How They Train: Conditioning Methods of World Champion Boxer Evander Holyfield by Dr. Fred Hatfield

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Training Strategy for Evander Holyfield

The time-honoured — but unfortunately ill-conceived — practice of long, slow distance work as a conditioning regimen for boxers is what Evander learned from the training dinosaurs of his youth, and had continued with for years. When I was brought aboard his team, prior to his fight against Buster Douglas in 1990, Evander was in sad physical condition considering the specific demands of his sport. I immediately tested Evander’s responses to three minutes of boxing specific total body work (see the 3-minute drill description below), which brought his heart rate above 180 bpm. He needed a full 7 or 8 minutes to recover back to 120 bpm after this single bout, analogous to one hard boxing round. What was worse, after doing five of the 3-minute drills with a one minute rest between, his heart rate remained above 150 between bouts. In short, he did not have the capacity to sustain a high performance level for even half of the duration of a professional fight.

My responsibilities were limited to the physical conditioning component of Evander’s training, which had to be integrated into his skills and sparring training. Boxers require not only agility, speed and strength in short, explosive bursts, but also a high level of anaerobic strength endurance in order to perform these bursts over and over for ten rounds or more. I designed Evander’s training regimen and nutritional protocol to reflect these all-important elements. The road work ended promptly and completely.

After the 12 week cycle described below, Evander recovered quickly from intense activity, even after a series of ten, 3-minute drills. His agility and limit strength levels increased, and his lean Baudot increased from 208 to 218.

The conditioning program described below was the program I personally supervised Evander through prior to the Buster Douglas fight. He also used the same training cycle in preparation for his most recent fights against Mike Tyson, but I was not there personally to oversee his training. This preparation was supervised by a friend of mine in the strength coaching profession who assures me the Evander followed the prescribed program precisely.

General Points of Conditioning for Boxers

There are several general concepts which helped to shape the specific program that I designed for Evander. First, the work profile of boxing is repeated 3-minute rounds of activity, often with very high intensity bursts within a round. The rounds are separated by one minute rest intervals. Thus, the relative contribution of anaerobic energy release pathways is considered extremely important, with aerobic capacity playing an important role in terms of facilitating rapid recovery. Extreme conditioning is required to fight effectively for ten intense, 3-minute rounds and anaerobic endurance is a key aspect that cannot be overlooked. Short of an early round knockout, boxers cannot afford to win only the early rounds of a fight. They must maintain an intense, but measured pace throughout a long and competitive bout. So conditioning counts almost as much as skill for boxing success. Optimal physical conditioning provides the platform from which the skills can be used. The best way to simulate the demands of boxing is to use conditioning methods which mimic the work/rest ratio and integrated bursts of power that typify boxing.

Boxing is a highly individual sport. Fighters possess unique styles that create specific physical demands. Some rely on explosive strength (“power”), for others it’s starting strength (“speed”), and for most a combination of the two (“speed-strength”). True champions alter their style in a way that will make them more able to attack the weaknesses of any given opponent. Improvements in specific capacities can be made, but they are only helpful if integrated into the fighter’s style. For example, extensive footwork exercises may not benefit the power puncher who fights stationary and looks to deliver a blow that starts with the legs and drives right through the opponent (and wins that way). Similarly, a fighter who relies on punching speed and fast footwork should not put all his training hours into heavy bag work and muscle mass development. So, the program designed must not only be specific to boxing, but also specific to the boxer.

Ideally, the boxing punch consists of a synchronization between arm, leg, and trunk actions. The punching movement of a boxer consists of leg extension, trunk rotation, and arm extension, in succession. The more effective the coordination between arm, leg and trunk movements, the greater the impact force of a punch. The leg muscles play a vital role in the power developed in this sequence. Increasing leg force development and coordinating it with trunk and arm action is probably the most effective way to increase punching power.

Because boxing is an explosive sport, ballistic training methods are especially effective during weight training for boxing. This kind of training method requires the athlete to perform each repetition explosively, with maximal intended velocity. Finally, in my view, the best way to weight train for competitive boxing is via a cycled training schedule. This type of training schedule integrates workouts and exercises that will meet all the basic performance demands of boxing, strength, power, speed, agility, and strength endurance.

Evander’s Conditioning Plan

The twelve week macro cycle was broken down into four mesocycles of three weeks duration. Each 3-week period had specific goals, and each subsequent 3-week period built upon what was established in the preceding periods. The conditioning goals for each mesocycle were as follows:

Weeks One, Two and Three
1. Maximize muscle mass — Evander needed to increase his body mass from under 210 to 220 pounds.
2. Minimize fat accumulation during hypertrophy phase (dietary strategies including “zig-zag” diet were employed).
3. Improve general strength and fitness foundation, including moderate aerobic threshold intensity training.
4. Begin training to increase anaerobic threshold.
5. Introduce light plyometrics.

Weeks Four, Five and Six
1. Maximize limit strength of muscles/movement used in boxing (emphasis on legs).
2. Increase anaerobic strength endurance (maximum force output time after time).
3. Begin training specific skills (weaknesses) in earnest.
4. Concentrate on between-workout recovery.
5. Introduce explosive strength and starting strength with moderate plyometrics.

Weeks Seven, Eight and Nine
1. Maximize explosive strength.
2. Specific event skills must predominate all skills training sessions.
3. Continue anaerobic threshold training.
4. Maximize between-workout recovery.
5. Incorporate weighted plyometrics and hill/stairs running.

Weeks Ten, Eleven and Twelve
1. Maximize ballistic strength (starting strength) using “shock” plyometrics (built on a 9-week base of plyometrics progression).
2. Heavy emphasis on anaerobic threshold.
3. Maximize between-workout recovery ability.
4. Heavy emphasis on skills.
5. Emphasize speed, agility, ballistic movements.
6. “Overspend” drills in final preparatory period.
7. Begin “complex training” (description below) as a replacement for normal weight training.

Evander’s Training Techniques and Sequences
(abbreviated terms are described after the table)

 Mesocycle One
Session Training Mode Frequency
Morning workouts Boxing Skills Daily
LBE Mon, Wed, Fri
UBE Tues, Thurs, Sat
Versaball Mon, Wed, Fri
Noon workouts 3 Minute Drill (4-6 sets) Mon, Wed, Fri
Plyometrics Tues, Thurs, Sat
Evening workouts Weight Training Mon-Fri
Mesocycle Two
Session Training Mode Frequency
Morning workouts Sparring/IE Daily/twice weekly
LBE Mon, Wed, Fri
UBE Tues, Thurs, Sat
Versaball Mon, Wed, Fri
Noon workouts 3 Minute Drill (7-9 sets) Mon, Wed, Fri
Weighted plyometrics Tues, Thurs, Sat
Evening workouts Explosive weight training Mon-Fri
Mesocycle Three
Session Training Mode Frequency
Morning workouts Sparring Daily
LBE Mon, Wed, Fri
UBE Tues, Thurs, Sat
Versaball Mon, Wed, Fri
Noon workouts 3 Minute Drill (10-12 sets) Mon, Wed, Fri
Shock plyometrics Tues, Thurs
Evening workouts complex training Mon-Fri

Explanation of Training Terms and Details

Boxing Skills & Sparring  Evander’s personal boxing skills regimen is up to him and his coach. However, Evander’s coach and I communicated to establish precisely what physical and mental capabilities this form of periodized conditioning would provide Evander. In this way, Evander’s boxing skills were in perfect sync with his fight strategy and his conditioning efforts right up to the fight. Use of the heavy bag early in the 12 week macro cycle was carefully monitored due to the severe ballistic nature of this training medium.

IE  Impulse/Inertial Machine. This machine is used to develop starting strength in jabs, uppercuts, hooks. It is tough and requires total body coordination. Evander’s problem was that he did not use good total body coordinations in his punches. He tended to be an “arm-puncher.” This training apparatus was employed to help Evander develop this motor sequence and use his legs more when punching.

UBE  Cybex Upper Body Exerciser (upper body exercycle)

UBE loadsetting/intensity Work Duration Rest Duration Repetitions
Mesocycle One max 1 minute 1 minute 5
Mesocycle Two max 90 seconds 1 minute 8
Mesocycle Three max 2 minutes 1 minute 12

LBE  Lower Body Exerciser (exercycle)

UBE loadsetting/intensity Work Duration Rest Duration Repetitions
Mesocycle One max 1 minute 1 minute 5
Mesocycle Two max 90 seconds 1 minute 8
Mesocycle Three max 2 minutes 1 minute 12

VersaBall   This is a more comfortable variation of the old medicine ball.  Upper body plyometrics teaches explosive and starting strength in all punches and requires total body coordination. VersaBall throws were made from the following positions.

  • right and left jab positions (single arm)
  • between legs (double arm, for back)
  • overhead (double arm, for midsection)
  • chest pass (double arm)

Weight Training  Initially (during mesocycle one), Evander followed a modified bodybuilding and basic strengthening program using a “variable split” format. A, B and C specify whether the workout is to be a very easy one (A), a moderately difficult one (B), or a high intensity one (C). This part of Evander’s program was monitored by Lee Haney, multiple “Mr. Olympia” bodybuilding champion, and a former student of mine.

Evander’s Variable Split Exercise Listing

The precise schedule of when to do an A, B or C workout was matched to Evander’s recuperative abilities.

Chest A workout bench press
B workout add dumbbell bench press
C workout add incline dumbbell bench press
Shoulders A workout seated dumbbell presses
B workout add frontal dumbbell raises
C workout add lateral raises
Back A workout bent rows, back extensions
B workout add modified pull-ups
C workout add pull-downs
Arms A workout EZ curls, pushdowns
B workout add hi, moderate and low rep system
C workout add dumbbell curls, dips
Legs A workout safety squats, keystone deadlifts
B workout add lunge walking, glute-ham raises
C workout add twisting squats, leg curls
Midsection A workout Russian twists
B workout add pre-stretched crunches
C workout add sidebends

In mesocycle two, Evander switched to a sports-specific weight training program.

In mesocycle three Evander switched to “complex training.”  This form of training targets limit strength, explosive strength and starting strength/amortization in one “set” of exercises. The exercises are performed back to back and include jumps, bar exercises, and depth jumps–in that order. The function of the complex method is to peak the athlete. My experience has been that it is a better peaking program than simple bar exercises or plyometric exercises alone.

3-Minute Drill: 3-minutes of combinations of forward and backward sprints, skipping, hopping, jumping and “carioca” (football) drills for both upper and lower body.

Start out with only three, 3-minute drills with one minute rest between each gradually (over the first mesocycle) work up to six 3-minute drills with one minute rest between Take pulse after each drill (target: 180 bpm), and again after one minute rest (target: 110 bpm). Below are the instructions given to the trainer responsible for monitoring Evander’s 3-minute drill training and plyometrics sequences.

Bear in mind that this drill is NONSTOP — pushing him to the absolute limits of his anaerobic tolerance. Keep pounding it into him “CHECKMARK! CHECKMARK!” on all of his movements, including every step he takes, every jump, hop, skip and start/stop. “Checkmark” is a phrase known to all of the athletes I work with. It reminds them to keep the amortization phase (transition from down to up or backward to forward) of each movement pinpoint sharp, the way a “checkmark” looks.

The 3-Minute Drill Sequence:
Jog or step-ups to warm up, then

  • sprint 40 yards
  • stop and sprint backwards
  • stop and sprint backwards
  • jump in place high ten times
  • get in a pushup position and give me your legs
  • run forward on your hands
  • run backward on your hands
  • run left
  • run right
  • jump up and down on your hands 10 times
  • stop… get up… carioca left 40 yards
  • carioca right back to me
  • skip 40 yards
  • skip backwards back to me

Each 3-minute drill is performed on verbal commands from the trainer. Evander must go for a solid 3 minutes at a heart rate of 180 beats per minute (minimum). After a one minute rest (getting his heart rate back to 110-120) repeat, rest, and repeat again.

Notice that jumps, hops and skips should be performed with “checkmark” intensity, as should every single move Evander makes — POUND that thought into his head every minute of these drills. Always tape Evander’s wrists and wear gloves (protection from debris and potholes)!

Plyometrics   This is a way of improving starting strength, explosive strength and amortization (the “checkmark”) through total concentrated force output in every move Evander makes.  On days where the midday workout is limited to plyometrics, they should be relaxed, with much rest between bouts, with each bout only lasting 10-20 seconds.

The Plyometrics Sequence

  1. jog or do stepups to warm up
    2. easy (not “all-out”) jumps, hops, skips, and then
    3. do 20 yards of skips
    4. again
    5. hops like a kangaroo
    6. again
    7. repeat 3, 4, 5, and 6 backwards
    8. one-legged hops 30 yards (both feet)
    9. hops on hands 10 yards
    10. repeat 9 backwards
    11. repeat 9 left and right

    In second mesocycle, do all of the above with a weighted vest.

    In third mesocycle, incorporate bench hops, 10 reps.

    In third mesocycle, incorporate twisting skips 40 yards, and twisting the other way back 40 yards.

Reference

Frederick C. Hatfield, ‘How They Train: Conditioning Methods of World Champion Boxer Evander Holyfield’, Sportscience NewsSep-Oct 1997. Available here

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