Revisiting the Tae Bo Workouts of My Youth

The punchy aerobics class didn't make it out of the aughts. Why'd we give up on it?

June 17, 2024 5:45 am
Billy Blanks filming a Tae Bo workout class in the early 2000s. How does the exercise program hold up in the 2020s?
We're back for more, Billy Blanks.
Todd Reeves/U.S. Navy/Getty Images

I loved stealing my mother’s workout videos when I was a teen. Fortunately, many of those vintage VHS fitness sessions made their way onto YouTube. The millions of views on Jane Fonda’s “Workout,” Richard Simmons’s “Party Off the Pounds” and Denise Austin’s “Ultimate Fat Burn” indicate that I am far from alone.

But none of these workouts can top what I would argue is one of the best kickboxing programs out there: Tae Bo.

The brainchild of Billy Blanks, an actor-turned-taekwondo practitioner, Tae Bo is a combination of basic kickboxing and dancing. It’s basically the jazzercise my mom used to do with her friends, but with an added outlet for anger. That’s more or less the elevator pitch for Tae Bo: aerobics with the perfect amount of punching. But when I recently revisited the Tae Bo workouts of my youth, I found them to be so much more.

We’re So Back

The standard “Tae Bo Workout” is good for training fundamentals and form, and the “Celebrity Fit Workout” features Blanks in a pretty iconic pair orange pleated shorts. But “Tae Bo: Advanced” immediately brought me back to my living room in the late 1990s, right down to the FBI warning at the beginning about not duplicating the video. We were so young back then. 

If you can get past the cheesiness and meandering music that sounds like a jam band playing endless elevator jazz, the Tae Bo Workout itself holds up. To be fair, I’m not the most cutting-edge fitness consumer. I’m more of a “work out three times a week” person, than a “move your body and go outside whenever possible” type. Or as one athletic colleague put it after discovering my 12:30-mile time, I am a “fitness poseur.” Sure, I have a lot of gym outfits I mostly run errands in to break a sweat, but if there were ever someone who wasn’t going to make me feel guilty about my passion for fit fashion, it would be fellow matching-set-lover Billy Blanks.

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How Effective Is the Workout?

Attire aside, all of the Tae Bo videos I recently tried elevated my heart rate, leaving me tired and sweaty at the end of a 20- or 30-minute session. That is more or less my barometer for an effective free workout that I can flexibly schedule into my workday. Even if I only make it through two to three minutes of a workout, these little “exercise snacks” help boost my mood and focus throughout the day, while leaving me with enough energy later on to take a long hike with my dog or socialize with friends.  

Personal trainer Chris Pruitt, the CEO of the home gym resource WorkoutHealthy, agrees that Tae Bo remains an effective workout. “Its high-energy routines provide a robust cardio workout, and the martial arts movements help improve flexibility and balance,” Pruitt says. “It continues to be a valuable resource for those seeking accessible home workouts.”

Part of what made the workout more enjoyable was the nostalgia of not just the outfits and music, but the kickboxing moves in general. The memorable “speed bag” move had me laughing as I tried not to punch myself in the nose — just like when I was a kid — and Pruitt explains that it’s seriously effective to boot, working your deltoids, biceps and triceps. “This repetitive arm movement also enhances hand-eye coordination and can help improve neuromuscular efficiency, which is the ability of the nervous system to coordinate muscle activation in a correct sequence,” he adds. In other words, the more I practice Tae Bo, the less at risk I should be of hitting myself in the face. 

From the Abs Golden Age The Functional Fitness Era

Another aspect of the Tae Bo experience that jumped out to me was the standing core exercises. The rise of Tae Bo in the late 1990s coincided with the glorification of Britney Spears’s teen abs and the release of the music video for “…Baby One More Time.” Abs were having a moment, so much so that people were buying muscle stimulators to make their abs involuntarily contract throughout the day. (These devices were also found to cause skin burns, bruises and other irritation. But again, it was a different time.)

As opposed to traditional ab exercises like sit-ups, standing core workouts offer several advantages. “Standing positions engage more muscles, promoting functional fitness by mimicking everyday movements, enhancing balance and increasing calorie burn,” Pruitt says.

Functional fitness — or programs that are more about improving endurance and strength meant for daily activities — used to be more geared towards senior citizens. However, it’s steadily become more popular among people that may not be showing up to CrossFit everyday, yet still want to feel healthier. In fact, the American College of Sports Medicine’s Health and Fitness Journal ranked functional fitness at number five on its 2023 list of industry trends, up from number 14 in 2021 and 2022. 

As much as I was doing it for a four-pack when I was younger, the benefits of Tae Bo are less about looking good at the beach and more about avoiding injury and burnout in the day-to-day. Whether you have to lift groceries, chase kids and dogs around, or just sit in a desk too long, functional fitness is really about these practical goals. And a little Tae Bo at home definitely falls into this category.

Ultimately, It’s Just Plain Fun

In the end, what makes Tae Bo such an effective workout is also the thing that keeps me wanting to participate: it’s a good time. “To me, Tae Bo stands out as both a fun and accessible workout, which significantly contributes to its popularity,” Pruitt agrees.

Part of the reason vintage Tae Bo is such a great home workout is that I often find myself laughing audibly. And although studies show that smiling can make workouts seem easier, it would be rude to laugh in Mr. Blanks’s face, who still teaches Tae Bo.

Not only does Billy Blanks offer virtual sessions these days, but also an adorable acrostic poem:






The fact that Blanks, at 68 years old, continues to work in the fitness industry may speak to legal issues at the height of his success. (Sugar Ray Leonard sued him, among others.) But simply being physically capable of kickboxing at that age is quite the endorsement that Tae Bo is one of the best functional fitness programs out there. I can only hope these workouts are still free on YouTube in my 60s.

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