How do you build muscle? That’s an easy one. You lift weights.
Lifting heavy weights tears muscle fibers and the protein in your diet provides the building blocks to repair and grow muscles so that they come back bigger and stronger than before.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is bodybuilding in a nutshell.
If you want to build muscle, you train with weights more often or increase the resistance, and consume a crap load more protein.
So, if weight training develops strength and strength is a key component of ferocious knockout power, why don’t boxers lift weights?
Well, boxing is all about speed, agility, stamina, and skill. Strength does play a part, but it can be beaten if you have the before mentioned elements in your favor.
If you’re quicker than your opponent, and can evade his punches while landing more of your own, nine times out of ten you will win the fight.
Combat sports with grappling like MMA and wrestling have a need for strength. However, as force is delivered upon impact when striking, and there is minimal clinching involved in boxing, it’s often a waste of time developing strength for boxing.
However, I am not against strength training for boxing… as long as it’s done the right way.
If you don’t know whether to reach for the dumbbell or your gloves, this post breaks down the argument for and against lifting weights to improve boxing performance.
The Traditional View
Traditional boxing coaches have their feet firmly planted in the ‘weights are bad camp’. They’re completely opposed to their fighters engaging in weight training reasoning that bulky muscle decreases the range of motion, tightens the muscles, reduces speed, and requires more energy to fuel.
And I agree with their point of view.
A traditional bodybuilder’s physique would only slow a fighter and takes away their agility.
Muscle alone doesn’t lead to harder punches. Yes, weight training makes you stronger, but the muscle gained does not automatically result in powerful punches.
There are seven reasons why typical weight training is ineffective for boxing.
7 Reasons Why Weight Lifting for Boxers is A Bad Idea
1. Weightlifting Tenses Muscles
Weight training doesn’t teach you to relax - quite the opposite actually.
What most beginners don’t get is that your body should be RELAXED when you’re boxing. Clenching your fists and tensing your muscles will tire you out quickly.
When your arms are held high, and you’re in your guard, your muscles should be relaxed. When you throw a punch, your muscles should be relaxed - right up to the split second before your fist connects. Only at that point, should you be under tension.
Compare this to weight training, where you’re muscles are in tension the whole time you perform the movement, and you begin to see why the disciplines don’t match.
You concentrate on applying a force for several seconds when lifting weights, and then you expect to be able to deliver maximum power in a fraction of a second when you fight. It just doesn’t work.
You have to learn how to relax when you’re boxing.
A lion tamer with a whip is a good analogy. The lion tamer will keep the whip loose and flowing freely around his body 90% of the time. This keeps the lion guessing when the strike is going to be delivered which is similar to a boxer moving around in his guard, bobbing and weaving, and feinting. Only when the whip is cracked, does it straighten out and become tense.
Your body should mimic the whip; relaxed and moving freely 90% of the time and only when you punch, should your muscles contract.
2. Weightlifting Makes You Stiff
Many strength training exercises are a restricted movement.
This is especially true for people who try to lift heavy too soon. They often sacrifice proper form and a full range of motion so they can load up the bar for bragging rights.
Repeatedly working within a limited range not only leaves certain parts of the muscle underdeveloped, but it also means that your muscles aren’t fully stretched with each rep leading to decreased flexibility.
However, the real reason traditional bodybuilding is so counterproductive to boxing is because the type of muscle developed by lifting heavy weights is bulky and cumbersome. It gets in the way of punching.
While strength is certainly advantageous for fighting, it has to come from lean, athletic muscle, if you want to be an agile fighter capable of getting in and out quickly (hint: you do).
3. Muscle Mass is Not Punching Weight
While a mass gaining routine and a bulking diet may move the needle upwards on the scales, the added weight doesn’t guarantee increased punching power.
Have you ever held pads for a big guy who you were sure was going to knock you through the brickwork, but you were left disappointed (and relieved) when the punch barely moved your hands?
It’s happened to me more often than not.
Now when I spar, it’s the wiry guy that has his technique on point that makes me more apprehensive than the bigger guys that are ‘all show and no go’.
Having larger frame, whether it is flabby or rock solid muscle, doesn’t mean you have a hard punch.
If you want to hit harder, you should spend less time lifting weights, and focus on technique and learn how to transfer your weight through your arm and out through your fist.
Put your body weight behind a punch, and you’ll have enough power to knock someone out whether you’re 50kg or 150kg.
4. Snap Vs Push
A punch is a snap and not a push.
In weightlifting, the focus is on a gradual and sustained force over a relatively long time period. Whereas in boxing, the force is delivered quickly upon impact.
The techniques are fundamentally different. In boxing, the idea is not to push your fist through your opponent, but to deliver a snappy punch that delivers maximum force in the least amount of time.
Many beginners get this technique wrong and let their arm linger as they try to keep pushing home the punch. BIG MISTAKE.
The motion should be lightning fast. In an out.
All the power is released upon impact. It’s generated by accelerating your body weight as quickly as possible. Once you make the connection, the power you can exert my continuing to push is marginal.
Think of it this way. Would you strike a nail with a hammer and then try to keep on pushing the nail in while holding the hammer handle? No, you would swing the hammer again as that is what is most effective and delivers maximum force. It’s the same deal with punching.
5. Weightlifting Doesn’t Focus On Speed
The goal of lifting weights is to build muscle and become stronger. This is achieved by increasing the resistance i.e. lifting heavier weights. The focus is never on increasing the speed of weightlifting as it doesn’t serve any purpose and could lead to an injury.
In boxing, speed is just as important as power.
Being able to move heavy objects is useless if you can’t shift your weight quickly. What good is being able to bench 100kg if you’re that slow you only hit fresh air when you swing?
You have to be able to throw your punch quickly and then either follow up or return to your guard.
The slow and controlled movements in weightlifting don’t improve your speed, and the muscles developed never become accustomed to the quick acceleration required for boxing.
6. Weight Training Leaves Less Time For Boxing
A drawback of weight training that’s not immediately obvious is the time consideration.
We all have the same 24 hours in a day. We need to use them wisely, and for some, spending time in the gym lifting weights instead of hitting pads or sparring is not the best use of their time.
This is especially true for hobby boxers and amateur fighters who have to squeeze in training in amongst a busy schedule that includes a full-time job and numerous other family, social, community, and personal commitments.
If you usually spend five days a week at the fight gym, but you cut back to two days and pump iron for the other three, your boxing skills will deteriorate!
7. New Muscle Has to Be Fed
All that additional muscle gained from your weight lifting sessions has to be fueled with oxygen.
The more muscle you gain, the more oxygen required.
In order to efficiently deliver oxygen to your newly formed muscles, you’ll have to do more cardio.
The amount of cardio required to ‘go the distance’ is already insane. Can you realistically expect to fit any more cardio training in amongst your roadwork, padwork, bagwork, and sparring?
Even if you’re a professional boxer, purely weight training sessions that focus only on strength are a waste of time. The only thing that makes sense, is to combine your strength and cardio training.
But before you even consider that, remind yourself that power doesn’t come from muscle, and your time would be better spent learning effective weight transfer and how to generate torque from your hips and shoulders.
So, if exercises that build strength and power aren’t all that favorable for a sport where power is celebrated, what should we be working on?
Punching Power Comes From Technique
There will always be fighters that are blessed with raw, destructive power.
They’re usually big built and have hands like shovels, and even without proper body mechanics, they still deliver a wicked punch. Although they have a larger frame, they have the right amount of athleticism to move their weight quickly.
This is important in understanding what contributes to a strong punch. Remember this formula from high school physics?
Force = Mass x Acceleration
Two components lead to powerful punches; mass and acceleration.
One without the other is useless.
That’s why big guys with brawny arms don’t automatically have the hardest punches. It also explains why fighters that have incredible speed don’t have knockout power until they learn how to put their weight behind their punches.
Learning proper punching technique improves both elements of the equation.
So, if you want to punch harder, don’t reach for the dumbbell; work on improving your technique.
Even if you think your technique’s flawless, look at the minute details. Are you following through and rotating your hips and shoulders? Where is your weight distributed throughout the whole movement?
Once you’ve thoroughly reviewed every aspect of your punching technique, then and only then, should you start looking at strength training to give you the edge.
My Experience with Weights and Fighting
I lifted weights way before I ever got into martial arts.
Inspired by Jean-Claude Van Damme, I was determined to add muscle to my skinny thirteen-year-old frame. I would do mostly arm exercises with a couple of concrete filled plastic dumbbells with a few sit-ups chucked into the routine for good measure. Big arms and a six pack was all I wanted.
Needless to say, I didn’t get the results I was after.
As time went on, I learned more about weight training and nutrition. I learned that my “problem” as a hard gainer was that I wasn’t lifting heavy enough or consuming enough calories.
I spent the next few years focusing on bulking with the ultimate goal of becoming a 100kg beefcake. I never quite reached that goal, and the heaviest I’ve ever been was 83.3kg – not bad for a 5’10” ectomorph.
When I took up muay thai at the age of eighteen, I continued to lift weights and guzzle back protein shakes thinking that my extra gym sessions would give me one up on my thai boxing buddies.
I think I did better against fellow beginners, especially when doing clinch work, however, the advantage was marginal at best. When I was up against fighters that were more experienced, what little strength advantage I thought I had was trumped by superior technique every time.
When I got serious about muay thai and started competing, weight training sessions became fewer and further between.
Whenever I spent time pumping iron, I found that my fighting skills nose-dived. I wasn’t as sharp, and I felt sluggish.
Bodybuilding routines - where you perform 3-5 sets with 6-12 reps per set depending on your goals – go against the grain when it comes to muay thai or boxing for all the reasons I previously mentioned.
However, the greatest reason I think it had such a detrimental effect on my performance was because it took away from the time I spent practicing martial arts.
However, I don’t believe that weight training for boxing is necessarily a bad thing. Where I got it wrong, was because I was still learning the ropes and I also continued with programs that were intended for bodybuilders.
I did revisit strength and conditioning training after I had been on a strictly muay thai routine for a couple of years, but this time, I did something different.
I switched up and performed circuits with exercises that mostly used my bodyweight or weights which were around 50% of my maximum. I would do pull-ups, squats, deadlifts, and other compound lifts that worked several muscle groups in the one movement. I trained twice a week and the rest of the time was dedicated to fight training.
Circuits had a POSITIVE effect on my performance, stamina, and endurance. I could hit harder, and I wasn’t easily fatigued having to feed big muscles. I also didn’t suffer heavily from aching muscles the way you do the day after a heavy lifting session.
Looking back on it, this is the kind of training done in CrossFit boxes – but I was doing it before it was cool 😉
Boxing Weight Training That Works
The best type of weight training for boxing builds functional muscle. The kind of muscle that’s slender and stripped of fat, but at the same time, HIGHLY POWERFUL.
There are two types of strength training I recommend for boxing: CrossFit and plyometric training. Let’s dig a little deeper into both types of training to find out how they benefit boxing.
CrossFit is a constantly varied form of high-intensity training that incorporates functional exercises that are the “core movements of life”.
CrossFit caters to all fitness levels with scalable workouts that incorporate, running, jumping, cycling, and other cardio exercises combined with Olympic and power lifting movements.
CrossFit exercises “move the largest loads the longest distances, so they are ideal for maximizing the amount of work done in the shortest time. Intensity is essential for results and is measurable as work divided by time—or power. The more work you do in less time, or the higher the power output, the more intense the effort.” – crossfit.com
The continually changing training along with the extreme intensity of CrossFit workouts dramatically increases fitness and leads to a body that is both fast and strong.
It’s been tried and tested working in combination with boxing. Professional boxer, Robert Guerrero, used CrossFit training to improve his strength in the ring after losing to Mayweather, and the results were astounding.
If you would like to learn more about CrossFit, here are some of the best resources I’ve found online:
- The official CrossFit website
- A beginners guide to CrossFit by Nerd Fitness
- A round up of great CrossFit books to read
- BodyBuilding.com answers your CrossFit questions
Plyometric training used to be called jump training. The exercises involve jumping over cones or onto other platforms such as boxes or benches, or aggressively pushing off surfaces.
The explosive jumping exercises build fast and reactive muscles while also improving your balance and agility. Your body weight provides the resistance, but you can hold weights if you want to increase the difficulty of the exercises.
The moves are performed quickly, and the work rate is kept high, meaning you’ll also be engaging in a cardio workout.
Athletes from all sporting disciplines can benefit from incorporating plyometric exercises into their routine. The explosiveness developed during plyometric training also transfers to boxing.
Plyometric training offers fighters full-body conditioning that builds lean muscle while also improving their stamina and endurance.
If plyometric training sound like it’s for you, here’re some top resources to get you started:
- A beginners guide to plyometrics by the Art of Manliness
- An introduction to plyometric training by Breaking Muscle
- 10 plyometric exercises (with videos)
I believe boxers should train with weights or do some other form of strength training, but just not in the same way that bodybuilders and powerlifters train.
The strength and cardio training in both CrossFit and plyometric training share numerous parallels with boxing. Training in either discipline improves your stamina, strength, endurance, and speed – all attributes that are desired in boxing.
The exercises can also be tailored to boxing by matching duration and recovery periods with boxing rounds, or breaking up the exercises with a round on the bag.
Whether you choose to lift weights or not, always give priority to training that is applicable in the ring.
Don’t worry about how you look in the mirror or on the scales. If you're serious about boxing, your only concern should be your performance.