Developing Punching Power Using Science: Part 3, Upper Extremities

March 29, 2020

Welcome to the final instalment of this series on improving your punching power for combat sports and martial arts! Before we begin to discuss exercises for the upper extremities let’s once again review the following key points:

  1. Strength training is a SUPPLEMENT. Repetitive honing of proper punching technique must always trump lifting weights, particularly if you are training for sport fighting with adherence to weight classes.
  2. The key to proper punching technique, according to research, is activating the CORRECTmuscles in the CORRECT sequence.
  3. The most important muscles for punching are located in your LOWER EXTREMITIES. Focus on developing these as they are often neglected.


Arm Extension

Trunk Rotation

Push Off Extension of back leg


"Knock-out" Artists















Table II: Percent of Contribution to Force of Punch

For the final time, we will refer to this classic chart from Filminov and his group. Note how “arm extension” plays a minor role in punching power compared to trunk rotation and leg extension/push-off. This is especially true for fighters who are more known for their KO power. But 24% is still a big deal, especially when you are competing at the highest level where every little advantage matters. Additionally, “arm extension” is a big over-simplification of the work your upper body actually does at the end portion of a punch. But enough of this. Let’s get on with the exercises!

Bench Press Variations

Ah yes, the most “mainstream” of all exercises. The bench press and its variations will certainly help with aesthetics, but also give you great bang for your buck in terms of upper body muscular development. They are excellent exercises to strengthen muscles responsible for shoulder flexion and internal rotation (anterior deltoids, pectoralis major), scapular protraction (serratus anterior), elbow extension (triceps) and will provide stability to the joints. As always, proper form is imperative. And be sure to ask your coaches about the proper ways to implement these exercises into your routine to ensure you don’t negatively impact your skills training.

Shoulder Deltiods




Flat bench press (dumbbell or barbell):

Pretty self-explanatory. You can vary the weight and reps/sets depending on your current goals (emphasis on max strength vs speed?). For the barbell variation, using a grip with hands closer together (but not too narrow) will emphasize your triceps more. You can also choose to do a floor press, which hits your triceps and chest with less stress on your shoulders. Push-upsdevelop most of the same musculature, are useful for building muscular endurance, and have their place in a well-balanced conditioning regimen too. They are also convenient if you can’t get to the gym which, as I am writing this, is an unfortunate reality for most of us currently due to the viral pandemic (more on this in a future article!)

Bench Press Position - Pectoralis Major

Plyometric presses/throws

perform this movement explosively, ensuring that you have sufficient time to recover between sets. Focus on exhaling hard and fast with each effort. Check your ego at the door and go very light on the weights for your first several sets. Remember that the focus is on getting the weight up and out of your hands as fast as possible, and not how heavy you can go. You would preferably do these on a separate day than when you train for maximum strength. And take extra care to not allow the object you are tossing to land on your face!

You can also choose to be more “sports-specific” and perform standing medicine ball throws from your fighting stance. This bad-ass variation will develop that explosiveness not only in your triceps and shoulders but throughout the entire punching kinetic chain.

A study of elite Brazilian national team boxers in 2016 found that power development with both standard and plyometric bench press-type exercises strongly correlated with the impact of jabs and crosses thrown.

Tricep Dips

Another excellent exercise which belongs in every fighter’s S&C program. It’s versatile; you can churn out high repetitions to build endurance or slap on a weight belt if you want to go for pure strength. They can be done at the gym, at the playground, or in your home using a chair. According to some EMG studies, dips may also recruit the triceps more effectively compared to push-ups and bench pressing.

Tricep Dips

Rows and Pull-Ups

Balance is key for most things in life, and strength training is no exception. Unfortunately, most combat sports training regimens traditionally have focused too much on the “pressing” exercises mentioned above. Most fighters can attest to the endless push-ups done while growing up in the sport. However those exercises, on top of all the punching already performed during regular skills training, can overstress the anterior portions of your shoulders and upper torso. This can then lead to poor posture, pain, as well as decreased efficiency and power in your strikes. Remember too that in a fight you need the ability to quickly snap your punches back to position after they are thrown. It would therefore be wise to heavily work the “pulling” muscles in your upper torso: namely the rhomboids, latissimus dorsi, and middle trapezius. The latissimus in particular is crucial to strengthen as it transfers power from your hips and glutes to your arms via myofascial connections. It also helps power shoulder internal rotation (more on why this is important later).

Bruce Lee Wide Lats

Look no further than Bruce Lee to see a prime example of lethal lats

Rows and pull-ups should be your bread and butter exercises in this situation. They each work different planes so make sure you are doing both with regularity. You can also vary the grip, cadence, resistance, and rep scheme to make for a new experience every workout.

Rotator cuff strengthening exercises

The rotator cuff is comprised of four different muscles (subscapularis, teres minor, supraspinatus, and infraspinatus) which originate from the scapula (or shoulder blade) and hug the shoulder joint, stabilizing it. This group performs movements at the shoulder which are critical for success in just about every sport. Unfortunately these small muscles are often neglected, leading to unrealized physical potential and increased likelihood of serious injury. Studies suggest that fighters may be at risk for sustaining the same shoulder overuse injuries normally associated with overhead throwing athletes like baseball pitchers. Overuse can then lead to more serious conditions like impingement and labral tears. Remember that you are only as strong as your weakest link. Put the time in to strengthen the rotator cuff and you will reap the benefits!

One specific movement which can be improved with a strong rotator cuff is shoulder internal rotation. This is the motion your shoulder makes when you listen to your coaches and turn your punches over. It provides that last bit of OOMF to generate big power in your rear cross, overhand, and hook right before impact.

The subscapularis is the rotator cuff muscle we want to target in this case. You can strengthen it using bands or free weights. Keep the resistance low, the speed controlled, and reps on the higher side for best results.


Of course to keep the entire rotator cuff healthy and functional, you would need to work the opposing movements as well. Right before a punch makes impact, your shoulder external rotator muscles are also working hard to decelerate the movement of your arm and prevent your shoulder from dislocating. Therefore it is easy to see why training these muscles (the teres minor and infraspinatus) is critical to maintain proper stabilization and balance.

Check out this sports rehabilitation regimen from the University of California San Francisco for more exercises:Scapular Stabilization Protocol

Grip Strengthening:

And now to put the cherry on top of all of this, you would be wise to also include some forearm training in your routine. Grip strength measurement has often been used in medical literature to represent upper body muscularity as a whole. One small study of elite Italian boxers in 2002 even showed that their world rankings happened to positively correlate with hand grip strength. With hand injuries being so prevalent in the fight game, it would also make sense to simply improve your ability to make a tight fist. The good news is that many of the exercises recommended in this series will already work your grip as a bonus. But you also cannot go wrong with farmer’s carries: simple, effective, and real-world practical.

Well there you have it. Hopefully these articles will give you some ideas on how to craft an effective combat sports strength routine. And hopefully the background research provided will you give you some insight into why certain exercises would be most effective to improve your punching power. Note that many of the recommendations are compound lifts which are relatively simple to execute. As fighters, your time is limited. So it is best to maximize it with regimens which will give you the most bang for your buck. While the focus here has been on punching power, I am certain that these exercises would produce great results for kicking and grappling as well. Remember once again, however, that technique and skills training must always be paramount. Until next time, happy training!

By: David Liang, MD
Resident Physician and Combat Sports Practitioner

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