How to approach a heavy bag workout

Female boxerI often Tweet about my heavy bag workouts, but I thought it would be worth clarifying exactly what I do out there. Why? Because my heavy bag workouts are often my one of my hardest and most grueling workouts of the week. But they haven’t always been, and it took time, practice and lots of experimentation to turn these workouts into 45 minutes of core-crunching, fat-burning wonderment.

Early workouts were basic. Hit the bag hard. A lot. For a long time. All that got me was bruised and bloodied knuckles, deep cramping in my hands, and soreness in my joints, especially the wrists, elbows and shoulders. Frankly, when I look back now, it’s a miracle I haven’t broken a hand or something — it’s certainly easier than you think!

Later, once I realized that simply pounding the bag was not the path, I switched to a sparring style workout with snappier punches and a lot more movement. And it was better, much better; but still a long way short of a grueling workout.

Piecing it all together

I can’t say there’s any one thing that I’ve done that makes this a great workout; there’s certainly a lot of variables. But here’s a list of the key things I’ve learned and applied to these sessions. I’ll run through them in order, because it paints a better picture, and you’ll better grasp how I’m approaching these sessions.

  • Attitude
  • Realism
  • Phasing
  • Active recovery
  • Presence

Why are you here?

The first, and perhaps most important, of these is attitude. Why are you here? What do you want out of this workout? You are seldom going to get out more than you put in, so bring it. Bring it ALL. If you are going to wrap-up, warm-up and give-up one hour of your time to something, you might as well give it everything you’ve got. I see way to many people just going through the motions with their workouts; plodding through sets and twatting around on their phone in-between. Come to your workouts with genuine intent; a sense of purpose. Attitude. Don’t half-ass it.

Realism

This is a heavy bag workout, used by fighters for decades to prepare for physical combat, and you will never see a fighter simply standing in front of a heavy bag and punching. Why? Because that’s not realistic, and as such, it’s not useful. Moreover, approaching it in that way would introduce incredibly bad habits and actually reduce combat effectiveness. You see, if you were to stand in front of another fighter, flat-footed, wailing away with no attention to foot placement, balance, distance or hand position, you can be pretty sure you are getting knocked the f@#k out any second. Hence, they approach the bag as if it were a real opponent. That means:

  • Maintaining a stable base through good foot positioning. Whether hitting, or being hit, you never want to have your feet “inline”. With feet inline, you have no foundation or leverage to throw, counter or receive a punch. To improve foot positioning, think in triangles. Have your lead foot out in front, and your trailing foot behind and out to the side, and shift the bulk of your weight to the front of your feet — not quite on the balls of your feet, but keep tension there.
  • Pay attention to distance. If you can hit the bag, the bag–your opponent–can hit you. As such. you should be paying careful attention to where you AND the bag are at all times. If you find yourself in close, you should be doing one of three things: punching, covering-up, or looking for an opportunity to move and improve your position to punch or counter. So follow the bag in on the in-swing, move back on the out-swing. Think about your balance and foot position. Don’t just walk in or step out; stay balanced, with a strong base, elbows tucked, hands high. Make it a fight. Pretend like you are going to be hit and that it will hurt, a lot.
  • Never dropping your guard. For the longest time, I would simply “punch” the bag. You know, throw a fist. And that’s fine; but again, not remotely realistic. When you throw a punch, you need to be paying as much attention to your defenses as you do your striking. So what exactly does that mean? It means, that when you are throwing a jab, your other hand should be protecting vital areas, such as your jaw and ribs. That means keeping your non-striking hand high, knuckles to chin, with elbow tight to you body protecting the rib-cage. And the bigger your punch, the higher the likelihood you are leaving yourself exposed. Just watch the average street brawl. Fists are flailing everywhere and someone always goes down like a sack of spuds to a sucker punch. J.T. Van Veld has a great YouTube video on the basics and covers this point perfectly!
  • Switching-up your targets. Unless your opponent is a heavy bag, their chin and ribs are not likely to be in the same place for long. As a result, there’s not much point in you repeatedly hitting the same point on the bag over and over again. Think like a fighter, use your imagination, and switch-up your strike-zones on the bag. Throw some high jabs, low jabs, hooks to the chin and body. Throw your punches from different body heights, lung-in for a jab or a hook, and structure your way out with good defenses and covering strikes. Mix things up.

Phasing

First things first, as I’ve written before, you should never skip your warm-up. And it doesn’t matter whether you are running, fighting or hitting the gym, a good warm-up prevents unnecessary injuries and prepares your body for optimal performance. For my bag workouts, I run through a simple warmup as follows:

  • Stretching and foam rolling. One particular stretch I like is the scorpion stretch. Scott Herman has a good video of this stretch as part of his deadlift warmup. I find this movement really opens-up my thoracic rotation, something you’ll very much appreciate once you start ramping-up your bag workouts.
  • Planks and crunches. You are going to be using your core a lot in this workout, so get it warmed-up and ready for action with a variety of planks and crunches.
  • Shadow boxing. Start with some simple shadow boxing to loosen joints and gently stretch your fighting muscles. Move around, stay light on your feet, and work on all of the techniques mentioned above. So think about foot placement, distance to an imaginary target, hand position etc. and build up slowly to lock-in the programming. You eventually want all these things to become second nature to you, but until they do, shadow boxing and the warmup are a great way to tune-in and practice the basics.

Once you are all warmed-up (light sweat, increased breathing pattern), you are ready to get into the workout proper, and we are looking to complete about 30-40 minutes of hard work. My workout tends to be a mixture of HIIT and steady-state work, so I am not really sure where to put this on some linear scale of difficulty. Basically, I work on a drill for two minutes, and recover, another drill for two minutes, and recover. I repeat this eight to ten times over the course of the workout. Some examples of drills:

  • Jab work, switching lead hands (orthodox and southpaw) at the minute mark
  • Two-strike combinations; one-two, one-two, again, switching stances halfway
  • Three-punch combos; jab, jab, hook; jab, jab, straight left/right; jab, straight, hook etc.
  • Free-style, mixture of moving in/out to the bag and “picking punches” and combinations
  • Close-in work; keeping the bag off you with shoulders and elbows, working the body and “covering up”
  • Tempo work; timed striking to a tempo, forcing you to constantly position yourself for optimal striking or defensive position

Active recovery

Here’s how you take your workouts to the next level, you don’t rest, you recover. And you can take that even further by turning recovery into active recovery. So what is active recovery? Basically, in this context, it means switching from a core movement and into an auxiliary pattern to let you recover for the core movement, all while remaining active. And for me, that means hitting the core, hard.

Essentially, I am always moving during the 40 minute workout, switching from two minutes of striking drills into two minutes of ab work. Yes, I said two minutes of ab work. I work crunches on the Swiss-ball, twisting and moving between obliques and the center plane. I work planks of various types, switching between high and low, narrow feet, wide feet, spiderman planks, side planks, always active, all the time. And to keep it interesting, I basically throw on an endless workout mix at the start of the session and commit to entire tracks for each activity. This has a habit of forcing me to keep going when all I want to do is stop. Active recovery is your next level manoeuvre!

Be present

I can’t tell you how important this is; important for you enjoyment, important for your performance, and important for your safety! This is somewhat tied to attitude, and doing more than just showing-up; but even when you bring the attitude (especially when you bring the attitude), you need to be present.

Being present means paying close attention to what you are doing at any one point in the workout, from the warm-up, right the way through to the last punch or crunch. Why? Because it will help you wring the most from every second, both in terms of your overall performance, and keeping you safe. To help clarify what I mean, here’s some examples:

  • Preparing to throw a punch? Run through your checklist in your mind: Foot position, balance, distance to bag, optimum choice of punch. This can take up to second or more before you strike; being present and practicing will bring this down to milliseconds and eventually, second nature.
  • Punching? Where did my feet land? Am I in optimal striking range? Where is my covering hand? Where am I going after this? Plan your next move. Again… this will take time initially, but presence will allow you to assess and reassess in real time, streamlining the process over time.
  • Crunching? Where are you feeling it? Are you contracting at the top? What is your breathing pattern? Are you working upper or lower abs, obliques engaged. Point here? Don’t just go through the motions, make every rep count. Be aware of what you are doing, and make real-time adjustments to maximize intensity and target the muscles.

Cautionary notes

Depending on your bag, choice of gloves, intensity and all around experience with this type of workout, there are a few things in particular where you’ll want to pay attention and exercise caution.

  1. Heavy bags are, well, heavy; mine weighs 70lbs. However, 70lbs with momentum can mean as much as 100+lbs, and if you are meeting the bag with your own momentum, the forces at the point of impact can be extreme. To avoid potential serious injury, make sure you are striking with your center knuckles and a straight wrist.
  2. Along the lines of the above, pay attention to your striking form. If you wrist is starting to bend or you are frequently impacting with your smaller knuckles, it might be that your angles and setup are wrong. Slow things down, reset, and get your striking right.
  3. If you are using MMA style open mitts, keep that thumb in tight. If you don’t, you risk breaking it. And going back to the realism, even if you don’t break it, you’ll take your imaginary opponent’s eye out!
  4. Clenching your fists for 40 minutes is hard, and your hands will tire quickly. Try to get used to relaxing your fist when not striking, and only making a tight fist on the way to impact. This takes timing and practice, but it will eventually become second nature and help you strike for longer.
  5. Build up gently. I’ve not done a good job of this, as moderation is not my forte. But caution is needed. It takes time for you hands to harden to this style of training, so build your workout format and duration accordingly over a few weeks or months.
  6. Just like in the gym, when you get really tired, your control and form suffers. Hence, you want to save your biggest hits for when you are thoroughly warmed-up, but not too close to the end of your workout. Save you knockouts to the end, and you could easily miss-time your punch and do some serious damage to your hand.

Sorry for the verbosity here, but it seems you can’t be specific about some of these principals and protocols without being quite wordy!

If you’re still with me at this point, I suspect you are more than casually interested in the subject matter. So feel free to leave a comment or ask your questions; I’ll be happy to drop you an answer if I have one!

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