Developing Your Punching Power Potential

Written By: John Cooper BBA, CSCS


It’s no secret that the modern mixed martial artist needs to be well rounded in the many facets of hand-to-hand combat. Long gone are the days of pure grapplers and pure strikers testing the effectiveness of their particular art. Modern mixed martial artists need to have solid grappling techniques combined with solid striking techniques. Those of us who follow the sport or that train in MMA realize the allure of fighters with knockout power, even the casual MMA fan wants to see the big KO finish. Watch any MMA highlight reel and you can bet the KO’s make up the most dramatic segments of the presentation. The fans love KO’s and thus, so do the promoters of MMA events (why else has a less than stellar fighter like Tank Abbott been continually promoted by organizations like the UFC?). This article will help you improve your punching power potential with practical exercises that are based on the latest in sport science research. So pay attention and maybe your next fight will make a highlight reel!!


It has often been said in the striking arts that ‘you are either born with KO power or you are not’. For the most part I have to disagree with this statement. Yes, some of us are born with incredibly powerful limbs and some are born with incredible endurance or speed or a combination of all these attributes, but the important thing to remember is that all of these attributes are completely trainable. With a scientifically designed training program and the guidance of a knowledgeable & qualified strength & conditioning specialist, anyone can significantly improve their punching power potential. The term ‘potential’ is used purposefully because all the conditioning advice in the world will not take the place of good punching technique taught by well qualified instructors, and dedicated practice in the gym. It should also be noted that many traditional practitioners of striking arts also frowned upon resistance training, with the false belief that it would lead to a lack of flexibility and slower punches; this has been proven to be completely false provided the conditioning program is properly designed.


Now that we are ‘on the same page’ lets get to ‘the goods’. Here are three tips to help you improve your punching power potential:


  1. Develop excellent punching mechanics with an experienced trainer and practice regularly. Without good technique, power development exercises will not be optimally useful. There have been some very interesting soviet studies on what makes a technically sound punch. The soviets looked at 120 boxers ranging from amateurs to experienced professionals. This study found that among the highest level boxers, the highest percent of their power (38.46%) came from the push-off of their back leg, whereas the arm extension and trunk rotation accounted for 24.12% and 37.42% respectively. Even more interesting was that the high level boxers were more ‘well rounded’ with their power development compared to the less experienced boxers (arm extension 37.99%, trunk rotation 45.50% and leg extension 16.51%). This shows that with an increase in boxing skill and experience, boxers improve coordination between arm, leg and trunk movements. Coaches working with junior strikers should give great attention to improving power within the legs, and their ability to coordinate the legs, trunk, & arms.


  1. Ensure that you have developed well-rounded strength in the arms, trunk, & legs without neglecting the other areas of your body (i.e. back, shoulders, neck etc.). I will not get into great detail about what a Mixed Martial Artist needs to be doing for overall strength & conditioning (that’s another article…so stay tuned), However I would like to offer three suggestions for fundamental strength exercises that will help prepare your body for MMA, and contribute greatly to the development of your punching power potential.


Arm Strength – ‘Upper Body Push Power’: One Arm Alternating Dumbbell Press. Anyone who is involved with resistance training should be familiar with the standard barbell bench press. The barbell bench press is an excellent multi-joint upper body exercise. However, I assume the primary reason most of you are lifting weights is for performance development in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), not bodybuilding. If you are bodybuilding then the one arm alternating dumbbell press is a good variation of the traditional bench press. If you are training for MMA, I suggest this exercise become one of your staple upper body exercises. Strength & power is developed at the specific angles that they are trained. Do you ever throw a jab & a cross at the same time? Hopefully not. So why train your body to be strong two arms at a time? This exercise can be done on a flat or incline bench. I suggest varying the bench angles every couple workouts. Start in the traditional dumbbell bench press position; feet flat on floor, butt and high back in contact with the bench at all times (figure 1a), (no raising your butt off the bench). Then raise the dumbbell straight up, one arm at a time, as high as you can reach, keeping the dumbbell in line with your mid chest while still maintaining good posture (figure 1b). Bring the dumbbell back towards your chest then begin with the other arm, alternating for 4-8 reps per arm for 3-6 sets.


Table 1. Exercise Prescriptions

Exercise Name

Number of Sets

Number of Reps

Rest between Sets


1 Arm Alt. Dumbbell Press

3 - 6

4 – 8/arm

1 – 2 minutes


Russian Twist on Stability Ball

2 – 4

10 – 25

30 – 60 seconds


Barbell Step Ups

3 – 6

6 – 12/leg

45 sec. – 2 min.


I.C.T. Power Punching Drill

5 – 10

5 – 15 seconds

5 – 15 seconds



Trunk Rotation – ‘Linking the Power’: Russian Twist on the Stability Ball. The Russian Twist is a great core exercise to develop powerful trunk rotation and torso stability. Start in a bridge position with your high back centered on the stability ball, keep you hips up and your feet placed squarely on the floor. There should be a straight line between your shoulders and knees (figure 2a). Maintain this solid posture and rotate all the way to one side (figure 2b). Keep you eyes on your hands and initiate the movement with your core not your shoulders. Once you reach the end of your range of motion, begin moving in the opposite direction. Start this exercise with just your hands, then add a dumbbell or medicine ball to increase the resistance. Always remember that quality of movement comes before the quantity of weight you use (this is true of all exercises). Count a full 180 degree rotation as 1 rep and perform the exercise until your form is no longer perfect (10-25 reps approx.) for 2-4 sets.



Leg Strength – ‘Maximizing Push Off Power’: Barbell Step Ups. Barbell Step Ups are ideal for training your body to activate the hamstrings, quads and ‘glutes’ while maintaining torso rigidity, and increase the strength of you lower body. Step ups can be used in conjunction with other fundamental lower body exercises like squats & lunges. Start with a step approximately 30 – 46 cm high, or high enough to create a 90-degree angle at the knee joint when the foot is on the box. Place a barbell on you back like you would with a back squat & hold the chest up & out. Place one foot on the step, keep the torso erect and do not lean forward (figure 3a).  Using the lead leg for force, extend the lead hip and knee to move the body to a standing position on top of the box. Do not push off the floor with the trailing leg, lift with the forward leg onto the box. Keep the weight on the forward leg and step back, lowering your foot to the floor. Transfer the weigh to the other foot and continue to alternate legs for 6-12 reps per leg for 3- 6 sets.



  1. Bring it all together with Instantaneous Conversions Training (ICT) (a.k.a. Post Activation Training). So, you have spent some time working on your striking mechanics, and improved your sport specific strength by incorporating some of the aforementioned exercises into your resistance training routine. Now your ready to turn all the technique and strength into power-packed punches. There are many different ways to do this. You could use shadowboxing, plyometrics, heavy bag work, focus pads etc. One of the techniques that seem to work exceptionally well with punching is a technique known as Instantaneous Conversions Training (ICT). Don’t let the name scare you, its actually quite simple. You overload the muscle with resisted movements followed almost immediately by un-resisted movements. The theory is that the improvement in the neural system caused by the power training is then converted to skilled performance through optimization of motor learning factors. Enough technical talk, here’s how to do it. You will need a heavy bag or a partner with focus mitts, bag gloves, & an exercise band or two. Attach the exercise tubing from your hand or wrist to an anchor that is in line with the direction of your punch (figure 4a). Position yourself with enough resistance so that your movement is slowed but not so much resistance that you cannot maintain good punching mechanics. Stand in your fighting stance facing the target.  Punch with great technique for 5-15 seconds using a simple jab-cross combination (figure 4b). Take a 5 – 15 second break and then punch the target without the resistance band. Perform 5-10 sets.



Remember to always vary your workouts at least every 4 - 8 weeks and use progressive overload. Get good with the techniques before you start packing on the poundage. It is always recommended that you workout with a qualified spotter and use good exercise mechanics. These techniques are for use at your own risk. Always consult your doctor before starting an exercise program.