“KAIZEN” is a Japanese term that means “constant and never-ending improvement”. It is a philosophy that promotes making incremental improvements consistently with the expectation that they will eventually pay off in large improvements. This is a terrific training concept for boxers; unfortunately, it only takes one injury to set your progress back by weeks.
In four research studies on boxers, it was found that approximately one-third of all upper body injuries were to the shoulders – only the hands and wrists had higher risks of injury. As such, preventing shoulder injuries should be a priority in the strength and conditioning programs for all boxers.
To minimize your risk of injury, the best approach is to reduce the amount of stress your shoulders are exposed to during training while also increasing their ability to tolerate stress. The following nine tips address both of these concerns.
- Use the right gloves. There are many types of gloves worn by boxers, each with a specific purpose. It’s unwise to use the lighter speed-gloves for heavy bag training because they will increase the amount of stress on your shoulders and also increase the risk of injury to your hands and wrists. Likewise, open-fingered gloves used for MMA training have no place in a boxer’s gym bag. Use the right gloves for the specific type of training you are doing, replace worn-out gloves, and also pay careful attention to the way you tape your hands.
When selecting gloves for competition, it’s important to consider the boxer’s fighting style. A stronger puncher would want less padding at the front of the hands to increase the power of their punches and also to make it easier to cause and open up cuts. Examples of this type of competition glove are the Cleto Reyes® and Grant®, and are often referred to as a “puncher’s glove.” Because there are weight limits to the gloves, this glove is designed so that there is more padding around the wrist to increase the strength of the punch and protect the wrist. Yuriorkis Gamboa, who finished 17 of his 26 wins by knockout, wore this type of glove.
Boxers who have exceptional speed and thus rely on landing more punches to win bouts would want more protection for their hands. The Winning® glove, which is a high-quality glove manufactured in Japan, is designed for this purpose. It has much more padding on the hands compared to the Cleto Reyes, and fighters often refer to them as “pillows.” However, it’s possible that a fighter might use Winning gloves for training to protect their hands, but then switch to a puncher’s glove in the fight to cause more damage. Floyd Mayweather, Jr., who has suffered hand injuries during his career, uses Winning gloves in training and switches to Grant gloves for a fight to cause more damage.
- Use double-end bags. Watching Rocky punch slabs of meat in his movies may have been cinematically impressive, but in real life, such a practice would quickly lead to injury. It follows that some types of heavy bags place less stress on the shoulders than others. Although standing bags don’t take up much space and can be easily moved, they tend to be heavy and stiff and transfer a large amount of stress to the shoulder when hit. I prefer double-end bags, which are attached to the floor and ceiling with tight coils.
- Don’t shadow box with weights. Shadow boxing with 1- to 2-kilo dumbbells is popular with many fighters, and in fact you can see a YouTube video of Floyd Mayweather doing this form of training. However, this type of exercise adversely affects fine-movement patterns and can place harmful stress on the shoulders because its ballistic nature can force the joints beyond their normal range of motion. In fact, one of my former boxers told me that after he started practicing this type of exercise he eventually suffered a serious shoulder injury.
- Don’t overuse bands and chains in weight training exercises. Bands and chains that are attached to the bar will increase the resistance at the end range of motion where the athlete can produce more force. Another way of saying this is the resistance curve of the exercise better matches the strength curve of the athlete. However, exercises with bands and chains are extremely stressful on the shoulders, and as such should be used sparingly, such as every third pressing workout.
- Don’t do the Olympic lifts without competent instruction. Olympic lifting exercises, such as the clean and jerk, are extremely complex movements that involve numerous major muscle groups. They are excellent exercises for developing total body power, but if performed improperly can put you at risk of injury, especially to the shoulders. If your coach does not have the expertise to properly teach you the technique of these exercises, do not practice them. Also, due to the technical nature of these exercises, you should not perform them for more than three repetitions, as the resulting fatigue can increase your risk of injury.
- Strive for structural balance. Boxers are often tight, especially in the anterior deltoids and pectoral muscles. This lack of flexibility, along with muscular imbalances, often creates round shoulders and a forward head posture that increases the risk of impingement issues and even shoulder dislocations. To avoid these problems it’s important to stretch tight muscles and strengthen the rhomboids, which pull the shoulders together, and the lower trapezius, which pulls the shoulders down.
- Focus on neutral-grip strength exercises. Strength training exercises performed with a neutral grip are more natural and place less stress on the shoulders. In a neutral grip – also known as a semi-supinated grip – the palms face each other. Conventional barbells only allow for a supinated (palms up) or pronated (palms down) grip, whereas dumbbells enable you to lift with a neutral grip. While I’m not suggesting that you should never perform barbell exercises, dumbbells are much easier on the shoulders and should be emphasized in training, especially among athletes who have a history of shoulder injuries.
- Learn how to punch. In the sports medicine textbook Epidemiology of Sports Injuries (Human Kinetics, 1996) the authors state, “…the repetitive and forceful delivery of punches is responsible for the relatively high frequency of extremity injury.” While that’s obvious, it’s also a reminder of the importance of learning the proper biomechanics of punching to minimize the stress on the body – with the bonus of increasing speed and punching power. Do yourself a favor and become an avid student of the sport. Strive to constantly improve your technique.
We live in a society where everyone wants quick results, but sometimes it’s better to slow things down by working to make incremental, continual progress. Paying attention to these nine guidelines on keeping your shoulders healthy will enable you to do just that!
His book about strength and conditioning for fighters, The Klatten Power Boxing System, will be available in April from Amazon.
As a strength coach for boxing, Moritz Klatten has trained three Olympic champions, four amateur world champions, and five professional world champions, including Yuriorikis Gamboa, Juan Carlos Gómezs, Herbie Hide, and Jack Culcay. Among the boxing coaches he has worked with are Ismael Salas, Orlando Cuellar, Fritz Sdunek, Michael Timm, Freddie Roach, Joey Gamache and Jimmy Montoya. Coach Klatten is also an accomplished strength coach for football and has attracted an international clientele that includes Zlatko Junuzović, Werder Bremen; Tolgay Arslan, Beşiktaş; and Piotr Trochowski, Augsburg. Coach Klatten works primarily out of Champ Performance, his own gym in Hamburg, Germany, where he offers strength coaching internships and operates a satellite training service to work with athletes worldwide. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org