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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
  • 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

Sometimes just kicking and hitting the old heavy bag gets a little boring. It is kind of nice to do something else with it from time to time. Here are a couple of ideas.

  1. Pick the heavy bag up on your shoulders, run a few steps and throw it hard on the ground. You get to work on your balance, you get to practice hard throws without breaking your training partners, and it breaks up all the hard bits where the stuffing has gotten packed together.
  2. Draw circles on the bag with chalk, try to quickly kick and hit the circles in some kind of order.
  3. Tie a rope or belt to the chain at the top and practice pulling the bag in and meeting it with punches, elbows, knees, and kicks. The other advantage of this one is that it gives you a reason to have a belt in the first place.  Here are a couple of pics:

Bag and Belt

Belt and Bag 2

Working the bag and belt.

Nothing like 8″ of snow and 10 degree winds to hamper outdoor training…which is why there’s hot tea and karate DVD’s.

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The heavy bag, on a sunny afternoon.

The heavy bag, on a sunny afternoon, before reading Bob's Power Hitting post... (it seemed cruel to show the "after reading" pictures.)


"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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