Old School Wisdom
Dempsey’s text is a must read for anyone involved in boxing or interested in boxing training. It is always useful to learn from legendary fighters who came before us. Whether you agree with Dempsey on all topics is of lesser concern. As Bruce Lee would say, absorb what is useful and discard what is not.
As for his beliefs on training, I support many of Dempsey’s conditioning ideas. He strongly believed in using the sport as a primary means of conditioning. He considered sparring, brisk shadow boxing, and bag work to be essential conditioners. I strongly agree with these recommendations.
Below I will highlight some pertinent quotes from his original text.
In regards to sparring, Dempsey states the following:
“Although some exercises help condition and others speed improvement, there’s one all-important activity that assists both. That activity is sparring. THERE IS NO SUBSTITUTE FOR SPARRING. You must spar regularly and often…”
Dempsey continues by stating that sparring is not just a skill training activity. Sparring is also critical to conditioning.
In his words:
“Sparring not only improves your skill, but it also conditions your body for fighting by forcing your muscles to become accustomed to the violent, broken movements that distinguish fighting from any other activity…”
As for the significance of sparring, Dempsey hits the nail on the head with this particular line:
“For a beginner, at least, sparring is the most important conditioning activity.”
II. Shadow Boxing
In regards to shadow boxing, Dempsey states the following:
“Shadow-boxing is the next best exercise for the twofold purpose of conditioning and sharpening. It might be described as fighting an imaginary opponent. It is particularly helpful in developing footwork.”
Dempsey also suggests that beginners shadow box with gloves for additional conditioning benefits.
“Although most professional fighters do not use boxing gloves during their shadow work, beginners should use them. Their weight will help to develop stamina.”
Lastly, Dempsey urges fighters to shadow box at a brisk pace. Don’t just go through the motions. Challenge yourself to maintain a pace that replicates the punch output and movement of an actual bout.
“As you shadow-box, go through the same offensive and defensive movements you use in sparring. To be most valuable, your imaginary fighting should be done at top speed. Too many scrappers loaf at this work.”
III. Heavy Bag Training
In regards to heavy bag training, Dempsey emphasizes that bag work is useful for both skill development/practice as well as conditioning:
“Bag-punching is another exercise that conditions and sharpens…”
He continues to state the following:
“Work on the bags will develop all the muscles you use in punching, and it will give “tone” to them. Your chest, shoulders and arms will take on that sleek, well-rounded appearance that distinguishes the bodies of most fighters from those of ordinary chaps.”
Dempsey was also a big fan of running as a general conditioner.
“Running strengthens the legs and develops stamina. It also takes off weight…”
Dempsey also suggests that you don’t limit your running to a single style. Instead, he recommends varying the pace of your roadwork. For instance, he suggests mixing in sprints throughout your runs.
In his words:
“After you’ve become accustomed to roadwork and your feet have hardened, mix up your runs by sprinting for 100 yards, then jogging, then shadow-boxing for a few seconds, then jogging, then sprinting, etc.”
V. Jump Rope
In addition to running, Dempsey was also a big fan of rope skipping as a general conditioner and footwork developer.
In his words:
“In skipping, you do not jump with both feet at the same time; nor do you skip with a hippity-hop, like a school girl. Instead, you bounce off one foot and then off the other.”
He continues by recommending different turning styles. For instance, he mentions variations such backwards skipping and double unders.
“To make skipping interesting, you can learn to do it backward. You can learn to cross the rope forward and backward, and to make the rope go around you twice while you are in the air once.”
Dempsey also suggests using the rope to improve footwork. Don’t just skip rope in place. Instead, move around with the rope while skipping.
“You’ll be able to do footwork while skipping, and perhaps you’ll even be able to dance a jig while the rope is whirling about you.”
As for frequency, Dempsey suggests using the rope on a daily basis.
“Do at least two rounds of skipping at each workout.”
Following his discussion of rope skipping, Dempsey continues by discussing the importance of calisthenics and protective exercises to harden the midsection, develop the neck, and strengthen the hands.
Boxing Is Exercise
Anyone who has ever boxed knows that boxing is a physically demanding activity. Therefore, it’s no surprise that Dempsey believed so strongly in conditioning oneself through the sport. This work was then supplemented with basic activities such as running, rope skipping, and calisthenics. To no surprise, many boxing trainers today follow a similar approach with their fighters. Those with experience coaching the sport recognize the significance of the actual boxing training. Such work is obviously important for skill development, but also critical for conditioning.
Unfortunately, the significance of sport training is not written about enough. Boxing trainers don’t typically publish training articles. It is more common for strength and conditioning coaches to write such material. As a result, it comes as no surprise that the bulk of conditioning related material is focused towards other facets of training. If the S&C coach isn’t involved in the boxing training, he will naturally write about other topics. If he doesn’t highlight other areas, he would essentially diminish his own significance.
Boxing Comes First
Before I continue, please note that I am not here to knock the entire strength and conditioning profession. Speaking as a boxing coach with S&C experience however, I do believe certain strength coaches attempt to be too involved in the training process. Consequently, the fighter isn’t able to focus as much attention to the sport itself (i.e. sparring, mitt work, bag work, etc.). It is these activities that are most important for the skill and conditioning development of the fighter.
And again, this isn’t to say that the supplemental work isn’t relevant or important. I do believe that supplemental conditioning for a fighter can make a difference. Such work will always be secondary to the actual sport however. There have been many dominant champions both past and present who were highly conditioned fighters without any of the new-school advancements that are often touted today. Such athletes excelled by relying heavily on the sport. They sparred hard. They hit the bags hard. They hit the mitts hard. They worked through their exercises religiously. There wasn’t anything fancy in terms of equipment or programming.
In summary, I am always open to new ideas, but I am also aware that fighters have been well conditioned for many years. The best way for a boxer to get in shape is by working with the gloves on. Supplemental work can then be added in small doses. Such additions can be useful, but shouldn’t interfere or take precedence over the actual sport.
If you want to get in shape for boxing, you need to box.