Gym Class: Put Up Your Dukes, We’re Boxing

Gym Class illustrations by Taylor Anne Mordoh

Hi there, Autostraddlers! This series will help you get started with your new favorite sport. Today, pop in your mouth-guard and put up your dukes! This Gym Class is all about boxing.

Introduction to Boxing

The “sweet science” started to take on its modern form in late-1600s England, when it was known as bare-knuckle boxing or prizefighting. From the start, there were female fighters. They were often sex workers or poor women hoping for prize money. The women sometimes fought stripped to the waist, in brutal matches that involved eye-gouging, scratching and biting. (For a well-written, fascinating glimpse into the life of a fictional female boxer in Georgian-era England, check out Anna Freeman’s The Fair Fight.) These fights were all about the spectacle, and female fighters like Elizabeth Stokes, who fought in the 1720s, were treated like novelties rather than athletes.
It wasn’t until the 1900s that women’s boxing clubs began to form, despite intense resistance from men. And it was not until the 2012 Olympic Games that women’s boxing was recognized an Olympic sport. Today, female boxers still have a lot to battle outside of the ring. The young American boxer Claressa Shields is a two-time Olympic gold medalist with a bright future. But as outlined in Jaime Lowe’s terrific NYT article, “Women Have Been Boxing in the Shadows for Too Long,” it’s been difficult for Ms. Shields to find financial support and sponsors because our society still has a problem with strong women. Lowe writes: “For a woman to admit that she likes aggression, relishes controlled rage, thrives on ferocity and enjoys the feeling of gut-punches, well, that is unfathomable, or it seemed so to the Team U.S.A. reps. They had no idea how to sell her.”

If all this is enough to make you want to punch something, you’ve come to the right place! In this article I’ll go over what you’ll need to get started, what to look for in a gym, and some basic workouts.

Things You’ll Need

– Most boxing gyms provide gloves and punch mitts, but they are usually well-used — and smell like it. If you try a class or two and love it, consider buying your own gloves (and possibly mitts)
– Hand wraps or athletic tape (optional, but good for wrist safety)
– Hands-free water bottle (with a straw or valve cap) so you don’t have to touch the lid with dirty hands
– Mouth-guard (required if sparring)

Basic Technique

Here’s a quick description of boxing’s key punches. To begin, get into a basic fight stance: hands up at your mouth, chin lowered, elbows tight against the torso, left foot (lead foot) forward and right foot (rear foot) back. Aim your jabs and crosses for your opponent’s mouth; your hooks at the side of their jawline; and your uppercuts at their chin or torso (for body shots). When punching, keep the non-active hand up at your face for protection; return your active hand to your face immediately after a punch, as well.

Note: I’m describing these punches for right-hand-dominant people. If you’re a lefty, or “southpaw,” you will perform these in reverse: your fight stance reversed (right foot forward), your right hand for the jab, your left hand for the cross, etc.

Jab: A quick punch with your left hand. Meant to keep your opponent away and give you space to move or set up other punches. Step forward with your lead (left) foot as you extend your left arm straight out for the punch, then pull it back quickly to your body and bring your rear (right) foot forward to return to your fight stance.

Cross: A power punch thrown with your dominant right hand. This is move recruits your hips and torso, giving more force to your punch. From a basic fight stance, bring your right hand past your face and straight out, pivoting on your back foot towards the left and using the movement of your body to fuel the punch. Pull your hand back quickly and return to your fight stance.

Hook: A power punch. I learned to hook with my left hand, but you can technically use either hand. The strength in this punch comes from leg and torso activation. For a left hook, bring your left elbow up from your hip as you twist your torso to the right, keeping a flat wrist and your elbow behind your fist. After the punch, bring the left hand back to your face and resume your fight stance.

Uppercut: This punch can be thrown at your opponent’s chin or torso, and is powered by your shoulders. The punch travels up your body (often from a lower level, meaning a lower stance with bent knees) rather than the forward motion of jabs and crosses or the swing of a hook. To throw a right-handed uppercut, lean to your right slightly and then spring out of that position, driving your hand upward toward your opponent’s torso or chin, and using the power of your body uncoiling to give strength to your punch. Return to fight stance.

Training and Sample Workouts

For this sport, I recommend you join a gym so you can learn with the guidance of a coach. As with most other specialty gyms, there are usually Groupons or trial membership deals that let you try a facility to see if it meets your needs. Sure, you can train solo at your regular gym; done with proper form, a heavy-bag workout is great cardio. But if you want to do more than hit the bag — and you want teammates to train and maybe spar with — you’ll want to join a gym.

And here’s an important safety note: When you are a beginner — and especially as you’re working on proper form — do not throw punches with all your strength. Most of all, do not throw punches with all your strength at the heavy bag! Most bags are very hard. The small bones of your wrist are no match for 100 pounds of leather-wrapped sand. Focus on speed and good technique, and you’ll still work up a sweat. Once you’re more familiar with punching you can start to add force to your heavy-bag and partner workouts.

Punch Pyramids

These are a great cardio burst, and endlessly adaptable. You can include any exercise in between punch sets — burpees, lunges, pushups, sprints — so the punch pyramid can be changed to suit whatever kind of workout you want to have that day. For this example, let’s use burpees. (I know, I hate them, too. That’s why I force myself to do them.)

Jab-Cross (2)
Jab-Cross Jab-Cross (4)
Jab-Cross Jab-Cross Jab-Cross (6)

… And so on up to 20 punches, then back down to two.

A full punch pyramid with burpees will take you 3-5 minutes. Try to do it all in one go, without breaks, and then start to work on speed. If you want to go full-on High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) with these, do a fast pyramid, then a slow jog for 5 minutes, another pyramid, another jog, and repeat for a total of four full-speed pyramids and four recovery jogs.

“Drill on the Board”

Most practices, my coach had us perform this series of punches to warm up. It’s a great way to work on your basic punches and start to build muscle memory. You can do this drill alone on a heavy bag or with a partner. Try doing this rotation without breaks for 5 minutes. Make sure to start in your basic fight stance and move your feet with each punch. Step forward with the left foot for jabs (then bring the right foot up, too, to return to fight stance); pivot on the ball of your right foot for crosses. You should always be moving between punches — it’s a good time to practice bobs, weaves, and keeping your guard up (your hands at your mouth). To mix things up, throw in some hooks and uppercuts.

Double-Jab (two in a row, quickly)
Triple-Jab (three in a row, quickly)
Jab + Cross
Cross + Jab
Double-Jab + Cross
Cross + Jab + Cross
Jab + Cross + Jab
Repeat from start

What to Look for in a Gym

Cleanliness. Boxing rings and wrestling mats can be gross, soaked in sweat and grime from bare feet. Look over the facility and make sure it’s somewhere you’d feel OK working out. Also look at things like the gym’s Yelp reviews. If anyone says a place is uncommonly dirty, or mentions ringworm or staph, proceed with caution.
Female-to-Male Ratio. If you are a female-identified person, you may feel more comfortable in classes that include a few other women, or perhaps working with a female coach. Attend classes in the time blocks that work for you to get a sense of the gym’s demographics before committing to a long-term membership.
Coaching Focus. Some gyms specialize in training fighters. Others are more about community and fitness, and still others combine the two. If you want to train to fight, look for a coach with a successful team of boxers, and speak to some of them about their training regimen and the coach’s style. If you just want to box for fun and exercise, make sure your coach supports you and will take you as seriously as an athlete as other, more fight-focused clients.

To Fight or Not to Fight

Maybe you already know you want to train to get into the ring competitively. Awesome. Get out there and win some titles with Autostraddle’s blessing!

If you’re not sure you want to fight (or know for certain that you don’t), you can still enjoy boxing. As mentioned above, many coaches and gyms focus more on the fitness side of the sport than the competitive side.

At my gym, boxing classes were offered in two back-to-back sessions: an hour of conditioning first, then an hour of technique. Conditioning classes were cardio-heavy, intense blends of jogging, HIIT drills, punch-pyramids, and lots of ab work. Technique classes eased up on the pace to focus on attacking and evading with good form. Technique classes also usually involved sparring (aka the part when you’re most likely to get clobbered by your partner).

If you’re interested in fitness-focused boxing, check to see if your prospective gym offers the equivalent of conditioning classes: a space to get all the physical benefits of boxing training — including the satisfaction of throwing lots of punches — minus the sparring component.

And in This Corner …

I hope this article has you excited about boxing — and confident enough to give it a try. It’s one of my favorite sports and I’d love to see more women in the ring. I want to give a big thank you to my coach Jimbo Slice at Alive MMA in Portland, Oregon. Jimbo ran an awesome program that was welcoming to everyone, at all stages of training. The two sample workouts here were staples of his programming, and I still use them today as a fun and challenging part of my fitness routine.

Katrina is queer, Latinx, and embracing her futch-ness in 2018. She lives in Seattle with her two dogs. Some of her favorite things are jellybeans, the beach, weightlifting, eyeliner, dad jokes, and impromptu dance parties. Her debut novel THE BEST BAD THINGS will be released this Fall. The book follows Alma Rosales, a queer woman and ex-Pinkerton detective, as she switches between female and male disguises to investigate an opium-smuggling ring. Come say hi and talk about books, sports, or your favorite jellybean flavor at Katrina's website or on Twitter!

Katrina has written 16 articles for us.