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Cross Training with Capoeira

By Bridget Dungan

I discovered capoeira a little over 8 years ago when my gym was offering a workout class based on the movements of this Afro-Brazilian martial art. Intrigued, I found a capoeira school in Manhattan and was immediately hooked. I loved the workout, the community and the cultural aspect of the sport. And I loved that it challenged my body to move in ways it had never moved before. I grew up playing soccer but it had been many years since I had laced up my cleats, and I was hungry for a new fitness hobby.

Now capoeira is my sport, and I cross train with running. But as I’ve seen many injured runners show up to Finish Line with weak glutes and stiff hips, I can’t help but think that capoeira could be an effective cross training option for them.

What is Capoeira?
Capoeira is an Afro-Brazilian martial art that combines kicks, takedowns and acrobatics, all performed to the rhythm of percussion instruments. It is a fight, a dance and a game that involves deceptive movements intended to catch your opponent off guard. Unlike many other martial arts, you don’t block your opponent’s blows but instead dodge and counter attack, making for a very fluid and beautiful game.

Benefits of Capoeira

  • Glute Strengthening – the “esquiva”
    The basic position in capoeira is the “ginga,” which is essentially a high lunge. Flexed at the hips and knees, and with your arms protecting your face, you are in a ready position to react with an attack or defense. When a partner throws a kick your way, you must avoid the blow by lunging deeper or stepping into a low squat away from the kick. The torso is angled forward to allow for the kick to clear above your head, which biases the glutes so that the quads are not overworked and the knees not stressed. This act of dodging a kick is referred to as an “esquiva,” which in Portuguese means “escape.” You might do 100 esquivas during a class and not even realize it. How’s that for a great glute workout!
  • Balance & Core Strength
    Each kick is a dynamic balance exercise. This involves exploding into a single leg stance to throw the kick, then quickly bringing the kicking leg back in order to dodge your partner’s counter attack, only to spring back onto one leg to kick again. Kicks are thrown in all directions: straight (sagittal plane) to the side (frontal plane) or in an arc (transverse plane). This challenges your hip and ankle stability and increases coordination and joint proprioception. It also helps to develop core strength, as the muscles of the torso engage to keep your center of mass within your base of support while transitioning between kicks and esquivas.
  • Flexibility
    Whether you are directing a kick in front of your body, to the side, or pivoting to throw a round kick, your hips will be challenged to flex, extend, abduct and rotate. In addition, dodging low (performing the esquiva) to avoid your opponents kicks also challenges hip as well as ankle flexibility. Performing these movements repeatedly during a training session is essentially a built-in dynamic stretching exercise.
  • Upper Body Strengthening
    While capoeira consists mostly of kicks there are occasional blows using the arms (with the purpose of striking, distracting or defending); however, most of the upper body strengthening comes from putting your hands on the floor. Capoeira incorporates cartwheels, handstands and various other movements involving weight bearing on the upper extremities, which targets multiple muscles at once.
  • Capoeira is a Barefoot Sport
    Training barefoot provides sensory inputs to the bottom of your foot, which can help promote correct kinematic alignment, and improve reflexes and dynamic joint stability. Check out an article by Caroline Varriale for the benefits of barefoot training.

Capoeria for Cross Training
According to the SAID principle (specific adaptation to imposed demands), running will make you better at running. However cross training in a different discipline can help to prevent injuries. Capoeira, or any martial art, can be a great cross training tool for runners, whose movements take place mostly in a sagittal plane (straight forward). Due to the linear nature of these sports, the muscles on the sides of the hip (gluteus medius and minimus) are often neglected. In addition, many of us sit for long periods of time during the day, which can make the hip flexors tight and overactive and subsequently “turn off” the gluteus maximus muscles on the back of the hips. When this happens, the hamstrings, adductors, calves and back extensors take on more of the work while running.

Why are the glutes important for running? The gluteus maximus propels you forward, and the gluteus minimus and medius keep the pelvis level. By stabilizing the pelvis, the glute min and med help to keep legs and torso in proper alignment. If these hip stabilizers are weak, the kinetic chain gets disrupted, and often the knees, lower leg and ankles suffer. Studies have shown a correlation between glute weakness and overuse injuries such as iliotibial-band syndrome, patella femoral pain syndrome, achilles tendonitis and shin splints.

Runners also tend to have tight hips, which can cause additional stress on the knee leading to pain and injury. Simply put, the knee is stuck in the middle between the hip and ankle and is consequently affected by the mechanics of those joints. Every time you make a turn while walking or running, the hip must internally or externally rotate depending on which foot is leading. If your hip has a decreased ability to rotate, the knee will be subject to greater rotational stress.

So the takeaway message here is to keep your butt strong and flexible! And you can do this by straight up strength training and stretching, or by cross training with a martial art such as capoeira that gets the hips moving and makes the butt strong.

What to Expect in a Capoeira Class
A training session may consist of several choreographed sequences performed independently or with a partner. Then at the end of the class there is a “roda” which means “wheel” or “circle” in Portuguese. This is when you get to try out what you learned in the class. It is referred to as “playing,” which is synonymous to “sparring” in other martial arts. This part is not choreographed, so when your opponent throws a kick at you, you better use those glutes and esquiva!

If you want to check out a class, try Arte Capoeira Center in Manhattan (not far from FLPT) or Motumbaxé Capoeira in Brooklyn/Manhattan!