What if I told you balance and flexibility could increase your speed, power, strength, and endurance? How would that affect your fight game?
This is going to be the first part of a series of articles where I identify the most underrated skills in boxing, fighting, and maybe even just all sports in general. Read this, internalize it and you WILL open a whole new level of athletic performance for yourself. I guarantee it. Later on, I will write an even more elaborate guides explaining deeper into the two but for now, it’s time for Balance & Flexibility 101.
Oisin [pronounced "ocean"], a British friend of mine once told me about the time he asked a club-level soccer player, “If you could have only one athletic attribute, what would it be?”
His friend, the soccer player told him, “Balance.”
The soccer player even went on to say that balance was worth more than any other physical such as power or speed or endurance.
When I first heard this, I was a bit irked and maybe even offended. Deep down it stung a little because I knew that I had below average balance. Ever since I was little, I always saw in myself that I had less balance than other kids. In all the sports that I ever played, balance was always something that I had to overcome whereas other kids didn’t have to worry about it as much. When it came to the subject of boxing, I was naturally apprehensive about it and almost wanted to reject the claim that balance could be so important. I wanted to believe that my natural advantages in strength, speed, and power would be more important than a single attribute like balance.
Years passed before I took a more serious look at balance. My existing attributes (speed/power) had already been improved to a point where they could not be any better. I began to wonder and ask myself honestly for the first time if there had ever been anything that I neglected to do. The immediate answer was “balance”. I figured that I should at least give it an honest effort and see if I could not somehow make an improvement in my boxing ability and at least see if that British soccer player was right after all.
3 months later, I realized: That bastard was right.
My boxing abilities improved greatly even when I made only half-assed efforts to improve my balance. Somehow, someway my punches were getting stronger, my endurance was lasting longer, and everything else in my boxing game was improving. The only thing I remembered doing differently was a few balance exercises. It was right then and there that I realized what balance truly was.
What Does It Mean To Move with Balance?
To move with balance means to be one with your center-of-gravity and to move with your center-of-gravity. Anytime you move a part of your body, your CoG either moves WITH that part to keep the whole body in balance OR you have to counter-balance that movement by moving another part of your body. A fighter that is disconnected from his center-of-gravity (CoG) will quickly find himself off balance because different parts of his body may be moving in ways that offset the body’s CoG or move independently of the body’s CoG.
What Does Balance Do For You?
Having balance means you are always in control (or aware) of your center of gravity. Your arms or feet may be placed in outstretched or seemingly unbalanced positions but your body weight as a whole is always on top of your CoG.
Because you are now moving WITH your CoG, your body weight will transfer much more efficiently. Instead of pulling or pushing your weight around the ring, your are now moving WITH your body weight. This means when you take steps around the ring, your body will move faster and exert less energy because your body is fully connected to your CoG. When you throw punches in balance, you will not feel a constant push and pull as you throw and then retract your arms. Your arms don’t feel as heavy anymore because you’re not throwing your weight off balance, you’re moving with your bodyweight and with your CoG. Because you’re not pushing and pulling your arms, your punches will come out faster, hit with more power, and take less energy! At the same time, you are less vulnerable to your opponent’s punches because they will have less effect AND you will also be able to move out of the way faster.
How Do You Move With Balance?
The trick to moving with balance is to always stay connected to your CoG. When you stretch out your arm for a punch, make sure you don’t throw your upper body too far forward that it disconnects from your CoG. The moment this happens, your upper body becomes a piece of disconnected weight and will exhaust energy from you to return it back to a “balanced” position. Instead when you punch, you should shift your entire body weight and moving the CoG so that your whole body moves into the punch. (Do keep in mind that your arm can reach out 2 feet, but your body only has to move a few inches to transfer power into that arm.) By moving the body with that arm, your CoG has successfully shifted over and will stay under you as you punch. When it’s time to return the punch, your whole body will return with less effort since your body is in balance and not having to pull any weight. The overall punch motion will be faster, more powerful, and with less effort.
When you move around the ring, try not to push and pull your weight around the ring. Keep your CoG under your body weight at all times as you move around the ring. If you must jump, jump in balance–that is, to jump with weight still evenly distributed between your two feet. Don’t move in a way that forces your weight to keep transferring from the left foot to right foot. Doing this means you’re pushing and pulling your weight. Do it if you must but it’s generally better to just keep yourself in balance at all times and try to slide your CoG as you move (or jump) around the ring.
Any movement you make in the ring or in any sport should generally be executed within the limits of your balance. Balanced movements are stronger, more powerful, faster, and take less energy!
Flexibility is another physical trait that took me a long time to fully appreciate. Ask anyone to describe the word “flexibility” and they’ll immediately think of ballet dancers, yoga, or high school girls doing the splits. I actually thought of the same things…and I still do. The only difference is that I now know how important flexibility is.
The first time I ever heard of increasing flexibility for fighting purposes was from my friend, Paul who was a BJJ student of Sean Loeffler, an establishing MMA fighter [look him up, he's on Youtube]. Paul explained to me that Sean swore on the power of yoga and attended yoga class regularly to improve his fighting abilities. I dug further into the subject of yoga and found that it greatly improved one’s balance and flexibility. Further research led me to other activities that also relied highly on balance and flexibility–such as ballet and gymnastics.
Gymnastics really caught my attention because these athletes are among the most precise athletes to be found anywhere in the world. Their bodies are 100% perfect and they’re always performing superhuman-like physical maneuvers. You have to admit that gymnasts are pretty incredible athletes. Aside from attaining the highest levels of balance, flexibility, and precision you could imagine in any sport, they athletes also happened to be among the strongest and most powerful athletes you could find in any sport.
But what about ballet? I see little girls in pink tutus when I think of the word “ballet”. Turns out, there are a wide number of athletes I respect that did ballet. Muhammad Ali and Jean-Claude Van Damme were the first names that came to mind. Both of them took ballet classes and spoke very highly of ballet. Van Damme said “Ballet is an art, but it’s also one of the most difficult sports.” He explained, “If you can survive a ballet workout, you can survive a workout in any other sport.” I was impressed, and pretty darn intrigued.
My brother actually took ballet to improve his tango abilities. Just from the few exercises he showed me, I quickly saw how ballet worked out the body’s physique harder and more completely than any boxing exercise routines I could think of–no exaggeration. I saw for myself that ballet also required extreme amounts of balance, precision, flexibility, and grueling hours of torturous practice. Another friend of mine brought my attention to football players that took ballet and turned out to be amazing performers on the field. They owed their grace, agility, and takedown invincibilities to their ballet practice. The only name I can think of right now during the recent years is Lynn Swann, who was noted in his Pro Football Hall of Fame citatoin for “fluid movements” and “tremendous leaping ability”.
I already knew by now how important balance was…but what is it about flexibility that makes it so important?
Flexibility = Range Of Motion
I never bothered to stretch much for boxing. I did enough to keep my muscles warm and loose, but I never stretched for the sake of becoming more flexible. From what I could see, my arms were “flexible enough” to reach my opponent’s face and my legs were “flexible enough” to move forward and backwards. It wasn’t like I was some kind of martial artist and needed to do the splits for the sake of kicking higher. I cared very little for serious stretching, always thinking to myself:
How much flexibility does a boxer really need?
I soon realized that your flexibility is your range of motion.
I kept thinking to myself that I rarely ever extend myself to my full range of motion. How often does a boxer spread his legs so far apart that they can’t go any further? Usually when I box, my limbs stay well within my range of motion. This inner range, it turns out, could be described as my “EFFICIENT range of motion”.
Which then means that…[great discovery ahead]
Increasing your flexibility
increases your EFFICIENT range of motion.
Efficient Range of Motion
Wow! Now we’re getting somewhere. Now let’s try a little drill to see if I can further demonstrate the concept of “efficient range of motion”. Stand straight up with your feet together and with one leg kick it straight up towards the sky as high as you can and hold it as high as you can for 30 seconds. About 99.99% of the people who try this will definitely not be able to hold their leg at the highest point of the kick. Most likely, your leg will have dropped to half the height or one quarter of the height of where you kicked. And your leg will have to be lowered a bit before you’re able to hold it comfortably still.
This lowered height is your leg’s true efficient range of motion. This is the range of movement where your leg can move efficiently and powerfully without waste of energy. I’m not saying that you can’t kick very high, or that you can’t kick very hard. I’m saying that you can’t do it efficiently and as powerfully as a more flexible person. (Range of motion is the highest you can kick. Efficient range of motion is the highest you can kick efficiently.)
A person with a more flexible leg will be able to kick much higher, with more power, exerting more force onto his opponent, while using less energy. He can do that because his leg is more relaxed as he kicks. Because his muscle is more flexible, it will not strain during the movement. If you take a person with a tight hamstring and tell him to kick up, his hamstring (the muscle opposite to the kicking muscle) will exert a negative force on the leg. Stiff muscles act as a counter-muscle when you move and they are CONSTANTLY working against you. If you’re not flexible, your counter-muscles will always work against you which means you have to spend more energy during movements AND your movement will carry less power because the opposing muscle is working against it. Naturally, your body will tire faster since your muscles are always working against each other. It’s no wonder that coaches in every sport will always remind you that a relaxed muscle is able to move faster and has the greatest potential to move with maximum force.
If you really think about it, a smaller boxer with flexible muscles can be just as strong as a bigger boxer with stiff muscles. The bigger boxer may have a lot of muscle and punch with a lot of force but the reality is that a lot of energy is wasted and the true force output is decreased because his stiff muscles on the other side of the arm are pulling back because they can’t stretch as far. The big strong guy might feel like he made a strong punch and while it’s still a very respectable hard punch, it’s nowhere near as efficient and as powerful as it could be.
That’s how much of a difference flexibility really makes. Now look back at all the times you sparred in the ring. See if you can remember all the times you over-extended yourself and had to reach a little extra to land a punch or lean out of the way. All those times you stretched outside of your efficient range of motion, you were wasting more energy and moving less efficiently. Anyways, give it a try, start stretching seriously and start increasing your EFFICIENT range of motion so that you may be able to punch harder, faster, over a wider range of motion while using less energy.
My first yoga class turned out to be a humbling experience. I could barely hold the positions. I felt like my body was going to tear apart at any moment while everyone else in the room seemed to be completely relaxed. It really made me wonder if that was symbolic of my efforts made in the ring. Was I the one wasting all this energy while the other guy was relaxing? I didn’t want to hear the answer, it was time to take matters into my own hands. I now understand why they say yoga improves strength, and power, and balance.
Stretching doesn’t add muscle,
it allows you to make more efficient use of your muscle.
And what a wonderful discovery that was. I spent years of my life developing hard earned muscle, why not invest in making sure the muscle was used as efficiently as possible and to utilize its fullest potential possible? Better late than never, I too ultimately learned that Balance & Flexibility made a big difference in my strength, speed, power, and endurance! If you’re looking for new ways to push your athletic abilities to the next level, try improving your balance and flexibility.
Be on the lookout for the next part to my Underrated Boxing Skills series. (Yes, I know. “Flexibility” isn’t really a “skill”.)