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Does Boxing Build Muscle Mass?

Connor Sellers
Published by Connor Sellers
Fact checked by Donald Christman, BHSc FACT CHECKED
Last updated: March 24, 2021

I’ve had several boxers as clients, and what has always amazed me is their dedication to boxing training from every possible angle.

It’s a carefully planned training regimen that aims to create maximum endurance and build muscle mass without the bodybuilder effect.

This has resulted in some questions from other clients who see these ripped boxers hardly ever lifting weights.

To help you understand how boxers achieve this, I’ve put together this guide to cover how your body reacts to boxing and how you could take the best advantage of it.

Does Boxing Build Muscle?

shirtless man sitting in a gym

Yes, boxing can be an excellent way to help with building muscle, no matter how old or young you are and irrespective of your size.

The great thing about boxing training is that you don’t have to be Mike Tyson or Floyd Mayweather to take advantage of many of the training techniques.

And you have to get the notion that boxing is all about hitting hard and avoiding a nasty right hook out of your head.

If you plan it right, you can achieve a lot more without having to resort to weightlifting.

Here are some of the physical benefits of boxing:

1. Muscle Building

shirtless man adjusting his boxing gloves

Boxers have to build muscle mass in order to increase their punching power.

But at the same time, they need to avoid the big muscles that bodybuilders aim for.

The reason for this is that muscle mass is heavy and requires more oxygen to function.

That can impact a boxer's weight limit as well as endurance.

So, instead of weight training, they focus on things like punching a heavy bag often hundreds of times in a training session.

It’s possibly one of the compound exercises that involves the largest number of muscles. And with the right technique, you’ll target muscles in your upper and lower body.

2. Fat Loss And Toning

The same parts of boxing training that will trigger muscle growth also allow a boxer to burn off more excess fat.

The constant repetition of different forms of punching exercises will burn off huge amounts of calories. As a result, your body mass index (BMI) will gradually go down.

And that’s why competitive boxers have a very toned appearance without the huge bulk that bodybuilders aim for.

But they still have large muscles in their shoulders, arms, and upper back to give them the strength for maximum punching power.

3. Cardio Health

sweaty man in a middle of a boxing match

Most people with a goal of building muscle will have to plan for separate cardio sessions as you simply don’t get the same cardio effect when you lift weights.

But the physical activity of non-contact boxing is perfectly suitable for cardio training.

By slightly reducing the intensity of punches and increasing how many times you throw a punch, you can quickly get your heart pumping and lungs working at maximum capacity.

4. Stamina And Endurance

One of the downsides when you build muscle mass, is that your endurance and stamina can take a hit.

Yes, you can work at maximum capacity for short bursts of time, but how many bodybuilders do you know that can competitively run a marathon?

It’s probably one of the biggest challenges of a coach to try and get a boxer to the right level of strength with enough endurance to get through multiple rounds in a fight.

Now, let me introduce you to a few of the techniques the average boxer will go through in every training session.

How Do Boxers Build Muscle Without Lifting Weights?

training boxing with a coach

So far, we’ve focused on training techniques that involve punching and footwork as a full-body exercise.

But boxers also use other exercise techniques to gain fitness and build up muscle strength.

Here are a few we like the most.

1. HIIT

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is an excellent way to train at maximum heart rate for short periods of time.

While it does involve lifting weights, it’s not a traditional style bodybuilding routine with a very low number of reps.

The goal is to make each interval as tough as possible and only allow for short breaks between sets.

The time you spend doing the exercise is usually about 30 to 40 seconds, followed by just 10 to 20 seconds to rest and catch your breath.

It’s a great way to get strong and lose some fat at the same time.

2. Bodyweight Exercises

man doing push ups

Lifting weights is a way to build muscle mass in a highly targeted way.

And most of what performance bodybuilders do involves isolation free weight exercises where they target one particular muscle or small group of muscles.

But that kind of bulking is not favorable for boxers.

Instead, they mainly go for bodyweight exercises like push-ups and pull-ups in order to trigger more muscles at the same time.

It still triggers muscle growth, but in a more distributed way that gives them greater control over their physical size.

3. Abs

If you’ve ever watched some of the Rocky movies or observed boxers in the gym, you’ll notice that they work a lot on their abs.

They go through routines of endless sit-ups to strengthen their core, and there are very good reasons for that.

“I don’t count my sit-ups. I only start counting when it starts hurting. When I feel pain, that’s when I start counting because that’s when it really counts.” - Muhammad Ali. 

If you cannot withstand a powerful blow to the stomach, you’ll quickly see the referee counting out a KO.

4. Calisthenics

man working out using a jump rope

Calisthenics is a form of exercise that involves multiple muscle groups at the same time while using minimal gym equipment.

It often involves jumping and other rhythmic movements with the goal of building up more strength.

Studies have shown that it may help to build muscles more effectively while at the same time improving your body composition [1].

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Types Of Boxing Exercises

Boxing training involves a mix of learning how to throw a punch, building strength, and some targeted muscle-building routines.

Let me focus on the punching exercises first.

1. Heavy Bag

punching bags in a gym

The heavy bag is where you head to build muscle mass and gain some punching power.

Some people think that it’s only good for training the upper body, but that ignores the fact that a proper punch starts with the right leg work.

Before you even make contact with the punching bag, your body has to carefully coordinate a movement that starts with the right foot placement and then engages the leg muscles to build a rock-solid foundation.

Then the hips and core come into play before the shoulder muscles start the visible punching movement.

That’s why the average boxer spends so much time on this part of the training.

2. Speed Bag

hanging speed bags

Working on a speed bag is a great way to combine some strength training for arms and shoulders and intensive cardio.

The small punching bag will hang at about the height of your forehead, and every time you punch, it flips away from you and then bounces back.

The idea is to strike it every time on the return bounce, which requires a combination of great timing, focus, coordination, and stamina.

It’s an important workout for boxers as it trains their hand-eye coordination and helps them learn to keep their hands up at all times.

3. Shadow Boxing

portrait of a boxer

This is an important training method for improving the overall technique.

With most punching bag workouts, you’re limited with the amount of movement you do.

While it’s not necessarily a workout for building muscle, it’s a great way to improve your coordination, punching technique, and footwork.

You’ll also be able to turn it into a medium-intensity cardio workout by increasing the number or combination of different punches.

4. Sparring

men in a boxing match

This is one step up from the above, and it will involve throwing and receiving punches from another person.

However, it usually involves more padded gloves, protective headgear, and an agreement between the participants to focus on certain types of moves.

“One thing to keep in mind when choosing your sparring headgear: remember to balance protecting with visibility. You should not choose a piece of gear that sacrifices too much ability to see the ring and your opponent in favor of padding.” - RingSide.com.

It’s the only real way to put all the other training methods into practice. But it’s not aimed at determining a winner or stronger fighter.

Other Ways Boxing Affects Your Body

woman training for boxing

Here are three ways in which boxing impacts your body.

1. Great Cardio Training

Boxers are generally obsessed with doing everything possible to stay within the limits of their weight class. To do that, they have to strike a careful balance of exercising big muscles and keeping the fat off.

And that’s why so many of the boxing exercises can be adapted to intense cardio sessions.

2. Compound Movements

In weight training, we have the concept of isolation and compound exercises using weights.

Compound movements involve multiple muscle groups, and studies suggest that these exercises have a positive effect on muscle fibers to help them grow [2]. And most of the ways boxers train involves compound movements.

3. Low Impact

I know this sounds strange, but with the exception of getting into a ring, most of the training boxers do involves low-impact exercise that is easier on the joints and tendons.

That can be an important factor for anyone struggling with muscle building due to underlying injuries or weak points.

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FAQs

Can You Get Ripped From Boxing?

Yes, you can get ripped from boxing, and that’s exactly what boxers do. They mainly avoid traditional methods to build muscles like lifting weights and focus on complex compound movements that involve the entire body.

Does Boxing Give You Big Arms?

Yes, boxing will give you big arms as the work you do on punching bags and in sparring is an effective form of resistance exercise. However, it will only allow you to gain so much muscle mass before you need to resort to other methods.

Should Boxers Lift Heavy Weights?

No, boxers shouldn’t be lifting weights as it can cause them to gain too much mass and body weight. Even a heavy-weight boxer cannot afford to build up too much muscle as it’s more difficult to keep it going for longer periods of time.

Does Shadow Boxing Build Abs?

Yes, shadow boxing can help build abs, but you won’t be able to rely on it 100%. To build muscles and overall core strength, you’ll need to do some ab workout routines on a regular basis.

Is Boxing Going To Help You Build Muscles?

Boxing is a great option to build up back, shoulder, and arm muscles without needing to pick up a single free weight.

You can achieve a lot of muscle gain and reduced body fat.

Most gyms these days have some punching bags available, and I encourage all of my clients to use them at least occasionally.

You’ll be surprised how much of a difference 20 minutes of punching can do for your physique.

And it’s great to burn off some steam as well.


References:

  1. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/317321468_The_effects_of_a_calisthenics_training_intervention_on_posture_strength_and_body_composition
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4592763/

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