Whenever I watch a boxing match, I’m always amazed at the physical conditioning of the fighters. They’re invariably lean and muscular and therefore I’ve always assumed that they lifted weights in order to get to this level of conditioning.
Weight lifting consistently over a period of time causes the muscles to undergo physical changes whereby the muscles become stronger and, typically this is accompanied by muscular growth (hypertrophy).
A fighter’s desire to become stronger is understandable:. in theory, the boxer would be able to translate this extra strength into more powerful punches.
However, Mohammed Ali, perhaps the greatest boxer of all time, didn’t do weight training. His long time trainer, Angelo Dundee, simply didn’t allow him to lift weights. Other experienced boxing trainers also deliberately shy away from weight training and there are a number of reasons for this.
Firstly, bigger, bulkier muscles aren’t necessarily a good thing. In the same way that being obese means that you’re carrying around too weight, the same is true if you have too much muscular size. Both can impede your mobility.
This is perhaps no more obvious that looking at bodybuilders; athletes who have taken muscular hypertrophy to the extreme. They are lumbering hulks that have to walk with their arms away from their sides and their legs apart because of their overdeveloped lats and thighs.
Whilst boxers won’t necessarily develop muscles to this degree, there is a risk that they will have a degree of impeded mobility simply because of their enlarged muscles.
Weight training can make your muscles stiffer. I know that whenever I weight train my muscles feel tighter. This is because when your lifting weights the muscles themselves are damaged and develop microscopic tears. When you rest, the muscles repair themselves and these tears are filled in with additional muscle tissue. If this process is repeated over time, additional layers of repaired tissue is laid down. This new tissue isn’t as flexible as the underlying muscle. Unless you specifically work on developing your flexibility, you’ll become stiffer.
This can make it more likely that you’ll end up pulling a muscle if you stretch it beyond its natural range of motion.
Muscles are also extremely oxygen hungry. The body has to exert extra energy in maintaining this additional bulk both in terms of calories burned but also in relation to the amount of oxygen needed in order to simply keep the muscle cells alive.
When the muscles start working hard, such as during a boxing match, their oxygen demands increase dramatically. This is the principle reason why you start breathing hard during physical exercise – to transport additional oxygen to the muscles and to remove carbon dioxide.
The larger your muscles are, the more oxygen and energy they’re going to require. This is why you can sometimes see that very muscular fighters begin to tire quicker than their leaner opponents. Sure the pumped up fighters look impressive but they rarely last long enough to go the distance.
Your muscles will be sore meaning you’ll find it hard to train the next day. When you have an intense weight lifting session, the following day (or even the day after) your muscles will ache. This is referred to as DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) and is caused by your muscles being broken down. Effectively the muscles have been injured and the soreness you experience is the result of this. The body recovers and super-compensates meaning that the muscles grow back stronger than they were before.
This muscle soreness can make it difficult to train effectively. The muscles will feel tight and they’ll certainly hurt if hit during a sparring session. If nothing else, the aching muscles will be a distraction to the training task in hand.
It depletes your ability to recover. Weight training breaks down the muscles of the body so that they grow back stronger. This rebuilding of the body takes a huge amount of the body’s resources and it’s important that there is sufficient recovery time to allow the muscles to heal.
However, a boxer will also be doing other forms of training such as running, skipping rope, pad work, hitting the heavy bag and sparring. Adding weight training to the mix might be too much and would overwhelm the body’s ability to recover in time for the next training session. In this scenario, there’s a risk that the fighter becomes overtrained. This puts the individual into a weakened state, affects their immune system and prevents the boxer from progressing in their training.
Boxers already carry out resistance training so there’s no need to pump iron as well. Hitting a heavy bag is an integral part of a boxer’s training programme and it’s actually a form of resistance training. You’re pushing, or rather punching, a heavy object away from you.
As the boxer continues to train on the heavy bag, they become stronger and more effective at punching. This means that their punches become more powerful.
In addition, boxers will also practise calisthenics, such as push ups and sit ups. These are less intense than weight training and don’t deplete the body’s ability to recover in quite the same way. However, they’re still effective in strengthening the body. Given this, is there really a need to add weight training to the mix?
The Issue of training specificity: if you spend time bench pressing, you’ll get better at bench pressing not punching. When you deliberately train in a certain movement, you become more efficient in that movement. So for instance, if you spend time deadlifting, you’ll become stronger in that movement and will be able to lift more weight. This extra strength in this one movement won’t necessarily transfer over into other movements,
Training causes very specific adaptations to the body. This became apparent when I first took up BJJ.
I had been an experienced martial artist and had developed a decent cardio-vascular level, developed in part by a regular running routine. However, after only a few minutes of rolling on the mat, I found myself gasping for air. My body was simply not used to the demands placed upon it.
Punching is not a pushing action, it’s a snap. When you lift weights, you’re pushing or pulling a weight towards or away from the body. It’s a relatively slow, deliberate movement. In contrast, a punch is a quick snapping move and is performed in a completely different way.
When you punch, you don’t just push out your arm as though you were performing a dumbbell press. A properly performed punch is much more like a whipping action rather than a push. For this reason, the body needs to be loose and relaxed and not impeded by stiff, bulky muscles.
The power from the punch comes from a process known as kinetic linking.
The rear foot drives down through the floor and the energy travels up through the legs, through the hips, across the large muscles of the back and chest, through the shoulders and down through the arm. The energy is multiplied as it travels through the body until it is released out through the fist and into the opponent.
It takes years of practise to be able to maximise the amount of energy that’s generated. This is largely about timing, hip rotation and leverage. Being able to punch hard is more about developing skill and technique rather than brute strength.
Adding weight can potentially move them up weight classes. When you weight train consistently, you will begin to accumulate additional muscle mass. This additional bulk adds to your overall weight.
Because there are very strict weight categories in boxing, adding any weight to your body could cause you to be moved up to a higher weight class. Indeed, boxers are usually so worried about going over their allocated weight class that they’ll take drastic action to cut weight before a fight.
Finally, boxers could look ripped just because of lower body fat percentages. Just because boxers look muscular, doesn’t necessarily mean that they lift weights. As I’ve outlined, boxers do a number of forms of resistance training which will develop a degree of muscle tone.
Boxers are also likely to have a low percentage of body fat, which means any muscle that they have developed is likely to show up and help them achieve that ‘ripped’ look that they typically display.
It’s also important to bear in mind the role of genetics. Some people naturally have a greater amount of muscle mass than others. These individuals can look well developed without ever touching a weight in their lives.
Boxers that do lift weights
Whilst there are a number of reasons why it might be best to avoid using weight as a boxer, after a bit of research it’s fairly easy to find several videos of well known boxers weight training.
Mike Tyson started out just using calisthenics and traditional boxing training techniques. It was only later that he started to incorporate weight lifting into his training.
Similarly, Evander Holyfield, incorporated a both a strength training and bodybuilding routine into his training regime. The latter was actually supervised by Lee Haney, the multiple “Mr. Olympia” bodybuilding champion.
George Foreman, also incorporated weight lifting into his training programme.
It’s not just the heavyweight boxers that use weights as part of their training. Amir Khan, former unified light-welterweight world champion, has also pumped iron.
However, looking at the video of Amir training, it’s evident that he’s not an experienced lifter. His instructor is giving his guidance not only on how to lift the weight itself but also on where he should be feeling the exertion. Someone accustomed to training with barbells would not require this type of support.
It would seems that these boxers only started weight training later on in their careers, perhaps to try and find some incremental advantage over their opponent. They concentrated first on developing their skills and technique.
In Summary …
In answer to the question, do boxers lift weights? Boxers only tend to lift weights later on in their careers when they have first gained mastery of skills and techniques that underpin this sport. For those starting out, there are a number of compelling reasons why weights should be avoided.