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    Photo Credit: Nicolas Smith

Fighting Cardio: Get Lean With Bag Boxing

By James Parker

Tired of repetitious cardio? Many of the problems that regular exercisers experience with their joints and muscles come from over-use of certain muscle groups without sufficient recovery. Take a second to ponder this idea: As a mixed martial arts fighter, if your joints already take a pounding while rolling around on the ground or trading punches with a teammate, you'd want to find a way to minimize the damage while still keeping your cardiovascular levels at their peak. Just as the fitness industry has learned to accept good ideas from the bodybuilding world, we should take the time to adapt some of the methods used in conditioning sport-fighters. By doing this, we not only protect our valuable joints and muscles, we also cure the boredom of relentless cardio.

So, from the world of sports-fighting, here's an exercise program that gives you all the cardiovascular training and fat burning time you need to help you build a tight, lean fighter body. This program uses a few familiar gym tools—cardio machines, heavy boxing bags—to build an interval program that will kick your butt. A couple of starting notes: You'll want to cycle this program in and out of your regular cardio schedule throughout the year so as to keep it fresh. You'll also need some form of timer or stop watch, and if possible a heart-rate monitor.

Warm-up and Stretch
Start with a minimum of five minutes moderate warm-up on a cardio machine of your choice (elliptical, bike, treadmill, rowing machine—it's up to you). You can take this up to 10 minutes if you have the time, but five will give you a good start. After your warm-up on the machine—your heart rate should be elevated, and you should be starting to sweat—get off the machine and move your upper body joints through a series of small circular motions. Move your shoulders, elbows, wrist, and neck in clockwise and counter clockwise small circles. When you are done with that, take another minute to rotate your torso, hips, and ankles through the same type of circular motions. You can also do a light, non-ballistic stretch of all your muscles, spending a small amount of time on each to loosen and prepare them.

Starting Cardio: Machine Intervals
Now the actual work begins—and that means interval training. Fighters (and many other sports athletes as well) need to be able to go all out in their muscular and cardio output at any given time during their sports performance. Interval training not only trains your body to do that, it also allows for you to do it in a shorter timeframe, while also causing your body to utilize its nutrients more efficiently.

So, get back on whatever machine you were using, or find another one to mix it up. If you have a heart monitor, you can use it; if not, make sure you pick a machine that allows you to enter in your weight and age to be able to gauge your heart rate.

To get started, pick a base level of resistance that is about half of what you would use during a moderate 30-minute cardio workout (for example, if you would bike at level 8, dial it down to 4 to achieve your base rate). As soon as you feel ready, dial up the resistance to triple your base resistance and go as hard and as fast as you safely can for 10 seconds. Keep an eye on the clock and your breathing! As soon as the clock shows 10 seconds from your start time, dial back the resistance to your base level and recover at that lighter pace for the next minute. The cycle should look like this:

Exercise Resistance Time
Sprint 3 times base rate 10 seconds
Recover Base rate 1 minute
The times stated above are a starting range for anyone not used to a routine like this. Feel free to increase the sprint times and/or decrease the recovery times as you see fit, but keep it safe. Your heart rate is a good indicator of your recovery. Take the full minute to try to bring your heart rate back to a more manageable range with minimal resistance.

Start with anywhere from four to 10 sets of cardio machine intervals, depending on your fitness level, and increase the number as you get more fit. Be honest with yourself; the last thing you want to do is over-train and get sick or hurt.

Cardio Bag Work
After you complete your four to 10 cardio intervals on the machine, move on to an even more intense form of fighter cardio: bag work.

Never used a boxing bag? Don't worry—we've got videos that show some basic moves and punch sequences. Check out Heavy Bag Boxing: Repeater Punches, Heavy Bag Boxing: Speed Alternate Gut Punches, and Heavy Bag Boxing: Squat Thrust Push-Up With Power Double Punch. Take a look at the videos and you'll be fully equipped for this workout.

Get started on the bag by doing an extended "warm-up" to get a feel for the density of the bag you're using and how hard you can safely hit it without hurting your hands, wrists, and ankles. Spend at least two minutes on this. Then, do a ten-second "sprint": Punch, kick, knee, and elbow the bag as rapidly and as hard as you can. Remember to breathe during your sprint, paying special attention to exhaling when striking. Every time you throw a strike, breathe out as you twist your torso and deliver the strike. Not only will you start to deliver stronger strikes, you'll be forced to pace yourself to catch your breath. After 10 seconds, go to your recovery phase. During your recovery, keep moving and continue striking the bag, but focus less on power and speed, and more on technique and fluidity of movement. Move with the bag if it's a free swinging bag. If not, move around it left to right and back again, simulating the ebb and flow of real combat. If you find it's too difficult to use the bag during your recovery period, start by simply shadowboxing during recovery and only using the bag for the sprints.
Exercise Interval Time
Heavy Bag Boxing Sprint 10 seconds
Light Bag Boxing or Shadowboxing Recovery 1 minute
You can adapt these exercises as needed. For example, if you want your cardio to double as site-specific muscle-training, go ahead and use each sprint for a particular muscle group. Throw only one kind of punch for the full 10 seconds, or just kick for that time.

Repeat this sprint-recovery sequence five to 10 times, depending on your fitness level. Again, how much you do depends on your fitness level.

Ideally, your program should 15 to 30 minutes of intervals (excluding warm-up and cool-down), which is anywhere from five to 10 interval cycles on machine, bag, or both. You can choose one method, or mix them up; do as much as you think you can handle, with an eye toward adding more intervals over time.

Continuing Cardio to Finish
After you've completed your intervals, you should be able to keep your heart rate in the 70 to 75 percent range needed for optimal cardiovascular training with little additional effort. Simply continuing the recovery period should keep the heart rate up after sprints.

Wrap up this workout with an extended low-heart-rate, fat-burning cardio segment on a cardio machine. Adjust the amount of activity or speed to keep your heart rate in range (if you're not wearing a monitor, you can judge your heart rate by your breathing; you should be breathing hard enough that extended talking is difficult, but not impossible). Anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes of this type of exercise is good enough for the average person without risking over-training.

Cool-Down and Stretch
At this point you can call it a day by cooling down for approximately 10 minutes or doing another 15 to 20 minutes of fat-burning cardio in the 60 to 65 percent heart rate range. Why fat burning? Theoretically, your interval training will have burned any calories you consumed pre-workout. At this stage of your routine, the body can utilize stored fat more efficiently at a lower heart rate while allowing your system a cooling-down phase to adjust from intense activity to relatively sedentary activity. So if you're really looking to get lean, it's worth the extra time.

After you complete your cool-down cardio, spend five to 10 minutes stretching the muscles you used during this workout. This will help speed recovery and keep your body limber.

Keep in mind, you can also easily make this a team venture. During your sprints, a friend can hold the bag, hold pads, or just be the timer while you work. While you recover, you can then do the same for him or her. One last word of caution: Please be honest with yourself about your fitness level and limits. Over-training not only risks derailing your continued success, but your health as well. Train hard, be safe, kick ass.

About James Parker: James Parker is a certified personal trainer, mixed martial artist, mixed martial arts conditioning coach, and freelance writer in Los Angeles, California.