Cross Training: can boxing training be used for other sports?

Can boxing fitness help non-boxers improve their performance?

Boxing is one of the toughest sports around and boxers are renowned as being among the fittest athletes, requiring a combination of agility, speed, power, strength and, of course, mental toughness. Former amateur boxer and professional boxing trainer Ian Burbedge talks to John Shepherd about boxing training methods and their relevance to other sports

Ian Burbedge trains professional boxer Lenny Daws twice a day, 5 days a week. Lenny is a professional light welterweight boxer (10 stones) who has won 18 fights, drawn 1 and lost 1. Lenny is a former British number one and is currently ranked 5th (he fights at the same weight as Ricky Hatton).
In general terms, the preparation for a fight depends on the number of rounds. Ian explains that the minimum preparation phase would be six weeks for a 6-round fight, but that if the fight were longer (for example 10-12 rounds) then another 3-4 weeks would be added.

Ian believes that the amount of running that boxers typically do is exaggerated, with run durations often reflecting the length of the fight – for example, a 36-minute run for a 12 x 3 minute round contest. In particular, Ian believes that there is no real need to run more than three miles, as boxing is an explosive sport rather than a slow steady one.
Lenny often performs his runs in fartlek style, upping the intensity with sprints and faster paced running. The idea is that this more closely reflects that true nature of boxing, where there are flurries of activity, rather than a single steady effort. Ian advises Lenny to run every training day (five per week) when preparing for a fight, with the run being the first of the two or three workouts he does each training day.

Circuits

Circuit training provides the foundation for Lenny’s conditioning. When preparing for a fight, it forms the mainstay of the second workout of the day, with the more technical components of boxing such as pad work forming the third. Four to six weeks before a fight, the format is reversed; specific boxing preparation work takes precedence and the circuit training follows.

Typically there are eight exercises in a circuit and these are performed in 5-minute bursts. All boxing-specific training would involve 3 minutes of effort with 1 minute of recovery, to reflect fight conditions. In terms of actual exercises a typical circuit includes chin-ups, diamond, normal and plyometric press-ups, crunches, the plank (core exercise) and squat thrusts. Weight exercises are also included, eg dumbbell flyes and lateral raises, but loadings are kept relatively light. These workouts are designed to increase Lenny’s ability to handle his own weight, develop power and resilience under conditions of fatigue yet not build muscle (which could slow him down). An additional concern for Lenny is that as a light welterweight, a significant increase in muscle mass from weight training could take him over the 10-stone (63kg) limit.

Three or four weeks out from the fight, Lenny still runs but the work done in the gym becomes much more specific as the fight closes in. Typically he does a couple of rounds of shadow boxing and maybe bag work and then goes straight into sparring. In terms of numbers of rounds, Lenny will start with three x 3 minutes and then build up to six x 3 minutes to reflect the fight’s specific requirements.

For amateurs Ian recommends following the same planning format, gradually building up from two x 2 minutes to four x 2 minutes of sparring over time. After the boxing-specific work, Lenny still performs a circuit but as Ian explains, he will constantly be assessing Lenny’s condition and adapting and progressing training accordingly to develop ring readiness and avoid overtraining, for example by reducing the circuit’s intensity.

Taking punishment

Ian explains that learning to trade and take blows comes from sparring. ‘It sounds quite odd but the body becomes conditioned to be hit. You find that over the first couple of days of sparring that you tend to get a few lumps and bumps, especially if you get caught but after a while your body hardens up.’

So what’s it actually like being in the ring? Ian explains that as the fight approaches, nerves increase but once the bell goes you become focused on your job. Ian claims that anyone who says that they aren’t nervous beforehand is lying! He continues: ‘I’ve been knocked out. I can remember doing my boots up back in the changing room and asking my coach, ‘what time am I on?’ As I continued doing my boots up, my coach said, ‘you’ve been hit’, and I said, ‘Shut up’!! Occasionally a shot will hurt but more often than not you won’t feel it because you’re thinking about your own plan. The only thing I can liken it to is if you don’t head a football right, you get that black feeling come over you and there is a bit of a wobble, but it goes quickly and you get on with it.’

Ian explains that it is only after the fight, as the adrenaline decreases and the pain starts, that you really realise how much you have been hit.

Boxing speed

The ‘greatest’, Muhammad Ali, claimed that he was so fast that he could be in bed before it went dark after he flicked the light switch! Speed of hand and speed of foot are vital attributes for a boxer.

Speed of hand – Ian believes that the best way to develop hand speed is through pad work. This requires the trainer to be in the ring holding pads and moving the fighter around as he throws various punches to the pads. He explains: ‘It’s very difficult to do this when sparring because you’re constantly looking for openings and you’re not thinking directly about improving hand speed. Also, with a punch bag, it’s amazing the amount of times you will throw the same combination of punches – you get into a habit. However, because you’re working with someone on the pads, the dynamics are very different and you don’t fall into that trap.’

Speed of foot – Skipping is still used by many boxers as a way to develop foot speed and agility, but Ian explains that more modern practices may be more beneficial and he adapts agility and quickness drills used by other sports and employs them in Lenny’s training. These are introduced about three weeks before the fight, when the boxer’s legs are strong. This out and out speed work is done with fuller recoveries. Specifically, he uses a very short speed ladder of only four rungs aimed at developing ‘change of direction’ speed. ‘It’s surprising how much Lenny has improved there,’ says Ian. ‘When he boxed conventionally [ie ‘orthodox’ with a left leg lead] he was perfect at anything going to the left. But if he had to go to the other side, he wasn’t comfortable at all.’ Lenny is now able to take the fight to his opponent with equal speed in either direction largely due to Ian’s use of contemporary agility and quickness training.

The physiological requirements of boxing

Compared to other sports, the volume of scientific research on boxing is severely limited (likely due in part to the controversial nature and risks –  perceived or otherwise – of the sport) but there are a number of studies that have looked at the demands it makes on energy.
Boxing and boxing training requires energy from both aerobic and anaerobic energy systems. The demands on these energy systems vary in regard to the duration of bouts just as they would with different length track races. For example, a heavyweight who goes toe to toe for 15 rounds relies on a different spread of energy system usage to an amateur who fights for four x 2-minute rounds.

Amateur boxing has switched from three x 3 to four x 2-minute rounds and research indicates that this has made the sport even more anaerobic (1). Indian scientists discovered that lactate levels peak at 14-15mmol/litre and averaged 13.6mmol/litre for four x 2 min rounds compared to 8.3mmol/litre for three x 3 min rounds. Average heart rate was also seen to increase to 192 beats per minute (bpm) from 176bpm.

The higher high heart rate levels indicate a higher percentage of VO2max being utilised, a higher anaerobic energy system contribution and greater fight intensity (although the intensity is maintained for less time during the shorter rounds).

Table 1 shows the recorded VO2max data from amateur boxers of various nationalities gathered under the (previous) three x 3-minute round format. Meanwhile, box 1 shows how lactate (and therefore intensity) levels in boxing typically compare with those from other sports.

Table 1

 

Box 1: Boxing lactate levels – how do other sports compare?

 

Blood lactate levels are a powerful indicator of the anaerobic contribution to a sport or activity; all other things being equal (fitness of participants etc), the more intense the exercise, the higher the levels of lactate. As the results below show, boxing ranks right at the top as a test of the short-term anaerobic energy system.

  • Wrestling – Research examples of post-contest lactate levels – US collegiate wrestlers – 19.0mmol/litre (2) and (at 1998 World Wrestling Championships) 14.8mmol/litre (3), with recorded VO2max of 52.63ml/kg/min.
  • Rowing (a sport traditionally associated with high lactate levels) – Research examples: 13.4 mmol/litre – collegiate rowers performing a flat-out 6-minute ergo test (4). NB – in rowing there is a surge in lactate during the last 500m as the finish line nears. Olympic rowing is about 60-70% aerobic and 30-40% anaerobic in terms of energy system spread. Boxing with 2-minute rounds primarily taxes the short-term anaerobic system with a reduction in the aerobic content. The demands of four x 2-minute round boxing would be far more anaerobic (nearer to 60-70% anaerobic and 30-40% aerobic).
  • Tennis (like boxing also played using an alternating work/rest format) – 20 Austrian ranked tennis players showed only an average lactate build-up of 2.1mmol/litre during games (5). Tennis rallies are very short, normally lasting a matter of seconds, and, relatively speaking, there’s plenty of rest (although matches can last for hours). This lower overall intensity results in lower lactate levels.
  • Football - Danish division 4 players – first half 6.0mmol/litre; second half 5.0mmol/litre (6).

Boxing fitness

Many of you reading this may have done boxing-based workouts as part of your sports training/fitness routine, or might be thinking of doing so. So how physiologically effective are they and can they provide sport-specific benefits to other sportsmen and women, for example footballers and rugby players?

Boxing circuits generally take 45-60 minutes and involve skipping, circuit exercises for the whole body (such as press-ups and crunches) and occasionally (for more advanced trainers) bag or pad work and shadow boxing. Recoveries are kept to a minimum and the workouts can be very tough.

Researchers have compared boxing-based workouts to treadmill running to determine energy expenditure (7). Eight adult males with boxing-based class workout experience took part in the study, which consisted of three conditions:

  1. An hour’s boxing-based workout in a laboratory;
  2. An hour’s boxing-based workout in a gym;
  3. An incremental run on a treadmill.

In the lab and gym, the men burned 671 and 599 calories respectively. Interestingly, these calorie-burn figures compared with the energy expenditure of the hour’s treadmill run (running is a very effective way of burning calories and the runners covered about 9km in this time).

The energy expenditure figures are high for all the test protocols. More significantly they demonstrate the significant calorie expenditure that boxing-based workouts can produce. Moreover, these boxing workouts are more anaerobic and require greater all body power than the treadmill running, confirming that they are an effective way of developing general fitness, power and local muscular endurance under conditions of anaerobic fatigue.

Boxing training for general sport fitness

Ian believes that boxing training offers considerable benefits to sportsmen and women and he works with rugby and football players to introduce boxing training into the players’ conditioning. As he explains: ‘If you are looking at developing fast-twitch muscle, boxing training is all good work and I think it’s got a place in a lot of sports. Rugby players probably take to it better than footballers because they are used to doing a lot of work with their hands.’
Ian provides the analogy of the rugby hand-off as being like a punching movement, and as a specific area where boxing training can offer a real performance benefit to the player. However, apart from heading the ball, footballers only tend to use their upper bodies for balance and do not carry as much muscle. By contrast, he finds that players of the 11-a-side game have better endurance when performing boxing workouts compared to their 15-a-side counterparts, partly he believes because of their lower muscle mass and the greater running demands of their sport. Box 2 gives an example of the kind of conditioning circuit that Ian would recommend for footballers and rugby players.

Box 2: Example of an effective boxing based fitness circuit

  1. Bench press x 10
  2. Fast chest press using resistance bands x 15
  3. Squat, jump and medicine ball throw x 15
  4. Cycling action sit-ups x 25
  5. Chin-ups x 10
  6. Upright row using resistance bands x 20
  7. Side plank with rotation x 10 each side
  8. Lateral raise and shoulder raise combination x 10
  9. Squat thrusts x 15
  10. Diamond press-up and biceps curl combination x 10 each

The circuit would be completed with no rest between exercises and a minute’s recovery would then be taken before going again. The number of circuits completed would depend on the athlete’s fitness and the time in the training year.

Conclusion

Boxing is a very demanding sport and training for it needs to reflect this. Changes in the amateur sport in terms of length and numbers of rounds and in the professional sport in terms of the number of rounds scheduled should be taken into account when conditioning the fighter. The high anaerobic content of the sport should be the primary conditioning requirement. Boxing training for athletes, particularly those involved in stop/start dynamic anaerobic sports, can act as a useful conditioner. It’s also useful for fitness enthusiasts, contributing significantly to calorie burning and all body strength and tone.

Ian Burbedge has created a one-on-one, non-contact pad-based boxing workout called ‘Padbox’ and runs courses for personal trainers and others interested in becoming qualified trainers

John Shepherd MA is a specialist health, sport and fitness writer and a former international long jumper

References

1. www.medic.usm.my/mssu/ARTICLES/article-2.htm
2. Journal of Sport Sci and Medicine 2006;5:74-89
3. Journal of Sport Science 2002;20:939-945
4. J sport Med Phys Fitness 2001 Mar;41(1):73-77
5. Med. Sci Sports Exerc 2006Jun:38(6):1165-74
6. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2003 Jun;89(5):489-95. Epub 2003 Apr 2
7. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1997 Dec: 29(12):1653-6

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