Punching Bags

Jack Dempsey punching bag. (Image via Harry E. Winkler Collection of Boxing Photographs)

Jack Dempsey sporting small gloves for a big job. (Image via Harry E. Winkler Collection of Boxing Photographs)

A.J. Liebling, who wrote The Sweet Science in 1956, was nostalgic for a time when neighborhood boxing clubs were common, before they were overtaken by family circle TV. I won’t go that far but I do happen to believe in the value of neighborhood boxing clubs as a venue to learn and grow, and also as an outlet to explode and work out the jitters. The heavy bag and the speed bag are the iconic pieces of boxing paraphernalia, but there are others, and the intent here isn’t to hand hold or bury you in information, but give a little history and perhaps inspire you to try these tools of the sweet science. (Note that this isn’t an endorsement of professional boxing, which I see as a mismanaged and crooked beast.)

Vagges vaudeville act with multiple speed bags, 1920. (Image courtesy of Speed Bag Central)

When “bagging” was a vaudeville act. The famous Vagges duo and the bags used in their act, circa 1920. (Image courtesy of Speed Bag Central)

THE STANDARDS

The speed bag and its smaller cousin, the peanut bag, are teardrop shaped and inflated — essentially leather- or vinyl-covered balloons hung under a rebound platform by a short swivel which sends a punched bag quickly swinging back at you, and are designed to increase dexterity, endurance, timing and hand speed. Since it’s light and air-filled, risk of injury is low, and gloves or even handwraps aren’t necessary.

The heavy bag is another gym fixture, with the 100-lb, pillar-shaped version running standard in gyms, though there are other shapes and sizes (Bruce Lee used one that weighed 300 lbs). It may be tempting to just start wailing away on one of these, but this piece of equipment deserves some respect when working it. Since its point is to be heavy, lack of protection risks damage to the wrist or metacarpals.

Rocky Balboa punches some sides of raw meat. (Image via Sports Then and Now)

Rocky Balboa working it out on some sides of raw meat — an actual trick of one Joe Frazier, who had worked in the Philly slaughterhouses as a “drain man.” (Image via Sports Then and Now)

Punching sidenote: this injury is referred to by doctors as a bar room or brawler’s fracture or lover’s fracture (after the spurned lover hits something, usually a tree or wall, in anger — yes, it happens often enough to get its own alias). However, boxers (as opposed to the spontaneously violent) know to wrap and protect their hands to avoid this particular injury. Cotton hand wraps are essential with heavy bags to keep your fist and wrist in line and, depending on the bag’s filling, I strenuously suggest using bag gloves as well.

Muhammad Ali punches a bag. (Image via Train Body and Mind)

Muhammad Ali working out grace with a classic heavy bag. (Image via Train Body and Mind)

THREE UNSUNG HEROES OF THE GYM

The reflex bag, slip bag and maize bag are used as much for defensive work as anything, and deserve some attention.

A reflex bag is a spring-loaded, floor-mounted speed bag that hits back. It improves hand speed, accuracy, defense, and is a hell of a lot of fun to work with. Hit fast, bob and weave, move your feet, don’t get whacked when it snaps back up at you… If I could only pick one, it might not be this piece of equipment but if you have access it is much harder than you might imagine, and risk of (hand) injury is low.

The slip bag is a homegrown item that is purely used to practice defensive head and body movement, i.e. avoiding, or slipping punches. Often no more than a sand filled sock on a rope, it swings back and forth at the head while the user works on movement and shadow boxes. A very low impact exercise, with cardiovascular value and no risk of hand injury, it was popularized by Mike Tyson’s trainer Kevin Rooney.

The maize bag. This is my personal favorite, combining the strength training of a heavy bag and some of the defensive challenges of the others. This rather shapeless bag usually weighs around 50 pounds and was traditionally filled with maize pellets, though now plastic granules are used as they won’t rot or attract weevils. (Lovely.) Hung from the ceiling by chains at chest/head height, it swings freely and lets the user duck, block, bump and clinch it as well as work on all manner of punches. A lot of foot work is required to follow the bag as it swings, and the granular nature of the filling and movement of the bag reduces the risk of hand injury, though hand wraps are recommended again to protect the wrist. The maize bag generally isn’t seen in health club gyms, but rather in boxing clubs or similar venues. Less expensive and a more practical option than the heavy bag.

Rocky Marciano puching a speedbag. (Image via Fight Toys)

Rocky Marciano keeps his eye on a worthy opponent, the BenLee speedbag. (Image via Fight Toys)

*Writer James Fox also keeps the fires burning over at the excellent 10engines blog.

FURTHER READING - Punching Bags for Fun and Fitness, Charles Roy SchroederThe Sweet Science by A.J. Liebling, Google BooksStamina, Old Time Strongman - “The sweet science of bruising!”  –Pierce Egan in Boxiana, Or, Sketches of Ancient and Modern Pugilism. 1812.

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