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."
"It's a great holistic approach to working out, because you are working multiple muscle systems at once without thinking about it," added Brendan Hutt, a Chicagoan who is also studying under Wolf at Forteza. "But there's also a very interesting mental challenge as well, because there's so much intellect involved with the actual combat."
The mental challenge that is involved with the combat aspects of bartitsu and swordplay is another advantage that vintage fitness students have over people who work out at health clubs, according to instructors.
"At a health club, you are encouraged to turn your mind off, rather than on," Boorman said. "But with our disciplines, there's a real mental engagement, not only with the combat, but also with the history behind what we do."
Spotlight on bartitsu
Bartitsu is perhaps the most exotic of the vintage martial arts disciplines being taught today throughout North America.
British engineer Edward William Barton-Wright, who had spent extensive time in Japan, introduced this mixed martial art to Victorian England in the late 1890's.
"London was sort of a lawless place in the 1890s, so bartitsu was taught as a way of self-defense for the educated classes, because people were worried about being attacked in the streets," said Tony Wolf, a New Zealander who teaches bartitsu classes at Forteza.
Bartitsu disappeared as a discipline in the early 20th century, and only remained in the public eye because of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the "Sherlock Holmes" stories. Holmes used bartitsu to battle and defeat his enemy, Professor Moriarty.
Wolf, who also teaches stage combat to actors (he oversaw fight choreography for director Peter Jackson in the "Lord of the Rings" movies) was one of the first to revive bartitsu back in the late 1990s.
"I think it appeals to people with a sense of history, the geek culture comic book fans, science fictions fans, all of those people who want to do something a little different," Wolf said.
How much does it cost?
Prices for these vintage courses are competitive with monthly rates at your average health club. At Forteza, for instance, six weeks of beginning courses in bartitsu, swordplay or fencing are offered for a flat rate of $125. Forteza also offers monthly memberships for more advanced students which range from $120 to $150, depending on the courses taken by a student. Other clubs, like Academie Duello in Vancouver, offer similar rates.
Check out a video of these vintage exercise classes in action at chicagotribune.com/vintagefitness.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times