To become a stronger fighter, you must use resistance training correctly… Historically, old-school fight coaches claimed that weight training makes fighters big and slow. But that’s only true if you use resistance training poorly. When used in the right way, weight training can either make you much stronger WITHOUT getting any bigger, or both bigger and stronger together, meaning you get FASTER, not slower!

And as we’ve seen in the previous episode, getting “the wrong kind of big” will sabotage your speed… How you use resistance training is critical. Weight training is a tool. We can’t blame the tool for bad results if it’s being used inappropriately! Let’s dig into how to best use weight training to level up your fight performance.

by Don Heatrick

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Become A Stronger Fighter

In this episode we’ll explore how programming your resistance training sets and reps will affect if you get purely stronger without gaining weight (boosting neuromuscular efficiency), or both bigger and stronger (targeting myofibrillar hypertrophy), or simply bigger without getting stronger (through sarcoplasmic hypertrophy), which will make you slower.

big fighter isn't always stronger functional strength

The last video went into exactly what the differences are between those three adaptations. Be sure to check that out for context before cracking on with this episode. You’ll find a link in the caption and show notes page. Now onto the loaded question of strength and muscle hypertrophy training – pun intended!

The exact biomechanical mechanism for muscle growth from resistance training is not yet fully understood. But that’s just academic, it doesn’t really matter to us. We only need to understand the practical application and adjust our training programmes accordingly. So here’s the lowdown, where the rubber meets the road.

How To Get Bigger Muscles

Ultimately, muscle growth occurs as a result of a combination of three things; mechanical tension (being under load), metabolic stress (that’s work done in a period of time), and muscle damage (causing and repairing micro trauma to muscle proteins).

The biggest factor to consider for muscle hypertrophy is training volume; that’s the number of sets and reps, and the training frequency – the number of times a week that you target specific muscle groups. The more training volume, the more hypertrophy you’ll experience, to a point. There’s a dose response relationship between training volume and muscle gain up to a certain point. And that point is different for everyone. Training volume above this personal threshold leads to overtraining and an overall reduction in the work you can do – which reduces the amount of muscle gain you get. You need to find your own sweet spot!

Stronger Fighter Training Volume

Matching your training volume with the right intensity (or weight lifted) is also critical to gaining strength and/or muscle size.

At one end of the spectrum we have high load/low volume (you can’t lift the heaviest things many times) and at the other end we have low load/high volume (you can lift lighter things more times before you run out of steam).

So you can see that naturally, lower intensity (lighter weights) typically leads to higher volume, while higher intensity (heavier weights) typically leads to a lower training volume.

Stronger Fighter Training Intensity and Volume

Stronger Fighter Training Intensity Levels

The intensity of each set, given the corresponding typical amount of training volume too, results in a different kind of strength adaptation or muscle growth – either predominantly neuromuscular (more efficiently recruiting and firing the existing muscle you already have), or myofibrillar hypertrophy (increased muscle with a proportional increase in strength), or predominantly sacroplasmic hypertrophy (more muscle without gaining strength).

And these adaptations exist on a sliding scale from one to the other, and vary between different individuals a little too. But a general rule of thumb, that suits the vast majority of people… 

If you want strength without an increase in muscle mass, using a load you can lift only between 1 and 5 times will increase neuromuscular efficiency – make you better at recruiting the muscle fibres you’ve got rather than make more muscle. You get stronger without getting heavier, increasing your strength-to-weight ratio so you can move faster and be more powerful. Combine this rep range and intensity with rest intervals of 3 – 5 minutes between sets to get the best ‘spark’ from your neuromuscular system and the best strength gains. We’ll talk about the ideal number of sets later.

If you want to gain some muscle with a proportional increase in strength, use a load you can lift between 6 and 8 times to benefit from myofibrillar hypertrophy. You’ll get heavier, but you’ll be stronger too and shouldn’t slow down. Use rest intervals of 2 – 5 minutes between sets to boost the hypertrophy effect. With more muscle, you’ll also have the potential to get even stronger without getting bigger, if you follow with a higher intensity strength training block to improve neuromuscular efficiency.

Using a load that you can lift between 9 to 15 times or more will result in sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, an increase in muscle bulk without an increase in strength – you’ll get slower. Again, resting 2 – 5 minutes or less between sets will enhance muscle hypertrophy.

Stronger Fighter Training Intensity Rep Ranges

Intensity & Rep Range Continuum

These rep ranges are not discrete, with up to 5-reps developing purely strength and 6-reps purely muscle growth. In reality there’s a gradual transition between the strength/hypertrophy effects all the way along the repetition continuum. And individuals all respond to training differently. For example, depending on your genetics, 5-reps could make you grow muscle. If that’s not desirable, either drop the rep range and increase the load to target strength alone, or reduce the number of sets you perform in a week. The rep ranges I’ve outlined are true for the majority, but be prepared to adjust based on how you individually respond to the training stimulus.

Stronger Fighter Training Volume

Fighters looking to increase both size and strength, 6 – 8 reps for 4 – 8 sets per movement pattern, three times a week typically does the trick.

For fighters looking for neuromuscular strength without gaining weight, 3 – 5 heavy reps for 3 – 5 sets per movement pattern, twice a week is ideal.

Strength Is Only A Foundation For Speed

So you can see bigger isn’t always stronger. How you train hugely affects this. And although adequate strength is a foundation requirement for explosive speed, there again, strong doesn’t mean fast! How you train changes the game entirely here too. And that’s the topic for the next video.

In the meantime, check out the Optimal Fight Camp Blueprint linked in the resources below, if you want to better understand how to piece all this training together to become a better fighter.

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), 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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