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How to Increase Punching Power for Improved Performance in MMA & Boxing


The recent popularity of Mixed Martial Arts and Boxing has spawned a resurgence of the ancient art of pugilism. Trainers with the skills to teach basic techniques and develop appropriate programming for punching power have an edge in their practices. However, far too often trainers offer boxing drills as part of their workout without knowing how to properly throw punches. Additionally, there are several exercises that many trainers overlook when it comes to developing punching power. The purpose of this article is to teach the technical aspects of how to throw a jab and rear hand punch and to identify five training variables, which enhance punching power. Although this article will cover proper punching technique, it is not meant to replace skilled instruction from a trained professional.

people boxing

Learning Objectives:

Introduction

The cardio-boxing programs that enjoyed huge popularity in the 1990’s, such as Tae Bo, have been replaced by striking classes, which focus on participants hitting actual targets including hand mitts and heavy bags. The difference between hitting air, commonly seen in cardio boxing classes such as Tae Bo, and hitting actual targets is tremendous. There are several benefits in having clients hit actual targets, including: 

The only downside to hitting targets is that improper technique can lead to traumatic or chronic injuries.

Thus, the first thing to do prior to engaging in contact work is clean up the technical aspects of the punch. In addition to working on the technical aspects of the striking game, coaches who introduce specific exercises that aid in punching power will dramatically increase their effectiveness in creating the next “Rocky Marciano”. Lets now review the technical aspects of punching and introduce a workout aimed at enhancing punching power.

The Jab

Ask any fighter what the most important punch is in boxing or MMA and you will get the same answer every time: the jab. The jab breaks down an opponent’s defense, sets up the rear hand punch, keeps one’s opponent distracted and in fitness workouts, is one of the most common punches thrown. From a fighter’s stance the jab starts off with a lead leg step and concurrent push off the rear leg. The jabbing hand fires out in a straight line towards the target. Beginners often lift the elbow of the punching hand up toward the ceiling or “cock” the hand back before shooting it forward: both of which slow the punch down and reduce force. The power for this punch comes from the aggressive push off the rear leg and simultaneous lead leg step. Once thrown, the punch is retracted with the same speed at which it was thrown. Bruce Lee loved the jab technique and commented in his book, The Tao of Jeet Kune Do: “The lead punch should shoot out loosely and easily; do not tighten up or clench your fist until the moment of impact” (Lee, 1975.)

jab 1 jab 1

The Rear Hand Cross

The Cross, is considered one of the most powerful punches in striking sports. With the Rear Cross hand kept next to the chin, the fighter rotates on the ball of the rear foot driving the rear foot, knee, hip and shoulder towards the target. As the lower body creates a “whipping” the rear hand shoots out in a straight line towards the target. At the moment of impact, the muscles in the hand, wrist and forearm should contract which creates a cascade of muscle activation from distal to proximal (often referred to as irradiation,) improving force generation. Additionally, upon contact, a forceful expulsion of air should come from the diaphragm: what marital artists call a Kiah (pronounced “Key Ahh”). The Kiah also creates irradiation, this time from proximal to distal, further enhancing punching power.

rear hand cross rear hand cross finish

I often have clients engage in posting when working on the Rear Hand Cross. Posting is the act of placing (posting) the lead hand against the target while the rear hand is still next to the chin. Upon a verbal cue, the client aggressively pulls the lead hand back toward the chin while shooting the rear hand out towards the target. Posting helps enhance something called the serape effect: elastic energy stored between the hips and shoulders during rotational movements.

Serrape

The forceful retraction of the lead scapula, aggressive protraction of the rear scapula, combined with a powerful rotation of the rear hips, taps into the serape effect dramatically enhancing punching power. In essence “the muscles of the shoulders, hips and limbs are generating forces to create motion in a pulsed sequence. The core is creating a stiffened anchor (proximal stiffness) to unleash distal athleticism” (Santana, McGill & Brown 2015.) The serape effect can be seen in all rotational athletes such as: Tennis players, Volleyball players and Hockey players.

posting start posting start

Strength Training for Punching Power

There are many aspects to consider while programming a strength workout for punching. However, this article will focus on the 5 things that this author believes have the most impact on punching power.

Watch any great fighter and the first thing one notices is his or her ability to unload the heels and move around the ring. However, many of the exercises we do in the gym actually load the heels: squats, leg press, dead lifts, etc., making it harder to get the heels off the floor during striking drills. Split Squat Jumps are a great exercise to teach clients how to unload the heels, move with quickness and be balance during deceleration. If your clients have a history of knee pathology, regress this exercise such that they are in a shorter stance and don’t descend into a full lunge position at the end range of motion. Perform 2-3 sets of 12 reps with 30-60 seconds rest between sets.

split squat jump start split squat jump mid split squat jump finish

In a 2011 article on how to increase rear hand punching power in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning, the number one training variable the authors listed was increasing rear leg drive (Turner, Bacer, Miller, 2011.) Whether throwing a jab punch or rear hand punch, the punch starts with an aggressive push-off from the rear leg. Based on Newton’s third law of motion, the floor pushes back into the punchers leg starting a cascade of energy, which travels up the leg, through the core and is unleashed through the upper body via the punching hand. The Skater exercise is ideal to train the aggressive single leg drive needed to enhance punching power and can be performed anywhere. This exercise can be progressed by using a resistance cord connected around the waist. Perform 2-3 sets of 20 seconds work (both sides) and 30-60 seconds rest between sets.

skater start skater mid skater finish

Another way to enhance punching power is by increasing the stretch shortening cycle of the core musculature (Turner, Bacer, Miller, 2011.) The stretch shortening cycle is a way to tap into stored elastic energy in the trunk and can be accomplished using a medicine ball toss. It is important during this exercise that the rotation come from pivoting on the balls of the feet and internal/external rotation of the hips; not from the lumbar spine which is susceptible to injury with high velocity torque loads (McGill, 2010.) Perform this drill using rapid catches and releases which will help to train footwork and agility specific to boxing. Perform 2-3 sets of 20 seconds work (both sides) and 30-60 seconds rest between sets.

medicine ball toss start medicine ball toss finish

A muscle that is often neglected, but is critical in punching mechanics, is the serratus anterior. In fact, it is often referred to as the “boxers muscle.”

serratus anterior

The serratus anterior originates on the anterior medial border of the scapula and inserts on ribs one through eight. One of the main functions of this muscle is protraction of the scapula, which occurs with every punch. If this muscle is deconditioned, or has limited range of motion, punching power will be negatively effected. Performing a basic Push-Up exercise with a “Plus” will activate the serratus and help improve protraction range of motion. Have your client perform a Push-Up, pause at the top, then drive the scapula into protraction creating more distance between the ground and the torso. Perform 2-3 sets, 12 repetitions and 30-60 seconds rest between sets.

push-up with plus start push-up with plus finish

“Relative to athletic performance, strength and power are both important factors. However, power may be a better predictor of athletic success as compared with strength (Bounty, Campbell, Galvan, Cooke & Antonio, 2011.) In no case is this more evident than in Boxing/MMA. Power exercises must be performed in a ballistic fashion with a focus on speed; thus, the load should be somewhere between 30% to 50% of a one rep max for any given exercise. The Land Mine One Arm Press, is an exercise which can be performed for power, while simultaneously grooving proper pivot mechanics seen in punching. Make sure to start with the rear foot perpendicular to the bar, then aggressively pivot off the rear foot and drive the bar towards the ceiling. The focus should be on an explosive movement starting at the ground and traveling up the kinetic chain: not dissimilar to the rear hand punch. Perform 2-3 sets, 12 reps with 30-60 seconds rest between sets.

Land mine start Land mine finish

Conclusion

Incorporating punching drills into one’s programming can be intimidating, but understanding proper technique and having an arsenal of exercises will assist you in getting started. Make sure to practice these techniques both alone and with a trained professional to refine the movement patterns and get the cuing down. Once you are confident, incorporate focus mitts or heavy bag work into your workouts. I guarantee this will increase novelty, fun and results with your clients.

For a deeper look into these exercises and more, watch the video below:

References

Bounty, P.L., Campbell, B.I., Galvin, E., Cooke, M., Antonio, J., (2011.) Strength and Conditioning Considerations for Mixed Martial Arts. Journal of Strength & Conditioning, 33 Number 1

Bruce Lee (1975) Tao of Jeet Kune Do. Ohara Publications, Inc. Santa Clarita, California.

McGill, Stuart (2010) Core Training: Evidence Translating to Better Performance and Injury Prevention. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 32 (3) 33-46

Santana, J.C., McGill, S.M., Brown, L.E., (2015) Anterior and Posterior Serape: The Rotational Core. Journal of Strength & Conditioning. Volume 37, Number 5

Turner, A., Bacer, E., Miller, S., (2011) Increasing the Impact Force of the Rear Hand Punch. Journal of Strength and Conditioning. Volume 33, Number 6