When designing coaching programmes, one part of the process requires the coach to complete an analysis of the sport. In the case of field and court sports, the specific individual positional demands of the sport also require analysis. Once a needs analysis of the sport is completed, a needs analysis of the athlete is required, followed by an analysis of the phase of year, monitoring procedures, lifestyle factors and so on.
One athlete I work with is an elite 19 year male boxer whom I meet once a week for supervised sessions. His other sessions are completed with his boxing coach and by himself.
A significant body of scientific literature exists addressing the physiological demands of boxing. The following is a synopsis of a boxing needs analysis. I cannot outline a complete analysis as the detailing would be too lengthy. The principles of this exercise apply to all sports.
Certain fundamental movement patterns are desirable for all athletes. Thereafter there are sport specific postural and movement requirements. Boxers spend long relative periods of their sport in guarded positions which demands a rounding of the upper back and shoulders. This posture combined with high volumes of punching from this position can create over-active shoulders and trapezius muscles. If this arises, further issues can result, including rotator cuff issues and low back issues. To combat this, full thoracic mobility drills as well as shoulder mobility and appropriate exercises to strengthen the thoracic spine and shoulders should be included in programmes.
Boxers typically develop shortened hip muscles, in particular, hip flexors which can result in low back issues and inhibition of gluteal function (activation and/or strength expression). Hip and trunk rotational movements contribute significantly to punching force (torque) and therefore this area needs specific movement and strengthening attention.
Particular mobility areas to consider might include – pectoralis major, anterior deltoid (often overactive – release and lengthen these). Upper trapezius – overactive – this can limit thoracic rotation when punching, resulting in over-activation of the QL, this in turn causes pelvic misalignment.
Multiple other postural issues can arise – the starting point in addressing such issues is to complete a movement and stability screening of each athlete.
Clean punches irrespective of force gain favour with judges and disrupt an opponent’s immediate strategy. Increases in punch force or multiple high force punches combined with skill and technical ability can create dominance in a contest.
The momentum of the punching arm is critically important. Three physiological mechanisms are attributed to an effective punch. (1) rate of force development – a large amount of force developed in a very rapid time (2) momentum – momentum of the punching arm is a key contributor to the impulse of the punch (3) second pulse – a second pulse of muscle activation is required upon impact, this has been defined as “stiffening” – all of this is ultimately determined however by the ability of the boxer to generate force via, the ankle, knee and hip with rotation of the trunk.
All punches, a jab, hook or a rear hand punch, follow a sequence, from proximal to distal, involving a triple extension that begins at the ankle, knee and hip, in other words, the ankle, knee and hip extend and then the boxer rotates the trunk, shoulders and arm, applying punching force. Research demonstrates that higher level boxers utilise their legs to a greater extent than lower level boxers. This is very important for strength and conditioning coaches to grasp and ultimately ensure that adequate leg strength and leg power development is included in training programmes, especially with young boxers.
Boxing punch force (hook, lead hand jab and straight rear hand) can all be measured using a specialised boxing dynamometer. This equipment is not available to the majority of boxers outside of professional or high performance environments.
Boxers compete across weight categories. Sex, competition level, age and weight category will impact upon desirable body fat percentages. Nutritional strategies must be in place in order that competitive boxers adequately fuel for training and recovery purposes as well as ensuring that pre-competition body-fat mass is optimal (international level male boxers appears to range from 9% to 11%, depending on weight category and age, Smith 2005).
It is a well known practise that boxers engage in pre-competition weight reduction (to make weight). Coaches must consider that restrictions in food and fluid intake can have consequences including, dehydration, hormonal disruption, strength reduction, headaches, reduction in energy, reductions in cognition, nausea, decreases in anaerobic performance and decreases in aerobic performance.
Boxers should be educated regarding long term sustainable nutritional strategies. The sport of boxing involves high volumes of work and each athlete should aim to develop an individualised nutritional plan depending on weight, training volume and type of training. Daily requirements for carbohydrate intake and protein intake (as well as other nutrient intake) should be devised allowing planned controls to be utilised when a boxer needs to make weight, with this plan starting well in advance of the contest.
Sport specific Injuries / Neck / Hands /Trunk
The head and neck receive significant impact forces.
The neck should be strengthened in all 3 planes. (flexion, extension and side flexion). If this work is new to a boxer, I would suggest beginning with isometric work (static holds). Once the boxer has accumulated some time strengthening in this manner, more dynamic strategies can be used including additional weight. This needs to be carefully administered.
The hands are another vulnerable injury site. Protection against injury to hand bones can be improved b y including work that targets strengthening of the carpal bones, for example, push-ups on a closed fist (wrapped if possible) with the knuckles of the hand on the floor, can stimulate new bone formation while also placing weight bearing on the hands and wrists, similar to punching without the injury risk.
The abdominal region is vulnerable to impact injury. Strengthening this area of the body provides protection against knock-out, impact injury to the abdominals and protection for internal organs. I begin trunk strengthening work with isometric holds in various positions and progress to include flexion, rotation, side flexion and extension.
Shoulders are another vulnerable area. Wallace 1999 demonstrated that increases in shoulder strength improved the ability to tolerate acceleration and deceleration forces associated with repetitive punching. Some protective work for rotator cuff and scapula (shoulder blades) stabilisers should be considered.
Cardiovascular fitness is critically important for boxing. The aerobic system is required to allow boxers to maintain repetitive high intensity work as well as assisting in recovery between rounds. Maximal oxygen consumption (VO2 max) (which can be measured on a cycle ergometer or on a treadmill) is highly related to boxers ranking and successful performances (Guidetti et al. 2003).
Aerobic fitness must be well developed (junior boxers tend to have lower aerobic fitness levels than senior boxers). Heart rates measured in open sparing sessions show that heart rate responses achieved during a 2 minute round (amateur boxers) reached 200-203 beats per minute, dropping to 160-180bpm during the 1 minute recovery. Heart rates at this level indicate the need to ensure that boxers training programmes are designed to cope with elevated hearts rates and the resulting increases in lactic acid. For example, 1 minute on a focus pad, with 1 minute rest X 8 rounds or 8 x 2 minutes with 1 minute rest. Interval running, 2 minutes effort with 1 minute rest might be another method of preparation.
It is the role of the boxing coach to understand how many punches might be thrown per round and over the full duration of a contest and to address the endurance levels needed for this in the conditioning programme.
Heart rate monitors might be utilised during training sessions such as sparring, pad work, skipping etc.
Boxing is a short duration, high intensity sport with mixed duration periods of lower intensity. The high intensity to rest ratio has been estimated to be 3:1 (Khanna, 2006) but this changes depending on the match format (round duration and number of rounds). High intensity bouts of this nature require a high level of anaerobic fitness.
Giovani 2012 examined force velocity characteristics of upper and lower limbs in male boxers and found that anaerobic power is linked with performance. In comparison with other combat sports, blood lactate levels are comparable for boxing.
High intensity activities cause a decline in intra-muscular pH as well as lactate increases. This can have a deleterious effect on performance. This means that boxers must develop a tolerance for anaerobic work. If lactate cannot be cleared there are increasing metabolic, respiratory and perceptual strain effects resulting in performance deterioration. A boxer with a higher lactate threshold might potentially sustain high intensity work avoiding or delaying fatiguing substances (Davis, 2013). Boxers who have large aerobic fitness levels and high anaerobic conditioning are likely therefore best prepared for maximum performance.
Boxers require gluteal strength to facilitate forceful hip extension and rotation. Increases in maximal strength have been shown to provide a platform upon which greater power can be developed.
The force of a punch is greatly dependent upon the “impulse-momentum” relationship. A bigger arm would, in terms of simple physics, create a greater force, as it is a larger body. This might not always be desirable however as weight class makes pursuing additional muscle mass difficult, especially if a specific nutritional strategy is being followed.
Lower body impulse is critically important which means that jump training should be included in the programming. The jumps should be aimed at improving the boxers rate of force development (how rapidly he/she can develop force) – this will enable an impulse transfer from the lower body into the upper body improving punch force production (McLellan et al., 2011).
Gluteal strength can be developed with exercises such as deadlift, squat, Olympic lifts, weighted squats jumps and others where the emphasis is on hip extension.
Multiple planes of movement should be utilised to improve force production in the upper body and torso (trunk). Attention needs to be given to the volumes of work as hypertrophy might occur (this may or may not be desirable). Volumes of shoulder work must also be considered so that excessive workload does not cause strain.
Heavy bag work helps boxers to develop “stiffness” in the core.
Due to the nature of boxing activity the boxer must be capable of developing multi angular force displacements i.e. from various postures, various types of punches must be thrown. I like to include exercises that challenge core mobility and stability in static and also in dynamic patterns.
The ability to generate high levels of punching force in a rapid period of time is critically important. Punching therefore requires speed and power in combinations, delivered by utilising the phosphate system. Certain tests have been formulated in order to measure punching power e.g. shot put test (Obmifski et al., 2011) – this test is regarded as an acceptable informative assessment of upper body power. Lower body power can be measured using vertical jump and long (horizontal) jump tests. In a more scientific setting a force transducer can be embedded into a target (punching bag) to measure punching forces.
With regard to lower body explosiveness, it is critically important to consider the relationship between lower body power and upper body power. In rotational movements, the lower body is a major contributor to force development (for punching, striking, swinging etc). Giovani 2012 looked at this relationship and found that boxers with the greatest punching power also possessed the greatest lower body power. This is why lower and upper body power development must take place together.
These can be used as leg force development exercise and to assess lower body impulse (Ruddock and Winter, 2005) which is a component of force transmission during punching (Piorkowski et al., 2011). For testing purposes a jump mat or a phone app can be used.
Putting it together
Boxing is an explosive sport. Training volume is important but coaches should not focus merely on volume. Plyometrics, med ball work, ballistic methods should all be integrated and there is a significant volume of sports science research supporting this. Programmes should include weight training, interval sprint workouts, continuous aerobic training and explosive training (single and double leg jumps, med ball etc.)(Jordan, 1993).
The tradition of long slow distance running as a method of preparing a boxer should be questioned. A long slow continuous run is of little use to an athlete in a sport that demands repeated 2-3 minute rounds, with high intensity bursts, separated by 1 minute of rest. The preparation of the boxer should mimic these demands in a similar work-rest ratio. This is not to say that a boxer cannot go for a run but this might be integrated as a form of active recovery rather than a primary of key performance development session.
High intensity conditioning sessions must be completed to prepare the athlete. Without this preparation work, skills will be of little value as fatigue inhibits skill performance significantly.
Ensure trunk and hip rotation work is included the programme. Pulleys, cables and bands can be used to target specific force vectors (these should mimic punches).
As I only supervise 1 gym session per week, I regularly utilise a “complex” session i.e. I will use contrasting loads to elicit an enhancement of power. For example, the boxer might bench press heavy (5 reps – strength development) followed (after a brief rest) by a throw/punch with a light med ball (rapid rate of force development). This type of complex work has been shown to acutely enhance upper body power (Evans et al., 2000). Combinations such as this can also be utilised for the same effect with lower body power enhancement e.g. Deadlift and vertical jump. (It is important to consider the rest intervals between the exercises, I would generally aim for 3-4 minutes between the two contrasting exercises, during that time the boxer will perform another exercise but focusing on another body part, this is a practical requirement to enable us to maximise the time we have available).
Complex arrangements like this can be mixed according to the needs of the boxer e.g. if the coach feels that a jab, uppercut etc requires specific focus. Cables, med balls, dumbbells, elastic cords etc can all be experimented with. If a punch bag is available, the athlete could, for example, perform a cable hook with a heavy load (a band or cord would work for this also), contrasted with explosive hooks into a bag (5-6 reps) (obviously the hands should be protected, wrapped with mitts will allow the grabbing of cables/dumbbells). This type of work might often be scheduled to run over an 8 -10 week period leading into a fight
I feel it is critical not to stray too far from speed of movement, this must continually improve during a developing boxers career.
In complex training sessions, cardiovascular training and/or muscular endurance should be avoided as this will interfere with the desired adaptations – Cardio and other endurance work can be completed on other days.
Elite amateur boxers have low body fat levels.
Aerobic power is critical to maintain high intensity actions, to recover between rounds.
Muscle Strength is critical for upper and lower body.
Muscular power is critical in upper and lower body. These are positively correlated in boxers.
Punching speed is critical and boxer must be capable of achieving maximal force within short timeframes (0.50 – 0.60 milliseconds).
Consider sport specific patterns and movement requirements.
Consider areas where injury risks are greater & implement protective measures.