From boxing to UFC to karate, all martial artists know that if they want to punch their way to the top, they need a strong punch. Technique plays a role in how your punches land, of course. But if punching speed and punching power is your goal, you need to strengthen the key muscle groups required for a Herculean swing.
Let’s explore the biomechanics of a strong, fast punch. We will also talk about the five best exercises you need to useto increase power and speed of your punches.
Mechanics and Muscles Involved In Throwing a Punch
According to research presented by the International Sports Engineering Association, the biomechanics of a punch vary depending on the type of punch you’re throwing (e.g. a hook, an uppercut, etc.).
There are also variables from person to person, and from fighter to fighter. For instance, UFC fighter Conor McGregor often takes a different stance and position than Khabib Nurmagomedov.
However, no matter your style or your experience, two things are important for everyone: Maintaining your body’s kinetic chain (more on that below), and strengthening the main muscles used by every fighter to deliver knockout punches.
Body Positioning and Punching Mechanics
Many people think of punching as something that primarily occurs in the upper body. Successful boxers, UFC fighters and other martial artists know there’s more to that. Punching speed and punching power only come when you drive forward with your entire body.
It all starts from the ground up. You launch into the punch not with your arms, but with your legs, and that force transfers up the kinetic chain through the fist and into your unsuspecting opponent.
So while a hook, a jab or a cross might emphasize specific muscle groups, in general, the biomechanics stay the same for everyone. Let’s break it down by muscle groups.
FEET AND LEGS: In one of the earliest studies done on punching and how boxers generate power (National Strength and Conditioning Association Journal, December 1985), researchers noted that the more advanced and stronger a boxer, the more he or she used their legs to generate the full force of their punch.
Your legs, specifically your calf muscles, your quadriceps and your gluteus maximus (i.e. your butt), push away from the ground as you throw a punch. This is why many accomplished boxers have legs and calves that are just as developed, if not more developed, than their upper bodies.
As you move from a stationary stance into your swing, your legs transfer force up from the knee through the quads and hamstrings and into the hips and upper body. Which brings us to the next stage…
HIPS AND CORE: As the kinetic force travels up from your legs, your hips torque and add more power. The hips are responsible for keeping you balanced, and when used properly, help to move the full force of your strength into your upper body without “leaking” power.
Meanwhile, your abs combine and focus all that kinetic energy, with your obliques (the core muscles that run along your rib cage) helping to transfer the rotational force into your shoulders and arms.
SHOULDERS: As the kinetic force moves into your upper body, you activate your shoulders and your arms.
Your shoulders are mostly for punching endurance (and, consequently, speed).
Sure, your shoulder muscles do help generate some power, but the front deltoids help maintain speed and momentum throughout your fight or your training. That’s because many of the small shoulder muscles, such as your serratus anterior and rotator cuff, allow you to do repeated strikes without wearing down your joints or suffering injury.
ARMS: Your biceps bend your elbow and pull back your arm at the start of a punch, and your triceps extend your elbow as you throw a punch.
Finally, your forearms are responsible for making a strong fist and stabilizing your wrist when the punch lands. Maintaining a straight wrist is critical for delivering the full force of your throw and not losing any speed or power.
Think of it another way: Your arms aren’t for building power, but for delivering power. They do nothing more than efficiently transferring the kinetic force that started in your lower body and connecting that force with your opponent.
- The punch starts when you drive down with your rear leg. This is where all your power starts, activating the kinetic chain of events.
- The hips rotate (a combination of the rear hip externally rotating and the front hip internally rotating), twisting your pelvis and transferring that energy up into your core.
- As the power moves up from your lower body, your core maintains tension and also keeps you from twisting too far (anti-rotation), thus allowing power to transfer efficiently into your upper body.
- Meanwhile, back in your lower body, your body weight shifts into your front foot, “braking” your momentum and ensuring all that force is transmitted up the body.
- Your chest, arm muscles and shoulders contract, delivering the final blow and completing the kinetic chain.
How to Improve Punching
Now that we’ve broken down the kinetic chain involved in punching speed and punching power, you can see how it’s not just about honing your punching technique.
By focusing on a strength program made up of both punching speed exercises and punching power exercises, you build strength, endurance and functionality into your full-body movement patterns.
Specifically, every boxer or martial artist needs to focus on:
- Building explosive power in the lower body, which starts the kinetic chain upward.
- Working on the core so that the kinetic chain doesn’t break.
- Strengthening the shoulders so that power transfers effectively into your arms (this also helps with punching endurance).
- Focusing on the triceps, biceps and forearms for stability and completing the punch.
The following five exercises do exactly that and are the perfect complement to the rest of your regular strength training and programming.
5 Exercises to Increase Punching Speed and Power
Before doing any of the following punching speed exercises and punching power exercises, make sure you spend 10 minutes in a dynamic warm-up. This activates your nervous system, gets your blood flowing, and helps you to achieve the most out of each exercise.
Dynamic warm-ups work your body in all planes of movement, preparing you for the torquing and twisting of punching. Example warm-up exercises include side lunges, crawl-out squats, and yoga-like rotational movements.
You may also want to consider doing these movements without shoes on. Going barefoot helps to create a stronger mind-body connection between your feet and your upper body (key for maintaining that all-important kinetic chain) and also strengthens the small stabilizing muscles in your feet, ankles and lower legs.
1. Squat Jumps
Squat jumps power-up the type-2 muscle fibers that give you explosive power and speed.
These jumps work your entire lower body, especially the quads and glutes that you need for generating a lot of force in your punch. The bending and jumping also strengthen your hips and core and gives you great practice for transferring energy from a stationary stance to your upper body.
- Stand as if you are about to jump, with your feet slightly wider than your shoulders and your hands hanging at your side.
- Get down into a squat with your knees bent and your thighs in a 45-degree angle from the floor.
- Explode upward, pushing down into the floor and jumping as high as possible.
- Land as softly as possible on the balls of your feet before sinking back into a squat. That’s one rep.
- Do three to four sets of five to six reps.
- Optional: As you get better at squat jumps, you can add resistance by holding a light dumbbell in each of your hands.
2. Landmine Shoulder Press
Landmine presses build shoulder strength, which is important for punching endurance. Secondary muscle groups targeted by landmine presses include your chest, arms, upper back and core.
The pressing movement also requires explosive movement, which can strengthen your punch and help you to punch faster.
One especially important benefit for boxers is improved shoulder flexion (mobility) which can help you to improve the flexibility needed for quick jabs and cuts.
- Use either a free barbell, or a barbell anchored at one end to the floor if your gym or training studio offers a landmine device.
- Stand facing the weighted end of the barbell in a split stance (i.e. one leg positioned in front of the other).
- Grab the barbell with the hand that’s opposite your front leg (i.e. if your right leg is in front, grab the barbell with your left hand).
- Hold the barbell at chest height.
- Brace your core, then press the weight overhead until your arm is fully extended.
- Pause, then bring the barbell back down to your chest.
- Do as many as you can in 10 seconds, then switch arms and repeat on the other side. That’s one set.
- Aim for three to four sets total with 30 seconds of rest between each set.
3. Medicine Ball Throws
Medicine ball throws are one of the best ways to develop both strength, endurance, and mobility in your upper body. Specific muscle groups affected include your shoulders (anterior deltoid), trapezius, core (including your internal and external obliques, and your transversus abdominis), and glutes.
Similar to squat jumps, medicine ball throws are explosive, which is key for power and speed in your punch. The required twisting and turning conditions your body for the torque called for when you transfer the kinetic energy into your arm.
- Stand perpendicular to a wall or similar hard surface.
- Get into a semi-squat with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Holding a medicine ball at the hip opposite of the wall, swing the ball back away from the wall.
- Explode into a twist, turning and bringing the ball across your body and releasing it into a throw against the wall.
- Let the ball bounce back towards you and catch it, then in a fluid motion twist back to the starting position. That’s one rep.
- Repeat for 8 to 10 throws, then switch your stance and throw the ball with the opposite arm.
- Do three or four sets of 8-10 throws on each side of your body.
4. Cable Machine Punches
By adding tension to your punching movement via a cable machine, you strengthen all the major muscle groups of the upper body involved in punching (e.g. shoulders, traps, chest, biceps and triceps).
Additionally, the constant tension (and instability) created by holding the cable will target the small tendons, ligaments and stabilizing muscles in your wrists and forearms. While often ignored, these minor muscles and connective tissue are important for delivering the force of your punch whilst avoiding injury.
- Stand with your back to the cable machine.
- Get into a split stance with one foot forward.
- Grab the pulley handle behind you with the hand that’s on the same side as your back leg (i.e. if you’re in a split stance with your left foot forward, grab the pulley with your right hand).
- Bring the cable up next to your shoulder with your elbow bent and your forearm vertical. This is your starting position.
- Drive your fist forward in a clean, fluid punching motion, pulling the cable with you. Make sure to keep your lower body stable and your core tight.
- Pause when your arm is fully extended, then draw it back to the starting position to complete one rep.
- Do three sets of 10 reps.
5. Cable Crossovers
Cable crossovers are great for hitting your anterior deltoids (the front of your shoulders, which are very involved in punching) as well as your entire upper chest. The tension of the cable also hones the endurance and strength of your core and back.
Plus, the crossover motion expands the chest and shoulder, adding mobility to these important muscle groups so you have more flexion and movement which lends itself to more speed and power in all forms of punching.
- Stand between both stacks of the cable machine.
- Set the cable height to a height that’s above your head.
- Grab a pulley in each hand and step into a split stance, bending slightly at the hips.
- Pull your arms together in front of your chest with palms facing inward, keeping your elbows slightly bent the entire time.
- Let your arms cross over each other as the name of this exercise suggests.
- Pause, then extend both arms outwards and backwards until your hands are in line with your shoulders. That’s one rep.
- Do three sets of 8-12 reps.
As we discussed extensively above, punching power and punching speed is less about technique as people imagine, and more about driving explosive force up from the ground and through your upper body.
By maintaining the kinetic chain, you deliver true impact to your opponent.
Regularly work on your explosive movement, specifically with the larger muscle groups in your lower body, and your shoulders and chest. Beyond the above exercises, other great movements to consider include:
- Plyometrics, such as plyometric push-ups
- Chin-ups and pull-ups
However, start with the five exercises outlined in today’s article. They’re your best for a full-body punching routine, and give you a strong foundation for your next workout (or your next fight).