Boxing enthusiasts sometimes marvel at how their favourite fighters can jab and punch so fast. Whether they give any thought to why some fighters' hands are faster than others' is unknown. If any reflection is made on that point, they might put it down to a combination of genetics and training.
Mostly, though, it's fighters' power punches that grab the headlines.
From Deontay Wilder's windmill punching style to George Foreman, the fighter with the hardest hit - his power punches are the stuff of legend! - everyone likes to go on about fighters' punching power. But power punching is not the real secret to boxing wins.
Speed is what matters. Not how hard you can hit but how many blows you can land.
As you likely know, few fighters stand still and let themselves be whaled on. They are constantly on the move and constantly on their guard. That means that, when you have an opening, you have to take it - quick, before you lose the chance to land the blow.
For that, you need hand speed.
That's what your Superprof boxing coaches talk with you about in this article. What is hand speed? What's the science behind it and how can understanding that help you develop your hand speed?
Where Hand Speed Originates
Here's a general biology/physiology question about human movement: where does movement originate?
Few people give any amount of thought that their brains signal their muscles to move. If you intend to walk, you simply get up and walk, right? The legs do all the work, right?
Nope, not even close. The brain must first perceive your intent to walk, process it and then, send signals to the corresponding muscles in your legs and complementary ones to your hips and core to help keep you upright and balanced.
Only once all of those physical factors, coordinated by your brain, are in place will you be able to take that first step. And it all happens exceedingly fast.
Likewise with any other movement. Whatever move you want to execute, your brain must first acknowledge the intent and then, send the right signals to make it happen. Throwing punches is no different.
Thus, hand speed in boxing starts in your head. And, as our weird, marvellous brains do, they translate your intent to the desired outcome. For instance, if you want to throw the hardest punch you can, your brain will gear your muscles to deliver the most powerful blow those fibrous masses are capable of.
Conversely, if you're going for speed, your brain would not send signals to amass power in your shoulders and biceps.
That's why, if you're building hand speed, you need to let go of any thoughts about punching hard. The dual signals - speed and power work at cross-purposes. Your brain has to sort out those mixed signals; that extra work will slow your punch down.
For things to work right in a hand speed session, you need to unclench your muscles. Stay loose, lower your shoulders, relax your biceps and loosen your fists. Take a few focusing breaths and then, try launching a few quick jabs.
Can you see and feel a difference in the way your body moves, and how much faster you punched?
The more you train, the more neural pathways your brain builds to execute this move sequence better and faster. Over time, you will develop muscle memory; upon sensing the intent, your brain will set your body up with the right conditions to make it happen without you having to mentally switch gears.
And once you get some speed on your punch, try including footwork drills into your hand speed workouts. Muscle memory is beneficial there, too.
Working the Bags
If you've spent any time in a gym, you're surely aware of at least two bags: the speed bag and the heavy bag. But do you know about the double-end bag and the reflex bag?
You might have played with a toy akin to the reflex bag when you were a child: an inflated plastic figure with a weighted bottom. When you hit it, it fell over but, thanks to its heavy base, immediately popped back into position, wobbly but ready for another hit.
The double-end bag resembles a ball with two elastic bands coming out of it on opposite sides. One elastic mounts overhead while the other anchors to the floor. It functions much the same way as the reflex bag but, thanks to its dual fastening, has less of a range of motion.
The purpose of these bags is to mimic your future opponents because they never come at you from the same place.
When the reflex bag arcs back up, it doesn't follow the same trajectory as its downward travel. Also, just as billiard and snooker balls travel according to the point of their impact with the cue stick, a reflex bag may veer to the left or right, depending on where and how you hit it.
The speed bag, reflex bag and double-bag are integral to building hand speed because all three of them react to your hits in unexpected ways.
To get familiar with them and their action, starting slow is the key. Hit the bag once and watch how it reacts - which way it travels and how it returns. This will tell you a great deal about how you hit.
As you progress through your session on each bag, modify your punches and study the bags' reactions. Over time, you will be able to predict where the bag will come back into range and position yourself to land another punch.
Learning how to anticipate your target is key to building hand speed - and winning fights.
You'd get the most benefit from private boxing lessons during this phase of your hand training because your private boxing coach will give you vital pointers you need to master this skill.
The Heavy Bag's Role in Building Hand Speed
Compared to the lithe, quick grace of the three other bags, working the heavy bag will feel clunky, but that's okay. Its purpose is not for you to build speed; it's an endurance builder.
You don't want to be called The Cheetah - the fighter who can put forth incredible bursts of hand speed but only for one round, right? So, along with building hand speed, you must also build endurance. You can do it like this...
Before you start working the bag, set a timer for three minutes - the length of a boxing round. Then, with Coach or a fellow trainee on the other side of the bag, punch for around 15 seconds, as fast as you can. Take a 15-second pause (or let the other fighter punch while you hold the bag) and then, it's your turn again.
And so on, until the buzzer signals time is up.
Punching Thin Air
Many not-in-the-know people tend to think that shadowboxing is goofy. It must be a lame form of wish fulfillment for all those hoodie-wearing, skinny lads (and lasses); maybe they're re-enacting a fight scene from their favourite video game.
Those who know the value of shadowboxing go around pretending to box invisible opponents because, among other things, it helps build up their hand speed.
With no target to aim for, no bag (or opponent) to calculate your hits against and no gloves to add resistance to your movements, you are free to punch wherever you want, as fast as you can.
With only your movements to focus on, shadowboxing is where muscle memory for boxing really takes root and forms.
In our companion article, we go much more in-depth on shadowboxing and how to make this skill-building practice work for you. You should check it out!
Over the course of your training, as you learn proper techniques and build muscle memory and endurance for boxing, you will find that you are better able to react physically to the unexpected.
Think back to your fav films about boxing: do you recall a scene wherein the fighter is striking target mitts, hitting the speed bag or working the heavy bag? Of course! Those are all standard representations of boxer training.
The bad thing is, they're predictable... and opponents in the ring are not. So, besides working on your hand speed, you have to develop your ability to react quickly.
Let's say that you're really giving the heavy bag what-for when, suddenly, you take a hit from the right. How do you react - and, more importantly: how fast can you react? You go back to work on the bag and then, you feel a hit on your left glute. Reaction? How quick?
And so the exercise goes on, with you engaged in routine work while random interruptions strike you from unanticipated directions.
In many ways, this exercise mirrors weapons training that police officers undergo, the kind where targets randomly pop up that officer trainees must make a split-second decision on whether to shoot or not, depending on the target's appearance. And, it has much the same effect in lessening reaction time.
As it's impossible to randomly surprise yourself with unexpected stimuli, you need a partner or private boxing coach for this type of work.
That's why, although you can learn boxing fundamentals at home, eventually you will have to train in a gym, with other fighters.
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