Boxing, ballet and the light dumbbell connection

While researching on the connection between Boxing and the light dumbbell routine, I stumbled across a fantastic book called “The arc of boxing. The rise and decline of the sweet science” by Mike Silver. The book starts with an overview on the history of the development of modern boxing. The so called Queensberry Rules, which were published in 1867,  brought a lot of changes to boxing. Before these rules were in place wrestling techniques and throws were perfectly accetable and belonged thus in a boxers reportoire. Fights were bare knuckle and often staged outdoors on a slippery underground. Thus fighters focused more on keeping a stable base, rather than being nimble and agile. With the introduction of the Queensberry Rules fights became also more spectator friendly and more marketable.  With a stable, non slippery surface boxers could now move with more speed and agility. As the fighters no longer had to fear fractures of their fingers because of the protection of the gloves, punches could now not only be fired more powerfully but also higher in volume. After a transitional phase these changes ultimately lead to the Golden Age of Boxing (according the author from 1925-1955).  The book then deals with certain factors why the quality of boxing droped after this peak.

One chapter deals with the introduction of heavy weight training into boxing. The author presumes that the movies Rocky III and IV played a major role in changing not only the public´s perception of how boxers (should) look, but ironically also the boxers themselves.  As anyone can see, there is a major difference between the physique of Stallone in the first Rocky movies and the later. This major change in Stallone´s physique was supposedly brought about by bringing in Bodybuilder Franco Columbo, who introduced Stallone to Heavy Weight training. Thus, creating Stallone´s new impressive buffed up physique. Other cast members also represented this new look.

Stallone, Rocky IV

Soon boxers and their trainers brought in Strength & Conditioning coaches who came from bodybuilding or weight lifiting. While they had experience in creating “impressive” physiques or lifting very heavy weights they had not much idea about a boxer’s body needs or how this training may influence the boxing performance of their trainees. The main critique of the author is that this type of training creates a body unfit for boxing once a threshold has been reached. The athlete´s body will become imbalanced. Speed, endurance and coordination suffer, because the body has to deal with the new energy and oxygen demand of the new bulky muscles.  What makes this book special is that the author not only states his opinion but includes multiple comments from other boxing experts, e.g. Teddy Atlas or Freddie Roach. The consense seems to be that a) weight lifting with heavier weights (meaning actually moderate weights) has been used in the past (in the golden age), but it was either used for a short time to “build up the athlete” if he was really weak (i.e. to be able to keep up with the demand of boxing)  b) focusing too much on weight lifting will create wrong inroads (e.g. wrong neuromuscular adaptions) and may hinder the correct kinetic link c) lighter weights were used, because this training offered benefit while not hindering the athlete.

Another interesting piece is the opinion of Edward Villella. He was a famous ballet dancer who was also a welterweight boxing champion in college. Boxing and dancing to him have a common base, that is “moving through balance”.  As a dancer or ex-boxer he was also not against weight training per se (he suggests four to five pound dumbbells), but notes that an athlete (i.e. a boxer or a ballet dancer) really needs to understand the interplay between tension and relaxation. Weight training should not create a tense body ridden with unneccary tension, but rather a nimble, agile and (also) strong one. He labels this as “muscle tone”.

“As dancers we have long use of the muscle tone. We don´t want to short the muscle tone. We want speed and elasticity”

Edward Villela

Interesting to note is also the connection between the physique of old time boxers and ballet dancers. Most of them were rather cat like with slim legs and gracial limbs, even the heavy weights (proportinally).  Compare the physique from Edward Villela with some Golden Age Boxers:

Edward Villella, 1953
Benny Leonard
Jack Dempsey, 1921

I will refrain from commenting on how heavy weight lifting may hinder a boxer’s ability to fight properly as I am not that interested in boxing and know very little about it. Personally I think the changes in physique  are not a consequence of heavy weight lifting.  Heavy Weight lifting will unfortunately not automatically transform anyone into looking like the sterotypical bodybuilder, nothing will – except steroids. The main take away point for me is:

  • The use of Heavy Weights in Boxing may have been influenced by BodyBuilding.
  • Contrary to popular believe Heavy Weight lifting may not automatically enhance specific sport attributes.
  • Boxing and Ballet athletes use the light dumbbells because the are benefical for attributes like speed and agility.

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