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The Strength Training for Muay Thai Guide

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There’s a lot about information about strength training for MMA right now, but very little in the way of Strength Training for Muay Thai out there.

Strength Training has an important place in your Muay Thai training, no matter if you are just training for fun, fitness, or to fight. There’s a number of reasons why you might want to do strength training a couple times a week.

 

You can do it for the every day benefits being a bit stronger brings to your life, or as part of a body transformation effort (i.e. to get ripped or keep muscle while losing fat), or to improve some aspects of your Muay Thai game (such as being stronger in the clinch by adding my maximal strength ability) or as part of a serious strength and conditioning training plan to improve your overall cardio and clinching and striking power during training and fights.

OR

If you don’t need convincing and just want to skip to the actual strength training program, click here.

Why Strength Train?

Adding a weight-lifting regimen to your Muay Thai regimen is often a debated topic. On one side of the fence, you have those who will tell you that lifting weights won’t increase your striking power (i.e. lifting weights won’t help you kick or punch harder) and even negatively impact your Muay Thai. Those on the other side of the fence will tell you that adding supplemental weight training is pretty much the bee’s knees — it will increase increase your striking power, clinch strength, improve your Muay Thai fitness and hell, even do your taxes.

As someone who does a lot of heavy strength training in addition to serious Muay Thai training in Thailand, 5-6 days a week, I feel the truth lies somewhere in the middle of these two arguments.

Strength Training, when utilized correctly as part of an OVERALL strength and conditioning plan, can provide serious benefits to your Muay Thai. And there are a host of OTHER benefits Strength Training can bring too.

Strength TrainingIS heavy resistance training done in a very specific format with the express purpose of increasing your body’s MAXIMAL strength (as measured by various compound lift exercises) over time.

But Wait. Won’t Lifting Weights Make You Big, Bulky, and Slow?

The common misconception is that weight training will make you bulky and slow, but this is absolutely not true. Strength Training is NOT bodybuilding. It will not make you bulky (provided you are not overeating your calories). It’s quite possible to become quite a bit stronger without gaining any weight even — there are a number of neurological adaptions that occur when you strength train that don’t actually have anything to do with building muscle fiber. These are adaptions to your CNS (Central Nervous System) which basically allow you to be stronger without adding more muscle mass.

But Thai’s Don’t Strength Train!

In traditional Muay Thai circles, strength training is typically completely ignored. Thai’s do NOT strength train for the most part. But from what I’ve personally observed while living in Thailand and training at different gyms here, this is more from a lack of proper knowledge about strength training, lack of resources to strength train (no proper weight sets in some gyms), and the fact that most of them are just too fatigued to lift weights at the end of the day. Thai’s in Thailand train insanely hard — they run for 10-12k in the morning, followed by a 2 hour session. They sleep until the next session in the afternoon, where they also run 4-5k followed by an even more grueling training session than the morning. This happens 6 and sometimes 7 days a week. With a training regimen like this, it’s tough to add serious strength training to the mix.

But just because Thai’s don’t, does NOT mean strength training can’t benefit you. It can and there’s a lot of research out there that shows strength training can seriously boast athletic performance across the board for a number of different sports.

There is no disputing that Muay Thai is a sport that rewards timing, skill, and technique far more than just pure raw power and strength. This can been verified time and time again when you watch physically-superior guys get dominated in fights but much smaller guys with better skill/timing/technique. But, that doesn’t mean that there is NO benefit to strength training. If things like technique and skill are equal between two fighters, then the one who can generate more POWER during the fight when striking will likely be the winner.

This is where Strength Training can provide a big boost — it builds an increased strength platform that can eventually be tuned (by training against resistance explosively) for more explosive power (the rate of force development), both in your striking and clinch abilities.

But before you can increase your power, you need to have the strength base first — you can’t add more explosive power in your muscles than you currently have without first adding the (extra) strength to enable that additional explosive force capability. And this is what strength training aims: to help you build your overall foundational strength.

Again, if you really want to get into the WHY of it, do read my article on Why Strength Training Will Improve Your Muay Thai for the full explanation on why you need to first build up raw strength before you can train your muscles for more power. Every question you likely have is answered there!

Strength and Conditioning…Where Does STRENGTH fit in?

In the sports world, there is a lot of talk about Strength and Conditioning. Athletes are not only training their sport, they are also doing supplemental training, commonly referred to as Strength and Conditioning.

Strength and Conditioning, as it applies to Muay Thai, is not about increasing your strength or your conditioning, but rather developing your body’s capacity to produce and more efficiently use energy in the specific way that applies to your sport. This could be increasing your maximum force production (strength), your overall power output over the rounds (power endurance), more explosive power per strike (i.e. knockout power), or developing your body’s energy systems (i.e. increase your body’s ability to produce ATP) so they can produce more energy and utilize it more efficiently when you need it.

So strength training when looking at it from a Strength and Conditioning perspective is only ONE aspect of your S&C. That is Strength Training has the stated goal of helping you increase your overall MAXIMAL strength which can then be trained for more explosive power. Strength Training, however, is only dealing with muscular adaptions for power. It WILL NOT improve other aspects like Conditioning, which comes down to optimizing your body’s three energy systems (and the support systems like your heart, capillaries, oxygen carrying systems), the Alactic, Lactic, and Aerobic Energy systems so you can produce ATP (muscle fuel) faster, more efficiently, and for longer periods.

Training your maximal strength causes increased recruitment and motor control of existing muscle fibers, optimizations in your CNS (Central Nervous System),  and increased productions of hormones which allow your body to better adapt to potential conditioning. Without getting to deep into the science of it, Strength Training does a lot of good SHIT to your body in general and a lot of it can help your general conditioning.

You can actually view your general strength training program as part of your overall Strength and Conditioning plan; it’s the precursor to building up explosive strength, and having more strength can actually help make some of your later conditioning work more effective when you beginning to work on your Alactic and Lactic energy systems to better produce and handle ATP.

If you want to know more about these energy systems and how to improve them to transform your conditioning and fitness so you never gas out, read our Muay Thai Conditioning 101 series for the best guide Muay Thai guide to strength and conditioning you’ll find online, bar none.

I want to be clear here that Strength Training for Muay Thai has a specific purpose: You are not trying to compete with power-lifters here on how much weight you can lift in the gym. The goal if you strength train is to become as strong as possible (and depending on your goals, with minimal or NO weight gain), as quickly as possible, all to improve your strength and explosive strength for Muay Thai WITHOUT negatively impacting your current Muay Thai training!

So If My Maximal Strength Increases, I Can Punch and Kick Harder?

Not exactly. There is a stated difference between your strength (that is your maximal force development) and applying that strength explosively in a fight (power). It’s not enough to just be really strong. I’ve seen guys who can bench-press hundreds of kilos and dead-lift twice that, but they can’t punch for shit. Ignoring the fact that they don’t have the technique to correctly apply some of that strength to strikes, most of their raw strength can’t be used explosively.

Increasing ONLY your raw strength won’t likely give you more powerful strikes — yet. But what it will do is give your body the strength foundation which you can then train to be more explosive.

I will say there may be some direct relationship between your strength improvement and your clinch game however. If you have NEVER done any strength training before, it’s likely that you can within 3-4 months, become 20 or 30 percent stronger than you currently are. This is because your body will readily respond to the initial training. After the a few months, your strength gains will level off, but you will be stronger. Becoming a little bit stronger (say 5 or 10 percent) might not make much of a difference in the clinch. But if you are 20, 30, or 40 percent stronger, this will ABSOLUTELY make a difference if you clinch guys your weight (ignoring any skill and technique difference)

Types of Strength Training

There are a number of different ways to go about Strength Training, each depending ENTIRELY on your stated goals. Someone who is training Muay Thai to get ripped has an entirely different goal than someone who wants to Strength Train for increased power in a fight. I’ll break these into three groups:

Strength Training for Aesthetics

There are a number of people out there who don’t really care so much about improving their Muay Thai performance for fighting but rather they want to build a muscular physique while training Muay Thai. They train Muay Thai to burn calories and for fitness but also want to lift weights for…well…body image reasons.

It’s true that doing a lot of cardio will hinder muscle growth. If you train Muay Thai because you love the sport but also want to add muscle to your  frame or keep as much muscle as possible while losing fat, then Strength Training will enable that. Keep in mind that IF your body is your goal and NOT trying to improve the power of your strikes, then Strength Training is more of a permanent sort of routine NOT a training block that you cycle on and off depending on your current goals.

Strength Training can be used to build a better body (with proportional aesthetics and functional strength — unlike bodybuilding) very successfully if you manage the nutritional aspect. Unlike bodybuilding style training, Strength Training won’t hinder your actual Muay Thai performance but will provide  benefits. But if you want to work on the aesthetics of your body, you are going to have to have the NUTRITIONAL part of your Strength Training down.

If this is your goal, you should look at the following articles:

Strength Training for Casual Muay Thai Student

If you love Muay Thai as an art but don’t plan to fight, then Strength Training still can offer you a lot of benefits. Chances are that you are the type of person who loves to spar, work on technique, and has a general appreciation of the sport. If this is the case, you can pretty much strength train as much as you like without needing to change it to Power Training, though you can if you wish.

Strength Training for the Fighter

If you fight, you have a completely different set of needs. You strength train with the sole intention to give you an edge when you fight. That means having more explosive power in your strikes when you fight and more strength in the clinch. If that’s the case, then Strength Training will only be one block of your training, likely lasting several months (2-3 months), when you are not fighting. As soon as you have a fight, you will need to switch from a pure strength training routine to an Explosive Power training routine. In the context of training as a fighter to fight, Strength Training can be looked at as part of your Strength and Conditioning program (you’ll also be managing the conditioning training as well, of which strength training can overlap but is NOT exactly the same). For the most part, this means strength training is a sort of off-season style of training where you work on increasing your strength when you don’t have a fight in 4-6 weeks.

Strength Training for Muay Thai 101

At last we get to the meat of the article!

Pay attention because class is in session.

You can read my in-depth article about Strength Training 101 for beginners for a detailed GENERAL strength training guideline. I break down some of the finer details involved. You should absolutely read it before continuing.

Strength Training, in general, is a pretty simple process. We can break it down into a handful of steps:

  1. lift heavy weights such that reps you can complete between 3-6 and the sets anywhere from 2-5. Rests between sets to be between 2-3 minutes.
  2. perform compound lifts that stress multiple muscles per movement (Deadlifts, squats, rows, weighed pullups, barbell curls, bench-press, overhead press, etc)
  3. utilize free weights which will allow you to maximize your weight loads and utilize the most muscles possible per lift (barbell and dumbbells)
  4. recover — give your muscles adequate rest to recover between sessions.
  5. increase the weight (stimulus) you lift every week if possible

The thing is it is quite bit more difficult if you try to combine a proper strength training routine WITH a full Muay Thai training regimen. The problem is that strength training can really tax your body which can affect your actual training performance.

Keep in mind that strength training and endurance training (of which you can argue a grueling 2 hour session of Muay Thai is) both try and push physical adaptations in your body in different, often mutually exclusive, directions. Strength training encourages physiological adaptions to increase your raw strength and is anabolic in nature (encourages protein synthesis — muscle fiber development). These adaptations include changes to  muscle fibers (making them longer), Central Nervous System changes to better coordinate muscle fibers, and a host of other changes. Endurance training increases mitochondrial bio-genesis (increased production of mitochondria) which allow more energy production that fuels aerobic movement. Both of these adaptions are often competing and you can only fully optimize for ONE, not two. Thus if you want to really focus on strength, too much cardio will start to hinder your strength (and muscle gains). Strength training may hinder endurance adaptations (and this aside, at the very least make you tired!). We talk about building up your endurance and conditioning in a separate series of articles.

That’s not to say you should strength train, just be aware that Muay Thai WILL may interfere with your ability to add strength. Having said that, strength training can still provide plenty of benefits.

Strength Training For the Casual Muay Thai Trainee

If you are not training like a fighter (you train 2-4 times a week and one session a day and do no cardio outside of training), then you can pretty much add a general Strength Training routine with 3-4 workout sessions a week to your current schedule with little difficulty or discomfort. Basically, the quantity of your training is not so much that both training programs start to impact the other.

I suggest you read my Strength Training 101 guide — you can pretty much follow that to the letter.

Strength Training for the Fighter

If you are a fighter and/or training 4-6 days a week (1-2 sessions a day) and doing heavy roadwork outside of class then Strength Training is MUCH more of a challenge as you have to optimize your strength training workout to fit it in with your Muay Thai.

This is an area that I have a lot of personal hands-on experience as I’ve trained for fights while strength training. I’ve found that grueling strength training workouts can leave you fatigued for days and your cardio, power, and endurance done during your ‘strength training recovery days’ may take a huge hit when you train.

Here is what I’ve found PERSONALLY works, based on my own experience and working with other fighters who strength train while fighting in Thailand.

1. Compound Lifts Only

If you train Muay Thai every day, you don’t have the time or energy to live in the gym. The key is to get the most bang for your buck when you lift weights. That means utilizing lifts that stimulate multiple muscle groups at the same time. These are called compound lifts and make up the backbone of any strength training program.

  • Deadlifts
  • Squats
  • Bench-press
  • Overhead Press
  • Rows
  • Weighted Pullups
  • Weighed Dips

These are the movements that will build overall body strength, which is what we are looking to do here. The point is to become STRONG, not build a ripped physic (though building a more aesthetically pleasing body is a side affect of strength training, as you will put on proportional muscle on your body)

2. Lift Between 2-5 reps and 2-5 Sets per per exercise with 2-5 exercises per session

Strength training is about lifting weights around 80-90 percent of your 1-rep max (the maximum weight you can lift for an exercise only ONE time before failing on the next rep) 2-5 times. You can go HERE to calculate your 1-rep max. It’s this magic range of reps and weight that provides the maximum stimulus to your muscle fibers, telling them to GROW.

To build your strength, you’ll need do the following:

  • Lift 2-5 Reps Per Set
  • 2-5 Sets Per Exercise (see the compound lifts in the section above)
  • 3-5 Exercises per session

There are various other types of training like Hypertrophy training (building muscle size) and explosive lifts to build power, speed, and strength (i.e. Olympic lifts), but Strength Training is primary concerned with stimulating muscle fiber growth and optimizing your neural pathways for maximal strength improvements.

For my own personal strength training routine, I do 5 reps for 3 sets with 3-5 exercises per session and 3 sessions per week.

3. Strength Train ONLY 1-3 times a week, depending

Some strength training programs will advocate 4-5 times a week. But this is assumes you are only strength training and nothing else.

If you train MT 5-6 days a week, 1-2 times a day and do roadwork outside of the gym: strength train 1-2 times a week.

With all the regular training you do, you will quickly find yourself too fatigued to train BOTH strength training and Muay Thai effectively. This is basically the case of putting so much stress on your body that it can’t recover. Your Muay Thai sessions will suck, and your strength will likely take a big hit in the gym, meaning you can’t push as much weight when you lift.

If you train once a day, 5-6 times a week AND do roadwork 4-6 times a week: strength train 2-3x a week

This is what I do personally and I can train a solid 3x a week while also seeing strength improvements every week or two. My suggestions is to break your workout into 3x per week IF you can handle it. This works well as the default program to follow. If 3x a week is a bit too much, then switch it to 2x a week.

Let’s break each of these training options down specifically:

Three Day Strength Training Split

Functionally, it would be better to change the lifts around so Squats and Dead lifts are NOT on the same day so these don’t cannibalize your strength, but I’ve found it’s just too taxing spending a couple days recovering from doing heavy squats on Monday only to hit your body hard a few days later again with deadlifts. This is especially true when you are doing a lot of running and your legs are just brutalized all the time from the lifts.

Session 1

  • Benchpress
  • Close Grip Bench / Incline Bench
  • Weighted Dips
  • Weighted Overhand Pullups

Session 2

  • Overhead Press
  • Barbell Curl
  • Hammer Curls
  • Weighted Close Grip Underhand Pullups

Session 3

  • Squats
  • Deadlifts
  • Rows

If you are training for a fight (fight training tends to be harder) and/or you are training MULTIPLE sessions per day, strength training 3x a week will be too much for most. You’ll have to train 1x a week or twice a week (2x is idea, IF you can do this). This requires adjusting WHAT muscle groups you train into either a single session (full body workout routine) or two sessions.

If possible, I would opt for 2 sessions per week over one because you can lift more weight by focusing on different muscle groups (let’s say Push and Pull).

Two Day Strength Training Split

Session 1 Pull muscle groups

  • Deadlifts
  • weighted pullups (close grip underhand and/or ovehand pullups)
  • bicep curls
  • rows

Session 2 Push muscle groups

  • squats
  • overhead press
  • bench press
  • weighted dips.

Sometimes though, you simply are training so much you don’t have the juice to lift hard and heavy twice a week. For normal Muay Thai training back home, this won’t be the case, but if you are say living in Thailand, training twice a day 6 times a week, lifting twice a week will be hard to do (trust me, I’ve tried and it doesn’t work).

In this case, you either pick the first day of the week or the last day of the week and smash your entire body with a full body compound workout. I prefer the twice a week sessions because with the once a week full body workout, you won’t be able to lift as much weight with each compound exercise when you smash all the major muscle groups in a single, brutal session. This means your squat will take strength from your deadlift, which will tire you on the Bench Press which will eat into your Overhead Press strength.

However, I have worked with a few fighters who successfully do 1 strength training sessions per week and they do see strength gains from week to week. So it’s possible! It’s just not optimal for building the most strength in the shortest period of time.

One Session Per Week Strength Training

  • Squats
  • Deadlifts
  • Rows
  • Overhead Press
  • Benchpress
  • Weighted Pullups
  • Weighted Dips

If you can’t do all of these because of fatigue, then just keep the following 4 which will work your full body:

  • Squats
  • Deadlifts
  • Benchpress
  • Overhead Press

4. Strength Train in the Morning (before you Train Muay Thai)

To ensure you can lift the most weight and see the most strength gains (more weight lifted = stronger stimulus to CNS = more strength gains) you should lift weights BEFORE you train Muay Thai. Ideally, if you train Muay Thai in the afternoons that means doing your strength training in the morning, if you can fit that in. This also will give you between 4-8 hours before you start your Muay Thai training, giving you enough time to recover so your strength training doesn’t affect your Muay Thai training (at least not too much!).

If you are in a situation where you train Muay Thai in the mornings then it’s best to do your strength training 4-6 hours after (i.e. the afternoon or evenings) so your body has a chance to recharge.

If you train Muay Thai twice a day, say somewhere like Thailand, and you are unwilling to skip morning sessions so you can strength train, then you’ll just have to strength train after Muay Thai. I’ve done this before. You can strength train AFTER Muay Thai sessions, but don’t expect to be pushing as much weight as you normally could as your muscles will already be fatigued from training. Because you can’t lift as much weight as you normally could, you won’t see as much strength gain as you could if you didn’t, but if you have no choice, it’s better than NOT strength training — you will still see results.

I’ve personally worked with several fighters who strength train AFTER morning Muay Thai training and they still managed to push heavy weight and see strength gains from week to week — so it can be done. It’s just not ideal.

5. At least one day of rest between each strength session

This is critical. If you don’t give your body enough time to recover, you won’t get stronger! It’s not lifting the weights that makes you stronger, it’s the times between weight sessions where your body rebuilds damaged muscle tissue that you actually get stronger. Don’t underestimate the importance of REST and RECOVERY.

I’m assuming you will be training at least 3-4 times a week with Muay Thai, maybe even 5-6 times a week.

You need to give your CNS (Central Nervous System) time to recover between strength training sessions. You can think of your CNS as the wiring connecting your brain to your muscles. Each time you lift heavy weights to increase your maximal strength, your CNS is fried and will be unable to send a strong enough electrical signal throughout your body to fully coordinate all your muscle fibers when you lift heavy — not until it’s recovered.

A schedule that I find works for me (I train Muay Thai Monday to Saturday in the afternoons with a 30-45 minute run before the session) is to lift weights:

  • Monday
  • Wednesday
  • Saturday

I do my heaviest compound lifts on Saturday. The two day break helps my CNS recover enough to push maximum weights on the dead-lift and squat.

If you strength train twice a week, I would suggest something like:

  • Monday
  • Friday

The above schedule gives you the 3 full days off from weight training between Monday and Friday and 2 full days off between Friday and Monday, allowing your body time to recover.

6. Heaviest Lifts done before day off

It’s a good idea NOT to lift your heaviest at the start of the week because your training will suffer for a couple days after. I’ve personally found that when you lift for maximal strength adaptions, your body is completely shot for a good 1 or 2 days. If you train Muay Thai as usual, you might find your stamina during Muay Thai sessions will go down, you’ll be more fatigued, your muscles will be sore, less energy, etc.

A better strategy I’ve found that can mitigate the above negative effects is to lift your heaviest lifts (dead-lifts, squats) on the LAST DAY OF TRAINING BEFORE YOUR DAY OFF which means it won’t negatively affect your Muay Thai training by fatiguing your Nervous System or Muscles for 1-2 days after your workout.

Assuming you do NOT train on Sunday, this day would be Saturday morning. If you don’t train Saturday and Sunday, then this day would be Friday.

If for some reason you are a genetic freak and don’t find your heaviest strength training lift days (deads and squats) don’t affect you, then do your heaviest compound lifts on Monday, when you are your freshest. This means, ideally, you can lift more weight which will stimulate more strength increase once you recover.

7. Optional: Consider Taking One Day Off After Three Days of Training

If you are training twice a day  with Muay Thai and incorporating 2x-3x a week of Strength Training, you might want to consider having a full day off from BOTH Muay Thai and Strength Training sessions in the middle of the week.

This one day off will do wonders for your recovery. Rather than going hard for 3 days then having a shitty 3 final days of the week because you are so fatigued, you will be able to go hard from Monday to Wednesday, have Thursday as a full day off, then train HARD again Friday and Saturday. 5 Good days beats the hell out of 3 good days and 3 shitty days.

I’ve found this strategy particularly effective for ensuring I don’t feel over-trained in the middle of the week.

8. Take a FULL week off  both Muay Thai and Strength Training every 6-8 weeks of training

I know a lot of people will chaff at this, but complete recovery is a critical part of your strength training regimen.

Heavy Strength training and heavy Muay Thai training takes a huge toll on your body. There is only so much stress your nervous system and hormonal systems can handle before they are unable to cope. If you do NOT take a recovery week, chances are you’ll start to feel run down, start to get sick, and your endurance, power, and strength will all dramatically decrease. Until you take an extended break, your performance will be down.

To give your body a chance to fully recover and your hormonal system to reset, you need to take a week off. I recommend every 6 weeks if you can, but if this is too much, then do so after 8 weeks.

If you REFUSE to take a week off from Muay Thai, then at least take 1 full week off from strength training after 6 weeks.

9. Nutrition

This itself is a whole nother topic which I won’t cover extensively here and it’s out of the scope of this article to provide you with a list of what you should eat for each meal, etc. However, nutrition  is important to nail down. If you don’t, you won’t see as much (or any in some extreme cases) strength gains.

I recommend you thoroughly read my How to Calculate Calories for Weight Loss to find out How to Calorie Count and How to Calculate Your Macros for information about putting together a proper nutrition plan that meets your goals (gaining strength/size, losing fat, getting ripped, etc).

I will say though, you need to keep your protein levels high. I suggest around 1.5 grams of protein PER lb of bodyweight. This is a bit on the higher end of what’s needed perhaps, but it’s enough to cover all bases just in case. If you don’t get enough protein in, you won’t see the strength improvements you would otherwise see. Get your protein from natural sources if you can, but if you need to do a number of protein shakes per day to reach it, then do it.

At the macro level, you have a couple options when it comes to eating. These will affect your strength gain AND your muscle/fat gain:

Calorie Surplus: You can be on a calorie surplus, which means eating more calories than your body burns. If you strength train while on a calorie surplus, you will see the MOST strength gains and the MOST muscle size gains. However, this also means you will gain weight, which might not be a good thing if you FIGHT at a certain weight class. Not all weight will be muscle, you will also likely gain some fat, which is a necessary evil.

This option is good if you are NOT fighting and just seeking to add muscle to your frame

Calorie Maintenance: If you are eating roughly around what you burn, you won’t gain a lot of weight. If you have NEVER lifted weights before, you may see some initial muscle gain and you will definitely see strength gains, especially the first 3-4 months as your body adapts to strength training. Eventually, however, your strength gains will stall as your body won’t have the nutrients to add more muscle (which means more strength).

This is good if you fight at a certain weight class but just want to increase your maximum strength without the associated weight gain. Once your maximum strength is up, you can train for more explosive power. This is probably idea for someone who fights and you are happy at your current weight.

Calorie Deficit: If you eat less than you burn, you are on a calorie deficit. Strength training can be challenging while on a deficit because your strength will, for the most part, not improve while on a deficit. You are mainly trying to hold on to your existing strength and muscle while you shed fat. If you cut calories but don’t strength train, your body will shed muscle — this is WHY you want to strength train while on a calorie deficit.

This option is good if you are trying to fight at a lighter weight class. By shedding fat and keeping your strength (and muscle), you improve your fat to muscle ratio and you might not have to cut as much before a fight if you shed BODYFAT as opposed to water weight. This is by far the best way to ‘make’ weight. Losing bodyfat als0 can allow you to reach even lighter weight classes than you normal couch reach by just cutting water weight.

10. Sleep

If you strength train, you need to get your sleep in. It goes without saying that you should have at LEAST 8 hours of sleep a day. Training Muay Thai and Strength Training takes a huge toll on your body and you need sleep to recover. Protein Synthesis (i.e. muscle development) tends to happen at night while you are sleeping, so if you don’t get enough sleep, you wont’ see as many strength gains.

Personally, I’ve tried both methods and I find I can train harder in my Muay Thai sessions if I save deadlifts + squats for the last day of training. Since I ensure I have 1-2 days off from strength training before I do these lifts, my strength is usually not negatively impacted when I do these lifts.

11. Strength Training and Fights

If you are a fighter and strength training is a MEANS to build more powerful strikes and more strength in the clinch, then you are going to have to plan out how long you strength train. Ideally, you should look at strength training as a BLOCK training — you train for 2-4 months with the stated goal of improving your maximum strength X amount, then switch to another style of training as you approach a fight.

If you want to convert your increased strength foundation into FUNCTIONAL explosive power, you are going to have to change your training from Strength Training to Power/Explosive Training. This means you should in fact be doing Power Training or Power Endurance training the last 3 weeks to 6 weeks before a fight and NOT strength training.

If you are strength training only before a fight:

You never want to strength train the week of your fight — it will tax your body, your training will suffer, and you may be tired during the fight. At the very least, you need 7 days between your fight day and your last strength session. You may find that fight training the last couple weeks coming up to the fight is so taxing that strength training sessions might interfere with training. If that’s the case, you may want to look at doing 1 full body session a week rather than 2 – 3, for the last couple weeks leading up to the fight.

Trust me on this, I’ve gone into multiple fights with very little time off from pure strength training and my body and strength took a big hit by the time of the fight because I was so over-trained. You don’t want this to happen to you!

Putting It Together

Strength Training will help you become stronger and this will only benefit your Muay Thai. However, if you want to fully reap the benefits of your increased strength by increasing your explosive power, Strength Training needs to be part of a coordinated Strength and Conditioning plan of which it is only one element. Ideally, after you build up a level of strength you’ve never had before, you will start to train your muscles to be more explosive to reap the benefits of that increased strength in your striking.

I’ll have an follow up article in the future about Explosive Power Training for Muay Thai that will give you some basic guidelines on how to train your Maximal strength for Explosive strength.

As I’ve mentioned in my Will Strength Training Help Your Muay Thai article, just having more strength and explosive power is not enough; you have to have enough energy production  to support a sustained usage of it. If you have powerful striking but a tendency to gas out long before the fight finishes, then this is a serious limiting factor.

This is where the CONDITIONING part of your Strength and Conditioning comes into play. We’ve talked about the Strength part of it (and there is still more to cover in regards to building explosive strength and power endurance), but your conditioning plays JUST (and I’d say even more) important a role in allowing you to continually tap into that power and strength for all 5 rounds of a fight!

To take full advantage of explosive strength and power in a fight, your neuro-muscular system, your hormonal system, and your cardio vascular systems need a number of biological adaptions to dramatically increase their efficiency as they work together to supply your muscles with enough continuous ATP to support your power output. The better each system is optimized, the better your cardio. And the way to do this is to improve your body’s different energy systems (aerobic, alactic, and lactic systems) to better produce and process ATP.

People like to make out conditioning as a sort of exact science. It is, but it also isn’t! Anyone can improve their conditioning and using a good heart rate monitor, can easily coach themselves and see drastic improvements across the board for all levels of fitness, be it explosive, endurance, power endurance, and more.

Discussing the complex topic that is CONDITIONING is beyond the scope of this article. But fortunately for you, I’ve already written it. So to now read about the conditioning part of the strength and conditioning equation, start here for the first article.

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.

28 Comments

  1. roadtaxmax@hotmail.com'

    Hi Ben,

    I train Muay Thai at a gym here in London but I also now have a good space at home in an outbuilding that I can now construct my own training space and was wondering your input on essentials that I should have in there from your experience. Weight side of things I should have covered as have done a decent amount of resistance training in my time so will be adding squat racks/bench/selection of free weights/chins/dips etc but I was more interested in essentials you would pack in for specific Muay Thai training. The space is roughly 16 ft square so it is a decent size for a small selection of equipment.

    I was thinking two different bags, not sure on size or weight though? Possibly a speed ball the type that are fixed floor to ceiling with elastic about head height to aid speed, looking into the special uppercut wall mounts although never personally used one; also a dummy punch mannequin to practice different height head strikes and accuracy. Wasn’t sure what else would be useful really, I haven’t been Muay Thai training for very long so anything you would think essential and then anything else that would be awesome if I find the space for it would be great. I would like a good home set up to really hone my skills on my days out of the gym.

    Thanks
    Dan

    • Hi Dan, thanks for the comment.

      For Muay Thai you’ll want to put some training mats there (usually made out of foam) so you don’t rip your feet up when you train. These come as interlocked peices (think puzzles) and can easily be left permanently or stowed away when you disassemble them.

      For bags, I recommend a Twins heavy bag which is what we use in Thailand: http://intl.twinsspecial.com/Twins-Filled-Heavy-Bag-Nylon-and-Leather_p_234.html. We use these for kicking and punching (5 rounds x 3 minutes). They are also used to knee after training (200 knees each leg) and teeps (200 teeps, 100 each side).

      NO: The dummy mannequin are good, but I say they are better if you are training boxing, not muay thai.

      NO: Speed bag, don’t bother unless you are training boxing.

      You can have a wall mounted uppercut bag in this style. Quite a few thai gyms in Thailand have this. I personally use this for my boxing combos every few days: http://intl.twinsspecial.com/Twins-Special-Wall-Mounted-Bag-Leather_p_251.html

      If you have space, you might also opt for a long slender heavy bag for leg kicks. Something like this: http://intl.twinsspecial.com/Twins-Filled-Heavy-Bag-Long-Synthetic_p_322.html

      They are often very hard near the bottom and can be used to toughen up your shin to check and give low kicks. It’s hard to do a proper low kick on a regular heavy bag. Between the two, it’s better to have the standard heavy bag over this one. But if you can have two bags, then the low kick back is a very good thing to have.

      Mirrors — make sure you have some big mirrors for shadow boxing.

      Timer — get this so you can set it for 3-5 minutes for round. It will beep when the round ends and you can set it to continue after a 1-2 minute break. Required if you want to keep your training round based, which you should.

      Wrap Machine (wall mounted). Rolling up your wraps is a pain in the ass. Getting a wall mounted wrap roller can save a lot of time. Just get one!

      Optional: Tear Shaped Heavy Bag (http://intl.twinsspecial.com/Twins-Filled-Heavy-Bag-Tear-Drop_p_262.html). These are good for punch combinations and kicking. But I prefer heavy bag for bag work and slender heavy bag for working on low kicks/punches + low kick combos. For boxing only combos, I use the Tear Shaped Bag, but get the other two bags first and only consider this after if you have enough room.
      The above should be enough for a basic home muay thai gym!

      Weight Stuff:

      *Free weight set (for squats and deadlifts and press)
      *Pullup bar (some squat racks have this already) — thai boxers do plenty of pullups. Helps with clinch. You want to make sure you have somewhere to do pullups. And get a weight belt so you can ad weight
      *Kettlebells — I don’t use em personally, but some fighters love em
      Weight with rope attached that you bite and pull up. Works jaw and kneck muscles. ALL thai fighters do this to strengthen neck for clinching and strengthen jaw to take more punches.

      There we go, hope that helps. I might actually write an article about this if there is interest.

  2. leerjp@hotmail.comCDATAfunctiontryvarsaijrclbdocument.getElementsByTagNamescriptlbb.length-1.previou'

    Hi Ben,
    Just wanted say this is a great comprehensive plan for the guys/girls who want to fight and build at the same time. Ive had first-hand experience in Thailand of training muay thai to fight and trying to grow muscle, it’s a hard balance but your post hits the nail on the head.
    Some real value in your content, you should put it in an APP 😉
    Regards,
    Lee

    • Glad you like it mate. Strength Training while training like a fighter is pretty rough; the benefits are there, but it’s a fine balancing act!

      Yea that’s a good idea about the App; I may put some stuff into an Android app later this year!

      Cheers

      Ben

  3. mickdotner@gmail.com'

    Hi Mate,

    Really good article and well explained, im currently following the strength program at 2/3 time a week and am coming to the stage now to change from strength to Power/Explosive Training and wondering if you ever got a chance to do up an article on Power/Explosive Training as i cant seem to find in the site ,if not could you give me some pointers for Power/Explosive Training

    Cheers

    Mick

    • I haven’t specifically written an article yet. But you basically want to have three blocks: Strength, Power, and Power Endurance.

      Here’s an overview. I actually wrote a huge comment that turned into an article, so I’ll post that article about Increasing Power and Power Endurance on the site in a couple days. Each of those topics merit a massive article in their own right.

      STRENGTH BLOCK (3 months to 6 months to 1 year)
      You build up your maximal strength which is the foundation strength. You do heavy compound lifts (deads, squats, shoulder press, bench press, weighted pullups, weighted dips, etc) at 90% of your one rep max for 3 sets of 5 reps with 3 to 5 minute rest periods between each set. You increase weight each week. The stronger you get for your body weight, the more explosive power you can tune later on. This takes time to develop. If you’ve never strength trained, you will see huge gains the first few months. But if you carry on this block for a solid year, you can make very good progress. It’s quite possible to become 40-100+ percent stronger than you were before you started.

      This Block is what my Strength Training 101 and Strength Training for Muay Thai show you how to do.

      POWER BLOCK (2-3 months)
      The Power Block you work on increasing your explosive power (strength with speed). This means Olympic style lifts where you lift heavy weight with explosive speed. The weight is NOT as heavy as in the previous block and the weight exercises can be changed up to suit the goals of this block (lifting heavy weight explosively fast with higher reps).

      Reps are higher around 10-12 with 3 sets. Rest between sets around 3 minutes. The goal is explosive speed with heavy weight with long rest periods in between.

      POWER ENDURANCE BLOCK (1-2 months)
      The Power Endurance Block is where you work on your strength with speed AND endurance. You’ll want to look at doing movements that translate closer to the actual movements done in your sport, to a point. This means some Olympic lifts, Kettle Bell work. Plyometric work can also help. Reps are even higher than the last block (20-30 reps, 3-5 sets) with less weight. Rest is short at around 1-2 minutes between sets. The goal is to increase your overall endurance WHILE doing resistance movements with explosive speed. This is the last block you would have before you have a fight.

      SKILL BLOCK (2 weeks) — IF YOU ARE FIGHTING
      You work on skill training related to your sport a couple weeks before your fight. This means kicks and punches and whatnot, but for maximum endurance with everything simulated as close to your fight rounds as possible. The goal is to tune your power endurance increase into direct skill movements related to your sport — kicking, punching, clinch, etc.

  4. joshyandle@msn.com'

    Great article, any specific tips for strength training while on a calorie deficit? Like would I have to modify any of the things you’ve put in the article for it to be effective?Thanks

    • luka.cubric@gmx.de'

      Maybe I might help you:

      Stick to the Deadlift, Squat Bench and Military Press and for assistance work add a few sets of pullups and/or chins (5×10) and Backraises (5×10).
      Keep trying to build strength (it is possible while losing weight – CNS adaption still takes place) you will eventually plateau but it should take a while and then you can go back to maintenance or a slow bulk.

  5. samui@mnet-online.de'

    Hi Ben,

    very good article on how to implement strength training for muay thai/mma and how to adjust based on the individual needs, available time and goals.

    Beside skill training, conditioning and my job I do have only time for strength training 1x per week.

    You recommend to stick to these basic strength building exercises when time (or fatigue, work load) is an issue (but still want to get the most out of your 1xsession of strength training per week) :
    ◾Squats
    ◾Deadlifts
    ◾Benchpress
    ◾Overhead Press

    I would adjust this template and replace one of the pressing movements with a pulling movement (weighted pull ups, bent over rows, db rows) or at least add a pulling movement between the two pushing movements. Pulling is more important than pushing in MMA/Muay Thai and is often overlooked. Also thaiboxers are using a lot of pushing movements in their fight training itself (bodyweight push ups, punching motion). So this movement gets overused, the pulling movement underused/overlooked. So there needs to be a more balanced approach to this in my opinion.

    What do you think?

    • Hi Alex. Here’s my thoughts:

      The key with these strength training movements is to provide a stimulus you can’t (or some cases, easily) replicate in a skill training environment such as MMA class or a Muay Thai session.

      We are working, here, to improve our Central Nervous System (CNS) connections and increase the length of our muscle fibers when working to build our maximum strength capacity. With something like MMA where you are applying your full strength, more max strength can help — far more than say trying to increase punching power for a sport like Muay Thai.

      Ideally, 3x a week is best for growth, 2x for maintenance, but if you can only dedicate 1x a week, it’s better than nothing and you will definitely see improvements. But you’ll have to do a full body workout.

      Ideally, for 1x a week, I’d just add in something like weighted pull-ups to the 4 workouts listed so it’s 5 workouts. At the cost of another 10 minutes of time, this is worth it.

      Overhead Press I recommend keeping because it utilizes your shoulders, parts of your chest, and your back. Additionally, you can modify the pressing movement to target more muscles. If you turn it into a push press rather than a strict overhead press (i.e. you bend your knees and explode upward to help lift the bar) you can use it to train for more explosive strength/speed AND you work your legs out to boot. The DB rows or bent over rows are fine for supplemental workouts, but you hammer many of the same muscle groups using stiff legged deadlifts.

      And if you are only apply to work out 1x a week, then efficiency is the most important thing here (i.e. you want to get the most bang for your buck, time and energy wise from one workout).

      So long story short: don’t take out the press. Add in weighted pullups. Weighted Pullups + Heavy Deadlifts will work your ‘pulling’ muscles plenty.

      Hope that helps!

      Ben

  6. naqshbandiali@yahoo.co.uk'

    i used to do thai boxing when i was younger so now im reaching 50 can i do a 5 day split weights workout and 10 minutes bagwork afterwards i just want to keep what ive gained in the past

  7. nilesuan@gmail.com'

    Hi Ben,

    I’l planning to do StrongLifts 5×5 (Strength) + HIIT (roadwork for cardio) + Plyo + MuayThai. How do you suggest should I go around scheduling this? Or would this be too much for my body to take?

    Regards,
    Nile

    • The 5×5 program is pretty tiring. I suggest for pure strength you go with a 3×5 instead. The 5×5 AND Muay Thai and HIIT will wear you the fuck out big time over a few weeks.

      I suggest lifting 3x a week, doing the 3x program I talk about on my Strength Training for Muay Thai guide. And for cardio stuff, start with 2-3 times a week slow runs rather than HITT (at least initially) for a few months. See how your body responds. If you can do all of this, up the cardio slowly.

  8. edbiews@gmail.com'

    Hey, are you planning to write a power training article? this is really great but I’m just curious if you’re planning on writing one because I will definately be doing this all the way through and when I’m done it’d be cool if there was a easy little guide on what to do next as opposed to, you know, finding a load of olympic lifts.

    • Hey, look for a bunch of new articles next week about strength training, endurance training, etc.

      I will be expanding this article out somewhat.

      cheers

      Ben

  9. tomcachia@hotmail.com'

    Hey mate,

    Just read this awesome article. I’ve just started training Muay Thai in the past two weeks and I’m wondering if I can take on these training methods straight away. I do have a background of physical fitness, I have just taken 2-3 months off and need to get back into it. Would you recommend using these methods straight away?
    Cheers

    • Hey mate, absolutely. Just keep in mind the first couple weeks are the warm up weeks — you can’t go from zero to hero strength wise after a long layoff of months or years or if you’ve just started to strength train / lift weights for the first time.

      The goal is to start with lower weights and work your way up to your max over a few weeks — roughly two weeks. Then when you find your max at 5 reps (i.e. you can do 3 sets aiming for 5 reps each, but you find your first set is not making it to the 5 reps, you keep the same weight and don’t increase the next week).

      You can’t build the stamina to do all that out of the blue — I find it takes me weeks or even a good month+ to adjust my body to the load after a long break. So keep that in mind — start slow. How long depends on your age, your genetics, how much training you’ve done before. And of course if you are natural or taking something like HGH/steroids.

      If you are doing something like boxing, mma, muay thai, you may find it it will take you a while to build up the stamina to throw on 3x a week lifting and training your sport 4+ times a week and doing conditioning work. There is also the timing for your lifts so they don’t interfere with your sport training. I HIGHLY recommend lifting in the morning, preferably earlier than later so you give yourself the full day to recover (assuming you train in the afternoon). If you try to lift after doing a session of sport, your strength will be down when you lift. If you lift close to before you train your sport, your central nervous system will be fatigued and your stamina for your sport will drop during the session.

      Good luck!

  10. speller.sam@gmail.com'

    Hey Ben,

    Appreciate your time taken to write these articles. This was exactly the kind of info I’m looking for.
    Hard to find decent info from someones who actually has first hand experience at combining weight training with a lot of Muay Thai.

    Do you have any recommendations for training on a caloric deficit for someone trying to lose weight but preserve muscle?

    If I’m training 100% to lose fat and preserve muscle – would a program aimed more at hypertrophy be a better option?

    Eg: Same compound lifts and programming you’ve outlined, but slightly higher rep range (6-10). I find going much heavier with lower reps leaves me exhausted and burnt out combined with muay thai.

    I’m a 30 years old male, 95kgs, 28% BF. I used to walk around at 75 kgs but blown up to 95kg (mostly belly fat) after the last year living in Asia and Thailand.

    I’m coming from a year of no exercise/ bad eating to living at a gym and am training muay thai 4-5 times a week for 1.5 hours with a ~2km run each session.

    Still trying to figure out optimal way to incorporate my weight training.

    Cheers,
    Sam

    I’m currently in Thailand and have a spare 1-2 months to get in shape . I have no goals to fight – just get in shape. I used to walk around at 75kgs but have gone up to 95kg

    • 1) keep protein very high (1.5 grams per kilo of bodyweight) during your calorie deficit

      2) lift HEAVY weights 2-3 times a week with emphasis on compound lifts (deads, squats, bench, press, weighted pullups). Lifting heavy tells your body to KEEP your muscles while you are on a calorie deficeit

      3) the fact that you are 27% BF means you have more flexibility than someone who is leaner (under 15 percent BF) when cutting weight. You should be able to drop mostly fat with no muscle lose (provided you lift weights while you do your cut) until you are much lower bodyfat. Likely to about 15 percent. This varies but I’ve found personally I don’t lose much strength or any until dropping below 12 percent. This may be different for you, but I don’t think you have much to worry here about losing strength.

      4) try intermittent fasting. This diet can provided some metabolic advantages when you cut that can help preserve your strength even until you get to low body fat levels. IN my case, I lost almost no strength when I cut from 16 percent body fat to 10 percent bodyfat while on IF.

      5) make sure you get plenty of sleep

      6) if you are cross training with Muay Thai and doing something like 5-6 times training a week or twice a day sessions for 4 or more days per week in addition to strength training, you may want to look at lowering your calorie deficit. Typically most people cut around -500 calories a day to lose 1 pound of fat a week (this is not precise but it’s the rule of thumb). However if you are doing a lot of cardio on top of your caloric deficit via diet and you are lifting weights, you do need enough calories to power your body through all this activity. Dropping your calories can drop your energy levels. Lowing your deficit to about 200-300 instead of -500, can give you more energy to train while still allowing you to cut weight, though a little slower.

      There you go! Some tips to help with your cutting. Good luck!

      Ben

  11. Markusbackvall@hotmail.com'

    Hello ben!

    I am at the moment doing Muay Thai 3-5 times a week.
    and are going to workout with your routine twice a week.
    I was just wondering why I should do 3-5 reps with 5 sets? instead of perhaps 12×3 that you do in bodybuilding?

    and should I be doing it with lights weights that I can handle?
    so I don’t get too sore and slow in the MT?

    Regards Markus

    • The reason why you do the lower reps is that lower reps + heavier weight builds strength. The bodybuilding reps (12×3 as you say) work on hypertrophy — building muscle size (actually, allowing your muscles to hold more fluid).

      For sports performance, you need to train for strength, not muscle size (building muscle size does not necessary make you actually stronger).

      A lot of the adaptions developed from strength training can help your performance in sports (better muscle control, longer slow twitch (aerobic muscle fibers) which the extra surface area of fiber can help your muscles better handle more oxygen, etc. And then there is the benefit of actually being stronger, which means you have a higher potential threshold to produce force with your muscles.

      Normally, if you ONLY strength train, you would do something like 3-4 times a week. I suggest the 2x a week if you are doing a sport like Muay Thai where you are training at least 4x a week for 2 hours a day. Doing too much strength training will interfere with your Muay Thai performance (you’ll feel sore, lack endurance sometimes). Your CNS (central nervous system) gets fried from strength training, which can interfere with your sports performance.

      There’s a lot of variability of course — how new you are to training, how much work ability your body has, your age, your diet, etc.

      So no, don’t waste your time with light weights. Do proper strength training with heavy weights for 4-6 reps x 3 as outlined. Just do it 2x a week with the sessions spread out so they least impact your MT training.

      Cheers

    • When you do compound exercises like Deadlifts, you work your abs out too. There is no need to specifically train them.

      However, if you are doing a martial art like boxing, MMA or Muay Thai, you can add in some training. I like using a 45lb weight plate and doing various kinds of situps.

      Ben

  12. Lbowen@usc.edu'

    Thank you so much for taking the time to write these articles! Been training twice a day without more than a few days off occasionally for almost 2 years. Body is exhausted, and I came across your articles at the perfect time.

    • Glad you like the posts. Yes, you can’t underestimate how important rest and recovery is. Don’t consider it a break from training, consider it PART of your training plan.

      Cheers

      Ben

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