I couldn’t believe when a woman in the locker room said that hitting a heavy bag doesn’t count as cardio exercise.

Any competitive boxer will refute this claim. However, you need not be a competitive boxer to make punching at a heavy bag an aerobic workout.

If you like to slug away at a big heavy bag, go for it. And keep going, and see how long you can do this before you need to stop and take a breath.

“Cardio strike” classes used to be popular; I’d attend a lot of these and get my heart rate up with upper and lower body strikes.

I now do heavy bag workouts on my own, with a focus on my legs, but during those times that I pound away with my fists (hooks, crosses and uppercuts), my heart rate goes up, along with my respiration rate.

People…this COUNTS as aerobic exercise. If you don’t feel like it’s a cardio exercise, you’re simply not hitting hard enough or fast enough.

I’ve seen men dripping sweat punching a heavy bag. 

No matter how good anyone gets at executing strikes to a heavy bag, there’s always room to hit harder and faster — and hence, always induce a workload on the cardiovascular system.

Floppy Weak Punches

There is one crucial variable that will interfere with the ability to make punching a heavy bag a form of cardio training. And that is the inability to execute hard-driven punches.

You won’t get winded or experience much of an elevated heart rate if you have lame, flaccid strikes.

Slow, weak punches will not produce a cardio workout any more than slow, easy walking or slow, easy pedaling will.

In order for punching to make it to the ranks of a genuine cardio workout, you must be able to throw some pretty mean punches.

This means hard strikes, in rapid succession, over a long enough period to bring on heavy breathing.

For some people, depending on their fitness level and how they hit the bag, they’ll start panting in 30 seconds.

Fitter people can go for several minutes before they need to rest. To go for 20 minutes straight, you’d have to slow things down a bit, such as “dancing” between strikes.

High intensity interval training can be done on a bag: 30 seconds of your meanest, fiercest strikes followed by light dancing or marching in place for a few minutes to recover, and then repeating the alternating for 20 straight minutes.

One thing of note here: The fact that one stands while delivering the upper body movements factors strongly into the aerobic effect.

This is because during the activity, the lower body isn’t immobile. It’s working. It’s moving more than one may realize.

Sometimes there’s that dancing going on while one hits the bag.

So it’s not just the upper body that gets worked. The core and lower body are certainly participating.

Power and Speed Balance

There has to be a balance between power and speed. Hitting with all one’s power with each strike will cause a sacrifice in speed.

Striking as rapidly as possible will cause a sacrifice in power.

Combine power and speed, and within one minute you’ll be breathing hard.

The effect is even more pronounced when punching combinations are thrown, such as a right uppercut, followed by a left hook, followed by a right cross.

There are many combinations to create, such as a right hook, left hook, right cross, left cross, then five uppercuts in a row from both arms.

Do these combinations nonstop for one minute, then take your heart rate. If you’re not breathing hard, you didn’t hit hard enough or took too much time in between punches.

Add-ons make things even more intense, such as at the end of a combination, before repeating the combination, you do a few tuck jumps, squat jumps or a set of pushups or lunges.

Fitness Kickboxing Classes

If you’ve ever observed a cardio strike or group fitness kickboxing class, it may not seem like it’s a true cardio exercise because you focused too much on participants (including men) who simply did not know how to punch with force. Don’t let this fool you.

The one great thing about heavy bag workouts is that very few people at a gym go near the device. It’s almost always free.

Another great thing about heavy bag workouts is that any-size person can slug at a bag.

This is not a “thin only” type of exercise. So if you’re carrying extra body weight and find cardio equipment dreadfully boring, give heavy bag workouts a try.

However, it’s very important that all participants learn how to throw different kinds of punches. Being able to mix things up will make the workout more exciting. Plus, proper form will help prevent injury to your wrists or fingers.

You can learn proper technique if your gym offers strike group fitness classes — even if they don’t include a bag; some involve only shadow boxing.

You can also ask the gym’s fitness director if any of the personal trainers know how to execute upper body strikes.

They will be happy to show you a few basics — without charging you for a personal training session.

Lorra Garrick is a former personal trainer certified by the American Council on Exercise. At Bally Total Fitness she trained clients of all ages for fat loss, muscle building, fitness and improved health. 


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