Strength and Conditioning for Boxing Athletes

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.

Introduction

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.

Physiological Requirements

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.

Biomechanical Requirements

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.

Boxing Mastery

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.

Nutritional Requirements

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.

Common Injuries

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.

Performance Testing

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.

Strength Boxing

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.

Recommended Reading

Aagaard P, Simonsen EB, Andersen JL, Magnusson P, Dyhre-Poulsen, P. (2002). Increased rate of force development and neural drive of human skeletal muscle following resistance training. Journal of Applied Physiology, 93(4), 1318-26.

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.

Periodization and Programming for Strength Power Sports

The link below is to a video from the 2012 NSCA Coaches Conference where world renowned sport scientist Dr Mike Stone presented on “Periodization and Programming for Strength Power Sports – the Short Reader’s Digest Version”. Dr Stone is the godfather of sports science with 40+ years of strength and conditioning research and application. I travelled across to the USA in late 2012 to see him present and witnessed a true passion for developing the most efficient training methods through extensive research, and this has been passed on to all who have had the honour of studying under him.  This video is a great resource for any coach/student and you don’t need to be a member of the NSCA to view the video. Below are some notes which I took from the presentation.

http://www.nsca.com/Education/Videos/Stone-Periodization-and-Programming-for-Strength-Power-Sports/

There is no substitute for being strong, and there is no substitute for talent.

Some people’s window for adaptation is bigger than others.
Training is a process, therefore plan ALL aspects of the training process. Think long-term multi-disciplinary approach than early specialization

Question if athletes are actually “well trained”. College athletes go away for breaks from training several times per year and don’t come back the same athlete. This issue can also apply at the elite level, see the following quote from GB Cycling Coach Shane Sutton regarding GB’s lack of medals at the recent Track Cycling World Championships “They got it wrong. They went out for the festive season, came back and weren’t where they should have been. We’ve just gone backwards and I think the accountability rests with the riders.”

Be creative in exercise selection, utilize post activation potentiation, cluster sets, compound sets

You MUST monitor training – document what happens. Ask yourself “are they adapting? Which programmes work better than others?”

Rapid gains are not always in the best interest for the athlete. The rate of gain is directly related to the average intensity of training. Final performance level is inversely related to the rate of gain (think long-term). The time period of maximum performance is inversely related to the rate of gain.

BE WARY of going to maximum every time you step in the weight room. The use of RM Zones (e.g. sets of 8-10 RM) will result in quick gains, but will fall off long-term.

Fitness-fatigue – a drop in volume = potential for preparedness, likely leading to increases in performance

Overload = the intensity (force, power, RFD) of work
Specificity = metabolic & mechanical transfer
Variation = how we as coaches manipulate overload & specificity. Variation is the most important factor in fatigue management. Variation is the removal of linearity to cause specific adaptations by reducing overstress/overtraining.

Periodization vs. Programming

The overall concept can be broken down into specific periods (strength, power, strength endurance etc). Programming is how you make these periods occur (sets, reps, exercises, density, frequency, intensity)

Periodization is cyclical in nature bu manipulating variables to reach specific goals.

Goals of periodization
Reduction of overtraining potential & fatigue management
Maximize specific adaptation
Elevate performance at the right time (event/competition)

Focus on general to specific (remember specificity relates to metabolic and mechanical aspects)
Progress from high volume to low volume, there is usually an inverse relationship
Active rest results in rapid drop in fitness, so it may be better to drop volume & intensity to reduce dramatic losses in fitness

Athletes can’t hold a true peak performance for more than 3 weeks. This brings implications for when peaking if competing in sports/events with multiple competitions.

Simultaneous development of different physical & physiological characteristics or motor abilities presents a problem. A mixed methods approach (strength, strength endurance, power, aerobic endurance, anaerobic endurance etc) results in high volumes, and poor fatigue management.

In the weight room, recovery time is likely to be greater after a higher volume load. However, a lighter volume load does not represent a “light day”. Sets of 10 with a lighter weight result in greater metabolic disturbance even though the amount of work is equal to sets of lower reps. Mike referred to this publication by Jeff McBride’s group at Appalachian State on Acute Responses to Different RT.

The number of competition days has increased, which reduces the number of days available to train. If you can’t train you won’t perform well.

The specific  phase you’re in now potentates the next phase through concentrated loading & volume manipulation.

If you drop volume, strength can be maintained for some time.

If you develop bad technique you may be stuck with it for the rest of your life. When learning technique you may be limited by your strength. (In gymnastics stronger athletes pick up technique faster, e.g. ability to hold an iron cross will be limited by strength).

Long-term
Freshman (strength endurance & basic strength)
Sophomore (basic strength)
Junior (basic strength & power)
Senior (strength & power)

Fluctuate light & heavy days. If there are too many consecutive moderate – heavy days you never allow the athlete to recover and this mutes adaptation. By applying a big stimulus (heavy day/high volume) followed by an unload (light day/low volume) gives the athlete a chance to recover and adapt. See this paper by Carl Foster who has published numerous research on the use of Rate of Perceived Exertion in resistance training Foster Monitoring Training OTS MSSE 98.

Examples of Microcycle day-to-day variation

Stone Day-To-Day Variation

The use of relative intensities (eg. 60% 1RM = L/Light) minimizes the risk of overtraining athletes. Heavy and light days are created by adjusting load, not the repetitions/sets which changes the overall volume load. One method of programming called Daily Undulating Periodization which varies daily from e.g 10-12 RM on Monday, 6-8 RM on Wednesday, and 2-4 RM on Friday. Looking back at the acute hormonal responses to a training workout depending on the load/set/rep scheme, “lighter days” e.g. 10-12 RM are actually increasing the volume load, therefore actually become the “heavy day” as it will take longer to recover from. Again this causes problem for fatigue management and the likelihood of overtraining syndrome.

See Periodization_Strategies for more information periodization and programming, including basic, intermediate and advanced periodization strategies.

Assessment and Training of Lower Body Power

Here is a video from the SPRINZ Strength and Conditioning Conference 2013 of Jeremy Sheppard’s practical workshop. The SPRINZ website has Jeremy’s Keynote Address titled as “Consideration for the Assessment and Training of Lower Body Power” so I assume this workshop supplemented the presentation. Anyway, the video is 1 hour 40 minutes long and Jeremy is one of the best coaches in the world so it’s well worth it.


After taking three volunteers through a simple warm up (lunges, shuffles, bear crawls, spidermen, duck walks etc) Jeremy can instantly identify areas of restricted range of motion (hip and ankle specifically) and gives examples of mobility drills to increase range in the joints through banded traction. Any poor posture is causing a leak in power when it comes to transferring to explosive movements seen in jumping sports such as surfing, volleyball, basketball, and netball. Athletes in these sports require greater ankle mobility to absorb forces, if there is a lack of ankle range, the stress goes to the lower back and knees which alters the biomechanics negatively. Jeremy had the volunteers workout barefoot, as do his athletes, using the feet for feedback as sometimes shoes/trainers can cover up how the foot and ankle move during movement. Any sport has repetitive strain aspects therefore athletes need to be robust to train and compete.

Childhood is a position where plyometric training can be effective, and if we don’t capitalize on this, we might miss a big opportunity to train those characteristics. This big window of adaptation might not be open to the athlete later on in their development.

Tuck jumps in place are a good exercise for accentuated eccentric overload. By bringing the knees up to the chest, changes the velocity of the foot prior to ground contact as compared to a CMJ. Altitude landings are a training exercise. If you have relatively untrained perform altitude landings, their CMJ and DJ will increase through an enhanced eccentric component. During jumps we don’t want overly loud landings – force = mass.acceleration, mass is constant to we have to dissipate acceleration better, but if absorb force over too long a period = screw up their sport. Coaches can create different environments purposely depending on the adaptation required (this could be similar to the depth/drop jump – spending as little time on the ground/jumping as high as possible by Verkoshansky). The coach has to weigh up – least chance of injury vs. stiffest most abrupt landing.

Some progressions of altitude landings:
Altitude landing (bilateral)
Altitude landing (unilateral)
Altitude landing > broad jump
Altitude landing > vertical jumpAltitude landing > 180 degree jump – challenges perceptual ability

Use external cues/analogies – create a context that allows the athlete to learn.

If you increase the height of the drop = increase the stretch load. Lower heights can be used for short contacts. An ‘optimal’ height can be used for jump height and the next available height to challenge the neuromuscular system, it won’t kill them but increases eccentric overload.

Accentuated Eceentrics
CMJ onto box holding DB’s, (drop DB’s at the bottom of the descent) – lots of feedback in the drill
Too light = not enough stimulation
Too heavy = myogenic stimulus
By increasing the eccentric component, the neuromuscular system is more “prepared” to shift a heavy load = increases acceleration in the concentric phase
Start around 20% body weight

Assisted Jumps
References the work of Dr Lee Brown
Velocity based athletes need to be strong
Assisted jump teaches the muscles to accelerate fast and achieve higher peak velocity

Weightlifting Movements
Power Snatch – if an athlete can’t perform it, it shows something is limiting (shoulder, hips, ankle) but it can be worked on
Get range, get stability, get strength

If you’re competing in sport but can’t get in the required positions, you’re training below the level required to compete at

Snatch balance is great for stability, strength and eccentric overload

Is an exercise similar to the sport? No. Is it specific? Yes

Olympic lifts require triple extension, eccentric control and high neuromuscular aspect

The full clean/snatch optimizes full potential of power clean/snatch. Power variations are servants to the full lifts

DB versions of the lifts can be used to lower the risk of injury.

In weak athletes – unilateral training will increase strengthIn strong(er) athletes – must perform heavy bilateral strength training