Following on from my last post, “Is Muay Thai Bad for Posture?”, this time I look at some exercises that can counter balance the overuse and posture compensation that results from hours of Muay Thai training. These exercises strengthen and activate deep neck flexors and lower scapular fixators and stretch out the pectoral, upper trapezius and levator scapula musculature, correcting Upper Crossed Syndrome.
You should take every opportunity to activate and strengthen the scapular fixator muscles (such as the lower trapezius and rhomboids). You should include some of the following exercises in your programme, and perform them correctly to strengthen the muscles responsible for stabilising your shoulder blades.
Press Behind the Neck
Overhead pressing, ensuring the shoulders are packed down (shoulder blades set down and back – without shrugging) is more tricky than it looks. Extending the arm straight without lifting the shoulder is a movement pattern that you will find difficult to do initially, but will seriously improve your shoulder health. I also prefer athletes to press from behind the neck if they have healthy shoulders, as this allows the shoulder blades to be squeezed together tighter giving a stronger training effect for the scapular stabilisers.
Scap Push Ups
Bring your elbows in toward your sides, draw your shoulder blades together and keep them pinched tight throughout the whole movement — which is more difficult at the top of the movement. This will not only strengthen your scapular stabilisers but also give you a good pectoral chest stretch at the bottom of the movement.
Push Up Plus
The push up plus is effectively a Scap Push Up as above, but with a deliberate flaring of the shoulder blades at the top of the movement.
Bent Over Row
All rowing movements should retract the scapular, otherwise you’re placing undue stress on your glenohumeral joint (shoulder socket) and wasting fantastic opportunity to strengthen your scapular stabilisers. In this example I’ve chosen and bent over row.
Prone Y-T-W-L Circuit
This exercise is scapular controlling dynamite. You lay face-down on an incline bench set at approximately 10 degrees, and work the arm lifting sequence forming Y, T, W and L shapes. The key here is to drive movement from the shoulder blades, not the shoulder socket (glenohumeral joint). Using the weight of your arms is initially enough — work on firing the right muscles. Use 8 reps of each shape for the first week, then 10 reps of each the 2nd, 12 reps the 3rd and 14 reps the 4th week. Then hold a small 1kg dumbbell in each hand and build the repetitions from 8 to 14 in the same way for the next 4-weeks. Increase the dumbbell weight and start again. You won’t need much weight in your hands to develop the scapular stabilisers. If you go too heavy you’ll simply recruit larger shoulder musculature and won’t see any benefit. Note the hand positions in the video too. These also apply when holding a light dumbbell.
I also like strengthening thoracic extension (keeping the chest lifted) along with scapular stabilisation using Deadlifting and Squatting exercises. These staple lifts are crucial, and performing with strict form will not only save you from injury but also maximise the training benefits, saving a lot of time.
Activating Deep Neck Flexors
To activate and strengthen your neck flexors, use the series of isometric and isotonic neck flexion and rotation exercises that I discussed in the Neck Strengthening for Muay Thai post.
Chin Tuck and Brugger Position
The chin tuck exercise combined with Brugger position is a valuable (although strange-looking) movement that strengthens the deep neck flexors and retrains the spinal muscles at the back of the upper neck. Watch the following video and regularly add this to your daily routine. If you feel self-conscious, try doing them in privacy as part of your morning bathroom/shower routine.
Relaxing Pecs and Upper Traps
Relaxing and lengthening the opposing muscle groups is also important. Put these stretches into your programme.
Upper Trapezius Stretch and Levator Scapula Stretches
Strong, tight traps are part of the imbalance encouraged in a Muay Thai fighting stance. Stretching them back out after training will help counter the volume of Muay Thai training. It’s also worth mentioning that if you struggle to keep your shoulders down when lifting overhead (as discussed earlier), then these stretches performed before vertical pressing will help deactivate your shrugging muscles, helping you lift correctly.
Pectoralis Major and Minor Stretches
To stretch out your chest muscles, place one arm against the corner of a wall, edge of a door frame or power rack with the hand up approximately level with your ear (to target pec major). Pack your shoulder-blade down and backward and use the edge to push your arm back to stretch the chest. You can turn your head in the opposite direction to intensify the stretch further.
Lower your arm so your hand is approximately level with your hip and repeat the stretch (to target pec minor). Then repeat both stretches on the opposite side.
These are some basic tools for correcting postural imbalance resulting from Muay Thai training. Make sure you consistently apply these measures to see an improvement. It took hours to create the imbalance, it will take hours to correct it, although improvements are seen very quickly if you stick at it. Let me know how you get on in the comments below.
Don Heatrick is a family man from the UK, former mechanical design engineer, European Muay Thai silver medallist, former pro Thai boxer (ranked 4th in UK while aged 40-years), a Muay Thai coach, podcast host, and the go-to expert on Muay Thai performance training with over 25 years of coaching experience.
Don helps ambitious fighters and coaches take their game to the next level by bridging the gap between Strength & Conditioning, Performance Science, and Muay Thai.