Boxing: The Sweet Science
Boxing has a long and exciting history. The modern version of the sport became popular in the early 1900s and has produced some of the best athletes that the United States has ever seen. From the commanding grace of Muhammad Ali to the fearsome savagery of Mike Tyson, boxing, at the highest levels, is a combination of style, strategy and physical challenge unique among sports.
One of the best things about boxing is that anyone can participate. There is not very much equipment needed, and it provides a good full-body work out in a short period of time. The workouts involve both strength and cardio movements, and will improve your balance and reflexes.
In the rest of this article, I will provide some simple exercises which provide a foundation for good boxing technique and will give you a good workout. These exercises break down into three groups: Cardio, Punching, and Footwork. If you currently dance or enjoy kickboxing or Tae-bo group classes, some of these movements will be familiar. If you do not, no problem; just keep in mind that one of the basics of boxing is to stay on your toes and stay on balance.
Boxing has a big interval training aspect to it. It works in rounds of intense effort followed by periods of rest. The below exercises should be done in rounds of 3 minutes of exertion followed by 1 minute periods of rest. Try to work up to three rounds. When you are ready to increase the workout, rather than adding to the number of rounds, increase the intensity instead.
There is still nothing better for getting your cardiovascular fitness in boxing shape than jumping rope. It provides many of the benefits of running, but can be done indoors. The best way if you haven't jumped rope in a while is to start slowly and work up to speed. If you alternate feet when you land (right foot, then left foot) you will find that the additional work this gives your calves and ankles will improve your balance as well. I try to find an exercise mat or a forgiving surface to jump on, minimizing the pounding on my knees and ankles, but outside of that, just go for it. Nine minutes of jumping rope will make your whole day better.
Roadwork is the boxing term for running. As with the other aspects of boxing, intensity is more important than distance. Start with a one mile run, mixing in periods of sprinting with periods of jogging. A good way to do this is the following: while you are running, pick a spot ahead of you and sprint to it, reducing your pace to a jog once you arrive. Alternate this sprint/recovery pattern throughout your run. As you become more comfortable with the exercise, you can increase your mileage up to three miles. Once you are running three miles, increase the number of sprinting periods rather than increasing the mileage.
If jumping rope and running do not work for you for any reason, substitute your favorite form of cardiovascular exercise. Anything works better than nothing. Try to incorporate the interval aspect into your choice of cardio. Periods of intensity followed by rest to recharge your body allows you to push harder than you could with one sustained burst.
Punching is one of those activities which people do very rarely, but everyone assumes they know how to do it. This can be a dangerous assumption. A good punch involves not only the arm, but also the feet for balance and the core muscles for strength. It is a very fluid movement which never leaves you off balance or in an uncomfortable posture. Good punching technique (and good footwork which I'll discuss below) lifts boxing from an entertaining cardio pastime to a serious workout and sport.
Anyone can throw a good punch! There is no reason to feel uncomfortable or self conscious about your punches. It takes a little practice to get the fluid movement down (at least it did for me!) but once you do, it is no problem. Let's get started.
The basis of a good punch is your foundation. To find your boxing stance, stand facing forward in a relaxed manner, feet about shoulder width apart. Turn your head, feet and hands to the left but not your body. You should now be in position with your left shoulder in the lead. Raise your hands to shoulder height keeping your arms relaxed, and come slightly up on your toes. Your left foot will be your forward foot and your balance should be split between left foot in front and right foot in the rear. You should maintain your balance and feel comfortable taking a step in any direction without having to re-set yourself. Basically, if you've ever seen a boxing match, you've seen the position. Left shoulder out front, arms relaxed but with hands raised, weight forward on the toes and body relaxed and balanced.
Now that we are in position, it is time for the first punch. This punch will be thrown at the air; do not hit anything at this point. The first punch we will throw is the Jab. It is a left hand punch and comes straight out from our leading, left shoulder. From your boxing stance (hands at shoulder height, left side leading, good balance between feet), pick a target. Remember, we are not hitting anything yet. From your left-hand-ready position, reach straight out and point at your target with your finger. Your arm should form a straight line from your shoulder, through your pointing finger to your target. Once you have made this straight line, bring your hand back to the ready position at shoulder height. Now try this again, but with a closed fist: straight out from the shoulder, straight wrist, across the knuckle of your index finger, straight line to your target and then back to the ready position. This out/in cycle counts as one full punch. It should come back to the ready position as smoothly and quickly as it goes out. Congratulations, you are throwing jabs! Remember there is no wind up and no real swing to this punch. It just moves straight out from the shoulder at your target and straight back in to the ready position. If you feel off balance at any point, you are throwing too hard. Power is much less important than speed and accuracy at this point. You just want a nice relaxed snap to the motion: out and in. If you are new to boxing, you will be amazed at how tired you can get from the combination of holding your hands up and snapping out jabs for three minutes.
The next punch we will discuss is the straight right hand. This punch is similar to the jab but requires an additional movement. Like the jab, the punch comes from the ready position of the right hand (which is your rear hand in a conventional boxing stance) straight out toward your target with a straight wrist, then returns to the ready position smoothly and quickly. In this case, however, because the right is the rear hand, the trunk of the body will twist as your arm extends. Let your feet and your hips come around with the movement. There is no need to force this motion; this punch needs no wind up or big swing. It is tempting to do, but just keep your punches straight out from the shoulder and return smoothly back to the ready position. As your body twists to allow the right hand to reach out, it is important to plant your rear foot (in this case the right foot). In effect, at the moment that the right hand is furthest out, you will have a straight line from the end of your fist, through your shoulder, down the trunk of your body, down to your planted right foot. It won't be exactly straight, but the feeling is that the power of the punch is coming from the toes of your right foot. There is no need to over throw this punch. In my last fight, the biggest mistake I made was to try and throw this huge "haymaker" right hand. I missed by a mile, I got way off balance, and my trainer yelled at me the whole minute I was in the corner after the round. Just keep it light and smooth and the power will come without effort.
To use the above punches in a workout, get in your boxing stance, hands at the ready position, and throw the punches in the air for three rounds of three minutes each with a one minute rest between rounds. This is called shadowboxing and can be quite an intense exercise. Try mixing up the punches by throwing one jab, then a right, then two jabs, then a right, then three jabs then a right, then repeat. The punches can be mixed in any pattern as long as you remember: use good form on the punches (straight out and straight back, don't wind up or over throw, and keep your hands up) and stay on balance! Once your balance and form are in good shape you can try this exercise with a one-three pound dumbbell in each hand. Then, feel the burn!
The above exercise can be done without equipment and can be done anywhere. However, many gyms now have heavy bags. Using a heavy bag can add a new level of excitement to your workout as well as being great for stress relief. The use of a heavy bag requires a few more pieces of equipment than shadowboxing. To effectively use the heavy bag, you should have hand wraps and gloves. These are the tools that boxers use to protect their hands from the impact generated by their punches (You didn't think the gloves were to protect the other fighter, did you?). Learning to wrap your hands will take a few attempts but it is crucial to provide support to your wrists and knuckles to prevent injury. The first time you hit the bag wrong and your wrist bends back you will be happy for the support. Trust me, I found out the hard way. Next is a pair of gloves. When purchasing gloves, there are a few options depending on your budget and interest level. The least expensive is a pair of bag gloves. These are minimally padded leather gloves which really look and act like mittens. They do not provide a great deal of support, but protect your hands from abrasion. The next step is training gloves which look like boxing gloves you see on TV with more padding and more wrist support. They come in a variety of weights from 8 oz up to 20 oz or so. A pair of 12 or 14 oz will work just fine, but if you have the chance, try a few different pairs and see what works for you. The next step up is the pro gloves, but don't worry about them. If you need a pair of pro gloves, Don King will be happy to buy them for you. Seriously though, wraps and gloves are probably the most important piece of boxing equipment you will purchase, so take the time to find the ones you like and work for you. Protect your hands.
Once you are wrapped and gloved, we can move to the heavy bag. Try your shadowboxing patterns on the bag. Jab, right, jab, jab, right, jab, jab, jab, right. You will notice that it will take a little while to find a comfortable distance from the bag. Your punches will have a range that is unique to you. You want to be at a distance from the bag which allows you to keep good form. On balance, punch straight out and straight in with no winding up or over throwing. Each punch should end right at the bag with a snap. It shouldn't feel as if you are pushing the bag; if the bag starts swinging a lot, stop the swinging and re-set yourself. Nice and light, snap snap snap. Good form will allow you to get the most out of the bag and you will be amazed how much it takes out of you. Holding your hands up and punching for three minutes can seem like a really long time. There is no need to try and hit the bag really hard; just keep it light.
The fundamentals of footwork all come from the basic boxing stance and from staying on your balance. Stand in your boxing stance, hands up, relaxed. From this stance, you should be able to step in any direction without coming off of your balance. When stepping from the basic stance, move the foot which is closest to where you are going first. For example, take a step forward. You will use your left foot first as this foot is in the lead. Bring your rear foot forward to regain your boxing stance. Now take a step back. You should step with your right foot first as this is at the rear. Bring your front foot backward until you are in your boxing stance. Move to the left. Left foot first, bring your right foot into your stance. Move to the right. Right foot first, bring your left foot into your stance. Forward, Back, Left, Right-- always stepping lightly with the foot closest to where you are going, and then bringing the trailing foot into your basic boxing stance. You never want to take a step which requires you to cross your feet over each other.
Once you are comfortable with stepping this way, front, back, side to side, try incorporating these movements into your shadowboxing and bag work. Jab as you step forward, bring your right foot up into your stance, and then throw the right. All of your punches and steps can be mixed and matched. Keep in mind the fundamentals of good balance and not over throwing as you do these movements.
I have thrown quite a bit of technique at you in this article and each person will find different things come at different paces. For me, footwork has been a continuing challenge; I keep stepping off balance. But it is coming along, and I have gotten a great deal of enjoyment and physical benefit out of the effort. Keep in mind the basics of good form, fluid movement and good balance, and you will see the results in your technique and in your work outs. Thanks for listening and keep on punching!