The Role of S&C in Muay Thai (why Strength & Conditioning matters more than you think)
As a Muay Thai fighter – Your primary training focus will always be your Muay Thai training.
Hours of skilled, purposeful practice is essential for both gaining technical skill and tactical advantage, and for efficient, skilled movement. It will do you no good to remain focused on getting stronger if you lack the proficiency to use your current strength correctly.
The Optimal Performance Pyramid (G.Cook 2003)
It’s a big mistake is to believe you can continue to develop the required cardiovascular fitness, strength and speed etc. by simply practising Muay Thai.
Practising Thai boxing technique alone will leave your power production potential woefully underdeveloped.
And you’ll eventually hit a plateau in speed as well – you can’t get appreciably faster without an increase in power and strength.
After an initial period of adaptation, you’ll have to start being more deliberate about your training to continue your growth in the sport.
Strength and conditioning (done properly) brings things to the party that Thai boxing alone can’t.
It balances postural habits and strength imbalances to reduce injury.
It allows you to focus on moving correctly and to test this, rather than encouraging rapid but poor movement under fatigue.
It builds your maximum strength and power potential so that you can overcome your opponent physically.
It systematically builds your energy supply and usage to relentlessly apply your power in a fight.
And it makes sure you peak properly for a fight and are getting better month on month, year after year, rather than going around in circles.
Strength & Conditioning is improving the performance of your vehicle – like taking a racing car into the workshop and increasing the size and power of the engine, improving the fuel economy, fuel tank capacity, upgrading the brakes, suspension and tyres etc.
This improves the vehicle’s performance, but it also makes it more robust and less likely to breakdown.
Skill training is improving the skill of the driver so that he/she can operate the vehicle at a higher level of skill and mastery.
In Muay Thai, your body is your vehicle, and YOU (the consciousness operator of the body) are the driver.
So both aspects are important. Both are critical to winning or losing. Arguing that one is superior to the other is naïve.
The most skilled driver will lose in a crappy vehicle, when competing against similarly skilled drivers in high-performance vehicles.
For example – If you take Samart Payakaroon, who many consider to be the Greatest of All Time, at his current age and pit him against a young, hungry stadium fighter – you can bet no matter how skilled and intelligent he is, he won’t win that fight using a vehicle (body) that isn’t fit to compete.
And a high-performance vehicle won’t win if the driver isn’t skilled enough to use it to its fullest potential.
You’ve got to have both sides of the equation – a high-performance body AND mind. And it’s in your best interest to start training both, as early as possible, if you care about growing as much as possible in this sport.
Why you should start Strength & Conditioning ASAP
1. S&C is a high-reward long-term investment (not a “quick-fix”)!
Your body can only develop as a result of planned, progressive, systematic overload over a period of time.
Unlike tuning up a car, you can’t build physical capability overnight with some last-minute overtime by the team of mechanics.
It takes time for your body to adapt to training, and it takes planned, progressive overload to maintain this progress and to build on it.
You need to understand that it’s an investment. One that will heap a whole load of reward, that those that don’t follow through will never see.
So if you’re truly committed to your own personal growth and performing at your highest potential, regardless of whether you choose to compete or not…
I highly recommend making this investment as early as possible, as it will have a significant compounding effect over the years and will accelerate your growth in the sport unlike anything else (as long as you keep up your skill training).
2. S&C Accelerates Skill Development
Just like Muay Thai technique, movements used in the weights room are skilled movement patterns that transfer to athletic performance – if done correctly.
The gym is an opportunity to practice these patterns, honing the coordinated actions of multiple muscle groups to transfer force from the ground while maintaining stability through a challenging range of motion.
This is nothing new, but it’s surprising how many people completely waste this opportunity with poor exercise choices or using poor movement mechanics.
Remember that every repetition you complete further hardwires your autonomous coordinated movement patterns.
You’re forming habits. Make them good ones. Execute mechanically efficient, stable movement patterns that you can call on automatically later when under extreme stress and fatigue.
Teach your body in the weights room to coordinate multi-joint, multi-planar muscle groups together in sequence to efficiently transmit force from the floor. There’s no better way to develop this than against resistance. There’s feedback telling you when you’ve got it right or wrong.
You can bet that if your knee caves inward during a squat, that’s what happens in your fighting stance when you’re fatigued. Done properly, weight training exposes movement errors –there’s no place to hide. I’m continually humbled by exercises that cause me to crumble and lose form, even though unloaded I appear to move well.
Resistance training sessions allow you to constantly test and screen your mechanical positions to engage in preventative work rather waiting for a breakdown (injury) to happen. When you don’t move well, that’s an injury time-bomb waiting to go off, and wasted effort that doesn’t transmit into an effect on your opponent in the ring.
Movement is about understanding and skillfully mastering the principles & constraints of the human body.
Good movement, is simply good movement regardless of the specific application. Although you can debate the application of specific Muay Thai techniques (there’s many different ways /styles you can successfully adopt), good mechanical positions are recognised regardless of sport or discipline, from ballet, gymnastics, rugby to Muay Thai. The same fundamental principles apply, we all operate under the same constraints.
If you’re only interested in a beasting or lifting heavy stuff with no regard for exercise selection or form and technique, you’re not only likely to injure yourself but you’re also wasting a valuable opportunity to move better.
To be the best you can be – respect the contribution that all aspects of your training make to you as a fighter, and practice both S&C and technical Muay Thai from the start.
What this means for beginners & fighters
If you’re a beginner – your main limitation early on is technical competence, and focusing on this will have the greatest impact on your performance to begin with.
New boxers can lack sufficient strength, stability or mobility to even practice Muay Thai correctly in the first place. This not only prevents correctly patterned skill rehearsal, but also exposes the fighter to an unnecessary injury risk.
For individuals that fall into this category, S&C training provides them with the physical qualities required to begin training in Muay Thai and develop solid, fundamental technique
If you’re currently competing (or have any possibility of doing so in the future):
The earlier you start your strength and conditioning training, the better chance you have of competing with a better vehicle than your opponent.
And the longer it takes for your opponent to cotton on to this, the further behind they’ll be, and the less likely they’ll be able to match you physically. There are no shortcuts.
Anybody can chuck something together that will make you better for a month or so… but then what?
Don’t fear the fighter that’s trained randomly for a month or so. Fear the fighter that’s trained progressively for a year or two and has reaped the rewards.
Without proper guidance, most trainees and fighters eventually hit a plateau based on physical limitations and poor striking mechanics:
Lack mobility required for more advanced techniques – especially proper kicks and high kicks
Gas out quickly – haven’t developed biomechanical efficiency in their strikes, causing them to use more energy AND leak power
Lack power – haven’t properly learned how to generate power from legs and transfer it into striking limbs. They tend to throw “arm-punches” rather than using the power of the entire body
Are more prone to injury due to improper movement patterns
When a lot of fighters say they’re doing strength & conditioning… they’re actually not
“But it’s all squats and presses?”
It’s like someone saying they’re doing Muay Thai, when they’re doing Kung Fu…
“But it’s all punches and kicks.”
It’s not just what you do, but how you do it that determines the effect.
It’s important to also understand what we mean by strength and conditioning…
They are two different parts of the athletic puzzle.
In fact, I rarely advise training both strength AND conditioning. I’d prefer to say we train strength OR conditioning!
Strength training primarily targets the neural adaptations...
That’s maximum force (your strength), how quickly you can apply that force (your power), and how fast you can move (your speed).
And that part of your training is all about producing the strongest spark. And fatigue plays no part in that.
Whereas conditioning is the metabolic endurance part – it’s how you supply and use energy in the muscles…
If you’re using a circuit training sessions with lower load, higher reps, less rest and a ton of different exercises, you’re not going to build strength.
That’s a metabolic conditioning session, not a strength session.
Conditioning sessions create fatigue which will “dull” your spark.
If you are supposed to be targeting neural adaptations, you cannot work them in fatigue, it’s not a conditioning drill – it’s something different.
Most fighters don’t get stronger because they tend to want to turn all sessions into conditioning sessions – reducing rest periods, adding more exercises, repetitions, and overall volume – which then wastes the opportunity to build something different, and vital!
Proper S&C does NOT aim for exhaustion or fatigue just for the sake of it – rather, it is designed to induce optimal levels of growth & adaptation.
Proper S&C is about making your training as efficient and effective as possible, which I will explain here.
What is Proper S&C?
For me, real Strength & Conditioning for Muay Thai is about 3 things:
Primarily fixing any high-risk injury factors, such as a lack of range of motion, poor stability, bad motor control, or strength imbalances on either side of the joint
Boosting performance by developing a fighter’s potential strength, power, speed and endurance qualities, or
Transferring the most performance peaking to the next fight date.
Training For Mobility / Flexibility
There’s a lot of confusion when it comes to the terms ‘mobility’ and ‘flexibility’, and it’s important to distinguish between the two if you want to kick better as a fighter, and to maintain healthy joints that keep you in the game longer.
Simply put, flexibility is the maximum range of motion (ROM) that you can demonstrate given the most favourable conditions, the most amount of time, and often while assisted (passive).
Whereas mobility better describes the (active) range of motion you have in a joint, that you can control and stabilise yourself as you use it in any given movement task, despite the load you are experiencing or the speed of movement.
To illustrate this point, I’ve seen a lot of passively flexible people in yoga classes that have poor mobility.
They are capable of adopting an extreme yoga pose by exploiting their flexibility, but they effectively dump the load into their joints instead of actively holding themselves at their extreme ranges of motion.
The muscles are off, stability is only achieved by mechanically sitting on the end stops of the joint itself… A recipe for long-term joint injury.
The same range, actively held using the strength and stability of the muscles around the joint, spares the joint from taking the forces – which it’s not deigned to do. Instead, the muscles take those forces, just like they’re designed to do.
Fighters should improve flexibility but train for mobility…
Within the turbulent environment of combat sports, dynamic control of high kicks demands active mobility not just static, passive flexibility.
During a video coaching call, one fighter explained to me he had poor kicking mobility, despite demonstrating good hip flexibility – nearly touching the floor while holding a box or side split position! I explained that there’s a difference between the Static Passive flexibility demonstrated in the side splits, and either Dynamic flexibility (throwing your leg with momentum) or Static Active flexibility (lifting and holding the leg using the muscles alone). The demands are different, and the range of motion displayed decreases in that order:
Static passive flexibility ROM (an athlete’s greatest range)
Dynamic flexibility ROM (an athlete’s second greatest range)
Static active flexibility ROM (an athlete’s smallest range)
Also, this fighter described himself as having big, heavy legs. Because of this, a static splits stretch will also much easier for him than dynamically lifting of his legs. In his training we targeted mobility and stretching of the adductors (groin) muscles… But also critically, we equally targeted the strength of hip abductors, such as glute medius, to strengthen the lateral leg lifting action using exercises like:
Side Lying Clams (band resisted)
Side Lying Straight Leg Lateral Raise (ankle weights if needed)
Muscles alway work in pairs on either side of the joint. This particular fighter was relatively weaker in the muscles that lift his leg out to the side – fighting any tightness in the groin (adductors) muscles and the ‘self weight’ of his leg too. Active flexibility is far more important for athletes (correlates more strongly with sporting proficiency), even though passive flexibility provides a protective reserve if a joint unexpectedly stressed beyond its normal operational limits – something that occurs in combat sports like Muay Thai. If your kicking mobility is a limiting factor for you too, don’t just think about “stretching”. Combining stretching AND strengthening exercises increases the correlation between active and passive flexibility, and decrease the difference between them.
Overall, there are three elements of mobility;
Muscle length due to trigger points – those knots in your muscles that build up because you’re training hard, AND getting kicked in the thighs!
Range of motion due to the joint capsule itself – how the bones are positioned relative to each other
Neuromuscular control – what your brain tells your body is usable range of motion
I advocate a three step exercise process to tackle all three of these elements and fast-track your active mobility as a fighter.
Each exercise addresses the each of the three elements of mobility highlighted above, and in that specific order…
‘Release’ exercise – soft tissue work to increase muscle length
‘Open’ exercise – joint distraction work to feed the extra range from the increased muscle length in the first exercise into the joint capsule
‘Anchor’ exercise – to teach the neuromuscular system that you have a new range of motion available, so that you can actively use it
Worked Example – Quads/Hip Flexors
Here, the three exercises used are:
‘Release’ – Quad/Hip Flexor Tack & Stretch
‘Open’ – Quad & Hip Flexor Band Distraction
‘Anchor’ – Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat
These mobility exercises can be used before a training session as part of your warm up – helping you to move correctly and anchor great movement habits in the rest of your session.
The “anchoring” of neuromuscular control is a big player in giving you mobility that your body can really use, and is a step usually missed by athletes looking to improve their mobility/flexibility.
Creating the best movement possible is fundamental to both injury reduction, and performance enhancement. It’s well worth your time and effort.
The release and open exercises are also useful as active recovery between weight training sets, that then use that range to anchor it, and make it more permanent
Alternatively you can use nothing but these exercises to make a recovery session, by combining release-open-anchor exercises for various different parts of your body (hamstrings, adductors, shoulders, thoracic spine, etc).
Although, don’t do all this stuff just for the sake of it, only if it’s necessary.
Testing your range of motion to find what you need to work on (like in my sitting on your heels test in the example above), or going by feedback from your movement, or any localised restriction or pain that you feel, should inform your choice of exercise programming.
This then targets your personal limiting factors, and 80/20’s your training to focus on the vital few rather than the trivial many.
Training for Fight Performance: Strength vs Power vs Speed
Strength, power and speed are three different (although dependent) physical qualities that must be individually targeted to reach your full athletic potential as a fighter.
Supplemental strength and conditioning training is the only way a Thai boxer can hope to exploit this potential.
Strength training develops the maximum amount of force you can produce.
Strength training requires heavy, slow compound lifts like deadlifts, squats, bench presses, shoulder presses, rows, pull ups.
We use primarily bilateral lifts – exercises that use both limbs together – which has a better strength development effect than single limb exercises.
Maximal strength development uses highly loaded movements (typically 80% of 1-rep max or higher) to increase force production.
Power training develops how quickly (explosively) you can apply your force against resistance.
Let’s get clear on the difference between power and strength training:
Strength training aims to produce maximum force no matter how long it takes.
Power aims to develop force as quickly as possible.
You use strength to pull your opponent’s head off, and power to knock them out!
Power exercise examples include: Olympic lifts (e.g. split jerk, jerk press, clean, clean and jerk, snatch etc.), jump squats, kettlebell swings etc.
Speed training develops the maximum velocity you can move against little or no resistance.
When you fight, you’re moving against little to no resistance.
In most cases, the only resistance you have is the weight of your gloves. If you’re an amateur, you might have to move against little resistance of shin guards and elbow pads.
Speed training examples include: reaction drills, sprints, plyometrics, medicine ball drills, single kicks, punches etc.
Strength, power, and speed are ALL important… but start training strength FIRST!
Generally, power is more important to a Thai boxer than strength, as we rarely have the luxury of taking as long as we’d like to apply our force. We must strike, throw and defend as quickly as possible. But this doesn’t mean that strength training shouldn’t be part of a Thai boxer’s training…
Strength is a crucial foundation for all athletic qualities. If you want to be faster or more powerful, then you first need to be capable of producing more force (become stronger). It’s something I’m always banging on about, and for good reason. And most fighters are still getting it very wrong.
From the many questions I get from fighters, the majority still aren’t training for strength, although they mistakenly believe they are.
Firstly, strength requirements are relative. For example, a Thai boxer doesn’t need the same strength levels as a wrestler. However, without a decent level of relative strength your ultimate performance will suffer and your risk of injury increases significantly. In fact, local osteopaths and therapists refer a lot of injured clients to me that simply need strengthening to get them out of pain and to move well.
It’s also possible to be strong without being powerful. There are plenty of bench press monsters that can’t snap out a fast, powerful punch. They can ‘push’ with great force, but at much lower speeds – you can see them coming a mile away.
Once you have strength, you must train to apply that force quickly – which is to increase your rate of force development (power).
And eventually, especially before your next fight, you’ll have to train for maximal speed – moving against little or no resistance – as this is exactly what you’ll be needing to do in your fight.
Programming Proper S&C – How to make the most progress in the least amount of time
Thai boxers, like most athletes, don’t have much time to dedicate to weight training sessions. It’s therefore critical to train specifically in the gym — be the most productive you can, then get out and get on with other important things.
Fighters must focus on strength, power, and speed development in the weights room, as these adaptations aren’t maximally stressed during Thai boxing training and will otherwise leave untapped physical potential.
Most fighters can only afford a couple of resistance training sessions per week in the gym. And that’s plenty if you’re doing the training correctly.
Train the entire body in each gym session, rather than isolating muscle groups (bodybuilder style).
In this way your whole body gets a training stimulus 2-3 times a week rather than just once with a split muscle-group routine. More stimulus simply means much more progress.
Get at least two total body sessions in your program every week, on non-consecutive days (so make sure you don’t do two days in a row).
You can go to three sessions in a week at a stretch, but most fighters struggle to fit that in around all the other cardio conditioning and Muay Thai training – and recovery can be tricky.
Don’t perform whole-body weight training sessions on consecutive days – you’ll be under-recovered and the stimulus won’t result in efficient adaptation.
You can train other energy systems without any problem, but give your CNS (central nervous system) a rest.
Get enough rest!
We must remember that training is the stimulus – but it’s during the recovery from this stimulus that the adaptation happens – when you get fitter, stronger, more powerful, faster.
Prioritise RECOVERY and ADAPTATION over stimulus, and be sure NOT to compromise recovery.
Throwing in random exercises based on equipment choices wastes your training time and could lead to unbalanced structural development and ultimately injury!
Instead, you should hand pick exercises that fulfil a specific need. But getting caught up in specifics can render you unable to see the bigger picture – the fundamentals of an athletic resistance training session!
Use compound, multi-joint lifts, not isolated joints.
For example, think squats and deadlifts for the legs rather than leg extensions or leg curls. By training movements (multi-joint lifts) rather than individual muscles, you’ll also get an important sports performance benefit; improved muscle-group synchronisation to better coordinate movements delivering strength and power. The muscles must work together with precision timing — develop efficient motor patterns.
Unless you have an injury re-hab issue, there’s no need to isolate any other areas of your body, as working these multi-joint movements hard will develop all necessary muscles.
For example, arms are a typical area that people tend to isolate, and there’s no need. Your biceps get a lot of work during the upper body pulling movements (both vertical and horizontal). Your triceps are hit when training upper-body pushing movements (both vertical and horizontal).
Simply put all your effort into these lifts and save yourself a heap of time. Remember the objective is to develop strength and power, not just bulk up and slow down.
Balance the intensity and volume of these multi-joint movements to reduce the likelihood of injury and optimise performance.
In a typical week you should perform an equal number of sets and reps of all the following movements:
Lower body knee dominant — e.g. squat
Lower body hip dominant — e.g. deadlift
Upper Body Push
Upper body horizontal push — e.g. bench press
Upper body vertical push — e.g. standing shoulder press
Upper Body Pull
Upper body horizontal pull — e.g. rowing
Upper body vertical pull — chin-ups
Core anti extension e.g. — candlesticks
Core anti-rotation e.g. — landmine (coreplate) twists
How To Choose Exercises For a Fighter’s S&C Session
There’s a hierarchy to the decisions involved in choosing the best exercises for a fighter’s strength and conditioning session, to ensure productive progress for every minute in the gym.
Here’s my 9-step logic to selecting the best/most appropriate exercises for each category in any gym based session…
Step 1. Which athletic quality(s) am I looking to develop?
Step 2. Which movement pattern am I looking to develop?
Step 3. Which training block am I looking to match from the fight camp blueprint (predominant athletic quality emphasis)?
Mobility & movement
Step 4. What training equipment is available?
Body weight only
Barbells & plates
Step 5. What restrictions does the layout of the training facility present?
Can’t throw med balls at walls
No bumper plates
Step 6. Are there any equipment setup constraints on the intended supersetted exercises that are trained back to back?
Gym equipment poorly laid out (across opposite sides of the gym)
No room to superset two paired exercises together
There aren’t enough barbells or dumbbells
Step 7. Are there currently any injury or mobility restrictions to consider for the fighter?
Shoulder internal or external range of motion or injury?
Range of motion or injury to hips, knees, ankles, elbows, wrists, or lower back, etc.
Step 8. What’s the fighter’s relative “training age” for this particular movement or athletic quality?
Are they adapted to plyometrics (such as box jumps, hurdles, bounds, and depth jumps) without causing overuse injuries?
How about skilled kettlebell technique (like swings, push presses, jerk presses, cleans, and snatches)
or power lifting technique (such as squats, deadlifts presses, and rows) or olympic lifting technique (like high pulls, snatch, clean, and split jerk)
Step 9. Select an appropriate exercise based on all the above!
The main thing here is that EVERY exercise, in EVERY session must be fully justified. If there’s no reason for an exercise to be there, it should be removed.
If the targeted athletic benefit can be developed during Muay Thai training, then it should be, not in supplemental S&C sessions! S&C should develop qualities that aren’t adequately built using Muay Thai training alone.
The predominant focus of each training block (movement, strength, power or speed) is the absolute priority. Although I recommend a conjugate or concurrent periodisation model for fighters training (where strength, power, and speed are simultaneously trained)… only one or two athletic qualities are targeted for development, while others are maintained.
For example, you can train strength and aerobic power in the same training block.
Adding something to a training session invariably means taking something else away. These decisions are always justified by going back to step 3 “Which training block am I looking to match from the fight camp blueprint?”
Don’t fall into the trap of just adding more and more, and ending up with a program that doesn’t make a fighter better – and just makes them fatigued!
Here are a couple of videos that I put it all together:
Fighter’s often make the mistake of trying to do more every time they train.
This applies to both cardio conditioning/endurance training and resistance training too.
To progress resistance training sessions, begin by selecting an appropriate rep range or specific number of reps for the selected exercise depending on the block’s goals (predominantly either strength, power, or speed).
Then select an appropriate exercise load that allows you to complete the desired number or reps, with enough reps left in reserve each week… I’ll explain.
Every week should not be all out!
I program training over standard 4 week blocks using a 3:1 loading to unloading ratio – that’s three weeks using developmental loads (progressively overloading, to improve performance), and one week to deload before heading into the next 4-week block.
A “Deload” week keeps the fighter moving well (so not loosing anything), but resets fatigue built up in over the first 3-weeks of the block – so that the next block starts relatively “fresh”, and ready to step things up even more!
Carrying undue fatigue into the next block will blunt the improvements gained over the next 4-weeks. And will ultimately shortchange your progress.
The typical structure looks like this:
Week 1 – Low Week Week 2 – Medium Week Week 3 – High Week Week 4 – Deload Week
On a low week, I want fighters to use an intensity that allows them to complete the reps feeling like they have 3 or 4 reps left in them with perfect form. I call this “Minus 3 or 4 rep max”.
That’s enough stimulus for their body to begin adapting, but leaves enough headroom to continue development in the following weeks too – without wasting progress, by going in harder than is necessary.
On a medium week, the intensity should be adjusted so that you feel you only have 2 good reps left in you. That’s minus 2 rep max.
On high week, you should feel like there are no good reps left in you. Minus zero rep max, you’re maxed out!
Then on deload week, you scale it back again so you feel like you’ve got 4 or 5 reps left in you – minus 4 or 5 rep max.
As a typical structure, this works incredibly well. It incrementally boosts performance block after block, preventing stagnation and plateaus.
Keep this up for a year, and see how much further ahead you are of those that merely repeat a fight camp over and over – reaching the same peak each time without incrementally getting better and better.
The following video shows how progress compounds, and you can stack your performance gains.
Nutrition and Sleep
If you’re otherwise getting these parts of your training right, then there are two simple, key players that can take your recovery, and therefore your training and performance, to the next level…
Firstly getting good nutrition. And a key component for athletes looking to recover quickly and get stronger is protein. I like to target 2g of protein for every kg of bodyweight you have during heavy training periods.
Make sure you’re overeating by 200-300 kcals per day too.
Secondly, get enough sleep! Try and get 8-hours sleep every day and see how that compounds your recovery and your performance.
The Muay Thai S&C Accelerator – the S&C program I use to train professional athletes and fighters. If you want it all laid out for you (by me personally) as efficiently and effectively as possible, so you can spend less time studying and more time training – this is the program for you
Questions and comments below – please join in…
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.