gain impractical strengths — because you are just building up your arms and nothing else," Boorman said. "But in sword play or bartitsu, you are developing dynamic strength. In real life, you need to apply your strength abilities in very different situations. Your not just lifting things — you may need to resist and yield sometimes, so you need to build strength in your entire body in order to adapt to the different situations."
"My students are developing strength in their core and their hands — they're developing a lot of explosive power," adds Jesse Kulla, a medieval swordplay teacher at Forteza. "And as they move from one position to another in combat, they're really engaging muscles throughout their whole body."
The American Council on Exercise says that these vintage fitness courses are part of a nationwide trend to involve the entire body when working out. "It's like boot-camp training or strong-man training, where you aren't just working on one muscle at a time," said Pete McCall, an exercise physiologist for the council. "When you do any type of swordplay or fencing, you have an unlimited, unrestricted range of motion. In swordplay, for instance, you're engaging your hips, core, chest and shoulders just when you do a step and thrust with the sword. The body is designed to move in a variety of ways, which is preferable in a workout. That's just not the case with a weight machines, where your motion is restricted and the muscle activity is limited."
"And if you use more muscles, you expend more energy and get more value in your workout."
Clubs like Forteza do utilize exercise equipment, thought it's primarily from the 19th century, to help build more natural strength. Dumbbells, medicine balls, tiny cast-iron weights known as kettlebells, weighted bowling pin-shaped "Indian clubs," antique wall-mounted weight-lifting machines – they're all part of the workout routine for clients, who sometimes dress in Victorian-era clothing while practicing takedowns on gym mats or brandishing canes or umbrellas as weapons.
"We'll start out by doing combat using a cane, and then we'll move to French kick-boxing, then English bare-knuckle boxing, then conclude with some wrestling and jiu-jitsu," says Jessica Wilson of the bartitsu classes at Forteza. "You really have to have coordination and know how your body works to do this well. And you have to get the techniques down."