Boxing may just be the last frontier in strength and conditioning. Whatever the current champions are doing, especially the popular heavyweights, the contenders are sure to copy. The problem with that approach is that some boxing champions are champions not because of their unique training methods but in spite of them. Mike Tyson at his best didn’t lift weights, but he had tremendous muscle mass that gave him devastating punching power.
We still see boxers running long distances, exercising in sauna suits, and using Spartan training methods to the point of overtraining. As for nutrition… well, many fighters see no problem preparing for their training and bouts by consuming a Snickers bar and a can of Red Bull.
It’s impossible for me in one article to clarify all the myths about training fighters, but I can give you an overall perspective based upon my work with professional and amateur boxers.
1. Over-emphasis on easy work
Jumping rope and jogging can certainly be used as a warm-up to prepare a boxer for intense training, but too much of it increases the risk of injury and makes fighters slower.
If you combine too much slow training with fast training, the body will not understand what it is supposed to adapt to and this can affect speed and power.
2. Focusing on quantity v quality
The body can only recover from so much training. Boxing bouts seldom last more than an hour, so workouts (after the warm-up) should not take more than an hour if you expect an athlete to perform quality work. Furthermore, workout sessions that are too long can cause a fighter to enter a state of overtraining.
3. Overworking sport-specific work
Although the most sport-specific activity for boxing is boxing, there are many exercises that are valuable for boxers – but it’s easy to overdo it.
One example is hitting large tyres with sledgehammers to train the oblique abdominal muscles. These dynamic exercises are hard on the shoulders, so they should not be used too frequently in training. Studies have shown that after injuries to the wrists and hands, shoulders are the most common upper-body injuries in boxing.
4. Shadow boxing with dumbbells
I see many fighters shadow box with 1-2kg dumbbells – even Floyd Mayweather does this. This type of exercise ruins fine-movement patterns and places harmful stress on the shoulders and even the lumbar spine. To strengthen the arms and shoulders for punching, a general exercise such as the incline bench press is a wiser –
and safer – choice.
5. Avoiding the weights room
Many boxers and their coaches still believe weight-training will slow you down and make you less powerful. Power is defined as force x distance ÷ by time, and to achieve high levels of power you have to have strength. Tyson’s exceptional genetics endowed him with a powerful punch, so he wasn’t compelled to lift weights until his later years. Nevertheless, weight training is the fastest and most effective way to develop muscles.
I should add, however, that to stay fresh it’s not wise to lift heavy weights shortly before competing, and that when athletes train they always need to lift with the ‘intent’ of moving fast.
6. Lack of grip work
The most commonly injured body parts in boxing are the wrists and hands. It makes sense that you should find methods to strengthen the forearms and the grip. My gym is outfitted with thick-grip barbells and dumbbells that develop a strong grip and add muscle to the forearms.
To reduce the stress on the elbows, this equipment must have revolving sleeves. However, be aware that athletes who use thick-grip apparatus can quickly reach a state of overtraining with additional exercises.
7. Too much non-specific ab work
Ab training is overrated for boxing, and I’ve found that the ab training most boxers perform is never balanced. Performing 1,000 crunches may be hard, but this results in structural imbalances. Also, although many coaches consider core training to be simply ab work, I’ve found that to create balance in the trunk – a muscular corset, if you will – boxers also need to perform exercises for the lower back muscles.
You should be aware that multi-joint exercises such as deadlifts and squats work the ‘bracing’ function of the abs. Also, I found overhead squats are great for balancing out the development of these muscles.
8. Imbalanced neck-training methods
Although boxers and boxing coaches often perform neck training, they usually don’t use a wide variety of exercises.
One of the most popular is using a harness attached to the head while the user performs neck extensions. This is fine, but the exercise involves only one plane of motion of the neck – you also need to work the forward and lateral flexion of the neck, horizontal rotation, upward and downward diagonal rotation, and downward diagonal rotation. Additionally, exercises for the trapezius muscles will help support the neck, and these can be trained with power cleans, shoulder shrugs, and even deadlifts.
Training the neck can significantly reduce the risk of concussions – a major concern in the boxing community – and it facilitates the growth of all the muscles in the upper extremities.
Because the neck is capable of moving in so many different directions and angles, you need to use a variety of exercises, methods, tempos, and ranges of motion when developing the neck muscles.
9. Insufficient stretching
Boxers, especially heavyweight boxers, are often tight. Such structural imbalances increase the risk of injury and performance. Boxers often are not shown how to stretch, and even then they typically spend only a few minutes a day on mobility work. I have my boxers perform dynamic stretching before a workout as a warm-up; after the workout they do static stretching.
10. Misguided nutrition
Nutrition unfortunately is a neglected part of the training of many boxers. A common belief is that a fighter needs sugar before training or competing – I actually witnessed one boxing coach give his fighter a piece of cake shortly before he stepped into the ring for a bout! Even though this fighter won the title, he didn’t perform well due to a lack of energy. Fighters really can feel the difference that optimal nutrition makes in their performance.