How Fred Hatfield Overhauled Evander Holyfield's Training

TAGS: mesocycle, Hatfield and Holyfield, Dr. Squat, brandon patterson, boxing, strength training

Evander Holyfield will be remembered in boxing circles as one of the greatest cruiserweight champions of all time. Had he not moved up a weight class into the heavyweight division after becoming undisputed cruiserweight champion, “the Real Deal” might be recalled as the greatest. As a former cruiserweight, Holyfield was often at a height, weight, and reach disadvantage in his new environment. Despite these disadvantages, he was a formidable fighter. He racked up a series of wins that eventually led him to a 1990 title match with James “Buster” Douglas, the first boxer to beat Mike Tyson (and by knockout no less).

The Douglas fight accentuated Holyfield’s frequent size deficit; his opponent was two inches taller, fought about ten pounds heavier, and had a formidable five-inch advantage in reach. For Holyfield to be successful, he needed to close on Douglas and work the counter-punch game. Otherwise, Douglas would spend the night peppering him with a heavy left jab that had earlier humbled Mike Tyson. Winning demanded that Holyfield be both a savvier boxer and a better athlete than Douglas.

Perhaps tougher to overcome would be the ingrained peculiarities of a sport practiced since the days of Socrates, the most harmful of which might have been its propensity for pavement pounding. If you ever watched Sylvester Stallone huff through the streets of Philly in a Rocky flick, you have a fairly accurate picture of how boxers trained energy systems.

Jogging has a role in the world of sport preparation, but it isn't as an analog to conditions within the squared circle. In terms of energy substrate, long runs task a boxer’s aerobic/oxygen-dependent abilities. That’s great for ventricular and mitochondrial improvements but not so great for a sport involving three-minute bouts (which themselves are marked by irregular flurries of explosive action) separated by sixty-second breaks. Even worse, the localized training effect of jogging is confined to the legs, meaning even tempos and sprints that might be more effective in an overall sense would confer little or no benefit to a boxer’s punching ability.

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Holyfield’s team brought on Fred Hatfield, “Dr. Squat” himself, to supervise the fighter’s boxing preparation. In a rare stroke of luck for sport professionals and enthusiasts alike, Hatfield wrote extensively about this programming for Sportscience News.

Modernizing the Sweet Science

Hatfield had twelve weeks to bring Holyfield into fighting shape without compromising his sport-specific training. The task was more daunting than one would expect with a world-class athlete like Holyfield. The boxer’s archaic training techniques had hampered his heart rate recovery abilities, meaning that he had little capacity for sustained explosive bouts and little capacity for recovering between rounds. He was also unfamiliar with modern strength training programming. Finally, Holyfield didn’t incorporate his entire body into his punches. While he could get away with that as a cruiserweight, he needed every bit of strength and power his body could muster to succeed as a heavyweight.

Because of the constrained time frame and Holyfield’s inexperience with current conditioning techniques, Hatfield created a three-mesocycle program that tried to peak nearly every training capacity possible. Microcycles were each one calendar week, and the training day was broken into three training periods: morning, noon, and evening. Match conditioning was as sport-specific as possible without actually infringing on sparring and other tactical forms of boxing preparation. Hatfield’s “zig-zag” dietary approach of calorie cycling was used to help Holyfield build muscle while minimizing fat gain. To make sure that actual boxing maintained its prominence, it was scheduled as the first task of every training day.

The basic template looked like this:

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Let’s look at the details of this plan.

Energy Systems

After sparring, bag work, and other boxing practice, Holyfield worked with the seemingly lowly ergometer. On alternating days, Holyfield worked on two machines: a bike apparatus for his legs on one day and a hand-powered ergometer on the following day.

He began by performing a handful of minute-long bouts with these machines, though by the third mesocycle Holyfield was performing twelve, two-minute rounds while maintaining sixty-second rest breaks the entire way through. This was the easiest form of conditioning that he did. While not explicitly stated by Hatfield, these workouts would have enhanced Holyfield’s recovery while also building up his energetic base.

More demanding was the “three-minute drill,” which better emulated the strain of boxing while still avoiding interference with his actual boxing practice. Held on a Monday/Wednesday/Friday rotation during noon sessions, the three-minute drill used (as its name implies) three-minute bouts of training. Again, rest periods were kept to a sport-specific minute.

Holyfield was in continuous motion during the rounds, which had him performing sprints, jumps, and similar movements. Hatfield’s concern here was effort. Every movement was to be precise and explosive. When carried over to the ring, Holyfield would be as fresh at the start of a round as at the end and in prime condition to finish a match strong.

Plyometrics

The catch-all term of “plyometric training” is appropriate here because Hatfield employed nearly every method that’s ever been called “plyometric.” Morning sessions ended with inflatable stability ball throws. These throws reinforced total body coordination without causing much stress to the wrists, elbows, and shoulders. There weren't any programmed changes for these drills.

Noon sessions held on Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday were dedicated to plyometric drills. Unlike the three-minute drills that these sessions were alternated with, Hatfield coached these activities to minimize fatigue. The one-minute rests gave way to Holyfield’s perceived recovery, and the actual plyometric sequences were timed to last less than twenty seconds. Hatfield went so far as to call the sessions “relaxed.”

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During the first mesocycle, Holyfield performed a sequence of jumps, hops, and skips. Intensity and volume were increased during the second mesocycle by having Holyfield don a weight vest. The stress was upped again during the third mesocycle by having Holyfield add more complex bench jumps and twisting skips to the list. Because of the added intensity, the third mesocycle only had two weekly sessions (Tuesday and Thursday.)

Hatfield called the third mesocycle plyometrics “shock” plyometrics. I believe this is a general reference to the impact of jumps from height and not to the specific techniques coined by Yuri Verkhoshansky. Stiff-legged drops a la Verkhoshansky wouldn’t have a very good risk/reward ratio for a shuffling sport that emphasizes hip rotation rather than extension.

Weight and Machine Training

Last, and actually least, was weight training. Holyfield hit the weights in the evening Monday through Friday. Hatfield provides the most detail on the first mesocycle of training. The workouts were total body routines with a focus on classic bodybuilding moves to spark muscular hypertrophy. They were autoregulated to a degree, as supplemental lifts were added depending on how Holyfield felt. The supplemental lifts were usually some combination of unilateral, body weight, single joint, or moderately unstable lift. Lee Haney, an eight-time Mr. Olympia, coached Holyfield during this cycle, a sensible arrangement because of Haney’s experience. Haney was helping Holyfield bulk up for heavyweight contests and was responsible for bringing Dr. Squat into the training circle in the first place.

The required upper body lifts were generally well-known barbell- or dumbbell-focused compound lifts: bench presses, seated dumbbell presses, bent rows, back extensions, curls, and push-downs. More interesting were the leg and ab lifts, which featured a trio of exercises not often seen in a commercial gym.

For legs, Hatfield programmed safety squat bar squats and keystone deadlifts. Though not discussed in the article, Hatfield has elaborated elsewhere on his preference for safety squat bar squats, which he considered a quad exercise. He employed an unorthodox technique with the safety squat bar. Rather than have the lifter hold the bar by the handles, Hatfield coached his athletes to grab the rack itself. This allowed lifters to use the rack as a tool for maintaining an upright stance and even as a form of assistance during sticking points. As you’d expect, Hatfield also appreciated this squat variation because it placed little stress on the wrists, arms, and shoulders.

The keystone deadlift looks a bit like a Romanian or stiff-legged deadlift, though it has one major difference. Rather than keep a neutral body alignment or slight back arch at the start of the lift, a lifter performing a keystone deadlift begins by assuming a total body arch with the hips and stomach pushed forward. In this position, the lifter resembles the round-bellied Keystone Cops of silent era film fame. The bar is then lowered while trying to maintain the belly-out position. The result is that the hamstrings are loaded under a highly stretched position.

For abs, Holyfield relied on Russian twists. Russian twists combine an isometric sit-up with a loaded torso twist. This helps the anterior abdominal muscles maintain the endurance needed to resist ten rounds of body blows while also training the rotational force needed for power punching.

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Hatfield was cagier in describing his weight programming for the second and third mesocycle. In fact, for the second mesocycle he only says, “Evander switched to a sports-specific weight training program.” We can infer, though, that the man who coined the phrase “compensatory acceleration training” and exactingly studied Soviet Olympic lifters would have his own athletes focus on explosive lifts, perhaps safer ones like high pulls and push presses. The third mesocycle transitioned from straight sets to circuits that combined both plyometrics and barbell lifts.

One final “lift” of note is Hatfield’s use of an inertial/impulse machine during Holyfield’s boxing practice in the second mesocycle. The simple machine is a cable pulley attached to a horizontal sled rather than a weight stack. The lifter uses quick, short motions (almost twitches, really) to accelerate the sled. Holyfield worked on the starting ranges of various punches with the goal of learning better total body coordination.

The Match

As it turns out, Holyfield was over prepared for his match with Douglas. Douglas entered the ring in poor shape and without a clear strategy beyond leaning on his jab. Holyfield spent the first two rounds easily dodging jabs and landing hard blows of his own to Douglas’ face and midsection. A flat-footed Douglas miss often resulted in two or three connections by Holyfield. Douglas seemed dazed by the second round. When he attempted a lazy, looping uppercut in the first minute of the third, Holyfield nimbly evaded the shot and collapsed Douglas with a straight to the jaw. Douglas stayed down well after the final bell.

After roughly seven minutes of ring time, Evander Holyfield had become undisputed heavyweight champion, a title he kept for two years. Twenty-four years later, it’s easy to think of modern tweaks for this program. I imagine that the seven-year pause between the fight and his write up suggests that even Hatfield had advanced beyond this model. His reliance on heart rate evaluation could be supplemented or supplanted by newer devices. Bands, chains, and power measurement tools could be used. The impulse/inertial machine hasn’t caught on and may have been out performed by other devices or methods.

However, I imagine it would be much harder to construct a program that would result in measurably better improvements in various athletic capacities. Hatfield thought of every angle, resulting in a fighter who physically outclassed his opponent. Even today, Hatfield’s work stands as a terrific example of smart programming.

References

  • Hatfield F (1997) "How They Train: Conditioning Methods of World Champion Boxer Evander Holyfield.” Sportscience News.
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