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Muay Thai Conditioning 101: Intro to Your Energy Systems


conditioning for muay thai Time to look at how to improve your Muay Thai fight endurance. This article has been a long time in coming (I’ve been meaning to write this series for almost a year now and I’ve been getting many requests from readers), but here it is.

As the saying goes ‘better late than never’.

So sit down and grab some coffee because this series is going to be a long read — and oh so worth it! I guarantee you are going to want to read every word, because it will change your approach to fitness and to Muay Thai.

learn muay thai fitnessSo read on if you want to learn how to build the cardio to win fights with your relentless energy, dominate your opponents in sparring or a fight, or just more gas to train harder and longer with more sustained energy.

In this article, I’m going to introduce the principles behind how to get fitter and look at the biochemical processes for HOW this occurs.

For PART 2 of this series, which introduces the Aerobic Energy system, GO HERE.

and if you are ready to learn exactly how and want to skip all the theory….

For PART 3 of this series (and topping 10,000 words), which gives the EXACT TRAINING strategies to improve your Aerobic Fitness for Muay Thai, GO HERE

Now this might all seem too ‘science-y’ for you, but bear with me. If you want to push your current level of conditioning and fitness to the next level so you can go hard from round one to round five (or be able to train and train without fatiguing), you need to understand the basic mechanism for HOW your body supplies energy to your working muscles, the components that make up this process, so you can target these specifically with your training to improve different aspects of your conditioning: your overall endurance, your recovery abilities, your power endurance, your explosive ability, and so on.

In our How to Increase Muay Thai Aerobic Fitness article, we will specifically outline all the training strategies needed to push your cardio through the roof. To start along with that, you’ll need to get the best heart rate monitor you can (or at least, something decent that you’ll use).

But first, to understand how to do this and the training required to improve your fitness, you need to understand HOW your working muscles are supplied with energy (ATP) through the three major energy systems, and HOW these systems can becomes more efficient with training.

Strength and Conditioning: Why It’s Important

We’ve talked in my previous strength and conditioning articles how to strength train for Muay Thai to improve your potential for more power. But these articles about increasing your strength are only one side of the strength and conditioning equation — the strength part of it.

The other part is the conditioning part — that is, your ‘fight endurance’ or your ‘fitness.’

And conditioning is arguably the more important part of that equation for winning fights.

Strength (specifically explosive strength, though maximal strength is also important) can help you win fights by beating your opponent into submission during the early rounds of a fight, BUT without good conditioning, you won’t have the energy to keep your work rate up. And if your work rate plummets in a fight, you stand a significant chance of losing a match.

Improving your maximum strength and your explosive power ability means nothing if you can’t keep up with the punishing pace required of a five round Muay Thai fight.

The bottom line is that cardio wins fights. You could have the better technique, you could have the more explosive knockout power, you could be the more skilled fighter.

BUT if your conditioning is inferior to your opponent’s and the fight goes the distance, you can easily lose the fight.

Our goal with this series on how to improve your fight endurance is to make you AT LEAST AS FIT as your opponent and, if you follow the conditioning protocols I’ve laid out, likely more fit than your opponent will be.

If you are MORE FIT than your opponent, you can increase your work rate and have more consistent explosive power than your opponent.

I don’t think I need to point out the obvious advantages of being able to do more work in a fight than your opponent.

Of course, skill and technique are just as important in the overall scheme of winning a fight, but to effectively employ your skill and your technique in all five rounds of a grueling Muay Thai fight, you need the conditioning to enable this.

Because if you are tired, technique and skill go out the window…

Think about this:

When you are tired, you won’t out-think your opponent.

When you are tired, you don’t care about your technique.

When you are tired, you just want the fight to be over.

And this is NOT how you want to fight.

Anyone who’s had a fight (or sparring) and ‘run out of gas’ knows exactly what I’m talking about here. Your feet feel wobbly and weak, your hands feel like they have weights strapped to them, your punches and kicks lack power, your clinch feels like you are trying to move a mountain. All you can think about is resting. At moments like this, your heart can still carry you to victory, but it’s best to also have the conditioning so you don’t reach this depleted physical state before your opponent does.

Fight cardio (or your conditioning) is, therefore, one of the most important things you should train for when preparing for a fight.

The fitter you are, the better a position you are in…

to win a fight.

Or train more.

Or to train harder.

Or to have the ability to focus more on technique and skill because you are not tired during bagwork or pads or clinch or sparring.

Get it?

This is not just some elite guide for ONLY fighters are hard core Muay Thai enthusiasts, but for every day fans of the sport who just want to be more fit or improve their cardio.

In fact, even if you are not a fighter and have no plans to fight, your fitness is the foundation of your Muay Tha. If you don’t have the gas to go, your training will suffer — your pad work will suck, your bag work will suck, and your sparring sessions will suck.

Therefore, improving your overall fitness should be one of the most important priorities if you are serious about Muay Thai — not the last one — both during your training sessions and outside of your training sessions.

What is Conditioning?

what is conditioning

Before we spend about 15 or 20 thousand words over the next couple articles talking about how to develop your conditioning so you never gas out in a fight, we should first talk about what exactly ‘conditioning’ means.

There are many ways to define conditioning, but the gist if it is that your body becomes more efficient at producing energy and utilizing energy. Because there are many different ‘systems’ all working together in your body — many at the exact same time — increasing your fitness or conditioning is in fact quite complicated.

There are many roads that lead to the same path, many training protocols that will do the same thing. I’m not by any means giving you the ONLY way to get fit — you might read other stuff out there or follow other advice and get fantastic results. What I’m aiming to do though is teach you exactly HOW your body produces energy and utilizes it.

If you can understand the WHY your body becomes more fit as you apply specific stimulus to it, you can then accurately plan out the HOW to go about training for those adaptions.

What is Energy and How Does it Power the Muscle?

muscle fiber

How well conditioned can be thought of in terms of the relationship between the energy produced by your body and your energy utilized by your body. It’s very important for you to understand this relationship because my entire conditioning series is based on improving individual aspects of each energy system, each which contribute to the total potential energy supply of your body.

If you can modify this dynamic relationship between the energy produced and the energy in your body used by some degree, you will influence your fitness and conditioning.

If your body can produce MORE ATP energy or increase the RATE of that ATP supply to your working muscles, or UTILIZE that ATP energy more efficiently, your fitness increases.

At the most basic cellular level, the energy that powers your muscle activity (which itself is just muscle fibers contracting and relaxing, forming the basis of biologically-powered movement) is ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate). ATP is not stored greatly in your cells, so when your muscle starts to contract, ATP must be generated quickly to power that muscle contraction.

It’s these biochemical energy systems that produce and utilize ATP that form the basis of your biological activity — from the tiniest of twitches to the gross motor movements like walking and talking to the skill-specific movements like kicking, punching, clinching, and so on.

It’s in HOW these biochemical systems produce and utilize ATP and the inherent adaptability of these biochemical systems (by applying targeted stimulus such as our conditioning training program) which can be made to produce more ATP, supply it more quickly, and to utilize more of it that form the bedrock of how you become more fit.

Other websites might tell you HOW to do something and simply lay out a plan for you to follow without thinking or understanding exactly what it is you are really trying to achieve.

But I want you to understand HOW this works at a biological level so you can finely tune exactly what sort of conditioning improvements you want to make.

One approach (the approach I normally see posted to blogs) to conditioning and fitness is to just do some random exercises that will ‘make you fitter. But ultimately, if you don’t take a targeted approach to your conditioning from an understanding of WHAT exactly biological adaptions you are trying to stimulate in your body (and how those adaptations effect your conditioning specifically), then you are not training smart and you are wasting a lot of time doing things that won’t work or won’t actually make you fitter in a way that you want.

There is a lot of individuality when it comes to conditioning. What works for me exactly may NOT yield the same results for you. I might have great endurance with a high work rate but poor explosive power. You might have poor endurance but highly explosive power. But if we both follow the same general conditioning program, the chances are it’s not going to be as effective for BOTH of us. But if you know what weaknesses you have in your conditioning from an energy system standpoint, you can train to fix it!

SO what I can do is show you specific areas to test so you can identify what energy systems are limiting your cardio so you can target those specifically.

Conditioning 101: Increase Energy Supply and Utilization

Looking at your conditioning in terms of energy and how it’s used, we can break the body’s relationship with energy into three things:

  • How Much Energy You Can Produce Biologically (energy production)
  • How Your Body Utilizes The Energy (energy utilization)
  • How Your Body Manages the Energy it Has (energy management)

Think about your conditioning in a fight.

You could have a fighter with a very high energy production system (large supply of energy) and you can have fighters that may not have high energy production, but very efficient at using it.

Just because your body can produce a large amount of energy and continue to produce it rapidly doesn’t mean you are going to be able to sustain a high work rate if you are blowing through all your energy faster than your body can supply it by not pacing yourself.

Compare this to a fighter who has less energy production capabilities but can manage that energy supply more efficiently.

One fighter has better energy production but poor management and utilization of it. The other fighter has mediocre energy production but great efficiency at utilizing what he has.

In the end, what fighter has the better cardio?

Biologically, the first fighter has better cardio capability though the greater potential biological energy supply, but his weakness at utilizing it can cause him to lose fights in the later rounds. The second fighter lacks the biological energy output of the first fighter, but in terms of performance is in a better position to win the fight if he fights smart because he can go the distance.

In fact, BOTH of these fighters can improve their cardio. The first can work on improving the efficiency of how the energy is utilized to up his ‘gas milage’ and have more sustained explosive cardio. The second fighter with the efficient energy management can increase his biological energy production capabilities so he can increase his work rate even more.

Both types of fighters can benefit.

So, when looking at conditioning from an energy standpoint,  you have to consider how much total energy produced, how rapidly that energy can be continually produced, and how efficiently that energy is utilized.

Someone with ‘great conditioning’ will have all three of these optimized. A good conditioning program, furthermore, will identify weaknesses in one or more of these areas and through targeted training programs, will attempt to rectify it.

This is why it’s important to understand HOW your body, at the biological level, gets more efficient. Because you can target specific processes to make them more efficient and as a result, dramatically increase your fight fitness.

Conditioning vs. Cardio

Conditioning is more than just improving your ‘cardio’. In fact, the term ‘cardio‘ is very limiting (and not at all correct if you want to get technical about it) because cardio refers to the cardiovascular system and the body’s energy systems are made up of a number of different systems (including the cardiovascular system) that all interact together.

So improving your cardio, by the technical meaning of it just means to improve your cardiovascular system (heart efficiency, vascular network that distributes blood from heart, respiratory system). This will certainly make your fitter but there’s OTHER contributing systems that play a role in your fitness such as the neuromuscular system, your skeletal muscular system, your hormonal system and so on.

As such, it’s better from a perspective of improving your Muay Thai fitness (or fitness for any sport for that matter) to look at your body’s ability to grow fitter in terms of the modifying the energy systems rather than just improving ONLY the cardiovascular system (‘cardio’) or another specific system. The supply, management and utilization of energy, requires interactions between all the systems — skeletal muscular,neuromuscular, respiratory, cardiovascular, etc.

What Conditioning Is Not

Conditioning is NOT skill.

You can’t replace skill with conditioning. If you are extremely fit, great — you stand a better chance at winning a fight;  you can train harder, longer, and with more power and intensity, focusing on improving your technique and gaining more skill.

But conditioning is not skill and on it’s own, it won’t win you a fight.

This is why you must first and foremost train to become more skillful at Muay Thai and work on your conditioning secondary to that.

Conditioning vs. Skill & Technique

At the macro level, proper technique (how efficient your body is at performing the gross motor movements — punching, kicking, clinching) gives you better conditioning for the whole duration of a fight because you use less energy (good technique = efficient use of energy management).

Skill is defined as the ability to bring some end result with maximum certainty and minimum outlay of time or time and energy. If you have skill, you can consistently apply technique in the most effective way to achieve an outcome with maximum confidence that it will be accomplished.

And above the layer of skill is strategy in which you control HOW you apply your technique utilizing your skill. Having a lot of skill in Muay Thai (the ability to apply the technique most effectively in a fight) can save you a lot of energy and is JUST as important as having good conditioning.

Your Body is a Car Analogy

Think of skill and strategy in terms of driving a car. Your body is a the car, your conditioning is the various components powering the car — the gas tank size, the engine size, the fuel efficiency of the engine, etc), your skill is how you handle the car — your driving, your gear shifting ability, your breaking ability — and your strategy is where you choose to drive the car.

You might have an incredibly gas-efficient car, BUT if you drive it in the wrong direction or you drive the car in such a way that you waste fuel, have your brakes on, etc, then you can still run out of gas before reaching your destination.

So skill and strategy are  JUST as important as your conditioning.

To be the best, well rounded fighter with maximum opportunities for winning at his or her disposal, you need skill, you need the technique, you need the strategy. And you sure as hell need the conditioning to enable the rest to operate at maximum effectiveness.

Conditioning is Sport Specific

While there are some general benchmarks for overall fitness (such as a well developed aerobic system), conditioning is requires specificity in training.

That is, every sport has a different set of requirements for power (the body’s ability to produce energy over time) and endurance (the body’s ability to produce energy for long periods of time).

You can’t follow a “one-sized fits all” philosophy when it come to conditioning. As stated before, there is a great deal of individuality in how you respond to specific conditioning techniques due to genetics, environment, skill level, training style etc.

If you take a ‘throw everything at the wall until it sticks training methodology’ like most people who start trying to get ‘fit’ do, you will a) become disillusioned when you don’t get consistent results b) waste a lot of time and energy trying things that don’t work c) fail to dramatically achieve your real conditioning potential (the go hard non stop from round 1 to round 5 sort of conditioning you ultimately want).

Muay Thai has a mix of explosive power (clinch throws, explosive punches, elbows, and knees) and endurance (you must be able to pace yourself for five rounds). Mixed Martial Arts with the inclusion of takedowns has a different set of power and endurance requirements than do more  Muay Thai. Then when you look at non-combat sports like long distance running, you see endurance is far more important than raw power. The energy requirements of marathon runners is a system that must be able to deliver consistent energy over long periods of time (endurance). Compare this to sprinters who require a very high power for a short period of time. Compare this even to Olympic Lifters who have incredibly high power production for very short periods of time (seconds) followed by long periods of rest.

The Science Behind Improving Your Conditioning

I don’t want to get too much into the science, but the whole reason your can improve your fitness comes down to the well established principle of progressive overload: as gradual increase of stress is placed on the body which responds to that stress by making physiological adaptations to meet the demands of that new stress. When the body grows adapted to that specific level of stress, said stress must be further increased for the body to likewise respond with further adaptations to meet that stress. 

Progressive overload can be seen, over time, when strength training. Your body is able to lift more and more weight as it grows stronger, provided you keep moving the weight stimulus higher and higher from week to week.

The same principal also works for your conditioning. Your body’s energy systems can become more productive and efficient if you apply the right stimulus through targeted training.

Energy System Adaptations

adaptations energy systems

As you apply stress in a consistent and measurable manner to your body through training, requiring your body to produce more energy to sustain the increased energy demands, your energy producing systems respond by becoming more efficient at producing ATP (both in how much and how fast it can be supplied) and your muscles respond by becoming better at utilizing that ATP.

Here are some of the broad adaptations that happen in your energy systems that dramatically increase your level of fitness. If one or more of these occur, you get fitter.

Energy Production Adaptations

These relate to how much energy, how fast, and how long it can be produced. If we talk about a car, then this would refer to how big the gas tank is, how much horsepower the engine is, etc).

  1. increasing the total energy production capabilities of your body (your maximum energy production capability)
  2. increasing to duration of energy production (how long can you consistently produce energy )
  3. increasing how fast that energy produced (how rapidly can you product energy)

Energy Utilization Adaptations

These related to how efficiently your body manages it’s current supply of energy. If we are talking about a car, then this would refer to how efficient the car burns the gas.

  1. Increasing the muscle contractility (how fat your muscles can contract and relax). This is important because you can increase the endurance of your muscle fibers. You can increase the speed of how fast your muscles can contract and relax while also add to the length of time they can do so before fatiguing. Basically, by modifying your muscle contractility, you essentially can increase how much power is produced from your energy production. If we use a car as metaphor here, the engine might be what produces your energy, but the physical elements that express that power into the physical world (shape of the car, the tires, etc) are also make a difference with how fast that car can ultimately go.
  2. Skill and technique. This is critical to your conditioning because HOW you perform the movements determine how much energy is used. Better technique = less energy used for movements. Then there is the skill which includes your experience, how you choose to apply your technique, how relaxed you are, etc. At the end of the day, skill and technique are the most important factors.

The Energy Power Systems

human atp energy systemsWe’ve talked about looking at conditioning in terms of Energy, but we can also categorize energy into two types of energy: Aerobic and Anaerobic.  This is important because the most effective conditioning work will target either aerobic or anaerobic power systems to make improvements to that specific one but not BOTH.

One the more technical side, by specifically attempting to push adaptations that increase your body’s energy production, management, and utilization capabilities — either by adding MORE of it or making them more efficient.

Aerobic Power

aerobic system

Maximum rate of power produced through aerobic metabolic process. Simply put, this is your body’s overall ability to produce ATP in the presence of oxygen (which is used in the process of creating the ATP).

Aerobic power fuels most of your activity during the day and is virtually an unlimited source of energy. Aerobic metabolism can produce 38 ATP molecules from breaking down a single molecule compared to just 1 ATP produced from anaerobic metabolism.

However, the process is much slower with many more components and steps which is why aerobic metabolism cannot supply rapid ATP when your body needs it for short, intensive bursts.

If you can make your aerobic system more efficient and generate more of your power from it during your fight or training bouts, your endurance will dramatically increase. The Aerobic system also plays an important part in recharging your anaerobic metabolism too — so don’t think you can ignore training this system for the more explosive system. If your aerobic system is lacking, your anaerobic systems will also suffer.

The most common way to measure how strong your aerobic system is to measure your power output or speed while at your VO2 Max (maximum heart rate during an exercise). You can also look at your RESTING HEART RATE with a heart rate monitor. If it’s higher than 55, you will likely benefit greatly from aerobic training because your aerobic metabolism is not as efficient as it could be due to oxygen supply limits. We will talk more about this in the next article.

Knowing your overall Aerobic Power ability is important because it’s a measurement of your maximum power output over long periods of time — such as a round or five rounds. It’s also impacts short periods too consisting of repetitive explosive activities.

Anaerobic Power

previewMaximum rate of power produced through the anaerobic metabolic process. That is, how much power you can produce from the chemical reactions in your body that don’t require oxygen. This is important for short explosive activities that while very high in power can only be maintained for a limited time before fatigue sets in. Anaerobic Power can be derived from two different metabolic reactions (two different energy systems) which is the ATC-PC system or alactic system and the Glycolytic system or lactic system (diagram on the left).

These two ‘power types’ are important because you can’t train for both systems at the same time. That is, if you want to build up your aerobic fitness (the system that provides long duration energy), you will need to train specifically to improve this. If you want to improve your short explosive energy, you need to train your aerobic system.

anaerobic metabolism





When looking at HOW energy is produced, we can break the energy production into three separate systems:

  1. Aerobic System (Aerobic Power)
  2. Anaerobic Lactic System (Anaerobic Power)
  3. Anaerobic Alactic System (Anaerobic Power)

These systems are not discrete systems but fully interacting systems that complement each other with the end goal of supplying enough energy to meet the body’s changing energy demands.

Over the next three articles, we will break down these three systems and show you how to specifically target them through training to improve their efficiently and dramatically ramp up every aspect of your conditioning — from your endurance and recovery to your ability to sustain explosive power for longer durations.

Why do we break energy production into these three systems?

Because if we want to increase our energy production capabilities (our total energy production, the duration of our energy production, our rate of energy production, or how efficient our muscles process that energy) then we need to target the specific energy system responsible for each and train for that specifically.

How to Dramatically Improve Your Fitness

At last we come to this.

We’ve talked about HOW it all works at the biological level in your body.

Now, how do we go about it from a training perspective?

That’s where we start in our next article with the first, and in my opinion, the most important energy system for your overall fitness and conditioning, the source of energy that allows you to run marathons, powers your day to day activities, and the system that keeps you going hard from round 1 till round 5: The Aerobic Energy System.

In the next article (part 2 of this conditioning series), we explore exactly what the Aerobic Energy System is and how it fits into your conditioning.

GO TO PART 2 HERE: The Aerobic Energy System: The Key to Unleashing Endless Endurance

Go TO PART 3 HERE: How to Dramatically Improve Your Muay Thai Aerobic Fitness Conditioning (so you never gas out)

About Author

Ben has been living, training, and fighting in Thailand for the past 3 years. He has fought in a number of different combat arts such as MMA, BJJ, Muay Thai, and Western Boxing. Ben follows the latest fitness and nutrition research and is especially interested in how it can apply to combat sports to improve a fighter's performance in the ring. You can read Ben's full bio page here.



    Hi Ben thank you very much for the articles regarding the Aerobic energy system very informative.I have a question if i want to improve my Aerobic capacity.I understand that i have to do longer runs 30-90 minutes at a heart rate of 130-150bpm. two to three times a week can i still do short sharp explosive training sessions on the other days including Muay thai classes will this hinder my Aerobic conditioning/development.
    Thank you

    • You can do a high / low training rotation where one day you work on slow cardio but avoid the more explosive training and the next day you can work on higher intensity (sprints say) type work that works more on the anerobic threshold or vo2 max.

      To a point you should be able to train both your aerobic stamina with slow heart rate training (30-90 minute runs 2-3 times a week) and your anaerobic system, especially if you have not really trained either one. But to REALLY specialize in one and see the most benefits, you need to target either your anaerobic or aerobic systems specifically and continually for 2-4 month blocks. It’s not as effective to train one day the aerobic then then switch to anaerobic style training because it takes time to force adaptions in either system and your body is not good at targeting both at the same time beyond a certain point.

      That’s why it’s best to work on your aerobic base first for 3-4 months, build that up, then switch to anaerobic training for 2 to 3 months, then cycle back.

      I understand if you train Muay Thai, it’s not possible to ONLY stay in an aerobic training state. Muay Thai tends to bridge both anaerobic and aerobic systems during training and depending on what you do, targets both. As such you can’t really leave off ‘explosive’ training when it comes to hitting pads or sparring. But you can trailer your own solo specific work like bag work to be more aerobic or anaerobic in nature. If you want to work aerobic, set up your bag work so you do less intensity for longer durations (30 minutes of hitting the bag without stopping, but not with a lot of power or speed). Or look at targeting your anaerobic threshold with intensive 2 minute durations where you keep your heart rate just below the anaerobic threshold level). If you want to work on something anaerobic, you can go balls to the wall for short durations (10-20 seconds) followed by a long rest. Or you can do your max for 1 minute followed by a long rest.

      Hope this helps. I haven’t really talked about anaerobic training yet, but I hope to write a nice big article on this soon.


      Hope that helps.


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