Boxing, like many sports, has evolved massively over the past couple of decades. Although the fundamentals will always remain at the forefront of the game, the introduction of sports science and strength and conditioning has exploded, challenging conventional wisdom and reshaping our thinking.

The first high profile use of these methods in boxing dates back to 1980’s, as Michael Spinks enlisted the help of Mackie Shilstone to ensure he was in the best possible condition come fight night. With Shilstone in his corner, Spinks came in five pounds under the light-heavyweight limit in their first bout together, leaving media and professionals bewildered, assuming the champion would be bone-dry and an upset was on its way. Instead Spinks looked devastating and won via third round stoppage. Later in the same year, 1985, Mackie would again show his magic; this time it wasn’t in the weight cut, but the opposite as the light-heavyweight looked to make history and put on over 25 pounds to challenge the undefeated Larry Holmes for the world heavyweight title. Written off by most, Spinks walked into the ring a heavy underdog, but it was the former light-heavyweight who would walk away victorious with a unanimous decision win and becoming ‘The Heavyweight Champion of the World’, making it Ring Magazine’s ‘Upset of the year’,

So how was it done? Well it would be the work outside the ring that would receive the spotlight and plaudits as Mackie’s overhaul of Spinks’ training camp was put under the microscope. Whilst a typical diet for a boxer at that time would be plain and ‘healthy’ with more focus put on ‘the foods to stay away from’, Shilstone, also a nutritionist, brought in a whole new attitude to diet, assessing macros, nutrition and calories to every meal, even throwing in supplements which was almost unheard of. His training and exercise plan received the same attention to detail. “Roadwork” had traditionally been all about ‘getting the miles in’, for Spinks every session would change, incorporating walks and sprints with differing effort levels, distances and times. Outside of the technical work, boxers would ultimately rely on circuits and calisthenics for their strength work. Perhaps the biggest innovation that the new ‘strength and conditioning coach’ implemented was the introduction of weights, leaving some old school trainers balking at the thought. Legendary boxing trainer, Angelo Dundee referred to it all as ‘bullshit’ and if he caught one of his fighters near a weight room ‘he better be able to take a baseball bat to the head!’

But these kinds of attitudes didn’t stick and the involvement of a strength and conditioning mind-set within boxing blossomed. Mackie Shilstone’s success with Spinks led him into working relationships with Bernard Hopkins and Roy Jones Jnr, who had only wished they’d been introduced to him sooner. His work outside boxing with superstars like Serena Williams and Peyton Manning has proved his science and now established him as one of the most influential sports performance specialists.

Following the Spinks era, the platform for strength and conditioning has continued to grow, with coaches becoming familiar names and faces as the likes of Alex Ariza (Manny Pacquaio’s) and Kerry Kayes (Ricky Hatton’s) getting camera time on HBO. The application of the science of sport has become the norm, even at domestic level boxing here in Scotland, no doubt leaving Angelo Dundee turning in his grave.

Now thousands of miles from the bright lights of Las Vegas, in Glasgow City Centre, we paid a visit to see local strength and conditioning coach Liam Conroy to see his work in action as he prepares boxers Ahmed Ibrahim and Jay Carrigan McFarlane for their upcoming bouts. With a love for the sport and his own experience as an amateur boxer, it’s no surprise that Liam adapted his personal training business to get involved with boxers, he details how it all developed:

As a teenager I flirted on and off with amateur boxing because I loved the sport and used it for fitness but it all started with Robbie and Martin Harkin, they were the first two boxers I had been involved in training. Martin was still an amateur at the time and I used to work with Robbie. I had just started up my business and we done a few strength and conditioning sessions but it never really continued into anything long term… It wasn’t until I met Zidane Adams that I really got involved in the boxing scene. I used to see him in the gym a lot and just ended up talking boxing all the time, he eventually became Big Jay’s trainer and Zidane asked me to come on board to help Jay get in better shape, lose weight and become fitter. It all just moved on from there and I ended up a lot more involved in the Kynoch Gym and getting to know all the guys. I offered up my services to Sam Kynoch, I would take any of the professional boxers on for strength and conditioning, which led to me taking on Marc Kerr and Ahmed Ibrahim too”.

Despite having a wide range of body types in his stable, Liam’s ethos to training remains the same throughout:

I treat the boxers the same, just maybe the reps or weights change, but the sports still the same, the movements are still the same and we try to tailor it the best we can. I plan programmes based off their fight dates but at this level, there is no ‘fight camp’ – this isn’t Floyd Mayweather stuff. At this level, boxing is the most unprofessional, professional sport. I just aim to get them fit and strong. You don’t get the 12 week notice for a fight. You should be ready all year round to take an opportunity that comes out of nowhere… So consistency is key!” 

Our visit to the gym gave us the chance to see some of the training techniques in action and even the opportunity to get involved and it certainly differed from the training I had witnessed from the traditional boxing gyms. Throughout each exercise I got Liam to describe the science behind it and how it is beneficial to boxing:

A lot of old school mentality was all about just getting fit, getting the road work in and running seven or eight miles every morning and standing in front of a heavy bag and hitting it for as long and as hard as you could. However, strength and conditioning changed that, it brought in a scientific approach and made it sports specific. I look at the way a guy moves in a ring and how I can get them to lift weights in that manner. It’s even completely different to a guy who lifts for vanity purposes, in certain moves I want to see them rotate into to the lift like you would turn into a punch.

Our conditioning is all timed, it is all pushed in a way that if you put a heart rate on a boxer, their heart rate will likely be around 170-180bpm for most of the fight, so we train to try and get them comfortable in that range. If they are used to that in the gym it’ll be easier to cope in the ring come fight night but important that they are still able to perform. It’s important that we base it around times, taking three minute rounds into consideration. In a fight the intensity can go up and down, we want the boxer to be able to jump in and explode into a flurry of punches comfortably, no fight is just one pace like a seven mile plod. But you have to train the body’s muscle fibres to explode with power. You need to be sports specific, marathon runners can train for a continuous pace, boxers can’t. When do you ever see a fight go at one pace?”.

I was interested to hear from the boxers first hand on the benefits of Liam’s training and Ahmed informed me it had been a game changer, referencing his last fight with Martin Taylor, he said he couldn’t believe how ‘comfortable’ he felt with plenty energy and strength in the second half of the fight, . If Liam’s goal is to get them ‘comfortable’, he would certainly have his work cut out with me as I was a million miles from that after a couple of rounds on the Ski Erg machine!

‘There’s no money in boxing ‘is a statement you regularly hear from boxers, coaches or those covering the sport. And strength and conditioning coaches like Liam are no different and like the rest of us are doing it out the love for the sport. Many outside the circle would be left bewildered as to why you would dedicate so much of your time to something without getting paid but it’s often other rewards that we reap, I hear what Liam gets out of it:

I tell you what I loved and reminded me why I do this. I was sitting in the changing room when Ross Murray was preparing for his title fight; seeing everything behind the scenes, watching him warm up, the BBBofC coming in and doing their checks, the hands getting wrapped, cut man getting organised, I was just a guy sitting in the corner but I still had the buzz, feeling the anticipation. I loved it, even though he had the Celtic songs blaring! (ha-ha!) … I’ve had a lot of great nights through boxing. Met a lot of great people, Jay’s not just become a friend but almost like a little brother. Obviously the dream is to make money eventually but for now it’s just a labour of love, a passion project – I’m even working towards getting my seconds licence to get more involved!”.

Unfortunately the ‘labour of love’ doesn’t pay the bills and it is Liam’s work away from boxing that is his main focus, his personal training business based in Glasgow city centre:

I’m a personal trainer in Activ Scotland, a PT studio. We’re based in Glasgow city centre on West Nile Street. It’s a fantastic facility in an ideal location, near trains and underground stations for people wanting that one to one focus. I consider myself ‘the general population personal trainer’. I don’t go for the niche, I enjoy bits of everything and helping people work to their wants and what’s best for them. I work full time, have a young family and know how hard it can be. I like to help the time limited people make a way for it to work for them… It’s not all about vanity, I like to teach my clients to look after themselves, develop a good relationship with food away from fad diets and making it a lifestyle and eventually the ‘looking good’ comes along with it… The gym is amazing, surrounded by other amazing trainers without the red-tape you get in commercial gyms. I’ve had clients bring their kids in cause they can’t get babysitters; we all work to suit our client’s needs. You can’t always get that in other gyms!”.

If anyone is interested in in what personal training packages Liam offers, get in contact with him via Instagram – @activroy

Written by Allen Payne