Science Behind Kell Brook

In the history of sport, athletes and coaches look for every advantage to reach the pinnacle of any sport. Over the past 5 years, Kell Brook and his coach Dominic Ingle have embraced sport science by working with the Centre of Sports and Exercise Science at Sheffield Hallam University.

In this feature article, Boxing Science’s Alan Ruddock and Danny Wilson review how we supported Kell on his way to becoming IBF Welterweight world champion, and helped him ‘dare to be great’ when taking on Gennady Golovkin.

All of the lights

The path to world dominance is often portrayed as a series of successive linear steps, but it rarely occurs in a straight-line, and many athletes have had more up and downs and sideways steps as Kell Brook during his career.

On 7th July 2012, Brook fought another American, Carson Jones in what was supposed to be a routine victory (if anything of the sort exists in sport), but Jones had other ideas and took Brook all 12 rounds in a brutal encounter that required both fighters to be hospitalised after the contest – Kell Brook the winner on points, but it was certainly an eye opener if wanting to be a force in the welterweight division.

Kell-Brook-beats-Carson-Jones-2012_2792187

A few days after the fight Dave Hembrough, strength and conditioning coach at the Centre for Sport and Exercise Science at Sheffield Hallam University, received a call from Brook’s trainer, Dominic Ingle who asked if we could support Kell, for his next fight which was a final eliminator for a shot at the world-title and potentially for the world title-fight.

The Eliminators – By Alan Ruddock

With the help of Ingle we put together a small team of experts in strength and conditioning, physiology, nutrition and psychology to help prepare Kell for his upcoming contest against tough Argentinian Hector Saldivia.

One of the first steps in the scientific support process is to understand the demands of the sport, and for most sports a bank of evidence exists in peer-reviewed scientific journals that describe the demands of the particular sport– but not for professional boxing.

Nevertheless, we synthesised the information relevant to professional boxing, observed sparring and collected heart-rate and lactate data and had extensive discussions with Ingle regarding the demands of the sport. We now had a model of the sport and so Kell visited our sport science laboratories so we could perform tests that would isolate specific components of our performance model to analyse and evaluate Kell’s strengths and weaknesses.

In strength and conditioning we focussed on movement patterns and mobility before building strength endurance and later strength, in physiology we focussed on developing Kell’s aerobic capacity utilising a range of high intensity interval training sessions and introduced heart-rate monitoring, Kell’s diet was adjusted to meet the demands of training and recovery and psychological skills training focussed on relaxation, mental imagery and attentional focus during competition.

These new elements in Kell’s preparation were slotted in-between his boxing specific training and other requirements and the whole process was tightly managed by his trainer Dominic Ingle.

Dave Hembrough

Hector Saldivia was stopped in the 3rd round by a stiff left-handed jab. Our support continued with some adjustments, some practices fit and work well in elite sport, others don’t. We refined our training and testing process and proceeded with preparations for the upcoming world title shot against, the then holder of the title, Devon Alexander.

However, that fight never happened despite being scheduled 3 times. Boxing is a tough sport and injuries are often unfortunate and unavoidable consequences of pushing the body hard almost every day. This period was a particularly low-time for Kell and his family, nevertheless he got back on track with impressive wins against Carson Jones (again), former world-champion Vyacheslav Senchenko and Alavro Robles before beginning a comprehensive 16 week training programme in preparation for the showdown with Porter.

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The World Title Fight – By Alan Ruddock

During the 16 week period Kell and the Ingle team spent almost half of the camp in Fuerteventura at the Ingle gym and the final 3 weeks in the USA in Las Vegas training at the Top Rank gym. When back in Sheffield, Kell was accompanied by European and Commenwealth Super-Bantamweight champion Kid Galahad as they undertook strength training with Dave Hembrough and high-intensity interval training with myself (Alan Ruddock) at the Centre for Sport and Exercise Science and Sheffield Hallam City Athletics track.

Our interval training prescription was based upon his test results recorded in our laboratory, and his performances during the previous training block. Initially, our focus was on developing his maximum aerobic capacity, as this sets the upper limit of our endurance capabilities (at least measured in the lab).

More specifically, we were interested in developing his heart and respiratory (breathing) muscles. This was because he needed improve the way blood-carrying oxygen, required to generate energy in his muscles, was transported. These are often called ‘central’ adaptations because they involve central cardiovascular systems.

As scientists we know that the amount of blood the heart can pump is very important to performance firstly because elite endurance athletes have well adapted hearts to be able to do this and secondly because there’s some very good scientific evidence to suggest that if you can’t deliver blood to your muscles you’ll stop exercising pretty quickly.

So if you’re taken 12 rounds by Shawn Porter you’d better have the heart to be able to do it – both physiologically and mentally.

What type of training did we do to improve the way Kell’s heart worked?

Well, this is what we wanted the heart to do better during exercise:

1)  improve the way the blood entered the heart chambers, so it could fill up quickly

2) improve the size and mass of the left side of the heart because this is the side that sends blood to the muscles

3) improve how the heart produced force to eject the blood out of the heart

We could have done traditional endurance training, such as long-slow distance running, but we think high intensity interval training works just as well, and this has been supported by several pieces of scientific research.

A typical early central adaptive training phase would include a session popularised by soccer research. It involves 4 minutes of running at 90% maximum heart rate or an effort of 9/10. We call it the red zone and we want Kell to be dominant in the red zone. As I’m sure you’re all aware training isn’t just about physiological adaptations and this type of red zone training makes sure that Kell is pushed to the limit physically and mentally.

Back to the heart of it

The session is 4 min at 90% HRmax or 9/10 intensity with 2 min recovery repeated 4 times. What does that do to the heart? 

The intensity of exercise forces the heart to increase the amount of blood that’s pumped each beat because if the muscles don’t get blood they fatigue quickly. During these types of session the heart works at near its maximal capacity to pump each beat. Remember the heart is a muscle and it can be trained.

So by training in this way, we can improve the way blood enters its chambers, the left side will get bigger because it is being stressed (trained) to near max and because the chambers are being stretched (almost like plyometrics for the heart) it produces more force to eject blood.

If we train consistently and progressively over this training phase we’d expect to see these types of adaptation.

But there’s a hole in our work here, because we don’t know how Kell’s heart is adapting. We have to use scientific literature and assume it’s working. We also don’t know what the optimal dose of training is per session or indeed how long this training phase should last.

So we have to assume a few things. But luckily, some numbers stack up.

I did a test on a treadmill, just like Kell, we measured my heart rate and the amount of oxygen I used during running. I then used a few equations to predict how much blood my heart pumps every beat. It’s not the gold standard way of doing this (that involves tubes in the heart) but it gives us an estimation of how the heart is working.Cardiac FunctionAt around 90% of my heart maximum (blue line), the amount of blood being pumped by my heart in one beat is also about 90% of it’s maximum (red line). This demonstrates that 90% HRmax figure we used in the session seems to be about right (but we don’t know for sure).

We could have used other ways of getting the heart to work in a similar way, but these would have required Kell to run faster, putting extra stress on his foot (that he injured before the Devon Alexander fiasco) and we wanted to avoid that.

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The next step

In the next phase, we wanted to improve how his muscles coped with very high intensity activity. An example session would be 2 min on 3 min (again red zone 9/10 effort) repeated 6 to 8 times.

The intensity, how fast Kell ran was dictated by how much lactate I measured in his blood. I wanted Kell to run so that he’d produce, what the research suggests, as an optimum to help cause some adaptations that help with what you might know as ‘the burn’!

The burn you feel during this type of exercise, is not caused by lactate – lactate is actually your friend and a convenient indirect measurement how what’s called ‘metabolic acidosis’. What I wanted to do was train Kell in a particular way that would increase the number and activity of ‘shuttles’ that help to control the amount of metabolic acidosis in the muscle.

This was important because if Kell was in a scrap with Porter for a round, he’d need to call on these shuttles to deal with the burn.

Another reason for its importance was because if Kell wanted or needed to step up the intensity on Porter for 20 to 30 s he would have to use a particular energy system that’s sensitive the burn. The burn causes this energy system to ‘switch-off’, not good if you want to put the pressure on with a lot of force. The adaptation of these shuttles helped Kell to be more forceful over a 20 to 30 s burst and manage the amount of burn he felt.

Simple versus complex

Now, this is a very simplistic and mechanistic way of looking at training and performance and I appreciate there are many parts to the performance puzzle. But if you don’t take a step by step, mechanistic approach to some of your training, and you don’t know what you’re trying to achieve you could be in no-man’s land. Don’t just do something because that’s what somebody else does. Personalise your training.

If you are serious about performance, consider asking these questions to start with.

  • What physiological adaptations are needed for your athlete?
  • How will you assess what adaptations are needed? What tests will you use?
  • What physiological adaptations are needed at specific points in the training cycle?
  • How will you prescribe training and manipulate the amount of training you do to induce these adaptations?
  • How much recovery do you need to maximise these adaptations?
  • How will you know you have achieved an appropriate amount of adaptation?

If you’re having trouble answering these questions, we will give you the tools to practice and apply sport science methods to your training



 

Pre-flight

To separate yourself from the rest, you have to do the extras to give you the edge. At Boxing Science we like to share knowledge, but some of our methods have to remain secret in respect to our fighters.

I don’t mind publishing this plan because it was an old-one I created for the Devon Alexander fight that wasn’t to be. It illustrates the detail we go to even before the fight. It’s called a ‘pre-adjustment phase-delay strategy‘, and is designed to gradually shift body clocks to a new time zone.

When we cross a time-zone is takes approximately 1 day of adjustment to align our body clock to the new time. So if we travel to Vegas, that has a 10 hour time difference it will take approximately 10 days to fully adjust to it. What we want to do is minimise the adjustment time because of everything else athletes have to get used to in a foreign country (training facilities, routine, feeling drowsy). From the moment the plane touches down, we want our athletes to adjust and resume training routine as soon as possible.

Adjusting a small amount before travel can help and from a scientific perspective it’s good practice to explore the effect of travel on “chronobiology”.

Phase delay

“Vegas babi”

When we were in Vegas I used an ibutton temperature logger to record nightly chest skin-temperature. Why? Because usually our lowest body temperature occurs about 3 hours before we wake-up and I used it to assess how Kell’s body clock was adjusting to the new time zone. I used chest skin temperature as proxy for “core” body temperature, it has limitations but the discussion of those I’ll leave for another time!

Here’s my own data I used to asses my adaptation. This is more of an ‘in-sight’, if you have any further questions or interest get in touch at boxing.sci@gmail.com

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Las Vegas Heat

Kell finalised his preparations by training at the Top Rank gym in Las Vegas in conditions that reached 37.5°C 25% humidity, perfect conditioning for the heat of battle in California. I know this because as a physiologist it’s one of the first things I assess during training or testing!

There are many physiological and psychological benefits to training in hot conditions including beneficial changes to skin blood flow, metabolic rate, the cardiovascular system, sweat production, fluid balance, specific cellular adaptations and improved thermal comfort.

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Kell trained in Top Rank for 10 days around about the same duration it takes for these heat-induced adaptations to occur. And his inner ear temperature was around 37.5 to 38°C during sparring and pad work suggesting that he was under mild heat strain. I speculate that training in the heat might have had a beneficial effect on his performance through some of the mechanisms above.

All of the lights! Fight night preparation

Many of the techniques we utilise in the preparation of elite boxers we can’t reveal for obvious reasons but we place great emphasis on rest, recovery and adaptation as well acute strategies prior to fighting. One of the techniques we used was tweeted as “the game-plan” shortly after Kell captured the world title, not cutting edge science but cue words to help focus Kell before the fight.

The game plan

THE GAME PLAN

I’m a sport scientist and it’s my job to use scientific principles to prepare athletes for competition but I’d like to make it clear that without the forward thinking Dominic Ingle, hard-work and dedication of Kell Brook and Team Ingle as a whole, no amount of science would have made any difference to the decision on that Saturday night.

And so, under the calming influence and ever-in-control Dominic Ingle, Kell controlled the fight with his jab on the way to the world-title that night and is well on his way to becoming a doctor. Why? “Because Al”, Kell said to me, “One jab and they’re out”.

What Happened Next?

Kell had routine title defences against Jo-Jo Dan, Frankie Gavin and Kevin Bizier over the next 18 months. Kell and his team were eagerly awaiting the mega-fight he deserves…

Khan, Bradley and WBO champion Vargas all slipped the net, however, up sprung an even bigger challenge….

Dare To Be Great – By Danny Wilson

In July 2016, the boxing world was hit with the shock announcement that feared middleweight Gennady Golovkin would be facing Britain’s own world champion Kell Brook.

Welterweight Brook must step up two weight classes to face the Kazakh Thunder, which has captured the imagination of many boxing fans, who now eagerly await the contest.

We will now take you through the different training methods Danny Wilson and Alan Ruddock put Kell through ahead of the biggest challenge of his career.

High Intensity Fitness

Our programs with younger, upcoming boxers focus on long-term physical development. We have time to develop structural changes to the cardiovascular system and develop Olympic weightlifting technique.

However, we only had 9 weeks from fight night so we needed to utilise methods that would induce rapid adaptations. On his pre-camp test, he wasn’t that far away from his welterweight fitness and cardiovascular fitness wasn’t a concern. However, Kell was preparing to compete with 13 lbs of extra muscle.

Train Hard, Fight Easy

We had to design a program to improve the way that his muscles utilise energy and deal with acidity.

So we used high-intensity sprint interval training on running track and curve treadmills in the pursuit for peripheral adaptations.

This included a training phase consisting of 30 seconds maximum sprint effort, with 3-4 minutes recovery… sounds easy but truly it’s gruelling.

Sprint intervals push our athletes into a dark mental place, intervals are usually accompanied by searing muscle pain, dizziness, rolling around and heavy panting. We push our athletes to the limit, with a ‘Train Hard, Fight Easy’ mentality.

 

Altitude Training

High intensity conditioning sessions can have an effect on other training activities, especially sparring. When the rounds increased, we needed to drop the mechanical load to make sure Kell was getting the most out of his sparring.

We used an altitude tent that dropped the percentage of oxygen to a level that replicated a 2500 m mountain, 500 m above Golovkins big bear training camp.

This made Kell’s heart and lungs work whilst running lower speed, reducing impact forces on muscles, ligaments and tendons to keep him fresh for the training camp.

 

Strength and Conditioning

At Boxing Science, we have a set training philosophy; designed to build foundational movement patterns, a good base of strength, maximum force production and explosiveness through plyometric and Olympic lifting.

This is delivered over several 10-week blocks as we plan to progress our athletes for later in their career. We build strong foundations so they can achieve world level performance in the future.

However, programming for Kell Brook against Gennady Golovkin was a unique assignment that needed a slightly different approach.

Kell returned to the Boxing Science program just 9 weeks from the biggest fight of his career at 13 pounds above his normal fighting weight.

  1. What can Kell do?
    • We needed to select the best exercises to optimise strength and speed adaptations without letting movement issues restrict load and technique.
  2. What do we want to take up to Middleweight?
    • We needed Kell to be stronger, but we knew that Kell’s main asset to beating GGG would be his speed! Extra muscle and 9 weeks of maximum strength training may have affected this.
  3. Is strength training high on our priorities?
    • Kell had 9 weeks to get in peak condition. He is already strong, fast and explosive.Was knocking out GGG the game plan? Of course, we wanted it, but it was more likely he’d beat him on points. Therefore fitness was the key, especially with the increased energy demands of fighting at a higher weight. This meant our strength training was lower on our priorities.
  4. Where is the extra muscle going to go?
    • A lot of boxers that move up weight divisions and look to increase lean mass in the upper body and arms. However, this can fatigue a boxer due to more energy to produce higher force outputs, or slow a boxer down with the extra mass they have to throw into shots. In our research, we’ve found that the highest physical contributor to punch force is core and lower-body mass.

Velocity Based Training

The extra muscle that Kell was carrying required higher force outputs, this could have contributed to slower movements and limited his punch specific strength at middleweight.

We needed to take strength AND speed to have a positive transfer to his punching ability at Middleweight.

Therefore, we opted for velocity based training. This is a method that uses a position transducer to measure bar speed during key lifts such as deadlifts and bench press. We gave Kell targets at different loads to make sure he performed every rep at speed with 100% effort, taking the guesswork at of our program and optimising results.

The program altered as our formulated spreadsheet told us what loads and speeds to use at different stages of camp.

Partial Range

Partial range exercises were selected to load a movement that wasn’t restricted by mobility or flexibility issues. In just a short time frame it would have been difficult to get Kell mobile, learn the technique, progress the load to a sufficient stage where he could get strength and speed adaptations.

We wanted Kell to get stronger and faster from Day 1, so we selected exercises he could do.

Also, increased load can improve core strength – partial range exercises help Kell achieve this.

Partial range exercises also reduce the eccentric load on muscles. This can help an athlete optimise strength and speed adaptations without packing on muscle or getting sore. We wanted him fresh for every session.

Pack it on the core!

Our task was to help Kell achieve optimal composition for successful Boxing performance.

We had to develop the core. The most effective way to do this was through heavy lifting, however we was targetting high speeds at lower loads.

This meant we had to target the core frequently and in a variety of methods. We used heavy isometric work for effective mass, dynamic exercises for rotational speed and stabilisation to utilise the correct muscles in the core.

Optimal Training = Optimal Results

For any boxer, training and preparation needs to be carefully thought through. Planned and delivered with safety and wellbeing of paramount concern.

The short period by which boxers need to get fit, (8, 10 or 12 weeks) has to be optimised. This leaves us with little room for error and no time for malpractice.

Kell had been preparing weeks before the Golovkin announcement was made, and had years of scientific training in the bank. However, we had just 9 weeks to put together a world-class sport science program to help him become fitter, faster and stronger at a higher weight category.

We had to make sure that we ticked every box whilst maintaining a balance to ensure optimal results and avoid overtraining.

Therefore, we recorded and monitored everything that Kell did. For his conditioning sessions, we monitored his heart rate, running speed, volume of running and blood lactate. Strength training we assessed the weight load lifted, velocity and total volume. We also analysed his boxing training loads and heart rate during sparring.

The data gave us information so we knew when Kell needed to be pushed, and when he needed to be held back. We saw from the data that he was getting fitter, faster, stronger, and was able to change the program to keep pushing Kell to new fitness levels.

Sound complicated?

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  1. Test and analyse

We began by putting Kell through his paces in our boxing specific test battery. This enabled us to gain an insight into his physiological strengths and weaknesses. Using these tests, we’re able to benchmark performances for strength, and fitness.

  1. Needs analysis – Unique situation

Boxers and combat athletes often find it difficult to move up weight divisions, as seen recently with Amir Khan and Conor McGregor. With an increase in mass, you have to cope with increased energy demands. This can limit strength, and cause boxers to slow down and fatigue quicker.

  1. Program and prioritise

In such a short training camp, we knew that we wouldn’t have time to target specific areas for too long. Therefore, we needed to prioritise what training adaptations that are key to middleweight performance. We knew he would be sparring bigger guys, too, so we needed him fresh for that. Our smart plan targeted strength, and fitness training without fatiguing him too much. That was the biggest challenge—we didn’t want to and let the exercises take too much out of him.

FIGHT NIGHT – Kell Exceeded All Expectations


Saturday 10th September 2016, what a night!! A date that will go down as one of the most memorable in British boxing history as Kell Brook dared to be great by taking on Middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin.

Five exhilarating, all-action rounds saw Kell shock onlookers by going toe-to-toe with feared GGG, taking the ‘punchers’ biggest shots and firing back with his own blistering combinations that troubled the Kazahk.Unfortunately, Kell picked up an eye injury that led to head coach Dominic Ingle stopping the contest.

The decision was wise, Kell needed surgery for a fractured right eye socket.Despite this, Kell exceeded all expectations with his performance and troubled GGG with rapid combinations, stunning right hands, and majestic uppercuts. Kell also landed over 30% more punches in 4 rounds than any of GGG’s previous opponents.

These results are even more impressive when you consider Kell stepped up two weight divisions to face a boxer that had stopped every one of his opponents for the past 8 years.

Despite defeat, we were proud of Kell’s performance, how we executed the program and just to be involved in such a unbelievable event.

Bring on the next challenge!

Summary – It’s just not about program and numbers

So, we have talked about a lot about scientific programming, adaptations and managing the numbers. For some sport scientists, this is the be all and end all. For us, it’s just another piece of a very big jigsaw. To summarise this article, we will finish on a few important points that makes our programs successful.

Coach Buy-In 

Every sport scientist / strength and conditioning coach will agree that your job is made easier when the coach buys in to the benefits of sport science.

In boxing, we are training an individual through a very tough, intense and detailed program, making it even more important that the head coach is an advocate and has an understanding of sport science.

We were very fortunate to be working with Dominic Ingle, that has an in-depth understanding of training processes and is very co-operative when working together with his fighters.  Dominic has a wealth of experience in training boxers, so we continually learn from each other in creating the ultimate training program for boxing.

Athlete Motivation

Like Dominic says in the video above, not every program will suit everyone, and that the same program might not make an athlete like Kell Brook.

He is also right that only a select group of fighters will have the ‘X-factor’, something special inside them that will let them dig deeper and produce performances like no-one else can.

We can support Dom in saying Kell is a very special athlete. The levels that he will go to to succeed is extraordinary. We have seen him push beyond his limits, be scrambling around on the floor in agony but willing to get up, and push through sessions.

This is why he gets the best results and best improvements during camp. The program is there for the taking, it’s all about how you apply yourself and the efforts you are willing to go to.

Be A TEAM

Due to boxing being an individual sport, TEAMWORK is a word that is not really used. Maybe the boxer doesn’t need the characteristics or the skills to be a team player – often boxers are selfish by nature.

We say this in a positive manner as this is what spurs most athletes on in one of the world’s loneliest sports.

However, team work is extremely important with the team around the boxer. The head-coach, the S&C coach, Physiologist, Nutritionist and Masseur are all important for a boxers performance. We all need to work co-operatively and ‘sing from the same hymn sheet’ so we are striving towards the same goal.

Want to find out EVEN MORE about Kell’s training?

We have a 6000 word mega-article on the full Golovkin training camp – Dare To Be Great

Alan is a physiologist at Sheffield Hallam University with a wealth of experience in sport science. He has has worked with a range of individual athletes and teams, including FIFA World Cup referee Howard Webb and Commonwealth games medalists England Table Tennis. Alan has worked extensively within Boxing at the highest level, having a huge influence on Kid Galahad’s British, Commonwealth and European Title wins and most recently Kell Brook’s IBF welterweight world title victory. Alan is a BASES accredited sport & exercise scientist, doctoral researcher and one of the UK’s first chartered scientists in sport science. Alan will be throwing some knowledge bombs into Boxing Science drawing on his experiences of working in sport at the highest level.

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