The biggest problem with 99% of fitness programs is simple: they’re no fun.
If you want to get into excellent shape and you’re writing yourself a program, try to focus on one single question: will you actually stick to it?
If not, then you are completely wasting your time. It’s far better to do a rubbish workout a few times a week than it is to do an amazing workout once every two months. So actually imagine going through the rigors on a daily basis. Can you maintain it?
For many of us, a workout that heavily involves running is going to be a non-starter. Running means either going outside in the cold and running along the road/through brambles, or it means running on the spot on a treadmill. It’s tiring, lengthy and dull.
A workout that’s actually fun though? Hitting a punch bag! And as an added bonus, it’s also incredibly good for you in all kinds of important ways.
Punching a punch bag is something that almost anyone can enjoy because it is so cathartic. You can imagine that punch bag is your boss for instance, or perhaps an ex and hitting it feels really good. That said, studies show that venting anger actually isn’t particularly effective (1) but that’s beside the point.
Personally, I love punching the punch bag because it’s something I can do that feels ‘action packed’. Too often, we spend our time sitting in front of a computer or generally pushing pencils. When you hit a punch bag you get to feel like a superhero/action hero if only for a short while.
The Fitness Benefits
More importantly though, punching a punch bag is highly beneficial from a weight loss and muscle building perspective.
There are several reasons for this. For starters, punching a punch bag naturally lends itself to HIIT. HIIT is ‘High Intensity Interval Training’ which in turn is a type of training that involves alternating between periods of high intensity and periods of relatively more gentle exertion. On a treadmill, this means running at 70-100% of your maximum speed for a short period and then switching to jog at a slower pace until you can go again.
With a punch bag, you remain constantly light on your toes and bouncing around the bag. This then means that you are constantly moving. For brief periods though, you will then hit the bag with intense flourishes of blows (combos) until you are worn out. This is effectively HIIT then as you are alternating between exertion and active recovery. This type of training burns a lot more calories and improves your physical fitness quicker than ‘steady state’ cardio which is simply running on the spot.
At the same time, punching a bag also uses your fast twitch muscle fiber and in this way is a form of resistance training. If you hit a bag often, you’ll build up your shoulders, your triceps, your pecs and even your obliques. The combination of stripping away fat and toning muscle leads to some awesome Rocky 4 type physiques. As an added bonus, resistance cardio – also called ‘concurrent training’ – is also more effective when it comes to burning fat as you require extra energy to power the muscles (2). And it is protective against muscle loss.
From a self-defense perspective, punching a bag is a fantastic way to practice your punching technique which in turn makes you faster and stronger. It builds endurance too but most of all, it helps you to develop a ‘hitting mentality’. That means that when you’re cornered in a real-life self-defense situation, you’ll be much more likely to be able to fend off assailants.
In short then, punching a bag for 10 minutes with intensity is likely going to be more effective at helping you to burn fat and calories than even an extended run lasting 40 minutes. What’s more, it’s a lot more fun and it improves confidence and self-defense skills at the same time.
How to Hit a Bag Safely and Effectively
If punching a heavy bag is so fun and so good for you though, why aren’t more people doing it? The main answer to this question is that people find the idea of punching a bag intimidating when they’re in front of other people in the gym. No one wants to look like a noob! Then there’s the risk of potentially spraining a wrist, which also isn’t exactly encouraging.
There’s no need to be afraid of the punch bag though. Famously, it can’t hit back! You do though need to take some precautions and consider a few factors.
When punching a bag, you should always use gloves and/or tape. The role of these accessories is both to protect your knuckles (which can otherwise break open and start bleeding) and to support your wrist. If you hit the bag wrong and you don’t have protection, you can end up twisting your wrist and potentially breaking it or developing arthritis in the long-run.
The precise technique you use when hitting the bag is going to depend on your schooling. If you have done karate, then you will likely punch differently from someone who has done boxing. If you have done neither, then starting with boxing is a better strategy.
Nevertheless, all these different fighting styles have some commonalities when it comes to correct punching form and you should observe these to maximize power output and avoid injury.
When punching, you should be hitting with the index and middle knuckles – not the little finger. Make sure that your thumb is on the outside of your hand (otherwise it’s a quick way to break it) and tuck it up and round out of the way. The objective is to create a straight line along your wrist, elbow and shoulder so that there are no ‘weak points’.
The power from a punch comes invariably from the feet, the torque in your stomach (generated by your obliques) and from your shoulder. Punches should be delivered as though your arms were pistons – that means propelling them out quickly and then pulling them back in just as quickly. You’ll know if you’re doing this right because the bag will bend or ‘pop’ rather than swinging. If it’s swinging, then you are just pushing the bag.
While training, stand far enough away from the bag that your arms almost fully extend at the point of impact. Don’t let your joints extend fully though, or this will create an impact that can cause pain and deterioration over time.
Finally, the best practice is to throw punches with your muscles and fists relaxed but then to tense up at the moment of impact. This allows for maximum speed and power.
This all might sound like a lot to remember but keep in mind that a lot of it should come naturally. Start out light to begin with and as you get into the swing of things you should find you build confidence to start hitting harder and faster.
There are a few bad habits to try and keep in mind while punching. The first is hitting with your mouth wide open. While this doesn’t matter from a training perspective, it’s a sure fire way to lose all your teeth when you’re in the ring and can also lead to you biting your lip or tongue.
Another tip is to keep your eyes on the bag. This is important not only because it’s good practice for contest but also because it prevents you from twisting your hand.
Training with the heavy bag is all about throwing combos. This is what will allow you to really exert yourself and it’s also what wins fights. Combos mean getting in a little closer and then throwing multiple blows to try and disorient and take down the opponent. In our case, they just mean burning through as much energy as possible.
Combos are generally written in the form of numbers. Here:
1 = Left jab
2 = Right cross
3 = Left hook
4 = Right hook
5 = Left uppercut
6 = Right uppercut
B = Body shot (so 2b is a right cross to the body)
If you’re southpaw (left handed) then you switch these around so that 1 = Right jab and so on. From a training perspective it’s a good idea to swap sides from time to time to avoid uneven muscle development.
From here, you can start putting together moves. A 1-1-2 is two jabs followed by a cross, whereas 1-2-3-4 alternates from side to side. You can string together combos like 1-1-2, 1-2-3-4, 1-1-1-4 to quickly burn calories. It feels a lot like Streetfighter.
Those are the basics but the real skill and confidence will only come with practice. Give it a go, start out light and remember that it doesn’t matter what other people think in the gym!