In this article, we will look at the sport of boxing and how we can go about understanding the component parts that go into creating above all a specific and effective training program for our boxing athletes.
With specificity and functionality as our goal, we will look at the biomechanical breakdown to identify the optimal muscular loading movements that will give the “edge” to our performance in power, balance and speed to name a few elements of a boxer’s function.
The training methodology of boxing has always remained very close to its function. Sparring, bag work and pad work all strongly relate to competitive boxing. However, the law of diminishing returns dictates that we have to put in much more of the same thing to get less and less back. The challenge then is to create a conditioning program that can enhance and complement but which also, and most importantly, does not follow a more or volume principle that could lead to breakdown. A return to traditional boxing training methodology (e.g., pad work, sparring, etc.) allows us to assess improvements in our boxer’s functional state and performance.
The Art of Loading
I see boxing as the most awe inspiring of sports, primarily for its ability to harness the spent force of the body and create more potential energy. Success at boxing encompasses the capacity to decelerate force into muscular loading, the body’s form of recycling, then effectively redirect and explosively accelerate another punch into this remarkable cycle of loading. A definition of loading in this article would be described as “muscular eccentric lengthening vital to effective production and transfer of mechanical energy.” Loading is caused by the dynamic movement of the body.
At its most effectual, boxing reminds me of the balls of perpetual motion (see below) that utilize the physical laws of the world around us to continue motion, much like the most seemingly simple of human movements, walking or gait, which in fact exploits and harnesses all the same principles to drive the body’s proprioceptive and muscular systems. However, the skill and forces at play in the world of boxing are much mightier to behold.
Every movement correctly applied is designed to keep this loading pattern perpetual. “The Combination” shifts body weight from front to back and vice versa, loading the hips, spine and scapulae and related muscles to deliver force in repetitive volume. “The Roll” allows a boxer to finish a combination, avoid a punch and reset his weight to continue the loading cycle or regain ready position. The most impressive of all is “The Counter Punch.” By anticipating and shifting body weight to avoid a punch, the boxer incorporates a loading position from which to apply maximal power in return, truly a defensive and offensive muscular masterpiece.
Let us look then at the component parts of boxing. Power, speed and endurance all come to mind, but for the purpose of this article, we shall focus on the element that all great boxing trainers from Angelo Dundee to his more contemporary counter parts Freddie Roach and the Ingles, have always recognized, and that is balance.
Balance in boxing allows us to effectively move and assume loading positions, hopefully repetitively applying force and returning to ready position or stance without falling over or losing balance. If forced to take a punch, balance enables us to be in the most successful position to do so.
The key to balance, in my opinion, is flexibility and the elastic potential of our muscles. An analogy I like to use is that of the stick and spring. The stick is inflexible, it assumes a position and has no range of movement and cannot get back to its start position. The spring (below), however, has lots of flexibility and can go and also return to its starting position. If we were to define balance, it would be to effectively go and come back to our original position or position of choice.
Power also comes into this equation, as to carry out this balanced movement with maximal knockout power places extra demand on the muscular system, and greater range of movement or flexibility allows us to accelerate and decelerate more of our body weight over a larger range.
Larger ROM allows us to accelerate, direct and decelerate more of our body weight over larger distances fitting in with Newton’s principle of F=MA, which enables the boxer to apply more force, as range allows more acceleration time and distance. Can we then say that flexibility equals both power and balance, and that to understand boxing means we need to understand flexibility and the key areas of the body involved in creating or transferring force, increasing their effective ROM and enhancing muscular load and unloading sequences?
This may answer why two boxers of the same weight may differ in delivering similar punch power or one has power in his right hand while another has power in his left. Less ROM or ability to effectively load a muscle group could lead to a reduction in punch power.
A possible lack of joint range sensed by the body’s proprioceptive system can also reduce transfer of body weight and the resultant punch power. If sufficient joint range is not sensed by the joint proprioceptors, they will reduce the range of eccentric lengthening allowed by the proprioceptors, specifically the Golgi Tendon Organ, of the muscles that are involved in a movement. This is a protective communication mechanism to stop joints and muscles working in ranges that are not provided with support from other areas of the body. Less eccentric ROM and possible reduced pelvis translation in the frontal and transverse planes towards the opposite leg from punching arm could affect distance over which body weight can be accelerated and therefore punch power generated.
Muscular restriction through inelasticity or inflexibility may also cause reduced weight transfer and power.
We must remember that a muscle that is held in a lengthened position (number one in the below graph) will be closer to its end range, reducing the working range with which to effectively eccentrically lengthen and decelerate force. This could be defined as inelasticity. Muscular deceleration of force creates tension and mechanical energy to be utilized during the acceleration of a punch and also stabilizes the body. A muscle held in a shortened position (number six in the graph) will be equally ineffective. A muscle that is too short and tight has reduced pliability to eccentrically lengthen to decelerate force. This could be described as inflexibility. This can be characterized as the length/tension relationship.
Often, we see with people who extensively practice yoga, despite having very large ROMs and who do not have effective muscular response and force production. This is mainly due to the extended tempos they train with and also due to far longer amortization between eccentric and concentric muscular phases, leading to decreased elasticity and force production.
We shall look at some of the significant areas of the body we can train to increase effective range of movement and proprioceptive muscular response. Improvements to these areas will enhance the functional elements of boxing such as speed, power of punch and associated movements.
Looking at these areas will lead to an understanding of the biomechanics and muscular loading sequences involved, as well as applicable training methods to improve them. By understanding the implications of acceleration, deceleration and muscular loading (for more on these principles, see “Is Our Training Leaving Our Athletes Untrained?” under related articles at right) as well as the biomechanical specifics, we can create a truly all encompassing program.
Mid Tarsal and Ankle
People often describe power in boxing as “coming from the hips,” but because muscular loading does not occur through the body travelling over itself as in gait coupled with the ground reaction and momentum loading effects that occur from forward ambulation, much of the power source has to be generated by loading from below without a forward step, and that means we have to look first at the feet.
The mid tarsal joint is so important because it allows the boxer to utilize ground reaction by providing a grounding or anchoring point from which to apply force. To put this into context, when a boxer throws the right cross, if the mid tarsal joint and the hallux or big toe of the right foot cannot effectively dorsi flex and become propulsive, then the body cannot travel over the top of the joint, creating limited heel rise and the forward movement of right hip extension and associated weight shift and muscular loading of the body on the left cannot occur. Equally, as the ankle inverts to transform the foot into a rigid propulsive unit, the mid tarsal must relatively evert effectively as it is grounded, keeping the foot anchored while allowing the joint above to successfully move against it. Obviously, considering the three dimensional nature of the body, the same must be true of the transverse plane, and although the leg in space is internally rotating, it is relatively externally rotating, a point we will come back to later in the article as we progress up the kinetic chain. This external rotation is due to the pelvis being driven from above to the left faster than the femur by the right arm. This then means the grounded mid tarsal has to be able to relatively internally rotate effectively.
We must also incorporate the ankle joint above into this equation because of the relative relationship between the two joints and the ground. The ankle joint must provide power from effective plantar flexion, and therefore it must be able to load well in dorsi flexion. The same is true of the frontal plane. The calcaneous must evert to load the calf complex in all three planes to provide all motion, but in the frontal plane specifically, effective eversion leads to effective inversion that provides the tough and rugged foot we require for propulsion.
Without becoming tedious in our approach to muscles, which individually are far less important than movements, when we have dorsi flexion, eversion and internal rotation of the ankle complex, as in the loading phase of throwing the right hand, we eccentrically load the gastroenemius, posterior tibialis, peroneus longus and flexor digitorum longus, to name some of the muscles involved. Along with the muscles of the foot eccentrically loading due to eversion of the calcaneus, this helps create a loading environment for maximal force production. Most important, however, is the loading of the soleus through dorsi flexion and eversion. It is heavily involved in transferring force from the lower joints up to the hips through inversion and plantar flexion and eventually hip extension and abduction. In fact, Zajac and Gordon found that the soleus acts to accelerate the knee into extension twice as much as it acts to accelerate the ankle into plantar flexion and therefore also the hip into extension, even though it does not cross these joints.
Our aim then is to establish a protocol to provide these loading and exploding patterns.
High Knee Step
This first exercise, although stepping away from function slightly, harnesses more of the environmental laws around us. The high knee step requires the boxer to stay relatively on toes as he throws his knees as high as possible while moving forward. This will increase muscular load through gravity, ground reaction and momentum in the downward phase, creating at the ankle more dorsi flexion, eversion and internal rotation and in the upward phase driving into plantar flexion, inversion and external rotation as the foot leaves the floor (all the required load and explode patterns).
By staying relatively towards the toes, we can increase dorsi flexion at the mid tarsal joint and all the other relative motions associated with the ankle joint above. By taking our hands towards the floor on the downward phase and up on the upward phase, we can further accentuate the body and load positions. Other adaptations could include taking the step longer or shorter, wide or narrow (even crossing the feet) or turning the feet in or out, all creating dimensional adaptations. Performing the high knee run backwards also creates more demand by taking away visual stimulus to the proprioceptive system (this could also be accomplished by shutting the eyes). Backwards movement is generally untrained as a movement pattern, which also stimulates proprioceptive response. Other training variations would be to add weight, cadence, distance and speed changes. The speed ladder could also be used to provide feedback or a guide for any of the above training variations.
Med Ball Explosion
Coming back towards function, the boxer starts in stance, first loading by winding up the punch holding a medicine ball. He then explodes, throwing the ball with maximal force forward (much like a punch). The maximal deceleration and acceleration of an external weight also gives an additional overload and increased muscular response, with the aim to increase to maximal loads and speeds while keeping the integrity of the movement. Although essentially for the whole chain, after loading, this movement is initiated from the mid tarsal. By maintaining dorsi flexion and therefore ground reaction at the mid tarsal and the ankle joint driving from dorsi flexion into plantar flexion, extension is created at both the knee and hip. We can also increase functionality and skill level by introducing external stimulus such as a thrown punch, which has to be avoided in the loading phase. Again longer and shorter, wider and narrower and turned in and out foot positions can be used to enhance dimensionality.
The hips, although not the major propulsive power source, allow the transfer of weight from one side of the body over to the other and decelerate force to be accelerated. Any limitation in the ability to extend, abduct or externally rotate on the exploding side or flex, adduct and internally rotate on the loading side will reduce power, accuracy and energy efficiency, leading to muscular and cardiovascular fatigue.
An inability to extend at the hip will decrease forward momentum and height of the punch as flexion collapses the body downwards. Equally, lack of ability to adduct will also reduce weight transfer and force and range of a punch. It is essential to look at the contralateral adductors and hip flexors, which are heavily interrelated and may not be able to lengthen to allow movement of the pelvis. This could be caused by lack of motion in joint range sensed by the proprioceptive system. This leads to reduced eccentric muscular lengthening and tension being created. The outcome being pelvic instability and resultant reduced weight transfer. When creating hip adduction, a wide stance or step will place eccentric load on the contralateral adductor group and hip flexors that have to have the capacity to load to allow lateral pelvic movement.
In boxing, the hips and spine work together by rotating in the same direction. The arm is driving the thoracic spine around to the left when striking with the right hand and the pelvis follows, also driving around to the left (although slower). This could be described as an “in sync” movement. Gait could be described as “out of sync” because the thoracic spine rotates in the opposite direction to the pelvis driven by opposite arm swing. By understanding this, more functional loading and exploding of the “core” muscles can be achieved through properly designed exercises.
In boxing, the rotation of the pelvis to the left against the relatively stationary left femur causes internal rotation of the left hip, decelerating force and loading the left hip external rotators such as the glute max, glute med, piriformis and the hip flexors, to name a few. On the right hip during the right cross, the pelvis travels faster than the femur round to the left because of the punch driving the movement from above in the transverse plane. This causes external rotation of the right hip, previously eccentrically loaded into internal rotation.
This external rotation of the right hip also generates more frontal plane load through abduction and extension in the sagittal plane. This load stops the pelvis collapsing or rolling into internal rotation and flexion as the right arm drives across to the left, providing additional load to the trunk and spine. Again, it is vital that the right adductor group and hip flexors can handle the level of abduction that is occurring at the right hip to allow adduction over to the left hip and also to allow the required level of external rotation.
It is interesting to note the dual role that the adductor group performs. It provides both stability and rigidity to the pelvis while also allowing motion or “mostability,” to quote Gary Gray. The adductors act much like the guy wires on a tent. They need to be able to eccentrically lengthen in the transverse plane to wind up and achieve their most tensile state. This state allows proprioceptive confidence in the stability of the pelvis, leading to effective allowance of muscular movement in the other two planes. When the muscles of the adductors become prematurely fatigued through inefficient movement, or proprioceptive dysfunction occurs, as seen in many athletes, they choose their role of stabilizing the pelvis over allowing effective 3D movement. This can limit weight transfer, force production and contralateral muscular loading.
Long Lunge Pattern
The long lunge again moves slightly away from function but in doing so exploits the physics of the world around us more. By utilizing right arm drive around to the left, we can simulate pelvic movement as in punching function. By lunging forward with the left leg to a maximal position, we increase forward momentum and ground reaction. And by reaching maximally with the right arm, we drive the pelvis forward from above faster over the femur in the sagittal plane, creating more forward movement and leading to more flexion and equally more extension on the contralteral side. Driving around to the left with the right arm leads to an increase of the load in internal rotation and an equal external load or the opposite side. Increased adduction on the left leg is accompanied by abduction on the right.
Through changing lunge position, we can create more emphasis in load in the frontal and transverse planes. We can also increase speed and weight and swap leg and arm combination around to simulate the left hook or have same side arm and leg lunge as occurs with the jab. We can also increase load and load type.
Hip Extension Punch
By placing the right leg of the boxer on a step, still in boxing stance, we are able to increase the femur angle against the pelvis, creating more hip extension and associated weight shift. Still driving from the foot, we also drive the punch from above using the arm. By changing punch position or target, we are able to create more dimensional emphasis, high/low for the sagittal plane, left or right for frontal plane or more rotational emphasis for the transverse plane. By stepping with the left leg, we can also create more forward momentum and muscular response. Weight through external apparatus and speed should also be increased for more overload and adaption.
The Spine and Scapulae
Many boxers tend to have plenty of spinal movement. This helps them to overcome other physical restrictions they have to punching success. However, it is still important to understand the spine in relation to boxing and how to maintain and increase spinal movement. All of the movements looked at in this article will help create greater spinal movement, and use of the arms can be used to emphasis spinal input.
Spinal movement can be characterized by two types of coupling movement possibilities.
Type 1: Lateral flexion and rotation to the opposite side.
Type 2: Lateral flexion and rotation to the same side.
According to Freyette, a third type of spinal movement or dysfunction is characterized by the domination of one plane of motion, reducing movement in the other two. This generally refers to excessive flexion of the spine, restricting its ability to laterally flex or rotate. This can occur because of possible lack of decelerative ability further down the kinetic chain in the hips or ankles. This means that the thoracic spine is not backed up by the attenuation of force in these joints and has to deal with more decelerative force, leading to muscular shortening in the anterior part of the body and lengthening in the posterior, such as is seen in thoracic kyphosis.
The right hand cross gives us type 2 spinal motions, with the spine rotating and laterally flexing towards the left sided target. The left hook drives the spine to the right but laterally flexes to the left to connect with the target, making it type 1 spinal motion. The jab also fits neatly into type 1 motion for the same reasons.
The scapulae must be able to have effective movement to load all of the muscles that drive the scapula into protraction as the humerus is target driven away from the body. The internal rotators of the rotator cuff, the lats and pectorals all need to be able to eccentrically load to explode. Spinal movement also affects scapulae movement, and the interaction of the scapulae with both the spine and humerus is vital. The tendency of the shoulders to become kyphotic, characterized by flexion of the spine and internal rotation at the glenohumeral joint, can lead to ineffectual retraction of the scapulae and spinal rotation. This leads to ineffectual protraction and spinal rotation during punching. Training the scapulae for boxing must incorporate retractive motion.
Preload Cable Punch
By decelerating an external force such as a cable and then accelerating as fast as possible, we can increase muscular response and also effective ROM. The cable will force us back into retraction and right spinal rotation to be accelerated into protraction and left spinal rotation (the same as a right handed punch). We must make the weight heavy enough to create a muscular response but not become uncontrollable. For the best results, the boxer must allow the weight to control him on the load phase to reach an effective end range and not decelerate to early decreasing range and proprioceptive response, leading to reduced maximal force production.
By keeping the elbow tucked in to the hip, we create not only a fantastic defensive position but also more interaction between the humerus and scapula, especially in the sagittal plane. As the humerus goes into flexion, the scapula should depress in the loading phase before the humerus drives into extension and the scapula elevates in the exploding phase. We also load the muscles associated with spinal extension before the punch drives us into spinal flexion.
We can increase stimulus and response through weight, speed and also skill through external actions such as avoiding a thrown punch.
A practical example of how to put these movements into a program could look like this.
Dynamic Warm Up
High Knee Step: Set up two cones. Run to the cone forwards and then away backwards. Turn to the side and laterally step (abduction) to the cone and back. Step and cross the right foot over the left and then behind left (adduction) to the cone and back. Turn feet in (internal rotation) and turn feet out (external rotation) to complete the warm up. Repeat three times at 60, 70 and 85 percent of effort level.
Functional Movement Driven
Hip Extension Punch: Start with medium ROM and 50 percent punch force and speed. Punch at a natural height. Repeat 15 times. Increase ROM and change target positions (high/low left/right) and increase to 70 percent of punch power. Repeat 10 times. Step with left foot and increase punch speed and force to 90 percent. Repeat six times.
Long Lunge Pattern: First set use large ROM. Second set same ROM, increase tempo. Third set add medicine ball (use both arms) to reach.
Med ball Explosion: Use appropriate weight med ball. Explosively load and drive ball at maximal power (Tip: If the ball travels too far, then it may be too light). Four sets of two to four reps.
Another way to perform this program would be to use a circuit style format. After the dynamic warm up take the Hip extension punch, Long lunge pattern and Med ball explosion and perform one set of each in a row using increasing variables.
Within this program, we have utilized multi plane dynamic input, function driven movement patterns, momentum, increased ROM and power. All are vital to sports specific training and occur simultaneously during sporting function.
In this article, I have tried to display the understanding of muscular load patterns and physiological demands that are required to create highly specific and function enhancing exercises that will give your athletes an edge. We have only touched upon a fraction of the demands of the chosen sport in this article, and the variation of training methods and movement possibilities is vast. This methodology can be applied to any sport or function.
By choosing what we believe to be the most applicable movements and applying a gradual step loading principle to them using range, direction, speed and weight, we can effectively periodize a program to obtain overload and adaptation in range of movement, flexibility and stability and muscular and fascial adaptations, including functional hypertrophy and strength gains. Also by influencing the relationship between speed and weight, we can create an environment for increasing power without losing functionality.
Only by manipulating and enhancing movement, dimensionality, momentum, ground reaction, weight, speed and muscular load in the context of function, coupled with a detailed understanding of the biomechanical demands of a sport and followed by quantification of performance in a functional state or environment, than we will truly be able to create a strength and conditioning program highly applicable and original for our athletes and their muscular needs.
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- Tiberio, D. (2006). Seeing the Link/Making the connection: Influencing the scapulae functionally. Gray Institute.
- Tiberio, D. (2006). The Function of the Adductor Muscles. Gray Institute.
- Zajac, F.E. and Gordon, M.F. (1989). Determining muscles force and action in multi-articular movement. Exerc sport sci revs 17: 187-230.