Research has shown that punching force – how hard you can hit – is a key factor for success in many combat sports.
Punching is a combination of the entire body. Force is produced through the floor and then travels through the trunk to the shoulder. Studies have demonstrated that the key distinction between amateur, senior and elite boxers was the amount of work a specific part of the kinetic chain did to contribute to the punch. Most beginners punch with the shoulder, just relying on the chest muscle. More advanced players can include a hip snap to give some plyometric response and a preload to the upper body. In elite boxers, a high amount of the force was recorded as coming from the floor initially – up to 38%. They managed to send a wave up the body and then through the hip and shoulder to create devastating power that would be the equivalent to a knock-out punch. See Filimonov et al (1983).
Even with the growth of MMA as a sport around 1 year ago there were still no studies that explored the impact of S&C on punching power for combat sports. Here we need to consider the importance of the loading mechanics and correspondence to the sport.
Studies that looked to increase leg drive power as a factor of punch power mainly used axial loaded movements and weightlifting variations such as squats, pulls, snatch, clean and jerk as well as vertical jumping. On the surface it would appear that axial loading would have a good transfer to the sport. However, the movements occur bilaterally and only in the vertical plane. The ground reactive forces (GRF) of the leg drive for punching use both vertical and horizontal forces within the range of various stances that the athlete adopts during their particular sport. Therefore, training GRF may be better when based on the primary direction of the punching action. This would result in more sled pulling, prowler pushing, horizontal jumps and even throwing exercises.
GRF were shown to be a primary factor in tennis. Akutagawa and Kojima (2005) looked at backhand shots and found significantly greater vertical GRF than horizontal GRF. This could give an insight into punching power as part of the backhand preparation is a trunk rotation that mimics that of a combat athlete for punching.
The main support for horizontal GRF comes from Cesari and Bertucco (2008). They observed significant changes in the centre of pressure (COP) anteriorly/posteriorly in karatekas – karate practitioners – when punching a target. The study demonstrated that those with greater experience had a greater COP movement anteriorly than posteriorly compared to those less experienced. While the study focussed primarily on maintaining dynamic stability, it still helped to convey direction of force during the punching actions recorded.
The research concludes that lower body strength and power are essential components for punching force. The best way to train for punching force is as follows –
1. Lower body strength and power
2. Core stability
3. Upper body velocity
While most previous research has focussed on axial loading bilaterally, punching is a dynamic and complex motion that occurs over a very short time period. Therefore the program should aim to develop the greatest power outputs from the force-velocity curve. A linear periodisation model will be used – more for illustration purposes than as a recommendation or rule.
The force-velocity curve shows the inverse relationship between strength and speed for programming.
During the preparation phase the development of a max strength base is essential. It is also important to ensure this is both horizontal and vertical for the maximum correspondence to the dynamic nature of punching. Axial loading such as squats and horizontal loading such as sled pulls will form the bulk of the lower body work here.
Once a strength base has been developed, the focus moves to a conversion to power so that the strength base can be adequately expressed through the punching forces generated. Axial power would come from weightlifting variations such as pulls, cleans and jerks, with horizontal power utilising medicine ball work and shot put type throwing. The coach must ensure the appropriate variables are in place such as sets, reps, tempo, recovery and so forth as many combat sports are limited in terms of both active phases and rest phases so adequate recovery must be considered between sets. Moreover, when training to develop GRF at least 2-5 minutes is recommended based on the neurological demands of this form of training. For example, simply aiming for work in time with limited recovery will not prove the best strategy. Lower rest periods almost always result in increased fatigue and therefore a lower load used in training with adequate technical abilities maintained for safety. If the goal is to improve GRF then longer rest periods will be required and must be planned in the programming. True maximum efforts are only possible when bioenergetic restoration has occurred from the previous training set otherwise accumulated fatigue has a deficit on performance levels. A key consideration is that you are training for a neuromuscular stimulus rather than a metabolic one.
The relationship between power training, strength training and RFD.
Core training has largely focussed on lumbar stability in terms of the rotational forces of the punching action. The emphasis on lumbar rotational stability – as opposed to lumbar movement – has been indicated as a key factor in allowing GRF to transfer from lower body to upper body before contact – (see Harris-Hayes et al 2009; McMahon et al 2012). Similar to many sporting movements a stretch shortening cycle (SSC) has been observed before punching. It is suggested that by stiffening the lumbar spine a similar effect to the joint stiffness seen in plyometric adaptations could occur. Furthermore, if stability of the lumbar spine is emphasised over mobility then injury risk could be reduced through less movement. Mobility could also lead to a loss in punching force compared to lumbar stability that would transfer GRF more efficiently. The best exercises for progress here would be anti-rotation such as band work, single cable work and unilateral carrying to build fatigue resistance in the core section.
Transitions in training phases moving from work capacity to technical intensity.
Ironically, the upper body is actually where the least focus goes as what happens before the punch reaches the shoulder is more important that what happens from the arm. While strength is important, velocity must be considered first. Punching is one of the fastest movements in sport and for this reason a more ballistic approach to training is recommended where an increase in the velocity of striking is the primary aim of the training phase. Exercises such as bench press throws – relative to the power curve, med ball throws, plyometric push ups, pull ups and bents rows to balance anterior and posterior are a sound inclusion.
It is hypothesised that resistance bands would have a significant impact on upper limb velocity as they have been shown to improve performance in taekwondo kicking speed. In order to increase the velocity portion of the force curve Jubiak and Saunders (2008) tested the impact training with resistance bands would have on turning kick velocity and found a significant increase of 7% compared to control (p = <0.05) in just 4 weeks of training. The importance of increasing the velocity of the turning kick is paramount as in competition not only does kicking account for 98% of points scored (Kazemi 2003), but turning kicks are the most frequent kicking technique used for scoring in the sport (Lee 1983). The validity of resistance band training was also demonstrated in tennis (Treiber 1998).
Get strong legs, train ballistically to increase your RFD, work anti-rotation and core stability.
Technical skills – relax then allow your full body to contract so the punch ripples from floor to hand in a split second. Pulsing can help here for rapid contraction and relaxation. Visualisation can also help greatly by imagining a band pulling your fist back and then releasing it forwards for explosive power.
Feedback and comments welcome.