Executives turn to self-defense for fitness, safety

March 27, 1994|By New York Times News Service

Most of the time, James Benjamin thinks about how to sell financial derivative products to small banks. But on a recent Thursday he could be found lunging fiercely at Michael Schwartz with a knife.

As Mr. Benjamin's personal trainer, Mr. Schwartz sidestepped the attack, deflected the blade, then yanked Mr. Benjamin's arm forward and twisted it back, stopping just shy of doing any


Next, he hustled Mr. Benjamin across his loft to a heavy bag and directed him in a sequence of careful punches and kicks and then in a more predictable series of fitness maneuvers: jumping rope and lifting weights.

Mr. Benjamin, a vice president of the United States Guaranty Corp. in Westport, Conn., is learning how to defend himself mentally and physically, and that puts him in the middle of a growing group of executives seeking self-defense techniques from their personal trainers.

Some of these executives just appreciate the discipline of the exercises. But others find that rising crime rates, the potential for violence where they do business overseas and some well-publicized kidnappings make them feel ill-equipped to cope with a violent world.

"I don't think men will readily admit it, but they definitely feel vulnerable," said Mitch Simon, a personal trainer in Woodland Hills, Calif., and a researcher and lecturer with the American College of Sports Medicine. "Executives drive nice cars, and they go to fancy places, and they become targets for everything from carjackings to A.T.M. muggings."

He said that about 75 percent of his executive clientele have asked him to build self-defense techniques into their workouts.

Devon Cormack, a personal trainer who also teaches karate at the McBurney YMCA in Manhattan, said executives liked the bonus of learning to defend themselves "instead of just sweating on a treadmill or running."

But most who want this training "find they don't have the time to go to a regular school," he said. "They want to learn as much as they can in less time. I can teach someone in one month what would take them six to eight months to learn somewhere else."

At $125 an hour, three times a week, Mr. Benjamin acknowledged that his sessions with Schwartz are pricey. "But to get what I get here, I'd have to join a boxing gym where I could spar, join a karate school and another gym to lift weights -- and take aerobics classes."

For Andrew Bergman, 35, a lawyer in Dallas, self-defense workouts are a release. "My profession is very combative," he said, "and I rely more on intellectual resources than physical."

Working out a few times a week with his trainer, Guy Mezger, "is sort of the physical expression of what I do for a living," he said.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Mezger, who is also a champion in heavyweight kick-boxing, said many of his 50 clients were lawyers or others in high-stress jobs.

In the ranks of women executives are many who crave something more protective than a can of Mace. Janet Checkman, 48, the director of business development for Kapell & Kostow Architects in New York, works out with Mr. Schwartz regularly and says the self-defense component of her training "keeps my tension low and my confidence high."

"Certainly I would go very far out of my way to avoid a fight," she said. "But if it couldn't be avoided, I feel like I have a fighting chance. I don't feel like a sitting duck anymore."

Obviously, self-defense training doesn't help very much when it comes to dodging bombs or bullets. But the core of most of this training isn't to win a conflict but to develop the awareness, fitness and skill to avoid conflict.

Some trainers, like Mr. Schwartz, integrate boxing, martial arts and other self-defense techniques into more conventional workouts. Others teach traditional martial arts but on a more exclusive basis than can be found at a local martial arts school.

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