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In Random Training Notes 16: Heavy Bag Tips, I mentioned the importance of regular feedback from hitting bags etc. in the fighting artist’s training regimen. As important as hitting is, it cane be over done. And without stretching and conditioning, excessive bag work can lead to muscular imbalances that in turn lead to avoidable injuries and performance impairments. So what should a practitioner of a fighting art or combat sport do to stay balanced?

Stretches For Strikers

Regular stretching for the prime movers, synergists, stabilizers and antagonists involved in punching  is vital, especially during periods of intense striking work on bags or pads. This is not an exhaustive list, but it covers the muscles that are most prone to interfering with punching dynamics. If you do frequent, intense bag work, consider including 1-2 week recovery periods of very light or no bag work into your training routine. Corrective exercise and self myofascial release are also recommended to provide the optimal length/tension relationships for the muscles and promote efficient recruitment patterns. Hold each stretch for 20-30 seconds, repeat x 2 times per day, especially after hitting bags/pads/makiwara. This list is loosely organized from smaller muscles to larger:
  1. Avoid extensive stretching immediately before engaging in heavy striking work. A light pendulum stretch can activate the rotator cuff muscles and mobilize the superior thoracic outlet and sub-acromial space, which may be tight from training/fighting in a “hunched” posture.
  2. Subscapularis: Shoulder internal rotator. There are also ways of performing this using a stick or towel for assistance, but starting out in the lying position makes it easier to monitor the head of the humerus (upper arm) to ensure that it is not rotating forward.
  3. Teres Minor and Infraspinatus. Shoulder external rotators. Notice that she is not forcing her arm down. If the head of the humerus wants to bulge forward and the shoulder up off of the table, don’t push it past this point.
  4. Rhomboids: Retract and elevate scapula.  These may lengthened and inhibited from the forward shoulder “hunched” posture common to fighting and training.-Pectorals : Flex, internally rotate and adduct shoulder arm at shoulder, pec minor specifically pulls the scapula forward and down. Do one at a time, avoid the double arm “hanging” doorway stretch.
  5. Levator Scapulae: Scapular elevator and medial rotator,  neck rotator and lateral flexor. This muscle attaches the cervical vertebrae to the upper medial aspect of the scapula. The upwardly rotated, “hunched” position that many fighters adopt during bag work and fighting can shorten and tighten this muscle.
  6. Triceps: Extends forearm. This muscle is heavily used in straight-arm punches and strikes.
  7. Biceps: Flexes and supinates forearm. Used heavily in hooks and uppercuts, as well on the return to guard from a strike.
  8. Upper Trapezius: Assist in elevation and retraction of scapulae. This region of the trapezius may be tight from forward shoulder “hunched” posture common to fighting and training.
  9. Latissimus: connects the humerus to the thoracic spine, adducts, extends and internally rotates arm at shoulder. These are often tight in people who kick a lot or engage in excessive “air punching.”  Hint: if you can’t do a squat with the arms stretched overhead and keep the hands in line with your ears, or can’t help but fold at the waist as opposed to the hips, the lats need serious stretching attention.

Relevant surface muscles of the back and chest

Deeper relevant muscular anatomy
Deeper muscle layers, rotator cuff muscles and tendons
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  • Move the bag where you want it to go, don’t stay flat-footed or let it move you
  • Hit it as it approaches and as it moves away
  • Karate etc. folks: forget the stances and think about mobility, forget the pull back unless there is something to actually grab
  • Work the bag at different ranges and heights. Think about 3-5 strike combinations that move up and down the bag at face and torso heights
  • Explore close range hooks, uppercuts, elbows and knees. Your vocabulary can include more than straight punches or swings
  • Avoid throwing swings- get close enough for hooks to stay tight, or be far enough that you can extend the arm 3/4 before impact
  • Explore hitting the bag at non-optimal ranges and angles to simulate non-optimal conditions
  • After each strike return to a guard that allows you to protect your face. Be watchful of the tendency to drop the hands after strikes
  • Strike ballistically. Let the shoulders move faster than the hips. Motivate the strike from the shoulder, don’t tie it to the slower movement of the torso
  • When going for impact, a higher-pitched ‘smack’ is a good sign, dull thuds are a sign of lower velocity
  • Follow through is important, but do not adopt the habit of pushing into the bag
  • A good round kick should fold the bag, not just bump into it
  • Front kicks may land with more force if you use the heel instead of the ball of the foot
  • If you train with a group that questions the need to ever hit things, spend some time hitting the bag and see how you do. All the air-punching in the world doesn’t do much for teaching one how to hit hard. Somewhere along the way this became a controversial idea in some circles
  • If you train on the bag hard and heavy quite frequently, consider giving your arms and shoulders a break by incorporating 1-2 week recovery periods and investing time into regular stretching for the pectorals, biceps, triceps, lats, trapezius, rhomboids and rotator cuff muscles

Related posts and info:

Getting More Out of Your Heavy Bag

Power Hitting Training Tips

Rotator Cuff Injury Prevention Tips

When training combinations on a heavy bag or pad, or working combos in sparring, pay close attention to what your hands and arms do immediately following and between strikes. A few tendencies are very common:

  • dropping the hand to waist height in between strikes with a bent elbow
  • pulling the hands all the way past the lateral line behind the body
  • letting the entire arm hang straight at the waist

These are common habits, especially among people who are new to training, bag work or successive sparring. People who train in arts that emphasize a “pullback” motion in tandem with every strike are especially prone to it, and it’s a habit that should be discouraged. I understand the utility of a pullback to create a force-couple with the target, but it is absolutely useless unless something is actually being grasped and pulled back- keep the other hand near your face, where it can serve a purpose (keeping your face from being rearranged).

Ideally, you want to train in the habit of returning the hands to a guard that covers the face following each strike. I prefer a higher guard, but the happy medium between people’s personal preferences is one that places the hands someplace between the chin and temple. If this is something that you or a student has a hard time doing, try the following strategies:

  • Adopt the habit of keeping your thumbs or palms in contact with your temples. You may not prefer a guard that is quite this high, but the tactile feedback of the thumb contact often works better than repeated verbal coaching about the location of the hands. Once you begin returning naturally to this position, thumb/skin contact with the temples is no longer necessary.
  • Put your bag near a mirror (or a mirror near your bag) so that you can watch what your hands do.
  • Ask a trusted training partner to slap you lightly in the face when your hands drop during a drill. Touching may get the idea across, but a few light slaps will provide quite a bit more motivation to keep your guard up between strikes.
  • Take a resistance cable or band with moderate tension and wrap it across your upper back, in line with the shoulders. Grasp the handles at roughly chin height. As you strike the bag (lightly) the cable will produce higher tension, providing an external motivation to return them to your face as opposed to dropping. Don’t let the tension cause your elbows to flare too wide from the body.

Absolutely beautiful- accurate, fluid,  fast, changing ranges and targets and in control of the bag the whole time. This is a guy who knows what he wants to do and has invested the time into getting there. We’re not all pro boxers but that’s no reason not to approach bag work with the same intent:


"Try to see yourself as you truly are and try to adopt what is meritorious in the work of others. As a karateka you will of course often watch others practice. When you do and you see strong points in the performance of others, try to incorporate them into your own technique. At the same time, if the trainee you are watching seems to be doing less than his best ask yourself whether you too may not be failing to practice with diligence. Each of us has good qualities and bad; the wise man seeks to emulate the good he perceives in others and avoid the bad."
Funakoshi Gichin

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