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There's Nothing Like a Swift Kick To The Bag!

Heavy Bag Training for Fun, Fitness and Fighting

By Randy LaHaie

I wish I had a dollar for every person who asked me how to improve his or her self-defense skills and fight-related fitness. They want something they can do at home, by themselves and on a consistent basis. These people range from dedicated martial artists, to seminar candidates, to people just looking for a fun and functional way to tone up their body and build their confidence. One of the best solutions I have to offer is heavy bag training.

A heavy bag is a stuffed bag weighing 40 to 100 lbs. It is suspended from the ceiling so it can be punched and kicked. Properly conducted, heavy bag training can improve your self-defense ability, your health, fitness and sense of well being. However, if done improperly it can be counter productive and injurious. The goal of this article is to tell you how to use the heavy bag as a safe, effective training tool and how to avoid dangers and pitfalls of training improperly.

Benefits of Heavy Bag Training

Self-defense Qualities

Obviously, hitting a heavy bag is nothing like a real fight. However, it does develop fight-related qualities that are indispensable in personal combat. It can hone your strikes and kicks into devastating self-defense weapons.

The strikes and kicks most applicable to hitting the heavy bag are classified as "gross motor skills." Gross motor skills are simple, large muscle actions that don't deteriorate under stress. In fact, the jolt of adrenaline from the fear or anger, likely to accompany a combative situation, will enhance your performance.

Impact training contributes to a healthy "Hit Psychology." I use this term to describe people's willingness to hit and be hit in order to protect themselves. Believe it or not, many people are reluctant to defend themselves. Those who lack confidence in their ability to influence the outcome of their situation, perform poorly under stress. Proper impact training (hitting bags, pads and partners) builds striking competence and confidence that increases the effectiveness of a physical response. (Also see: "Reach Out and Punch Someone - Using Boxing Glove Training to Build Confidence and Composure in a Confrontation")

"Blitz" training, which I'll describe later in this article, can build mental tenacity. A blitz is an intense, rapid-fire barrage of strikes and kicks intended to simulate the all out aggression required during a confrontation. If you are ever thrust into a situation where you must fight for your life, you must do so with every ounce of your being. In a situation like this, your greatest enemy is your desire to give up. "Blitz" training builds both physical and mental stamina and the tenacity to keep gong until you succeed.

Note: Blitz training should not be incorporated unless you are in good health, have developed a solid conditioning base and have good striking/kicking mechanics. To do so without the preliminary groundwork is inviting injury.

Fitness Benefits of Heavy Bag Training

A good heavy bag program strengthens your cardiovascular system, tones and strengthens your muscles, burns fat, increases bone density and connective tissue resilience. Not only can you get into great shape, but you can develop functional self-defense qualities at the same time.

By repeatedly striking and kicking the bag, you activate all of the major muscles groups in your body. The arms, shoulders, waist, and leg muscles must be coordinated and conditioned. This training also builds athletic qualities such as speed, power, balance, timing, and coordination. (See the article: "Why is Every Body Always Picking On Me - Short Circuiting the Victim Selection Process" for the self-defense benefits of these qualities)

Stress Management Benefits of Heavy Bag Training

Evolution has wired our brains and our bodies for survival. At the first detection of danger, the "fight or flight response" kicks in. A host of physiological changes occur intended to prepare us to fight aggressively or run like the wind.

In a survival situation this is a good thing. However, in modern society, this same response can be activated over and over in situations that don't merit a simple solution like fighting or running away. A hectic day of deadlines, traffic jams, frustrations, and personal conflicts fires off the fight or flight response and pollutes our body with the toxic byproducts of stress.

Physical action is required to flush this "fight or flight residue" out of our bodies before it compromises our health and immune system. Vigorous exercise, such as heavy bag training, simulates the exertion needed to burn off this residue and return the mind and body to a healthier state. That's why bag work is an excellent way to manage stress. It satisfies the body's inherent need to fight.

Heavy Bag Work Is Fun!

The final benefit is that heavy bag training is fun! Crank up the stereo, imagine the bag was your worst enemy (if you have one) and blast away. You'll be dripping with sweat, huffing and puffing and feeling rejuvenated in no time!

Heavy Bag Precautions

form of exercise, if taken to extremes, can be counterproductive and risky. Heavy bag training is intended to build you up, make you strong, fit and healthy. Improperly done, it can produce the opposite results.

People who run too much get shin splints and bad knees. Impatient weight lifters strain muscles and damage joints. That doesn't make those activities bad. Over zealous exercise can be worse than none at all. Bag work is no different. If you train moderately, execute your techniques with proper form and apply some common sense, you can maximize these benefits and minimize the dangers.

Avoiding Training-related Injuries

There are two types of athletic injuries associated with physical activity: chronic and acute. Chronic injuries develop and last over an extended period. Training improperly, too intensely, or too often causes them. When your body is stressed through exercise, it must be given time to recover and rebuild itself in order to become more efficient.

When you train too hard, or rest insufficiently between workouts, you will develop overtraining injuries. People don't realize that muscles adapt faster than the connective structures that support them. Your speed and power development can quickly surpass the resilience of your bones, tendons, ligaments and joints. That translates to torn muscles, chronic joint pain, and even permanent injuries that defeat the purpose of training in the first place!

Acute injuries, like a twisted ankle, a sprained wrist or a broken bone, happen suddenly. These injuries can be minimized with good equipment, proper form and common sense. ALWAYS emphasize technique ahead of speed and power. In fact, there is no need to pound on the heavy bag as hard as you can. Focus on proper body mechanics and the speed and power will take care of themselves. Start slowly and let your speed and power build gradually. Allow your body time to adapt and become more resilient.

Avoiding Bad Heavy Bag Habits

I've seen it a million times. When you put something in front of someone to hit, his or her picture-perfect striking skills go out the window. Punches are drawn back like the wind up of a big league pitcher. Feet come off the floor. Body parts are contorted. Grunts and farts erupt as the striker's face contorts beyond recognition. He hurls himself in the general vicinity of the target, trying to give it everything he's got. He usually misses! Not a very practical skill, is it?

Here are some "bad bag habits" to avoid:

Exaggerating your movements in an attempt to hit harder

Always concentrate on "clean" and proper body mechanics when training. Don't think that sloppy movements allow you to hit harder. It only increases injuries and develops striking skills that you couldn't land if your life depended on it. When you focus exclusively on hitting hard, you forget everything else. Hit properly and the power will take care of itself.

Telegraphing your techniques

Telegraphing a punch or kick means giving obvious preparatory signals prior to throwing it. An example is cocking your fist back before throwing a punch. Because the heavy bag in an inanimate mass, it's easy to forget the importance of being able to hit your opponent without signaling your intentions.

Not protecting yourself at all times

To paraphrase the late Bruce Lee, "Bags don't hit back!" The heavy bag is a big, unresponsive target. Because of this, it's possible to develop bad habits that can carry over to sparring or fighting. Keep your hands up and protect yourself at all times. Move into range, hit the bag and then move out again. Imagine the bag is a living, breathing opponent attempting to hit you.

Pushing instead of hitting the Bag

A common mistake when hitting the bag is to follow through too deeply and push, rather than hit, it. A punch or kick accelerates from the time you initiate it until it's fully extended. The further a limb moves, the faster and the more powerful it will be. Strike the bag at a point near full extension. Penetrate the bag no more than a few inches beyond it's surface and try to generate a clean "popping" sound on impact. Take care however, never to lock out or hyper extend your joints on impact or if you miss the bag.

Holding your breath

When people exert themselves, they tend to hold their breath. This is a bad habit. First of all it reduces your endurance by starving your body of oxygen when it needs it most. Secondly, you increase thoracic pressure and can injure yourself. ("blow a nut" in layman's terms) Exhale as you strike or kick. This prevents breath holding and enhances power by tensing the muscles of your torso.

Designing a Heavy Bag Routine

It's difficult to teach physical skills in an article. Obviously, your best bet to establish a good training program is to seek the guidance of a qualified coach or instructor. However, many of you reading this article are martial art students or have taken self-defense training before.

If this is the case, you probably have the basic striking skills you need to workout on a heavy bag. If you haven't hit a heavy bag before, take your time and use your head (to think, not to hit the bag with!). Start gradually and figure it out. It's not brain surgery! Here are some suggestions to designing a heavy bag routine.

Always warm up and cool down.

Warming up improves performance and reduces injuries and post-exercise muscle soreness. Before exercising intensely, you should always work up a light sweat and engage in some basic limbering exercises to increase blood flow, your range of motion and to lubricate your joints. Jumping rope, running in place and shadow boxing for 10 to 15 minutes are excellent ways to begin a workout. (Note: don't do extensive stretching during the warm up. It can compromise joint stability and make you more susceptible to injury. Leave vigorous stretching until the end of your workout)

Cooling down at the end of your workout gradually returns your system (breathing, heart rate, etc.) to a resting state. Never finish an intense workout and then just plunk down on the couch. The cool down is a time to work on your flexibility with stretching exercises.

Structuring your workout

Basic Punches and Kicks conducive to heavy bag training include:

  • Lead punch (jab)
  • Cross (reverse punch)
  • Hook punch
  • Uppercut
  • Forearm/elbow strikes
  • Round house kick
  • Front kick
  • Back kick
  • Knee strike

Rep-based Training: Identify the basic strikes, kicks and combinations you want to train. Perform sets and reps of each. For example, execute two sets of 20 lead punches, three sets of 20 roundhouse kicks, etc. Rest long enough between sets to catch your breath and move on to the next set.

Time-based Training: Another excellent way to train is to work for a time limit or set number of rounds. For example, execute either random strikes and kicks or pre-determined combinations continuously for 2 to 3 minute rounds with 1-minute rest period in between.

Circuit Training: If you are already in good shape, consider alternating your bag work with other exercises to form a circuit. However, don't alternate with weight lifting exercises because the muscle fatigue will make you more susceptible to injury. Here is an example. Alternate 3-5 minutes of jumping rope with 3-5 minutes of bag work. Complete as many cycles as you need to get a good workout.

Blitz Training: Blitz training should be reserved for those who have establish a high level of fitness and proper striking and kicking mechanics. This training involves intense, rapid-fire barrages of strikes and kicks for a time limit (15 to 30 seconds) or a rep goal (20 to 30 repetitions of a combination). This training is as mental as it is physical.

There are significant benefits to this "stop/start" or interval-based training. You exert yourself for a brief, intense period, recover, and then exert yourself again. This training improves your ability to recover quickly, increases the efficiency of your muscular and anaerobic energy systems and elevates your metabolism (burning body fat) for several hours after your workout.

Frequency and Intensity

Heavy bag training, like other forms of exercises, stresses the body. Training too intensely can surpass the body's (joints, tendons, ligaments, muscles, nervous system) ability to recover. I recommend that heavy bag training be limited to 2 or 3 times per week. The more intensely you train, the more time off you should take between workouts. It is a good idea to alternate intense workouts with easier ones.

In terms of intensity, keep in mind that your tendons and connective tissues need more time to develop than your muscles. Therefore, the speed and power for your strikes and kicks can increase disproportionately to the development of those structures. Start your training moderately with light to medium power hits and concentrate on proper body mechanics. There is little benefit to continuously pounding the bag as hard as you can.

Required Equipment

First and foremost, you need a heavy bag and a place to hang it. Usually, the main beam in your basement will do nicely. Just screw in a heavy-duty eyehook that will support the weight of the bag. Some people buy or build a metal bracket that can be anchored into a wall to hang the bag from.

Heavy bags are made of canvass, vinyl, leather, etc. They range in size and weight from 40 to 100 lbs. The size and style you buy is a matter of personal preference and how much you are willing to spend. A decent heavy bag will run you around $100.

You will need to protect your hands with a good pair of boxing or bag gloves. Don't skimp here. Buy the best you can afford. I compare cheap gloves with jogging in inadequate running shoes. It's not worth it to save a few bucks and end up injured. I prefer a sturdy pair of 16-ounce boxing gloves for bag work. The additional padding not only protects your hands but reduces the trauma to wrist, elbow and shoulder joints. Bag gloves have less padding and therefore are harder on your hands and joints.

Many people wrap their hands for added protection with the cotton wraps that boxers use. Others feel that if you need to wrap your hands you are probably hitting too hard. Remember that the leading injury sustained in a street fight is broken hands! It is better to punch smart and accurately than just hard. I don't wrap my hands when I do bag work.

Conclusion>

I wrote this article because of enquires I've had over the years about self-directed training and how to hit the heavy bag. Bag work is one of my favorite training activities. If you are looking for an excellent, total body workout that will not only condition your body but also enhance your ability to protect it, give heavy bag training a try. Just take your time, use your common sense and have fun!


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Randy LaHaie has been studying and teaching reality-based self-defense methods for over 35 years. As a life-long martial artist, retired police officer and personal safety consultant, Randy has trained thousands of law enforcement officers, high risk professionals and private citizens.For more extensive and current self-defense advice and resources be sure to visit his blog "The Toughen Up Self-Defense Blog." by clicking here:

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Copyright @ 2011 by Randy LaHiae, Protective Strategies. All rights Reserved.