Meet the former martial arts champion presenting a new group exercise format.

Ai Lee Syarief is no stranger to a world stage. “My background is martial arts. I was a karate athlete, so I fought in world, European and Asian championships.”

Now, she’s Lead Master Trainer for the latest program to hit the high-intensity cardio circuit: STRONG by Zumba. It’s not a dance class at all: It’s a high-intensity class designed to blast calories and tone abs, legs, arms, and glutes through plyometric and bodyweight exercises like planks, burpees, squat jumps, kicks, punches and floor work. And it’s not just another high-intensity interval training (HIIT) class: In STRONG by Zumba, music is the main motivator, with every move synced to original beats crafted by big-name producers like Timbaland and Steve Aoki.

Syarief’s presence packs a punch. From her edgy ponytail and buzzcut to her flawless kicks and punches and her animated—but focused—manner of speaking, it’s clear that she is not demonstrating a dance class. “Martial arts like kung fu, Krav Maga … are my roots, and I like to incorporate things from martial arts into the STRONG by Zumba class.”

Even the inception of STRONG by Zumba has an edge. It begins in the silence of the studio, where HIIT principles and movement come together first—instead of the music. Once the routine’s movements and tempo are finalized, high-powered music producers like Aoki come in to engineer music that will fit the movement.

Syarief says, “Every move has a beat and every beat has a move. And this pushes you to work even harder.” The format’s quadrants escalate the challenge to your entire body and culminate in core work—or “Floor Play”—that’s no joke.

If it sounds like a chance to inject a little adrenaline into your routine, Syarief is aware that the new year inspires fresh starts, but depends on follow-through. She says, “I think people [quit or give up on the gym] because it’s a very stressful time. I know the new year is perfect to put a whole to-do list together, but sometimes, maybe that is too much. Just try to do very small things,” like take one class.

Besides, like all group instructors, she is motivated by the participants, just as much as the class needs the instructor’s energy. From her transition from solo competition to group instruction, Syarief says, “One thing I have learned is that I can motivate people. And it’s a very powerful tool as an instructor, because you bring people from somewhere they didn’t want to be, to someplace that they really want to be. And I need that power: When I teach a class, it’s not only me giving, but I need it back from the people.”

For that reason, Syarief also wants you to express yourself. “I’m from Switzerland. The people there are very quiet. In the class, they don’t bring out that energy. I go to Italy or Spain, [and the class will] scream and shout”—and that’s a good thing!

The Power Behind the Punches

Ai Lee Syarief is based in Switzerland, and she has a few tips for managing a global role—plus her responsibilities as an IT specialist, wife of a fellow martial arts champion, and mom of two sons.

First thing in the morning: I check my phone because I have a million messages.

Last thing before bed: Check my phone because I have a million messages!

Days off: Of course I spend time with my family, but I like to work out for myself.

No. 1 stressor: My boys, when they fight.

Stress buster: The Breathe app. I’ll tap it and go, “Inhale. Exhale,” while the kids are fighting in the background!

Least-favorite move: Pull-ups.

Favorite moves: Punches and kicks.

Tip for getting psyched to work out: Watch people work out. I think, “Oh. I want to do that move, because I can’t do it.” So then I’ll go to the gym, or to wherever I am, and I’ll try it until I can do it.

When she isn’t presenting STRONG by Zumba: I’m an IT specialist.

Tip for managing life on the run: You cannot have everything be perfect. You have to plan. And you have to have a great family to support you. And sometimes the house is messy, and you have to be fine with that.

Personal mantra: What you think today you will become, tomorrow. So be positive, even though sometimes it’s hard. It will come back!

Photo credit: Tom Casey,