The punch is a key component to various combat sports. Punching is a complex motion that involves movement of the arm, trunk, and legs with the lower body considered a primary contributor to an effective punch . Previous research has reported that punching impact force is a main performance indicator in amateur boxing and paramount to a fighters victory [1, 2]. Research is scarce in regards to training to punch harder but this article will attempt to piece together the current research and give practical advice to enhance punching forces. For the purpose of this article, when referring to punching harder in the literature, I will be referring to the rear hand punch or the “cross” as this is the punch studied most.
Factors of Punching Harder
One of the earliest studies, if not the earliest, looked at contributions to punching forces in different levels of boxers (experienced, intermediate, and novice) and in different styles of boxers (knock-out artists, players, and speedsters) . They identified 3 different components to an effective punch: 1) the arm musculature into the target; 2) rotation of the trunk, and 3) the drive off the ground by the legs [1, 3]. Experienced boxers had greater contributions from the legs (38.46%) compared to other levels of boxers and compared to arm (24.12%) and trunk (37.42%) contributions. They also showed less involvement of the arm musculature compared to other levels of boxers (intermediate = 25.94%; novice = 37.99%) and compared to trunk and leg contribution. In regards to the different styles, knock-out artists had greater contributions from the legs (38.65%) compared to “players” (32.81%) and “speedsters” (32.55%) along with a higher contribution than the trunk (37.30%) and arms (24.05%).
More recent research has investigated the strength and power qualities in elite amateur boxers from the Brazilian National Team . As the research above indicated about legs being a primary contributor to punching power, this study observed very high correlations between jumping performance and punching harder (r = 0.78). Furthermore, upper body propulsive forces in the bench press and bench throw showed very high correlations with punching harder (r = 0.77). These correlations indicate that 78% of punching harder can potentially be explained by jump performance. A correlation is an indicator of how 2 different variables interact with each other. If the correlation is 0, then both variables are independent and have no relationship with each other. If the correlation is 1, then the 2 variables share a mutual relationship.
It is suggested from these data presented that harder punchers have greater contributions from their legs which indicates these combat athletes have better coordination between the various body segments . The impact forces from the punch are the resultant sum of forces applied simultaneously by the upper and lower limbs [2, 3]. In essence, an effective coordination of the body links increases “hitting mass” . Why is “hitting mass” important? We can look at Newton’s 2nd law.
Force = Mass x Acceleration
The size of an athlete does not always equal a harder punch.
If we can increase the mass behind the punch while maintaining the same acceleration, impact force of the punch increases. However, that is not to say being a bigger athlete means you automatically increase the mass behind the punch as evidenced with body mass having a weaker correlation to punching harder compared to the strength and power variables . Furthermore, throwing a punch as fast as you can at an intended target but contact is only made halfway through the punch, then mass cannot be maximised due to the musculature being relaxed and the summation of forces from the ground not being applied appropriately . This is where the concept of “effective mass” comes into play and could be a key component to punching harder.
Lenetsky et al.  references anecdotal evidence from the one and only Bruce Lee. He emphasises the importance of relaxing the body as you strike, tensing at the last possible moment before impact. Similarly, Jack Dempsey (a world champion boxer) states that punches should be thrown as relaxed as possible, only becoming ‘frozen, steel hard’ at impact. Both elite martial artists (without them knowing) were referring to increasing the effective mass of their strike which is improving the ability to transfer momentum throughout the body to the intended target.
“If an athlete is able to relax their arm throughout a strike, and then stiffen their arm at the last possible moment, theoretically that strike would impact with greater force than one thrown with constant activation or stiffness” .
If an athlete was a solid uniformly block of mass (e.g. a fridge) then the calculation of punching impact force would be easy. The uniform mass would just be plugged into the Newton’s 2nd law above. However, athletes are made of multiple moving segments with both rigid (bone) and soft (muscles) structures . This is important as soft structures can deform at impact which has been coined as “wobbling mass.” “Wobbling mass” is unable to transmit impact forces as effectively as rigid mass which means your ability to punch hard is directly affected. The greater the rigidity of the impact mass (arm, trunk, and legs), the less elastic the collision is. The less elastic the collision, the greater momentum (Momentum = Mass x Velocity) that is imparted on the target . Take for example swinging 2 different objects at someone. Firstly, a pool noodle is swung as hard as possible. Due to the soft mass of a pool noodle, at impact, the noodle wraps around the target and at the point of impact the noodle deforms slightly and creates a small indent. Now take a wooden stick or bat that has approximately the same mass as the noodle. When this is swung at the target at the same velocity as the pool noodle, the stick is rigid and is able to transfer more momentum to the target due to its effective mass being greater. To quantify the impacts of this “wobbling mass” in humans, effective mass is used .
Referenced in Lenetsky et al. , previous research has found that an increase in muscle contraction and co-contraction (opposing muscle groups both contracting simultaneously increasing joint stability) around a given joint can reduce the deformation during impact, which allows for a greater effective mass and a harder punch. Additionally, the more segments involved in a movement the greater the potential to enhance effective mass . For example, stepping forward during a jab would increase the impact force compared to just throwing the arm.
At the start of impact, 2 aspects of the punch need to be satisfied to transfer momentum. Firstly, all joints supporting the impact need to be stiffened (as mentioned previously) in order to prevent collapse of the joint or “wobbling mass.” Secondly, it is theorised that to maximise the effectiveness of a punch, an additional force needs to be added during the time of impact . The authors state that force needs to be timed carefully to coincide with the deceleration of the impact, as this is the only time force may be effectively applied. Force applied after impact could be theorised to push at the target rather than deform it. This leads us to a key neuromuscular phenomenon thought to cause changes in effective mass .
Double Peak Muscle Activation
This striking technique has been found to occur in elite mixed martial artists . Double peak muscle activation refers to the involved muscle groups activating, relaxing, and then re-activating (hence the double peak). The first peak occurs as the punch is initiated, then the relaxation period occurs throughout the movement until the second peak in activation moments before impact. It has been claimed to occur because of the needed attribute to appropriately interact with an opponent . Velocity and force are inversely related where-as velocity increases, force decreases. As force increases velocity decreases. However, appropriate levels of impact force are also needed for the punch to be effective.
Hence, the double peak activation may be a way to circumvent the inherent limitations in the force-velocity relationship and result in a punch maximising velocity and force .
What is interesting to note is that double peak activation occurs in trained and non-trained individuals. However, non-trained individuals, the second peak occurred much earlier and last much longer . Therefore, it seems non-trained individuals will intuitively stiffen the joints to brace for anticipated impact and protect the limbs. The early activation will tend to slow the velocity of the punch, thereby reducing the effective mass. A high level martial artist will tense at the moment of impact and continue to push through the impact to deliver a harder punch. It is believed that this is what separates the novice from the expert .
How To Punch Harder
Before diving into some training applications to enhance punching power, it should be noted that the greatest influence on improving effective mass and therefore punching harder is experience. The more an athlete is punching a target, the better they will be at enhancing effective mass .
However, one technique that could help to deliver a harder punch right away is the use of an ‘energy shout.’
An ‘energy shout’ made pre-impact of a strike has the potential to increase effective mass . This could be why tennis players make a loud grunt whenever they strike the ball.
Based on the research presented, training the lower body seems to be a logical way of improving punching power due to its greater contribution to an effective punch. Variations of squats, deadlifts, hip thrusts and single leg work are a general way to improve lower body strength, especially in martial artists with little to no strength training experience. Typically, these should be done in the 3 – 6 rep range as increased muscle size is not usually the desired outcome. This would cover the force side of the force-velocity relationship in a general exercise capacity.
Developing lower body power can be trained through various loads from bodyweight through to moderate loading. Various jumps, hops, and bounds in various planes of motion again are good ways to develop general lower body power (see videos below). Pure velocity work should be performed with exercises that unload some bodyweight. An example would be a band assisted vertical jump where the band aids in the jump by deloading some bodyweight and increasing take-off velocity.
Rotational trunk strength is another important physical component to punching harder. Rotational trunk exercises can be performed with force or velocity emphases in mind. Examples of force based trunk exercises could be Pallof Press or heavy Landmine Rotations or even various 1-Arm upper body movements. Velocity or power exercises can be trained through various medicine ball throws or band work.
While strength/power capabilities of these separate body segments are important, it’s the link between them all that allows the most effective transfer of momentum from the ground through to the hand. Exercises that display similar characteristics to the punch may be more “specific” and transfer better to martial arts training. Some example rotational med ball throws are linked in the videos below where you can see the medicine ball is accelerated with great velocities using legs, hips and trunk to summate forces from the bottom to the top linking all the segments involved together.
Here are a couple of example programs that can be used and tinkered with for someone trying punch harder. These are general in nature and are more to provide a framework or those looking for guidance. Remember with strength & conditioning training, certain capacities that don’t get trained while doing the sport should be touched on during strength training. For example, generating very high levels of force rarely occur (depending on the martial art). Being able to increase the maximum level of force an athlete can produce, theoretically submaximal force outputs become easier which therefore will increase work capacity or conditioning.
Trainee with little to no strength training experience.
Preparing for more intense work in the future. Developing a general strength base.
A1) Upper Body Extensive Med Ball Circuit
1. Chest Pass Wall Rebound x15
2. Sideways Rotary Pass x15/side
3. Front Facing Side to Side Wall Rebound x8/side
4. Slam x15
Complete once through
B1) Box Jump 4×3
C1) Back Squat 3×4 (4sec down, leaving 2-3reps left in the tank after each set)
D1) Bench Press 3×6
D2) Chinup 3xMax bodyweight strict
E1) Pallof Press 3×10/side
E2) Side Plank 3x30sec/side
A1) Extensive (non-maximal) Jumping Leg Circuit
1. Tuck Jump x10
2. Skater Jump x10
3. Lunge Split Jumps x10
4. Pogo Jumps x20
5. Squat Jump x10
B1) Landmine Rotation 3×6/side
C1) Plate Lateral Lunge 3×5/side
D1) 1-Arm DB Press 3×6
D2) Half Kneeling Cable Row 3×8-10/side
A1) Band Assisted Skater Rebound Jump 3×3/side
B1) Heavy Band Rotation 3×5/side
B2) Explosive Med Ball Rotational Punch Throw (see video) 3×3/side
C1) Half Squat off Pins 3×2-3
C2) Hurdle Hop 3×5
D1) KB Swing 3×6
A1) Bench Press 3×1+1+1 w/30sec rest between reps @93-95% 1RM
A2) Explosive Med Ball Chest Throw 3×3
A3) Bench Throw 3×4 @30% 1RM
A4) Band Assisted or Incline Clap Pushup 3×5
B1) Weighted Pullups 4×5
Key Points to Punch Harder
- Punch More! The more experience gathered, the better the timing of the double peak muscle activation.
- Utilise the ‘energy shout’ It has the potential to enhance effective mass immediately.
- “Knock-out” artists have a greater contribution from the legs in their punching power compared to other stylists of fighters. Train your legs to maximise strength/power capabilities. But don’t neglect your trunk and arm musculature.
- Bigger is not better. Rather the ability to effectively transfer momentum between body segments, being relaxed while throwing the punch to maximise acceleration & velocity, and stiffening the arm at the last possible moment to minimise “wobbling mass” and optimise effective mass.
- Lenetsky, S., Harris, N, & Brughelli, M., Assessment and Contributors of Punching Forces in Combat Sports Athletes: Implications for Strength and Conditioning. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 2013. 35(2).
- Luturco, I., Nakamura, F, Artioli, G, Kobal, R, Kitamura, K, Cal Abad, C, Cruz, I, Romano, F, Pereira, L, & Franchini, E., Strength and power qualities are highly associated with punching impact in elite amateur boxers. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2016. 30(1): p. 109-116.
- Filimonov VI, K.K., Husyanov ZM, & Nazarov SS., Means of increasing strength of the punch. NSCA Journal, 1983. 7: p. 65-66.
- Lenetsky, S., Nates, R, Brughelli, M, Harris, N., Is effective mass in combat sports punching above its weight? Human Movement Science, 2015. 40: p. 89-97.