How to Drastically Improve MMA Striking Skills: Part II

Co-authored with Dr. Alex Edmonds, Sports Psychologist

In Part I of “How to Drastically Improve MMA Striking Skills” we provided a rationale for the importance of shadowboxing as well as tips for incorporating it into a fighter’s training regimen employing deliberate practice to build proficiency. In this article we will explore the benefits of hitting the bag as a means of accelerating many elements critical to developing expert striking skills.

How to Drastically Improve MMA Striking Skills: Part II

Hitting the Bag

Virtually everything written in our previous article can and should be applied to hitting the heavy bag in terms of value, focus, etc. However, there are a few major benefits beyond shadow-boxing that hitting the bag can add to a fighter’s game.

Distance is a form of Precision

The first major benefit of working the bag is that the fighter will be able to learn their “distance.” Distance is critical in all combat sports. Not only do fighters work in milliseconds to strike or defend, they also work in millimeters. In other words, they seek to use precisely placed punches to garner the largest impact on their opponent while using precision defense (i.e. just enough) to efficiently avoid and counter strikes. As such, fighters must be able to effectively gauge their distance. While shadow-boxing and hitting the mitts with coaches are both powerful and necessary training tools, neither provide the frequency or accuracy to accelerate a fighter’s mastery of distance.

The issue with only shadow-boxing is there is actually no way to accurately gauge distance from the imaginary opponent. And while hitting striking targets with a coach provides many other benefits including a measure of accuracy, this training technique is still not as beneficial in terms of helping the fighters accurately learn their distance through high repetitions of hitting the bag. This is because the coach often meets the fighters punch at varying ranges as they “catch” the punches in the air given a combo called by the coach; in addition, the coaches calling of combos also limits frequency of strikes and the spontaneity that can be reinforced through hitting the bag and shadow-boxing.

The issue with only shadow-boxing is there is actually no way to accurately gauge distance from the imaginary opponent.

Precision, Power, Fluency, Endurance, and Speed

An elite striker will possess aspects of all five of these elements, and hitting the bag provides an opportunity for fighters to improve each. Precision is the ability of a fighter to place punches with pinpoint accuracy and understand his or her distance. Well-placed punches increase the impact of the strike, and specific areas of the bag can be targeted to focus eye gaze and improve accuracy.

Power is the ability of a striker to accelerate a punch using proper technique to capitalize on the full extent of their mass. For example, explosively rotating hips, pivoting on the back foot, and rotating the shoulders are all ways a fighter can maximize his or her power as they unleash their strikes. The bag is a piece of an equipment designed to take a beating, a place where fighters can safely practice unleashing their power.

Striking fluency is a combination of accuracy plus speed of responding that enables fighters to use their striking repertoire efficiently and effectively in their in the ring or cage. In other words, fighters are fluent if they are able to use their striking technique effortless and with no thought.  Like shadow-boxing, fluency is built through repetition and deliberate practice.

Striking endurance is the ability of a fighter to deliver high volumes of strikes for extended periods of times. When using the bag, fighters do not need to keep pace with their trainer. They are able to push their endurance to the limit as they progressively condition their body for a fight.

Finally, striking speed is the ability of a fighter to deliver a strike or a combination of strikes quickly. The old saying goes, power thrills, but speed skills. Using the heavy bag gives fighters the opportunity to unleash lightening combinations as a means of progressively building their fast twitch muscle fibers…the building blocks too speed and explosiveness.

Putting it all together

There are many different ways fighters can improve their striking; however, regiments lacking shadowboxing and hitting the bag may be robbing a fighter’s ability to build critical aspects of their striking through high repetition and deliberate practice. The fighter who possesses power, fluency and endurance but lacks precision and speed will be inefficient. The fighter who has precision, power and fluency but no endurance will fatigue and lose technique. The fighter who is not relaxed and comfortable throwing various combinations will put forth more effort with a diminishing return on investment. And the fighter who has not mastered his distance will land less and get hit more.

Repetition is critical to gaining proficiency in any skill. Repetitions are limited when it comes to working with a coach or sparring with a partner. However, working the bag and shadow boxing allows the fighter unlimited repetitions. Remember the great quote from Bruce Lee, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” Even here the greats recognize building up proficiency through high quality reps overtime is the key to becoming proficient. Great fighters engage in quality reps along with other aspects of training like good coaching and sparring. Shadowboxing and hitting the bag are time-tested and irreplaceable tools for efficiently and deliberately improving each aspect of striking as a means of transforming any fighter into a world champion.  The striking greats have historically incorporated these tools into their training, and you should too!