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.

Choosing a Periodization System to Maximize Individual Performance

Here is a link to another video from 2012, this time from Nick Winkelman at the 2012 NSCA National Conference titled ‘Athlete Profiling: Choosing a Periodization System to Maximize Individual Performance’. Nick is the Director of Training Systems and Education at EXOS (Formerly Athletes’ Performance) overseeing all mentorship education courses and heads up the NFL Combine preparation at the EXOS Arizona facility alongside his colleague Denis Logan. He has completed his Masters in Strength and Conditioning at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Australia, and presents all over the USA on the Perform Better circuit. Nick was recently a Keynote speaker at the 2013 ASCA National Conference and will be a Keynote speaker at this years UKSCA National Conference. I was fortunate to work with Nick during my Internship at EXOS last summer when he wasn’t around the world presenting or coaching on mentorships and  it was a great honour to go to him for advice and I learnt lots from someone who is playing a pivotal role at the forefront of improving athletic performance and education. 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 and I have also attached the lecture slides courtesy of the NSCA.

http://www.nsca.com/Videos/Conference_Lectures/Athlete_Profiling__Choosing_a_Periodization_System_to_Maximize_Individual_Performance/

Winkelman Athlete Profiling

Nick began his talk with special thanks to a handful of people including Mike and Meg Stone – again recognition to two of the most influential people within sports science. Nick outlined that there has never been a lecture explaining the entire continuum of periodization, coaches will present how they periodized their athletes training, but is that how we should train all athletes? This presentation gives us perspective of which periodization style to use in your environment.

There are certain critical factors that allow you to select a form of periodization such as environment (gym space), time in season (in-season, off-season), level of athlete (elite, youth, college, military, beginner, untrained).

Just as the body is dynamic in adaptation, we must have periodization that is dynamic to match that adaptation.

You do not get performance enhancement until you walk through the door of recovery.

Maximize recovery to elicit performance effect, to coincide with in-season capabilities.

It is important to monitor training. How do you know if volume, intensity, and volume load is doing precisely what it’s prescribed to do? Tracking volume load (sets x reps x load) daily, weekly, and monthly gives the coach an objective view of the training process. We also need a subjective view (rate of perceived exertion) to make adjustments – one athlete could report a 4 whereas another 9 for the same workout, one finds it easy, another hard.

Why periodize? Diminish overtraining by managing load, intensity and recovery.

The goal is to optimize performance over the sporting season (longitudinally).

Sports specificity vs. sports relevance. Is a back squat specific to sprinting? No. Is it relevant? Yes. Relevance creates the basis for specific work. By working on strength in say, the back squat. You are increasing the strength and anatomical adaptations needed for when it comes to progressing to more specific exercises (bounding, plyometrics, accelerations). Nick used the analogy “take the care in the garage to work on the motor. We’re not working on the driver, but if we work on the motor we optimize the drivers capabilities on the field”.

Winkelman Considerations

Ask yourself, is what we are doing in the weight room transferring to their sport?

Understanding what the sport helps you develop/maintain is different to understanding what they need to be successful in the sport. What do I need to train vs. what can I get as adaptations from the sport.

Use of an unload gives the body time to catch up (supercompensate). For example a 4 week training cycle would usually require 4 weeks to achieve a peak. The taper in the NFL Combine at 4 weeks prior to combine has given athletes more consistent performances.

Elite athletes can push past the typical 3:1 paradigm, sometimes 4:1, 5:1 or 6:1.

Using sequential/potentiation will merge qualities – hypertrophy >> strength >> maximal strength >> power. Optimal transfer = result of complimentary sequencing.

If using a concurrent approach, we want no change or an increase, definitely not a decrease in performance.

More overload during the off season is non specific, but does its job to maximize overload. The most specific task athletes can do is play their sport, every other derivative in non specific.

Strength in appropriate areas will build coordination. Using the back squat and plyometric example from before, back squat will provide the overload, the plyometrics decrease ground contact time, provide morphological and neural  adaptations – resulting in greater transfer to sprinting than the pure back squat itself.

Winkelman Progresseion

Early to ripe, early to rotten. The shorter you have to develop a quality, the shorter time you have to use it. If you have not worked on a quality long enough and enter the in-season, the quality (or lack of) will decrease quickly.

Winkelman Residuals

Novices will adapt to anything.

Non-periodized periodization works with untrained due to their lack of training history. There is no difference in undulating vs. linear theme of periodization. Lack of differences due to laying down the anatomical adaptation from new stimuli, without knowing how to express that new found strength.

A linear model seems to prepare the body better moving forward through longer exposure for anatomical adaptation by saturating the system, laying the foundations for future higher intensity work. If performing daily undulating or weekly undulating periodization – the body has less exposure for saturation to occur, therefore no sequencing for adaptation.

When working with intermediates increase variation on 3 levels – phase, weekly, and daily through summated microcycles and heavy and light days.

Phase by phase to weekly undulating intensity manipulations provide suttle manipulations rather than large variations. See the slide below with the changes in relative intensity rather than changes in themes. The sets and reps can stay the same, but by simply reducing the intensity by 10% the focus can shift from strength to power rather than a completely different theme.

Winkelman Undulating

Off-season = focus on saturation
In-season = maintenance. Don’t over saturate by changing between speed and force days, not themes! Think exposure but not depletion.

Long season sports – manipulate the 3 levels – phase, weekly, daily.

Advanced athletes can make use of delayed transformation through concentrated loading in conjugate sequence model. Focusing on one stimulus saturates the system with limited concurrent development of other biomotor abilities.

Conjugate Sequence

Conjugate sequence is ultimate overreaching and best for high level athletes. Preferably with an Olympic sport, but can be done in team sports/long season sports in short dosages.

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.