Most boxers are reluctant to undergo strength training because of fears of gaining weight or feeling slow. These provide barriers for strength and conditioning coaches, as athletes will often enter competition in a state of fatigue, dehydration, and rapid weight loss, which have multiple side effects harmful to their health and long-term success.
This short piece will rationalize the use of strength and conditioning within boxing and dispel any of the myths that seem to prevail to this day in some of the current boxing folklore. This will present athletes and coaches with evidence-based practice that can easily be applied to a boxers current preparations to enhance training and competition performance.
Obviously professional bouts can vary from 6 x 3 minute rounds, to 10 x 3- and 12 x 3 minute rounds depending on the governing body and other factors. Amateur bouts are currently 4 x 3 minute rounds, with fights every 2-3 weeks sometimes depending whether they’re club shows or competitive bouts (ABA regional or nationals, for example). Previous scoring (and the outcome of the contest) was based on impressionistic judgements, whereas now boxers are rewarded for landing punches of sufficient force upon the opponent’s target area. Obviously, this has implications for strength and conditioning due to punches requiring ‘sufficient force’ to score points. Weigh-in times will also vary depending upon whether the bout is an amateur or professional, and can vary from the day previous, the morning of, or 6 hours prior to the fight/competition.
There is no doubt that sparring provides the most specific stimulus in terms of optimally adapting the energy systems for competition. However, sparring won’t be present in training all the time so it up to the coaches or strength and conditioning coach to identify the demand for energy during competition and create training interventions to elicit the required physiological responses. There is a high demand of the PCr system, and anaerobic glycolysis, with moderate demand for aerobic metabolism. The bout has the potential to last 36 minutes (12 x 3 minute rounds), but research has shown heart rate ranges of 170 – 180 bpm for sparring, producing 9 – 12 mmol/l blood lactate levels at the same time. This will obviously be affected by the tactics or style of the fighter and their opponent. The fight has the potential to go all the 12 rounds, but the intensity the fighter can take it to will be dependent upon the PCr system, and anaerobic glycolysis, with the aerobic system requiring to be efficient in order to recover from the high intensity bouts. Boxing athletes have shown VO2 max values ranging 57 – 64 ml/kg/min depending on weight category, which isn’t surprising. Most of their work will be predominantly long runs and circuit based body weight training which will increase aerobic endurance. This is an old school way of training and because previous athletes had success doesn’t necessarily mean it was an effective means of training, and research supports there are far more effective ways of improving aerobic endurance and high intensity performance.
Whether it’s a jab or a rear hand punch, each punch involves proximal to distal sequential triple extension whereby the ankle, knee, and hip extend, and using the additional links of the kinetic chain (the trunk, shoulder, and arm) they then apply this force to the opponent. The below table from work by Verkhoshansky in an article by Anthony Tuner, illustrating the higher level of the athlete, the higher the contribution from the legs in punching.
Research has shown fast movements in boxing implicated contraction times between 50 – 250 milliseconds, indicating the importance of explosive strength (rate of force development), but there is also a high need for maximal strength. For instance, a boxer could have a high rate of force development but if the overall level of force is low, it doesn’t matter how quickly the force is developed. The goal is to develop high levels of strength, and apply this force in rapid time.
Boxing athletes utilize several pre-fight strategies to make the weight. Most of the time they make the weight, but this can be harmful and cause potential side effects. Common strategies include restricting food intake, restricting fluid intake, dehydration, excessive layers of clothing, sauna, and laxatives. As a result, here are potential physiological side effects such as sever dehydration, hormonal imbalance, reduced strength, nausea; psychological side effects like headaches, sleepiness, reduced cognition ,reduced vigor; and performance side effects like reductions in anaerobic performance, decreased myocardial efficiency, and reduced time to exhaustion in aerobic activities. It is the coach and strength and conditioning coach’s responsibility to educate the athlete and provide healthy alternatives to long-term nutritional compliance than short-term rapid weight loss strategies. Boxing athletes tend to undertake high volumes of training requiring moderate carbohydrate intake (~7 g/kg/bw) in order to support glycogen storage for training and recovery. The carbohydrate intake should be individualized to the athlete depending on training volume, type, and weight category. Protein intake for power sport athletes is 1.4 – 1.7 g/kg/bw and will support muscle growth and repair. The biggest opportunity the coach may have to increase carbohydrate intake may be the post-workout shake/meal. Adding simple sugars such as dextrose to a protein shake will promote glycogen and protein synthesis whilst gradually increasing the overall carbohydrate intake within the diet. Another easy method is to utilize a carbohydrate based drink before and during training sessions to remain hydrated. Simple isotonic drinks will suffice or make your own by using 500 ml water, 50g dextrose, cordial, and salt.
Boxing injuries primarily occur at the hand, wrist, shoulder and elbow. Over a 10-year period, hand and wrist injuries occurred most during sparring, training and competition. Lower extremity injuries were observed at the knee, ankle, leg and foot, respectively. As the head is required to absorb blows, eccentric strengthening of the neck may have defensive benefits impacting the brain. Boxers also tend to develop anterior musculature more than posterior likely due to the amount of punches thrown and circuit training built on bench press and press ups.
Skinfold Assessment: to identify body fat percentage (research has shown body fat % between 12 – 17 depending on weight category in amateur boxers. (It is likely to be lower in professionals)
Vertical Jump: Measure of lower body power through the Sayers equation
Barbell Bench Throw: To measure upper body ballistic strength, can also be performed with a medicine ball throwReactive Strength Index: provides a good indication of the stretch-shortening ability of the athlete
1RM Bench Press: maximum upper body strength, and can prescribe ballistic barbell training loads from 1RM value
1RM Chin Up: maximum upper body pulling strength. Should be equal to 1RM bench press by adding resistance
1RM Power Clean: only perform if the athlete has adequate technique
Strength and Conditioning Programme
The following programme is an example of 2 sessions per week as typically boxing training will take place on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, leaving Tuesday and Thursday ideal to fit in strength and conditioning sessions. As the volume of boxing training is likely to be high, a selection of ‘bang for your buck’ exercises is warranted to effectively use your time with the athlete. Therefore, the volume of strength and conditioning work (sets x reps) will remain moderate-to-low, whereas the load will be high. This doesn’t mean training to failure, but enough stimulus to challenge the neuromuscular system. A general rule is ~80% 1RM. Progressing to power sessions involves varying loads as different exercises elicit contrasting power outputs across a spectrum of loads. For instance, power output in the Jump Squat is greatest at 0% 1RM, whereas it is 40 – 60% of 1RM Power Clean in the Mid-thigh Clean Pull.
Exercises such as plyometrics can be included as part of a movement preparation or during the rest intervals between sets. As the rest intervals should be >2 minutes, this allows ample time to perform low level plyometrics such as drop landings, box jumps, hurdle jumps, gradually increasing the height of the drop, or performing lateral jumps and/or single leg variants.
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Burke, L. M., Kiens, B. and Ivy, J. L. (2004). Carbohydrates and fat for training and recovery. Journal of Sports Sciences, 22,1, 15-30.
Capello, G. (2011). Amateur boxing – Needs analysis and strength training recommendations. Journal of Australian Strength and Conditioning, 19(2), 38-60.
Cormie, P., McCaulley, G. O., Triplett, N. T., and McBride, J. M. (2007). Optimal loading for maximal power output during lower body resistance exercises. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 39 (2), 340-49.
Kawamori, N., Rossi, S.J., Justice, B.D., Haff, E.E., Pistilli, E.E., O’Bryant, H.S., Stone, M.H. and Haff, G.G. (2006). Peak force and rate of force development during isometric and dynamic mid-thigh clean pulls performed at various intensities. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 20(3), 483–491.
Khanna, G. L., and Manna, I. (2006). Study of physiological profile of Indian boxers. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, 5, 90-98.
Turner, A. (2009). Strength and Conditioning for Muay Thai Athletes. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 31 (6), 78 – 92.