This is a question that’s often asked and I think is worth a solid answer to. There is a LOT of debate out there with many people saying Strength Training is unnecessary while others swear by it.
I feel that strength training can offer quite a few benefits — indirectly. Let’s look at why this is the case in detail. Rather than just TELL you that strength training is a positive thing, I’ve tried to give some solid scientific reasons behind the WHY of it.
This is sort of a prequel article to my How to Strength Train for Muay Thai article, which looks at HOW you can successfully combine strength training with Muay Thai for more maximal strength.
You might also want to check out the Strength Training 101 article if you don’t know what strength training is or want to find out more about it. In fact, if you don’t even know what I’m talking about, STOP and go read it, then come back.
And finally, if you want to increase your overall conditioning and fitness, absolutely check out my Muay Thai Conditioning 101 Series — the most comprehensive (and free) guide to ramping up your fitness so you never gas out, during training or a fight.
Let’s first clear up WHAT Strength Training is NOT:
Strength Training is NOT Bodybuilding
Strength Training is not Powerlifting
Strength Training is not CrossFit
Strength Training is NOT fucking around with some weights after or before Muay Thai training for a couple minutes.
So…what is it then?
Strength Training IS heavy resistance training done in a specific format with the express purpose of increasing your body’s MAXIMAL strength (as measured by various compound lift exercises) over time.
The Benefits of Strength for Fighters
Typically there are two types of fighters: explosive fighters who can explode with powerful knockout flurries but often gas out after a couple rounds and endurance fighters who lack the explosive strength but have boundless amounts of endurance to last all 5 rounds. Now, there are of course exceptions to this, but in general, this tends to be the case.
If you have a good amount of strength, chances are you are probably an explosive type fighter who may struggle with endurance in the later rounds of a fight. On the other hand, if you have great endurance as a fighter but lack explosive knockout power, chances are your general strength is probably lacking.
Both types of fighters can benefit from strength training, with the explosive type fighters able to become MORE explosively strong for longer periods without gassing while the endurance type fighters will be able to gain the explosive power they never had before.
Those who lack existing explosive power, however, will particularly benefit from Strength Training as they are likely do not possess a high level of strength — something that Strength Training, over time, can easily build. Genetics do play a part in Strength with some who are just naturally stronger and other who are not. But EVERYONE can become stronger and those who have never ever strength trained, in particular, can see quick and radical improvements in strength.
Strength training won’t necessarily build explosive power (and harder strikes) if you don’t have it naturally, but it lays the necessary strength groundwork to allow training for it.
One area that increasing your Maximal Strength by a substantial amount can show demonstrable results is in the clinch where sheer strength can make a difference against a resisting opponent. While technique, skill, and balance are often great equalizers against sheer physical strength in the clinch, if both fighters have similar skill levels in the clinch, strength makes a big facking difference. For this reason alone, Strength Training is worth it, as the clinch game is a major part of Muay Thai.
The Relationship between Technique, Power, and Strength
First here are a couple definitions you should know:
- Power is the ability to exert maximum force quickly. In more scientific terms, power is the rate of force over time. Power, as it applies to striking arts, is simply the measurement of the force generated by your strike over that small time duration of your strike. INCREASING power would mean at the moment of impact the measurement of that force would be HIGHER (as compared to previous instances).
- Strength is your ability to produce maximum force.
- Force is simply a measurement of MASS x Acceleration.
Now, it’s pretty clear that there are a number of factors that can influence the power of your strikes in Muay Thai outside of your raw strength ability. But these all center around technique.
Better Technique Transfers Existing Raw Power More Efficiently
Proper Muay Thai technique can transfer your existing power more efficiently into your opponent better than poor technique will allow. That is, perfect technique allows a more efficient transfer of power. But at the end of the day, good technique (torquing of the hips when kicking/punching, correctly angling of your strikes for maximum velocity, keeping your limbs relaxed until impact, etc) will only optimize your existing physical power, NOT actually increase your physical ability to generate more power.
This is where strength training comes in.
Increasing Physical Strength (Maximum Force Production) Increases Raw Power Potential
The ability to produce maximum force (i.e. your strength) is highly linked to your ability to exert that force quickly. Various studies have in fact shown a strong relationship between maximal strength and power. That is, you can’t be powerful without first being strong.
In English: the stronger you are, the more potential power you have.
To generate power, you have to move fast which requires a lot of force to do so. The more maximum strength you have, the quicker your muscles can potentially accelerate and thus the more potential POWER you can generate with your strikes, assuming you don’t have a similar increase the mass. More force potential + same mass means an increase in acceleration and thus an increase in POWER.
Thus you have to have enough force in the first place to accelerate quickly. And this is what Strength Training does: builds the foundation of strength needed to increase your explosive acceleration. Having good general strength will give you a more efficient nervous system — the foundation you need to LATER train for more explosive power.
Besides more recruitment and coordination of muscle fibers, Strength Training will cause your body to release hormones which can help your body’s adaption mechanisms for increasing your biological power (read: more energy production), which is important when you overall conditioning (i.e. may benefit your overall conditioning)
The Relationship Between Your Maximal Strength (maximum force production) and Your Power (force used explosively)
The power of your strikes depends entirely on HOW quickly you can exert force. This means you must be able to increase the acceleration/velocity of your strikes.And this means your muscles must be able to generate explosive force quickly which requires significant strength first. At the biological level, this means your muscle fibers must be able to contract quickly. Your can’t train for power if you don’t have strength first. You can’t be powerful if you are not already strong. So if you want to add more velocity to your strikes (which results in more power), you are going to need increased strength to power this.
Training to Increase Rate of Force Production
Strength Training alone will (likely) not give you more striking power.
This is where people like to knock Strength Training as being ineffective. And I agree here. Just because you have moved your bench press up by 20 kilos or can dead-lift and insane amount, doesn’t mean you can knock off someone’s head with a punch or kick, even assuming you have the proper technique to pull it off.
BUT: Strength Training can help build the foundation strength which you can then train for more explosive power, which CAN help your knock people out!
By building your ability to produce more maximum force (i.e. strength) through resistance training, then training specifically to increase the RATE of that force (ability to apply that force explosively against your opponent), you can improve your physical power production during a fight. That increased power might be manifested (depending on how you train) say as more knockout power when you punch or kick.
The foundation that allows more power to be utilized comes from your strength ability (i.e. increasing your MAXIMUM strength); that is, increasing your strength will also increase your power potential.
Muay Thai Alone Can’t Increase Power
Yes, you can spend years training Muay to develop both the proper technique and the basic muscular adaptions to generate powerful strikes. But at a certain point, if you want to increase that power beyond a certain physical threshold that you already have, strength training is absolutely required. Muay Thai training ALONE will not provide enough stimulus to your CNS (Central Nervous System) to force your body to make these biological adaptions. To do so, you need to subject your body to resistance training to force these adaptions.
So Why Won’t Muay Thai Training Alone Build More Strength and/or Explosive Power?
The answer to this question comes down to the basic principles of human adaptability (in the fitness/s&c/strength training/bodybuilding world known as the ‘Progressive overload and accommodation principles ‘).
Zatsiorsky’s famous 1995 paper explains this principle: ‘This is a manifestation of the biological law of accommodation, often considered a general law of biology”. According to this law, the response of a biological object to a given constant stimulus decreases over time. Thus, accommodation is the decrease in response of your body to a constantly continued stimulus. In training, the stimulus is physical exercise.“(Zatsiorsky 1995)
In simple terms, this basically means you must apply stress (i.e. a stimulus) to force a biological adaption in your body to meet the demands of that stress. If the stress is not high enough, your body will not adapt (because it can already meet the demands) or will lose the adaption (revert to pe-stress levels).
The problem here, as you may already see, is the ‘Principle of Accommodation part,’ where you have to keep on progressively increasing the stimulus to force further adaptions once your body adapts to the new habitual stimulus. Eventually, the stimulus requirements become so high it’s impossible to force those adaptions — the time requirements are too strenuous or your body is simply unable to handle the increased stimulus.
Think of any sports activity — running say. If you’ve never run before, you can quickly go from being completely winded after 15 minutes of running to 30-45 minute runs within a short period of time. But to improve your level of running ability (faster runs in shorter times, longer runs, etc), you have to continually increase the running demands. Eventually, you reach a point where you have to put an incredible amount of stimulus (effort) to see improvements.
The same applies to Muay Thai and strength/power!
This is why Muay Thai only, beyond the ‘Low-Hanging Fruit’ adaptions that happen when you are relatively untrained in the sport (i.e. you respond readily to the new stimulus of kicking, punching, and the training), can’t force the muscular adaptions, beyond a certain point, for additional strength/explosive power. The stimulus just isn’t there anymore. Simply smashing the pads as hard as you can over and over in the same pattern won’t force those adaptions. Doing longer training sessions won’t either (this may increase your endurance, but not your strength).
To see those adaptions, you have to change your training and apply a greater stimulus — one that’s highly targeted towards your strength: Strength Training.
A Better Fighter Has Both Skill, Technique, and STRENGTH
Physical Ability to Generate Force + Speed at which Force can be Applied (i.e. Power) + Technique = Striking Power
If you increase your physical ability to generate raw power combined with perfect technique to efficiently apply that power when needed, you are a better fighter.
And this is what strength training brings to the table: increased strength that you can with training turn into more power.
Yes, you can perfect your technique to trick out some more power with more efficient movement patterns, but you can ALSO increase your body’s ability to produce more force. And in order to do this, you must apply resistance training to your muscles to force those physical adaptions in your muscles which will give you more strength and thus more power potential when you strike.
Let’s make a bit of an analogy here.
Nak Muay Bob moves from the USA to Thailand and trains for 3 years to improve his technique. The improvements in technique result in 15 percent more power striking power with his punches and kicks at the end of his 3-year stint
This is fabulous. However, it took Bob 3 years of training in Thailand to see that improvement.
But what if Bob, instead of going to Thailand and training 3 years, instead takes up a strength and power routine for 6 months, and finds his striking power has increased 20 percent!
Bob saved himself almost three years of training in Thailand for the same results!
Basically what I’m saying is that the later option (strength training + power training) is the easier and far more in reach for most people than the former option (mastering perfect technique). Now, granted, you ideally want BOTH the technique and strength training to improve your power the MOST. Trying to become more powerful by lifting weights is not a cop-out to replace technique, it’s a way to enhance the results! So if you’ve already got the technique down, why not see even more improvements by strength training? And if you don’t have the technique down yet, you can still see improvements by working the strength side of things while also improving your technique!
Research shows (look at fightmetric.com for these stats) that suggests fighters who can throw the most strikes (i.e. can produce the most TOTAL power) often wins the fight. So increase your usable power during a fight and you increase your chances of winning!
The Interdependency of Energy Systems, Power, and Strength
I want to note here that there’s a lot involved when it comes to increasing the total striking power over the course a fight. You can look at one off explosive power (knockout strikes), you can look at the total number of strikes thrown (speed) or at the total number of punches thrown with power.
Strength and Power Training can give you more knockout explosive power by rewiring of Central Nervous System and various muscle fiber adaptions. They may even help you deliver more strikes with more power for longer periods by your muscle fibers adapting to more efficiently process ATP — up to a point (to really see huge improvements here, you have to work on CONDITIONING not just general strength). But there’s also a heavy interplay with the body’s energy systems responsible for SUSTAINING your striking power output. You might have brutal knockout power strikes for a couple seconds because of your explosive strength developments, but be unable to sustain that power output for more than a few seconds and
You might have brutal knockout power strikes for a couple seconds because of your explosive strength developments, but be unable to sustain that power output for more than a few seconds and afterward be completely fatigued (gas out) with very little recovery. Unless you get that knockout, you’re in deep shit here.
This is where your Energy Systems are important in that they dramatically impact your POWER over time; if one of your energy systems is lacking (you haven’t trained it properly to sustain the ATP you need), you will gas out in a fight.
Strength Training and Power Training might help you develop harder strikes. But if you want to SUSTAIN those higher powered strikes for longer durations than a couple seconds and quickly recover afterward so you can continue to throw explosive flurries without gassing out, then you are going to have to work on the CONDITIONING aspect of your training.
That is, you will have to improve your Alactic, Lactic, and Aerobic energy systems so that enough continuous ATP (basically muscle fuel) can be effectively delivered to your muscles to keep up a steady power output.
Conditioning for Muay Thai (the training of your Alactic, Lactic, and Aerobic systems to better handle your muscles’ ATP needs) is a completely different (and highly complex) topic altogether. To learn how to improve your conditioning, start with my Conditioning 101: Intro To Your Energy Systems article, which is the start of my improving fight fitness series.