I first published this in 2013, and it’s been my most popular video on YouTube even after all these years.

So I’ve decided to update it and re-publish it for newer readers and anyone who wants to run it again, as it’s still as effective as ever in helping Thai boxers build functional strength and muscle.

The aim of this particular routine is to build some muscle mass while maintaining or developing strength.

Any increased muscle must directly contribute to Muay Thai performance, i.e. be functional.

Because fighters must compete in a specific weight class, we don’t want to add any unnecessary mass that isn’t useful in the ring.

This routine does add muscle mass, but targets development of functional mass that aids athletic performance with a proportional increase in strength.

I designed this routine to regain the strength and muscle mass I’d personally lost after a particularly nasty illness had forced me to stop training for over a month.

Stepping back onto the scales, I was nearly 5kg lighter. My strength had dropped proportionally with the muscle loss, and I didn’t feel robust enough to ward off injuries from training or competing.

In 3-weeks using this routine, I regained nearly 2kg of muscle – in only the places I needed it. No wasted bulk. And I was far sturdier too.

This routine is great for beginners, experienced athletes who need to regain muscle and strength lost from time off training, or fighters who simply need to move up the upper end of their weight class.

Just know that if you’re a total beginner, don’t expect to gain 2kg of muscle as quickly as I did – this was only possible as I’d already packed on that level of muscle before, and I simply had to regain what I’d lost from lack of use. It’s a lot faster the second time around, as the body has already made the same adaptations before.

You’ll still benefit from the same gains in functional strength and hypertrophy – just expect you’ll need to run the routine for a longer period of time, along with proper nutrition and sleep.

The Routine

The routine consists of 3 supersets and 1 core set per session.

Each superset consists of 1 strength exercise performed for 5-reps, followed immediately by 1 hypertrophy finisher for 8-reps. These are done back to back without rest.

Then take 2-minutes rest before repeating the set again, until you’ve finished 4 working sets.

Each superset is repeated 4-times before moving on to the next pair of exercises.

This routine is done 3-times a week in the gym, alternating two session plans, three times a week.

So in the first week perform session (A), then session (B), followed by session (A) again on non-consecutive days.

In the second week perform session (B), (A), then session (B) again.

And be sure to leave at least 1 day between these sessions as your central nervous system will need time to recover.

For example, if you’re training on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday:

Week 1:

Monday – A
Wednesday – B
Friday – A

Week 2:

Monday – B
Wednesday – A
Friday – B

And so on.

The Exercises

The exercises used in the two sessions are as follows.

SESSION (A)

1a) Front squat x 5-reps
1b) Rear foot elevated split squats (Bulgarian split squats) x 8-reps each leg

2a) Incline bench press x 5-reps
2b) Dumbbell chest press x 8-reps

3a) Pull-ups x 5-reps
3b) Dumbbell bent over rows x 8-reps each side

4) Candlesticks x 5-reps

SESSION (B)

1a) Deadlift x 5-reps
1b) Single leg suspension squat x 8-reps each leg

2a) Standing over head press behind neck* x 5-reps
2b) Barbell push press x 8-reps

3a) Barbell bent over row x 5-reps
3b) Suspended rows x 8-reps

4Coreplate (landmine) twists x 5-reps

* I used the press behind the neck because my shoulders were healthy and my range of motion was good enough… and I also specifically wanted to target shoulder stability for the Snatch Olympic lift.

If your shoulders can’t take it, you can substitute either the Military Press (bar in front of neck), or a Dumbbell Press instead. And this is true for the Push Press too.

Program Progression

As far as programming the intensity, for this routine I used 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. Then you can start the whole cycle again, building from low week, through to high+ week.

Calculating Loads & Intensity

When designing individual programs, 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).

In this -4 rep max 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.

You should now have enough detail to structure your first block of training.

Functional Exercise Selection – The Purpose Behind Each Exercise

Deadlift - hip dominant lift

Strength and conditioning maybe the practical application of sports science, but it’s also very much an art. Your choice of exercises can (and should) be a personal thing.

I change the exercises prescribed to each fighter depending on their training and injury history, those I suggested in my routine assume a basic understanding of lifting patterns and a healthy, injury free Thai boxer.

When putting together a programme or routine, you should have a reason for every exercise you’ve chosen. Otherwise you’re wasting valuable training time and energy that would be more productively spent doing something else — possibly even resting!

I’ll begin by reminding you that the aim of this particular routine is to build some muscle mass while maintaining or developing strength.

Any increased muscle must directly contribute to Muay Thai performance, i.e. be functional.

Therefore the exercises I’ve selected must all be compound, multi-joint lifts that develop musculature responsible for driving movements in Muay Thai – no isolation movements working just one joint.

Thai boxers also don’t have a lot of time to train with weights. So I like to work the whole body in each session and target all the major movement patterns to both prevent injury and enhance performance.

Session A

Front Squats

I chose front squats over back squats because they target the knee dominant lifting pattern more specifically than back squats (which employ more hip action, and I pick that up in the next routine). Front squat technique also tends to be far better (and safer) than most back squats – and my primary objective is always injury prevention.

Front squats are also a progression toward the clean and jerk olympic lift. This exercise serves as the strength component in the lower body superset, so a stable, bilateral lift allows you to train with more intensity (load).

Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats

This second lower body lift is designed to add to the volume of work to stimulate muscle growth (hypertrophy). I chose a unilateral lift to simultaneously develop 1-legged stabilisation, a much needed physical ability for fighters.

Incline Bench Press

I must admit I’m not a big fan of bench pressing for fighters. We already get a great deal of horizontal pressing work throwing punches, and believe it or not, laying on a bench and pressing horizontally isn’t as specific for Thai boxers as standing and pressing overhead (which coordinates the whole body from the ground up). But, in this case we’re after building some meat too, and I’ve made it more specific by making the lift an incline bench press.

When throwing a punch, you don’t extend your arm horizontally (unless fighting someone much shorter). Your fist finishes at the height of your own chin or nose, with your fist higher than your shoulder at an angle of about 10 to 12 degrees above horizontal. Setting an incline bench to this angle will make this lift more specific for punchers.

Dumbbell Chest Press

This lift again adds the volume required for muscle growth. I elected for a flat bench for this supplemental exercise to his the chest at a different angle to aid hypertrophy. The use of dumbbells also demands far more stabilisation than the bench press with a barbell.

Pull Ups

Pull ups develop the strength for Muay Thai clinch work. Correctly executing this movement also works the muscles stabilising the shoulder blades, which get long and weak when spending a lot of time in a Muay Thai stance.

Bench Dumbbell Bent-over Rows

Bench bent-over rows are a horizontal pull rather than vertical like the pull-ups, but they once again target the scapular stabilisers. This gets some volume and growth into those muscles that need balancing up from excessive punching and stance posture.

Candlesticks

This is a true core strength exercise, that works anti-extension in the sagittal plane and places some demand on your hip flexors too — all of which is specific for Muay Thai clinch work and knees.

Session B

Session B fills in any gaps in the fundamental movement patterns left untrained by session A, to reduce the likelihood of injury and balance athletic performance

Deadlift

The deadlift loads the hip dominant lower body pattern, the opposite extreme of the knee dominant front squatting pattern used in session A. The deadlift builds significant strength in the glutes and hamstrings, and serves as a foundation movement for future olympic lifts.

I’d like to take the opportunity to explain that I personally don’t like Thai boxers to use weightlifting belts while lifting. I prefer you to develop sufficient strength and stability in your own musculature to hold your position without depending on a belt. You don’t wear a lifting belt while you fight, so in my opinion you shouldn’t wear one in training either.

Single Leg Suspension Squat

This lift adds the muscle building volume to the preceding deadlift strength exercise. Being a suspended squat, you can sit back into the exercise to allow greater glute and hamstring contribution. You can also easily trim the amount of arm assistance to achieve the required intensity for the given number of reps. Being a unilateral exercise, the single leg suspension squat also builds stability on one leg, a must for Thai boxers, and is another progression toward full pistol squats.

Standing Over-head Press Behind Neck

I favour pressing from behind the neck as it better trains the muscles stabilising the scapulae, that tend to become long and weak from our fighting stance posture. It’s also a progression toward the overhead squat and snatch (olympic lift). Pressing behind the neck is only a problem if you have injured or unusual shaped scapulae (shoulder blades), most people are fine.

Like I mentioned earlier, if your shoulders have a problem pressing behind the neck, either press in front (military press) or use dumbbells instead.

Barbell Push Press

The barbell push press allows you to knock out the remaining hypertrophy volume reps with the same weight you used for the preceding strength lift. It also begins to build power, coordinating the triple extension drive from the legs against the floor up into the arms (specific to punching power). This leg drive also transfers to kicking techniques too.

Again, if you have an issue working from the behind the neck position, press in front from the military press position, or use dumbbells instead.

Barbell Bent-over Row

The bent-over row not only adds strength to the horizontal pulling pattern (balancing the amount of horizontal pressing Thai boxers perform with all that punching), but also significantly strengthens the postural muscles stabilising the back and the scapulae — helping counteract the effects of a Muay Thai stance on long-term posture.

Suspended Rows

The suspended rows add the volume required for muscle hypertrophy and allow for simple ‘trimming’ of the amount of resistance for the desired number of reps. The core muscles are also once again used to stabilise the body.

Landmine (Coreplate) Twists

Landmine twists are another true core strength exercise, this time working anti-rotation in the transverse plane — which is specific for all punches, kicks, elbows and knees. This exercise can be a real game changer.

Closing Notes & Next Steps

Muay Thai Strength and Conditioning Accelerator Program

Follow the program for 8-12 weeks and see all the benefits for yourself, in both your physique and improved Muay Thai performance.

Done properly, you’ll have gained a greater capacity to develop force in your strikes, increased resilience & physical toughness, and you’ll have developed greater clinch strength as well.

Once you’ve done this routine, or simply want to jump ahead into building greater fight-specific movement patterns and strength, power, speed, and endurance – check out the Muay Thai S&C Accelerator (which is on sale for a special price until August 14).

Thanks for reading, hope you enjoy the routine and get as many gains out of it as I did!

Don Heatrick BSc. (Hons) Level 4 Strength & Conditioning Coach, Muay Thai Coach

Don Heatrick

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), and the go-to expert on Muay Thai performance training with over 25 years of coaching experience.

Don helps ambitious fighters & coaches take their game to the next level by bridging the gap between Strength & Conditioning, Performance Science, and Muay Thai.

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