It’s a simple truth—injury is the nemesis of any elite athlete and training can cause injury. The coach’s dilemma is finding ways to train that improve game day performance while making sure game day actually happens.
Nowhere is this truer than in boxing. You may get one shot to put your career on a new level by fighting someone who far outranks you. You must endure rounds and rounds of sparring… with each sparring partner thinking it’s them who should be getting the big break. One cut, one concussion, one sprained hand or wrist, and it’s over.The coach’s dilemma is finding ways to train that improve game day performance while making sure game day actually happens. Consider mittwork. Click To Tweet
For team sports, there’s a depth chart for a reason—if your thumb needs healing, your teammates have you covered. Ask Drew Brees. But in individual sports like boxing, tennis, and golf, it’s just you. And in all the other individual sports, your training partners are not actively trying to put you on the injured reserve list. So, boxing trainers had to come up with a way to train and keep boxers sharp while at the same time minimizing injury risk.
Simply put, mittwork is the presentation of punching targets and threats to a trainee in a given order, at a given speed, for a given duration of time. The word “given” here is important. The trainer controls all the variables: which combination of targets and threats, at what speed, and for what duration. And further, there is a divide in mittwork styles—either choreographed or what I call “fight style” mitts.
Choreographed mittwork is a scripted interaction. The trainer and the fighter agree in advance what will happen. The instruction is, “You are going to slip an oncoming right and counter with left hook, then throw a right cross, then roll out right and finish with a double jab to cover your tracks,” all starting on “Go!” Those choreographed combinations progress in complexity and duration as athletes get better and better at the boxing movements. You can start with an A-block of 2–4 punch/defensive combos, then add another block B, then C, then put them all together—ABC, BCA, AAC—until you fill an entire three-minute round with choreographed movement. There are literally thousands of combinations, blocks, and workouts that trainers can construct, limited only by their imagination and the gas in the athlete’s tank.
The other side of the mittwork spectrum is the “fight style” mitts. With this style, the fighter more or less treats you like an opponent. The bell rings, and you square off like opponents. The fighter does not know what the sequence will be: They have to react to what you present as you present it. The trainer presents the mitt in a certain way that means “throw a right uppercut” or a jab, or hook—they call for each punch either verbally (at the beginning) or by a unique position of the mitt, like a special sign language. The fighter/trainee has to use their eyes and ears to react and hit the targets as they are sequenced in front of them.
It’s the same with defensive moves. The trainer can force defensive moves by “throwing” punches, too, with the pad. Forcing defensive moves is the reason mittwork is a significant training upgrade over just hitting a heavy bag or a speed bag. A trainer with mitts fights back!
The choreographed mittwork is very suitable for beginners, elite athlete or not. The choreographed work is critical to establishing good boxing technique. With choreographed mittwork, you can slow down the speed to make sure feet, legs, core, and shoulders coordinate to deliver the most punch power with the minimum counterpunch exposure. Step by step, you can increase the speed of combinations as the trainee better understands the moves. I literally say, “Okay, we’re doing this one at 30% speed, then 60%, then 100%,” and see if the wheels fall off once we get to fight speed. If they do, we go back down the speed scale to try building up again.
Pro trainers who work with their pro fighters, especially for a long time, know the routines. They make choreographed work look exactly like fight-style because there’s no difference in speed or smoothness. But it takes years of practice to get that smooth, and it’s something to aspire to. Just google “mittwork” and “Canelo” to see some of the best mittwork there is to see.
Low Injury Risk – High-Intensity Cardio
So why should you train your elite athlete using mittwork? When is it a good idea?
At its core, mittwork is a full-body workout that is easy on the joints. Its intensity is up to the athlete and the trainer pushing. Typical fitness punching on a heavy bag burns 350–500 calories an hour. Sparring, on the other hand, can burn 800 calories an hour. Intensive mittwork that mimics sparring can get you closer to that 800/hour rate and certainly north of 500/hour.At its core, mittwork is a full-body workout that’s easy on the joints. It can get you close to the calorie burn of sparring without the injury risk. Click To Tweet
But what about injury risk? Certainly, you don’t want your elite athlete sparring, but mittwork can get you close to the calorie burn without that injury risk. Mittwork requires lots of movement with feet and hands, but the movements are quick and small relative to jumping 40” to dunk, running up the field, or making a diving catch. These smaller movements put emphasis on the muscular system to break and turn and drive, as opposed to the longer range of motion developed in other training regimens that puts more stress on joints and skeletal systems. Think of something like CrossFit with plyo box jump squats. We get wounded refugees from CrossFit programs in our gym often. They want all the cardio, but their joints are damaged, so mittwork is a great option.
Mittwork is especially helpful with larger, elite athletes whose bouncing body mass puts extraordinary stress on joints. How exactly do you build the cardio capacity of a 290-pound lineman without running him and tearing up his knees? You can put him on the elliptical, in the pool, on a bike, in a Pilates class…. There are low-impact options, but my argument is there are none as fun and engaging as mittwork.
It’s never the same thing over and over again (if the trainer does their job). And something different happens when intense cardio is the by-product of mittwork instead of the sole objective of these other types of workouts. People do more of it because the brain focuses on getting the combinations right and not on the pain from lactic acid build-up or burning lungs screaming for more oxygen. Everyone is surprised how fast the hour goes, even if they are completely gassed out.
One key element for ensuring that the intensity level improves is tracking punch count. Most punch counters are simple accelerometers strapped into the fighter’s gloves. This method only counts punches, and if you let this metric drive your workouts, defense goes out the window. I take it a step further and use a different metric of boxer work rate (BWR), which is a kind of punch count plus defensive blocks. Defensive moves can take as much energy as punches. I prefer the punch counter on the mitts the trainer uses, which then picks up the punches, the blocks, and parries, or the mitt “punches” that get through. As long as the mitt has an abrupt stop (quickly decelerates), that accelerometer reading peaks and a “punch” is counted.
A beginning boxer work rate is around 100 for a three-minute round, 200 counts is intermediate, and 300 and above is really moving. If you can string together five three-minute rounds with a work rate over 300, those lungs will scream for oxygen (for the trainer too!).
Improving Visual Reaction Time (VRT)
Did you ever wonder why, according to a CNN.com article, 85% of NBA players are gamers? Sure, it helps them relax after basketball games, but it also helps to keep them sharp. Video game play, especially fast-moving action games like Halo and Call of Duty, has been shown to improve cognitive function, including increasing visual processing speed and visual reaction times and sifting through task-irrelevant distractors. These improvements have been observed in non-game players who have undergone as little as 10 hours of training!1,2
Think about what mittwork is. It’s a video game with consequences. In boxing, it takes .06 of a second to get hit in the face, at least by pro Chad Dawson. Mittwork coming from trainers may not have that top-end hand speed, but even at half that speed and in rapid succession, the athlete must decide what the threat is, react defensively, and then strike a target while it’s available before the next threat comes. Training an athlete to avoid that oncoming threat in such a way as to be able to respond with a counterpunch will tax and improve the motor skills of even the best athlete.
Here’s a case in point. A few years ago, a Maserati pulled up to the gym and out came a small but fit man inquiring about mittwork drills. I said, “Get dressed,” and in five minutes, this gentleman came back, clearly ripped. We slowly worked on the basics over the next hour. I knew the hand speed was there, but I had to get him to relax to find it. We finished that first day and I asked him his name. “Brandin, Brandin Cooks.” He explained he was a wide receiver, and he wanted boxing mittwork to help him parry the cornerback’s hand-checking that slows his release, and to gain more yards after the catch.
We worked for about a month before his training camp started. By the time he left, his boxing hand speed and visual reaction time were blistering. I don’t have a study to show what impact the mittwork had on his football skills, but he’s the starting deep-threat receiver for the Super Bowl-bound LA Rams and currently ranks #22 in total yards in the 2019–20 season.
The #1 reason other coaches refer athletes to boxing coaches is to improve footwork. Footwork is everything in boxing. You may have the hardest punch or the fastest punch, but if you can’t get within range and position to throw those punches and then get back out, all your power and hand speed doesn’t matter. Furthermore, you won’t have the power or the hand speed in the first place unless your feet and body balance are correct and underneath you at all times. So, what does footwork have to do with mittwork? You guessed it. Everything.
You remember the scene from Rocky where the trainer put him in with a chicken and told him to catch it? Chasing a moving, random target is an excellent method for teaching agility. After your athlete has basic competency with punches, combos, and defensive maneuvers, add footwork. The trainer essentially becomes the chicken, with one addition—this chicken has teeth! In an instant, the hunter can become the hunted. The trainer can move in any direction to force the athlete to mirror those footwork moves, all the while keeping those jabs pumping and hands high, reacting to targets and threats. If the athlete is flat-footed with weight distributed to the heels, they’ll get caught by the trainer.After your athlete has basic competency with punches, combos, and defensive maneuvers, add footwork for agility. Click To Tweet
What does “caught” mean? The trainer will be able to get inside and land reminding taps to the body, and the athlete will try to respond to hit targets. However, because they are jammed up, their feet will fail to react quickly enough, and the punches will be off-balance with little power, speed, or effectiveness. All bad. The athlete will know they have been had, and they will work on better distribution of weight to the balls of the feet, better situational awareness, and better anticipation for quicker first-step movements.
Footwork then becomes progressively more complex. We have a sign in our gym that states, NO CAMPING! That means you don’t get to sit in front of your opponent and just swing away—MOVE. The trainer trains the athlete to sit in the pocket for no more than 2–3 counts while unloading a combo. Once you deliver the payload, get out—step around, step back, come in and clinch, pivot and roll, slip and pivot, etc. These are all techniques your feet must drill and deliver on to open up the next scoring opportunities and/or defensive position.
There’s general agreement on what agility is: “a rapid whole-body movement and change of velocity or direction in response to stimulus.”3 There is, however, debate over the types of agility drills that have real value for improving game-time performance. In fact, there’s little to no evidence that common agility drills involving a closed course and pre-planned movements improve actual game-time agility.4 The reason is that game time agility is more complex than change of direction speed—it involves the cognitive ability to assess and react to unpredictable events. That’s why, according to sports performance director Nick DiMarco, “…agility has to involve the perceptual action component of it. OODA loop—observe, orient, decide, act. If it doesn’t involve that, it’s not actually an agility drill.”5 True agility drills need an opponent. DiMarco recommends a balance of “mirror/dodge” or “chase” drills to improve game-time agility performance.True agility drills need an opponent and good mittwork fits this perfect. The trainer moves themselves in an unpredictable manner and trains the athlete to respond. Click To Tweet
Good mittwork fits this perfectly. The trainer moves themselves in an unpredictable manner and trains the athlete to respond. In fight-style mittwork, the athlete is continually forced to react to unknown stimulus and respond by managing distance, position, and angles to create offensive opportunities and defensive safety. Again, with real mittwork, there is no setting up camp and swinging away at targets like a heavy bag in a boxing class. With true mittwork, you push your fighter to move. If they do not react to you stepping inside by stepping back out or throwing an inside punch, then you can “encourage” them to move by gently throwing a body shot as a reminder of what could have been. If that doesn’t work, I always use push-ups or squats!
The point is that mittwork is a natural game of cat and mouse, with the slight complication that the species are swapped quite often. Think of the flow of a football game where a referee blows a whistle and the defense comes on the field. Pretty slow transition, right? Or basketball, where there’s a transition from offense to defense, faster, but still slow. In boxing, there’s a millisecond between being on offense and defense and back on offense again, and each of those actions requires the right foot movement and change of direction. You, as the trainer doing mittwork, can bring pressure at any time or back it off at any time and train your athlete to respond with the right footwork. They have to observe, orient, decide, and act—the perfect agility drill.
The More Subtle Benefits of Boxing Mittwork for Elite Athletes
Apart from the primary benefits of mittwork for conditioning without injury, improving visual reaction time, and increasing agility, there are more subtle benefits. If you’ve been playing football, basketball, and/or soccer your whole life, it’s likely you’ve seen every kind of drill and exercise to get you to become a better player. Sometimes burnout can occur doing the same thing over and over, season after season, or, more often, with the emotional pressure to excel.6 Sometimes elite athletes need to just go out and play and enjoy themselves, which may be hard to do in their primary sport. Trying something new that represents a challenge but with no external pressure to succeed can lift the fog of burnout. Just as I tell my boxers to go out and play soccer, pick up a mountain bike, or try surfing, these keep the athlete (and anyone, actually), much more engaged when they come back to their primary sport.Elite athletes have likely seen every kind of drill and exercise to get them to become a better player. Mittwork is something new that they can enjoy, and it can help lift the fog of burnout. Click To Tweet
Breathing is key to any physical activity. I see breathing issues a lot in competitive athletes who might be young and have not quite reached elite level yet. In particular, many competitive athletes hold their breath doing mittwork. With the exception of powerlifters doing the Valsalva maneuver, holding your breath during any training or performance is not good. Holding your breath can impede the return of blood to the heart and deprive you the oxygen you need to get the job done.
Watching the breathing patterns of your athletes while mitt training will alert you to whether they hold their breath under stress. If they do, you can work on breathing exercises and slowing things down so that continuous breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth becomes second nature. After five minutes of mittwork with one college lacrosse player, I told him, “You know you hold your breath when you feel under pressure.” He replied, “Yeah, my coaches have been telling me that for years.”
Just when his brain needed the oxygen to make good decisions, none was coming. It was something we worked on by slowing the mittwork down until his breathing was smooth and continuous, and then increasing the speed of mittwork each week. In a month, he was able to breathe smoothly through high-intensity workouts.
Related to breathing is energy management. No professional boxer goes 100% for 15 rounds. Learning how to find those moments of rest in a high-intensity training interval may sound like cheating, but in reality, these micro-rests can help you explode when the situation calls for it.
Finally, boxing mittwork can help you find your fight again. There’s a trainer challenging you to keep up with them and to not let your guard down as you make balanced, solid contact with every target presented. You are a warrior, and this is the training of warriors. It’s a rewarding feeling that if those were actual threats, you would have an excellent shot at coming out the victor.
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1. Bavelier, D., Green, C.S., Pouget, A., and Schrater, P. “Brain Plasticity Through the Life Span: Learning to Learn and Action Video Games.” Annual Review of Neuroscience. 2012; 35:391–416.
2. Spence, I. and Feng, J. “Video Games and Spatial Cognition.” Review of General Psychology. 2010; 14(2):92–104.
3. Sheppard, J.M. and Young, W.B. “Agility Literature Review: Classifications, Training and Testing.” Journal of Sports Sciences. 2006; 24:919–932.
4. Young, W.B, Dawson B., and Henry, G. “Agility and Change-of-Direction Speed are Independent Skills: Implications for Agility in Invasion Sports.” International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching. 2015; 10:160–170.
5. Nick DiMarco on Integration of Perception-Reaction Agility Training in Sports Performance: Just Fly Performance Podcast #152, 2019.
6. Gustafsson, H. “Burnout in Competitive and Elite Athletes.” 2007, Orebro Studies in Sport Sciences I. Universitetsbiblioteket.