We’ve looked specifically at HOW the body’s energy systems work at the cellular level and how to stimulate adaptions to improve oxygen supply and utilization which improves your overall aerobic conditioning.
Quite a lot of this is fancy pancy sport science that breaks everything down exactly and comes up with fancy names for simple exercises athletes have been performing for thousands of years.
But as we are talking about Traditional Muay Thai and how to improve your conditioning, we should look at how the Thai’s do conditioning work in their own traditional training regimen. After all, Thais are the best in the world at Muay Thai, and it makes sense to look at how the best train to be the best and stay the best.
It’s good to have an understanding WHY some of the traditional Thai-boxing training methods can be so effective because there’s a big discrepancy in the West when it comes to training methods for Thai boxing, MMA, Kickboxing, and how training and conditioning work is done in Thailand proper.
You’ll often go to a traditional Thai boxing gym — in Thailand or in the West — and people there may scoff when you mention strength & conditioning and tell you ‘there’s no need to lift weights for Muay Thai‘ or ‘Thai’s don’t do any modern strength & conditioning training’ so it’s unnecessary for me to do so either.
But actually, as I will show you, Thai’s ARE doing SOME of the KEY modern conditioning work done in the west, but they just are not calling it by any fancy name nor do they have any real understanding WHY and HOW these methods are so effective.
If you’ve ever come to Thailand to train, you’ll quickly see most of the Thai gyms around are the old school type and have no clue about strength training & conditioning or any sort of modern sports science training methods now utilized in the west for pretty much every sport now.
They simply do what they’ve always been doing for decades: basic conditioning like long runs, and hard training sessions twice a day.
What’s interesting is that when you look at exactly how the Thai’s train, you’ll see they actually are targeting exactly some of these training protocols we’ve talked about.
Warning: If this article makes no sense to you at all (and you don’t know basic strength & conditioning terminology such as the Aerobic energy system, Anaerobic Energy systems, Anaerobic Threshold, VO2 Max or have no clue how to train for aerobic fitness), then you better go back and read my other articles I linked to because you probably won’t have a clue what’s going on here.
The Energy Requirements of Muay Thai
If you’ve ever watched some of the top fighters fight in Lumpinee or Rachadermern stadiums, you’ll notice that some of the fighters can and do go from round 1 to round 5 with incredible stamina.
Look at this Muay Thai fight and see just how demanding a pace a proper match at the highest levels can be:
Thai-style fights have a different pacing than MMA, boxing, kickboxing (or even Muay Thai matches outside of Thailand) but that still doesn’t take away from the heavy conditioning demands required by a Muay Thai fight that goes the distance. Muay Thai has its own unique pace and stamina requirements that are separate from the other combat sports — and to meet those specific demands, you have to train specifically for those demands.
Thai boxers use their entire body during the fight with the fight pace somewhere between a boxing match, kickboxing match, and a standing wrestling match (the clinch work which often takes up the last two rounds of a fight).
While you may not need the explosive endurance required for a non-stop MMA match with the stand-up striking, the explosive take downs, and high-paced ground control, you still need some explosive endurance in Muay Thai with the intense clinching that can last for rounds at a time.
You may not need the huge reservoirs of long duration stamina that boxers who go for 12, three-minute rounds require, but you still need enough to last your 5 rounds — and you have the added requirement of kicking and real clinch work (not the hold and stall technique boxers call a clinch).
Typical Thai-style Training Regimen
Here’s the typical traditional Thailand-style Muay Thai fighter training routine performed 6 days a week.
Morning (usually a lighter workout)
- 6:30-7:45 AM: Long slow run (10-14 km)
- 7:30-7:45: stretching
- 7:45-8: AM: Shadow Boxing
- 8:00 – 8:20: Heavy Bag Work (3-minute rounds, 1-minute break)
- 8:20 – 9:00: Pad Word (5-7, 3 – 5-minute rounds, 1-minute break, each round begins (or ends) with 1 – 2 minutes of explosive repetitive kicking — either 50 or 100 kicks each leg)
- 9:00-9:20: clinch work for 20 minutes (light or hard)
- 9:20-9:9:40: Conditioning Work on Bag — 500 knees, 500 teeps,
- 3:30-4:00 5km run or 30 minutes of skipping rope
- 4-4:15: stretching
- 4:20-30-shadow boxing
- 430-450: Heavy Bag Work 8:00 – 8:20: (FIVE, 3-minute rounds, 1-minute break)
- 4:50-5:10: Pad Work (5-7, 3 – 5-minute rounds, 1-minute break, each round begins (or ends) with 1 – 2 minutes of explosive repetitive kicking — either 50 or 100 kicks each leg)
- 5:10 – 530: Sparring (5 rounds, 3 minutes per round, 1-minute break)
- 5:30-600: Clinching
- 6-6:15: Conditioning Work (500 knees, 500 teeps, Pullups, weighted neck raises)
Traditional Thai Aerobic-Based Training
If you look at the way Thais train in Thailand, you can see they actually do many of the specific aerobic training protocols discussed in the Aerobic Training Guide.
Cardiac Output Training Work
Cardiac Output Training: this is slow steady state cardio that focuses on long duration uninterrupted cardio work at a slower heart rate. The focus is on building up your overall aerobic stamina by increasing your heart stroke volume (amount of blood pumped per each beat) and improving your body’s blood transport systems (more efficient capillary networks for blood transport, lung efficiency, etc).
Read my comprehensive FREE guide to Cardiac Output Aerobic Training
Example of Thai Fighters Doing Cardiac Output Training Work
The traditional Thai conditioning regimen involves running — a lot and lot of running. Typically Thai boxers run 6 days a week anywhere from 7 to 15 km a day (sometimes in one long session that’s 45 minutes to an hour, or a long morning run session and a short afternoon run).
The running pace is NOT fast, but rather a slow measured jog for long periods of time. Now, this pace, of course, can differ depending on the person, the gym, etc. But it had been my observations, having lived an trained (and occasionally fought) in Thailand for over about years now, that the running pace done is very much following the Cardiac Output training model.
Again, a disclaimer — there is, of course, a lot of variation. So I certainly cannot say every gym and every Thai boxer runs at a slow, steady rate. But if you ask around — or if you’ve ever joined Thai’s for their long runs — you’ll find most Thai’s do not put a heavy emphasis on running for speed, but rather just a slow pace for distance for long durations.
Thai’s do NOT use a heart rate monitor but given the pace that’s usually kept, the heart rate is about 130 – 140 bpm — exactly along the lines of the Cardiac Stroke Volume training protocols in which:
a) steady state cardio is done for periods of 30 minutes to 90 minutes
b) heart rate is kept about 60-70 percent of maximal — between 130-155 bpm
How do I know this? I’ve gone running with Thai boxers many times while having a heart rate monitor on to track my own heart rate during the run. The heart rate pace was about 130-140 bpm for most of the runs. Now also if you’ve ever done slow steady cardio work for aerobic fitness, you’ll also have a pretty good ‘feeling’ for when your heart beat and work pace is keeping thins in the aerobic zone — even without a hear rate monitor on.
Training with this time duration at this heart rate pushes specific heart adaptions in a certain direction: the heart’s left ventricle increases in size so MORE blood can be held in the heart chamber which increases the heart stroke volume (more blood held in heart chamber per beat means more blood can be pumped per beat). This is called eccentric hypertrophy.
Note: If you see the two images I’ve attached to the left, you’ll see the images of the heart chamber for different hearts. Of note here are the pictures showing the heart chamber in someone with eccentric hypertrophy adaptions. This is where the heart chamber expands in capacity (called Eccentric Hypertrophy) over time from holding blood in it for long durations (as heart beats go) over time.
More blood pumped per beat means more oxygen to the muscles which means more ATP can be produced by the muscle fibers = more recover, more stamina, more overall fitness.
Thai boxers doing this 6 times a week, day, day out, for years, and build up an incredible aerobic foundation base. And, if you’ve read my previous article, you know that having a strong aerobic energy system is the base on which all the other two energy systems (lactic system and alactic system) rely upon.
Having a strong aerobic system means you can train your other short duration, more explosive energy systems to be even MORE efficient and productive.
This sort of long duration slow steady state cardio work is called Stroke Volume Training / Cardiac Output Training which expands the heart chamber capacity, increasing stroke volume.
Because of this heavy emphasis on lots of long slow steady state cardio in the form of running for years and years on end, Thai boxers have a very strong aerobic base fitness — something often lacking in MANY other combat athletes types who seem mostly to train primarily for short term explosive endurance though alactic training methods (sprint work, circuit work, HIIT stuff, etc) and don’t put in the hard and long time required by steady state cardio to build up their aerobic system properly.
The problem many people have with long, steady state aerobic fitness training is that it takes a lot of time. People want to do a balls-to-the-wall circuit or interval training session for 15-20 minutes, then go home and watch an episode of South Park. They don’t want to strap on a pair a pair of still-sweaty running shoes, then go hit the pavement for 45 minutes, 60 minutes, or 90 minutes. And they certainly don’t want to do this 2,3,4 times a week.
The problem with High-Intensity Interval training work is that you can’t stimulate the same beneficial physiological adaptions that consistent Long Slow Distance work (also called LSD / Road Work / Steady State Cardio) results in.
Basically, there is no shortcut to long duration slow cardio work by substituting it with high-intensity training – no matter how many intervals you do, what types of exercises you do, or how hard you do them. High-Intensity Interval Work just doesn’t target those adaptions that Steady State Cardio do. This is something the HIIT/Interval Training lovers simply don’t understand.
When it comes to Slow Steady State Cardio and the adaptions this type of training brings to your body — the improvements to your aerobic metabolic system it makes –you’ve got to put in the time, OVER time, or you don’t get those adaptions! And, people — being time limited or lazy — don’t like putting in that length of time per day that’s required.
Cardiac Power Training
Cardiac Power Training works on increasing your VO2 MAX which is the body’s total ability to produce and utilize oxygen. This is accomplished by a) increasing the heart’s ability to push more O2, b) increasing muscles ability to better absorb oxygen and more efficiently supplying ATP
Read my comprehensive FREE guide to Cardiac Power Training
Examples of Thai’s Doing Cardiac Power Training…
1. End-of-Round Pad Kicks: 50-100 kicks with each leg
If you watch a traditional Thai training session, you will notice that at the beginning or end of each round (sometimes starting round 3, sometimes every round), the Thai’s will rapidly kick the pads on each leg for intervals of either 50 to 100 kicks each leg without a break. This takes anywhere from 60 seconds to two minutes to complete with the heart rate likely near maximum rate. If a round is a strict three minutes, this is a 60-second interval followed by a one minute break and 2 more minutes of lower intensity pad work.
Now, granted, there is a LOT of flexibility here on exactly how this power training work is handled depending on the fighter and the trainer’s regiment. But you will notice in pretty much every Thai gym, fighters are forced to crank out 1-2 minutes of non-stop kicks at full power at the beginning or end of each round (or once or twice per 5 rounds). This fulfills the cardiac power requirements of
a) max intensity for 1-2 minute durations
b) recovery period of 1-3 minutes before beginning repeating that interval heart-rate intensity at duration again
Roughly, this could be considered a form of Cardiac Power Interval training with max intensity training then lower intensity training, then a break, then a repeat. Now there is a lot of variation when it comes to Cardiac Power training both in intensity, duration, and recovery time between intervals.
Typically, though, Cardiac Power Training requires a max effort for 1-2 minute intervals followed by a longer recover period between 1 to 2 minutes before a repeat.
2. Clinch Work Power Training
Thai’s often do clinch work at the end of the training session. This is intensive and usually, requires near maximal intensity. If there’s an upcoming fight, the clinching sessions are even more intensive with 2 or 3 other fighters taking turns waiting on the ropes and switching in as a fresh clinching partner. The forces the Thai boxer to be put a near maximal intensity effort for long durations — a form of VO2 max training.
The Thai’s are, unknowingly doing Cardiac Power Training Intervals. This helps build up the heart contractile properties so it can pump harder and for longer duration without fatiguing.
Here’s an example of a traditional Thai (Pakorn in this case, the fighter in the Muay Thai fight above) clinching session:
Anaerobic Threshold Training
Aerobic threshold training works on raising your lactate threshold level — the border heart-rate at which your body moves from (mostly) aerobic energy (energy produced with oxygen) into the anaerobic energy systems (energy produced without oxygen). Increasing Anaerobic threshold means you increase your rate of ATP energy supply while using the aerobic system. This means you can do more work at a higher pace without getting tired.
Read my comprehensive FREE guide to Anaerobic Threshold Training
An example of Thai’s Doing Anaerobic Threshold Training…
Based on my anecdotal observations, I would say Thai boxers hitting pads could be considered a form of Anaerobic Threshold Training.
Typically, Thai’s don’t go all out on the pads for 5 rounds, but rather work on technique with power spread out over 3 minutes. Obviously, there is a great deal of individual variation in how one hits the pads depending on the trainer and personal style.
To keep energy for the entire pad round duration (quite often, Thai trainers won’t follow timed round exactly but use a more holistic approach when holding the pads, with rounds lasting at least 3 minutes and sometimes double or triple this time), many Thai boxers won’t throw full power on the pads for the whole round to conserve energy for the later rounds or for the max effort repeat kicks required at the end of the round.
The Thais, in order to conserve energy, unknowingly try and stay just about the anaerobic threshold line (remember, when the body is unable to produce enough ATP aerobically, it switches to anaerobic energy which lasts at most under 2 minute).
This is basically using skill work in the form of threshold training work (read about this type of training here). Doing this consistently, as Thais do, increases the aerobic threshold level so more energy can be generated aerobically even with higher heart rates.
This is the development of Aerobic power and explains why some Thai boxers are capable of going five very hard rounds without seeming to gas. The explanation is because they have such a strong aerobic base and their aerobic threshold is very high, they are able to utilize aerobic energy for much of the fight.
Here’s a video of a traditional style pad round that lasts about three minutes with the fighter training for power but not at a maximal heart rate:
The Final Word
Although Thai boxers in Thailand don’t usually understand, at a scientific level, how their training is affecting their bodies and their conditioning, they know what methods WORK at a practical level.
Should Thailand Incorporate a More Modern Strength & Conditioning Approach?
Yes, many Strength & Conditioning methods are underutilized in Thailand such as doing Strength Training and tailoring conditioning training to specific forms of anaerobic conditioning work to better target specific weaknesses in a fighter’s conditioning (for example: a fighter with less explosive power training to increase explosive power, a fighter with explosive power but low endurance training to improve endurance, etc).
There’s also a lack of understanding exactly what specific adaptions to train for, how to target them, and how those adaptions work together as a whole to produce a current level of fitness (if you lack in one area — the weak link in your fitness chain — your overall conditioning will lack).
The mentality in Thailand to get fit for a fight is pretty simple:
- go running and
- train harder
Does this work?
To a degree, yes, but it’s shooting a shotgun to hit a small target that much better suited to something more accurate like a rifle.
If you gas out in a fight — or in sparring or during pad rounds or during clinching — most Thai’s will invariably conclude that you were not running enough or training enough and that’s it. To them, it’s a simple problem with a simple solution: run longer and/or train harder.
There is no deeper understanding that a fighter’s fitness and conditioning is far more complex then ‘not running enough’ or not training hard enough — that if you just simply ‘run more’ or ‘train harder’ this is not addressing your biological weaknesses in the various metabolic energy systems / or muscular skeletal system that CAN be improved if you target them specifically with precise training protocols — Precise training that’s a HELL of a lot more specific and detailed than simply ‘running longer or harder’ or ‘hitting the pads with more intensity’ or ‘doing more kicks at the end of the round’.
Do you feel me?
There is certainly a lack on the part of Thai gyms applying conditioning as a specific targeted strategy (other than, go run a lot and up the intensity when training) to their fighters (again, from a lack of scientific understanding and no small amount of hard-hardheadedness about tradition).
Part of the problem here is that most Thai trainers/gyms don’t have the scientific understanding (yet) or educational training programs in place to teach this sort of stuff. Frankly, it’s still all somewhat new even in the West at this point.
So a long answer to a simple but not so simple question:
YES — training and conditioning work for (many) Muay Thai in gyms in Thailand could certainly be optimized with a more science-orientated approach. But, outside of a few more westernized Thai gyms in Thailand, it’s not likely to happen.
For the most part, the Thai-style training works and has been working for generations. You may see some movement on this end with some of the more well known Thai fighters fighting on a more global stage than just in Thailand for the bigger more Westernized gyms. Optimizing the fighter’s conditioning pushes the fighter’s chances of winning higher and the financial benefit of a winning fighter is certainly incentive enough to pursue for gyms with the money and the access to Western methods/training ideas.
But It’s Not All About Your Conditioning
As much as improving your conditioning can make a difference in a fight, let’s also not forget the other vary important variables that are equally (and in some cases MORE) important in affecting the outcome of a fight such as:
1) Fighter’s Skill
2) Fighter’s Timing (ability to apply technique at the right time)
3) Fighter’s Technique (the efficiency of motion)
4 The Fighter’s Heart / Determination / Will (read why having heart is so important)
But. If everything else is equal between two fighters — which it often is — the winner can often come down to who has more stamina and strength during the fight. And this is where having the best Strength & Conditioning training possible can make the difference.
The Final Word
Many of the above methods listed in this article are some of the most effective ways to increase your overall aerobic conditioning.
Muay Thai, with 5 rounds of 3 minutes is often aerobically driven. There are moments of explosive flurries, yes, but quite a lot of a more Thailand-style, technical Muay Thai is driven primarily by the Aerobic system NOT the anaerobic systems.
And as you see in some of my examples above, quite a lot of the Thai conditioning work — both in training and outside of it — works on aerobic adaptions.
Now, do Thai’s do Anaerobic conditioning?
Yes, with some of their skill training, anaerobic systems are worked as well, though not as much as the aerobic systems.
There’s a lot of variation in Thailand as to the specific training and conditioning. Some of the newer more westernized gyms have embraced more modern training sessions and do incorporate a lot more Anaerobic conditioning into their training than do the more traditional and old school gyms who mostly only work pure aerobic training.
What’s interesting to note, though, that training mostly aerobically (long runs slow steady cardio work, anaerobic threshold work though pad rounds and bag work, V02 training work via rapid kicks with lower impact work between), can allow Thai boxers to go hard for 5 rounds with incredible recovery and stamina. These Thai guys are not out there doing fancy special-named HIIT interval work, doing cool explosive plyometrics, or any following specific anaerobic training work that’s so damn popular these days (especially at MMA gyms and Cross Fit style gyms around the world).
Yet, despite this decide lack of focus on anaerobic training, Traditional Thai Boxers can go hard, long, and fast for 5 rounds during a Muay Thai fight.
If you look at any of the old school (western) boxers who did most of their conditioning work aerobically (long skipping sessions, long long long runs 1-2 hours), you’ll also note the same thing: these old school boxing guys could go hard and long for 12 rounds of boxing with incredible stamina, yet, they didn’t spend vast quantities of time training the anaerobic explosive systems that have become the darling of most strength and conditioning training methods pursued by ‘modern fighters.’
So here’s a thought: perhaps, pure aerobic training work combined with the skill training sessions of the sport itself is ENOUGH on its own to get you fit enough to fight — even at the highest levels of the sport. Because, like, Thai’s do it and have been doing it.
Anaerobic training is also important and combined with proper aerobic work that build a strong aerobic fitness base can yield a dramatically more powerful, more explosive fighter with more overall explosive endurance.
But aerobic training IS vital to your overall stamina and fitness. Don’t ignore it to focus only on fancy anaerobic training. Because building a very strong aerobic base is absolutely vital if you want to push your conditioning so you never gas out.