Boxing Strength & Conditioning Program
- “Train Movements Not Muscles” – replicate boxing techniques where possible
- Heavy Bench Press can decrease shoulder mobility – not good for boxing
- Boxing may cause tight hip flexors & shoulders – stretch these
- The best way to build boxing fitness is to box
- Build a ‘base’ of strength & fitness utilising running, skipping & weightlifting
- Convert this base of fitness into functional fitness with specific boxing movements e.g. landmine punches
Boxing is a tricky one, being a sport with a long history compared to MMA, there are lots of tried and tested methods of fitness training that understandably, boxers and coaches don’t want to change – because they work!
BTW – it’s spelt “programme” not “program” if you’re in the UK
MMA is a bit different, being a new sport, many fighters have adopted the ‘new’ training methods. It’s interesting to note that effective MMA fighters come in all sorts of shapes & sizes, with more muscle mass not necessarily being an advantage. Explosive power, mobility & endurance appear to be more important and often unrelated to an athlete’s physique.
(scroll to the bottom for the pdf)
Exercise at your own risk
Assessing The Physical Demands of Boxing
A study conducted in 2015, reported that elite level boxers initiated defensive or attacking movements every 1.4 seconds during a typical 3 minute round.
Many of these movements however, were subtle feints or ‘feeler’ punches with nearly 80% of the energy being derived from the ‘aerobic energy system‘ (the energy system that fuels long distance, low intensity running).
This is not to underestimate the importance of the more ‘explosive’ anaerobic energy systems (those used in sprinting & weightlifting); which are often called upon to produce the maximum force generation, that is often required to power a KO blow.
Moreover, an academic paper published by Smith in 2005, reported that 10 punches (9.5 to be exact) were thrown each minute, in boxing matches lasting 4 x 2-minute rounds. A typical punch involves a whole body movement, initiated by the lower body, requiring explosive power, mobility around the hips and shoulders, with an efficient kinetic chain – developing force from the floor.
Common Injuries & Dysfunctions Seen in Boxing
Due to hours of sparring, pad work, bag work & shadow boxing in a specific stance, hip flexors can become tight and weak.
Throwing thousands of punches can also cause problems with the anterior shoulder muscles, whilst the chin-down stance can cause over-activation of the trapezius. These 2 issues can cause shoulder impingements and negatively impact punching biomechanics.
With these 2 issues in mind, it is important for boxers to work on flexibility and mobility of the hip flexors and the shoulders.
Prehab Exercises for Injury Prevention
- Hip Flexor Stretches
- QL Stretches
- Shoulder mobility exercises
Weight Training for Boxing
If you’ve done boxing for years, and never done any weight lifting, I would be very cautious and strategic in the way you go about it.
Shoulder and chest mobility can, from my experience at least, be restricted by lifting heavy weights, often, & without stretching.
There is also some research to support the theory that
“weight training makes you stiff”
with passive-shoulder-mobility being decreased in powerlifters according to this study.
This is bad news for boxing, as upper-body mobility is crucial –
for example when you throw a hook, to create maximum power you need to ‘open up’ the chest to generate the elastic-recoil energy that in turn – generates the ‘KO power’.
This is scientifically called the stretch-shortening cycle – your chest muscles stretch as you ‘cock your arm back’ to throw a hook, and then the chest muscles shorten as you throw the punch and flex your chest.
Periodisation of Weight Training is important for boxers. When a weight training program is adopted, it should be put into stages or cycles.
It is important for example, to learn the technique before trying more advanced and explosive exercises which increase the risk of injury.
A boxer’s weight training program could be segmented as follows:
Stage 1 – Build a base of strength (and technique with the weight-lifting exercises)
In this stage, I always tend to recommend higher reps (at least 8 reps per set), as the athlete needs to learn the technique of the squat, bench press etc. before going really heavy.
Fundamental core exercises and stability-ball work should be included in each stage.
Avoiding injury is imperative, making this phase vital.
Stage 2 – CNS/Strength enhancement.
Compound lifts – squats, bench press, overhead press. Long rest periods (2 mins or more) between sets.
Introduction to deadlift, Olympic lifts and plyometrics with low volume, sub-maximal training loads on these exercises.
Stage 3 – Sports Specific Training
Medicine ball work, explosive work, specific core exercises, landmine exercises, Olympic Lifts (limited use of basic Olympic Lifts, I’m still a bit sceptical about the risk & reward of things like high-pulls).
In all phases include an extensive warm-up, including dynamic stretching and foam rolling exercises.
Use static stretching and trigger point work with a cricket or lacrosse ball post workout.
Academic Research – Weight Training & Punching
This paper by Lockwood & Tant, concludes that of seven resistance exercises tested – leg press, leg extension, standing heel raise (presumably a calf raise), bench press, tricep dips, dumbbell front lateral raise and incline twisting crunch –
only the heel-raises seem to be associated with punching power, whilst bench press was related to power in a boxer’s jab only.
So we best add some calf and chest exercises into a boxing weight-training programme.
This study published by Turner et al, states that there are ‘5 trainable variables when it comes to throwing a right cross:
(a) increase rear leg drive
(b) following the step forward, land with a rigid leg to increase breaking and transmission of forces
(c) increase the stretch-shortening cycle action of the trunk musculature
(d) increase the velocity of the punch
(e) increase the effective mass. it is possible, through appropriate strength and conditioning programming, to target the development of each.
To address the above variables…
a) include some explosive leg work
b) Focus on technique, but also include some lower body plyometrics
c) The stretch-shortening cycle relates to elastic energy. With an orthodox cross for example, you would normally rotate your waist/hip backwards/clockwise (stretching the muscles), then drive the hip forwards/anticlockwise (shortening the muscles). This can be trained with some medicine ball and band work
d) Develop fast-twitch muscle fibres – everywhere!
You need speed and power, not strength.
e) Get massive
Finally, a paper by Ruddock & an additional academic publication by Thompson & Winter, suggests that gluteal strength and explosively hip extension should be developed in order to deliver a power punch.
Exercises such as squats can be used to develop strength in the gluteal muscles, whilst plyometrics and explosive jumping can transfer this to rapid force acceleration.
Again, mobility is outlined as a key factor, with Thompson & Winter concluding that:
The use of multi-planar exercises with aim of improving rotational range of movement, rate of force development and segmental sequencing is recommended to develop an effective punch
Academic Research – Neck Strength & KO Resistance
This paper theorises (not actual proof) that a stronger neck may prevent knock outs, by decreasing the ‘rapid acceleration’ caused by a blow to the head.
Some very carefully selected neck exercises should be included in a boxing S & C programme. Don’t risk jumping into high-injury-risk exercises like neck bridges, not straight away anyway
Other formats of training to consider include:
Vibration training kind of, caught on a few years ago, then seems to have petered out.
However, some research does suggest that it might be useful for developing power in the upper body.
Vibration training has been shown in a growing number of studies to enhance power output.
This is something I need to read-up on more. I’m assuming it would be best to perform sport-specific exercises on the vibrating platform…but I need to confirm – only videos I can find are of women in lycra…
Unstable ‘Platform’ Training
One of the best ways to engage the core, and to develop its engagement whilst performing specific movements that relate to boxing, is to use unstable surface training.
Include exercises on one of, or all of the following:
Highly effective for developing rapid force. Use these exercises with very limited volume to begin with. The best form of exercise to develop power – especially relating to the stretch-shortening cycle, but also great for getting injured and overtrained. Here are some ideas for exercises:
Flexibility & Posture
Many people who site down all day for work, or drive a lot – have ‘anterior pelvic tilt’. This basically means that your hip flexors are tight and that your bum sticks out.
This will cause issues in terms of your kinetic chain and transferring power from the twisting of your feet and hips, to your fist.
Work on this by stretching your hip flexors as often as possible (I do some stretches everytime I go to the toilet for a wee) and engage your core whenever you can too, ideally by sitting on a stability ball – although I appreciate this is not always possible.
I don’t have any studies or scientific evidence to back this up, but my yoga teacher insists that tensions building up in the hip flexors directly effects the rest of the body. This is bad news as you need to stay relaxed to throw effective punches with ‘whip’.
Fist Conditioning in Boxing
Wolff’s law dictates that adding load or stress to a bone will make it ‘reform’ stronger and denser. In terms of conditioning the hands and body for boxing, this would mean adding progressively higher loads of stress or impact – but with rest in between – vital for the bones and tissues to adapt.
For example, Bruce Lee used to suggest people start off conditioning their fists by literally punching sand.
Rest your fists/hands for a day or 2 after this before doing it again.
When you feel ready, move onto hitting a ‘softer’ punch bag with small gloves on. Again rest your hands for a day afterwards…before doing it again.
The ribs can be conditioned this way too, start off by taking very light body shots, working up to harder ones (under professional supervision).
DO NOT try and condition your chin by taking punches to the face. This is ridiculous and will make you more likely to get KO’d due to the brain damage it causes.
Download a pdf of a basic Boxing Strength & Conditioning Program below:
2 Possible Approaches To Boxing Strength & Conditioning
The Add-On Approach
Kettlebell & Jiu Jitsu legend Steve Maxwell has spoke about, how training your sport is the best way to get fit for your sport.
Want to get fit for boxing?
Firas Zahabi has also spoken about his conditioning being a short add-on after his MMA training. He trains martial arts pretty much every single day, so adding in an exhausing strength & conditioning session would definitely impact his ability to recover, and to perform well during intense MMA training.
Finally, there is some research suggesting that 1 set to failure, is just as effective as 3 sets for strength development.
With these 2 experts in mind, it can be a good option for many to add set or two of exercise before a boxing session.
For example, warm up, perform some warm up sets with a light weight – then perform 1 set of push-press to failure, 5 minutes before your boxing session starts.
The one set won’t impact your ability to box significantly, and it shouldn’t negatively impact your recovery either. But research suggests that it will make you stronger.
Warm Up –
Foam roll hips and back
10 minutes low intensity rowing machine
2 sets of military press with a light weight.
- 1 working set – Barbell Push Press – 1 set of 6-8 reps
Shoulder mobility exercises
Foam Roll hips, gluteus and calves
10 minutes low intensity run on the treadmill
4 warm up sets of barbell back squat (increment the weight each set)
1 Working Set – Back Squat 6-10 Reps
Mobility Exercises for 5 minutes
Foam Roll hips, gluteus and calves
10 minutes skipping
4 warm up sets of barbell High Pulls (increment the weight each set)
1 Working Set – Barbell High Pulls – 4-6 reps
1 Set of weighted jumps – 6 reps
Mobility Exercises for 5 minutes
The Strength & Conditioning Approach
This is the ‘normal’ approach.
2 or 3 strength & conditioning sessions per day, in addition to all the boxing training.
Be sure to stretch, foam roll and perform mobility exercises on the shoulders, neck and hip flexors which can become tight from high volumes of boxing training.
The workouts will be ‘whole-body’ workouts, as opposed to the bodybuilding approach of training separate body parts.
Strength & fitness exercises such, generally replicate boxing as closely as possible. The more closely the exercises replicate boxing, the more ‘functional’ and transferable to boxing they will be – this is the SAID principle – specific adaptations to imposed demands.
Foam Roll Hips, calves, gluteus, hamstrings and quads.
Skip 10 minutes to warm up.
Light circuit of 15 reps on each exercise- lateral raises (with about 2kg), military press, bodyweight squats and arm circles to finish warm up.
- Single Arm Kettlebell Push Press – 3 sets of 6 reps (on each arm, so a total of 6 sets)
- Back Squat – 3 sets of 8 reps
- Plyometric Depth Jumps – 2 sets of 6 reps
- Landmine Punches – 3 sets of 8 reps on each arm
- Cable/Band – Rear delt flys – 3 sets of 12 reps*
*This exercise requires a light weight. It is done to prevent overdevelopment of the anterior deltoid, in relation to the posterior deltoid and ‘hunched shoulders’.
Warm up (same as day 1)
- Pull Ups – 2 sets of maximum reps
- Barbell High Pulls – 4 sets of 5 reps
- Barbell Push Press – 4 sets of 6 reps
- Medicine Ball Slams – 2 sets of 8 reps
- Stability ball crunches 2 sets of 25 reps
- Stability ball hamstring curls – 2 sets of 20 reps
- Medicine Ball diagonal wood chop – 2 sets of 12 reps each side
Rotator Cuff Exercises
Shoulder mobility Exercises
Warm Up (Same as Day 1)
- Rope Climbs – 3 ascents
- Plyometric Box Jumps – 3 sets of 6 reps
- Barbell Row – 3 x 10 reps
- Medicine Ball – Explosive Shoulder Press* 3 sets of 6 reps
- Hanging Leg raises – 2 x max reps
- Landmine Punches – 4 x 5 reps on each arm
*Stand in front of a wall. Hold the ball in front of you. Squat down, squat up and explosively throw the ball above your head. Catch it as it comes down and repeat for 6 reps. Mind you don’t drop the ball on your head.
The above program has just been put together off the top of my head. It will not suit everybody and does not include specific fitness work.
Tabata intervals are a great way to build fitness, fast. They involve 20 second ‘bursts’ of all-out-effort, followed by 10 seconds rest. This is repeated 8 times to complete 1 tabata.
At the end of each workout, the fighter could complete a tabata interval on the punchbag, and/or mix it up with a tabata interval of sprints on day 1, of burpess on day 2 and of squats on day 3.
Diet is a crucial aspect of strength and conditioning training – you need a good diet for your body to adapt to the imposed demands. Supplements/foods such as baking soda and caffeine can also be used to increase training intensity and recovery.
Nootropics such as acetyl-l-carnitine and even lion’s mane mushroom can even keep your mind and reactions sharp.
For information on Boxers’ Diets please click here.