Muscle Mass & Boxing

Muscle Mass & Boxing

Combat Sports, Training 0 Comment

Hey Warriors,

I watched AJ vs Klitschko last weekend. What a fight! At one point or another, both fighters hit the canvas. They had their chin, fitness and grit tested in an epic 11 round battle that ended with a superb knock out by Anthony Joshua.

I had a thought during the fight regarding strength training functionality. AJ, a gold medal winning Olympian and the title holder of the IBF Title at the heavy weight division, dug in for a killer blitz. He hit Klitschko to the ground and further capitalized on the dazzled Ukrainian when he stood back up.

But then, was AJ gassed?

Admittedly, Klitschko did manage to retaliate by landing bombs. AJ was rocked! However, I can’t help but to feel that AJ tired himself out after the upbeat attack he dished out. However, after all the hard work in the gym, should that happen to a pro athlete of AJ’s calibre?

Boxers need mass. All combat athletes do. Mass acts as armour. Deltoids, a solid chest and a killer set of abs are critical for shock absorption. Muscle mass provides more storage for glycogen which is essential for anaerobic activity such as lifting weights, sprinting or punching the living day lights out of the other fighter. Also, let’s not forget about the substantial weight advantage that a boxer can gain by getting bulked.

However, mass comes at a price if the athlete does not prioritize strength and power into his training. Here’s a few considerations.

  1. Hypertrophy (increase in muscle fibre size) has no direct correlation to strength. This is due to the higher repetition ranges needed for adequate hypertrophy results.
  2. Mass is misleading. 60% of the muscle is made up of fibrous casing that is designed to protect the contractile element that creates movement.
  3. Point 2 is important. Muscle mass is additional weight that needs to be supported. If the fighter is worn down by the mass, it could be detrimental.
  4. The additional mass can also contribute to a lack of speed.

Now, I’m not suggesting that any boxer tries to lose size. This will be daft. However, I would suggest placing specific interventions in place…

Speed is the Product of Speed

I don’t want to spend too much time on this topic as the concept is very simple. To stimulate the nervous system in a manner that leads to rapid muscle contractions, the athlete must train fast.

Although this can be highly thought out whilst lifting barbells, dumbbells and kettlebells, boxers can benefit from rotational work with medicine balls and plyometrics. This will not only aid in speed but the boxer can become far more reactive.

Supporting Your Bodyweight is Crucial

To prime the nervous system and the skeletal muscles to support the weight of the body is something that can be added to the for mentioned Tabata protocol. There are a few exercises that I believe should come into play during any athlete training year, if the athlete has not sustained an injury.

Push Ups are a phenomenal part of the development tool box. All Push Up variations are compound exercises but their ability to activate the serratus is second to none. This is particularly important for boxers who often sustain shoulder injuries. The serratus needs to be strong to support the shoulder blade. Developing the serratus also makes holding a guard less fatiguing.

Pull Ups and its many variations are used generously in my programs as a pillar of upper body strengthening. Pull Ups are also handy for decompressing the spine. Back health must be considered as a part of any prehabilitation protocol, boxer or not.

You may be able to squat heavy on 2 legs but if you cannot single leg squat, you are not strong. Rear leg elevated split squats, pistols and lateral lunges are all added to a training program for great development of the adductors, glutes and Lateral Vastralis.  I like to pay particularly close attention to the Lateral Vastralis in any sport that requires lateral movement. This is because it’s essential to develop this muscle for the prevention of knee injuries or to improve deceleration.

What is Considered “Strong”?

Let’s be honest. When Eddy Hall Deadlifted 500kg’s, we were freaking impressed. However, we would not have been so impressed if he weighted 500kg’s himself.

Here’s some criteria for the elite…

  • Deadlift at 200% of your bodyweight
  • Front Squat at 150% of your body weight
  • Bench Press at 120% of your body weight
  • Rear Leg Elevated Split Squat at 75% of your body weight

If you manage any of the above, you are strong in that lift. If you many all the above, you are strong, full stop!

Mixing and Matching Mass and Strength

In the world of Strength and Conditioning, repetitions are everything. I would argue that great repetition allocation is more essential than volume. After all, 10 sets of 30 repetitions will never get you strong.

To be strong, the repetition range must not exceed 5. However, muscle mass development is accelerated in the higher repetition ranges.

I have designed a protocol that is based on the Power of 10 protocol that has been brought to life by Pavel Tsatsuline and Dan John.

For any mighty compound exercise that requires heavy action of the lower and upper body, exceeding 10 repetitions with a weight of 75% of your 1 repetition max can lead to technical failure. So, what are the exercises involved and what are the ideal set and repetition ranges for these exercises?

Deadlifts, Cleans and Snatches are all subject to the power of 10. However, due to the technical demand of the Cleans and Snatches, I would not recommend using them for my protocol which is an extension of the Power of 10. Therefore, we will focus on the Deadlift.

10 repetitions of resistance that exceeds 75% of your 1 repetition max, should be divided into sets. My favourite allocation is 5 repetitions at 75% of 1RM, 3 repetitions of 80% of 1RM & 2 repetitions at 85% of 1RM. Some athletes even choose to complete 2 sets of 1 rep with 90% of their 1 repetition max for 2 sets instead of the final set of 2 repetitions.

From there, we have my “hypertrophy extension.”

The hypertrophy extension involves dropping the weight to 60% of your 1 repetition max. From there, the athlete lifts this weight at a very slow speed until he can no longer maintain good technique.

***NOTE: I’m not a big believer in counting tempo. I want my athletes to remain present on the lift itself and counting can hinder that. Therefore, just perform slow repetitions whilst heavily focusing on technique. This hypertrophy protocol does not require competition with yourself. You just want to get that mighty burn! ***

Endurance Leads to Never Ending Fight Power

A boxer should do no more than 20 minutes of continuous cardiovascular activity. Furthermore, the boxer must only work at a conversational speed during this type of work. The boxer must learn to remain explosive as he boosts his endurance.

Over my years as a coach and based on many pieces of literature, I have found that the mega popular Tabata protocol is the ultimate way of sky rocketing endurance.

If you don’t know it already, Tabata involves 20 seconds of explosive activity such as shuttle sprints, kb swings, mountain climbers or any sickening activity of your choice, followed by 10 seconds of rest. This is repeated for 8 bouts.

A boxer can benefit from 3 sessions per week. The beauty of Tabata is that it can be placed after a strength training workout as it only takes 4 minutes to complete.

What Would a Program Look Like?


Okay, so not that have the ingredients, let’s establish the method. Below is an example of a gym session that a boxer may use during a training camp for a fight. The session is based on the development of the posterior chain. This is pretty much the muscles around the back of the body. However, boxers in the lower weight division will probably drop the “hypertrophy extension” for the last 4 weeks leading up to the fight.

Warming Up

I am a massive advocate for using deep squats as a part of warming up for Dead Lifts. After a brisk, 4-minute walk on a treadmill at an incline of 2%, perform 20 deep squats whilst remaining very strict with your posture. To help with this, a single dumbbell may be used. By holding one end of the dumbbell against the chest, the athlete will know that his position is off when the other end of the dumbbell rocks away from his body.

Stretches that open the posture is very beneficial. The “No More Money” drill is a particularly good exercise that involves the athlete wedging his elbows tight against the rib cage and stretching his upwards facing hands as far sideways as possible. 20 repetitions should do the trick.


I love box jumps. Box jumps can aid in developing deceleration abilities as well as power. This is because the athlete must stick the landing on the box to master the technique. I believe in keeping the repetitions particularly low. I’ve found that athletes keep their technique well at 3 sets of 8 repetitions on this exercise. More common plyometric protocols ask for 3 sets of 10 but I see not benefit in the extra 2 repetitions. In fact, I see them as a pointless hindrance.

Power of 10 with the Hypertrophy Extension

Dead Lifts are great for this protocol. However, some taller athletes struggle with this lift as their femurs are too long. Therefore, the Sumo Dead Lift is ideal. Read the bullet points below for the full protocol…

  • Set 1: Reinforce the Dead Lift technique with a free bar. Perform 12 controlled repetitions.
  • Set 2: Load the bar up to 75% of your 1 repetition max. Perform 5 repetitions. From there, take a break of at least 2 minutes.
  • Set 3: Load the bar up to 80% of your 1 repetition max. Perform 3 repetitions. From there take a break of at least 2 minutes.
  • Set 4: Load the bar up to 85% of your 1 repetition max. Perform 2 repetitions. From there take a 1 minute break. Take no longer than 1 minute as we are not going to implement the hypertrophy extension.
  • Set 5: De-load the bar to 60% of your 1 repetition max. Perform as many repetition as you can at a slow and controlled speed. Do not exceed the point of technical failure.

***NOTE: Technical failure is when you lose your posture of any other element of your technique. This is NOT the same as muscular failure. Muscular failure is when you can’t lift another repetition, poor technique or not. I am not a fan of muscular failure as it does not benefit the athlete more but it can cause serious injury.

Body Weight Work

With the plyometrics and low repetition ranges, we can argue that we have already used our key methods for power and strength development. In this session, the next stage would be 3 sets of Pull Ups for 8 repetitions. There should be a 1 minute rest between sets but no more. Weaker athlete may wish to try 5 repetitions but should aim for 8 long term.


This will be murder after the workout you’ve just had but I promise you, it will level you up!

Perform 8 sets of 20 second bouts with a 10 second rest between sets. In other words, 4 minutes of intense hell!

I like the spin bike for this protocol but after deadlifts where the hamstrings are already feeling venerable, I prefer to use an exercise that requires the full range of the tissue. Therefore, the rowing machine or sprints will be a much better option.

Finishing the Workout

After the intense workout, it is essential that you perform light cardiovascular work for 4 minutes and perform a full body stretch. I am also a fan of post-workout meditation as it helps athletes to lower their breathing rate back down to normal. The athlete will also learn a valuable skill.


As a closing note, this workout will be highly intense for anyone wishing to use it all year round. Ensure that you practice a well thought out periodization protocol.

Also, I hope you learnt from this essay that muscle mass does not mean a decrease in performance. In fact, it will improve performance when it is developed well. Don’t be toxic with misinformed opinions. Educate yourself well and be a combat athlete in the 21st century!


Leave a comment

Back to Top