Chin-ups and pull-ups, a holy grail of gym performance – but what does it mean to your Muay Thai performance? And is one better than the other?
We’ll get into the differences and the effect on your Muay Thai in more depth in just a moment, but first let me explain why these exercises feature in not only my training programs, but also my Muay Thai performance testing.
Hauling your entire body weight vertically against gravity sets a benchmark. It tells me not only if you’re upper body is strong or not, but also if you have a relatively competitive body weight!
Strength-to-weight ratio is critical for fight performance. If you’re carrying some surplus body fat, then shedding this will improve your chin-up/pull-up performance, even before we make you any stronger.
As a strength pattern, the vertical pull has a direct correlation to your sport specific clinch technique. So it’s WELL worth the investment. But what about the different grip variations?
Here we have to consider two main factors; difficulty and carry over to Muay Thai (dynamic correspondence or transfer of training). So right off the bat, let me first say that all versions of the chin-up or pull-up transfer well to Muay Thai clinch performance in particular, but some versions transfer more directly (are more sport-specific).
That’s not to say that only the most sport-specific versions should used and the others kicked to the curb. Remember your training program should move from general (furthest from the fight) to Muay Thai specific (closer to the fight). So pick and choose from the following grip versions depending on where you are in your training program relative to a fight.
These are a less sport specific version of the exercise, but they target back strength to the greatest degree of any of the following versions! With the palms facing away and a wide grip, your biceps can’t help you so much. I like this version (for those that are strong enough) in a Strength Block of training, furthest from a fight. It teaches you to predominantly use your larger, stronger back muscles to pull, rather than your arms. This means your arms will tire less in a fight as you’re primed not to focus on your arms in the clinch.
Still with the palms facing away, this version is a little easier than the wide-grip as the arms can contribute a bit more. I like to have fighters focus on drawing their elbows toward their ribs as they lift upward. This again promotes back recruitment over arm dominance.
With the palms facing toward you, the biceps can help you out a LOT more. This assistance makes this version easier than pull-ups. This is a great starting grip for those still building enough strength to break 5-reps with body weight.
This version is approximately the same level of difficulty as regular chin-ups, but the neutral wrist position makes it a little more sport-specific. I also use this version with fighters with a shoulder injury. It’s friendlier on the shoulder than either the palms-away or palms-toward you grip, and allows the exercise to be performed without aggravating the injury.
Hanging from the crook of a flexed wrist while making a fist… these are very challenging on your forearms – and great for clinchers! However, they predominantly target the forearms over the back, so are not ideal if back strength is your focus.
Effectively one wrist in a false-grip, and the other hand clasping over the top… These are the most sport-specific, and are great to transfer the strength you’ve built in previous training blocks using the other grip methods into awesome clinch strength in your fight!
These are the key grip variations I use in my Muay Thai strength and conditioning programming. My purpose is to develop vertical pulling strength for clinch performance in particular, and to transfer this strength via the wrist onto an opponent’s neck/shoulders with a wrist-wrapped, boxing gloved hand.
I therefore haven’t targeted towel grip versions etc. that wrestlers and MMA fighter may wish to include, as this level of grip strength isn’t needed in Muay Thai. We get enough grip-strength hanging from the bar and deadlifting for Muay Thai, and we don’t need to dedicate more time to this.
The idea is you do just enough to improve your athletic conditioning for Muay Thai, and otherwise save your energy for both Muay Thai practice and recovery from the total training-load in your plan.
Build these exercises into you training program and feel the difference in the clinch… your training partners and opponent’s certainly will!
Founder of Heatrick Strength and Conditioning
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.
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What additional back exercises would you suggest to someone who is having trouble performing chin-ups? Thank you for the informative article; I learnt a lot from it.
Hi Eric, thanks for the feedback. Much appreciated.
If you’re having trouble performing chin-ups, I’d recommend that you scale them back a bit first.
You can easily do that by either:
1) Using a continuous loop resistance band to help lift you to the bar (attach one end to the bar, and either stand or kneel in the other end), or
2) Doing the eccentric (lowering) part of the exercise only (by jumping to the top position and then slowly lowering under control.
Also, I recommend checking out the full Advanced Muay Thai Clinch Strength guide I’ve put together here: