MEDIA AND PRESS COVERAGE
BODY TREND – KILLER WORKOUT
By Catherine Piercy
We can’t decide which was more impressive: Uma Thurman’s swordplay in Kill Bill or her lean, sculpted body. Now an exercise class called Forza, at Equinox Fitness Club and Reebok Sports Club/LA in New York City, is taking a stab at both. Created by martial-arts expert Ilaria Montagnani, the one-hour class’s Japanese samurai movements incorporate a light plastic or wood sword and lunges, squats, and turns. Besides the cardiovascular benefits, the sword strokes tone the shoulders, chest, and back. Reebok’s class has become wildly popular. “Something happens when you get a sword in your hands that doesn’t happen on the StairMaster — suddenly you don’t mind working your butt off,” Montagnani says. “And it doesn’t hurt that you look cool doing it.” Bottom Line: The 60 minutes of strikes and cuts left our arms incredibly sore — but our adrenaline levels soaring.
THE WAY OF THE SAMURAI POWERSTRIKE® FORZA: THE SWORD-FIGHTING WORKOUT
By Susan Dawson-Cook
Group exercisers who have only heard the swish of a blade from the confines of a movie theater can now grasp a sword and become the stars of their own shows through Powerstrike® Forza. A martial arts format adapted for the group class setting, Forza enables participants to experience firsthand the empowering mindbody practice of moving a sword like a Samurai.
llaria Montagnani, the president of Powerstrike in New York City, used her 10 years of karate black belt knowledge to create the innovative Forza practice in 1995, Noticing the popularity of group exercise in fitness centers, Montagnani felt that a class integrating martial arts moves would appeal to hard-core participants, “I really believe in the benefits of training in a martial arts way,” she said. Yet most people’s busy schedules today don’t allow the time or commitment needed for traditional martial arts classes and working toward a black belt. About 98 percent of Forza participants are not martial artists, said Montagnani. They are young mothers, busy executives and other people who want to sweat and train hard, but have limited time to exercise.
Working at a very high intensity, in Forza “you start and finish with a weapon, very much like martial arts,” Even though most students don’t know what a kata is, they can reap many of the mindbody benefits of martial arts training, “The class isn’t for everybody.”
But for people trained in group exercise, who like to sweat and who aspire to improve mental focus, Forza offers a challenging, new experience, Montagnani stated.
The dynamic Forza format draws on two elements of Japanese sword fighting: kendo and Aikijuiutsu, Yet these elements include no physical contact. The dull-tipped “fitness” swords used in classes are made of wood or plastic and slicing and cutting is done only through air. As a result, swords can do no damage unless they are handled improperly Keeping class sizes small, participants properly spaced apart and opening with pre-class instruction on proper handling of the sword have kept Forza classes safe over the years, according to Montagnani.
Swords typically weigh between 1 to 3 pounds with the plastic bokken swords (used by advanced participants) weighing 2 to 3 pounds. This may not sound like much weight, but cutting and striking for an hour, with even a 1-pound sword, often with arms fully or partially extended from the body, requires extensive muscle endurance, A form of Japanese moving meditation is how Montagnani describes Forza—training with a sword in a nonviolent manner. Participants feel empowered holding a weapon in their hands while concentrating on executing the moves correctly. “Your mind becomes stronger because you have to be present and focus.”
The low impact, high intensity lower-body movements elevate heart rate and improve cardiovasculor fitness while the sword movements sculpt, dramatically changing the shape of arms, shoulders and back. Repetitive movement patterns can be improved upon and eventually mastered. “It’s not about choreography or intricate moves or routines that you create. It is about relaxing your mind,” said Montagnani, Footwork is simple so participants can concentrate on moving the sword correctly, left to right, right to left and top to down.
Like traditional group exercise classes, moves are executed according to the beat and phrase. The high intensity, low impact moves, repeated over and over again to trance music between 135 and 140bpm, involve various combinations of squats, lunges and steps across the floor. Although there ore a total of 13 sword moves in Forza, beginning classes integrate only the four easiest to perform: the full cut, half cut, horizontal cut and thrust. More advanced classes introduce diagonal and reverse horizontal cuts.
Page 51 lists the four basic sword moves, which are the simplest to learn and execute correctly and that work the whole body. As shown, the right hand is on top and the left hand is down on the sword handle, which is the traditional way the sword is held in martial arts. In Forza classes, the hand position is reversed about 5 0 percent of the time to promote balanced muscle strength in both arms. Forza is becoming increasingly popular in mainstream gyms as well as spas and Pilâtes studios, nat only in the United States, but worldwide. With the exception of the deconditioned or individuals with limitations such as hernia, lower back or shoulder injuries, “any body who can do a regular gym class can do this. The moves are repeated and athletic in nature, as opposed to complex [dance] like the average Step or floor aerobics does,” said Montagnani
Offering three instructor certification programs, including one weekend-long class for Forza, Montagnani spends an entire day teaching group exercise instructors how to execute the movements correctly before showing how to effectively teach them to others- Instructors learn original choreography during the workshop and are later offered new ideas for how to embellish these and create original movement patterns for more advanced classes. Montagnani has produced one training video for Forza, and is in the process of working on a second one.
For more information on Forza and other Powerstrike workshops and certifications, you can view Montagnani’s Web site at www.powerstrike.com.
BLACK BELT MAGAZINE
While spreading the word about Forza, Montagnani warns that prospective students shouldn’t expect mere bubblegum kickboxing with a wooden sword: Forza is very intense and provides a tremendous workout.
THE FITTEST PEOPLE ON THE PLANET THE POWER WOMAN
By Christo Forster
Ilaria Montagnani’s motto: “Get out of your comfort zone!”
The 42-year-old Italian from New York with a black belt Shorinjiru in karate and trained for 13 years with the samurai sword. Their workouts are fierce.
WAY OF THE SAMURAI
International Fitness Forum
THE SAMURAI WORKOUT: GET CUT PLAYING WITH SWORDS (WITHOUT A TRIP TO THE E.R.)
by Brandon Guarneri with Illaria Montagnini
You probably think that swinging a blade around like Leonardo from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is going to leave you missing a limb. But don’t worry—the only thing you’ll lose doing a Forza workout is fat. A core workout based on samurai swordship, Forza doesn’t require actual blades. Rather, you can use a broomstick or wiffleball bat to mimic a katana blade and activate your core and shoulder muscles in a new way, burning calories and increasing endurance. Try the beginner’s routine below from Forza instructor Illaria Montagnini, to build a Bushido-ready physique. Read on to channel your inner warrior.
Grab a dull, long, weighted object, such as a broomstick and walk into an open area with a tall ceiling (or no ceiling) and plenty of space. (You can buy a wooden sword at wooden-swords.com.) Perform the workout as a circuit, resting 30 seconds between exercises. (So you’ll perform all your reps for exercise A, rest, then exercise B, rest again, and so on.) Repeat the circuit as many times as it takes until you’ve been working out for 15 minutes—your goal is to eventually perform 15 minutes of continuous activity with no rest. Once you can do that, use a heavier object.
Grab your “sword” with both hands, palms facing each other, but separate your grip by four inches. Your right hand should be on top. Take an athletic stance and place your feet together. Keeping your arms bent, lift the “sword” over your head so the “blade” points directly behind you . Take a short step forward with your left foot and simultaneously slice downward, so that the sword ends up in front of you with your bottom hand at waist level . Return to the starting position. That’s one rep. Perform 15 reps, and then switch your grip so that your left hand is above your right. Now you’ll step forward with the right foot. Complete another 15 reps.
Set up in the same position as you did for the half-cut . Lunge with your left leg until it’s nearly parallel to the floor, and slice downward with your “sword” so that it ends up in front of you and your bottom hand is at waist level. . Return to the start position. That’s one rep. Perform 15 reps with before switching grips so your left hand is over your right. Now you’ll lunge with your right leg. Do 15 more reps.
C Horizontal Cut
Take an athletic stance with feet shoulder-width apart. Hold the “sword” so your hands are slightly in front of your right shoulder and your “sword” extends behind you . Rotate your hips and shoulders from right to left as you slice with your “sword,” tracing a line parallel to the ground and at your eye level, stopping when your bottom hand reaches your left arm pit . Return to the start position. That’s one rep. Perform 15 reps before switching grips, so your left hand is above your right. Now you’ll cut left to right, rotating your hips in shoulders in the opposite direction. Do 15 more reps.
D Thrust Lunge
Take an athletic stance with your feet together, and hold your “sword” with your arms bent and your hands near your left hip so the “sword” extends in front of you . Lunge forward with your right leg until your front thigh becomes parallel to the ground and push the “sword” forward . Reverse the motion and return to the start position. That’s one rep. Do 15 reps before switching grips so you left hand is on top of the right. Now you’ll lunge with your left leg, and start on your right hip. Do 15 more reps.
SWORD FIGHTING FOR FITNESS
NBC New York
If you’ve ever fancied yourself a nimble ninja (you know, in your other life), this new sword-fighting class may be just the trick to keeping you fit.
The New York Times’ latest Gym Class video report sends reporter Karen Barrow to a Forza class, which “takes the motions of sword fighting and packages it into an hour of muscle toning, endurance building and mind condition.”
“It was sort of a mind workout in additional to a physical workout,” Barrow says in the video, noting that even a second of distraction throws her focus off.
“Everybody can benefit from this workout because physically there is no impact,” Forza instructor Ilaria Montagnani says in the video. “None of the movements are violent, although it may seem a scary kind of workout because you have the weapon in your hand. But it’s actually very gentle on your body. The moves are authentic, the moves that are used in samurai sword training.”
The class was at an Equinox Fitness Club on the Upper West Side.
New York Magazine
“You control the sword; the sword doesn’t control you,” intoned heavily biceped instructor Omar. After wielding a pound-and-a-half wooden samurai sword for fifteen minutes, I could feel my upper arms and back submit to fatigue, but I was still channeling Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. Two-thirds through the class, my shoulders were ready to give up. By the time it was over, I was panting.
Peak Heart Rate: 148
Calories Burned: 302
The Pain-O-Meter: 6
GYM CLASS: SAMURAI SWORD FIGHTING
By Karen Barrow
Want to be a samurai? You can get a taste of what it’s like to be a warrior, as well as the toned arms that go with it, by attending a Forza class.
Named after the Italian word for strength, Forza takes the motions of sword fighting and packages it into an hour of muscle toning, endurance building and mind conditioning.
“The most important part of the workout is the mind workout,” said Ilaria Montagnani, the New York fitness trainer who created Forza and sells books and DVDs on the exercise. “It is a focusing workout. It helps you concentrate.”
To see what Forza is really like, I headed to the Equinox Fitness Club on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for the latest in my Gym Class series. You can watch the video of my sword-brandishing efforts here, and read my Gym Class ratings below.
What is Forza? A toning and cardio class that combines sword fighting and martial arts. During the class you perform a series of movements while slashing a “bokken,” a dull, wooden sword, through the air.
Who’s it for? People who respect the intense focus needed to learn a martial art, and wouldn’t mind having a body that looked like it could take on Bruce Lee.
What’s the benefit? The repetitious slashing and controlled movements of the sword help to tone the upper body and core. It definitely gets your heart rate up. It’s also good for improving concentration; it’s the type of class that forces you to shut out the outside world for an hour.
Is there a learning curve? The movements are taught one by one and gradually pieced together into longer routines. The individual movements aren’t tough to follow, but lose your focus for a second and you’ll lose your place.
Where does it hurt? During the class, hands and wrists hurt from clutching the sword, which should get easier with time. By the next day, arms, shoulders, upper back and abs were all sore.
What should I bring? A warrior mentality. Wear shorts and sneakers. Swords are provided. Swords at heavier weights are available for more experienced students.
Best in-class review: “Don’t worry, you’re not going to hit her,” said Stephen Beldavis, a classmate who reassured me when I worried I might impale a student in the row in front of me.
NY MAG BEST OF NY
Health and Self
You Won’t Even Know You’re Sweating Classes that keep the mind occupied while the heart rate soars. FORZA Reebok Sports Club 160 Columbus Ave., at 67th St.(212)362-6800 Using a long wooden sword as a prop, Ilaria Montagnani (who looks like a cross between Gabrielle Reese and Arnold Schwarzenegger), teaches traditional samurai-sword-training moves. teaches traditional samurai-sword-training moves. Montagnani (who looks like a cross between Gabrielle Reese and Arnold Schwarzenegger) Class begins with “half cuts” (raise your sword over your head so the “blade” points behind you, then slice down to neck level) and “full cuts” (same thing, except the slice ends at the navel) then proceeds rapidly to combinations. Keeping step with Montagnani without maiming fellow fighters requires intense concentration and core stability.
CHEER UP YOUR FITNESS
By Rachel Grumman Bender
DIET BY THE SWORD
By Mary Tannen
I am trying not to think what Freud would say about this roomful of mostly women brandishing big sticks. At Equinox on Broadway and 19th Street, we stand in rows facing a mirror, eyes trained on our wooden swords as well as on our leader, Ilaria Montagnani. Moving to the beat of music that sounds like rhythmic jackhammering, we squat, lunge, slice and slash. The class is called Forza. The footwork is simple, and there are only 13 sword moves. The difficulty comes in making each cut precise, putting the whole body behind the swing and controlling the stick.
Montagnani’s weapon and body move as one. Although I try to mimic the harmony and economy of her motions, I can’t help noticing that my stick is on its own trajectory. There’s an alarming amount of flailing, and I even strike some shelves behind my head. Montagnani has cautiously taken aside the neophytes before class to watch as they practice. There are no “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” acrobatics in this class, I was disappointed to discover. Montagnani explains that the movie featured an intricate Chinese style that extends over time, with much jousting. The traditional Japanese swordsmanship, iaido, on which Forza is based, is “linear, precise — one stab and it’s over,” she says. “It’s very calm, and then quick.”
Forza, Italian for “strength,” is the creation of Montagnani, who is in fact Italian. That said, there is no dolce far niente in her demeanor. With her fair hair, hazel eyes and military stance, she looks like a small, feminine Prussian officer.
“I’ve been a martial artist since I was little,” she allows, but since she was a proper Florentine young lady, she was not sent to karate lessons but for ballet and piano instruction. All that she learned about martial arts came from books until she left for the States at age 19 to study. “I was driven,” she says. “It was the entire focus of my life.” She earned her black belt in karate, then took up the sword, attracted by its “beauty, grace and power.” She had to train with a wooden sword for 11 years before graduating to the real thing. “And then you inevitably cut yourself,” she says. Because of the terminal nature of this kind of fighting, you do not practice with an opponent. You judge your skill by the sound of the blade as it slices through the air.
As her training in martial arts required that she spend hours executing the same moves over and over, Montagnani hit upon the idea of setting moves to music and of fashioning the moves into aerobic routines. She hatched Powerstrike, kickboxing against an imaginary opponent, which is now registered all over the world. Forza came next, with the idea that students could begin with one-pound swords and graduate to heavier weights. (Montagnani trains with a four-pounder, but after an hour of lifting and swinging, I felt one was plenty.)
In addition to teaching 20 hours of classes a week, Montagnani trains instructors worldwide. The sport is a hit in Scandinavia: “They’re good athletes, not soft. They like regimentation. South America and Italy don’t have the correct frame of mind. It’s not for everyone. It requires focus.”
Montagnani has made a DVD, and the wooden swords, called bokken, can be obtained in Chinatown, so theoretically you could become a sitting-room samurai (after carefully clearing the area of bric-a-brac and kids). But there’s nothing like being with other grunting, sweating, slashing acolytes to keep your mind on message.
Outside the glass studio at Equinox, people are trudging on StairMasters and lifting weights. They probably think we are the frivolous ones, but Forza, if done right, is supposed to burn 500 calories an hour, while working arms, legs, back and abs. And you can imagine lopping off heads and disemboweling enemies, which adds a certain passion you can’t bring to weightlifting.
Later, over cappuccino, I tell Montagnani that if accosted in a dark alley, I think I’ll be able to defend myself, as long as I have access to a big stick. Looking a trifle discomfited, she confesses that she was accosted by a man in a crowded subway recently. Though armed, she did not use her sword: “It would have been devastating for him.” Instead she yelled and shoved like any civilian, and no one even looked up.
Well, at least I am burning calories; I’ll be able to eat a doughnut. But Montagnani, who has no discernible body fat, is drinking a small skim and looking wistfully at the pastry selection. “I’m in training,” she explains. I’m beginning to see that it will take more than a couple of hours a week of stick waving to get to look like her. You must live by the sword.
THE FORZA WORKOUT THE SAMURAI WORKOUT: GET CUT PLAYING WITH SWORDS (WITHOUT A TRIP TO THE E.R.)
by Brandon Guarneri with Ilaria Montagnini
You probably think that swinging a blade around like Leonardo from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is going to leave you missing a limb. But don’t worry—the only thing you’ll lose doing a Forza workout is fat. A core workout based on samurai swordship, Forza doesn’t require actual blades. Rather, you can use a broomstick or wiffleball bat to mimic a katana blade and activate your core and shoulder muscles in a new way, burning calories and increasing endurance. Try the beginner’s routine below from Forza instructor Illaria Montagnini, to build a Bushido-ready physique. Read on to channel your inner warrior. Directions: Grab a dull, long, weighted object, such as a broomstick and walk into an open area with a tall ceiling (or no ceiling) and plenty of space. (You can buy a wooden sword at wooden-swords.com.) Perform the workout as a circuit, resting 30 seconds between exercises. (So you’ll perform all your reps for exercise A, rest, then exercise B, rest again, and so on.) Repeat the circuit as many times as it takes until you’ve been working out for 15 minutes—your goal is to eventually perform 15 minutes of continuous activity with no rest. Once you can do that, use a heavier object. The Workout: A Half-Cut Grab your “sword” with both hands, palms facing each other, but separate your grip by four inches. Your right hand should be on top. Take an athletic stance and place your feet together. Keeping your arms bent, lift the “sword” over your head so the “blade” points directly behind you . Take a short step forward with your left foot and simultaneously slice downward, so that the sword ends up in front of you with your bottom hand at waist level . Return to the starting position. That’s one rep. Perform 15 reps, and then switch your grip so that your left hand is above your right. Now you’ll step forward with the right foot. Complete another 15 reps. B Full-Cut Set up in the same position as you did for the half-cut . Lunge with your left leg until it’s nearly parallel to the floor, and slice downward with your “sword” so that it ends up in front of you and your bottom hand is at waist level. . Return to the start position. That’s one rep. Perform 15 reps with before switching grips so your left hand is over your right. Now you’ll lunge with your right leg. Do 15 more reps. C Horizontal Cut Take an athletic stance with feet shoulder-width apart. Hold the “sword” so your hands are slightly in front of your right shoulder and your “sword” extends behind you . Rotate your hips and shoulders from right to left as you slice with your “sword,” tracing a line parallel to the ground and at your eye level, stopping when your bottom hand reaches your left arm pit . Return to the start position. That’s one rep. Perform 15 reps before switching grips, so your left hand is above your right. Now you’ll cut left to right, rotating your hips in shoulders in the opposite direction. Do 15 more reps. D Thrust Lunge Take an athletic stance with your feet together, and hold your “sword” with your arms bent and your hands near your left hip so the “sword” extends in front of you . Lunge forward with your right leg until your front thigh becomes parallel to the ground and push the “sword” forward . Reverse the motion and return to the start position. That’s one rep. Do 15 reps before switching grips so you left hand is on top of the right. Now you’ll lunge with your left leg, and start on your right hip. Do 15 more reps. Learn more about Forza at: www.powerstrike.com
FORZA – THE WAY OF THE STICK
By Dorene Internicola
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.
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.”
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.”
SECRET AGENT SLIM-DOWN
By Beth Janes
NEW YORKERS DISCOVER THE WAY OF THE SAMURAI
by Gabrielle Birkner
On any given day, New Yorkers seeking a challenging aerobic and upper-body workout crowd into city exercise studios to spend the better part of an hour making broad slashing and skewering movements, all the while wielding 2- to 3-foot swords. The battle-worthy sequences are the core of the popular group fitness phenomenon called Forza, in which a weapon of the ancient Japanese warrior class doubles as a fitness prop.
These samurai-inspired Forza classes are not as daunting, or as dangerous, as they may seem: Students are taught to brandish their weapons, made of dulled wood, with the utmost care and control, thus minimizing the risk of injury in exercise studios that are filled to capacity.
Forza’s popularity and availability has been growing ever since it was developed more than a decade ago by the Italian-born karate black belt Ilaria Montagnani “as a way to bridge the world of martial arts with the world of fitness,” she said. The discipline has been boosted in recent years by the popularity of feature films such as “The Last Samurai” and “Kill Bill,” which glorify traditional Japanese warfare.
Beginners may find Forza downright grueling. Even a 1- to 2-pound sword can feel unwieldy after an hour of swinging it. But with a little practice, Ms. Montagnani said the class becomes a “moving meditation,” and one that can burn more than 500 calories an hour. “There is nothing more beautiful, graceful, elegant, and empowering,” she said of the samurai forms that inspired the workout.
To date, hundreds of fitness professionals have been trained to teach Forza — the name is Italian for “strength” — at health clubs throughout the East Coast and the mid-Atlantic region. In New York, Ms. Montagnani herself instructs most of the sword-centric classes at the Sports Club/LA in Midtown, the Reebok Sports Club on the Upper West Side, and at various Equinox locations in Manhattan.
When a 26-year-old marketing associate, Tessa Epstein, first tried Forza about three years ago, she said her arms were so sore the next day that she had trouble brushing her teeth. In spite of the muscle aches — “I knew right away that it was effective because I could feel it,” she said — Ms. Epstein, a Manhattan resident, returned to class. “Now, I walk in, and I’m concentrating so hard on perfecting the moves that I don’t even realize that I’m working out,” she said.
Another student of Ms. Montagnani, Desiree Care, said she had watched several Forza classes through the window of an exercise studio at her gym but was initially too intimidated to join in. After about two weeks, she got up the nerve to try the class, and six sessions later, she said she’s hooked. “It makes you feel very strong, very powerful” and is an effective stress reliever, too, Ms. Care, a 30-year-old actress living in Queens, said.
Those looking for a more authentic samurai experience can find it at the JCC in Manhattan, where Cary Nemeroff, the author of the forthcoming book “Mastering the Samurai Sword” (Tuttle), teaches group lessons. Mr. Nemeroff, known by his students as “Soke” — a title often bestowed upon the leader of a school or style of Japanese martial arts — expects those who attend his classes to don traditional samurai garb and, within about a month, learn how to wield a bladed metal sword. All commands are given in Japanese during the two-hour sword class, which is the most popular of all the dojo-style martial arts courses Mr. Nemeroff teaches.
Mr. Nemeroff’s weekly lessons, which attract between 18 and 25 students, draw on the techniques of a variety of Japan’s sword-based martial arts. Students may eventually learn how to draw, fence, and disarm an opponent, and even how to run, jump, and roll with their weapon unsheathed. Mr. Nemeroff said that in his 31 years of learning and teaching the skills of samurai swordsmanship, neither he nor any of his students have been injured by the weapon — carried sheathed and in protective coverings outside the studio.
Between lessons at the JCC, 74-year-old retiree Nannette Gordon, who has been studying with Mr. Nemeroff for eight years, said she practices in her 650-square-foot Manhattan apartment, her small dog watching from the sofa. “I figure if I can take away a sword from another samurai, I could take away a knife or a gun from someone on a city street,” she said. “If a burglar comes in, good luck.”
Forza classes offered free to members at the Sports Club/LA at Rockefeller Center, 45 Rockefeller Plaza, 212-218-8600, Reebok Sports Club, 160 Columbus Ave. at 67th Street, 212-362-6800, and various Equinox locations, 212-332-6549, wooden swords are provided in class; Samurai Sword classes at the JCC in Manhattan, 334 Amsterdam Ave. at 76th Street, 646-505-4446, nine 180-minute classes cost $160 for members, $190 for non-members. Private lessons are also available.
NEW YORK TIMES EXERPT
By Ralph Blumenthal
How a nude model stays in shape: I’ll do my Forza. That is a sword class taught by Ilaria Montagnani. It trains you to diminish the ego. She takes it from the Japanese principle of sword fighting, to be accurate with the cut. Everyone thinks you cut with your arms but you use your entire body to initiate a cut. Then I take her kick-boxing class. We follow her wherever she teaches.
Time Out New York!
The workout: Forza means “strength and power” in Italian—an apt descriptor for this intense workout that combines two Japanese sword-fighting techniques, kendo and aikijujutsu. The routine was developed to work the body and mind: It begins with 20 minutes of basic cuts with a wooden sword, then escalates into a full-body workout in which you chop, cut and swoop while squatting, twisting and turning. The second half builds on a martial-arts routine, which starts with simple combos then turns complex; this is where the “mind” part comes in. Forza burns up to a whopping 700 calories an hour, and working with the weight of the sword builds lean muscle; the varied movements target each part of the arms, as well as the shoulders and back.
Time Out New York!
A one-to-three-pound wooden Japanese sword (bokken) is your primary weapon during this hour-long upper-body session. Creator and instructor Ilaria Montagnani guides you and 40–50 other samurai wanna-bes through a series of choreographed cuts, strengthening biceps and triceps, among other muscles. Montagnani also incorporates lunges and squats to tone legs. Be ready to harness your mind, too: “When you have a sword in your hand,” says Montagnani, “you can only think about your next move—nothing else.” Equinox, location and schedule varies; visit website for details. Monthly membership $178.
For workout fiends in New York, the hottest invitation around is to Nike’s Project Classified. Since October 2006, Project Classified classes have popped up every few months, always held in secret, unorthodox locations. Loyal exercisers (whose names are given to Nike by the city’s top instructors) receive their mysterious invitations a mere two or three days before the event, usually with little more info than a date, time and address (the type of class often remains unknown). I snagged an invite to the most recent event—at 583 Ballroom—and decided to go see what the fuss was about. Read all about it on W.
MAKING THE MOST OF YOUR 15 MINUTES OF FAME
By Gwendolyn Bounds
Ilaria Montagnani is peaking.
Across Manhattan, students of all ages line up in gyms angling for a spot in one of the 38-year-old Italian instructor’s martial-arts fitness classes. Ms. Montagnani, who has appeared on the “Today” show and “Good Morning America,” is in such demand that latecomers sometimes stand in the hall trying to follow through the glass. Class sizes got so out of hand at one Equinox club, managers had to lecture attendees on proper etiquette — for instance, not saving spots in the front row.
“For a small hour, I’m a rock star,” says Ms. Montagnani. “Then I come back to earth.” That’s because as the chiseled 125-pound teacher approaches 40, she knows her rock-star days are numbered if she can’t create a vehicle to sustain her work when she physically no longer can. Currently she teaches 20 hours a week and can command $100 an hour or more; the industry average is $22. “I’m at my highest earnings level, and there’s only one way to go from here,” Ms. Montagnani says. “And that’s downward.”
It’s a quandary entrepreneurs of many ilk face: When the business is you, how can it stay viable once your personal limits are reached? It’s true whether you’re a consultant or hairstylist, a model or pro athlete. Sometimes the limitation is an aging face and body; other times it’s simply the number of hours one person can work in a day. Parlaying celebrity, however temporary or localized, into an enterprise with longevity requires some universal steps — from finding other mediums beyond yourself to deliver the brand to having the confidence to tap others who can lead where you can’t.
“Regardless of the strengths of the celebrity founder, the key to successful business development is a strong management team that can remove the actual product from the personality,” says Deborah Larrison, head of Citigroup Capital Strategies, a unit of Smith Barney serving owners of privately held businesses. “Another key is that the personality not be the actual product. For example, as celebrity fades a useless product is exactly that — useless.”
The challenges can be seen vividly among instructors in the $14.8 billion health-club industry, where aching knees and torn ligaments can shorten classroom careers and keep teaching the domain of the young. So rather than milk her current celebrity status by cramming in more of her popular classes or giving lucrative private lessons, Ms. Montagnani instead devotes equal time to building Powerstrike Inc., the company via which she trains other instructors in her methods, produces videos and attempts to create new branded instruction.
While the downside can be painful — especially the loss of immediate revenue — the hope is that Powerstrike will perpetuate her fitness legacy, and income, once Ms. Montagnani must slow down. “I don’t want to be a pathetic 50-year-old jumping around trying to keep classes with seven people,” she says. “If you want to stay in the fitness industry, the question is, how do you create a continuation of what you do?”
UNLIKE MOST CHANNELS OF COMMERCE, there are few clear long-term entrepreneurial paths for those such as Ms. Montagnani. That’s partly because new ideas in her field don’t have a natural path to market the way, say, consumer goods do. Health clubs shy away from paying for proprietary class content — often preferring to develop programs they own in-house — and selling workout products is tough unless you’re already a brand name. Some teachers open their own studios. But that’s increasingly difficult with industry consolidation into the hands of big names with one-stop fitness and spa shopping, such as Crunch, Equinox and Sports Club/LA.
“Not a lot of young people are choosing this industry as a career anymore,” says Carol Espel, the national director for group fitness at Equinox Fitness Clubs who oversees nearly 1,000 instructors nationally. “The ones who are really serious and organized and smart do what Ilaria is trying to do. To be successful at it, there are very, very few.”
The “few” are now household names — among the most prominent, Richard Simmons, Jack La Lanne and Billy Blanks, the founder of Tae Bo. In each case, these instructors carved out a specific fitness niche and then used various means to leverage their personalities out of a local market and onto a national and international platform. That, in turn, has allowed them to keep teaching well past their prime.
“It’s the same philosophy as selling Avon: We are selling our services,” says the 58-year-old Mr. Simmons. “You have to figure out what you have to offer in the area where you work.” For Mr. Simmons, the breakout medium was video. He has sold more than 20 million copies of his 50 fitness tapes and DVDs, including “Sweatin’ to the Oldies.” That has given him cachet in nonfitness areas; for instance, he has a new line of kitchenware with Salton Inc. due out later this year. He’s also expanding the “Richard Simmons Method” through a $195 weekend of coaching called “Hoot Camp” for fitness instructors, trainers and others.
With this diversification, says Mr. Simmons, “I think there will be these people who will continue to teach and have my same philosophies. When I’m long dead and gone, it will still be, ‘Love yourself, watch your portions and move your buns.’ “
There is still a long road between Mr. Simmons and Ms. Montagnani, who currently runs Powerstrike out of her one-bedroom Manhattan apartment and answers all her own email. But her journey thus far offers a window into the kinds of sacrifices required when creating an enduring business whose core brand is, at the end of the day, you.
“To be sustainable, there has to be a process and a system,” says Doug Hall, one of the judges on the ABC reality series “American Inventor,” and the 47-year-old founder of Eureka Ranch, an invention and research firm. “The challenge is the ego. You have to make the shift from being a doer to a teacher.”
The story of Ilaria Montagnani as “doer” begins in Florence, Italy, where hard-core exercise among women was rare. The daughter of a banker and a mother who worked as a treasurer at the local university, Ms. Montagnani swam until her parents made her stop because they believed her shoulders were getting too big. She then focused on ballet but with her allowance bought instructional books on judo and karate and secretly practiced poses in her bedroom mirror.
“Some people want to be dancers,” says Ms. Montagnani. “My sister wanted to be a mother. I was intrigued by the mind component of the martial arts and realized that the ideal body was one that could come from that. It would be strong, and you could take care of yourself.”
In 1986, she traveled to New York to visit a friend for six months. Unable to speak English, she watched soap operas and “The Price Is Right,” where, she says, “they spoke slowly and announced the words.”
During that stay, the 5-foot-7-inch Ms. Montagnani gained weight, eventually reaching 135 pounds, but she wasn’t in good shape, she says. One foggy November afternoon near the end of her trip, she passed underneath a studio where an aerobics class was in session. Intrigued by the pounding music and shadows of moving bodies, she walked in and joined for one month. That moment was the beginning of Powerstrike. “It wasn’t elegant, and there was no room and people were sweating all over each other,” Ms. Montagnani says. “But it gave me the foundation of realizing how exciting and beautiful and fun for the soul it can be to be with people moving together with music.”
Ms. Montagnani was 23 when she figured out the next piece: martial arts. She had returned to the U.S. and was working with a Manhattan-based wholesale jeweler. On her off time, she lifted weights and eventually pursued, and obtained, her black belt in karate. Around that time, Ms. Montagnani took an aerobics class with Patricia Moreno, one of the top instructors in Manhattan. The two began exploring ways to combine martial arts and aerobics, with Ms. Montagnani showing a kickboxing move and Ms. Moreno helping her to incorporate that with a musical beat and eight-counts.
“It showed a level of strength that I hadn’t seen before in aerobics and a new way of moving,” Ms. Moreno says. “The idea was to make martial arts accessible to everyone, especially women for whom this was a completely new way of moving.”
Over the next seven years, the pair took Powerstrike from a no-name program to one of the most recognized classes on the New York fitness scene. The time was right: Jane Fonda had whet America’s appetite for group fitness, and Mr. Blanks’s Tae Bo program was fueling interest in martial arts. In 1999 and 2001, Powerstrike was named best exercise class in New York magazine.
As class popularity soared, Ms. Moreno and Ms. Montagnani began teaching separately — something that helped Ms. Montagnani establish her own loyal following. Over time, she got a marketing boost from strong female characters boasting martial-arts prowess in films and TV shows such as “Charlie’s Angels,” “Kill Bill: Vol. 1” and “Alias” with Jennifer Garner
“I think she is the pied piper of fitness,” says Sue Carswell, a reporter/researcher for Vanity Fair magazine. Ms. Carswell says she dropped from a size 16 to a size eight in about five months due mostly to taking some 10 classes a week from the instructor. Partly, the lure was the workout’s high-octane structure; partly, it was Ms. Montagnani. “She started kicking and punching,” Ms. Carswell says. “I thought, ‘Cool, I’m in the middle of a super action flick.’ “
Teaching every day was heady, but it soon taught Ms. Montagnani a hard business reality: With limited hours in a day, earnings potential was limited. “Doing this every day of the week, it would only take us so far,” Ms. Montagnani recalls thinking.
At the time, the notion of having “certified” instructors in gyms was fast gaining traction as students clamored for instruction in the likes of step aerobics, spinning and kickboxing. The American Council on Exercise was formed in 1985 in an attempt to set some competency standards; the group currently has 45,000 certified instructors who’ve paid a fee averaging about $200 to take an exam to earn the ACE seal of approval.
To Ms. Montagnani, this seemed a good model for Powerstrike. If she could create a certification program, that would both drive revenue and give the program legs outside of New York. In other words, she would have a system. “That’s one of the hardest routes to go,” says Graham Melstrand, ACE’s director of educational services. “It’s also, I would think, one of the most profitable.”
Over time, the question of Powerstrike’s survival fell firmly into Ms. Montagnani’s lap, as she and Ms. Moreno drifted apart with the latter pushing more into yoga and meditation. Ms. Montagnani eventually bought Ms. Moreno out of her stake in Powerstrike and trademarked the name, taking full control of the business. Says Ms. Moreno: “Anywhere it goes from here is truly Ilaria’s doing.”
For Ms. Montagnani, that has meant getting others to “do” Powerstrike for her. She currently has six types of Powerstrike classes and trains instructors in three of those: Powerstrike Kickboxing (her signature class), Powerstrike Impact (kickboxing with a bag) and Powerstrike Forza, which uses a weighted wooden and plastic fitness sword to replicate Japanese sword-fighting techniques. Often, she travels to fitness conventions or holds open certifications throughout the U.S. and abroad where she teaches her methods, usually over the course of a weekend. Attendees pay a fee that typically ranges from $200 to $300 and receive a certificate of completion at the end. The smallest class Ms. Montagnani will teach is 10 people; in Russia she has had a group as big as 350. To date she has issued about 6,500 certificates of completion for her various disciplines — though not all were at the same fee level.
In some cases, Ms. Montagnani expands Powerstrike’s reach by partnering with gyms — something she’s able to do because her personal instruction is in such demand. At Equinox, for instance, she is paid an annual fee, which she won’t disclose, to train instructors who teach at the chain’s various locations, including those in New York, Chicago, Miami and California. Instructors who get a certificate of completion can say they’ve had Powerstrike training — an employment boost. But only those who pass a written test given by Ms. Montagnani and are consistently re-evaluated can teach classes under the Powerstrike name.
Those requirements are “essential to the success of the program” because they guarantee quality control and ensure that Powerstrike is taught only by the best, says Ms. Espel of Equinox. “Students love Ilaria, but they love other instructors, too.” Ms. Montagnani is paid separately for classes she teaches herself.
Sharing the spotlight can be taxing on the ego, but experts say such risks come with the territory. “Eventually, you have to put yourself second and develop a system and make the system the star,” says Mark Hughes, author of “Buzzmarketing” and a branding consultant. “There’s no other way to do it. The smarter you are, the sooner you’ll begin planning this.”
Ms. Montagnani also takes care to avoid exclusive deals that might limit her expansion. Powerstrike can be licensed to any gym, for instance. “I think it’s smart,” says Whitney Chapman, group exercise manager for Reebok Sports Club/New York, where Ms. Montagnani also has trained instructors. “It allows her to generate an income that’s not so physically driven. But it also lets her expand on a concept that’s not just specifically her so the service can still be provided.”
Perhaps the most critical element of Powerstrike’s expansion is Ms. Montagnani’s farm-team program — whereby she designates some top-notch instructors as official Powerstrike “trainers.” Those trainers then act as scouts, particularly outside New York, and find new batches of fitness instructors whom Ms. Montagnani will then certify; she gives scouts a cut of 10 percent to 25 percent as a finder’s fee. Ms. Montagnani says she doesn’t take a cut of Powerstrike instructors’ classroom earnings because the bookkeeping would be too time-consuming and she doesn’t “like the rapport you create with that.”
Further, a few select trainers have become her “master trainers.” Those travel and teach open certifications of Powerstrike in Ms. Montagnani’s stead; she still gets up to half the fees collected. Via this structure, she has made Powerstrike — not herself — the product and expanded its reach to a dozen countries.
Violet Zaki, a master trainer, was able to pursue fitness instruction full time after getting involved with Powerstrike. She says some 50 percent of her income comes from Powerstrike-related activities now. “Why reinvent the wheel when something is already great?” she says. “There are so many different types of kickboxing, but students are very drawn to this. The format is very broken down.”
For Debbie DiCanto, a Powerstrike trainer in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, being associated with the Powerstrike name beefs up class attendance — a sign the brand is developing legs even when Ms. Montagnani isn’t around. “I get 20 to 30 people in my classes, and outside of New York that’s very good,” Ms. DiCanto says. “Whenever I’ve introduced Powerstrike, it always becomes the most popular kickboxing class in that gym.”
There are risks to what Ms. Montagnani is attempting to accomplish. For starters, any energy put toward managing the various components of Powerstrike Inc. cuts into her current revenue at a time when she’s at her earnings peak. Last year, Ms. Montagnani made more than $100,000 as a teacher — roughly twice what Powerstrike collected. But teaching six days a week doesn’t leave a lot of free time.
As such, questions of time allotment persistently arise. “Do I want to invest and do videos?” Ms. Montagnani says. “Then I have to give up classes and give up $20,000” of income. But when she teaches more, she’s not out certifying instructors or building other facets of Powerstrike’s business. (Currently, she’s making a new Powerstrike video, and last year she published a book on Forza.) Each choice is a gamble.
Further, Ms. Montagnani is quickly learning that she needs more manpower and investment to capitalize in other avenues. She once sold apparel on her Web site, www.powerstrike.com, but the expense of carrying inventory was too taxing. Likewise, she knows she needs an agent to help her with future book deals or TV infomercials, and would have to raise capital to open her own studio. Handling all of the above, of course, takes time out of the classroom.
Her training “system,” meantime, has presented some pitfalls. For instance, Ms. Montagnani says she has filed a lawsuit in Rome against two of her former master trainers who she claims registered the name Powerstrike in Italy and copied her manuals. The suit is still pending.
What’s more, her celebrity presents its own challenges. She receives up to 40 emails a day from students and clients and says trying to respond to each is “eating me alive in terms of time.” Some students, who can tell when their email has been opened, send additional angry missives if she doesn’t answer immediately.
Still, it’s that very devotion that gives Powerstrike Inc. legs. Crunch Fitness, a chain of 32 health clubs, has taken the unusual step of paying Ms. Montagnani to design a workout program exclusively for Crunch and to train its instructors. “We typically don’t pay people to put programming together,” says Donna Cyrus, senior vice president of programming for Crunch. “But we wanted her on our team.”
The class, named “Weighted Warrior Workout,” had its debut on a recent Friday evening. Despite the inopportune time slot (Friday at dinnertime) and a few mishaps (the weighted vests were missing), Ms. Montagnani garnered a respectable crowd of 17. For that hour at least, the worlds of Ms. Montagnani, Powerstrike president, and Ilaria, instructor, merged as she strapped on the familiar headset microphone and cranked up the music.
“It’s showtime,” she said, stepping into the spotlight.