In the past, heavy bag training meant kicking and punching on a heavy canvas or leather horsehair stuffed bag weighting up to 100 pounds that was hung from the ceiling. As the bag aged, it became hard as a rock. The bag was usually had a large cylinder shape but sometimes it had a man shape with stuffed arms and legs. Sometimes a stuffed leather self-righting bag was used that was similar to a self-righting inflatable punching toy used by children. In modern times, the bag has a water core or inflatable chambers. Nowadays, bag training usually means kicking and punching on a self-righting water-filled WaveMaster type bag.
No matter which type of bag is used, bag training is still a primary training device for all types of kicking and punching martial arts. When used properly, heavy bag training increases strength, power, speed, and endurance and helps develop sparring skills when a sparring partner is unavailable. However, if used improperly, heavy bag training may lead to bad techniques, bad habits, or even injury.
Hitting a heavy bag is nothing like a real fight since the bag has limited movement and does not fight back, but it does help develop kicks and strikes in ways that cannot be attained any other way unless you know someone that will move around and let you kick and punch them with full power techniques for hours on end.
The movements used when kicking and striking a heavy bag help develop "gross motor skills," which are simple, large muscle actions that form the base for any technique. Impact training helps develop a "hit attitude" where a person is willing to hit and be hit. The impacts help you gauge the power of specific techniques. The impact reaction forces help increase bone density, toughen the joints, and strengthen the muscular structure of the body.
"Blitz" training on a bag is an intense, rapid-fire barrage of strikes and kicks. It helps develop physical and mental stamina and the tenacity needed to fight for your life. This type of training cannot be accomplished by any other means. Blitz training also helps simulate the burst of energy required with sparring or fighting. Sparring is not a continuous output of energy; it is a series of bursts of energy.
Our brains and bodies have evolved to ensure our survival. At the first detection of danger, the "fight or flight" response prepares our bodies to either stay and fight or run away. There are no more man-eating saber tooth tigers to worry about, but the stresses of modern life tend to trigger the same responses. When this extra energy is not released, it may lead to medical problems. Furious bag work helps release the energy and satisfies our inherent need to fight. Bag training is not all work. With some pounding music and a macho attitude, you will have fun and feel refreshed after a strenuous workout. Instead of feeling exhausted, such as after a hard run, you feel uplifted and ready to take on the world.
As stated above, proper bag training has many benefits but improper training may be detrimental. Two types of athletic injuries are associated with physical activity: chronic and acute.
Chronic injuries develop and last over an extended period. Training improperly, too intensely, or too often causes this injuries. When your body is stressed through exercise, it must be given time to recover and rebuild itself. When you train too hard or do not get sufficient rest between workouts, you may develop chronic injuries.
Acute injuries, like a twisted ankle or a broken bone, happen suddenly. These injuries may be minimized by using good equipment, proper form, and common sense. Always emphasize technique before speed and power. Start slowly and let your speed and power build gradually. Allow your body time to adapt and become more resilient to impact training.
When a student has something to hit proper technique disappears. Punches are cocked, heels come off the floor, arms flail, etc. To avoid these and other bad bag habits, avoid the following problems.
- Exaggerating movements in an attempt to hit harder. Always concentrate on "clean" and proper techniques when training. Strike a bag with the same perfect form used when performing a pattern. Exaggerated, sloppy movements do not make you to hit harder, but they do increase the chances for injury. When you focus exclusively on hitting hard, you forget everything else. Just hit properly and the power will take care of itself.
- Telegraphing techniques. Telegraphing is presenting obvious preparatory signals prior to a kick, strike, or movement that inform the opponent of your intentions, such as cocking your fist before throwing a punch or dropping your guard before your kick. Because the heavy bag does not fight back, it is easy to forget the importance of being able to hit your opponent without signaling your intentions. Do not move anything that is no involved in an attack, unless you intend it as a distracting movement.
- Dropping guard. Since the heavy bag is an unresponsive target that does not fight back, it is easy to develop bad habits that may 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 opponent attempting to hit you.
- Pushing instead of hitting. A common mistake when hitting a bag is to follow through too deeply and push, rather than hit, the bag. A punch or kick accelerates, generating speed and power, from the time you initiate it until it is fully extended, so you should strike the bag at a point near full extension. Penetrate the bag no more than two or three inches. If your technique were to miss the bag, you should be able to recover quickly and attack again without losing your guard or stability. If the bag swings wildly, you are pushing it. If you kick it, there will be a popping sound and the bag will tremble. If you push a technique and it misses the bag, you may hyper extend a joint and injury it.
- Missing the bag. If you miss the bag with a proper linear technique, there will be no problem. If come up short with a circulate technique, there will be no problem. If you are too long with a circular technique, you may receive a serious injury. For example, a round kick that is so deep that the knee hits the bag or a spinning back fist that is too long and the elbow hits the bag. The result is a seriously hyper extended joint.
- Bending the wrist. Keep the wrist locked for all hand techniques. If it is even slightly bent, it may collapse resulting in a serious sprain.
- Holding breath. When people exert themselves, they tend to hold their breath. Watch people when they pick up something heavy. They take a deep breath, hold it, grunt, and lift. This reduces endurance by starving your body of oxygen when it needs it most and it may increase thoracic pressure enough to cause a blood vessel to rupture in a vital area. Exhale or kiai as you strike or kick to prevent breath holding and to enhance power by tensing the torso muscles.
- Do not kill the bag. Trying to hit the bag too hard over-stresses the body and destroys the mechanics of the skills you are trying to develop. In addition to increasing the potential for injury, your strikes and kicks become slow, sloppy, and off balanced.
- Do not get sloppy. Do it Right! Keep it Tight! Focus on staying relaxed, hitting with fast, powerful, technically perfect techniques. Always work on strikes and kicks that start from and return to a solid guard position. Sloppy bag work results in bad habits that will hinder rather than help your sparring.
- Do not over train on one apparatus. Supplement your heavy bag training with training on focus mitts and Thai pads. The only problem with these items is that you need a training partner to hold them. With the heavy bag, you may work alone. Focus mitts are flat, heavily cushioned pads with a glove on the back. The partner wears the pads to provide moving targets for you to use to develop punching speed and precision. Thai pads are large pads that the partner wears on the forearms provide moving targets for strikes and kicks. Working the pads is similar to working on a heavy bag that can think and move. The advantage of this equipment is that there is less resistance on impact and therefore less strain on the body from striking them. They also allow a wide variety of training drills that help develop timing, distance, movement, and accuracy.
Bag Training Equipment
First, you need a heavy bag. Canvas, leather, or vinyl bags may be purchased or constructed. Most commercial heavy bags are stuffed with shredded cloth that will settle over time making the bottom section of the bag very hard. I have found the best bag is to buy an unfilled bag with smooth sides with no heavy stitching or support straps down the sides (these may injure an unprotected hand or foot). Then find some loose cotton (it will take a lot of cotton). I filled my bag with cotton removed from old mattresses. The compressed cotton is very firm but will absorb blows. The cotton will never settle or develop hard areas. I have bag that is over 30 years old and is just as springy as in the beginning. Hanging heavy bags are best, but when there is not a suitable area to hang one, Wave Master bags or other types of rebound bags may be used.
For a hanging bag, you need a place to hang it. The bags are heavy so they must be hung properly and have plenty of room to swing freely in all directions. There should be enough room all around the bag for you to move and kick with ease. To hang from a ceiling, the bag must be hung from a rafter or some sort of bracket that spans two rafters. Metal brackets may be made or bought to hang a bag from a wall. Frames that sit on the floor are useless, they are not strong enough, the frame flexes too much, and the frame moves around the floor.
Feet do not need any protection but the hands should be protected. Boxing gloves are okay but they are heavy, offer too much padding, and do not allow all hand position to be used. The extra padding does help protect the joints from the jolts of punches but the feeling of that jolt is part of the bag training experience. Normal sparring gloves may be used, but they will quickly tear and wear out. Good leather bag gloves are best. They permit all hand techniques, protect the entire hand, have extra padding over the knuckles, and have a metal palm grip bar that permits a solid fist to be formed that is resistant to injury.
Hand wraps add extra protection over the knuckles and help support the bones in the hand. The first place to wear out on bag gloves is the area over the knuckles. Hand wraps help delay this wear. The leading injury sustained in a real fight is broken hands so it is best to toughen the hands to impact punching as much as is practicable. Using no wrap is best, but you can also lightly wrap the hand and then wrap the excess around the wrist.
Bag drills are limited by the number of bags available and the number of students in the class. With a limited number of bags, training is usually done with one student hitting the bag repeatedly for a set period of time or letting the students form a line and take turns striking the bag with one or more strikes per turn. The following are some other drills to use on a heavy bag:
- Two students face each other on opposing sides of the bag. At the instructors command, they both begin kicking with right leg roundhouse kicks until the instructor's command to stop. The students should kick as quickly as possible while staying synchronized. Repeat with the other leg.
- Same as previous drill except students use footwork to move 90 degrees to their right after each kick. The partners must work to synchronize their kicks as well as their footwork.
- Three or four students surround the bag. At the instructor's command, all begin throwing combination punches. As the bag begins to swing, each student will have to work to hit the moving bag while remembering to evade it when it swings toward them.
- Two to four students surround the bag. At the instructor's command, they begin the following combination: right punch, left punch, right punch, left punch, and right palm strike. The punches should be done as quickly as possible and the palm strike should be done with maximum power. The group continues without stopping until the instructor's command.
- One student faces the bag for striking and the other holds the bag. The student holding the bag controls the pace by moving the bag forward, backward, side to side, or swinging it at the attacking student. The attacking student must adjust to these movements and try to strike the bag continuously. The holder may also move around the bag, forcing the attacker to use footwork to follow him. The attacker should always try to stay directly opposite the holder.
Bag Training Session
If you have not received instruction in proper punching and kicking techniques, do not train on a heavy bag until you do receive it. If you have the proper instruction, start bag training gradually.
- Always warm up. Warming up improves performance and reduces injuries and post-exercise muscle soreness. Before exercising intensely, always work up a light sweat, such as by jumping rope or shadow boxing for a few minutes, and engage in some basic stretching exercises. Do not do extensive stretching during the warm up. It can compromise joint stability and make you more susceptible to injury. Wait until the cool-down.
- Always cool down. Cooling down at the end of your workout gradually returns your system (breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, etc.) to a resting state. Never finish an intense workout and then just sit down to rest. The cool-down is the time to do intense stretching exercises.
- Routine. Practically all Taekwondo techniques may be used on a heavy bag. Vary the techniques used, the side of the body used, and the order of the techniques.
- Rep-Based Training. Perform sets and repetitions of specific kicks or strikes. Rest long enough between sets to catch your breath and move on to the next set.
- Time-Based Training. Work for a time limit or set number of rounds.
- Circuit Training. Combine bag work into a circuit routine, such as rotating between using bag work, light weight lifting, jumping rope, set-ups, etc.
- Blitz Training. Use intense, rapid-fire barrages of strikes and kicks for 15 to 30 seconds. Perform as many sets as possible.
Heavy bag training, like other forms of exercise, stresses the body. Training too intensely may exceed the body's ability to recover. Only train a maximum of every other day. The more intensely you train, the more time off you should take between workouts.
In terms of intensity, remember that tendons and connective tissues need more time to develop than muscles. Therefore, the speed and power of strikes and kicks may develop faster than the body's structure is able to handle. Start with light to medium power and concentrate on proper body mechanics, and then gradually increase power. There is little benefit to continuously pounding the bag as hard as you can.
The length (time) of each workout is linked to the frequency and intensity. If one factor (frequency, intensity, or time) changes, the other factor may need to be changed to compensate.