A lot of old school striking coaches don’t want their guys to lift weights because in their experience it slows guys down. If you look at how some guys “strength train” and the mechanics of throwing a punch, it’s not surprising.
When a fighter throws a punch (an overhand or “2” in this example) it starts with the same side toe, the hip pushes through the torso, and the hand is launched from the shoulder. It keeps accelerating while the fighter turns his hand over, and just past the point of impact the fighter sits down, and pulls the scapula back and bends the elbow. This gets him back to his defensive position.
The old model of bodybuilding as strength training (bench, curl, repeat) will slow a fighter down. The internal rotators of the humorous get super tight, muscles of the upper back that retract the scapula become inhibited and the scapula get pulled out of position. This is disastrous for hand speed.
Much like a baseball pitcher the limiting factor on hand speed is not the strength of internal rotators, but rate of force development, and the body’s ability to decelerate the punch without injury. A major league baseball weighs 5 ounces, a MMA glove weighs 4. Even the heaviest boxing gloves weigh about 1 pound. There isn’t a lot of mass here, and the short distance that mass moves means that static strength in the muscles that accelerate the hand is not terribly important. Conversely your body will not allow you to accelerate your body beyond what it can decelerate safely, and because of the mechanics of the punch there is generally more force available to accelerate the fist than there is to decelerate it. Thus the muscles of the upper back becoming a limiting factor in hand speed.
Another way in which poor training can limit hand speed is poor scapular stability, which can be caused, or at least exacerbated by tight or overactive internal rotators. The first point where a fighters arm is decelerated is at the scapula, if it is out of position it is very difficult for those muscles to act on the arm. Thus the biceps and shoulder have to bear the load. To simplify, if a fighter’s scapula are winging, he’s throwing arm punches at best, at worst he’s on his way to shoulder surgery.
So what do we do in the gym to improve hand speed?
First and foremost, posterior chain strength. Punches start on the ground, and the more force that can be applied to the floor, the more force can be applied to your opponents face.
Secondly, posture and soft tissue work. If your body doesn’t move smoothly it will not move quickly.
Thirdly, train your external rotators, these muscles are basically acting as shock absorbers when you miss (and everybody misses). Ever come out of a fight or sparring session with a slick fighter and your elbows are killing you? It’s because you’re relying on your biceps and secondary structures of the elbow to absorb the shock instead the muscles in your upper back. Get stronger in external rotation and you may get fast enough to clock that slick S.O.B. or at the very least your elbows won’t hurt as bad.
Finally, build rate of force development. There are several ways to do this, speed work with weights, sledge hammer work, or medicine balls to name a few. If done correctly this will not only make you faster and more explosive, but should be able to stay in the same weight class.
Hopefully if more fighters follow a sensible strength program we can finally put the “lifting weights makes you slow” and all off the other myths and wives tales to bed.