Youth, amateur or professional, core training appears in every boxer’s training program.
This may be because many perceive ‘6 pack abs’ on a fighter as an indication of good physical condition.
Therefore, the concept of a well defined mid section is desirable for many aspiring boxers.
Whilst the existence of a six pack can be representative of the boxer’s physical condition to a certain degree, it is important to avoid solely associating a strong core with defined abdominals.
In truth, core strength incorporates a range of muscle groups not just the six located between the hips and torso.
Furthermore, the importance of core function far outweighs appearance for a boxer due to the large stabilisation and rotation demands this region is subjected to in boxing.
The aim of this article, therefore, is to outline the science behind the core region for athletes and how we combine this evidence and our own observations from years of working with and assessing boxers to devise the Boxing Science core training model.
The main learning points to take from this article include:
The function of the core during dynamic athletic movements.
The role of the core in injury prevention.
Assessing core strength for boxing.
Boxing Science’s core training progression.
How to improve core function for boxing.
WHAT IS THE CORE
As eluded to in the introduction, the core, for many people is the 6 pack or, anatomically speaking, the rectus abdominis.
Anatomical literature presents the core as a broad term that encompasses muscles of the shoulders, trunk, hips and upper leg (1).
Perhaps the best and most relatable description of the core has been provided by Richardson et al. (2), suggesting that the core is similar to a double-walled cylinder or box.
In this description the paraspinals and glutes comprise the back, the abdominals as the front, the diaphragm as the roof and the hip girdle and pelvic floor musculature as the bottom.
As a more simple definition, Fig, in 2005, referred to the core as all of the anatomy between the sternum and the knees with a focus on the abdominal region, low back and hips (3).
Previous literature has also categorised core muscles as either stabilising or mobilising (4).
Stabilising muscles tend to be located deeper in the ‘core cylinder’ and are responsible for maintaining posture and the distribution and absorption of forces throughout the body whereas global muscles contribute to rapid movement, force and power (4).
Regardless of the definition that fits best for a given context, grasping the fact the core is much more than the abdominals is key for any athlete or coach, particularly those involved in boxing.
Being aware of the many muscle groups comprising the core will promote better programming and improved core function for athletic performance in the ring.
The role of the core in a given movement ultimately depends on the demands of the movement.
For some movements the core will provide a stabilising role, primarily, for others the core will be a major contributing region to the movement.
Previous authors in the field of sport science have referred to the core as both a stabiliser and force producer, dependent on the task at hand (5).
Core stability may be defined as displaying sufficient muscle activity to ensure stability of the spinal column whereas core strength refers to the ability of the core musculature to produce force through contractile forces and intra-abdominal pressure (5).
For many sporing actions, the core is a key link in the kinetic chain that transmits force from the lower body to the upper extremities (12,14).
This is perhaps the overriding function the core plays in boxing, where impactful punches require large forces to be transmitted from foot to fist.
That said, both stabilising and force producing functions are pivotal to optimising a boxer’s punch performance and movement in the ring.
STRONGER CORE HARDER PUNCH
Muscle activity analysis during the punch indicates that the core is heavily involved from initiation to contact with the intended target (6).
To initiate the punch there is an initial spike in core activation to generate sufficient tension and proximal stability, allowing the extremities to overcome the inertia associated with the start of a punch.
This has a significant impact on acceleration of the punching arm.
A second noticeable rise in core muscle activation occurs at the end range of a punch as the fist makes contact with the its intended target.
This serves to increase stiffness throughout the kinetic chain and ultimately maximise the force imparted on the object or individual (6).
A more commonly used term to describe this second peak in muscle activation is ‘Punch Snap’.
Fore more on how to target this punch snap in your strength training read here: https://boxingscience.co.uk/10-exercises-to-improve-punch-snap-for-boxing/.
This piece of research has encouraged us to base a substantial amount of our core training around tension development in this region and is the main reason why we are big proponents of overcoming isometrics for the entire kinetic chain.
Similarly, research analysing the differences in trunk rotation during single maximal and combination punches has also influenced the ways in which we develop the core for boxing (6).
This research, by Piorkowski & Colleagues, found that hook punches and uppercuts display a noticeable countermovement through the trunk and lower body and thus generate greater impact velocities compared to straight and combination punches (6).
Similarly, when throwing a straight back hand, there is evidence to suggest that trunk rotation is key to the transfer of force through the kinetic chain (8)
Based on these findings, the role of the stretch shortening cycle or the use of a pre-stretch prior to an aggressive shortening of the muscle, is a phenomenon we seek to exploit in our core training, particularly when performing explosive rotational exercises.
Before these types of exercises into a boxers program a foundational level of strength and stability is essential to maximise the training benefit from subsequent phases as well as core function in the ring.
Complete reliance on explosive strength training without this base level of strength and stability is the equivalent to firing a ‘canon out of a canoe’.
As such, our core training philosophy centres around 3 key steps:
Boxer’s will usually progress through these phases throughout a training camp, however, strength and stability of the core are constantly present in our athlete’s programs regardless of when they are scheduled to fight.
Much of the research around core strengthening and the prevention or relief of lower back pain is based on sedentary and elderly populations, therefore compromising applicability to athletic individuals (9).
That said, previous research has reported benefits of core strengthening alongside basic strength development on the incidence of lower back pain (47% less cases of lower back pain) among a group of trained athletes.
The rationale behind the use of core strengthening, in particular the abdominals, as a means of reducing strain on the spinal column is based on reinforced muscular stability around the spine and thus less load imparted on the spine during day to day activities (11).
As of yet, evidence is contradictory surrounding this rationale and there are still many questions to be answered regarding the influence of core training on injury prevention.
This is largely because injuries and the prevention of injuries can be explained, potentially, by a host of factors in most circumstances.
Despite this, we have observed benefits of incorporating core training into the program with the aim of preventing and alleviating lower back pain among our athletes which is in agreement with some of the existing research (14).
The lower back can be a sensitive and restricted area for most boxers due to a lack of posterior chain strength and a tendency to recruit the lower back musculature to extend the hips when punching.
Defensive manœuvres such as slipping i.e lateral flexion of the spine (13) and chronic exposure to the impact forces associated with road running are also likely contributors to the prevalence of lower back pain among boxers.
Finally, implementing direct core endurance training has been shown to positively alter lower body kinematics in terms of reducing the degree of knee valgus and hip adduction during a change of direction test, therefore potentially mitigating the risk of injury to the hip and knee joint (15).
Whilst the test used in this investigation is not necessarily specific to boxing, the findings demonstrate improved motor control of the hip and knee joint during a dynamic athletic task which can be beneficial for a range of athletes, including boxers.
ASSESSING CORE FUNCTION
Between rehabilitation and athletic performance publications, countless methods of assessing core function have been outlined (14, 16, 17, 18).
Though the aim of such rigorous research is well intended, it can often add to the confusion surrounding core assessment and core training.
When deciding the most appropriate core assessment to use, it is important to understand the role of the core in the athletes sport.
As described previously, the core occupies both stability and explosive force production roles for a boxer, therefore the tests we use at Boxing Science serve to assess the core’s ability to perform these roles.
CORE ENDURANCE AND STABILITY
To evaluate an athlete’s core endurance/stability we use basic isometric hold tests and record the time to fatigue.
These are similar to the assessments outlined by Mcgill (16).
The main advantage of these holds is that we can directly assess the endurance and stability of the trunk flexors, trunk extensors and lateral stabilisers of the torso.
This allows us to identify potential weaknesses within there core and provide direction for the training program.
As can be seen in the image, the athlete sets up in a sit up position at an angle of approximately 60 degrees with the hips in line with the edge of a Plyo box or bench.
The lower body is anchored to the box by a coach or training partner.
Arms crossed so the hands are resting on shoulders and the head is held in a neutral position.
Simply, the athlete is instructed to hold this position for as long as possible.
The test is terminated and the time to failure recorded when the athlete can no longer maintain the desired angle relative to the plyo box/bench.
This test is similar, in principle, to the trunk flexion assessment except the athletes are now in a prone position on the plyo box or bench.
The front of the hips are at the edge of the box or bench and the back of the legs are anchored down by a training partner or coach.
Instead of a 60 degree angle, athletes are required to maintain a 90 degree angle, relative to the floor – i.e a straight line between hips and shoulders.
Again, the upper limbs are folded across the chest and the head should be held in a neutral position.
This test requires simultaneous activation and strength of both the lumbar spine and hip extensors and is therefore reflective of the multi-muscle function of the core.
In this test, the athlete is positioned on his/her side, with hips towards the edge of the plyo box/bench.
Similar to the previously outlined assessments, the lower body is anchored to the box/bench, the arms are folded across the chest and neutral head position is maintained.
The athlete is instructed to maintain a 90 degree angle relative to the floor, displaying a straight line between the hips and shoulders.
As stated in the previous assessment for trunk extension, determining lateral flexion function in this manner encompasses endurance and stability of both the core AND hip musculature.
CORE FORCE PRODUCTION
Delivering punishing straight shots and blinding combinations requires the core top produce and transfer force in a short space of time.
Subsequently, assessing the explosive capabilities of the core should mimic this force production under time constraints as well as the transmission of force through the kinetic chain.
OVERHEAD MEDICINE BALL TOSS/THROW
Though not a direct assessment of core function, this movement has been previously validated as an assessment of full-body explosive strength and requires rapid force transfer from the lower to upper body (19).
Furthermore, the overhead medicine ball throw emphasises forceful hip extension which is a significant contributor to the punch.
The protocol for this assessment, as described by Stockbrugger and Haenel (19), involves aggressive flexion followed by extension of the ankle, knees, hips and trunk with the ball being released at the apex of the triple extension, keeping the arms as straight as possible throughout.
The distance travelled by the ball, having been released by the athlete is measured.
In terms of loading for this assessment, the general recommendations are 2-4kg for females and 3-6kg for males.
Typically, athletes will perform 3 warm up trials before 3 max effort attempts with the furthest distance achieved being recorded.
It is important to keep the weight of the med ball constant when conducting repeat assessments in order to attain an accurate comparison.
MEDICINE BALL PUNCH THROW
Our last assessment of core force production is the most specific to the punching action.
Similar to the overhead medicine ball throw, this is not necessarily a direct measure of core function but rather how efficiently forces are transferred through the kinetic chain under time constraints.
This test involves setting up in a boxing stance and throwing the medicine ball in a similar motion to that of a back hand punch.
Again, the measured variable is the distance the medicine ball travels having been explosively thrown by the athlete.
The key technical points to consider for this test are to pivot on the back foot and forcefully rotate the hips through when releasing the medicine ball.
Perform 3-5 warm up attempts before completing 3 max effort trials.
The furthest distance achieved during the three max efforts should be recorded.
TRAINING THE CORE
Once testing has been conducted and strengths and weaknesses have been identified, the next step is training the main functions of the core, progressing from stability and strength to more explosive training methods.
Our core training strategy is centred around the four main functions of the core relating to lumbar spine stability.
Hip flexion W/Neutral Spine
Having an awareness of these functions makes it easier to categorise exercises based on the core function each movement targets and ensures comprehensive development of the trunk musculature for the demands of the sport.
Once stability and strength have been established through static and dynamic exercises and the athlete has displayed sufficient resistance to external forces in from various directions, the next step is to promote dynamic force production.
At this point, it is important to begin overloading the stretch shortening cycle of the core, where the athlete must control eccentric forces, store elastic energy through the core musculature and transfer this energy to forceful concentric contractions.
Using the exercise categories above, we can make slight adjustments to these movements to target specific training adaptations.
An example would be beginning with a basic Pallof Press to improve resistance to rotational forces i.e anti-rotation.
Using the same movement pattern, we can generate more bias to strength adaptations by using a greater range of motion and adding a more noticeable eccentric component.
Progressing on, the movements may be altered to emphasise more explosive movement.
As mentioned previously, these movements attempt to overload the stretch shortening cycle using various catch and throw techniques.
Staying with the same anti-rotation movement pattern this manifest as kneeling rotational throws where both an anti-rotation and rotational force production aspect exist.
Core exercises will typically feature towards the back end of our strength sessions as part of a superset, paired with a single exercise or within a core circuit to complete the session.
To work towards strength/stability 8-10 Reps (each side for single arm/leg exercises) x 3-4 Reps set is sufficient.
If explosive force transmission through the trunk is the aim then reps are set relatively low to maintain intent and technique. Therefore, 4-6 reps (each side for rotational exercises) x 3-4 sets is most appropriate for rate of force development and explosiveness.
For more examples of the exercises we use to train the core see posts like the one below across our socials, mainly on our very own instagram page: @boxingscience
This article, so far, has been based around the direct training of the core musculature.
It must be noted, however, that a lot of the core development that occurs on our programs is achieved through exposure to heavy compound lifts and substantial amounts of intra-abdominal pressure associated with stabilising the spine under high load.
Therefore a combined approach of heavy lifting and direct core training is potentially the most optimal approach for maximising core mass among boxers.
Retaining mass when the fighter is enduring a hard weight cut is a key priority given the influence trunk mass has on punch force.
for more information on how to progress and coach athletes towards maximal strength training read this article on ‘The Road to Max Strength’: https://boxingscience.co.uk/sc-for-boxing-road-to-max-strength/.
This article has outlined what the core is and how it consists of much more than just the abdominals, the functions of the core from an injury prevention and performance perspective and the methods we use to develop the core for boxing.
The key points that can be taken from this article include:
The core is defined differently for different aspects of the exercise science sector, however, can be simply referred to as all of the anatomy between the sternum and the knees.
The core performs roles of force production and stability depending on the task at hand. Both functions are important for boxing and should be trained accordingly when aiming to optimise core function for fighters.
The Boxing Science core training progression or journey initially emphasises stability and strength before advancing to explosive-strength through the mid section.
Core exercises in our program are categorised as either anti-extension, anti-rotation, anti-lateral flexion or hip flexion with a neutral spine. Using these classifications enables us to develop both stability/strength and explosive force production functions of this region across a camp.
Whilst direct core training is important, exposing the core to high levels of tension through compound lifts should also be integrated as part of an athlete’s core development.
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