by Don Heatrick
What Clinch Strength Is & Isn’t
Of all the Muay Thai tactics, the clinch demands the most raw strength. If you layout all Thai boxing techniques on the force-velocity curve, you’ll have clinchwork at one end (strength) and punches at the other (speed).
BUT – Good clinch work comes from relaxed, efficient application of strength, not just brute force. If I’m clinching someone who’s using all-out effort, I know I’ve got them — they’ll be blowing in no time and unable to fend me off. So although clinch is about strength, it’s not all about strength. Don’t just muscle it, you must be strong and active in the right areas while simultaneously relaxed in others or you’re wasting valuable energy ‘driving with the brakes on’.
First of all, clinch strength doesn’t come from your arms and shoulders. If this is where you focus your efforts in the clinch you will lose. You must produce force with larger muscle groups that won’t prematurely fatigue. To this end, it’s predominantly your back that must be activated when you clinch. Control your elbows with your back, hook onto your opponent with your wrists and flex your spine (compressing you ribs) with an active core and your clinch efficiency will sky-rocket.
The strength exercises I recommend not only build the relevant strength, but also develop coordinated muscle activation patterns that improve your clinch technique.
Essential Clinch Strength Exercises
Outu Flow Sequence
The purpose of an Outuflow sequence (courtesy of TacFit MMA’s Will Chung) is to activate and mobilise key movement patterns before training or fighting. After this sequence you’ll be primed to clinch, knee, guarding and straight punching.
The Outuflow Sequence consists of 5 movements:
We begin the sequence with the Buzzsaw Plank to start easy and prime the body to stabilise the progressions in the rest of the sequence – your core and the shoulders will switch on.
Front Knee Buzzsaw Plank
Driving from one leg increases the anti-rotation stabilisation demand on the core and turns on the hip flexors too.
Outside Knee Buzzsaw Plank
Lifting the knee to the outside adds additional demand to the hip abductors, another Muay Thai specific element.
Down Dog to Dolphin Press
This exercise challenges hamstring flexibility and primes elbow extension for punching and shoving in the clinch.
Screw Push Up
The finalé in the sequence further enhances your shoving/pushing action in the clinch by involving the shoulders and chest to a much greater extent – in a pattern that simulates snaking the arm up the middle between your opponent’s arms in the clinch, and driving up and out.
Stirring the pot
When it comes to combining an active core and controlling elbows with your back, stirring the pot is my go-to exercise.
The body always works in combined patterns of activation and movement, never isolated muscle actions or joints. By training strengthening exercises that use the same coordinated (motor) patterns of movement, you not only strengthen the muscles, but also reinforce the correct coordination habit (motor patten engram).
In the following video I demonstrate both the standard ‘circles’ version and also the tricky ‘figure-of-8 version’ too. Visualise clinching an opponent as you perform this exercise and you’ll increase its effectiveness in sparring even further!
Thai boxers don’t need phenomenal grip strength in the clinch, we wear boxing gloves and can’t grab with our hands! But, we do need good wrist strength in the clinch, we hook into our opponents with a flexed wrist — something I call using your ‘meat-hooks’. Simply get your meat-hooks into your opponent and hang on them.
My favourite training methods to develop hooks of steel are false-grip and clinch-grip hangs, chin ups and rows. I demonstrate all of these in the following video, and also add a ‘pike’ version of the chin-up to increase the demand on the core and hip flexors — amping up the clinch specificity even further.
BIOMECHANICAL ANALYSIS: CHIN-UP & PULL-UP VARIATIONS
WHAT’S BEST FOR MUAY THAI?
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 bodyweight.
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.
This exercise trains your overhead pulling strength unilaterally, building functional single arm clinch strength. It’s a more Muay Thai specific version of the chin up, and is useful at the end of your fight camp, closer to the fight.
Grabbing the bar at shoulder width or slightly wider, you start from a straight-arm dead-hang centrally to your grip width. You then pull up directly toward one hand, drawing the elbow on that side to your ribs, and taking your chin toward your hand.
You lower once again to the central dead-hang position and then repeat the lift to the other side. This alternating sequence is repeated for the desired number of reps in the set.
The focus of this exercise is to predominantly use one arm as much as possible, which is indicated by the path your body takes on the way up to the bar. You should hang under your pulling arm on the way up, forming a “U” shaped path between reps rather than a “V” shape – and this requires considerable strength.
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!
Clinch Strength Recommendations
The exercises in this guide fall into two categories, serving two different purposes; 1) Activation, and 2) Strength.
Prime your gym sessions, or even your Muay Thai sessions with either the Outuflow Sequence or the Stir The Pot exercise two or three times per week. The purpose is to activate the muscles and teach your body to use the correct movement patterns as part of a warm up.
If using the Outuflow Sequence, perform one set of the following: Buzzsaw Plank x 20 reps, Front Knee Buzzsaw Plank x 20reps (10 per), Outside Knee Buzzsaw Plank x 20reps (10 per), Down Dog to Dolphin Press x 10 reps, Screw Push Up x 10 reps (5 per).
If using the Stir The Pot, perform 2 sets of 4–10 reps (2–5 per). Pick an number of reps relative to your strength levels… just remember, the purpose is to activate, not wipe you out before the rest of the session!
Choose a chin/pull-up variation, and program that into your resistance training sessions, once or twice a week for a 4-week block of training.
Progress to a more advanced chin/pull-up variation for the next 4-week block of training, and so on for up to a full 12-week fight camp.
Perform 3 sets of 5 reps for your chosen chin/pull up variation.
Vary the intensity of the 5 reps each week as follows:
Week 1 – Low (4 reps left in you, 9-rep max load)
Week 2 – Med (2 reps left in you, 7-rep max load)
Week 3 – High (0 reps left in you, 5-rep max load)
Week 4 – Deload (5 reps left in you, 10-rep max load)
To hit these intensities, add weight to your body weight if necessary using a dipping belt, or boost with resistance bands to make it more manageable.
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 it’s unnecessary 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 opponents certainly will!