Welcome to my 9000 word guide on how to completely transform your aerobic fitness — the base fitness that allows you to recover quicker, go longer, and be more powerful during training, fighting, and sparring.
Make sure you read my Intro to Energy Systems article — you’ll likely need it to understand how this all works.
However, writing about energy systems and how to train them is complex — it’s not an easy topic to explain, teach, or even put into practice, and there are many different approaches and theories about how to go about it, with each theory quite a bit different.
I try my best to simplify things for layman, but I do try and provide detailed reasons WHY and HOW these systems work and how they can be trained.
This article applies specifically to improving your aerobic fitness for Muay Thai to increase your recovery abilities, your overall stamina, and your total work rate ability during training, sparring, and fighting.
If you want to skip the long explanation and theory stuff (I don’t recommend it) and go RIGHT to the Training Protocols, CLICK HERE to go the training guide
Why Aerobic Fitness?
Because building up a strong aerobic base makes you the equivalent of the energizer bunny — you can keep going, going, going, and going.
The goal with this guide is to help you unlock the keys to endless energy you can utilize when needed without gassing out.
And the key to this energy is to unlock the potential of your Aerobic Energy System — the fatigue-resistant energy production system that, with training, can provide your with huge increases in endurance and stamina.
Are you ready to change to never gas out again during Muay Thai?
Then keep reading.
My theory here is that you should understand WHAT you are trying to TRAIN and HOW that training actually improves your biological systems.
Understanding this means you can better target your training and know specifically what you are doing.
Knowledge is power and in the case of Strength and Conditioning, Knowledge and the right training can lead to better performance in your sport.
This is probably the most comprehensive FREE article you can find online about how to improve your fitness (specifically, your aerobic fitness). Not only do I just talk about the training principals, but I go into great detail about how to specifically train each system and what to do. Pretty much every other source you will find charges you for this information or sells a book, or makes you sign up for a paid membership.
But as the information that inspired my interest in the topic was free and I learned based on free information over the years, and all this stuff is out there in the wild and available if you look for it, make a s study it and actually apply it to your training, I’ve decided to go ahead and just give it away to your guys.
So please share it around, use it, comment it, and offer feedback on how it worked for you. It would be a serious waste of the 100+ hours I spent creating this if you guys read it and then just throw it in the garbage.
I recommend you sign up for my new newsletter Muay Thai Fit. This is a different newsletter than the main site one as it ONLY pertains to strength and conditioning, diet and nutrition, and other topics that relate to improving your body and your performance at Muay Thai (or other sports).
To see results, you have to PUT it into practice over weeks and months. Don’t just be a keyboard trainee — actually get out there and TRAIN with it.
Anyways, let’s start.
The Energy Systems: A Recap
We’ve given a very comprehensive look at how your aerobic system supplies energy to your muscles at the cellular level.
A brief recap.
The body can produce energy through three different metabolic pathways (we call these energy systems):
- Aerobic System
- Alactic Anaerobic System
- Lactic Anaerobic System
Today we want to talk about the Aerobic system, specifically how to vastly improve it and give you endless endurance and stamina during training, sparring, and fighting (and of course, benefiting every other area of your life).
Now let’s talk about how to do it.
Note, if you want to skip straight to the training protocols, click HERE.
Aerobic Capacity vs Aerobic Power
Though there are three energy systems, each of these 3 systems has both a power component and a capacity component.
So for the aerobic system (and each of the other systems), there are two types overall aerobic fitness improvements we can make to the body that can boost performance:
- aerobic capacity (AeC) (how LONG your aerobic system can keep providing enough ATP to power you intensity without switching to anaerobic metabolism) and
- aerobic power (AeP) (how fast your aerobic system can supply ATP to muscles before switching to the anaerobic system — that is how fast the energy can be produced)
This is an important enough concept that I want to specifically define it.
Think of Aerobic Capacity (AeC) as the size of your overall Aerobic Engine.
The bigger your aerobic engine, the more oxygen you can shunt through your body to your muscles and the fitter you are.
The more oxygen you can consume and process (this is referred to as your V02Max), the more ‘aerobic fuel’ your body can use with the right training the better efficiency at burning that fuel means more potential work ability. Every person’s AeC may be different, depending on genetics, but there is a huge amount of leeway that AeC can be improved via training.
Aerobic capacity is basically to take in, to transport, and to utilize oxygen at sub-maximal (aerobic) work for a sustained period of time.
Aerobic capacity depends on the following improvements:
- Efficiency respiratory system (how much oxygen your lungs can take in and hold and how efficient those lungs are at extracting it)
- Efficiency of oxygen transport via heart, blood, and blood vessels to the muscles
- Efficiency of Muscles cells utilizing O2 to produce ATP
Training Aerobic Capacity to it’s maximum is the goal of endurance-based athletes; higher aerobic capacity means a higher Lactate Threshold (Anaerobic Threshold) which means higher intensity (that is more ATP supplied and utilized) work rate draws only from the Aerobic system.
In the case of endurance athletes, they can run at very high heart rates while still using aerobic energy.
What does this mean? Having higher aerobic capacity means you can last longer at sub-maximal intensity, do more work ONLY using the aerobic system (higher anaerobic threshold), and recover faster.
Basically, it’s a good, good thing.
Aerobic Power (AeP ) is tied to AeC. The relationship is this: Aerobic Power is the maximum energy utilization ability of your Aerobic Capacity.
Aerobic Power is a percentage of your Aerobic Capacity, That is, the amount of your Aerobic Capacity you can actually utilize during the duration of your activity.
There are two parts to this:
- how much potential energy production (i.e. how much total aerobic energy can be supplied over a long duration before collapsing)
- how much you can actually use for the duration of the event (the biological limitation of your actual aerobic capacity you can use during your event which is LESS than your total capacity)
- your intensity level before aerobic energy switches to another system
Take a Muay Thai fight. Your Total Aerobic Capacity could mean you may be able to draw on Aerobic Power for a fight at a certain (lower pace) that lasts for 1 an hour before it runs dry.
But, as you know, the fight duration is only 15 minutes. This means your total aerobic capacity can’t be utilized because the duration of the event is in fact much less than your aerobics total capacity due to the time limitation. For an endurance sport like ultra marathon running, your total aerobic capacity is more important because it means the difference between collapsing after 5 hours or being able to finish 8 hours because you have a higher capacity.
Then there is how much of your Total Aerobic Capacity you can actually utilize during your event. The reason here is that your Anaerobic Capacity, because it interacts with your Aerobic system, actually limits how much Aerobic capacity you can draw on (this is a long explanation).
Look, it’s complicated and you’re probably confused now. Put simply, you ‘build a bigger engine’ by increasing Aerobic Capacity and you ‘increase fuel economy of that engine’ by improving your Aerobic Power.
Training power requires very specific types of training. Since you are trying to force your body to become as efficient as possible at utilizing the oxygen, you need to place your body in a state where your aerobic energy production is cranked near its limit. By training near this limit, you force your body to adapt to become better and better at using that aerobic energy
The Power vs Capacity Spectrum
Roughly all sports can be slotted somewhere in the Power and Capacity spectrum, with some sports in the Power category and other sports in the Capacity category. If you want a breakdown of this read my article about the importance of anaerobic capacity.
Where Does Muay Thai Fit In?
While both energy systems are important, a sport like Muay Thai relies more on maximum aerobic power than maximum aerobic capacity, though both systems contribute to your overall conditioning (remember, the bigger aerobic engine you have (aerobic capacity) the more aerobic power you can ultimate get out of it.
The overall ratio of aerobic power vs aerobic capacity in your body is optimized in favor of depends entirely on the demands you consistently place on your body; thus the activity or sport will dictate what direction you need to push your body’s energy systems in favor of: aerobic power or aerobic capacity.
For Muay Thai, however, It’s more important to be able to deliver continuous power from your aerobic system (referred to as ‘aerobic power training’) than it is to go for hours just on aerobic energy at a lower work rate without fatiguing (referred to as ‘maximum aerobic capacity training’).
An analogy here is to compare a marathon runner, who’s body needs to be able to supply continuous aerobic for hours at a time at a higher aerobic threshold than normal (that is, at a faster heart-rate than non-trained individuals while utilizing only the aerobic energy system), to a Middle Distance (1500 meter run) athlete.
Both of these runners have different adaptions — the marathon runner having far more aerobic capacity to last 2-4 hours while the middle distance runner having far more aerobic power to generate continuous aerobic energy for the 3-4 minute duration of the event.
Muay Thai, with each 3 minute round consisting of explosive flurries that last 3 to 10 seconds, not to mention grueling clinch sessions that can last seconds to even minutes at a time, interspersed with short periods of no action relies more on aerobic power than capacity. An athlete does not need to access aerobic energy for hours, but rather only minutes at a time.
Targeted Training = Specific Adaptions to Energy System and Energy Component
No matter what energy system you are training, there are 5 things you need to keep in mind to effectively target that system and the specific power or capacity component of that system:
- keep your body (mostly) deriving its energy from that energy system ( ‘energy system target training’)
- control the duration of that start of energy production (‘power training’)
- control the intensity of activity (‘power training or capacity training’)
- control the rest time duration (‘capacity training’) (McArdle et. al., 1991)
- control the repetitions of activity (‘capacity training’)
- control the types of muscle fibers recruited (metabolic training)
So where am I going with all this?
Well, to make specific improvements, you need to know what you are targeting and train for that specifically, using generation training strategies and/or sport-specific skill training that replicates the required intensity and duration to train a specific energy system and component.
Typically this means starting out with more GENERAL TRAINING that targets your energy system and component you want to improve and as you move closer to your fight/competition, move to SKILL training which replicates the exact moves and times of your sport/competition.
The principal of specificity holds true when it comes to conditioning work to increase power and/or capacity. To see improvements in actual movements pertaining to an exercise, you actually need to train with or with movements as close to that exercise as possible. In the case of Muay Thai, this means you should, at some point, move from general training to skill specific movements while training to target a specific energy system.
However, you can still make overall improvements to your body (heart adaptions, lung adaptions, more capillaries in your body, longer muscle fibers, more overall recruitment of muscle fibers potential, etc) with general training strategies (i.e. not skill work). For actual improvements to the power and speed and endurance of MOVEMENTS related to your sport though (like punching, and kicking), you will need to skill train. You often need to ‘build the base’ with general training and then capitalize on that base you built up by later training specific movements.
Here’s an analogy.
Think of your fitness as a mountain with a ski slope on it and your ability to improve your fitness the same as trying to improve the speed and the length of that ski slope.
To improve the ski slope, you have two options: 1) make the ski slope steeper so there’s more speed or 2) make the ski slope higher so the ski slope is longer, higher, and has more potential to build up sections for more speed.
In the case of Aerobic Fitness, our idea is to first build a higher mountain than it was, then you can build up the ski slope ON that higher mountain and take advantage of the increased height you built — this gives you more overall length and, in some parts, potential to make more areas steep. Basically, there is more potential.
This may be an awkward analogy, but I hope it makes things somewhat clear why we want to build a general aerobic base fitness first before we specialize in more specific conditioning.
Now that we’ve broken down exactly the different components the Aerobic energy system into two components — (1) power and (2) capacity — we can look specifically at how to improve the efficiency of each component.
Types of Conditioning You Can Improve
As stated above, you need to train specifically to target certain types of conditioning improvements.
There is no ONE exercise that will improve ALL aspects of your cardio.
We can specifically target different aspects of your conditioning and work to improve each of these (to a point) before you have to start sacrificing general improvements in favor of specificity.
Conditioning Components You Can Improve Through Different Training Protocols:
- Your explosive power (power)
- Your repetitive explosive power (capacity)
- Your ability to sustain your work rate (power)
- Your muscular endurance (capacity)
- Your Max Duration of Total Available Energy Production (capacity)
These target different energy systems and different aspects of each energy system. To improve one, it must be targeted specifically.
Let me be clear here again: No ONE type of exercise or ONE type of training will improve ALL of these.
Just doing ‘sprints’ or just doing long runs won’t target ALL of these systems but rather improve specific ones. The same goes for only doing long runs, or doing longer sprints, or shorter sprints, or any other combination.
It’s important you identify (depending on your sport and your style of fighting and your specific level of fitness) what energy systems you need to / want to improve and target those specifically.
Ideally, you are going to have to do a lot of different types of conditioning work to improve everything.
Want to be an explosive fighter? You will need to target those energy systems and metabolic processes that give you maximum explosive strength and the ability to repeatedly be explosive without gassing out. Increasing your overall explosive power, your explosive endurance, and your recovery time before explosive bursts require targeting your Anaerobic Energy system which we will talk about in our next article. However, improvements can be made to your recovery times between explosive bursts and your overall stamina by training for aerobic energy system improvements, which we will talk about in this article.
How to Train Your Aerobic System
I break this section and training exercises into TWO sections: Oxygen Supply Training, which focuses on pushing adaptions that allow your body to produce and supply more oxygen and Oxygen Utilization Training which focuses on exercises that work on adaptions that allow your muscles to more efficiently absorb Oxygen and generate and supply ATP at a faster rate.
The Best Heart Rate Monitors for Aerobic Training
Before you begin to train your aerobic system, you’ll absolutely need to get your hands on a good heart rate monitor (see my article the ultimate guide to the best heart rate monitors) as a requirement. You need to see what’s going on with your heart rate so you can train within a heart rate range to see specific adaptions.
There’s a ridiculous amount of devices on the market that will track your heart rate. The problem is that many of these devices are not very accurate or are designed more for people who want to send text notifications to their phone, rather than actually tracking their heart rate performance.
If you have the budget to spar, the Garmin Forerunner 235 is like a dream come true for those looking for a heart rate monitor.
The device offers a full range of heart rate tracking features such as the ability to measure your V02 Max, lactic threshold tracking, heart rate zone tracking (useful as you’ll see), and notifications when your heart rate moves out of a set interval. It also has a large, easy to read screen which makes checking your heat rate easy. There’s a lot more the device offers, but it’s about the best full on heart rate monitor / running watch for serious training. However, this is top of the line and you pay $329 for it.
However, for high intensity exercises that fighters might like to do (like hill sprints, boxing rounds, pad work, bag work), this watch won’t track your heart rate well. But you can solve this problem (which is a problem all wrist heart rate tracking devices have) by getting the Garmin Heart Rate Strap and wearing it when you want to target lactic and alactic heart work. For aerobic work though (like long runs, long skipping sessions, slow bag work), you can get by without the strap.
You can save a bit of money by going with the Garmin Forerunner 230, which offers all the same features as the Garmin 235 MINUS the built in heart rate monitor but is $90 dollars cheaper. This is ok if you consistently pair it with the chest strap, but there are times you might not want to wear the strap but still track your heart rate (say for running or slow cardio). This is why I suggest the 235 over the 230.
The Budget Pick
I know a lot of you probably won’t be willing to dump in 200-400 dollars for a top of the line heart rate monitor. So an alternative budget pick is the simple Polar FT7 with or without a chest strap (get the chest strap though because you can work on high intensity work that targets lactic and alactic energy systems). This device is about $60 bucks and it also includes a chest heart rate monitor strap for even more accurate measurements (but you can track with the watch heart rate sensor if you don’t want to wear it).
This has everything you need to track and monitor your heart rate during a training session and on a budget price.
So for under $60, you can get everything you need to push your heart rate training to the next level, though you won’t have all the fancy tracking, color graphics, smart phone syncing, long term data tracking via a companion app, 24/7 continuous heart rate tracking, and all the bells and whistles that the Garmin 235 gives. But again, it’s under $60 bucks AND it also includes a chest strap so you can use it for high intensity training sessions as well.
Let’s get started then with the actual training. Much of this training requires the use of a heart rate monitor with a specific idea of how to use the device for this kind
Oxygen Supply Training
These training methods will increase your aerobic fitness by increase the available oxygen in your blood by training the heart for better efficiency AND your muscles to take in more oxygen.
If you increase how much oxygen can be supplied TO the muscles or you how much oxygen can be utilized by the muscle fibers themselves, you will dramatically improve your aerobic fitness and thus your overall conditioning — both your overall fight endurance and your ability continually be explosive over and over without fatiguing.
Note that many of the Oxygen Supply & Utilization methods require the use of a heart rate monitor. I’ve written an entire series on how to improve your conditioning by training with a Heart Rate Monitor that tells you how to do it.
Cardiovascular Adaptions That Contribute to Aerobic Fitness
When you talk about increasing your ‘cardio’ you are primarily talking about increasing your body’s oxygen uptake capabilities. The entire cardiovascular system is comprised of the heart, the network of arteries, the veins — all of these workings to distribute blood to the body.
To ‘improve your cardio’ you must improve the delivery of oxygen from the heart to the muscles and improve all associated metabolic processes responsible for transporting oxygen and delivering it to the muscle.
Now specifically, these adaptions can be specifically targeted and trained for through specific training methods discussed below.
What are the Cardiovascular Adaptions and How We Target Each of These
There are a couple adaptions here we need to look at and understand the WHY before we talk about HOW.
- Increase the body’s ability to absorb and utilize oxygen for that level of work. If your body’s ability to absorb and distribute oxygen to the muscles is increased, your fitness increases. This is trained by training for interval periods with your heart at its maximum rate (Vo2 Max).
- Increase Heart Size: By increasing the muscular wall thickness (specifically the left ventricle), you increase the power of your heart contraction. By increasing the blood flow duration in the left ventricle, the internal dimensions expand allowing the heart to hold more blood.
- Increase Heart Stroke Volume (amount of blood pumped per beat). When then muscle walls of the heart become thicker (allowing more contractility) and the left ventricle chamber expands to hold more blood, the amount of blood pulled into the heart and pushed out per heart beat increases. If your heart pushes harder per beat AND your heart chamber size increases, it also pushes more blood to your muscles, thus increasing the amount of oxygen delivered to muscles = increased performance.
- Increased Cardiac Output: Increased Stroke Volume can make a significant different in your total cardiac output when near your maximum heart rate. Because your increased in stroke volume which increases blood flow to your body, your have increased oxygen supply and waste removal abilities which lead to increased performance.
The Oxygen Supply Training protocols target your HEART adaptions.
1. Cardiac Volume Training (aka Road Work)
Cardiac Volume training (also called Cardiac Stroke Volume training) is the foundational training for almost all fight sports. It provides the aerobic base you need to power you through the energy requirements needed for Boxing, Muay Thai, Kickboxing, and MMA. This is not some ‘new’ training method fad. it’s an established training regiment that’s been around as long as there has been any sort of sport competition.
It’s often called ‘Road Work’ by fighters.
And if you’ve never started conditioning work, chances are, you will want to START YOUR CONDITIONING WORKING ON THIS.
Roadwork is one of the foundational aerobic training methods (tried and true by virtually every sport) and it does so by increasing the efficiency of your heart.
It’s quite simple: increase the blood flow output from your heart, you increase the amount of oxygen available to your working muscles. More oxygen means your muscle mitochondria can utilize it more readily to produce more ATP.
The following protocols will make those improvements. In some cases, if you have not done heart training, dramatic improvements which will absolutely over into improve stamina and energy during ALL aspects of your life.
This type of training basically means as you get fitter through road work / over-distance training, you can train at a higher intensity for a longer duration. Adding more time over time basically, means you can sustain higher work rates. The effect of this is when you drop back down to lower times, you should be able to train at a higher intensity. For example, if you work your way up from 20-minute runs to 90 minute runs over time, your 20-minute max run time should improve.(McArdle et. al., 1991, p.444);
“It is believed that over-distance training produces the largest aerobic adaptations in both the central and peripheral tissues. Overload is generally accomplished by increasing exercise duration, although the work rate increases progressively as training improvements are achieved” (McArdle et. al., 1991, p.444);
Continuous Slow Steady State Cardio (aka roadwork) Training Protocols
The Goal: To increase your stroke volume, you must increase the size of your left heart chamber so it can hold more blood and you need to increase the contractility of the left heart ventricle so it squeezes harder. The end result of this training will be a more efficient heart that pumps MORE blood per beat, giving your working muscles more oxygen to utilize for ATP production.
Training Method: You will need to do slow, steady state (uninterrupted) cardio activities that keep your heart beating at a threshold where blood is constantly filling the heart chamber and staying there long enough to force an adaption in the size of your heart by stretching it over time.
What it is: continuous uninterrupted cardio that’s at least 30 minutes in length several times a week with the intensity kept between 60 to 80 percent of your VO2 Max or your maximum heart rate.
Why Cardiac Stroke Training Improves Your Aerobic Fitness
There are two adaptions long duration training: heart adaptions and muscular adaptions.
Heart Adaption: When the heart rate is kept at an intensity of 60-80% of maximum oxygen capacity (i.e. VO2) and/or maximum heart rate, your left ventricle heart chamber will keep a continuous flow of blood inside. This promotes an adaptation where the left ventricle walls stretch outward over time allowing more blood capacity. Roadwork also stimulates the production of MORE mitochondria in your muscle cells which increase your body’s ability to handle the additional oxygen provided by your body’s increased heart efficiency.
Muscular Adaption: Endurance training improves overall aerobic capacity (J Physiol 419-432). This is achieved by the following adaptions.
- Muscles gain increased capillary density. More capillaries mean more potential oxygen supply.
- Muscles gain an increase in the store of enzymes used to create aerobic energy (specifically the Krebs cycle).
- Increase in the number of mitochondria and the size of the mitochondria
- Increased level of myoglobin (responsible for transporting oxygen from cell membrane to mitochondria)
How to Do Cardiac Stroke Training
You can accomplish this by doing steady state cardio that keeps your heart rate between 130 Beats Per Minute to 150 beats per minute. You will want to do cardio work that’s at least 30 minutes long, but preferably between 45 minutes to 90 minutes in length for maximum adaption stimulation. You’ll likely need to buy a heart rate monitor to track your heart rate. You’ll want to keep your heart between 130-150 bpm during the entire session or running, with no breaks. I recommend you run in the early morning or at night but not RIGHT BEFORE training as doing hour runs before hard training can tax your stamina. Make sure to keep adding time to your runs every couple weeks — the goal is to keep adding a bit more stress to your system slowly over time to see more and more improvements.
Exercise Specific Recommendations (as long as you keep to the time of 30-90 minute sessions at 130-150 bpm)
- Long slow runs
- Long skipping rope sessions
- Long cycling duration
- Long swimming duration
- Continuous bag work
- Continuous shadowboxing
Additional Notes: for all of the above exercises (it doesn’t matter what) you want to keep your duration of at least 30 minutes with heart rate kept between 130-150 bmp. Ideally, you will want to aim for 40 to 90 minutes for best results. You can do Continuous Slow Steady Rate Cardio 2 to 4 times a week. You’ll want to increase the time duration every week to force the adaptions to continue.
My Training Methods: My personal results have always been best when I do 3-5 times a week long running and skipping rope sessions that last about 45 minutes. I like to rotate, personally, between skipping rope and long slow runs. I do running twice a week but 45 minutes to 60 minute runs. The other two sessions are 35+ minute skipping rope sessions. You will want to add 5 minutes every week or two to your running time. If you first start, start with 15-20 minute runs, adding 5 minutes each week till you build stamina to do 35+ minute runs. I like to work on these improvements for 3 to 4 months.
How Long to Do It
Roadwork can be a permanent part of your training routine, but as you switch to targeting other energy systems or other components of the aerobic system, you may want to change up your long runs to other training types. I recommend starting at about 25 minutes, adding 5 minutes each week till you reach 90 minutes — this means by around week 14, you will be doing 90-minute runs and your aerobic energy systems will be vastly improved from when you started. This is roughly 3 and a half months of training this system. After this, you can switch to a different training protocol, but you can keep a slow run once a week for maintenance.
How to know If Your Aerobic Stamina Improves
The long runs will become easier, your heart rate will take longer and longer before it moves up from 130 to 150 during the running session. Your resting heart rate SHOULD drop over time. You should have more overall stamina during training — longer training with more energy and quicker recovery times. One way to test specifically is to do an intense pad round, then take your heart rate measurement with a heart rate monitor. Your heart rate should DROP much quicker during your 1-minute break than it did at the start of your Stroke Training block. You’ll need to consistently test this though to take the averages, but you should see improvements if you track.
2. VO2 Max Cardiac Power Training
Training sessions designed to increase the strength and endurance properties of your heart. This works on your Aerobic Power but can also be used to increase your overall Aerobic Capacity too, depending.
And they suck. Bad. Be prepared for some serious pain while training your Vo2 Max.
What is Cardiac Power Training: Training at near max heart rate intensity between for 2 to 5-minute duration for several sets, once or twice a week. Note there are different strategies to train VO2 Max. This strategy I give is geared specifically to improve your Cardiac Power output. Other methods people give may focus on different areas which could depending on rest times and durations, but used to improve Aerobic Capacity instead of Aerobic Power.
What is Your Vo2 Max: This is a measurement which basically has a long technical explanation. The short of it is that your VO2 Max is your body’s maximum ability to utilize oxygen — that is, it’s overall ability to send oxygen to your muscles and the ability of the muscles to absorb and utilize that oxygen. This is THE best test for determining your overall Aerobic fitness.
A better Vo2 Max score means you are more fit (though you also need to look at your V02 Max and your max speed / output at your V02 Max to see how your V02 Max translates into actual work rate output).
As your supply more and more oxygen, your exercise intensity can continue to increase. Both rise at the same time: more overall oxygen supplied means more overall exercise intensity. But there reaches a point where your oxygen supply does not increase, yet your exercise intensity continues to. This point is your Vo2 Max. And by improving that score, your body’s ability to handle oxygen improves.
Increasing your V02 Max basically increases your body’s ability to supply and handle more oxygen which means increase intensity or, in other terms, more capacity for energy output.
Why Cardiac Power Training Improves Your Fitness
VO2 Max training basically works on your heart and it’s ability to pump stronger.
Your heart is a muscle and as such can be trained to become stronger. As you’ve seen in the previous section that focuses on increasing the size of left heart ventricle chamber to improve stroke volume (i.e. how much blood it contains and can pump out per beat), the heart has adaptability properties depending on the type of stimulus applied over time.
With Cardiac Power Training, however, we are targeting a different adaption in the heart — specifically, the contractility adaptability of the heart. If you can increase how forcefully the heart squeezes, you can increase the blood flow output of the heart and thus increase the oxygen supply to the muscles.
Additionally, by forcing the heart to pump harder the heart muscle produces more mitochondria. This means the endurance properties of the heart increase; that is, the heart can beat at a higher rate for longer without itself fatiguing. This can lead to improvements in your work rate ability.
Having a strong heart that does not fatigue at higher heart rates with longer durations of intense activity means the heart can continually deliver a sustained blood flow for longer periods of time. More oxygen delivery capability means better cardio.
Cardiac Power Training vs Vo2 Max Training
To improve your aerobic capacity, the goal of all training should be to specifically bring your body to the point where it is consuming as much oxygen as it can then push it past that point to force an adaption so it can handle even more. As such, you are working your aerobic capacity by training at near max power outputs, but you are also working on a power component too since you are also forcing your body to supply as much ATP as quickly as possible to sustain that rate of work before tapping into aerobic metabolism.
In terms of Muay Thai, having stronger heart contractility (more blood per pump) and more mitochondria (more endurance at high heart rates) means if you are going balls to the wall trying to get the KO, or you are engaged in an all out clinch war and your heart is near its max, it will continue to keep contracting with maximum force, keeping your blood flow (and thus oxygen supply) steady enabling you to go all out balls to the wall for longer periods without fatiguing.
How to Do Cardiac Power Training
You can pretty much do any activity (sprinting, bag work, pad work, swimming, cycling, etc) you wish as long as you train at maximum intensity for a period of time with long rest periods of 1 to 2 minutes. Typically, when you start out, you will need longer break periods between reps. As your cardiac power improves, those break periods can be reduced since your heart rate will drop faster.
Keep the following training protocols in mind:
- 60 seconds to 120 seconds per rep
- 4 to 12 reps per session
- 1 to 2 sessions per week
- when you first start, start on the low end (60 seconds with fewer reps).
- Each week, increase either the duration (to a max of 2 minutes) or the number of reps to continue adaption.
- Rest between each rep 2 to 4 minutes OR using a heart rate monitor, when your heart rate is around 130 bpm (the sign you are ready to go again). Keep in mind as the weeks go on and your heart strength and endurance increases, your heart rate will go down FASTER so you will need less time for breaks.
Specific Types of Training
Sample training sessions (choose TWO different ones to do per week or do the SAME one twice a week). Remember to either increase the duration (max of w minutes) or the number or reps with each week to keep your heart adaptions continuing.
- Bag Work: 2 minutes x 5, one or two sessions a week OR…
- Long Sprints: 1 minutes x 10 OR 2 minutes x 5, one or two sessions a week OR.
- Pad Work: 2 minutes x 3, one or two sessions a week
Notes: The key to improving your Vo2 Max is that you need to train at near maximal intensities (your max heart rate) for an extended duration — those duration being 1 to 3 minutes. Training at this intensity is what forces those positive adaptions in both your heart.
Oxygen Utilization Training
Unlike the other methods given, Oxygen Utilization Training training helps increase your muscles’ oxygen uptake ability (oxygen utilization). This is due to a number of adaptations such as increasing the number of mitochondria in the muscle fibers, the efficiency of the current mitochondria in slow and fast twitch muscle fibers, the number of enzymes available for aerobic metabolism, and increasing the size of the slow twitch muscle fibers.
3. Anaerobic Threshold Training
This increases your overall aerobic power
By pushing the lactate threshold higher (the boundary where the aerobic energy switches to anaerobic energy), we can increase the rate of aerobic energy production. This is essentially Aerobic Power Training — we are trying to increase the maximum power output of aerobic metabolism.
In layman’s terms, we are increasing the rate of ATP produced by the muscles WHILE only using the aerobic energy system. Remember, ATP is produced at it’s fastest when anaerobic metabolism occurs (the alactic or lactic systems). We are essentially trying to increase the aerobic energy system to be more efficient. More efficient supply of energy aerobically means less contribution from the quickly fatiguing anaerobic system which means more sustained power.
What is Anaerobic Threshold Training
Doing interval training where your heart rate is at or near your Anaerobic Threshold point between 60 to 120-second duration.
Note don’t confuse Anaerobic Threshold Training with Vo2 Max Training above. Both work different things. Vo2 Max training has you training for 1 to 2 minutes near max heart rates (95 – 100 percent of your max heart rate) while Anerobic Threshold training has you training at your anaerobic threshold heart rate, which is submaximal heart rate.
Let’s look at how your lactate threshold plays out in a real world example.
There are three athletes here who run for 45 minutes. You’ll note with the blue graph, this athlete hits the 12 km/h pace and his lactate levels start to increase steadily. The faster the pace, the higher the levels. The last 15 minutes show a sharp increase. The increase in lactate indicates this athlete after 20 minutes and at the 12km pace is starting to utilize anaerobic energy.
The red line shows an athlete with a higher lactate threshold. Blood lactate starts to increase after 30 minutes and with a 13 km pace, but also not that even the last 15 minutes the level of lactate increase does not rise past a certain point.
The purple shows the athlete with the highest lactate threshold. Lactate levels only rise slightly after the 30-minute mark but maintain steadily for the last 15 minutes. This means this athlete is able to increase intensity (faster run) for a long period of time without utilizing aerobic energy. As such, he/she is able to sustain a faster pace for longer.
Why Anaerobic Threshold Training improves your Aerobic Fitness
The aerobic system has the incredible capacity to supply continuous energy for long durations. However, when activity is greatly increased the aerobic system cannot meet the needs of the body’s energy requirements (that is, aerobic metabolism can’t produce ATP rapidly enough to meet the energy demands). It is at this point the body switches over to Anaerobic metabolism (Anaerobic Energy system).
It is this point where the body switches from Aerobic to Anaerobic metabolism that’s called The Anaerobic Threshold (also called Lactate Threshold). However, Anaerobic metabolism can only provide continuous energy for about a minute before fatigue sets in which means, if possible, you want to avoid utilizing it and get most of your energy from the Aerobic system.
So it is the adaptability of this threshold point between Aerobic and Aerobic energy that we can target and subsequently, increase.
The variance of the AT can be quite high, depending on how trained the person is.
Untrained persons typically have a low AT (about 55 % of the VO2 max) while elite endurance athletes, at the other end of the spectrum, have a high AT (about 89 to 90 % of the VO2 max). Remember, the maximal heart rate is often closely aligned with the VO2 max (but not always).
This explains why a marathon runner can run very long distances at a high speed for hours: their AT threshold is so high they are able to generate far more power and speed at a high heart rate only using the aerobic metabolism while someone who does not have a high AT threshold could not sustain such a fast pace with a high heart rate without dipping into anaerobic metabolism for energy (and thus fatigue in only a couple minutes). Also, note they are able to run for long periods of time at their Vo2 Max!
So, it’s possible with training to raise this Anaerobic threshold point higher so you can power your greater energy with only aerobic metabolism by increasing aerobic metabolic efficiency. When you train consistently near your AT, your body will improve the muscular contractile properties AND the total number of enzymes involved in the aerobic process will increase.
That is, if you can increase your work rate while still only using the aerobic energy system (and not having to tap into the anaerobic energy), you can sustain longer periods of your work rate without fatigue.
What Does Threshold Training Do For Your Muay Thai
The end result of this kind of training is that you will raise your anaerobic power. This will mean you can do more powerful activities (such as striking with power) for longer periods with a higher heart without fatiguing. This translates into a higher work at a higher level of intensity (during sparring or fighting) without fatiguing (i.e. striking at submaximal power that’s near or at your raised threshold level).
How Train Your Anaerobic Threshold
You can use any exercise that that brings your heart rate to or near your anaerobic threshold for longer durations of . You don’t have to hit your AT exactly — you can be slightly over or under by a few hear beats per minute.
How to Find Anaerobic Threshold level
You will need to first find your Anaerobic Threshold level before you can train at the right intensity to increase it.
To do so, use a heart rate to find your Maximum Heart Rate. You can do this by running a 60 second lap as fast as possible and track how high your heart rate goes (your maximal). This figure will be your Maximum Heart Rate.
Once you have this, figure your Anaerobic threshold will be between 80-90 percent of that (some people use 85 percent of max heart rate). This will give you a good guesstimate for your anaerobic threshold.
The Training Protocols
Typically to do threshold training you will do 3 minute to 8 minute submaximal intervals for 3 to 5 reps. For every interval, keep your heart rate at or slightly below your AT.
The type of activity can be anything, from running to skipping to bag work or other combat drills.
You must keep your workout durations between 3 and 10 minutes per rep, with 3 to 5 sets with 2-3 minutes rest between each exercise. Make sure you are using a heart rate monitor to track your heart rate during your activity and your heart rate is at or slightly under your anaerobic threshold level (+ or – about 5 heart beats per minute) is NEAR or at your AT level for the entire duration of the activity.
You will gradually increase either the duration from week to week or the number of sets to keep improving your AT.
If you choose running as your Anaerobic/Lactate Threshold Training, something like this:
- 5 x 750 meters with 3 minutes rest in between OR
- 4 x 1000 meters with 3–4 minutes rest OR
- 4–5 x 5 minutes with 4 minutes rest OR
- 5 x 4 minutes with 4 minutes rest OR
Make sure your heart rate is at or near your anaerobic threshold level for
4. Aerobic Slow Twitch Muscle Fiber Training (aka Strength Training)
Improves aerobic power AND anaerobic power potential
Strength training, besides increasing your strength (which plays a role in how much potential POWER you can generate when striking (9, 10, 11) ), increases your overall muscle fiber coordination, can also improve your endurance because of biological changes to the muscle fibers that occur.
Why Strength Training For Endurance Increases Your Aerobic Fitness
Slow twitch muscles are primarily aerobic in nature and as such have the greatest capability of increasing oxygen absorption efficiency.
The idea here is to increase the size of the slow twitch muscle fibers which will improve their lactate removing properties (slow twitch muscle fibers are where lactate is oxidized and made into ATP).
Making your slow twitch muscle fibers longer increases the surface area which also will increase how much oxygen they can utilize because as the muscle fibers get longer, they also get more mitochondria — the cell engine that takes in oxygen and produces ATP.
There have been a number of studies done that have shown strength training has improved cardiovascular fitness. A study in 2008 had trained runners perform a heavy strength training routine for 8 weeks and found after 8 weeks the subjects Running Economy (Vo2 at steady state rate) improved as had their time till exhaustion while running at their aerobic max.
Now in Muay Thai, you utilize fast twitch muscle fibers for quick muscular activities (punching, kicking, throws, elbows), but slow twitch muscle fibers play a very important role in removing waste materials and resupplying materials needed for aerobic metabolism.
So there are biological benefits to having longer slow twitch fibers which can actually improve your cardio capabilities by making the muscles’ utilization of oxygen more efficient.
The Training Protocol
Use Compound Exercises like deadlifts, squats, bench press, and overhead press. If you want a specific routine look at my Strength Training for Muay Thai routine which will work on this while focusing on strength.
Keep reps between 5 to 10 with 3-5 exercises per session.
If you are lifting to build strength, you should lift 2-3 times a week with heavier weight and at the lower end of the rep range (5-6 reps).
If you are working on just trying to improve muscular endurance not strength, then lifting once a week is enough.
5. Resistance Interval Training (Aerobic Fast Twitch Muscle Training)
Increases Aerobic Power
‘Short highly intensive training which at which high resistance is applied to recruit fast twitch muscle fibers for a low duration of time (10 to 15-second intervals) while in the anaerobic state.
Why Resistance Interval Training Improves Your Aerobic Fitness
Unlike the other aerobic exercise above (Strength Training with targets the slow twitch muscle fibers, the resistance training recruits your fast twitch muscle fibers (you are going are using your explosive power for 10-12 seconds while still using your aerobic energy system for that duration because you will be under your anaerobic threshold) and works on improving your body’s ability to supply constant oxygen to them via aerobic metabolism; this happens because your fast twitch muscle fibers oxidative properties can be increased by producing more mitochondria.
This improves the aerobic properties of your slow twitch fibers. While it’s typically slow twitch fibers that are more aerobic in nature than fast twitch, you can still improve the oxygen supply and utilization of fast twitch fibers.
And we can stimulate this adaption to occur specifically by keeping recruiting your fast twitch muscle fibers while in a state of aerobic metabolism for short periods, over and over.
What Resistance Interval Training Does For Your Muay Thai
By increasing resistance while using lower speed, this training method stimulates your fast twitch muscles to developer more mitochondria, thus increasing their ability to handle MORE oxygen and thus increase the supply of ATP.
The end result is your muscles can operate at a higher power threshold without getting fatigued WHILE in the aerobic state. So for any activity that uses fast twitch muscles (clinching, throwing your opponent, punching, kicking), you can increase the muscular endurance.
Remember, while we can make overall adaptions to your heart, we also want your muscles that perform the actual skill movements to have more efficiency in their supply of ATP while in the aerobic state.
In layman’s terms, you can be more explosive for longer periods of time without your muscles feeling tired. And if your aerobic supply has increased (due to higher stroke volume and a stronger heart), your fast twitch muscle fibers are able to take advantage of the increased oxygen supply because there are MORE mitochondria to utilize the increased O2 present.
How to Do High Resistance Training (The Training Protocols)
Perform an intensive activity that applies a lot of resistance to your muscles for a short duration (to keep your body in aerobic state). The easiest exercise is to do hill sprints up a very steep hill so even at maximum speed. Other training options are to use a spin cycle or a weighted sled.
Pretty much any exercise that forces you to recruit a large amount of fast twitch muscle fibers under constant tension while keeping yourself in the aerobic energy state can be used.
This training requires a good deal from your aerobic energy system. Without a good aerobic base, you won’t be able to recover between each rep.
As your aerobic system gets better (which is why you should also be building up your overall aerobic fitness base through stroke volume training and cardiac power training), you will be able to repeatedly sprint with less and less time for breaks while still having energy.
Keep the following training protocols in mind
- Keep your reps between 7 to 12 seconds, 6 to 20 reps per session, once a week
- Rest for about one minute or, using a heart rate monitor, until your heart rate is between 130 and 140 beats per minute before starting the next rep
- Increase the number of reps each week by 2. You will notice as your fast twitch muscles gain more oxidative properties, your heart rate will go down faster between each rep AND you will be able to do more reps before fatiguing
Example: 2 months hill sprints Training:
- Week 1: 7 seconds for 6 reps. 1 minute between each set for recovery
- Week 2: 8 seconds for 7 reps. 1 minute between each set for recovery
- Week 3: 9 seconds for 8 reps. 45 seconds between each set for recovery
- Week 4: 10 seconds for 10 reps. 45 seconds between each set for recovery
- Week 5: 10 seconds for 12 reps. 40 seconds between each set for recovery
- Week 6: 12 seconds for 14 reps. 40 seconds between each set for recovery
- Week 7: 12 seconds for 16 reps. 35 seconds between each set for recovery
- Week 8: 12 seconds for 18 reps. 30 seconds between each set for recovery
Plyometrics are in vogue now and surprisingly effective, when used at the right intensity and for the right duration, at improving your fast twitch muscle aerobic properties.
The better your fast twitch muscles are at uptaking oxygen, the more endurance your muscles will have when you use them explosively. This increases your explosive endurance.
How Plyometrics Work
Plyometrics work by forcing your muscle fibers to stretch thus giving the ‘rebound’ contraction of the fiber more force. You can perform plyometrics aerobically but done correctly utilizing your fast twitch muscle fibers.
It sounds a bit odd, but there’s a lot of research behind this rebound effect and how effective it is when applied to strength & conditioning training. Specifically, plyometrics can be used to help tune your muscles to generate more overall power (training to move force more quickly and explosively).
The key here, to make plyometrics work for aerobic adaptations in your muscles is to perform them with long duration with a low intensity. This keeps things aerobic and works that energy system, NOT the anaerobic system, which requires more explosive plyometric, circuit type work
How to Do Aerobic Plyometrics
There are a number of exercises that can be used as a plyometric and pretty much any such can be used as long as a) it’s recruiting fast-twitch muscle fibers (the exercise is explosive in nature), b) you keep the total duration between 4 and 11 minutes per set, each exercise in a set a repetitive movement 5-10 times, c) keep rest periods between 12 and 15 seconds, d) you increase either the duration of the set OR increase the number of sets.
Remember, you are specifically increasing the aerobic properties of the fast twitch muscles being utilized in the plyometric movement, so you’ll need to target legs or arms separately.
Upper Body Exercises:
- Medicine Ball Rebounds
- Wind-up Tosses To The Side
- Explosive Pushups
- Iso-ballistic Smith Machine Bench Press Throws
For the upper body plyometrics, if you don’t have a strong strength base, you may find explosive pushups and the Smith Machine BP Throws too taxing. If this is the case, stick with more low intensity, less strength driven plyometrics such as medicine ball rebounds or tosses.
You’ll want to do 10 or so movements with a rest of 10 to 30 seconds between before continuing. The duration should be between 5 to 12 minutes and each week you should increase set duration. Every 4 weeks you can decrease rest period by 5 seconds.
Lower Body Exercises:
- Jump Squats
- Box Jumps
Box Jumps Example:
First Block (2 months)
- Week1: 1 SET BOX JUMPS, 10 jumps per exercise, 15 second rest after each exercise before starting again, 5 minutes
- Week 2: 1 SET BOX JUMPS, 10 jumps per exercise, 15 second rest after each exercise before starting again, 6 minutes
- Week 3: 1 SET BOX JUMPS, 10 jumps per exercise, 15 second rest after each exercise before starting again, 7 minutes
- Week 4: 1 SET BOX JUMPS, 10 jumps per exercise, 15 second rest after each exercise before starting again, 8 minutes
- Week 5: 1 SET BOX JUMPS, 10 jumps per exercise, 15 second rest after each exercise before starting again, 9 minutes
- Week 6: 1 SET BOX JUMPS, 10 jumps per exercise, 15 second rest after each exercise before starting again, 10 minutes
- Week 7: 1 SET BOX JUMPS, 10 jumps per exercise, 15 second rest after each exercise before starting again, 11 minutes
- Week 8: 1 SET BOX JUMPS, 10 jumps per exercise, 15 second rest after each exercise before starting again, 12 minutes
Second Block (2 months)
- Week1: 2 SET BOX JUMPS, 10 jumps per exercise, 15 second rest after each exercise before starting again, 5 minutes, 2 minute break between sets
- Week 2: 2 SET BOX JUMPS, 10 jumps per exercise, 15 second rest after each exercise before starting again, 6 minutes, 2 minute break between set
- Week 3: 2 SET BOX JUMPS, 10 jumps per exercise, 15 second rest after each exercise before starting again, 7 minutes 2 minute break between set
- Week 4: 2 SET BOX JUMPS, 10 jumps per exercise, 15 second rest after each exercise before starting again, 8 minutes 1 minute break between set
- Week 5: 3 SET BOX JUMPS, 10 jumps per exercise, 15 second rest after each exercise before starting again, 9 minutes 1 minute break between set
- Week 6: 3 SET BOX JUMPS, 10 jumps per exercise, 15 second rest after each exercise before starting again, 10 minutes 1 minute break between set
- Week 7: 3 SET BOX JUMPS, 10 jumps per exercise, 15 second rest after each exercise before starting again, 11 minutes 1 minute break between set
- Week 8: 3 SET BOX JUMPS, 10 jumps per exercise, 15 second rest after each exercise before starting again, 12 minutes 1 minute break between set
*note: you should be training below your anaerobic threshold. If you find your heart rate elevates above this, either decrease set duration, reduce sets or increase rest duration. This example is structured to apply more and more demands to force adaptions to continue.
Putting It All Together
Note: There are more training protocols out there and there’s a LOT of variety as to how you can mix each one up. I’ve simply provided a basic guide — you can certainly optimize and change things around in time.
Developing a strong aerobic base should be the first thing you do to improve your conditioning. If you have low endurance during training or stamina problems during sparring or fights, and you don’t do aerobic conditioning, then you will see some vast improvements by working on these conditioning exercises.
I’ve laid out some specific training guides that target components of the aerobic conditioning: power, capacity, strength. Each training type will improve something specific. And taken as a whole these can improve your entire aerobic base.
It takes time for your body to adapt — weeks and months. This is why, to see regular improvements, you must be consistent with your conditioning work. You can start say a cardiac stroke training segment for 1 week and expect to see your cardio shoot through the roof. Ideally, you are going to want to train in blocks of 2 months to 4 months to see real improvements, though if you just start conditioning work for the first time, you WILL see improvements in only a couple weeks.
Many of these training protocols require you to track your heart rate (for example, you can take your resting heart rate. If it’s higher than about 55 bpm, you will likely benefit from steady state volume cardio work to build a more efficient heart).
Therefore, to take the guesswork out of the equation, if you are serious about improving your muay thai conditioning, you need to buy a quality heart rate monitor — ideally one with a chest strap for more accuracy. Any brand works, but I personally suggest you go with Polar which is an established heart rate monitor company. You can pick up a good model for about $70 to $100 bucks on Amazon.
What’s After Aerobic Fitness?
Having good aerobic fitness is only the first part of the conditioning equation. A highly efficient aerobic system will give you the endurance to go for five rounds and recover between bursts of intense activity with a strong aerobic base.
For more explosive endurance (how long you can sustain an explosive burst of energy) and increased power (the amount of force you can apply as a duration of time), you need to train the two other energy systems as well, the anaerobic alactic system and the anaerobic lactic system.
These are the two energy systems that are responsible for both your short-term maximal explosive power and longer duration sub maximal explosive power.
As important as the Aerobic System is at giving your body a foundational fitness and it’s beneficial effect on your anaerobic energy systems, there is also an effect your anaerobic capacity has on your aerobic power too. Specifically, better anaerobic capacity can give you better aerobic power (the ability to utilize more energy aerobically while near your anaerobic threshold — that is while at your max aerobic energy output).
So Anaerobic energy is also very important, especially when it comes to short-term energy — getting that quick KO or going balls to the walls for as long as possible.
The two anaerobic energy systems are able to supply a much more rapid production of ATP anaerobically when your body demands it for intensive bouts of activity — that rapid power that lets you go for a knockout blow when you need to. However, these systems are more inefficient than the aerobic system and will fatigue quickly.
But with the right training, however, these anaerobic metabolic systems can be made more efficient, allowing you more explosive power for longer, sustained periods, over and over again.
Keep in mind though, your aerobic base impacts your anaerobic base too. A more conditioned aerobic system will allow quicker recovery for your anaerobic pathways.
Start reading my next conditioning article ‘How to Improve Conditioning through Heart Rate Training‘ which covers exactly how to train with a heart rate monitor.
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- Joel Jamison Ultimate MMA Conditioning
- Andersen, JL; Schjerling, P; Saltin, B. Scientific American. “Muscle, Genes and Athletic Performance” 9/2000. Page 49
- Lieber, R.L. (1992). Skeletal muscle structure and function : Implications for rehabilitation and sports medicine. Baltimore : Williams & Wilkins.
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Also HIGHLY Recommended: Joel Jamison’s Ultimate MMA Conditioning & Various Lectures
Many of these principals I talk about and practice come from strength and conditioning research, coaches, and experts who are pushing the forefront of aerobic fitness. And for specific energy system influence, a lot of my ideas have been inspired by Joel Jamison’s influential work written years ago dealing with conditioning the energy systems. And credit goes to him for driving me deeper into the whole field of strength and conditioning as applied to the energy systems. Many of the ideas expressed here come specifically from his original perspectives and research. If you want a huge amount of depth looking at the energy systems and how to train them, you should read his book Ultimate MMA Conditioning. Though it targets MMA and not Muay Thai, the general principals can be adapted for Muay Thai or any other sport.