Question: I’m interested in trying your high intensity training program and have a few questions. What repetition range should I use if I want to focus on strength without getting too much bigger? What are the best exercises to improve punching power? Shouldn’t I perform my reps explosively to increase power?
Answer: How much muscle mass you gain relative to strength depends on your genetics, rather than the specific repetition range you use. The belief that you can preferentially train for either strength or hypertrophy independent of the other is a myth, most likely resulting from people making inferences based on observing the differences in the training methods and the ratio of strength to size between strength athletes and bodybuilders while failing to consider selection bias. On the exact same training program a few people will become very strong with only low to moderate increases in muscular size, a few people will become very muscular with only moderate increases in strength, and most people will fall somewhere in between. People with a high strength to size ratio tend to self select for activities and sports where high strength relative to body weight is an advantage, like powerlifting and weightlifting. People who are very muscular but may not have as high a ratio of strength to size tend to self select for bodybuilding where the primary criteria is muscularity. I cover this in more detail in The Myth of Training for Sarcoplasmic Versus Myofibrillar Hypertrophy.
Although what is optimal varies between individuals, a broad range of repetitions and set durations can be effective for improving muscular strength and size. I recommend starting with a moderate repetition range of six to ten, which should result in a time under load of around fifty to eighty seconds with a moderately slow repetition speed, then make adjustments if necessary based on how your body responds (I cover this in detail in Finding Your Optimal Repetition Range in High Intensity Workouts). Whatever your ratio of muscular strength to size gains, if you want to optimize your strength relative to your bodyweight you should focus on eating properly to stay as lean as possible without compromising performance.
The best exercises to increase punching power are the ones that most effectively strengthen the major muscle groups involved in punching, which for most punches is just about all of them. For those of you who don’t box or practice striking martial arts, hitting powerfully involves far more than just your shoulders an arms; it also involves your hip and thigh and torso muscles to a significant degree. If you want to increase your punching power as much as possible you must train your whole body, since any weak link in the chain between the ground and your fist will compromise your ability to effectively deliver force. Minimally, a full-body workout should include a squatting and a hip-hinging exercise, pushing and pulling exercises in horizontal and vertical planes, and direct exercises for the abs, neck, calves, and forearms. Although your grip is worked significantly during the pulling exercises you should strengthen your forearms as much as possible for wrist stability. For example, you could alternate between the following two full-body workouts which cover all of these:
- Bench Press
- Compound Row
- Shoulder Press
- Stiff-Legged Deadlift
- Thick Bar Wrist Extension
- Thick Bar Wrist Curl
- Parallel Bar Dip
- Incline Press
- Yates Row
- Sissy Squat
- Heel Raise
- Neck Flexion
- Neck Extension
You could include additional direct trunk work like twisting crunches or weighted side bends, but you’re probably already doing way more trunk exercises than you need during boxing practice.
You do not need to move explosively during exercise to improve your power and explosiveness in other activities. In fact, you don’t even need to move moderately fast. You can improve your power in other activities either moving slowly or even without moving at all during exercise as long as you are getting stronger. In my recent ebook Timed Static Contraction Training I explained,
Strength is a measure of the force your muscles can produce. Power is a measure of work performed over time. The stronger your muscles are the more force they can produce when contracting, and the more rapidly they can accelerate your body or another object you are pushing or pulling. This means you can perform the same amount of work in less time, or more work in the same amount of time; in other words, more power.
For example, if the most you can press is one hundred pounds you will not be able to press a one hundred pound weight very quickly, or very many times per minute. However, if you double your strength so that you can press two hundred pounds you will be able to lift a one hundred pound weight much more quickly, and many more times per minute. It doesn’t matter how you increased your strength – with fast reps, slow reps, or isometrics – if you are stronger you will be more powerful.
It is often claimed that although this is true you still need to move quickly during exercise to improve your rate of force development, however that is not the case. Even if you are intentionally moving slowly at the beginning of an exercise you will eventually fatigue the targeted muscles to the point that they are contracting as hard as possible just to continue moving at a slow speed during the positive phase of each repetition. By that point even if you try to move as fast as possible (without cheating and bringing other muscles into play) your actual speed of movement will be quite slow, however since it is your intended rather than actual speed that has an effect on improving rate of force development you will still benefit.
You can get stronger and more powerful doing fast or slow reps or anything in between, but slower repetitions are safer and you don’t need to be beating yourself up in the gym in addition to the punishment your body endures in the ring.
What you do need to do quickly is practice the specific movements you wish to improve your ability to perform powerfully. Once you have learned and become proficient in the mechanics of a punch you have to become more skilled in applying the strength increases from your workouts by practicing at speed.
I’ve practiced a variety of martial arts on and off for over thirty years now, and have trained and consulted for other martial artists who have all been able to develop or improve powerful strikes while following a high intensity training program using moderately slow repetition speeds. About a year ago in the article on high intensity training for metabolic and cardiovascular conditioning I shared an e-mail I received from Christian Marchegiani, an Australian HIT instructor who boxes on his experiences with this:
I thought I would share an experiment I did. My background is boxing but have not boxed in 18 months since getting more into high intensity weight training. I haven’t even done any ‘cardio’ as such (whatever that is). Yesterday I returned to training and participated in an hour of boxing and it was as If I never left. My speed, power, and endurance was unbelievable (even my coach had commented on how fast and powerful I had become). What perhaps was lacking was my skill which is understandable since it’s been 18 months since I practiced boxing. We did push ups, burpees, sprints, etc and it was a breeze (although burpees are not my choice of exercise). I was able to recover between rounds very quickly.
HIT works. Period.
To summarize, your ratio of strength to size gains will be dictated by your genetics rather than the specific repetition range you use. While the optimal rep range can vary between individuals, a broad range of repetitions can be effective, so start with a moderate range and adjust it based on your body’s response. Since punching powerfully involves the coordinated action of your entire body you should focus on increasing full-body strength as much as possible and not just the muscles of your chest, shoulders, and arms. If you want to improve power you need to become stronger, and you can do that training with fast or slow reps or anything in between. However, since slower repetitions are safer and may provide other advantages, you should err on the side of safety and use a more moderate speed, taking at least about three to four seconds to lift and three to four seconds to lower a weight, and reverse direction smoothly between the two.