by Don Heatrick
@donheatrick

For many fighters, bodyweight training only serves as muscular endurance training – multiple rounds of upward of 10 reps per exercise.

This approach develops endurance, or “conditioning”. It doesn’t touch the neuromuscular system that’s developed in resistance training sessions targeting strength, power, and speed.

And in missing this, fails to plug the gap in athletic development left by Muay Thai training.

Bodyweight vs weight training

All methods of training are useful, they’re tools in your toolbox. The key is using the right tool for the right job. Some tools can be multipurpose, and others are great for one job, and one job only.

As a coach, I view all training methods in context of the job I want them to achieve. You wouldn’t buy a new hammer, and then try to do every job with it, like hammering in screws or cutting electrical cable!

You instead start with the job at hand, then pick the best tool you have in your toolbox for that job. I’m not evangelistic about any piece of kit –they all have pros and cons. And bodyweight training is one tool that everyone has in their toolbox.

Later I’ll explain how bodyweight training can be used to develop strength and power for limited periods, if you program exercises correctly with respect to the load and velocity.

And that once you’ve exhausted the gains from bodyweight training, adding other tools opens up new levels of progression. 

However, bodyweight training is generally better than weight training for mobility and movement training… Which is the first block in any effective training program or any new phase of training (fight camp) following a peak.

A mobility and movement block should focus on mobility, stability, and coordination. And adding excessive loads to movements in this training block can:

  • Reduce range of motion if the load prevents you confidently using full range on every rep
  • Prevent effective stability training if the load prevents you stabilising unilaterally on one limb
  • Pollute effective coordinated movement if the load prevents you using the desired range of motion and single limb stability required to correctly execute movement pattern, anchoring bad habits

This final point, “bad habits” is important.

Creating effective automatic motor pattern (movement) habits – that you can depend on when without thinking and when under fatigue – is crucial to great performance.

Repetition forms these habits, both good ones and bad ones.

Learning a new habit from scratch takes something like 300 – 500 deliberate reps to become automatic – so you don’t have to think about every step anymore.

Re-writing a bad pattern takes around 3000 – 5000 deliberate reps to become automatic and reliable.

Loaded reps with bad movement are anchored faster than unloaded ones.

So using inappropriate load that encourages poor movements is the fast-track to making an athlete move worse!

Bodyweight is the king when it comes to setting a rock-solid “movement base” to your own optimal performance pyramid.

And managed well, provides the perfect springboard into the next level of the optimal performance pyramid, the “performance” level. Which introduces sound movement patterns under greater load or fatigue to target strength, power, speed, and endurance.

Optimal Bodyweight Programming & Exercises

For a fighter looking to avoid wasting the opportunity to plug gaps in their athletic development, bodyweight training needs a critical overhaul – from a perspective of the forces required and the movement velocities produced.

Low-force, high-velocity exercises are needed to enhance speed.

High-force, high-velocity exercises are needed to build explosive power

High-force, low-velocity exercises are needed to develop functional strength

Exercise variations are then matched to these objectives, and prescribed in relevant proportions to match the concurrent ratios of strength, power, and speed that the present training block requires.

For example, a strength block ideally mixes relative training volume.load like this:

50% Strength (such as single leg squats)

35% Power (such as jump split squats)

15% Speed (rebound tuck jumps)

Chart showing intensity multiplied by the number of sets and reps for each of the relative concurrently trained athletic qualities in a Strength Block.

Getting this ratio right is important to build strength, while maintaining both power and speed levels. Because you can’t train all of these equally at once. Or your body becomes confused, not knowing which stimulus to adapt to, and this results in poor progress.

And training all of these qualities also makes the session far more engaging – most bodyweight routines are mind numbing!

Complete, Whole Body Training

When selecting your exercises, other than the relative forces and velocities that they demand, the movement patterns need to target the whole body.

Regardless if you’re using training equipment or simply bodyweight…

Movement PatternsIn a typical week, you should aim to perform an equal number of sets and reps of all the following movements:

Lower Body

  • Lower body knee dominant — e.g. squat or single leg squat
  • Lower body hip dominant — e.g. deadlift or single leg deadlift

Upper Body Push

  • Upper body horizontal push — e.g. bench press or push up
  • Upper body vertical push — e.g. standing shoulder press or pike push up (Rocca press)

Upper Body Pull

  • Upper body horizontal pull — e.g. rowing or floor wiper press
  • Upper body vertical pull — chin-ups or also floor wiper press

Core

  • Core anti extension e.g. — candlesticks
  • Core anti-rotation e.g. — landmine twists or floor wipers

This ensures that you build a robust physique that won’t self-destruct as a result of muscular imbalances, as well as maximises your performance.

 The upper body pulling pattern is the crucial one when it comes to bodyweight training. It’s difficult to train this without anything to hang from.

I’ve solved this problem by coming up with a new exercise, the Floor Wiper Press. And there’s a huge beneficial side-effect of this exercise too – a great deal of core anti-rotation strength too.

It also produces a strong enough stimulus to be used instead of chin ups, if you can’t find anything to hang from.

Pulling patterns are by far the most important thing a fighter can train in their resistance training session.

There’s already an incredibly high volume of “pushing” movements present in regular Muay thai training – every punch, push up, burpee, even holding pads, all load this pattern.

And too much of this pushing action without training the pull, causes a strength imbalance around the shoulder joint, creates a wonky posture, and primes an injury time bomb.

Finding The Right Progressions

Loading bodyweight exercises to achieve the right intensity (matching the goals of your training block) requires you to self-select between suitable exercise versions (regressions or progressions).

For example, bodyweight squat, rear foot elevated split squat, or single leg squat.

Depending on the block’s goals, your start either with a rep range, or specific number of reps, and choose an exercise that allows you to complete the  desired reps with enough reps left in reserve… I’ll explain.

I program training over standard 4 week blocks using a 3:1 loading to unloading ratio, that’s three weeks using developmental loads, and one week to deload before heading into the next 4 week block.

That 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.

If you’re strong enough that even the hardest exercise progression isn’t enough to reach minus zero rep max on high week, then you can add a static (isometric) 2-second hold at the hardest part of the exercise on every rep.

When programming bodyweight training, I also suggest that strength training targets functional hypertrophy rep ranges, i.e. 6-8 reps.

As this way, loss of muscle mass can be prevented alongside strength development too. All very useful if you’re not able to get yourself into an equipped gym facility!

Now let’s look at some questions that often come up…

The most efficient ways to unlock mobility & flexibility while training at home

Range of Motion Quick Fixes

Mobility is more valuable than flexibility to a fighter. I’ll explain the difference between the two, and how this relates to you as a fighter…

Flexibility is the ability to stretch into a “passive” range of motion, assisted by someone or something (like the floor).

Mobility refers to the ability to actively control and use a range of motion – this not only requires adequate range of motion, but also stability and coordination (control). Qualities that aren’t needed to passively drop into the splits on the floor for example.

To have great mobility, you need sufficient flexibility to achieve the range of motion required, but there’s a lot more to making it usable – to say, kick someone in the head!

And more fundamental than this, inadequate range of motion, and the poor movement this produces leads to a cascade of injuries further “along the chain” in the body.

It’s important to fix your problems at the source – treat the cause, not the symptom. Neglecting range of motion is short-sighted, and will come back to bite you eventually.

Range of motion in any joint depends on three different factors:

  1. Muscle length due to flexibility and trigger points – those knots in your muscles
  2. Articulation of the joint capsule itself – where the bones are positioned relative to each other
  3. Neuromuscular control – what your brain tells your body is usable range of motion

A highly effective way of addressing all three of these factors, is using a release-open-anchor sequence as follows…

Mobility Quick Fix Release

The first step in the process addresses muscle length. By releasing the trigger points that build up in a muscle, you can restore it’s full working length and allow it to provide a decent range of motion for better athletic movement.

This is achieved using a foam roller or massage ball (even a tennis ball) to “tack and stretch” the target muscle.

Start at one end of the muscle, apply pressure on the ball/roller against the floor while moving around to find a more tender “trigger point” in the muscle. Park up, and apply pressure on this tender point while flexing and extending the joint, contracting and lengthening the target muscle (tack and stretch).

Work your way up the muscle, inch by inch, seeking out tender trigger points and tacking and stretching for 3 or 4 reps before moving on.

Mobility Quick Fix Open

The second step targets the joint capsule, using “distraction” techniques (usually with a resistance band) to open the joint up.

Every joint has some slop or play where the bones come together. Joint distraction means to bias the bones over, out of their normal position.

This then allows you to work a joint through a range that places different tensions on the muscles around the joint, giving them a bigger stretch while the joint experiences increased ranges too.

Strategically using resistance bands during these mobility exercises allows you to “distract” the joint with a pulling force while you move it through a full range of motion.

Mobility Quick Fix Anchor

The third and final step is to anchor this newly freed up range of motion in your motor memory.

Miss this step, or misuse this step, and your mobility can come undone in a matter of 10 minutes or so.

You see, motor control, the neuromuscular part of the system, has the final say. Even if mechanically your body has more room to move, if your brain says “No” then you can’t use it.

The first two steps in the sequence focus on the mechanical limits of your movement, this final step resets your software limits, so that your brain will use it. 

A bit of stretching is ok, but using some simple tools and a targeted process changes the game.  And it’s very easily done at home with a few items.

Here is a worked example for you, targeting the quads and hip flexors…

Kettlebells – worth it or not?

Kettlebells are a very versatile training tool to have at home. Although they can be used in place of dumbbells in many exercises, their real power is in specifically training power, and power-endurance… pun intended.

I always speak of having the right tools for the job. Kettlebells are THE tool for power-endurance.

Despite CrossFit WODs programming Olympic lifting for such tasks, barbell power exercises aren’t suited for explosive endurance training. Olympic lifting form degrades too easily and the risk of injury is too great.

This is not true for kettlebell exercises such as swings, cleans, snatches, jerk presses etc. They are designed for safe, explosive endurance training.

And of course, these exercises can also be loaded heavier, and worked for less reps with greater rest to develop raw power too.

As well as the athletic qualities that kettlebells allow you to target, the movement patterns they permit are highly desirable to fighters too.

A kettlebell squat jump develops explosive knee-dominant power, boosting your vertical force/power production. Great for jump knees and uppercuts etc.

A kettlebell swing develops explosive hip-dominant power, boosting you horizontal force/power production. Essential for any punch or kick thrown at your opponent, and any forward leaping technique.

Another benefit of kettlebells, is the opportunity to train unilateral (single limb) strength, power, and stability.

For example, single leg deadlifts using a kettlebell are highly effective. And the low-hanging centre of gravity, combined with a realistic handle height from the floor, make this a very practical exercise to get your teeth into.

And single arm presses, push presses, jerk presses, swings, cleans, and snatches, all bring things to the party that other training tools don’t do nearly so well.

And when it comes to overhead pressing, a kettlebell allows those with more limited external shoulder rotation mobility to safely press without causing or aggravating injury.

This is because a correctly held kettlebell is positioned like a “door knocker” over the back of the forearm. Which presents the centre of mass directly over your shoulder joint, yet with your arm angled forwards, rather than straight up directly over head…

A biomechanical cause and effect that I routinely use with clients struggling with vertical pressing mobility.

This “door knocker” effect also shows up when holding a kettlebell at the bottom of a press, in a front racked position. A position that reinforces a good fighting guard habit too.

Add to this the possibility for loaded carries and get ups, and you can see that kettlebells are a very useful addition to your toolkit.

That allows you to evolve your training even further once you’ve exhausted the opportunities afforded you from bodyweight exercise alone.

Pull-up bars – worth it or not?

The pull-up bar provides anyone training at home with the highly valuable opportunity to really train your “pulling pattern”.

An essential pattern for a fighter, in order to balance out all the “pushing patterns” routinely trained every time you punch, do a push up, or even hold pads. Which left “out of whack” causes a strength imbalance around the shoulder joint, a wonky posture, and sets you up for overuse injury.

Although I’ve come up with a very effective bodyweight exercise, the Floor Wiper Press, that trains the “pulling” pattern even without anything to hang from, if you’ve got a pull-up bar, you can go to the top of the class.

Not only can you directly hang from the bar while performing exercises such as pull-ups or chin-ups, but you can also suspend TRX straps or gym rings from it too. And this expands your training options considerably.

When it comes to pulling strength, the chin-up is my choice exercise. It’s the exercise I use to test fighters during the performance profiling in my Heavy Hitters program.

I use it to test strength (with load added), and to test muscular endurance for maximum continuous reps in 2 minutes .

Fighters that score well on these tests have the potential to be clinch monsters! They have the raw athletic ability, just add technique.

I always say as a coach, that if I only had one piece of information about a fighter, then the maximum number of bodyweight chin-ups they can do would be the most useful indicator of their general athletic ability.

A good score tells me the fighter:

  1. Has decent strength levels
  2. Has decent muscular endurance levels
  3. Has a good strength to weight ratio for their fight class
  4. Must also therefore have a reasonable body composition (body fat%)

How many strict form (straight arm hang, chin to the bar, no swinging/kipping, no pausing) reps am I looking for?

  • Males 12 – 16 reps
  • Females 5 – 8 reps

No cheating, keeping it strict, how do you rate?

Wherever you currently rank, we can make that even better! And you’ll feel this in the clinch instantly… Your training partners and opponents certainly will too!

Resistance Bands – worth it or not?

Resistance bands feature in my main programs every day. But I’ll start by explaining what I don’t use them for…

I don’t use them for practicing any striking technique – the way they load the movement, the distortion of your striking skill, and the shift to a dominant limb-focus over whole body power generation rule this completely out. If you want to go deeper into this, click here.

I also don’t generally use them to add resistance to weight training exercises like deadlifts, squats, bench presses etc.

It’s simply not necessary unless you’re no longer making gains from regular resistance training exercises. And there’s so much progress you can make by properly programming these exercises alone. 

Far too many athletes use band-resisted weightlifting prematurely, rendering it a useless method if and when they need it to bust through a plateau further into your career.

And quite honestly, 99% of fighters never need to resort to this.

Weight training is only part of our training, it’s not all that we do. As such, we’re unlikely to reach the point that we need band-resisted weightlifting to improve our strength and power.

So what do I recommend using resistance bands for?

I use continuous loop bands with every face to face client I see for band distraction exercises, as part of their mobility warm up.

Band distractions are something I’ve already discussed in detail when explaining the release-open-anchor sequence to fast track mobility gains. So I won’t go into that again now.

Suffice to say, you get a lot of bang for your buck using this method in your training.

I also love to use resistance bands for activation exercises such as X-band Shuffles and Monster Walks – to switch on the glutes and prime movement habits that not only make strength, power, and speed exercises safer and more productive, but also reinforce a rock-solid fighting stance and footwork.

And if you need to either reduce the intensity, or increase the intensity of chin-ups, the resistance band is your friend.

The thing with chin-ups or pull-ups is your bodyweight is your starting point. If it’s either too much, or not enough, a well deployed resistance band can make up the difference.

Looping the band through itself to attach it to the chin-up bar, and then stepping or kneeling into the free-end loop, gives you a bunk up. It removes some of your bodyweight from the equation.

Alternatively, if you need more resistance, looping around your waist and attaching a dumbbell, kettlebell, or weight plate will either act as a dipping belt (if the band is strong enough), or a stretching resistance (if the load is heavy enough to serve as an anchor).

And for bodyweight exercises, the opportunity to scale exercise loading with a vastly greater progressive variation is very valuable indeed – regardless if your bodyweight is too much, or not enough.

For such an inexpensive training implement, there are some incredibly practical, and unique benefits to be had if you use them well.

FAQ

Can you compete at the elite level without lifting weights?

Yes, you can compete at an elite level without lifting weights for a window of time. However, beyond this window, adaptations will stall and performance will plateau.

Although there are many different ways you can use bodyweight training, and many different exercise variations, there are limited variations possible with respect to progressive load, and progressive movement velocity.

Both of which are crucial variables, demanding progressive manipulation to achieve long-term progress for any athlete.

With careful consideration, these variables can be managed for a period that enhances even an elite athlete’s ability. And that’s been my focus with the Functional Bodyweight Program.

But once the athlete has adapted to this new stimulus, a novel, progressive stimulus is required to kick off greater athletic development and prevent stagnation.

For example, the two 4-week blocks in the Functional Bodyweight Program can be repeated multiple times, because each block sets target intensities that you self-select exercise variations or rep ranges based on your current strength levels…

So each time you repeat a block, you are stronger. Therefore you use an increased intensity each week than the last block runthrough. This is progressive, and mixes the right amount of loading and deloading weeks to encourage continuous adaptation.

The number of times you can successfully repeat training blocks from depends on your starting performance levels going into the bodyweight program.

Using bodyweight alone, there’s only so much head room possible to provide the progressive stimulus needed for continuous improvement in strength and power particularly. Which are the two key athletic qualities not adequately developed in Muay Thai training alone, and essential components of an effective S&C program for fighters.

Once you’ve exhausted the gains from bodyweight training, adding other tools opens up new levels of progression.

Functional Bodyweight Program vs Minimum Equipment Program vs Accelerator Program? What’s the difference?

Adding a Functional Bodyweight Program to my range of online training solutions has completed the set…

But, if you don’t know what’s under the hood of each of these programs, making a choice now becomes more difficult. So let me explain!

The new Functional Bodyweight Program is a standalone progressive 8-week resistance training program, built on bodyweight only exercises – but with options to use resistance bands, kettlebells, and a chin up bar where appropriate too.

If you’ve enjoyed the free SPS routine, then this new fully fledged program takes things to a whole new level. It’s a complete resistance training program with 2x 4-week progressive training blocks, and 3x resistance training sessions each week. And of course, there’s the opportunity to scale up and repeat the blocks too, for continued progression (as all of my programs do).

If you’re looking for Muay Thai specific resistance training and you’ don’t have any gym equipment at all, or maybe only have resistance bands, or kettlebells, or a chin up bar, then this is the solution for you.

MEP - Minimum Equipment Program

However, If you have a TRX, or want a full 12-week fight camp including cardio conditioning, then this isn’t for you. Instead, I’d recommend the Minimum Equipment Program

The MEP provides fighters with a lightweight, portable, full fight camp when they haven’t got, or can’t count on having other training tools at their disposal.

It includes 4 week blocks each for strength, power, and speed, with 2x resistance training sessions each week, harmonised with 3x cardio conditioning sessions each week too.

Muay Thai Strength and Conditioning Accelerator Program

Alternatively, if you have access to standard gym equipment, such as barbells, plates, squat rack, bench, kettlebells, dumbbells, and med balls etc., and you want to begin integrating fully fledged Muay Thai S&C into your training regimen, then the Muay Thai S&C Accelerator Program is for you instead.

The Accelerator program includes:

  • Range of motion testing and mobility fixing exercises for any restrictions you have
  • Performance testing and reporting so you know how you measure up and what you need to work on
  • 4 week movement and mobility block to clean up any issues you may have while building your aerobic capacity, setting a rock solid foundation for all your training to come
  • 4 week functional strength block, that concurrently introduces power and speed training, while increasing aerobic power at just the right ratios to ensure you get the best progress possible

And as a side note… If you have standard gym equipment, and want a lifetime of training progression, including multiple progressive fight camps, then Heavy Hitters is for you!

Due to recent world events – I am offering a special promotional bundle on two of my programs.

Because it seems around the world many aren’t back in their gyms yet, or have had them close again.

So until Sunday 16 August, you can get Functional Bodyweight Program and S&C Accelerator together for £164.99.

That’s £45 off the original price of the two.

It seems that some gyms around the world have opened and things are getting back to normal, and some are still left training at home.

I don’t know what will happen next – whether there will be a second wave of quarantines or not, or whether everything will be all good

One thing that’s for sure – regardless of world circumstances – is that all fighters will go through periods where they’ll need effective bodyweight training (for example on vacation or when no equipment is available)…

AND all fighters will go through periods where they do have all the best equipment available.

This bundle is made for those who want to be prepared for it all. So they can train anytime, anywhere, and keep moving forward no matter what the circumstances.

If you’re interested, you can read about the Muay Thai S&C Accelerator here.

And you can read about the Functional Bodyweight Program here.

If you’re interested in the bundle, it’s available on both pages.

Closing Notes

I hope this guide helps get the most out of your training at home or in otherwise restricted circumstances.

Feel free to let me know through email, social media, or via the comments section below if you have any questions about body weight training!

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.

Follow Don Heatrick on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/donheatrick/