Hitting the speed bag can improve hand speed, coordination, muscular endurance, and boxing ability, but only if you're doing it right.
After spending more than half my life in boxing gyms, I’ve seen my share of speed bag training fails; everything from hitting with boxing gloves to skinning bare knuckles on the swivel. I’ve even witnessed the legendary speed bag sucker punch in person (okay, it wasn’t this bad):
Today, Warrior Punch presents a complete beginner’s guide to mastering the speed bag. Read on to learn about the best benefits, striking techniques, and workout ideas for beginners.
Why Everyone Should Hit a Speedbag
Though one appears in every boxing movie, the speedbag is still an underappreciated training tool. Widely regarded as an old-school training staple, you’ll rarely find one hanging in a modern commercial gym, which makes it feel a little like the fight world’s secret weapon for fitness.
But speed bag training is for everybody. It has several benefits for the general fitness crowd:
Build Muscular Endurance and Improve Your Cardiovascular Efficiency
Hitting the speedbag for reps or time is an excellent way to build muscular endurance in the shoulders. Furthermore, it’s a great cardio conditioning tool; you can think of it kind of like an upper-body treadmill that’s way more fun to work with.
Increase Intermuscular Coordination
Intermuscular coordination refers to the synchronization of different muscles when performing a given motor task, and is best trained through repetitive work that incorporates timing and accuracy components (Enamait, 2005). Hitting the speedbag is ideal for increasing intermuscular coordination, which translates to better balance, motor unit recruitment, and mechanical efficiency - and not just when you’re punching people!
Strengthen Tendons and Ligaments
Most gym-goers focus on fat and muscle, not tendons and ligaments, but strengthening these areas of the body is crucial for health and performance. Most athletic injuries can be traced back to weak connective tissues. Unfortunately, tendons and ligaments take longer to develop than muscles, so it’s easy to outpace them and hurt yourself.
One of the best ways to strengthen tendons and ligaments is with “voluminous work” like hitting the speedbag (Enamait, 2005, p. 118). A single session involves thousands of low-impact repetitions that engage connective tissues throughout the entire body, making it a great tool for rehabilitation.
Have Fun Getting Fit
Hitting the speed bag is a great way to trick yourself into exercising. It’s an engaging skill that feels good to practice; more play time than “gym grind.” If you’re looking for a fun way to challenge yourself in the gym, the speed bag is a great choice.
Sport-Specific Benefits for Fighters
The speedbag also allows fighters and recreational boxers to develop sport-specific skills.
Increase Your Work Capacity for Better Training Camps
Though a large part of your conditioning plan will be dedicated to sport-specific drills on the heavy-bag and focus mitts, all fighters need to make time to increase their work capacity. Siff (2003) describes work capacity as “the general ability of the body as a machine to produce work of different intensity and duration using the appropriate energy systems of the body.” Fighters with higher work capacity are able to work harder in camps with multiple training sessions per day, push a faster pace on fight night, and recover more between rounds.
We increase our body’s “general ability as a machine” through what is known as “general physical preparation,” or GPP. Most fighters are already doing some form of GPP - roadwork, jump-rope, weight training, and so on - but the speed bag is a particularly efficient option because of its other sport-specific benefits. Specifically, hitting the speed bag will increase your shoulders’ work capacity and ability to recover, which is key when you’re throwing thousands of punches per day.
Train Your Hands to Parry Punches Properly
When parrying a punch, the motion should be small, with the hand returning to the face immediately afterward - no reaching! Watch Mark Hunt highlight the risks of reaching with a parry at Brock Lesnar’s expense:
The speed bag is an excellent tool for learning proper technique. When striking the bag, the hands must stay near the bag to maintain a rhythm, which reinforces good guard habits. The striking motion is also similar to a parry, so consistent speed bag work will help you refine the movement while developing a unique form of parry-specific endurance.
BONUS TIP: As you advance, start to glue your off-hand to your cheek as your active hand strikes the bag. This will further develop your guard, and up the difficulty by increasing the distance from your hand to the bag.
Improve Your Hand Speed
When learning to punch faster is your goal, the speed bag is an obvious choice. Thankfully, the weighted shadow-boxing craze of the early 2000s seems to have died down, with fighters and trainers now realizing that you need to move your hands fast in training if you want to do the same on fight night. Working with a smaller bag develops quick hands, mechanical efficiency, and greater motor unit recruitment patterns, which all translates to faster punches.
Train Your Hands and Feet to Work Together
When the best boxers work the speed bag, you can see them taking small steps on the same side as their “punching” hand. This is a tiny detail, but a critical one; whether you’re hitting the speed bag or throwing a cross, your feet need to be “active” to maintain balance and properly transfer weight into each shot, which takes a certain deal of coordination.
The speed-bag allows you to coordinate the action of your hands and feet, in a similar way to the drill that Shane from FIGHTTIPS describes in this video:
Develop Your Ability to Change Gears
Though modern trainers stress the sport’s anaerobic components, boxing’s actual energy system demands are all over the place. In a real fight, you might show the opponent some relaxed feints, then explode into a flurry, before creating space to circle at range. In this brief sequence, both the aerobic and anaerobic systems are firing. You can’t always be sprinting in a fight, but you won’t win if you’re coasting at a jogging intensity, either.
Elite fighters need to develop their fitness in all areas and have the ability to change gears, and the speed bag is a great tool for these purposes. You can stick with the basics and vary your speed and intensity, alternating longer aerobic “blocks” with short sprints, or you can get a little fancier. Advanced fighters might throw a “flurry” of straight and circular punches for a 30-45 seconds interval, then break and treat it as a maize bag to practice their bobs, weaves, pulls, and slips, before pinning the bag against the platform with uppercuts as its pendulum effect wears out. Rinse and repeat for the duration of the round, and you’ll have closely mirrored the energy output of a fight.
Improve Your Transitions from Probe-to-power Punch
Elite fighters master the transition from probe-to-power punching, and the speed bag is an excellent means to that end. Use faster, backhanded “ice chipping” speed bag strikes (this technique is explained later!) with minimal weight transfer to setup real crosses, hooks, and power jabs. Your power punch will scatter the bag (especially hooks), forcing you to reassert control over its movement with lighter, probing strikes to get back into a rhythm - just like in a real fight. Remember to alternate which hand sets up and which throws power to keep your opponent guessing.
How to Hit a Speed Bag
So you bought yourself a speed bag - now what?
Your new toy may seem intimidating, but these six tips will have you hitting it like a seasoned pro in a matter of minutes:
Stand in a Squared Stance
Don’t worry about taking a “bladed” fighting stance from day one. Instead, square up with the bag and stand well within arms reach. This will make it easier to transition from hand to hand.
Learn the Two Basic Speed Bag Strikes
There are two basic ways to hit the speedbag: backhanded and fronthanded. With the front-handed method, strike with your knuckles as if you were throwing a close-range jab. For a backhanded strike, make contact with the pinky side of the hand near the knuckle. The motion is similar to what you’d use to chip ice, as Clint Eastwood describes in this famous scene from Million Dollar Baby:
Keep Your Hands Near the Bag at All Times
Beginners sometimes drop their hands too low between strikes. This puts too much distance between their hand and the bag, which usually means they end up rushing their hit. Keeping the hands close gives you time to focus on hitting with the proper amount of speed and power (which, incidentally, isn’t much!).
Strike with the Right Rhythm
The speed bag should be struck every 3 “beats.” When you hit the bag, it will bounce back to strike the platform, then forward, then back again. Your goal is to strike the bag as it travels back towards you after its third impact. Drawing from drumming theory, we can think of working the speed bag as striking after every “triplet.”
Hit With a Loose Fist at First
Keeping your hand open and relaxed as you hit slows things down, making it easier to get a feel for the rhythm and timing of the bag. As you advance, you can mix in harder and faster strikes with closed fists.
Alternate Hands Every Third Strike
Once you’ve got a feel for the two basic strikes, you can start to work the bag slowly, alternating hands every three hits. For the first two hits, use the “ice chip” style backhand described above. For your third and final hit with each hand, use a front handed strike. Alternate right backhand-right backhand-right front hand, left backhand-left backhand-left front hand for the duration of a round, or until you’ve hit your target reps. You can start to mix things up as you improve.
3 Best Speed Bag Training Styles for Beginners
You know how to hit your new speed bag, but how do you incorporate it into your workout?
1. Round by Round
Traditionally, speed bag work is completed in interval format, following the work-to-rest ratios of professional boxing rounds. This conditions the body to the unique energy demands of this contest and timeframe, and is also a great way to get a quality workout in a short amount of time.
Set a timer for 3 minutes. Hit the bag with as much intensity as you can sustain for this work period. Once time expires, rest for 30-60 seconds. Repeat for the desired number of rounds.
Choose a rest period and number of rounds that suits your goals. For most boxers, speed bag work occupies a small part of their overall training day. In a 12 round boxing workout, a fighter might work light bags for 2-6. Beginners should build from 3-4 rounds of low to moderate intensity, focusing on steady rhythm rather than speed.
2. Density Training
Density training is about cramming the maximum number of reps into a predefined block of time, then trying to beat that record with every workout. MMA fighter Nick Diaz had a legendary density training session on the speed bag in the lead-up to his fight with Georges St. Pierre.
Set a timer for 5, 10, 15, or 20-minutes depending on your goals. Longer sessions challenge your muscular endurance and aerobic system, while shorter ones will improve hand speed and anaerobic capacity. Keep a mental note of your repetitions - this will also add a new element of mental focus.
3. Reps for Time
Hitting the speed bag for a predetermined number of reps is perhaps the simplest way to structure a workout. You won’t need a timer - just pick a number and go for it.
This is a great approach for beginners because it’s so easy to monitor progress and adjust the workload.
At first, just focus on completing quality reps without worrying about racing the clock. As you improve, challenge yourself to complete your “set” as fast as possible and see how good you’ve gotten!
The speed bag is a valuable tool for rehabilitative work, GPP, and sport-specific skill development, and deserves a place in any program. On behalf of the Warrior Punch team, we hope this guide has helped you master the speed bag.
Leave your speed bag questions and workout ideas in the comments section, or tweet @macrea with any questions, comments, and hate mail.
Enamait, Ross. (2006). Infinite Intensity.
Siff, M.C. (2003). Supertraining, 6th Edition. Supertraining Institute. Denver, CO.
Main Image: Flickr / U.S. Department of Defence