‘I went boxing twice a week for a month, here’s what happened’

boxing training
‘I went boxing twice a week for a month'Hearst Owned

Aware of its high-intensity nature and heavy emphasis on conditioning, boxing is a type of exercise that, until four weeks ago, I felt fortunate I’d been able to swerve in my seven years as a health and fitness writer. Similarly to jury service, I was grateful not to have been summoned, since it felt so far out of my comfort zone. And then, I was.

When Women’s Health’s Fitness Director Bridie Wilkins asked me to try boxing twice a week for a month (not so much of a summoning as a friendly and encouraging request, truthfully) I made a mental list of all the reasons I should avoid, before eventually concluding: why the hell not?

I’ve been strength training consistently for nearly a decade, and enjoy an exercise schedule that features everything from skipping and tennis to hiking and yoga. High-intensity training (HIIT), however, isn’t typically my cup of tea. Whether it’s the occasional post-workout migraines I experience or the general discomfort of maintaining near maximal energy for the duration of a session, my instinct is to steer clear of anything involving high-intensity intervals where I can’t personally dictate the pace and rest periods. Boxing, I knew, would therefore be a big challenge – in more ways than one.

What is boxing?

‘Boxing is a high-intensity, full-body workout that involves striking,’ says Casey Hewitt, master trainer at Virgin Active and the coach who led my first class. Not all classes follow the same format; depending where you go, you may be working with a punch bag or with focus pads and shields, Hewitt tells me. The classes I attended utilised the latter.

‘If you have never tried boxing before, expect to learn some movement patterns and coordination that will seem very unfamiliar to you to begin with,’ says Hewitt. ‘You can expect to have fun working to understand how your body moves with each combination, as well as a very intense, predominantly aerobic workout.’

The core elements of a class tend to include the basics, such as correct stance, guard and foot positioning. Plus, you’ll be taught all of the basic punches, as well as some basic defensive movements such as slips and rolls. Here’s all you need to know about the standard punch types, and defensive moves.

The Straights

Jabs and crosses are both considered ‘straight’ punches.

‘The Jab is the first punch which is from the front hand, and is designed to punch in a straight line without hip movement,’ says Cathy Brown, ex professional boxer and boxing coach at Third Space London. ‘It's used for measuring range and setting up power shots.’

The Cross, Brown says, is always off the back hand and is a power shot. ‘The hand and arm positioning in The Cross is the same as The Jab but it’s a power shot so as you rotate through your hips, it’s designed to punch in a straight line.’

Form tip: ‘Ensure that your hands are coming back into your guard between each shot, and you aren’t flaring your elbows out wide – keep it tight,’ says Hewitt.

The Hooks

The Hook can be thrown from the front or back hand, Brown explains, and is designed to target the head/body. ‘As with The Cross, The Hook is a power shot as your hips are used once the punch has connected.’

Form tip: ‘Make sure you are using your hips to generate the power in your hooks,’ Hewitt says. ‘Try to keep your elbow in line with your wrist to prevent injury and maximise the amount of power you punch with.’

The Uppercuts

‘The Uppercut can be thrown from the front or back hand and is designed for going under the chin or to the body,’ says Brown. This is also a power shot, as you recruit your hips for the move.

Form tip: ‘Try not to let your elbows move behind you, if they do, then your hands will drop down from your face, which you never want,’ Hewitt emphasises. ‘Again, aim to use your lower body and turn your hips into your punches to generate power.’

The defensive moves

There are three defensive moves, known as blocks, for blocking punches to your head and body (though, to clarify, no one’s punching you in a fitness class!).

‘The Slip is simply a head movement to avoid a punch, begin an uppercut or begin the roll,’ says Brown. ‘The Roll is where you bend your knees and go underneath a punch. The Parry is when you catch a punch as it’s coming towards you and deflect it.’

What are the benefits of boxing?

1.It’s a full-body workout

boxing training
Boxing is a full-body workoutHearst Owned

‘Boxing targets the whole body,’ says Hewitt. ‘While a lot of people will feel the effects of holding their hands up in their shoulders, a lot of people experience DOMS in their legs too (if you’re doing it correctly, this is a good thing!).’

This I can attest to. Typically a day two DOMS girl, I made the mistake of thinking I had got away without the post-workout aches when I managed to get out of bed sans struggle the morning after my first class. Alas, they came for me the day after – and in what felt like every muscle on my body.

2. It improves cardiovascular fitness

‘Did you know that in some bouts, up to 77% of your energy production comes from the aerobic system?’ Hewitt asks. I didn’t, actually. Aerobic and anaerobic refer to two different energy systems in the body – specifically, how cells produce energy.

The former produces energy with oxygen, and tends to involve exercise that has a duration in excess of two minutes. Walking, cycling and jogging – all steady-state activities – utilise the aerobic system. The latter, the anaerobic system, produces energy without oxygen for short bursts of high-intensity activity.

Boxing recruits both energy systems – good news for anyone looking to boost all-round health. As for which is favourable for improving cardiovascular health? Research published in the World Journal of Cardiology, says the jury’s out, but emphasises that both ‘have unique and collective positive correlations towards improved cardiovascular health’.

3. It improves stability

A study published in BMC Neurology explored the use of boxing therapy for people with Parkinson’s Disease. 98 participants underwent a training plan featuring twice weekly boxing sessions, resulting in an 87% decrease in the average number of self-reported falls per month per participant. It’s suggested, therefore, that boxing may be helpful for improving balance and stability. The study does, however, have many weaknesses; including participants self-monitoring results.

That said, a second study from 2020 revealed that both virtual and IRL boxing may be effective, in addition to neurodevelopmental treatment, in improving upper extremity, balance, and cognitive functions in stroke patients.

40 stroke patients completed 24 boxing sessions over an eight-week period – half were assigned to a real boxing group, the other half were assigned to a virtual boxing group. Results indicated that bilateral punching time (i.e., how long participants could train for) and balance functions improved for both groups.

4. It boosts your mental health

boxing training
I found boxing was hugely helpful in destressingHearst Owned

We’re well aware of the impact physical activity can have on our mental wellbeing – and boxing’s no exception.

A research paper published in the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, reviewed 16 documents focussed on boxing as a mental health intervention. It concluded that non-contact boxing exercises – typically those which feature in group fitness classes, such as the ones I did – provides significant reduction in symptoms of anxiety, depression, PTSD and negative symptoms of schizophrenia.

It goes on to say that the exercise offers a ‘cathartic release of anger and stress, with evidence of improved mood, self-esteem, confidence, concentration, metabolic burden, strength and coordination.’

‘In my mind, boxing is physical and mental meditation rolled into one as you cannot think about anything other than what you are doing at that time,’ says Brown. ‘You’re in a flow, mindful of your breathing, your technique, remembering the combination, aware of what your hands/shoulders/hips/feet are doing. It’s pure escapism from everything.’

5. It’s ideal for the time-poor

Being too busy or stressed by work and not having time are among the top ten reasons people aren’t exercising in 2023/24, according to research by PureGym. The boxing classes I attended for this challenge were 45-minutes long – a quick 5 minute cool-down post-class and I’m in and out in under an hour. Ideal for weeknights, when time is tight.

Who should avoid boxing classes?

If you’re pregnant, or are recovering from an injury, you should consult your doctor and your boxing coach before picking up a pair of gloves, the experts tell me. There may be modifications you can make, or you may have to hold off until it’s safe for you to participate in a class.

Otherwise, the beauty of boxing, both coaches agree, is that anyone can do it. ‘I have trained blind clients, autistic and dyspraxia clients, people with cystic fibrosis and ME,’ says Brown. ‘The most important thing is to be open about it with your instructor so they can cater and adapt what they ask you to do, and make sure you get the best out of your workout.’

What are the most common mistakes made by beginner boxers?

I asked both Brown and Hewitt to share the most common mistakes they witness in newbie boxers, and both said something that took me by surprise: rushing.

‘Some people try to hit too hard straight away using just their arms, and they then get frustrated about not learning fast enough,’ says Brown. ‘Boxing takes years to master and there will always be more to learn, so patience is the most important thing.’

Hewitt agrees: ‘Try and forget about power straight away, and focus on nailing the mechanics. If you do that well, all the other benefits will follow!’

If, like me, you’re an impatient and self-critical perfectionist who’s perpetually keen to impress, you may have a hard time finding your feet when you get started. But, you heard it straight from the pros; that’s not only very normal, but actively encouraged. It’s good to take your time.

How should you prepare for a boxing class?

Before attending a boxing class, be sure to:

  • Hydrate. ‘Dehydration negatively impacts your energy levels, performance and power,’ says Hewitt. ‘To get the most out of your training aim for 5 ml fluid per kilogram of bodyweight 1 hour or less before class. Electrolytes can be helpful to retain fluid that you drink.’

  • Fuel up. ‘Carbohydrates are your body's primary source of energy, especially for high-intensity workouts such as boxing classes,’ says Hewitt. He recommends eating a pre-workout snack, such as a bagel or toast with peanut butter and/or jam, a small pot of overnight oats, yoghurt and granola, a cereal bar and piece of fruit, or a smoothie, 1-1.5 hours before your class.

  • Buy your hand wraps and practice wrapping your hands. ‘Wraps are worn under boxing gloves to protect the 27 bones in your hand, the wrist, knuckles and thumb,’ says Brown.

  • Cut down long nails. Sorry. ‘You need to grip as tightly as possible when punching, so it keeps your hands safe from injury plus it makes your fists harder,’ says Brown.

If you’re nervous about attending your first class, Brown has a couple of tips. ‘Watch classes to see how the various coaches instruct, and choose one you feel comfortable with,’ she says. ‘Also, remind yourself that everyone in the class has started from 0 at some point, so don’t feel intimidated as they were also like you once. You have every right to be there, it may take you longer to learn but I always ask if you enjoy it as that’s the most important thing, skill and technique sometimes take a while to learn.'

What’s an ideal training schedule if you want to regularly attend boxing classes?

boxing training
I combined my boxing training with strength trainingHearst Owned

For the duration of my boxing challenge, my training plan featured two weekly boxing classes, two strength training sessions, and a couple of extra optional activities. While I wasn’t strength training specifically to enhance my boxing progress, as it’s my core physical activity year-round, I was a bit more intentional about my exercise choice, with a view to complementing the boxing classes I was taking.

For the record, this is just my personal plan that I adapted for my circumstances and my body, and I’d advise checking in with a PT to programme a tailored plan for yourself, if you can. Mine looked something like:

  • Monday: Full-body strength training, including heavy deadlifts, goblet squats, single leg RDLs, rows and dead-bugs, among others, 6,000+ steps, 10 minutes of mobility post-workout

  • Tuesday: Active rest day: 6,000+ steps

  • Wednesday:Active rest day or boxing class: 6,000+ steps

  • Thursday: Boxing class, 10 minutes of mobility post-workout, 6,000+ steps

  • Friday: Full-body strength training, including step-ups, hip thrusts, push-ups and chest press, among others, 10 minutes of mobility post-workout, 6,000+ steps

  • Saturday: Boxing class or Yin yoga class (either Wednesday or Saturday is an active rest day), 6,000+ steps

  • Sunday: Tennis, 6,000+ steps

Hewitt also shared his recommended timetable for anyone looking to include two boxing classes per week in your plan, and it doesn’t actually look too dissimilar to mine…

  • 1 x Pilates/yoga session, to help with general mobility and strength at length

  • 2 x Strength sessions

  • Mobility – ‘you should try and build in a 5–10-minute mobility session daily, if you can,’ Hewitt adds. ‘You’ll notice the difference quite quickly.’

  • 1 x rest day, minimum – ‘Personally, I would always advise having at least one rest day a week – life is about more than just training, and this can also help you recover and excel your performance when you do train,’ he says. ‘Recovery doesn’t need to be sitting and doing nothing; get out for a walk, or sit in the sauna (just make sure you hydrate accordingly).’

5 things I’ve learned from doing two boxing classes every week for a month

1. Boxing is surprisingly beginner friendly

I don’t know exactly what I was expecting before I walked into my first class at my local Virgin Active, but I had a hunch that it would be impossibly hard – full of fitness influencers and Nicola Adamses in the making – and that I’d be embarrassingly out of place.

As I hid in a corner, trying not to be obvious about the fact I had no idea how to put my wraps on, I risked a quick scan of the room from beneath my cap. There were people of all ages, shapes, and experience levels – as far as I could tell, at least – and not one person appeared mean. Relief.

The newbies were taken to one side, after being individually welcomed, and taught the basic punches before being intentionally partnered either with someone of a similar experience level or someone more advanced, to help you get going.

I was encouraged, in every class, to go at my own pace, use drill techniques and ask questions whenever I needed, and modifications were always made available throughout both the boxing and finisher sections. Importantly, I always felt comfortable – not at all judged – for taking my time to get my head round a combination, when needed.

After finishing my first class, I realised I had no clue what anyone had been up to for the duration – there could’ve been mid-class karaoke and I’d never have noticed; I was too busy doing my own thing. I imagine, then, that everyone else was too occupied to see me stumbling over my straights and hooks, too.

2. Partner work is a massive motivator

boxing training
I found training with a partner helped motivate meHearst Owned

Confession: I’ve always hated partner workouts. I feel immense pressure to overperform, so as not to let my workout buddy down, and end up feeling ill as opposed to energised. I’ll admit; I felt extremely dubious about partaking in a class with a partner workout format – particularly since I didn’t attend with a friend. But, I found it surprisingly motivating.

Over the course of the month, I’ve been partnered with men much stronger than me who have many months of experience behind them, and other newbies learning the ropes too. It’s a different experience every time, which keeps it interesting.

What I enjoyed, in particular, was having the opportunity to hype someone else and contribute to their workout experience. In this particular class, we took turns on the gloves/pads, so you get to learn how to support your partner’s progression as well as your own.

3. Preparation is key

boxing training
I came prepared for every class with boxing wrapsHearst Owned

I turned up to a couple of classes having not heeded Hewitt’s advice; tired, after disrupted sleep, and not appropriately fuelled, and on both occasions the difference in my energy and strength felt huge. I also found I struggled to remember sequences and technique tips, as my brain felt frazzled, and my body moved significantly slower.

Speaking of arriving prepared, I recommend wearing a supportive sports bra, too.

4. Recovery is equally important

Recovery, you’ll know, is always important – but especially so when you’re training at a high intensity and you’re honing a new skill.

‘In the most basic sense, after every hard session you undertake, there needs to be a period of recovery for adaptations to take place,’ says Hewitt. ‘We call this “super compensation” – soon after a session, there is a dip in performance due to muscular damage and fatigue, but after a period of recovery (this can be as short as a day), you will start to see some improvements and benefits to your training over time.’

If you continuously don’t take time to properly recover, he warns, you will quickly find yourself extremely fatigued and unable to make progress. ‘Don’t fall into the trap of overtraining; this can be a very, very problematic issue to overcome, usually facilitated by a long period of no training whatsoever.’

Throughout the challenge, I tried to ensure I ate a balanced and nutritious diet – particularly before and after class – and got plenty of active recovery, in the form of gentle walks, to get my body moving and shift some of the post-workout stiffness.

5. It pays to be patient

Both Hewitt and Brown emphasise that learning boxing is a marathon, so to speak, as opposed to a sprint. There’s lots to learn – from technique and foot position to combinations and form – and you won’t pick it up straight away. In fact, you’ll probably feel pretty awkward for a while.

I consider myself, as someone with a dancing background, to be quite coordinated and reasonably agile. Boxing, however, makes me feel clunky and painfully ungraceful. I’m OK with that, though. I’m happy to be a beginner.

Final thoughts

Four weeks on from my first boxing class and, not to be cheesy, but I feel like I’ve undergone a bit of a transformation. Not physically, but mentally; I feel more motivated to move – to go lift, attend classes, even just get some extra steps in – than I have in a really long time. I feel like I’m regaining some confidence I lost during the pandemic, when being out of a gym environment for so long made returning feel quite intimidating, and as though I can commit to some fitness and performance-focussed goals again.

As I entered class for the first time, jittery with nerves, I couldn’t imagine a version of myself wanting to attend a group class like this. A month later, I’m excited to get my next session booked in. Will I stick with it long-term? Honestly, not sure. But, right now, I’m enjoying the challenge of learning a new skill.

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