Building Functional Muscle for Muay Thai – part 2

Building Functional Muscle for Muay Thai – part 2

Last week's post outlining my hypertrophy (muscle building) phase of training for MuayThai generated a lot of interest, and warranted a follow-up providing extra detail. I'll begin by clarifying the exercises in the programme.

Session A Exercises

Superset 1

a) Front squat — knee dominant lower body
b) Rear foot elevated split squats (Bulgarian split squats) — unilateral knee dominant

Superset 2

a) Incline bench press — horizontal push
b) Dumbbell chest press — horizontal push

Superset 3

a) Pull-ups — vertical pull
b) Dumbbell bent over rows —  horizontal pull


Candlesticks — core anti-extension


Session B Exercises

Superset 1

a) Deadlift — lower body hip dominant
b) Single leg suspension squat — unilateral knee dominant

Superset 2

a) Standing over head press behind neck — vertical push
b) Barbell push press — vertical push

Superset 3

a) Barbell bent over row — horizontal pull
b) Suspended rows — horizontal pull


Landmine (Coreplate) twists — core anti-rotation


Strength & Hypertrophy for MuayThai

Programme Progression

Each superset pair consists firstly of a strength exercise (5-reps), followed immediately by a hypertrophy finisher (8-reps). This superset is repeated 4-times before moving on to the next pair of exercises.

As far as programming the intensity, I use low, medium, high and high+ (overload) weeks.

  • Low weeks use a 9-rep max weight for the 5-rep strength exercise, and a 12-rep max weight for the 8-rep hypertrophy exercise, i.e. 4-reps left in you, or a -4  rep max loading
  • Medium weeks use a 7-rep max weight for the 5-rep strength exercise, and a 10-rep max weight for the 8-rep hypertrophy exercise, i.e. 2-reps left in you, or a -2  rep max loading
  • High weeks use a 5-rep max weight for the 5-rep strength exercise, and an 8-rep max weight for the 8-rep hypertrophy exercise, i.e. 0-reps left in you, or 0-rep max loading — maximum effort
  • High+ weeks use the same loads as the high week (0-rep max), but the maximum number of full form reps are recorded (until technical failure)

The high+ week is an overload week that also tests new strength levels to establish appropriate loading for the following block of training.

When designing individual programmes, I test all the lifts, calculate % of 1-rep max  and specify target weights for all exercises of every session. But, when issuing general templates, where fighters find their own weights, it's simpler to work with a target number or reps (e.g. 5-reps) and a weight intensity (e.g. -4 rep max). Therefore in this example, 5-reps completed with a weight you could lift a maximum of 9-times will feel relatively easy (low week), as you should feel like you have 4-reps left in you.

That should fill in a few blanks and give you enough detail to structure your first block of training. Please let me know what you think in the comments below.

If you'd like to know my thoughts behind the exercises I've selected in these two routines, take a look at my Exercise Selection article.



44 thoughts on “Building Functional Muscle for Muay Thai – part 2

  1. I’m just wondering, do you feel it is necessary to include any rear-delt isolation exercises to this routine/programme, perhaps on a separate day?

    Although you do include rowing movements, I assume you include them to put more emphasis on the lats, or are the rear-delts sufficiently stimulated in your opinion to grow alonside the front and middle delts, to prevent any muscle imbalances?



  2. Pingback: Fighter Weight Training Sessions In a Nutshell | Heatrick Strength & Conditioning for MuayThai

  3. What an amazing website!

    I’ve just found this site and want to say how professional and informative it is (and I’ve only been on it for 5 mins!)

    Great work

  4. Great site, I have been trying to come up with a weights routine for about the last 3 months specifically to enhance my Thai training but almost every site is obsessed with mirror muscles or should I say Hypertrophy (for the record I have nothing against that type of training It is just not functional for what I want to achieve!), also when you do find articles relating to sport specific training they are either aimed at professionals that train for a living and have all day everyday to do so or they are written by some geek with a degree in sport science that has never really applied any of their knowledge to the real world. I have developed a 2 day split which is almost identical to yours but I will now be adding the supersets. Thankyou a great informative site backed up by your personal experiances, I will be spreading the word.

    • Thank you Lee, I’m glad you’re finding the site useful.

      Your feedback regarding the content and the way I present it is very valuable to me. It certainly helps validate my mission and will shape the way I approach my writing in the future.
      And please do spread the word! :D

  5. Hi Don,

    I would be intrigued to hear what your reply would be to the ‘weight training will add bulk/size/mass which makes it harder to make a given weight and ‘squeeze’ into a weight class….which I’m sure your aware many fighters do already.

    Also, im curios how often you train muay thai, weights, run, others forms of training you do per week and how it differs from the traditional way in Thailand…and of course what each session entails.

    just an idea :)

    • Hi Colin,

      Weight training needn’t add unnecessary bulk, it depends on the intensity and the volume of lifts that you use. The routine above does add muscle mass, but it targets development of functional mass that aids athletic performance with a proportional increase in strength.

      You can also develop strength WITHOUT increasing weight too. Take a look at the following post for more detail:

      How you programme all the various forms of training is a good question… and a difficult one to answer briefly. I’ll put together a post to shed some light.

    • Hi Anwar,
      The sessions are intended for two different non-consecutive days. Both sessions work the whole body, and having a day between each weight training session allows sufficient neuromuscular recovery.


  6. I’m not that much of a online reader to be honest but your
    blogs really nice, keep it up! I’ll go ahead and bookmark your site to come back in the future. Cheers

  7. Pingback: Building Functional Muscle for Muay Thai | Heatrick Strength & Conditioning for MuayThai

  8. First off – very good blog. I’ve been reading a few of your posts here and there (forwarded here from r/muaythai) and want to thank you for your time and effort.

    A few questions.

    1. Can I sub back squats for front squats? I feel my hamstrings are very weak compared to my quads already.

    2. I’ve heard overhead presses behind the neck are bad for you (exterior rotation vs interior rotation) – would standing military press (bar in front) leave any holes in the workout?

    3. Also considering lateral dumbbell raises instead of the barbell push press. Would this also put any holes in the workout?

    4. You say you break your weeks into low, medium, high, high+. does this mean you do 4 week rotations? low -> mid -> high -> high+ -> low -> mid -> etc… I’ve done some basic strength training and it focused on linear progression and am still pretty new in the gym (~6 months strength training / ~1 month MT training). Any guidance would be helpful.

    Again, great site! An invaluable resource for a MT noob like me.

    • Hi Paul, no problem and thanks for getting in touch. Good questions too. :)

      Here are my quick answers:

      1. Back squats can be substituted for front squats, there will just be more hamstring/glute (hip) involvement. Front squats are my personal preference as they target the knee dominant pattern – and I target the hip dominant pattern with the deadlift. My other reason to front squat, is as a progression for the clean (olympic lift).

      2. Military presses are ok. But, pressing behind the neck is only a problem if you have injured or unusual shaped scapulae (shoulder blades). Most people are fine. My reason for pressing from behind the neck is that this better trains the muscles stabilising the scapular, that tend to become long and weak from our fighting stance posture. It also acts a progression toward the overhead squat and snatch (olympic lift).

      3. Lateral dumbbell raises are shoulder isolation exercise and doesn’t develop a functional movement pattern. The push press is a much better choice as it also adds power development to the routine.

      4. Linear progression is fine initially, but you’ll soon reach plateaus in performance. The cycling of 3 or 4 intensity levels (over 3 or 4 week rotations) allows for recovery and progression – especially when factoring in all the other training Thai boxers subject themselves to! The lower intensity sessions also allow you to craft your lifting technique too, rather than running your lifting-pattern ragged and reinforcing bad habits.

      Hope this helps ;)

      • Don – you are a man amongst boys. Thank you so much for your response. I’m going to leave your routine as-is and start today! Thanks again!!

      • tried the workout last week – am loving it on my off-days from muay thai training. had one more question – is the suspended single leg squat essentially a stepping stone to pistol squats?

        • It’s great you’re getting into the routine Paul. Yes, the single-leg suspension squats can work as a progression toward pistol squats, and also add (muscle building) volume to the preceding deadlift strength exercise. The suspended squat allows you to trim the amount of assistance contributed from your arms to get the loading just right for the number of reps required too.

          • so i’ve been doing this routine, and am coming along nicely EXCEPT for the candlesticks. my core must be too weak to do that quite yet. can you suggest some other exercises i can do to build up to that? currently i do planks and crunches (a variety of crunches).

          • Hi Paul, great question…
            I don’t know if you’ve seen my video specifically on candlesticks, it gives a little more detail on how it’s performed:

            Retracting one leg will reduced the amount of leverage, and you can reduce it further by bending both knees.
            You could also just work the ‘eccentric’ lowering phase only, bending at the hips to allow you to return back to the start position.

            There are some other ideas I have for building up core anti-extension strength, I’ll put together a blog post for you ;)

  9. Hey Don

    First of all thanks for the amazing post! I’ve been looking for something like this for a long time now. Really good job! :)

    I have some questions though.

    1. Can I substitute Bulgarian Split Squats with Walking Lunges? Just because I love them.

    2. Can I substitute either the overhead Press or the push press with cuban presses? I feel like I get a lot more shoulder activation with the cuban presses.

    3. I’m used to do pullups right after my deadlifts (to deload my spine). Can I rearrange the workout so that I do pullups after my deadlifts?

    I really hope you can help me out.

    Other than that, have a nice day.
    Peace :)

    • Hi Randy,
      Thanks for the positive feedback. :)

      1. Yes, just keep the number of walking lunge to 8 reps per leg, and at the same intensity level (loading) specified.

      2. Cuban presses are great for developing the muscles stabilising the shoulder, but won’t be particularly effective for building functional muscle or movement. The overhead press develops functional strength and the push press adds volume for hypertrophy (growth) and adds some power development too.

      3. Yes, swap the ‘pulling’ exercises (listed as superset 3) between the two sessions, and re-order these pulling supersets after the lower body exercises, then follow with the upperbody pushing exercises (listed as superset 2) before finishing with the core exercise.

      Best regards,

  10. how long you should follow this strength-hypertrophy training block to see benefits and before switching to another training method where conditioning/power/explosiveness is the focus?

    Is 8 weeks a good number?

    • To achieve any significant changes, a block should be at least 6-weeks in length. 8-weeks will be even better. :) I’d still train power once a week during this block to maintain rate of force development.

        • ..and another question..
          can I do box pistol squats instead of single leg suspension squat?
          can I vary between different deadlift exercises (sumo, trap-bar, stiff-leg etc.)?

          thanks again

        • I’d add a third session with some plyometric drills such as box jumps, some med ball throws for the core and something simple like kettlebell swings or push presses.

          If you follow the 3-to-5 principle: between 3 – 5 sets of between 3 – 5 reps for neuromuscular training (strength and power) you will get good results. Check out the following post:

          Box pistol squats are fine – as long as you can control the form strictly for the given number of reps.

          Any version of a deadlift (hip dominant lift) is also fine. :)


          • Hi Don,

            Firstly, fantastic article and great to hear ways to counterbalance any potential injury.

            I had 2 questions on this:

            1) What would come after 6-8 weeks of following this routine?

            Will the benefits decrease, and should we consider to an alternative 6-8 week program in order to ‘shock’ the muscles to see continuous gains?

            2) My trapezius muscles can get very tight after weights and Muay Thai. Is continued following of this program likely to alleviate any imbalance and reduce tightness?



  11. Hey Don,

    I’m ridiculously happy that i found your website! Everything I’ve been searching for!

    hopefully you still write more on this website because i love learning from your articles!


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  13. Pingback: Exercise Selection — part 2 | Heatrick Strength & Conditioning for MuayThai

  14. Hey Don,

    I’ve been doing this routine for 4-5 weeks now, and have progressively ramped up the intensity to the high+ range. What do you think I should do for my next block of strength training? Should I continue the same routine and readjust the intesities? Should I change up some exercises?

    I appreciate your help.

    • Hi Matt,
      You can re-run the same routine if you like, as you’ve said, simply adjust the intensities relative to you new maximum loads. You could also change some exercises too if you wish. I’ll look at producing a TeamMuayThai download with some further progressions.


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