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The ONLY Way You Should Be Training the Heavy Bag is By Intervals

by Robert G. Yetman, Jr.

A fellow who’s been interested in my writings on combat fitness and self-defense training for some time, and particularly interested in my love for heavy bag workouts, was picking my brain about his training and what, if anything, he might be doing wrong. I asked him for some specifics about his regimen, and when he told me how he was training not only the heavy bag, but how he was training his cardio, more generally, I learned right away that he was making one of the biggest mistakes anyone can make: He has been training for endurance, rather than for shorter bursts of high-intensity effort.

In a self-defense situation, the need for endurance over a period of several minutes is just not there – that’s just not how a street assault plays out. Physical confrontations on the street will last a handful of seconds, but don’t let that very brief length of time fool you – during those few seconds, the combination of adrenaline and exertion required to defend yourself will likely put you in a state of oxygen deprivation…and it will be your ability to persist and keep fighting through that condition that may well prove to be the difference between escaping with your life, and some much less fortunate outcome.

Let’s talk about training the heavy bag, as an example. The fellow I referenced earlier indicated to me that his heavy bag sessions are each 45 minutes in length. That’s how he started describing them to me, and, as soon as he said that, I sensed immediately that something was wrong. I have been training the heavy bag for decades now, and there is no way (maybe it is just me) that a heavy bag session done the way I do it would ever allow me to persist for a duration of 45 minutes.

In my years as a Certified Fitness Trainer, I have been around a LOT of people who train that apparatus the wrong way. The best way to train it is to simulate real-life fighting conditions as much as possible, with maybe one or two modifications. In a real fight, will you find yourself ambling around your opponent and throwing out jabs and kicks on an irregular basis…or will you be heavily engaged, and having to fight furiously? Unquestionably, it will be the latter, so, if that is the case, then that is how you should train.

I perform several heavy bag sessions each week as a part of my overall training, but the individual sessions last no more than 15 minutes, total; as hard and as fast as I go at the bag, there is really no way that I could maintain the effort much past that point; more specifically, I will typically train in intervals of two minutes on, and 30 seconds off. That is, I will go at the back as hard as I can for two minutes, and rest for 30 seconds. After six rounds of that, I have basically sapped all of the resources I brought to the session that allow me to train at an appropriate level of quality.

Now, it is important to make a note here: it is not that I literally could not continue to punch and kick the bag after the six two-minute rounds are up…I certainly could…but I have found, given the way that I train, that the value of the training, at that point, becomes subject to a sort of diminishing returns. Again, I am not interested in endurance training, per se; I am interested in being able to maintain a high degree of effort over shorter periods of time, and so that is the endstate for which I train.

As for bag training, one of the tools you will find particularly useful is a round timer, and the one I use is a Gymboss (www.gymboss.com). Gymboss interval timers are small, relatively inexpensive interval timers that help to “clarify” the workouts for so many who want to get the most out of the time they spend training. The basic model, which should be fine for most folks, runs about $20. I have been including interval training in my various regimens for as far back as I can remember, and, for some types of training, like heavy bag for self-defense, it is really the only way to go.

This concept applies to your cardio training, more generally, as well. There is nothing wrong with jogging for a half-hour or so to build up endurance, of a kind, but you should also be sure to train any cardio in intervals, as well – that is, mixing shorter bursts of high-intensity effort with also-short periods of rest or relaxed effort. Your goal is to prepare to fight like crazy for brief periods, and all of the long, slow cardio training in the world will not prepare you for that.

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