Punching bag plyometrics

By Big Lee

This is a personal story of how I created a hybrid training protocol with punching bags to strengthen weak tendons. I have some unique genetics. I am big in back and legs, but small in arms and shoulders. The net effect of this is that I am strong in some movements and weak in others. I have always had problems with my forearms. After any kind of physical work or a workout my forearms would be sore for days. This greatly affected my ability to continue work or workouts. The tendons were definitely the weak area of my forearms and slow to heal. The tendons in my forearms just did not seem to get stronger even when I trained using the usual forearm exercises. The solution to my problem came about in a most unusual manner.

I was interviewing a number of martial art schools in the area. I had a very interesting conversation with one gung fu instructor who built some innovative training equipment to train his students. He was a good teacher and the equipment obviously did perform the tasks that he designed them for. He also had some unique theories about exercise and conditioning. Although intrigued, I did not feel that this was what I wanted to do just then. So I talked to some of his students and went on to do other things.

Several months latter I was reading a book by Fred Hatfield (Dr Squat) in which he described in detail how he used plyometrics to increase strength in various lifts. I know the use of plyometrics for this purpose is very controversial. You would never catch me doing the exercises that were mentioned in the Hatfield book. They just seemed too risky. But in the middle of this material was the little gem that certain kinds of shock, particularly very short, fast jerky movements could cause an increase in tendon strength.

A light bulb came on over my head!! I immediately recalled the conversations I had at the gung fu school. Some of the punching exercises that were demonstrated for me could easily be modified to accomplish the plyometric criteria that Dr Squat had presented. And I would NOT have to do them with 700 lb deadlifts!! I have had some martial arts training and I knew just what to do. I immediately ordered a Wave punching bag. This is a punching bag with a water bladder in the center of the bag. This gives the bag weight while reducing the hardness of the bag. It is much easier on the hands that a traditional punching bag. I also ordered a good pair of leather punching gloves. When the bag arrived I filled it with water and hung it in my garage.

First a little biomechanics lesson. When a punch is delivered there are two primary functions of the arm. The first function is to transfer the force generated by the body to the target. The power of the punch is directly attributable to how much of the force generated by the body is transferred to the target. This is where form comes into play and each fighting style has their own particular method of accomplishing this task.

The second task that most people are not familiar with is to transfer the force (or shock) back to the body. This is a tremendous safety issue. How the fist strikes the target, the angle of the elbow, your stance and many other factors determine your ability to deliver a punch without injuring yourself. The ideal of course is to transfer as much as force to your opponent while experiencing as little of the shock yourself as possible. A poorly thrown punch will hurt you more than your opponent.

What this gung fu instructor had pointed out to me was that certain punching techniques created unique stresses in specific parts of the body. He used this knowledge to work out special punching and striking exercises to target areas and techniques that were lagging in his students. This helped both conditioning and motor skills. This was particularly true of the arm which was my primary interest. He had created some punching exercises that could be easily modified to fullfil the plyometrics criteria Mr Hatfield had outlined in his book.

Soooo… I put the two of these together and created my own unique punching plyometrics routine.

I will now describe what is done with the punching bag. It may be hard to visualize if you have never worked out on a heavy bag before, but it is really very easy to do. Stand in front of and slightly to one side of the heavy bag. Line one fist up vertically with the center of the bag. Push the bag gently into a slow gentle swing away from you. Follow the bag with your fist. Now pull back your fist and place it near the end of the swing. Make sure your stance is solid enough to keep from getting knocked over. What you do is brace yourself and allow the bag to bump into your hand which is attached to a totally rigid body and an almost rigid arm.

Start off really gently with this. You can easily hurt yourself if you do this very hard. Keep working with the swing and various arm, foot and body positions to develop a feel for delivering a shock to different parts of the arm.

This is not an exercise for muscles or fightng technique. It is a shocking technique. If done properly it feels like a shocking vibration or an electric shock. The total purpose is to deliver just enough shock to wake up the tendons. Don’t overdo it. A few reps to any one area is all that you will need. Just keep shifting the emphasis around to different areas. You are not going for the burn or fatigue here. Just a little “electrical” stimulation.

Wear bag gloves. Be very protective of your hands. By assuming various positions you can shock different parts of the arm, shoulder, etc. Feel free to move around to get in a good position to shock the area that you want. Experiment with different hand, palm and fist positions. Always work from a solid stance as this technique can easily floor you.

Another variation of this movement is to hit the bag lightly while it is moving into your hand with a heavy force. The whole idea is to do a lousy punch. Actually many people do this technique quite spontaneously the first time they punch a heavy bag. It is often referred to as lousy bag technique!! Remember our second biomechanical function listed above is to transfer shock. You allow the body (and arm) to absorb the shock. You direct the shock to where you want it for the express purpose of increasing tendon strength.

This technique worked very well for me. I would do about three to five minutes of the punching plyometrics two or three times a week. I felt that the forearms were getting stronger. My workouts were better. But I did not have any way to test them at a real work type of task for awhile. Several weeks later I was pressed into service at a friends house where a freezer and several large, heavy cabinets needed to be moved from a basement onto a truck and unloaded at another location. Since I owed this person a big favor I could not decline. While wrestling with these big uncooperative items I kept thinking that my forearms would ache for at least a week. The next morning my back was a little sore but for the first time in my life my forearms were not totally trashed from the stresses experienced the day before. I was very happy that my home brewed punching plyometrics did exactly what I had hoped for.

It has been almost 15 years since the above events have taken place. I have shared this technique with others and continued to experiment with it. These are some of the lessons learned to date.

Take it easy!! Remember the shock is being delivered to a small area. Any more shock than what is needed, you begin to transfer the stress to other areas. This reduces the adaptive stress to the tendon. Remember, work the tendon and nothing else. This is a hard point for some people to understand. You are working tendons. And working tendons in this manner is different than almost anything else you have ever done. If you don’t do it right, you will not get the desired results. I must say for the time and effort put into this, it has produced faster results than anything else I have ever done.

The stress must be padded and movable!! The punching bag is a perfect vehicle for this type of training. Do not try this with fixed objects or straps. These have great injury potential. The same caveat applies to any form of gym equipment or weights.

You can do punching plyometrics after your regular workouts. I have seen results from as little as one workout a week to every day. I think best results are from two to three times weekly.

You can work the biceps tendon by putting a small bag up high. Strike it with the palm (or other hand positions) towards you. Keep you head out of the way!!

You can do this technique with legs as well. You can use your regular bag or go to a special horizontal kicking bag; These are readily available from a good martial arts supplier. These are particularly good for working the hip flexors. I have set up programs for ballet dancers, sprinters and running backs by having them do high knee strikes against a heavy horizontal bag. Some chain, eyebolts, ceiling rafters, a punching or kicking bag and you are in business! The chain allows you to adjust the bag to any height.

You can use this technique for many more purposes than rehabilitation of an injury. Think about it. Where could you use a little more tendon strength? Be creative. Once you understand this technique, you can figure out many kinds of movements based on your particular needs. Just find a position that you can deliver a shocking type of movement to the target area. By moving the bags to different heights, you should be able find something that works.

Look in martial arts magazine to buy various punching bags. I am sure a web search will reveal many more sources. Don’t buy junk. Buy the good stuff. Be sure to get your hand and/or foot protectors at the same time. The foam protectors do a good job.

After your tendons are in good shape, hitting or kicking the heavy bag is an excellent warm up for your workouts. Being able to hit something hard is a very useful self defense skill. Interval training on a heavy bag is an excellent aerobic workout.

I should point out that this is an unusual technique that should be done carefully and precisely. If you have an injury, definitely get a medical opinion. This will help give you the proper information to make a sound decision.

I don’t claim that this will help all problems, but it certainly helped mine. This is an unusual technique. When people observe you doing punching bag plyometrics, they want to know what you are doing. One problem that many people (including editors and publishers) have had was trying to catagorize this technique. Is it rehab, martial arts, strength training, tendon training, etc?? I just consider it to be my home grown solution to a problem. It is unusual enough that most people won’t do it. But unusual and effective has never been a problem for me.

As for my professional credentials, I have none. I am just your typical 50 year old, eclectic, pragmatic, techno-nerd farmboy. I do business research and writing. Training and nutrition are serious hobbies of mine. I train in my garage because I can’t stand commercial gyms. I also build most of my own gym equipment.

Happy punching,
Big Lee