Fu Zhong Wen, Yang Chen Fu, Yang Shao Hao, Sun Lu Tang, Wu Chien Quan, Ma Yueh Liang, Tung Ji Yieh, Chen Wei Ming (below Sun Lu Tang)

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Inner Muscle Training of Boxers with David Bolton

*To get a copy of the book, it is now available at Amazon.com* Lost Secrets to a Great Body by Dave Bolton here on Amazon.com

Recently at rumsoakedfist.org I started a thread on musculature of some of the old school boxing training based on an article by Wilson Pitts. The article by Wilson is here. Charley Goldman Boxing. This article prompted the question of what may have been the training to reach some of the inner muscles of the body. I got response from David Bolton in the U.K. and he shared his insights in the thread. David also sent me a series of files from his book to share here on the blog to add to the thread.

Here is the file:  

     Although many boxers today train with weights, from the 1800s up until as late as the 1980’s it was considered an absolute no-no in boxing. Boxers and boxing trainers believed that weight lifting (with heavy weights) would be detrimental to their fighters, slowing them down and making them less powerful and less agile. Traditional Chinese martial arts teachers had (and still have) the same ideas.
These ideas are laughed at by sports scientists in boxing today who point out that this assumption is ridiculous – an overall increase in strength can only make you faster and more powerful they point out – and so they look upon the old trainers as merely ignorant and ill informed.
The thing is they weren’t ill informed and they weren’t stupid – they knew exactly what they were talking about. It’s just that modern readers have misunderstood them. They weren’t saying that extra muscle gained through lifting heavy weights would be bulky and slow down their fighters that way – they were saying that the kind of neurological adaptations one’s body makes when training to lift heavy weights tends to be incompatible with boxing.
They felt a boxer needed a strong but finely controlled musculature – perfect neurological communication between mind and muscle – so that he could whip out a punch into a fleeting gap in a defence or move his body in any direction in an instant. They felt that heavy weight lifting developed a different kind of neurological adaptation and that it was best left alone. Strength on the other hand they KNEW was vital.
Modern Chinese internal martial arts have kept this bias against weight training so for my supplemental fitness training I religiously avoided heavy weights and a body building type approach. I mainly worked out for fitness with bodyweight movements, rope climbs and suchlike. A few years ago I injured my right elbow badly enough to mean I couldn’t train properly for about six or eight months and while I could still do lots of elements of my internal martial arts training I had to stop completely any supplemental fitness stuff.
When the elbow had healed I’d got used to spending all the free time I had practicing and didn’t want to give up a significant chunk of that to supplemental fitness exercises but neither did I want to just make do with how I looked as a result of my practice (I may have been functionally and aerobically “fit” but I felt I “looked” out of shape and I didn’t like it).
Around this time I read all the books on the old-time strongmen and started to suspect that the light dumbbell protocol that kept cropping up in these books was more than it seemed – and might offer me a solution. Because it would be a way to ease my elbow back into exercise and it would only take me fifteen or twenty minutes in the evening I thought I would try it out just to see what would happen. The results I got were way better than I had hoped and so I’m still doing it and this is the ONLY extra conditioning I do outside of regular internal martial arts practice.
Quite quickly though, people within the arts I practice started mentioning my increasingly visible results, assuming that I was training in a bodybuilding fashion with heavy weights. They warned me that this extra bulk and the “wrong way” in which I would inevitably be learning to use my body would wreck my performance and preclude me from developing real skill. They thought I would be “muscling” all the applications instead of using relatively relaxed and unified, intelligent, whole body force.
No matter how much I told these people that I was most definitely NOT training with heavy weights and that in fact I felt the exercises were facilitating a GREATER ability to control (and therefore appropriately relax) and use my muscles, they wouldn’t believe me.
Then I discovered that this debate had happened before and that these very exercises had been used in the past by famous boxers – those exact ones that warned against heavy weight training. Like Sandow before them they had known the value of the light dumbbell protocol, had known it was NOT weight training as such, and known it provided a kind of strength and neurological adaptation that was extremely useful to them.
When Sandow was extensively measured and tested in America by Dr Sargent, one of the men present was the famous middleweight champion boxer Mike Donovan. Donovan competed with Sandow on several tests with equipment that measured the speed of the arm movement when delivering a blow. The reason for this test is very clear – Donovan was particularly famed for his speed and the tests were to see not “if” but just how much Sandow’s comparatively huge muscles slowed him down.
Everyone present was astonished to note that Sandow’s punch was more or less equal to Donovan’s – the boxer only beating him by the narrowest of margins. Much was made of the fact that Sandow had “a tremendous supply of nervous energy which he was able to use only when necessary” – he was “able to use only those muscles necessary for performing any action, those not in use were in a state of complete relaxation.”
It is precisely this type of neurological adaptation that is necessary in boxing and that boxers (and some traditional martial artists) felt heavy weight training would ruin. Basically, pushing the kind of weight that makes you unthinkingly tense ALL the muscles in the arms, back and chest at once in order to wrestle the weight up or outwards builds a neurological pattern where all the muscles learn to “fire” at the same time. This would effectively be like trying to drive a car forward with the handbrake on and would slow you down and cause you to use more energy than necessary with every punch.
Clearly the type of development Sandow had built did not have this effect on his movement. This supposed side effect of weight lifting was to do with the concept of someone being “muscle-bound”. Today we think of this phrase to mean just somebody with lots of muscular development whose size somehow gets in his way when he moves about but that is not how the term was used at this time.
The term very specifically referred to a state of affairs where the action of one muscle was unconsciously “bound up” with the action of another muscle – someone who cannot contract the bicep and at the same time completely relax the triceps is by this definition “muscle bound”. Maybe you’ve seen those odd old- time physique poses where the muscle man stands with his back to the camera with both hands stretched above his head and the fingers interlaced and pulls apart so that his shoulder blades wing right out to the sides and almost dislocate? There’s some youtube footage shot by Thomas Edison of Sandow performing this exact feat.

Famous muscle control expert Otto Arco performing the back display 

This was done to demonstrate something very specific – when the demonstrator pulls on this fingers strongly he contracts the muscles that pull the scapulae together at the top and at the same time purposely turns off the muscles in the mid back that pull them together there – allowing the full opening of the scapulae out to the sides.
If you adopt this pose and pull the hands apart strongly and ALL THE MUSCLES OF YOUR BACK FIRE SIMULTANEOUSLY - so that the scapulae stay where they are - then you are muscle bound by the original definition. This pose was to demonstrate that the person doing it most definitely wasn’t. Ironically many people who have never touched a weight in their lives are muscle bound by this original definition.
If you habitually contract all your muscles at once in a strength feat – say the bench press – because it takes everything you have to get the weight up there, then unconsciously you are training your muscles to all go on at once and it is this neurological factor that the old boxers were referring to when they said weight training would make their fighters “muscle bound”.
The light dumbbell protocol as taught to Sandow by Attila, however, specifically avoids this – it starts by teaching separate and maximal control of all the muscles with weights light enough to allow one to choose which ones are involved and to exactly what degree. It makes one “strong” in a very particular way – it gives precise control over each muscle and teaches you to consciously contract it very hard or turn it off altogether, thus fine tuning the very important neurological component of strength.
You might remember earlier in the chapter on Professor Attila that it was mentioned that several very famous sportsmen and athletes of the day were pupils at his famous studio. One of these men was the Heavyweight Champion of the World at the time - the famous “Gentleman” Jim Corbett.
Before Corbett’s fight with the Englishman Charlie Mitchell in Florida in 1894, Attila famously trained the Heavyweight Champion in his five pound dumbbell exercises – tailoring the particular moves to concentrate on improving his muscle mass and working on the muscles involved in throwing his famed left hook (which he is credited with inventing incidentally) and his “right hand half hit”.

 Corbett’s right half hit
(Picture courtesy of Jan and Terry Todd, H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports)

This last blow, as we can see from an illustration included in an article in the scrapbook, is identical to the traditional martial arts “lunge punch” and also is essentially the same as exercise 11 but with a full step through. Mitchell was smaller and lighter than Corbett but had given the much Larger John L Sullivan a difficult fight and was noted for his speed so it was essential that any training Corbett undertook did not affect his speed and dexterity.
Corbett had the worst of the first round then dropped Mitchell in the second and then again three times in the third to win by a fairly fast KO. Until this point Corbett was not a noted puncher.
In the Attila scrapbook there is a clipping that records the fact that at the bijou theatre in Brooklyn Corbett presented Professor Attila with a gold locket to officially and publicly thank him for the training he had received before the fight in Florida.

The new champion Corbett meets veteran Jem Mace

A noticeably more muscular James J. Corbett in 1894 after the dumbbell training

The face of the pendant is graced with a picture of Corbett in fighting costume while the reverse bears the forearm and paraphernalia of Attila’s five pound system

Elsewhere in the scrapbook Attila also includes an actual letter of thanks from Corbett:

This is the first opportunity since the fight to drop you a line – although we saw each other for a moment at Madison Square Garden – I wish to express to you my great satisfaction with your five pound dumbbell system which you were kind enough to teach me at Asbury Park last fall and which I have practised ever since – carrying also in my daily excursions one of your 8 pound walking canes which you presented to me on the day I left New York.
Well, old boy, it did me a great deal of good. I must say it is a wonderful method and might have had not a little to do with my recent success.
I should like to present you on a benefit occasion on my return to town with a public testimonial. Accept for the present my most sincere thanks – good luck in America, I remain your friend. Signed JAS J Corbett”.

(All references and quotes from Attila’s scrapbook are included Courtesy of Jan and Terry Todd, H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports)

In Patrick Myler’s biography “Gentleman Jim Corbett” whenever the Champion’s fight preparation and conditioning is mentioned after the Mitchell fight it always includes work with light dumbbells. Although this is the only official mention of the light dumbbell work ever being linked to boxing, Corbett certainly wasn’t the only boxer to recognise its value.
On July 4th in 1910 one of the most celebrated and contentious fights in the entire history of boxing took place in Reno Nevada. The first black heavyweight champion – the prodigiously talented Jack Johnson - was challenged by former champion Jim Jeffries the original “Great white hope”. Such was the interest in this colossal match up – and so much was there at stake – that the media followed both men’s training camps closely for months.
Jeffries had to lose a tremendous amount of weight as he was coming out of a long retirement to try to claim back the championship for the “white race”. Gentleman Jim Corbett – retired now – was in his corner and helped train him into shape and he definitely passed on his practice of the light dumbbell exercises. His opponent also used the protocol. No one has ever mentioned this in print before to my knowledge but I know it to be fact because I recently discovered the following picture of some newspaper coverage of both men’s preparations:  

If you look carefully at the picture of both fighters with their backs to us you will see that in their hands they are both holding something unmistakeable – they are both training with Sandow’s Patented Spring Grip Dumbbells. Jeffries is midway through a rep of exercise 4 while Johnson appears to be doing exercise 16. Furthermore they both sport the exact type of physique this protocol delivers – very defined strong backs, large round well developed deltoids, good arm development and lean athletic torsos with flat but defined pectorals.
In Mike Silver’s excellent book “The Arc of Boxing – the rise and decline of the sweet science” a panel of experts on old time boxing (up to it’s golden age in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s) decry modern training methods and give their opinions about what was better about the old ways of training and fighting. On the subject of weight training, many of them echo the idea that HEAVY weight training slows you down but none of them are against strength or muscle per se – it’s just that you need a certain type of strength and muscle. Edward Villella an ex welterweight champion from the 1950’s who was also a dancer says:

We need long use of the muscle tone – we don’t want the short muscle tone, we want speed and elasticity. I don’t think you have to dismiss all weight training, you can exercise with four or five pounds – and you’ll be surprised what that will do for you

Like these champions of old I am convinced that the type of muscle development the light dumbbell exercises and the W.A.T.C.H Protocol delivers is very functional and the fine muscle control it results in makes it ideal training for boxing and martial arts - or indeed any sport or endeavour that requires speed, dexterity, agility and strength in equal measure. In my experience it is very far from being “counterfeit” muscle.
In Shaolin kung fu there is an ancient training routine called the Yijin jing or “The classic of muscle and tendon change” which consists of a series of standing exercises done with self directed dynamic tension. The practice is concerned with using the will to direct muscular strength in combination with controlling the breath and is intended to literally “transform the sinews” – to remodel the muscles, tendons and connective tissues making them supple and strong, enhancing the functioning and performance of the muscular and neurological systems.
This training is said to –

  • Enhance physical and mental vitality.
  • Enhance blood circulation and nurture the meridians.
  • Bring strength and flexibility to muscles and nurture the organs.
  • Improve the meridians and nurture the viscera.
  • Wash the marrow and nurture the brain.

If you look at how Sandow describes his system in the introduction to “The Gospel of strength” –

My system is a form of physical education by means of which every part of the body is properly exercised, developed and made healthy; the will power increased; the various organs brought to and maintained in a healthy condition and the individual made as nearly as possible physically perfect”.

We can see that the light dumbbell routine he was talking about has more in common with the yijin jing both in performance and intended result than with modern weight training. I genuinely believe the light dumbbell system performed with the W.A.T.C.H protocol can be thought of as a lost western counterpart to the muscle change classic and as such would be invaluable introductory or supplementary training for anyone and represents a true “science of muscular education”. 

link to some of the exercises: