Julie Bruce was looking for something to punch up her workout when she stepped barefoot onto the mat at Life Time Fitness.

“I had been doing a lot of running and high-intensity spin classes and had hit a plateau,” said Bruce, 49, a financial consultant from Shakopee.

That’s when she discovered Life Time’s “Fight Shape” class, which put her body to the test as she learned to grapple, strike and execute takedowns. “I was thinking, ‘I really don’t want to hit anybody or anything,’ ” she said, “but I went to the class and I was like, ‘Oh, this isn’t so bad.’ ”

Bruce is learning mixed martial arts, the fast-growing combat sport popularized by the Ultimate Fighting Championship. In the UFC, two fighters square off inside a cage, attempting to harm each other with a mix of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, wrestling, boxing and other fighting styles. Victory is often decided by a brutal knockout or a suffocating chokehold.

But Bruce doesn’t want to fight. She just wants to get fit.

Unlike the hulking stars of the UFC, Bruce is among a growing number of MMA enthusiasts who come in all ages and physiques. Increasingly, the classes at local gyms are populated by women — and even children.

“There’s still a stigma around the sport that there’s going to be blood everywhere, that it’s going to smell,” said Merrick Morland, MMA coordinator for all Life Time Fitness locations. “The majority of people joining [the classes] have no intention of getting into a fight. They want to cut weight like a fighter.”

Full body workout

Fitness lovers have always looked to combat sports such as boxing and kickboxing for a fast-paced cardio workout. But as MMA’s fanbase grows, some boxing gyms are ceding time and space to the sport. These workouts are the latest example of the extreme fitness trend that has made Tabata, P90X and Insanity so popular.

“It’s huge right now,” said Dalton Outlaw, co-owner of Elements Boxing & Fitness in St. Paul, which recently expanded its offerings to include MMA training. So huge, in fact, that the UFC — the sport’s premier fighting league — has branded its own line of gyms specializing in MMA fitness. It has 96 locations nationwide and 85,000 members.

“They want to be able to train without getting a broken nose or getting hit in the eye,” said Adam Sedlack, the chain’s senior VP.

While the UFC has no immediate plans to open a gym in the Twin Cities, the area is flush with MMA-focused fitness programs. About a dozen gyms offer MMA training for the warrior and non-warrior alike.

The Academy in Brooklyn Center is a sprawling, fluorescent-lit warehouse space that has long catered to young men pursuing a career in fighting, including former UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar. But that’s changed in recent years. “A lot of [students] coming in are just everyday people,” said Academy head coach Greg Nelson.

Life Time Fitness is fairly new to the game, having launched its mixed combat arts program one year ago. The 12-week classes are offered at two Minnesota locations — Chanhassen and Lakeville. In contrast to larger, grittier combat centers like the Academy, Life Time’s MMA studio in Chanhassen has a polished design. It converted racquetball courts into an MMA training space outfitted with thick floor mats, padded walls, speed bags and a cage-like fence. The setting helps newbies feel less intimidated about trying the sport, Morlan said.

Eric Hallman, a Chaska salesman and father of two, says he’s lost 50 pounds since he started training last fall at Life Time. A former college hockey player, Hallman became a convert after seeing what MMA could do as a comprehensive workout — challenging his core, upper body and legs.

“If you look at any UFC professional fighter, they’re in amazing shape,” Hallman said. “That’s the whole thing behind this — you’re training several parts of your body at once without realizing you’re doing it. And it’s fun.”

In a typical class, beginners learn the basic moves they might see in a professional bout on TV. Students might learn how to escape a “rear naked choke” (a chokehold applied from behind by an opponent) or the proper way to deliver a leg-sweep takedown. They’ll also throw stiff jabs and kicks at pads and punching bags.

As with any extreme exercise, injuries can happen. At the beginner level, there’s the possibility of twisted knees, muscle sprains or bruises. In the advanced classes, which might include sparring, blows to the head could result in concussions.

Though he likes sparring with his personal trainer, Hallman has no plans to fight competitively.

“I’m 40 with a family. I have no inclinations to do any of that,” he said.

Gaining new followers

Boxing and kickboxing training aren’t the only combat sports feeling competition from MMA. When it comes to kids’ classes, move over karate andtaekwondo.

May See Xiong of Burnsville said her son Lucas, 10, used to take taekwondo lessons but switched to MMA and hasn’t looked back. Her other son, Lex, 7, has joined him in classes at two local gyms. Xiong and her husband enjoy watching UFC fights at home on TV. The action piqued the interest of her boys: “My son said, ‘Well, I want to learn how to do that, too,’ ” she said.

Xiong said she likes seeing her sons learn the diversity of fighting styles.

“They actually get to do kickboxing, boxing, using their hands and feet. They’re on the ground. They’re grappling. They’re learning to use techniques like the head choke, the cobra, the arm bar and all that stuff,” she said proudly.

Xiong said she doesn’t worry about her boys getting hurt because the lessons are controlled and focus heavily on self-defense and technique.

As MMA classes open their doors to a wider range of students, many of the new faces in these gyms are women. Their inclusion is a reflection of a larger trend in the professional ranks, where the number of female fighters has increased dramatically since the UFC introduced a women’s division in 2012. At the UFC’s fitness gyms, 44 percent of all members are women, Sedlack said.

When Bruce started at Life Time Fitness she said she was pretty sure MMA was “not my cup of tea.” A few months later, Bruce is bobbing and weaving, grappling with fellow students and learning how to fall (correctly). While training, she said she’s boosted her heart rate, strengthened her core and increased her flexibility.

But the biggest change has come from within.

“For me,” she said, “it makes me do things I thought I would never do.”