This is a comment which comes up often along with the subsequent question “How can I make my punches stronger?”

Despite the apparent simplicity of the question, it is actually a difficult one to answer because one has to assume that the person stating this is not just desirous of more powerful punches, but is actually wanting a better combat response.
Why does this complicate the answer to the question?

Well, combat is more than just punching. Or kicking. Or grappling. Or deflection. Or blocking. Or mental control. Or movement. Or fitness. Or physical strength. Or psychological resilience. Or physical speed. Or mental speed. Or dynamic tactical evaluation.

It is quite conceivable to find someone who has the world’s most powerful punch, who has absolutely no idea how to fight. This person would be a little like the proverbial ‘glass cannon’. Able to fire a powerful shot but perhaps unable to target effectively or survive any kind of retaliation.

As an example of the complexity of the question, we can look at Western boxing. It is commonly-known in Western boxing circles that powerful punches are not generated by bigger muscles. Having bigger, stronger muscles does not scale directly with punching power. In fact, I have read articles by boxing coaches that encourage their students not to perform any heavy weight-training or muscle-building exercises because bulky muscles can slow a boxer down and distract them from using core muscles to power their punches.

As in architecture, so in life. Form follows function. You will often find that great boxers have relatively lean physiques without much of the heavier muscle growth seen in body builders.

Now compare a typical professional Western boxer to a typical professional MMA fighter. Do you see differences in their physiques?

Of course you do.

MMA fighters generally have much heavier builds because the threats faced by an MMA fighter are different and perhaps more diverse than those faced by a boxer. The types of combat seen in an MMA match include striking and kicking but most often revolve around grappling. This encourages MMA fighters to build more muscle mass in order to facilitate their grappling.

Now, for interest’s sake, compare a professional MMA fighter to a professional body-builder. Once again, the body builder is likely to have significantly bigger muscles. Why? This is perhaps a question for another article but once again, form follows function.

I thought that I would provide some insights into building more powerful punches based on my own training and experience. Of course, my background is in traditional Chinese martial arts (traditional Wushu), so my suggestions are going to reflect my own training and combat approach. Traditional Wushu has at its core a complete departure from the traditional Western approach to combat.

Western combat usually involves distance between opponents. The combatants usually circle or move around each other until one makes an attack and moves to make contact with the opponent. If the attack is not conclusive, they will often break apart until another attack is made. As such, contact usually occurs only during an attack in Western combat (such as a punch in boxing or a thrust in fencing, for instance). This is of course not the case in Western wrestling where contact is usually continuous.

In traditional Wushu, contact with the opponent is a desirable outcome and does not happen only when attacking. At the risk of making a gross oversimplification, traditional Wushu applied in combat can be seen to be a seamless unification of Western striking and wrestling.

A traditional Wushu practitioner will try to make contact with their opponent (often called ‘bridging’) as soon as possible. They will then try to maintain dynamic contact with their opponent until combat is concluded. A dedicated article will be required to discuss fully why this approach is adopted, but suffice to say that continuous contact with an opponent allows a traditional Wushu practitioner to nearly instantaneously sense an opponent’s intentions and manipulate their opponent’s body more effectively.

The central idea of attack and defence behind the apparent external complexity of traditional Wushu is to control and manipulate the opponent’s centre and centre-line. As such, many diverse techniques form part of the combat response. These techniques range from locks, holds, throws, take-downs and other ‘grappling’ style techniques to punches, pushes, kicks, sweeps, flying kicks and other ‘striking’ techniques. Often more than one of these diverse techniques are applied at once during the same attack sequence.

In both Western boxing and traditional Wushu, the goal of powerful striking is important. Of course, it’s not the only important goal to strive for in either of the systems. Mobility, deflection, speed and other characteristics are also important for both systems.

In our system of traditional Wushu, we pursue the goal of more powerful punches through internal control and awareness. The internal concepts of Chi, centre and centreline that are bandied about in traditional Wushu circles are all related to a comprehensive and substantial approach to core strength application. Combined with a unique and in-depth understanding of the physical application of philosophical principles like Yin and Yang (soft and hard), this gives students a defined path to develop power in their punches. This dependence on the core for powerful punches instead of depending on large, external muscle groups is a principle that we share with Western boxing.

So my advice to you would be this: If you wish to develop the power of your punches, develop your core strength. When you punch, do not punch with your arm. Punch instead with your entire body by sourcing the impulse from your core. There are plenty of resources online showing exercise programs which target the core. Focus on these rather than standard Western strength-training exercises. Oh, most importantly, find a competent instructor in whatever combat system you choose to pursue. There is no need to re-invent the wheel by trying to figure things out for yourself.

Written by Lester Walters, Head of the Chinese Martial Arts and Health Centre Australia