300 Years of Training: How the Pad Drill Became Mainstream
The Evolution of the Punch Pad: 
From Jeet Kune Do to Detroit’s West Side
I’ll admit, it’s one of the coolest training drills you can watch in combat sports. There is something about the crack and pop you hear when fighters are working out on the pads. Watching the back-and-forth flow with the rapid-fire pitter-patter followed by the crack of a hard hook to the pad can really be a show.
How many of you have watched specials on fighters leading up to a PPV and they show them doing pad drills during training camp? It’s fun to watch, isn’t it? If you want to see the gold standard in pad work, I highly suggest watching videos of Floyd Mayweather train with his late, great uncle Roger, who arguably could be the best padman of all time. It’s interesting because during the time Roger came up as a fighter, pad drills and even pads themselves were not really a thing yet.

Because of that, this week, we’re covering the history of the punch pads, how drills were developed, and who were the early pioneers of this training method. While most of the stories I’ll share with you focus on boxing, history tells us that the concept and use of training to fight by hitting a pad actually dates back to Muay Thai training in the 1700’s. It was used for striking accuracy as well as hand and foot protection which was also new at the time.
five ways to attack
Fast forward to the US in the 1940s, and pads started making their way into mainstream boxing and martial arts. The first fighter to make pad work a part of modern boxing training principles was none other than legendary heavyweight champion, Joe Louis.
According to Louis’ trainer Jack Blackburn, he used the martial arts concepts of hitting pads to improve Joe’s accuracy, timing, and power as well as a way to practice specialized combinations and counters. If you’re wondering how effective this training was back then, just watch Louis’ second fight with Max Schmeling and see that right-cross counter for yourself…accurate, powerful, and just ruthless.
Just a few decades later, a martial artist that I’m sure you’ve heard of was developing his own martial arts philosophy which included his Five Ways to Attack which was actually born from concepts in fencing. Sound complex? That’s part of the legend of Bruce Lee. The Dragon was also an early advocate for pad drills as he claimed it sharpened his speed, power, accuracy, and timing. Sounds familiar right?
As Bruce made appearances on TV and appeared at martial arts demonstrations, he began adding pad work to his routine in the mid-1960’s. He used it to demonstrate those signature moves that we’ve all tried like the one-inch punch, the straight blast, and the stop-hit.
But even with pads and pad drills slowly being incorporated as a training tool in the 60s and 70s, it really wasn’t until the early 80’s that pad work became more mainstream. You can look all over the internet to try and find who invented the modern pad drills we see today, but I’ll save you the time because one person just came out and claimed it without mincing words.
Emanual Steward who is credited with training several hall of fame fighters and dozens of world champions and contenders once said pretty clearly, “I was the first person that really developed pad work.” No one has disputed his claim, and you can see in old photos and training footage that he really did make the equipment at the time work for him. Back in the early 80s punch pads did not look like they do today, and I can assure you that Manny Steward was not stitching and building punch pads from scratch, but he did do something pretty ingenious.
When Thomas Hearns was an up-and-coming fighter at the Kronk Gym, Steward came up with the idea that to improve his fighter’s hand-eye coordination, punching accuracy, and defense, he needed a moving target that his fighters could follow and aim at. To do that, he put on a pair of boxing gloves backward and added an additional pad in his palm to absorb the shots. Once he got in the ring, he called out punches, and modern pad drills were born.
PAD work = accurate punches
From that spirit of “do the best with what you have” to what we see today, including fancy “behind the back” pad moves to using pool noodles in place of pads, trainers are always looking for unique ways to prepare their fighters.
For those of you that are familiar with pad work, you know how difficult it can be after your 5th or 6th round of drills and your arms start to become heavy and tired. You start to lose that pop when you hit the pad. But when you are at your most tired, that’s when your trainer will force you to muster up the strength for 6-8 punch combinations that finish off with a quick double jab. It’s painful, I know. Just remember that the fatigue in your shoulders now will bring you more accurate punches later.

For those of you that have not had an opportunity to work the pads with a trainer, I recommend trying it. It’s not only a physical workout, but a mental one as well. In addition to throwing crisp, accurate punches, you need to be listening to your coach for what punches to throw next. This is to help you process information at the speed of boxing. The coach will call out a punch combination and immediately put the pads in the starting position. The expectation is that you will be ready in your defensive posture and be able to store that combination in your short-term memory and execute it on the pads right away. If this sounds really difficult, trust me, it just takes practice. If you hear a coach yell out, “2-3-2-5-finsh with a double 1” at first it may take a minute to visualize what those punches are, but with time it will make sense. It’s like using the immersion technique to learn a new language. 
Here are some tips to keep in mind:
tip #1
It’s important to work on speed, but not so fast that you sacrifice form. It’s easier to slowly gain speed in this drill. If you watch Mayweather hit the pads, watch closely to how slowly he begins. He’s got some of the fastest hands in this history of boxing, but he doesn’t begin the drill that way.
tip #2
The loud pops we all enjoy from the pads comes from punching accuracy. The key to a quality pad workout is not to just swing away at the pads, but to actually aim for the center of them. If you are pushing the pad or hitting your trainer on the wrist, your accuracy is off. Instead, focus on the center of that pad and hitting it with explosive speed.

next time you’re working on the pads, or if you go out and try it for your first time, remember, the process flows from listening to the coach’s commands, processing them, then throwing accurate punches with proper form. Once your form improves, that’s when speed develops. At that point, you’re on your way to becoming way more dangerous than you’ve ever been before.
I'll see you in the next one,
-Steven Williams

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