“The heavy bag must be hit with all the force you have: it needn’t sway, rather you should try to destroy it; only in this way will you have a KO strike in street-fights.”
Jack Dempsey-World Heavyweight Boxing Champion.
For many martial artists and athletes in every class, the bag has been the “first love” in terms of sports. The greatest masters and champions took their first steps in their martial disciplines striking, more or less correctly, a heavy bag, perhaps hung in the garage of their house, in the basement, from a tree, or craftily fastened to a wall. And like in all “first loves”, the protagonist of this article is also something impossible for all practitioners to forget. After years of practicing and having reached an advanced level of technical knowledge and preparation, no real martial artist can eliminate from his own training program one or more sessions per week with the punching bag. Every expert practitioner should know that the learning process in the martial disciplines is a spiraling process where, even broadening the technical baggage through the years, it is vital to continue returning with regularity to the practice of basic exercises, those that are called “fundamental”. The bag is the true “shop” of study and practice where the martial artist and the athlete at any level reflects his own gaps that, through meticulous work of trial and error, he tries to eliminate. While we train with the bag, according to the various methods that we are going to explain, the body and the mind can work freely, without fear of making a mistake executing certain movements in front of an attentive and critical observer, such as a master: the moment of supervision by an expert is fundamental and always has to represent the most important phase of the technical training. However, the pleasure of hitting an untiring partner who is insensitive to pain and fear with all our force can often reveal itself as a true panacea for our difficult moments.
In the East and in the West
Of course, being a tool designed to train for combat, the bag must be respected and utilized following specific work schemes, the fruit of centuries of experiments made by the practitioners of the most distinct Martial Arts from the five continents. In disciplines like Muay Thai in the East and Kick Boxing or Boxing in the West, bag work has been refined to incredible levels thanks to the importance that the followers of those combat sports have given to this training: in the Thai countryside, like in the European and American gymnasiums, it is often said that a fighter will never have the necessary power to knock-out an adversary if he doesn’t spend a good part of his daily training hitting the bag with force and determination.
Basically, the exercises that we recommend come directly from those that Thai Boxers and Kick Boxers from around the world practice, and through their example, one can structure an excellent basic training program that offers any practitioner the power, conditioning, stamina and the technical skill in the strikes and in the movements that are necessary to shape a professional fighter.
The first steps
As a first step, it is necessary to equip oneself with a bag full of leather trimmings cut up into little pieces mixed with rags, or perhaps sand inside a resistant covering; a bag filled completely with sand is considered ideal for conditioning exercises and very expert practitioners can utilize them. The weight and dimensions can vary, but basically, there are two kinds of bags: mobile bags (hung from a support or from the ceiling and therefore swaying), and fixed bags (that is, fixed to the wall). Our analysis focuses on the first kind and from among the mobile bags, we will consider the short one (typical in Boxing), and the long, or banana bag (utilized mostly by Japanese Kick Boxers). The next step is to protect the fragile bones of the hand (relative to the more resistant, tibia, elbow, and knee) with appropriate wrapping and with light gloves, which will prevent one—especially if the work is done daily—from damaging the hands with bothersome abrasions and from excessively numbing the areas of contact of the fist. Only in a second phase will it be possible, in some special sessions, to eliminate the wrappings and later the gloves in order to concentrate on hand conditioning training.
Before beginning the practice of striking a bag, it is always necessary to prepare for the intense effort of the muscles, tendons, and the joints with a series of stretching exercises (we recommend Yoga postures) and some shadow boxing, those in which we execute—with the aid of little weights (maximum 1 kg)—movement, defensive moves, punches, kicks, elbow strikes and knee strikes into the air just as we later execute them with our bag.
[Note: our discourse focuses on the use of the bag for training percussion executed with the various parts of the body, though in some cases standing fight grips are incorporated. There is a system of bag use called “from the fighter” which we are not going to consider now, whose cylindrical heavy bags, or in the shape of a mannequin, are gripped and thrown to the ground or, in some particular exercises, put on the ground and struck or strangled, simulating ground fighting situations.]
Once one is adequately prepared and, if it is possible, after some messages with appropriate ointments (in Muay Thai, generally one uses a specific kind of oil called Nam Mano Muay), we are ready for the phase of the real technical work that, schematizing, can be divided into 5 general categories:
– fitness exercises for combat
– exercises for technical correction
– exercises for speed and loosening up
– power exercises
– exercises in combat situations
Each training session can focus on a category from among the five in the abovementioned classification, or else according to the demands (whether one wants professional training or self-defense, or fitness), to combine two or more categories, working many technical/physical attributes at the same time.
1. First training category
In particular, desiring to exploit the bag in order to get a good level of cardio-vascular stamina or for conditioning the various parts of the body against the impact of strikes (especially the tibias, knees, elbows, feet, hands, and forearms), we will focus on exercises pertinent to the first category, called “Fit to Fight”. The routines, according to which we can execute the training, are many indeed, and they are related, especially with the specific demands of the practitioner (professional or amateur) and in the case of some athletes, according to the length of the combat for which he is preparing himself.
2. Second category
On the other hand, if we want to work our own particular technical gaps, which involves the execution of a specific strike (whether a punch, a kick, a knee or elbow strike) or if we want to improve a movement-strike combination or we want to perfect a series or a strike combination (in the first case we consider a link of percussions executed with the same weapons, for example, fist-fist, while in the second case a combination of strikes executed with distinct weapons, for example, punch-kick), our training will focus mostly on exercises of the second category. In those exercises, it is better to accustom ourselves to using the correct weapon at the adequate distance, varying the distances with appropriate steps and movements: for example, in order to go from the medium distance of Boxing to the short distance where we work the grappling holds and the elbow and knee strikes, it will be necessary to automate the fast advances that in Muay Thai are called “Ian Seub” and the entering and existing techniques of hand-to-hand fighting.
3. Third category
In the third category of exercises, we try to execute strikes with looseness and speed, combining the weapons utilized (punch, kick, elbow, knee), the heights to which we attack (low, middle, and high) and the ways of execution (complex footwork, guard changes, jumps, rotations). In these kinds of drills, the static situations are eliminated; the movements of the legs, the trunk and the head have to be continuous and the rotations of the hips and shoulders become more syncopated in order to multiply the attacks in the given time frame.
4. Fourth category
The fourth category is done mainly to develop explosive power in the strikes and in this case, it is often recommended to use a fixed bag, or if that isn’t possible, ask a colleague to hold the training bag. It is important in this phase to try to “go through” the bag with our most powerful strikes, without limiting oneself “to touching it” on the surface, rather literally cutting it in two. In this kind of exercise, the strikes are carried out with explosive movements, executing individual actions, sometimes repeated during a whole round. Toward this aim, it is normal to have training sessions with the bag following the time frames of the ring sports, and in particular, of Boxing: working for three minutes and resting for one minute. On the other hand, in Muay Thai, they often follow different times, based on an increase in the rhythm of work with respect to the fight (4 minutes instead of three) and a lessening of the rest time (1 minute instead of 2). Following one of these schemes for training is undoubtedly a good start, but if, for example, our objective is to simulate real, fast, and violent combat situations, it is better to alternate sessions in which one follows the time frames of Boxing with others in which the work time is not pre-established, where the rest time is done when one reaches a certain level of fatigue: after a brief pause (some 10 seconds) we push ourselves to go back to begin with the same intensity as the first assault, and continuing like that three, four or up to five times.
5. Fifth category
The last kind of exercise concerns combat situations and will vary according to the discipline that is practiced, the technical level reached, and again, the objective of the training. In this phase, one combines the previous drills incorporating steps with defensive movements (blocks, dodges, etc.), simulations with combined attacks, and defenses with counter-attacks carried out with the various weapons of the body (including, though in a controlled way with respect to the other kinds of attacks, head strikes at short distance). Especially in this phase, the bag must “be alive” and thanks to a visualization process, has to become a real adversary in a way that we have to avoid its dangerous attacks and later strike it with all the strength that we have available.
A great training partner
There are many training instruments studied by the Martial Arts masters in order to strengthen the body and the spirit of the practitioners and convert them into living weapons: but perhaps only the punching bag is a universal tool that has passed through time and cultures, establishing itself from old times as an indispensable aid of the true martial artist. It has been my “personal trainer” for over thirty years and I expect I’ll never stop using it. For all that, I advise its use to all those who want to excel in their chosen Fighting Art.