To Lift or Not to Lift - Weight Training for Boxing and the Martial Arts
Weights-Based Workouts in Boxing, Martial Artists & Fight Sports
Sports-Specific Strength and Conditioning Programmes for Fighters
Where I came from, back in the day (over 30 years ago), weight training and fight sports – especially boxing – went together like hand and glove. Boxers lifted, and most of the guys in the gym also worked out on the heavy bag. The link between traditional martial arts and weight training was similarly strong; I recall that martial arts classes were typically held on aerobics floors in the gyms in which I trained, and martial artists – men and women – frequently worked out alongside us bodybuilders before or after their technical classes.
Granted, it was a different era, and we were inclined not to over-intellectualise quite as much back then. Weight training worked, so we did it. And that was that.
I transitioned from punching to boxing a few years into my training, when I was fortunate enough to befriend a highly ranked former amateur boxer who coached me for a couple of years. I recall that I was a competitive bodybuilder at the time I met my coach and good friend. I’d already been lifting – lifting heavy - for several hours a day for a number of years, and, as you’d expect, I was strong. I’d been hitting the bag for a few years, too, and believed that I knew how to punch. The very first time I met my friend – who was comparatively slight in build – he demonstrated the power that could be generated from technically correct punching… pretty much knocking my heavy bag clean off its mount. That brief lesson was definitive proof to me that technique trumped brute strength. Hooked, I set about learning everything I could about good boxing technique, and I’ve been boxing – alongside my lifting - ever since.
I never came to the conclusion, however, that weight training wasn’t an asset to the development of punching power, and my coach never felt that way either – indeed, he and I lifted weights together alongside our technical and sparring sessions.
As my career in fitness developed, I trained with, and programmed for, athletes from a wide range of disciplines, from track-and-field to dance. And many of these sportspeople threw some big weights around, at least at calculated periods in their training calendar. I’ve never seen any evidence to suggest that the inclusion of weight training in a well-designed training regime is anything other than beneficial to any sport in which power plays a role – which, of course, is almost all of them.
Golfers lift. Tennis players and cricketers lift. Runners and jumpers lift. And, of course, swimmers, footballers – and boxers, MMA fighters and martial artists - lift. Serious athletes do so not because they’re misinformed. They weight train because they know first-hand that lifting weights – correctly - improves their sports performance, and also I suspect because many of their coaches have at least sufficient training in strength and conditioning nowadays to have dispelled many of the myths and misconceptions that - apparently still - surround resistance training in some circles. In fact, weight training has supported sports performance for long enough now that I wouldn’t be surprised if at least a couple of generations of sports coaches had implemented sports-specific strength and conditioning training throughout their own sporting careers.
This is all personal opinion and anecdote, of course (this post is intended as an opinion piece, not a scholarly paper), but there’s plenty of science to back up my experience. Spend a few moments online and you’ll find well-researched articles by qualified sports scientists, coaches and trainers, and sporting and sports medicine associations that dispel the myths and support what I’ve personally observed throughout my 30+ years in the field. As far as I’m concerned, the consensus view and weight of evidence strongly supports my experience that, as I believe to be the case with sports-people from a wide range of disciplines, correct weights-based conditioning programmes can be expected to improve a fighter’s performance.
Not that I’m all about the science – I’m not a scientist myself and I’ve been known to reflect upon our tendency to elevate scientific methodologies and manners of thinking to the status of absolute truth, when it seems clear that such status generally isn’t warranted. I digress, of course, but my point is that a scientific consensus doesn’t necessarily make a position correct and, as I see things, there’s often great value in dissention, diversity of opinion and in deriving truth from one’s personal lived reality, except, of course, where such personal truths spring from explainable failures of cognition or misinterpretation of the accumulated evidence that life presents to us.
So I’m comfortable with the fact that not everyone will agree with my belief that weight training can be a worthwhile component in a fighter’s training regime, and I hope that I’m flexible and open-minded enough to take their dissenting opinions on board.
Some time ago I came across an article by a young online boxing authority advising against weight training for boxers, suggesting that weight training was not only not a help, but that it was, in fact, detrimental. As I read this young man’s arguments against weight training for boxers, I found myself disagreeing strongly on almost all points – in my opinion, most of which were based upon long-standing weight-training misconceptions that those of us with experience in sports-specific resistance training dismissed decades ago. I won’t identify the author or article – which, unless I’m mistaken, appears to me to have been subsequently rewritten, in any event. Neither am I criticising this particular author, who has no doubt come to his conclusions based upon his own observations and experience in the field. I do, however, disagree with him, and welcome the opportunity to offer my support for the notion that most fighters would benefit from a supplemental, sports-specific strength and conditioning programme.
I should clarify that I tend to use the terms weight-training and resistance training interchangeably, although there are clearly non-weights based methods of resistance training. Curious, I feel, that this particular commentator denigrated weight-training for boxers while recommending body-weight exercises such as push-ups as a substitute. I’ve noticed that many martial artists lean towards body-weight exercises over weights, too, and I can think of a couple of possible reasons why. For one, traditional martial arts tend to be, well… traditional, and weight training is generally not considered to be so. As an aside, I was, however, intrigued to recently read about something called ishi-sashi, a very kettlebell-like strength training tool apparently developed in China and used by karate masters of old. The other reason is a practical one – it’s very difficult to integrate a respectable range of weight training equipment into a typical martial arts training hall and class structure.
Your body, of course, couldn’t care squat where the resistance comes from. Personally, I like weight-based gym equipment. I’ve trained with weights for my entire adult life, and I find them extremely versatile and efficient. With the range of equipment found in a typical commercial gym, there is tremendous scope to tailor a resistance programme to the specifics of a particular sport. When I encounter the argument that weight training can’t replicate the dynamics of boxing or martial arts – I’m inclined to feel that the critic lacks gym experience, or is simply being unimaginative. But, as I said, the source of resistance isn’t the issue – it’s how effectively you can use it to tailor a programme to your precise training needs and goals. If you feel that you can achieve that better with bodyweight exercises than with weights and gym equipment, kudos to you.
Most critics of supplemental weight training believe that weight training makes you slow, inflexible, and bulky, hurts your joints and hinders your ability to relax your muscles. In my experience, none of this is true – or at least doesn’t have to be. Indeed, there’s a ton of research supporting the exact opposite ( please, spend a little time and do the research yourself, but, for example, see (Verkhoshansky and Verkhoshansky, 2011), (Santos et al., 2010)). Approached correctly, weight training can improve speed and explosive power, coordination and neuromuscular responsiveness, muscular endurance… and flexibility. Weight training can improve joint health and the strength of your bones and connective tissues. And weight training certainly doesn’t have to make you bulky.
Remember that your resistance programme is chock-full of variables, and therefore choices. You get to choose, for example…
- the particular exercises that you perform and the way in which they are structured into workouts;
- the amount of weight that you lift and the number of sets and repetitions performed;
- the range of motion;
- the pace of each repetition during each phase of movement;
- rest between sets;
- level of intensity;
- length of workout;
- frequency of training;
- periodicity – how you structure your training goals and programmes over different length time cycles;
- nutrition, rest, supplements, and your other supplementary and, of course, primary fight training.
So, when you envisage the stereotypically slow, massive, bulky, inflexible bodybuilder, for example, you need to remember that this athlete has – for years and likely decades - structured everything about his or her training, and activities outside of the gym (including some that he or she is unlikely to talk about) to achieving that precise physical condition. It has little or no relationship to the outcome that a boxer or martial artist – or any other athlete – can expect from sports specific weight training, unless, of course, you train, eat, supplement etc. the same way. But this is, in my opinion, the type of correlation vs causation error (slow, bulky, inflexible bodybuilders – in itself a stereotype that’s not necessarily true – lift weights and therefore weight training must make you that way) that fuels the misconceptions that, in turn, drive mistaken conclusions such as those reached by critics of sports-specific weight-training for fighters.
But please, don’t take my word for it. Do your research and, if, like me, you feel that weight training is likely to be a beneficial supplement to your boxing or martial arts, give it a go. But don’t train like a bodybuilder/ powerlifter/ cross fitter or gymnast. Spend some time with a professional with experience in programming for fighters, or at least in sports specific programming and who understands the particular demands of fight sports, and learn how to weight train like a fighter.
Written by Ben Hoole (MBA, MPET, B.Comm)
Ben is Managing Director at ANARK® and a long-time former fitness industry professional with over 30 years bodybuilding/ fight sports experience. Read more about Ben here
Santos, E., Rhea, M., Simão, R., Dias, I., de Salles, B., Novaes, J., Leite, T., Blair, J. and Bunker, D. (2010). Influence of Moderately Intense Strength Training on Flexibility in Sedentary Young Women. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(11), pp.3144-3149.
Verkhoshansky, Y. and Verkhoshansky, N. (2011). Special Strength Training – Manual For Coaches. 2nd ed. Rome: Verkhoshansky, SSTM.
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