The Heavy Bag is a Koan

‘There must be rites,’ [the Fox said].

‘What’s a rite?’ asked the Little Prince.

‘It is a thing too often neglected…’

The Little Prince,

Antoine De Saint-Exupery


I have a young man coming to see me for boxing training. His older brother bought him a ten-session package for an eighteenth birthday present, because learning to ‘handle yourself’ is considered one of the quintessential rites of passage.

Handling yourself implies the ability to defend yourself, but literally means a developed, competent knowledge of one’s abilities and some refinement of them, based on disciplined practice.

Part of my brief, as I understand, is to also give the kid an introduction to the rudiments of the discipline so that he can continue to train himself – personal training once a week is a reasonably expensive proposition.

Part of what makes the personal training experience one worth paying for is the fact that many people find exercise boring. A good trainer has to dilate activities so that a client sees the value in them and can easily find the excitement.

It’s a simple litmus test, on the success or failure continuum; if the client comes back the following week, you’re doing your job effectively. However, the thing that separates a personal training client from an athlete is the amount of tedious, boring activity the subject will persist with as a necessary part of development.

Boxing is compelling in the way that learning a musical instrument is compelling; true skill is dependent on mastering certain rudiments. The value of doing so extends beyond the narrow discipline of fighting itself. If you become skilled as a boxer, it will translate into a breadth of sports that require balance, footwork and hand-eye co-ordination, all the way through to dancing.

Equipment like the skipping rope, the speed bag, the floor to ceiling ball and the heavy bag will provide a demanding workout, and allow a committed person to develop a significant degree of skill and fitness. However, because there is a basic level of skill required, many people are discouraged early on and wander off to find something they find more engaging, or less frustrating.

The heavy bag is where the solo workout will most likely end up, and is probably the most discouraging of all the rudimental equipment for boxing training, because it is the piece of equipment that stays closed. It is the slowest to speak to you. However, the benefits of hitting it are profound. In fact, I don’t think you can learn to box without hitting it.

The thing is essentially dead, and possessed by inertia. This quality is what brings out your skill, and once you hit it properly, your striking will take on a polish and finesse that you simply cannot otherwise attain.

The instinct as a beginner is to hold the bag so it doesn’t move and you can hit it. The bag will not allow this. In order to make it work, you have to hit it, and then manipulate the travel of the thing through space by hitting it again.

It sounds simple, but requires a confluence of independent, fully realised skills. Part of that is knowing when to hit to inflict maximum power and do yourself as little harm as possible.  

Firstly, it’s non-co-operative. Skipping is difficult, but there’s not much of a knack to it, and the speed bag and floor-to-ceiling ball require a sense of rhythm before they will conform to your attention. The heavy bag is something quite different.

The second thing it teaches is the difference between a hit and a push. To push is to make contact before velocity. A hit, on the other hand, requires that the weapon (the fist) has velocity before it makes contact. Velocity is essential to penetrating an opponent. You don’t want to push an opponent away because it won’t hurt them. On the other hand, a hit will.

The heavy bag also teaches how to use the momentum of the target against it. The best possible instant to strike is when the bag is moving toward you. It will move away when struck, and then try to return to centre, beneath its point of attachment.

Hitting it on the return means that you have the combined force of your strike, and the bag’s momentum effectively impaling it as it returns.

Lastly, the pressure a heavy bag puts on your hands and wrists will force you to punch properly. If you don’t time the closure of your hands, your wrists will be slack and you run the risk of spraining them. Watching the bag swing, learning to read it like a pendulum and manipulate that momentum by striking it is an invaluable lesson.

One of my early memories of training with a skilled boxer was watching him hit the heavy bag. When I hit it, it seemed to show up all my shortcomings at once. My long, thin arms behaved like spaghetti and any force I could generate seemed to be absorbed, along with my energy, by the monolithic dull thing that seemed to absorb even the light.    

My companion, on the other hand, looked like he was in some kind of cooperation with it. And when he struck the bag, it bobbed and danced at the end of its chain like a cork on the tide. When I looked down, I could see the logic of his method; it was as if he mapped out the constellation of the activity with his footprints on the floor of the gym.

I’ve never forgotten it; I can see him clear as day as I write this.

The simple fact of boxing is that a human opponent is, by definition, uncooperative. All the basic tools in the boxing gym require that you develop relationships with them through rhythm. The heavy bag is the least co-operative of all because rhythm is something you have to forcefully invest it with.

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