The first few weeks of your boxing journey can feel pretty discouraging. You’re constantly out of breath, every step feels strange, and your lead hand has all the concussive power of a cotton ball blowing in the breeze – it sucks, especially when there are 11 and 12-year old amateurs dancing circles around you every day. If they could, everyone would skip that awkward beginner phase.
In the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell wrote that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in any field. But what if there was a way to get good at boxing in 6 months?
You won’t hit the 10,000 hours needed for mastery - 24-hour, 7-day-per-week practice for 6 months only gets you 4464 in the bank, after all – but following these 4 tips will help you hit more opponents, slip more punches, and at least get you a Bachelor’s Degree in the sweet science.
Find a reliable training partner – or collect a whole stable
Everybody knows how important it is to locate a good boxing gym and trainer, but the importance of reliable training partners is often overlooked. Notice I said reliable and not incredible; your training partners don’t need to be great, or even good, so long as they’re showing up consistently and motivating you to do the same.
You will learn proper technique from your coach, not your partner; what a partner does is accelerate the learning process by keeping your training “sport specific,” and getting you in the gym more often. It’s much easier to learn your range, practice targeting, and polish your defense when you have a real person to probe at with jabs, place body shots on, and frustrate with your head movement.
Beginners often waste time practicing techniques incorrectly because they don’t fully understand their application to real boxing, but having a partner to practice on keeps everyone honest. When you’re drilling punches on a real opponent, impractical techniques have no place to hide.
More importantly, it’s much harder to skip the gym when you know somebody is expecting to see you there. If you have trouble finding one reliable partner, collect a whole stable and spread the word that you’re ALWAYS down for training. You will have more training partners than you know what to do with, and may fuel your competitive drive to get better as your partners continue to improve.
Avoid “paralysis by analysis”
One of the easiest traps for beginners to fall into is to overthink every little detail of their training. Everyone wants to be technical and have their skills respected by other fighters, so we dive into YouTube videos, forum discussions, and boxing tips and learn all we can. We may have the best intentions, but our discipline is misdirected; you end up getting in your own way, spending time studying when you should be drilling. In fact, if you’re reading this article now, there’s a good chance you’re guilty!
Paralysis by analysis will dramatically increase your “learning curve.” There are certain abilities that you can’t develop through osmosis or understanding alone – most of them, in fact. You can memorize the technical details involved in throwing 100 different left hook variations, but you will never actually “own” the technique until you’ve put in the reps.
It’s one thing to understand how to properly execute a left hook to the body after slipping the opponent’s right hand – it’s quite another to have practiced it until you’re physically unable to do it incorrectly. That’s the level you have to reach, and you won’t get there through study alone.
I don’t want to understate the value of study – especially film study with the sound OFF and lots of pausing and rewinding – but it’s all useless if you’re not applying what you’ve learned. Practice makes perfect, so grab your partner and get to the gym!
Embrace old-school roadwork – or find other ways to build an aerobic base as soon as possible
While sprints and other forms of anaerobic conditioning are important parts of a complete training program, beginners who want to get good at boxing fast should emphasize slow-and-steady roadwork.
Nobody really likes this style of running, at least at first – it is called road work for a reason. Unfortunately, those long, slow, steady-state jogs that got Rocky Marciano, Larry Holmes, and Muhammad Ali in shape are still one of the best ways to get better at boxing ASAP.
But isn’t boxing an explosive sport? Why waste time with this outdated way of training?
A deluge of fitness trainers broke into the fight world around the time that MMA started to gain ground in the mainstream media. They brought with them an arsenal of gut-checking, high-intensity approaches to fight conditioning that focused on the anaerobic system – Tabata drills, HIIT, metabolic conditioning, Crossfit WODs, and so on.
The thinking behind this was that boxing is a predominantly anaerobic sport – more than 70%, according to estimates in Ross Enamait’s Boxer’s Guide to Performance Enhancement – so anaerobic training was key.
We now understand that aerobic endurance is very important in boxing. It’s the energy system we’re using while we float around the ring, show our opponents feints, change hand and head positions, and probe with punches – in other words, the foundation of high-level boxing. But that’s not all.
Let’s take a moment to review how the aerobic system works:
The aerobic system works as the body’s mitochondria use oxygen to burn fat and glycolytic byproducts, thereby producing adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and CO2 through a dizzying (and dull!) string of chemical reactions. This process allows the body to slowly provide low-power energy that can last for hours.
So how does a system of slow-burn, low-intensity energy help me cut sharper angles, move my head faster, and throw harder punches?
There’s a key detail with the aerobic system that many of the “new-school” strength and conditioning crowd missed - the body’s mitochondria also use oxygen to restore the phosphocreatine (PCr) stores and delay the build-up of glycolytic byproducts that would lower muscle pH (Pollock, 1973). Don’t sweat the technical talk: picture this as a kind of “aerobic recycling” that allows our bodies to maintain a higher energy output for longer, and ramps up our recovery on the stool between rounds.
Aerobic training also increases your cardiac stroke volume (SV), allowing your heart to pump more blood to your heart with each beat, which has a massive effect on your recovery as you circle your opponent between exchanges or sit on the stool awaiting the bell. Though it won’t increase the length of power of your “explosion” – whether that’s a 10-punch combo or a Pernell Whitaker slip-and-slide exhibition – it will increase the number of times you can explode in a round.
Aerobic training is the only way to increase your SV, because high-intensity sprint work doesn’t leave enough time between heart beats for the ventricles to get better at filling up (Little et al, 2010).
Most importantly, an aerobic base allows you to increase the length of your training sessions (and recover faster between them!), so you hit those “10,000 hours to mastery” as quickly as possible.
Putting in 2-4 30 to 60-minute session of low-intensity roadwork each week will improve your work capacity, up your recovery between rounds, increase lower body endurance, and build unshakeable mental toughness. A strong aerobic base lets you think more clearly in the heat of an exchange, move your feet for 12 hard rounds, and helps build that signature pro boxer “bounce.”
Try to run on grass when you can. Trail running is ideal to keep you mentally stimulated throughout.
If you really can’t bear running, you may substitute jump-rope work, elliptical training, or even prolonged circuit training, so long as your heart-rate stays between 130-150bpm for the duration for 30 to 60 minutes – THIS IS KEY.
With that said, I highly recommend running for the mental edge it creates. But don’t take my word for it – here’s Sugar Ray Leonard talking about the importance of roadwork in his POWER (Prepare, Overcome, and Win Every Round) speech:
If you can stomach running, I implore you to bring some headphones. It’s much easier to cross off your roadwork requirement when you can zone into some great music or get lost in a fight-related podcast for an hour. If you’re looking for recommendations, check out Joe Rogan’s Fight Companion, You’re Welcome with Chael Sonnen, The Fighter and the Kid with Brendan Schaub and Bryan Callen, The Rutten and Ranallo Show, The Muay Thai Guys Podcast, or backlogged episodes of Josh Barnett Conquers the World.
Stay out of the weight room – for now…
This point requires a bit of explanation. Don’t mistake the old-school roadwork recommendation for an anti-sports science stance; I fully appreciate the benefits of a proper strength training program as a way to increase joint strength, reduce injuries, build power, improve work capacity, and even boost endurance, but now’s not the time.
You’re here to learn how to get better at boxing in 6 months, and that doesn’t happen in the weight room. Nobody’s ever thought, “I really wish I had 20 more pounds on my deadlift” after a loss, but almost everyone wishes they’d done more roadwork, technical drills, and sparring on that lonely walk back to the locker room.
If you’ve laid out a training schedule for your first six months, I highly recommend replacing any weight training with a session focused purely on drilling. If you can get some time on the pads with your coach or some rounds of sparring, even better! Anything to bring you closer to your “10,000 hours.”
If you really must sling some iron, I recommend swapping a pure strength or hypertrophy day for some metabolic conditioning. Limit yourself to 2 of these sessions per week, and pay close attention to your body; you’ll quickly hit a point of diminishing returns if you find yourself too sore or injured, or get too consumed with the technical details of a lift.
For more information on anaerobic conditioning you can do in the weight room, do some research on “bears,” complexes, and “metcon” training. To keep your boxing development moving at a high pace, warm-up for these conditioning drills with 6-10 rounds of technical work – shadowboxing, partner drills, bag work, or hitting mitts are all great options.
Boxing is called the sweet science for a reason – it’s one of the most complex sports in the world, and it takes time and patience to master. That said, estimates for how long it takes to reach the level of a competent intermediate are usually overstated. Most beginners end up getting in their own way, dramatically increasing the length of their learning curve.
Stay out of the weight room and don’t burn yourself out on anaerobic conditioning drills. These training modalities are crucial for competitive athletes, but not nearly as important for beginners. Boxing is a technical game first and foremost, and too much time sprinting and slinging iron will only make you too sore for proper skill training.
If you want to get good at boxing fast, focus at least 80% of your training time developing skills in the gym. Invest the other 20% in recovery work (yoga, foam rolling, mobility exercises, contrast showers, etc) and old-school roadwork that keeps your heart rate between 130-150bpm for 30-60 minutes at a time. This will keep you fresh between sessions to make the most of every learning opportunity, while developing the energy system required to increase your training time.
Find a reliable partner (or a number of unreliable ones!) and get to the gym to practice as often as you can.
But most importantly, have fun – boxing is the most beautiful sport in the world, and it’s a privilege to practice.
Enamait, Ross. (2002). “The Boxer’s Guide to Performance Enhancement.”
Little, J. P., Safdar, A., Wilkin, G. P., Tarnopolsky, M. A. and Gibala, M. J. (2010), A practical model of low-volume high-intensity interval training induces mitochondrial biogenesis in human skeletal muscle: potential mechanisms. The Journal of Physiology, 588: 1011–1022. doi:10.1113/jphysiol.2009.181743
Pollock ML. (1973). Quantification of endurance training programs. Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews, 1: 155-188.