Chasing chickens, carrying logs in the snow, and hitting slabs of raw meat make great cinema, but it’s not how champion boxers train. Beyond these absurd Rocky workouts, there are many other myths about boxing that the entertainment media and even sports broadcasters have created. Having coached many of the best fighters in the world, I want to take some of the mystery out of strength and conditioning for this popular sport.Chasing chickens, carrying logs in the snow, and hitting slabs of raw meat make great cinema, but it’s not how champion boxers train. Click To Tweet
It’s impossible for me in one article to cover all the misinformation about boxing that the general public and the strength coaching community have been exposed to. That said, however, let me start with 10 insights I’ve learned in my long career as a strength coach of these athletes:
1. Professional fighters use periodization.
Periodization is not a mysterious, scientific formula taught in Ivy League kinesiology classes. Periodization is fatigue management, designed to break up training into phases (periods) because you can’t work all aspects of athletic fitness at the highest levels simultaneously.
After winning Olympic gold in 2004, Yuriorkis Gamboa competed in nine professional fights in a single year, gradually increasing the number of rounds in each fight. After that, he competed less frequently as it takes considerable time to recover from 12-round title fights. This is where periodization becomes especially important, as higher levels of intensity and volume can be programmed into longer, specific phases to produce stronger, faster, and more powerful fighters.
In the weight room, I use an approach developed by Canadian strength coach Charles R. Poliquin that breaks down the numerous loading parameters in each workout. Loading parameters include exercise selection, reps, sets, tempo (aka speed of movement), rest, and training frequency. Let me give you an example.
The early stages of training in preparing for a match could be considered the preparation phase. During this period, I would focus on heavy-bag training. In the weight room, I generally alternate between two-week periods of high-volume and high-intensity workouts to prevent training plateaus. Here are two examples of upper-body workouts I would use during this period, the first one emphasizes volume (accumulation), and the second emphasizes intensity (intensification).
Accumulation (High Volume)
Upper Body (Monday and Thursday)
A1. Decline press, dumbbells, 4 x 6–8, 30X0, rest 90 seconds
A2. Chin-up, semi-supinated grip, 4 x 6–8, 40X0, rest 10 seconds
A3. External rotation, infraspinatus, low pulley, 4 x 6–8, 30X0, rest 90 seconds
B1. Neck extension, Swiss ball, 4 x 4–6, 8 seconds, rest 5 seconds
B2. Scott Zottman curl, 4 x 6–8, 30X0, rest 90 seconds
B3. One-arm dumbbell press, 4 x 6–8, 30X0, rest 90 seconds
- Grip hold (Atlantis), 3 x 1, 60 seconds, rest 60 seconds
Intensification (High Intensity)
Upper Body (Monday and Thursday)
A1. 45-degree incline bench press, with barbell, with bands, 6 x 3, 30X0, rest 10 seconds
A2. Medicine ball push (against the wall), 5 x 3, 40X0, rest 240 seconds
B1. Sternum or front lever pull-ups, 5 x 3, 30X0, rest 10 seconds
B2. Overhead medicine ball throw, 5 x 3, 8 seconds, rest 240 seconds
- External rotation infraspinatus, cable or Cuban, 4 x 8–10, 30X0, rest 90 seconds
D1. Neck extension on Swiss ball, 5 x 3–6, 8 seconds, rest 90 seconds
D2. Seated dumbbell curl, semi-supinated, 5 x 1, 60 seconds, rest 60 seconds
D3. Dips, 5 x 1, 60 seconds, rest 60 seconds
- Grip machine (Atlantis), 2 x 1, 60 seconds, rest 60 seconds
As a match approaches—the sparring phase—I have my fighters focus more on hitting double-end and speed bags. I also significantly reduce the overall volume and intensity of the weight training workouts so the fighters are not too fatigued to work on more explosive activities, such as plyometrics.
2. Winning in the amateur ranks does not guarantee success in the pros.
Success in amateur athletes does not necessarily guarantee success in the pros. Two examples are football and figure skating.
A college quarterback who excelled because of his running ability may not be considered for the NFL draft. Johnny Manziel was an electrifying college quarterback, rushing for 2,169 yards in his last two years at Texas A&M. As quarterback for the Cleveland Browns, Manziel threw only seven touchdowns (rushing for one) and was intercepted 15 times; his NFL career lasted only 15 games.
Figure skater Tonya Harding was the second woman to complete a triple axel in competition. But success as a professional skater is based more on showmanship and public image than jumping ability. Harding’s public image was so tarnished that a lucrative professional skating career was unattainable…and, oddly enough, she decided to try to become a professional boxer!
In boxing, even winning Olympic gold does not necessarily put a fighter on the fast track to professional titles. This is not just my opinion. A study that looked at 219 boxers who won gold in the Olympics since 1904 found that only 41 went on to win professional world titles, so 18.72%. One reason is the difference in scoring between amateur and professional fights.In boxing, even winning Olympic gold doesn’t necessarily put a fighter on the fast track to professional titles. One reason is the difference in scoring; there is also the matter of conditioning. Click To Tweet
Scoring in amateur boxing is determined by how many punches you land, not by how hard you hit. In the pros, the judges also look at the quality of your punches; thus, you get rewarded for trying to hurt your opponent. This distinction means that a professional fighter must be able to take more physical abuse than an amateur—a glass jaw doesn’t cut it in the pros.
There is also the matter of conditioning. An amateur fight lasts three rounds. A professional fight lasts at least four rounds and up to 12 for title fights. Except for power hitters like Mike Tyson and George Foreman, who tended to take care of their opponents in the early rounds, extended matches require a different emphasis on energy system training.
3. An elite boxer may not excel in MMA, and vice versa.
Conor McGregor is unquestionably one of the all-time great mixed martial arts fighters. He is known for his stand-up skills and punching power, with 19 of his 22 wins by knockout. On August 26, 2017, McGregor intended to “shock the world” when he took on the undefeated (49-0) world champion boxer Floyd Mayweather, Jr.
McGregor landed few solid punches on the 40-year-old Mayweather and lost in the 10th round by a TKO, such that you wonder if Mayweather was holding back to give the crowd its money’s worth. If this were an MMA fight, McGregor would probably have finished the match in the first round. In fact, only about half of MMA fights go the distance, and it’s common for many to end in the first round!
The bottom line is that success in MMA involves excelling in many fighting skills in addition to boxing. In the early days of MMA, boxers who tried the sport could not defend themselves from fighters of other disciplines. “The stand-up fighters had almost no idea what to do on the ground,” said legendary UFC champion Royce Gracie in the early days of ultimate fighting.
4. Elite boxers adopt a healthy lifestyle.
To compete at the highest levels in boxing, fighters must take care of themselves outside the gym. They must eat well, get plenty of sleep, minimize stress, and avoid drugs and other “dissipations” that can affect their training. They also need to address soft tissue restrictions and use various recovery methods.
Because boxing is a collision sport, boxers are prone to developing chronic adhesions that can affect performance and cause pain. Traditional massage is helpful, but I’ve found the most effective way to release these adhesions is through Active Release Techniques® (ART), an aggressive, manual soft-tissue treatment created by Dr. Mike Leahy. I have access to an ART practitioner who helps my fighters stay in the game.I teach athletes to use specialized breathing methods and cold exposure to improve focus, mental toughness, and endurance and achieve optimal health by enhancing the immune system. Click To Tweet
Two forms of recovery I use with my fighters are breathwork and cold exposure. I teach athletes to use specialized breathing methods and cold exposure to improve focus, mental toughness, and endurance and achieve optimal health by enhancing the immune system (video 1). I was fortunate to learn from Dutch breathwork guru Wim Hof. Nicknamed “The Iceman,” Hof founded the Wim Hof Method. I not only took courses from Hof but became his friend and received additional instruction from him through mentorship.
Video 1. Coach Moritz Klatten demonstrates breathwork techniques and cold exposure, which enhance recovery.
5. You don’t buy a pair of boxing gloves—you invest in several pairs, each with a specific purpose.
Boxers should purchase several pairs of specialty boxing gloves to perform their best and minimize the risk of injury. For example, it’s unwise to use the lighter speed-gloves for heavy bag training because they will increase the amount of stress on your shoulders, wrists, and hands. Likewise, the open-fingered gloves used for MMA training have no place in a boxer’s gym bag.
The type of glove used for competition depends on a fighter’s style. Gloves have weight limits, so how the padding is distributed is critical. A stronger puncher wants less padding at the front of the hands to maximize punching power and make it easier to open cuts. There is also additional padding around the wrist to protect it and increase the strength of the punch. Examples of a “puncher’s glove” are Cleto Reyes® and Grant®. Yuriorkis Gamboa won 17 of his 26 by knockout using a puncher’s glove.
Boxers who throw more punches, relying on their speed to score more points, would want more protection for their hands. In training, fighters often use gloves with more padding at the front of the glove to protect their hands, such as the Winning® glove. However, a fighter might use Winning gloves for training to protect their hands but use a puncher’s glove in the fight to cause more damage. Floyd Mayweather, Jr., who has suffered hand injuries during his career, has used Winning gloves in training and switches to Grant gloves for a fight to cause more damage.
Use the appropriate gloves for the specific type of training you are doing, replace worn-out gloves, and pay careful attention to how you tape your hands.
6. Beginners are at a greater risk of concussions than professionals.
Surprisingly, beginners are at a greater risk of concussion than elite boxers. Elite boxers learn to protect themselves, wear the appropriate gloves, and perform specialized neck work.Surprisingly, beginners are at a greater risk of concussion than elite boxers. Elite boxers learn to protect themselves, wear the appropriate gloves, and perform specialized neck work. Click To Tweet
Of particular concern are repeat concussions. I don’t like expressions such as “Getting your bell rung!” because a concussion is a traumatic brain injury that can lead to permanent brain damage. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “A repeat concussion that occurs before the brain recovers from the first—usually within a short period (hours, days, or weeks)—can slow recovery or increase the likelihood of having long-term problems.”
Most concussions in boxing occur when there is a sudden change in direction in the head, such as when a boxer receives a hit to the head without being braced to respond to the punch.
One way to reduce the risk of concussion, or at least lessen its severity, is by strengthening the neck. One study on football players at the University of Memphis saw a 50% reduction in concussions in a single year after implementing a neck-strengthening program.
Neck bridges are a specific skill in wrestling, and these athletes must practice these movements. I don’t like them for boxing because the exercise places unnecessary stress on the ligaments. Instead, I use a unique series of exercises for the neck performed on a Swiss ball. I also have athletes do exercises for the trapezius muscle, which fans out from the middle of the back to the base of the neck. Shoulder shrugs effectively work this muscle, especially with a hex bar that positions the hands at the athlete’s sides (rather than in front as with a straight bar). Also, the farmer’s walk will overload this important muscle group.
7. Grip work is essential to a boxer.
One of the major factors that should determine exercise selection for an athlete is to consider which areas are most vulnerable to injury. Whereas a sprinter may focus on hamstring exercises, a boxer needs to focus on strengthening the muscles of the wrists and hands.
Wrist curls and wrist rollers have their place, but I prefer to strengthen the wrists and hands with thick-handled equipment. The thicker diameters increase the work done by the fingers, wrists, thumbs, and forearms on any exercise, including presses. I recommend diameters of about 5–6.35 centimeters for dumbbells and 7.5 centimeters for barbells.
The thick-grip barbells and dumbbells in my gym have revolving sleeves, reducing elbow stress. I have kettlebells, but not the original ones, because the handles do not move.
Thick-handled equipment is expensive, but some attachments can be used with dumbbells and barbells to create the same effect, such as Fat Gripz™. The Fat Gripz attachments are made from a durable military-grade compound that feels like rubber. They have a slit on one side that enables you to slide a dumbbell or barbell shaft into it, at which point they close securely around it.
The farmer’s walk is one exercise I use to help my fighters strengthen their grip. Gamboa could carry cylinders that weighed double his body weight for 40 meters. Also, fighters must strengthen the muscles that extend their fingers to ensure structural balance. I use webbing and bands for this purpose.
8. Boxing is not aerobic.
On November 25, 1980, Roberto Durán conceded his WBC welterweight title in the eighth round to challenger Sugar Ray Leonard. Durán said he quit because of stomach cramps, but Duran allegedly told the ref, “No más” (which in Spanish means “no more”). For this reason, sportswriters have speculated that Durán may not have been in shape to go the distance with Leonard.
In boxing, a less powerful athlete with superior endurance can often win by outperforming their opponents in the later rounds. A boxing coach’s challenge is determining the type of endurance needed to perform at maximum capacity every round.A boxing coach’s challenge is determining the type of endurance needed to perform at maximum capacity every round. Click To Tweet
The textbook Interval Training for Sports and General Fitness by Edward Fox and Donald Mathews classifies the body’s energy systems to perform work as short-term, intermediate, and long-term or aerobic. Sports in which activities last less than 30 seconds primarily use the short-term energy system, events lasting about 90–120 seconds use the intermediate energy system, and events lasting more than 120 seconds primarily use the long-term energy system. These energy systems fall on a continuum, gradually progressing from the short term to the intermediate and long term.
Consider the following, perhaps surprising, energy system classification that Fox and Mathews gave popular sports.
A boxing round generally lasts more than 120 seconds, but there are many breaks and moments of lower activity in that bout that allow for recovery. Although accumulative fatigue develops during 12 rounds, increasing the contribution of the intermediate and long-term energy systems, about 70% of the energy contribution will be from the short-term energy system.
Boxers must be careful about aerobic work because it can make powerful fast-twitch muscle fibers behave like weaker, slow-twitch muscle fibers. In a decade-long Canadian study published in 1994 in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, researchers found that subjects who performed regular distance running had 70.95 type I fibers compared to 37.7% in subjects in a control group. The researchers concluded, “The results revealed that endurance training may promote a transition from type II to type I muscle fibre types and occurs at the expense of the type II fiber population.” In other words, aerobic training can reduce punching power.
9. Knowing how to lose weight rapidly often makes the difference between winning and losing.
Whereas the heavyweights don’t have to worry about making weight, lighter fighters must do everything they can to be as light as possible during weigh-ins. It’s common to hear about fighters losing 4–6 kilos (about 8–13 pounds) the week of the fight through extreme dieting, cardio work, and dehydration.
If they have prepared intelligently, fighters will only have to lose about a kilo (2.2 pounds) the day before a fight. If they have not prepared well, they may be tempted to engage in methods that can be harmful, such as using diuretics or laxatives or spending excessive time in the sauna. Even the greats can make mistakes.
Before his loss to Larry Holmes in 1980, Muhammad Ali was taking a thyroid medication that speeds up the metabolism, causing weight loss. “I took too many thyroid pills,” said Ali. “Always used to double up on my vitamins. Bad idea with thyroid pills. Started training at 253, went down to 217 for the fight. Too much. People saying, ‘Oooh, isn’t he pretty?’ But I was too weak, didn’t feel like dancing. I was dazed. I was in a dream.”
Immediately after a weigh-in, boxers must consume carbohydrates to restore their glycogen stores. The amount to drink depends upon the athlete’s body weight and the product’s carbohydrate content—a carb percentage that is too high will reduce the rate at which the body absorbs the water (i.e., gastric emptying). Also, fighters should not gorge themselves, as this sudden increase in food may cause stomach upset.
After months of training for strength and technique, it all comes down to the last week before the competition. This tapering phase is all about hydration, nutrition, and weight. Pay attention to these final details and watch it all pay off.
10. The skills taught in boxing fitness classes often don’t transfer well to competition or the street.
Tae Bo® is a blend of Taekwondo and boxing created by Billy Blanks in 1976. By 1999, Banks’s workout videos had sold over 1.5 million copies. Can Tae Bo improve general physical fitness and be considered an alternative to aerobics classes? Sure. Are Tae Bo and other home-based workouts safe and an effective method of self-defense? Probably not.
A study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in 2011 looked at boxing injuries in the U.S. over 19 years. In 2008, of the 17,000 reported injuries, 34% of those injuries occurred in home workouts. As for commercial gym boxing workouts, fitness instructors who teach these classes seldom have a boxing background and may teach punching techniques that place adverse stress on the shoulders, wrists, and hands.
Another issue with unqualified fitness instructors is that they don’t know how to teach their students how to defend themselves, which often results in serious injuries, particularly concussions. These classes can also create a false sense of confidence among the students in their ability to defend themselves in a street fight.Being able to give a hit doesn’t necessarily mean you can take one. Boxers need special exercises for the neck to improve their ability to take a punch. Click To Tweet
Finally, being able to give a hit doesn’t necessarily mean you can take one. Boxers need special exercises for the neck to improve their ability to take a punch, and they need corrective exercises to prevent muscle imbalances that can make them more susceptible to injuries, particularly to the shoulders.
If you want to see an example of a qualified coach, check out the YouTube videos of Eric Kelly. Kelly is a former world-class boxer who coaches at Church Street Gym in New York’s Financial District. His primary client base consists of businessmen with no background in boxing. Kelly’s methods may seem unorthodox to an outsider, and his potty mouth may offend some, but Kelly knows how to teach them not only basic boxing skills but how to defend themselves.
A win in boxing means money, fame, and a future. A loss means facing the bitter reality of not being good enough and the disappointment of coaches, trainers, and support staff. Losing once is bad news, but consecutive losses often lead to early retirement, as finding sponsors to cover training expenses becomes increasingly difficult. So, enjoy your action movies but consider these 10 training insights if you want to box or become involved in the sport in other areas.
Since you’re here…
…we have a small favor to ask. More people are reading SimpliFaster than ever, and each week we bring you compelling content from coaches, sport scientists, and physiotherapists who are devoted to building better athletes. Please take a moment to share the articles on social media, engage the authors with questions and comments below, and link to articles when appropriate if you have a blog or participate on forums of related topics. — SF
Bysouth, Alex. UFC 1: “The Beginning: Playboy, Mortal Kombat and the hunt for an ultimate fighter.” BBC Sport. November 9, 2018.
Caine, Dennis John; Caine, Caroline G; Lindner, Koenraad J. Epidemiology of Sports Injuries. Human Kinetics, 1996.
Cidzik, Ryan. “Strong Necks.” Training and Conditioning. January 29, 2015.
Fox, Edward L; Mathews, Donald K. Interval Training: Conditioning for Sports and General Fitness. WB Saunders, 1974.
Fry, Andrew C. “The role of resistance exercise intensity on muscle fibre adaptations.” Sports Medicine. 2004 August;34(10):663–679.
Grant K, Habes D, Steward. LL. “An analysis of handle designs for reducing manual effort: the influence of grip diameter.” International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics. 1992;10(3):199–206.
Häkkinen K; Alen M; Kraemer WJ, et al. “Neuromuscular adaptations during concurrent strength and endurance training versus strength training.” European Journal of Applied Physiology. 2003 March;89(1):42–52.
Heads Up. A CDC website to help you recognize, respond to, and minimize the risk of concussion or other serious brain injury. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/headsup/index.html
Jordan B, Voy R, and Stone J. “Amateur boxing injuries at the US Olympic Training Center.” The Physician and Sportsmedicine. 1990;23:27–34.
Kostov, Plamen. “How Long Do UFC Fights Last? Data From the UFC.” Sweet Science of Fighting. May 17, 2022.
Kraemer WJ, Patton JF, Gordon SE, et al. “Compatibility of high-intensity strength and endurance training on hormonal and skeletal muscle adaptations.” Journal of Applied Physiology. 1995 March;78(3):976–989.
Potter MR, Snyder AJ, and Smith GA. “Boxing injuries presenting to U.S. emergency departments, 1990–2008.” American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2011 April;40(4):462–467.
Thayer R, Collins J, Noble EG, and Taylor AW. “A decade of aerobic endurance training: histological evidence for fibre type transformation.” Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness. 2000 Dec;40(4):284–289.
TSZ. Is Olympic Gold a Precursor to Becoming a Professional World Boxing Champion? The Stats Zone, 2016.
Vecsey, George. “At 39, Ali Has More Points to Prove.” The New York Times. November 29, 1981.
Viano DC, Casson IR, and Pellman EJ. “Concussion in professional football: biomechanics of the struck player, Part 14.” Neurosurgery. 2007 August;61(2):313–328.