It’s a bit of an oxymoron, calling a chest workout ‘functional’. If you’re training one muscle group in isolation, it can never be totally functional, in my opinion. In addition to this, MMA strength doesn’t really equate to chest strength. Strong and explosive hips, grip strength, leg-power and core strength are far more important.
However, if you want to build some pecs like Luke Rockhold without becoming too stiff and rigid to throw a punch properly, then this routine may suit you…
Disclaimer – I don’t have pecs like Luke Rockhold, and certainly can’t throw a punch like him
Functional Warm up
I like to foam roll each major muscle group to begin a session, then either skip-rope or perform a number of mma-specific movements like sit-throughs, chest to chest sweeps, bridges, stand up techniques/Turkish get ups and sprawls.
Do anything explosive at the end of the warm up. Sprawls for example, should be done when you’re already relatively warm.
Dumbbell Bench Press
I currently do about 4 warm up sets, then literally 1 ‘working’ set to failure on bench press.
Mainly because I’m 35 and my shoulders are goosed. I find dumbbells put less strain on my shoulders than barbell bench press (although I imagine the chances of acute injury from a heavy dumbbell are greater).
Plyometric Chest Press Ups
These can take various forms – clap press ups, ‘depth’ press ups where you drop from a higher staring position with the hands and explode back up.
Here is a medicine ball throw into press up exercise.
It works a lot better when the ball actually bounces back to you.
The main idea of including plyometric exercises is to ‘teach’ the muscles to work explosively. Lifting heavy weights slowly all the time, as many bodybuilders do, will generally make the muscles strong, but slow too.
In addition to this, plyometrics have been shown to increase strength when added to resistance training programmes:
“In order to optimise strength enhancement, the combination of different types of plyometrics with weight-training would be recommended, rather than utilizing only one form”
Medicine ball Shot Puts
Again, this exercise works better with a medicine ball that bounces, so that you can catch it as it fires back towards the hand that threw it, thus giving a stretch-reflex of plyometrics.
Sorry about the terrible video:
Landmine ‘ShotPuts’ are also a great exercise. Similar to what this muscular fellow is doing, but twist the back-foot, as you would when throwing a cross or a shotput:
The shot put movement is also an excellent band exercise. Tie a band to a static post or get a partner to hold it.
Replicate the punching movements (hook, cross and jab), for 15 reps on each arm. Repeat this 2 to 3 times on each arm.
The band provides more resistance the longer it gets/more stretched it gets.
This teaches the trainer/fighter to ‘drive-through’ at the end of each punch, and stay more relaxed at the start of the punch.
Eccentric (negative) Chest Exercise
I’ll often add in an eccentric exercise, where I’ll get a spotter to lift the weight off my chest, and I’ll lower it down to my chest. Eccentric exercises are actually superior to ‘normal’ concentric exercises for muscle growth, so are a must for any natural bodybuilder.
Eccentric exercises are also great for building grappling strength, as it simulates resisting someone pushing against you (kind of). Eccentric chest exercises also put massive strain on the shoulders however, so use with caution.
I actually prefer to do eccentric exercises on a machine, as you don’t get the stabilisation and ‘wobbling’ with freeweights, that I imagine, is likely to cause injury if you’re too fatigued to completely control it.
PunchBag or Pads to finish
This is a killer, because your chest and arms will be pumped full of blood. However, if you are training for boxing or MMA, then I feel like it’s best to finish off with ‘a bit’ of the sport you are actually training for.
I’ve included a video of me here, mainly to shame myself into improving my cardio. It’s useful to film yourself to pick up on your mistakes and make note of where you can improve. Obviously, punchbags and padwork are no replacement for real sparring, as I can confirm – I look better on the pads than ever before, but can’t spar for toffee, as I do it too inconsistently.
Finally, consider adding some whole body movements, using kettlebells or parallettes into your chest routine. Obviously, you want the emphasis to be on the chest in a chest workout, but to realistically make it functional, there needs to be at least 1 whole body movement in it, even if it’s just in the warm up:
- Train muscles concentrically, explosively and eccentrically
- Train the chest by using the arms together (e.g. barbell bench press) but also with one arm at a time e.g. with landmine exercises
- Replicate the twist of a punch or shot put movement when possible, to learn using the feet, hips, chest and triceps in an effective pattern. You’ll want to torque the body first with the feet and hips before incorporating the chest and finally the arm(s)
- Save your shoulders – they are one of the most commonly injured body parts, both chronically and acutely
- Stretch dynamically before and statically afterwards. Having a tight chest makes it difficult to throw hooking and overhand punches effectively. If you can’t fully extend/open the chest, you cannot incorporate elastic recoil.
- Train movements not muscles – try and do at least some exercises standing
Boxing-Specific Strength & Conditioning
This study (which I don’t have access to unfortunately) states that there are ‘5 trainable variables when it comes to throwing a right cross:
- increase rear leg drive
- following the step forward, land with a rigid leg to increase breaking and transmission of force
- increase the stretch-shortening cycle action of the trunk musculature
- increase the velocity of the punch
- increase the effective mass. it is possible, through appropriate strength and conditioning programming, to target the development of each.To address the above variables…
a) include some explosive leg work like jumping squats & depth jumps
b) Focus on technique, but also include some lower body plyometrics
c) The stretch-shortening cycle relates to elastic energy.
With an orthodox cross for example, you would normally rotate your waist/hip backwards/clockwise (stretching the muscles & loading-up the body with power), then drive the hip forwards/anticlockwise (shortening the muscles to deliver the punch). This can be trained with some medicine ball and band work