Hey, Coach Alex here, and today I’m answering a reader email specifically asking how to develop upper body explosive power or upper body power.

If it’s your first time here, I’ve spent the last 10+ years as a professional strength and conditioning coach, I make my living by providing an online coaching service where I guarantee athletes and lifters measurable improvements in their performance (or they don’t pay) so I literally put my money where my mouth is when it comes to topics like this.

Let’s jump into it.

The Athlete’s Problem – Lacking Upper Body Power

So this person is an MMA fighter, which is great because I’ve coach a bunch of MMA fighters over the years, here’s what they say:

Hi coach, I’ve been gym training for quite a while now, my fitness has gotten really good, I’ve got a great energy tank.

Right, okay, so they can keep on going in the fight. That’s a good start,

The biggest problem that I seem to have is that I don’t have much power in my upper body. It feels like even when I’m connecting with my strikes its not doing all that much

Okay, so I’m gonna assume from this that upper body power is actually the issue. Sometimes people think they don’t have upper body power and it’s actually just that maybe their striking technique is a bit ropey and they’re not really utilising their lower body and rotation effectively. So I’m gonna assume you know how to strike.

My Initial Coaching Thoughts – Upper Body Strength Versus Upper Body power

So developing upper body power. I’m going to talk about this generally, then I’ll talk about it more in an MMA specific context. Let’s start with an important distinction:

  • Upper body strength is your ability to produce maximal forces – e.g. a one rep max bench press
  • Upper body power is your ability to produce sub maximal forces quickly. – e.g. med ball throws or strikes

Now if you relate that to something like mixed martial arts, MMA, you’ve got constant striking, right? You want that ability to throw really aggressive strikes. So upper body power, really, really important. so it’s something you want to develop.

Since the athlete who messaged me says they’ve been going to the gym for quite a while, and I have to assume its not just all been cardio work, then we can probably assume that most of their training has been more strength based. So they’re strong, which is a great base, but not necessarily utilising that strength very well in order to be powerful.

How I Help My Athletes Develop Upper Body Power

The Importance of a Base of Strength

There’s a bunch of different ways to do this. Obviously having a good base of upper body strength is really important. So things like bench press, dumbbell bench press, overhead press, all those things. Phenomenal, phenomenal base to work with. If you don’t have a base of strength, then you’re not going to get a huge amount out of your power work just because…

“you can’t produce force quickly if you just can’t produce force to begin with.

Me, Coach Alex, Based on 10+ years coaching experience

The Force-Velocity Curve and Upper Body Power

Think of it as that force velocity curve. on the top left you have these really high force movements, like one rep max bench press. And on the bottom right you have more velocity based movements. So literally something like a punch, a strike would be a very high velocity movement, but very low force production. There’s literally no resistance to it, right.

force velocity curve

To develop power, you could start developing or utilising more velocity based movements, just with very, very low load or light loads. Really simple things are like cable or band resisted strikes. Really, really simple. They’re right on the velocity end of that spectrum. You can just load them up a little bit and practise some sort of strikes and punches there.

I’ve also had some of my athletes use like jammers and landmine presses, that type of thing. You can actually use them, set them up. Something like a 30 to 45 degree angle, and you can literally just practise strikes against a small amount of resistance. And it doesn’t have to be a crazy amount, right. It could be ten kilos, 15 kilos. All you’re doing is providing enough of resistance to be kind of a workout. But it’s far closer to the velocity of a punch than it is to the velocity of a one rep max bench pass. You get the idea.

Other really simple examples, plyometric press ups, right? Literally like those press ups where you jump off the ground, maybe a little clap if you’re feeling fancy, that kind of stuff. Great for upper body explosive power. And from there, you’ve got other options you can do. I like to use:

  • Medicine ball chest throws
  • Med ball throws one arm
  • Medicine ball one arm throws

Transitionary / Intermediary Exercises for Upper Body power

Another little trick that I like to use. If strength training’s on one extreme and velocity power type training is on the other. I like to use a few of what I call transitionary or translation exercises that sit somewhere in between those two extremes.

So if high force is your heavy bench presses and velocity work is like a really light medicine ball throw. Then I’ll have my athletes do something in the middle of this, something like a you do bench press, but with 30-50% of your 1 rep max, and you go almost as quickly as possible. So it’s almost like a speed bench. You control down and then come super quickly back up.

I’ve found these type of exercises massively help strong athletes to ‘translate’ some of their strength into power. So if you’re someone who is already pretty strong but lacks power, give this approach a try and I think you’ll get a lot out of it.

My Suggested Upper Body Power Training Week

So if you’re talking about developing upper body explosive power, if you had three workouts per week, three gym based workouts alongside your sport training, I would have one classic strength workout one translating kind of intermediate type of workout, and I would have one almost like plyometric, more velocity based workout. And that is how I would approach training.

Upper body power training week

Next Steps

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To Your Performance!

Alex Parry