by William A. Kohtz
Developing strong punches and strikes has been on man’s mind since times immemorial. Even small kids admire the strongest boxers and martial artists. It’s almost like this is instinctual to humans.
However, there are many different ideas about developing the power to knock an opponent out: Do you use weight training? Will weight training make you slow? What about the various tools Asian martial artists use to bring their punching power up to scratch?
This article will be an attempt to cut through all the confusion and to develop a workable, simple training method for raising anyone’s punching power.
First things first: A bit of boring theory
What exactly is a punch and how can it be distinguished from a simple push or shove?
Simply said, a punch is a very quick shove that doesn’t aim to move an opponent. The reason for this is that moving an opponent will be simply pushing him to some extent, and that doesn’t hurt very much, does it?
A punch, on the other hand, needs to hit in a way that damage is done. Therefore, one must not push the opponent, one must hit him. Hitting is a much shorter, sharper movement.
Imagine you have a knife in your hand. With the knife’s point you can push things, or you can stab them. You can use a slow, long movement to push an apple away, and you can also use a short, sharp movement to thrust the blade into it. For punching, you want to develop the latter quality in your techniques.
Another thing to keep in mind is that “arm punching“ is rather useless. “Arm punching“ means the bad habit of many beginners not to use their whole body in a movement. An arm weighs only a few pounds, so without the body driving it and putting power into it, an arm alone won’t do much damage.
For this reason, things like footwork, waist turning and stances exist in all martial arts, to enable a practitioner to use a kind of whole body movement.
If you’re a beginner, keeping these two things in mind should already raise your power output. Let’s look at strength training next.
Strength training for punching
Everyone has heard horror stories about fighters becoming stiff and slow from lifting weights. On the other hand, you may also have heard many stories about this being simply an old wives’ tale, an urban legend spread by people who are simply too lazy to do their workouts.
What is the truth?
Well, as it turns out, weight training DOES make you stiff and slow – at least the way it’s commonly done.
In other words, if you want a good punch, you better trash your bench, your barbells and your 3 tons in weight plates of varying sizes.
Remember the first paragraph, where it was shown that punches need to be short and sharp? Normal, heavy weight training takes away exactly the sharpness that one wants to develop. The reason for this is that lifting heavy weights is not functional for martial arts of any kind. There is no or not much carry-over from the amount of weight you lift to the power of your strikes.
The reasons are rather simple:
- Punching is a whole-body movement. Weightlifting generally isn’t, even if you do powerlifting.
- If the kind of weightlifting you do is a full-body movement (Like Olympic weightlifting, for example), it’s a movement that is not compatible with punching. You’re basically training your nervous system to exert force upwards, which rarely happens when you punch. It will have almost no carry-over effect to exerting force forwards.
- According to Soviet sports scientists like Yuri Verkhoshansky, there is a difference between what is called loaded strength (meaning strength where you move a weight) and unloaded strength (meaning moving parts of your body forcefully without weight).
All this means that, while weightlifting may not have an effect of hardening and stiffening the muscle fibers themselves, it will train your nervous system in a way that is not suitable for the martial arts, which will result in slow, stiff, awkward movement. It would be like forcing a football linebacker to do gymnastics and expecting that his strength would help him with this. No chance.
So does this mean the “Do not strength train EVER!“-crowd is correct? Not exactly.
The magic of leverage
In fact, there IS a kind of training that will increase your punching power, and if you ever watched Kungfu movies or talked with someone who knows about old-school boxing, you may already know about it.
It’s called heavy physical work, or imitating heavy physical work.
Why is this so? Because such a kind of work will not only strengthen your muscles, it will train your body to make the most out of any kind of leverage it can generate.
Long hours of farm work, swinging heavy melee weapons or even metal smithing are not possible by muscle strength alone. You use momentum and leverage to make it possible.
In fact, the thing modern strength trainers abhor most, “cheating“ (meaning not using strict technique), is what develops what is commonly called “farmboy strength“ or “old man strength“, which allows seemingly skinny people to knock out and throw around much heavier people.
There are many ways to train like this: Modern MMA athletes like hitting tires with sledgehammers. Old-school boxers chopped wood. Samurai swung heavy iron and wooden swords. The Romans fought against an upright wooden pole with equipment that was twice as heavy as the real thing. Medieval Chinese soldiers used enormous versions of their field weapons. Indian and Persian wrestlers still swing heavy clubs in intricate patterns. Okinawan karateka used the chishi, a kind of stone sledgehammer.
The principle was always the same.
This is what will make your hands heavy and strong. Forget bench pressing, forget deadlifting, forget biceps curls. What you need is leverage and momentum.
Since you can imitate your martial arts movements with these implements, there is no way to train in an unfunctional way. It’s fun, too. Just get a light sledgehammer and start swinging it around.
As was shown in this article, doing classical strength training for punching power is a mistake and will only end in tears. The way to go is looking at warriors of the past and doing the things they did to get strong. This usually means swinging around odd objects and heavy weapons.