RESEARCH REVIEW: Physical Response to Pad- and Bag-Based Boxing-Specific Training Modalities

Physical Response to Pad- and Bag-Based Boxing-Specific Training Modalities (1)

Finlay, Mitchell J.; Greig, Matt; McCarthy, Jake; Page, Richard M.



Pad-based and bag-based training drills are among the most commonly used training modalities amongst striking combat athletes. The duration and prioritisation of each is often times guided by personal preference

of the athlete/coach, logistics in terms of availability of coaches and training partners, as well as specific aims and objectives of individual training sessions. Most coaches and athletes intuitively understand the need to incorporate both modalities in a well-rounded striking program.

On a deeper level, athletes and coaches may also recognise the difference between the methods of training in terms of physiological demands, and prioritise their utilization accordingly. The purpose of this paper was to investigate and compare the physiological demands of a similar boxing-specific fitness test performed on both a heavy bag and against partner-held focus pads.

Following on from the theme of last month’s issue we encounter another combat-specific fitness test, this time in the form of the Boxing Specific Exercise Protocol (BSEP), first described by Finlay et al in 2017 (2) . The format of the BSEP is as follows:

3 x 3-minute rounds of intermittent activity
1 minute rest in between
Auditory commands for each combination provided through computerised dictation

Total punches of 71, 61, 64 in each round respectively
Combination of straight and hook punches, both at face and body height

Also includes the commands “slip” and “move”

The BSEP was developed as a means of testing the physical characteristics of boxers in an environment simulating match conditions as closely as possible, without the obvious logistical barriers of assessing during actual competition.


14 male elite amateur boxers attended 4 testing sessions with at least 72 hours between sessions. The 4 testing sessions consisted of:

A treadmill-based VO2 max test A familiarisation test
BSEP using a heavy bag
BSEP using hand-held pads

The physiological measurements taken during the tests were:

Peak and average oxygen consumption (using a portable metabolic breath analyzer)
Peak and average heart rate
Blood lactate concentrations


The mechanical measurement was conducted using triaxial accelerometry, which has been utilised in other sports as a way to measure lumbar and cervical spine loading during movement (3). Two accelerometers were placed at the lumbar and cervical spine to provide constant data regarding movement of these regions in all three directions (superior/inferior, medial/lateral, anterior/posterior).

Whilst the slip and move actions in the pad version of the assessment were performed in reaction to the pad holder’s movements, in the heavy bag version the athletes were encouraged to perform the slipping and moving actions as realistically as possible.


Consistent with the author’s hypothesis, all measures of physiological response (peak and average heart rate, peak and average oxygen consumption and blood lactate) were significantly higher across all three rounds in the pad trial compared to the bag trial. RPE was not different between the two. All measures of physiological response were progressively greater from round one to round three.

Also consistent with the author’s hypothesis, measures of lumbar and cervical player load were significantly higher in all three rounds of the bag trial in comparison to the pad trial. Both lumbar and cervical player load were progressively greater from round one to round three in the pad trial, however both lumbar and cervical load peaked in round two, with round three being higher than round one in the bag trial.


This confirmed the researcher’s hypothesis of a greater physiological load arising from the BSEP being performed on partner-held pads and a greater mechanical load arising from the same test being performed on a heavy bag. When we consider the potential mechanisms for this, it is possible that the psychological effect of throwing punches towards an actual person rather than an inanimate object may increase the physiological response. With the pad condition the athlete has to react to the actions of the pad holder, particularly in regards to defensive actions, and this may have the potential to increase metabolic demands.

Another novel explanation, particularly for the increase in blood lactate levels, may specific impact characteristics of each modality. When hitting the heavy bag the counter-resistance provided is limited to the resistance of the weight of the bag, whereas when striking a pad, the pad holder will often provide some active counter- resistance, potentially adding to the eccentric load on the working muscles.

The increased mechanical demand likely results from an increased focus on producing power with each individual technique, and having the time to do so, as reacting to the pad holder may potentially decrease the time available to produce maximal force.

In terms of practical application, drills using pads may potentially confer a greater cardiovascular training effect, and may need to be prioritised for athletes where this is a specific focus. The increased oxygen consumption and blood lactate levels suggest that this increased demand is placed on both the aerobic and anaerobic systems. This may be of increased relevance closer to a scheduled bout. Likewise, if a fighter requires more training directed at producing maximal power, they may benefit from increased bag work.

While most high level boxers will likely have access to both training modalities, the findings of this study may also influence athletes or recreational boxers with limited access to one modality. If one has limited access to a pad holder and wants to increase their cardiovascular training stimulus, they may need to alter their technique to perform shorter, more reactive punches on the bag. Likewise, if one has limited access to a heavy bag, trains primarily with a pad holder and wants to work on maximal power, the pad holder may need to adjust their holding style and allow the striker increased time to work on developing maximal force.

Interestingly, whilst the metabolic demand was higher in the pad condition, the rate of perceived exertion was the same. It is possible that the increased mechanical demand from focusing on punching more powerfully in the bag condition conferred the same perception of difficulty as the pad condition. Anecdotally many individuals also find that the cognitive demand arising

“Like many areas of sports science, research often validates what is already understood by coaches and athletes, and in doing so reinforces current training practices”

from reacting to a pad holder actually contributes to decreasing the perception of fatigue and this is likely a contributing factor also.


Some of the hypothesised mechanisms for the differences between the two conditions could be explored further with the addition of EMG to measure muscle activation, biomechanical analysis of speed of movement and direct measures of punching impact, and this could be an interesting expansion on the current study.

The triaxial assessment is an interesting concept and should be utilised in further research around boxing technique. Of particular interest would be the relative contribution of the hips and thoracic spine. The current study indicates the importance of pelvic and cervical motion to the development of forceful punches, and previous studies, including that of Filimonov (4), have demonstrated the greater contribution of the lower limb in more advanced boxers. Further studies into the specific biomechanics of the entire kinetic chain using triaxial accelerometry would have potential implications for personalisation of technique coaching and especially physical preparation from a mobility and strength perspective.


The findings of this study will likely not change current practice significantly. Like many areas of sports science, research often validates what is already understood by coaches and athletes, and in doing so reinforces current training practices and also improves communication between skills coaches and sports science practitioners.


1. Finlay MJ, Greig M, McCarthy J, Page RM. Physical response to pad-and bag-based boxing-specific training modalities. J Strength Cond Res. 2020;34(4):1052–1061.

2. Finlay MJ, Greig M, Page RM. Quantifying the physical response to a contemporary amateur boxing simulation. J Strength Cond Res. 2018;32(4):1005–1012.

3. Greig M, Nagy P. Lumbar-and cervicothoracic-spine loading during a fast-bowling spell. J Sport Rehabil. 2017;26(4):257–262.
4. Filimonov VI, Koptsev KN, Husyanov ZM, Nazarov SS. Boxing: Means of increasing strength of the punch. Strength Cond J. 1985;7(6):65–66.

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