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Recommendation on Modern Defense

I've been taking Modern Defense ( for four months now (as of this writing), and I highly recommend it. While I'll learn more and gain a different perspective as time goes on, I have the perspective of a beginner now which may be easier for others to relate to.

Modern Defense is a new martial art, an American invention of Masters Hennings and Lowrey. The two Masters have a long history of martial arts involvement, from Tae Kwon Do to military training. (Master Hennings is an Army Ranger.) Their goals with Modern Defense were to create a healthy form of exercise learning realistic defense techniques, with a good moral base, but without the religious overtones of many of the Asian-originated martial arts and without the moves-for-arts-sake emphases in some martial arts.


When I was awarded tenure in February 1999, my wife and I tried to figure out what a tenured professor should do differently than an untenured one. One of our first goals was to find some form of regular exercise for me. I had studied Aikido for a year in college, and taken some lessons in Karate and Hapkido over the intervening years, so I had some interest in martial arts. My son had been taking Modern Defense a year earlier when some of his friends had recommended it to him (all referring to it as "Karate"), but he'd dropped out.

I was hesitant at first. Well, maybe a little stronger than that. All right, I'll admit it – I went all but kicking-and-screaming. I looked for lots of different kinds of exercise, but never found anything which fit my schedule, my needs, and my approaching-middle-aged body. My various aches and pains say that my high school and college running is out. As a graduate student, I was still able to take aerobics in the mostly undergrad-classes offered at the University. My knees insist that those days are gone. My wife finally convinced me to try it as something to do with our son. Matt was eager to go to "Karate" with Dad, so I started twice a week lessons, one night a week with Matt.

I started out as a complete doofus. Not only was I out of shape, not only do I lack any kind of physical grace, but the little bit of martial arts I knew worked against me in wrong stances and wrong moves. After the first night, I was convinced that this would never work out. I felt like an idiot, and I was sure that I looked like an idiot.

Somewhere during the third week, I realized that I was really getting something out of this. Maybe I finally forgot that long ago Aikido, or maybe I finally stopped focusing on my lack of grace. I graduated from complete doofus to graceless beginner and started working at it.


The biggest reason I really like Modern Defense is because it is good exercise! I'm amazed at the difference in my strength and stamina already. In only four months, I can already see that I can do things that I haven't been able to do in years, I don't get out of breath quite so quickly, and my attitude is improving. Heck, I can even touch my toes! Wow! Modern medicine is right!

Not only is it good exercise, but it's particularly good exercise for out-of-shape approaching-middle-aged guys. Most guys I know, who were once-upon-a-time active, have their bum knees, their sore elbows, the tendons that just won't stretch anymore. Modern Defense seems designed for us. The emphasis is consistent and insistent on not hurting your joints, on stretching properly before and after class, and on doing things carefully and right. Other than a jammed finger from punching wrong, and morning aches from using muscles that have too-long remained dormant, Modern Defense has taken good care of me.

I have terrific instructors, which helps alot – friendly, joking, with good eyes for catching errant moves. Master Hennings is an amazingly patient instructor – with a class of 15 rowdy kids, most under eight, as well as with adults who don't remember how to bend their arms and legs like that. Ms. D. and Ms. A. (who may not want their names broadcast on the Internet) are great instructors and coaches – encouraging their students, explaining the hows and whys of what we're doing, spending lots of time on the things we're having trouble with.

I appreciate the utility of what we're learning. I don't live in a dangerous place, and I can't remember the last time I got into a physical fight, so it's not that I really expect to use any of the defense moves we're learning. But in comparison, Aikido felt completely divorced from any realistic context. Yeah, working with a bokken (wooden sword) was fun, but do you really expect to be carrying a sword when you get mugged? Authenticity helps.

My son and I enjoy training together. It works out great that he's a higher belt than me. A seven year old doesn't often get the chance to coach his father. He points out to me the things that I'll be learning later, and we work on defense drills and patterns outside of class. We're sharing something in ways that are different from Cub Scouts and taking him to swim meets.

The really surprising benefit of Modern Defense has been the moral base. I didn't think of that as being a benefit when I started, but it's been one of the more pervasive benefits.

One of the tenents of Modern Defense is "courtesy." Each of the instructor's directions is met with "Yes, Sir!" or "Yes, Ma'am!" It's all Master, Mr., and Ms. That kind of talk is contagious, I find. I now regularly call strangers I meet "Ma'am" and "Sir." Not that I was an ingrate before, but the very positive reaction to a little more old-fashioned courtesy has been a pleasant surprise.

Another tenent is "humility." Man, it's definitely humbling to be the new and graceless guy in a class of black belts and people who've been at it for years. But it's especially beneficial when you're an associate professor at a big research university. It's a terrific thing for a so-called expert to be in the role of the slow-learner at the bottom of the class. I'm gaining an important sense of so-why-is-my-stuff-so-important?, and the benefit is extending outside the class.


My first test for a belt was a couple months after I started. They worked me so hard for a couple hours that I was still recovering the next week. At the end of the test, each of the white belt students had to break a piece of wood with a front kick. How hokey and cliche', I thought when I first saw it. But as the climax of training and a long, hard test, it's an amazing emotional release. What you've been learning and the strength you've been gaining becomes real, and in one quick moment, you've done something that you didn't think you could do. Wow.

Thanks, Barb – great idea!

As of August 2001: My Black Belt Test
P.S. Six months later, my First Degree Test

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