I’ve been asked about the best weight training exercises for Muay Thai students who want to build strength, power and maybe have their sights set on entering the ring at some point.
This article is geared towards beginners and advanced practitioners of the art of Muay Thai. Fighters should get a specialized program from an experienced trainer.
Before we get down to the nitty-gritty, we should establish some guiding principles and understand some key concepts.
Resistance/weight training is in direct conflict with Muay Thai itself. Weight training is an anabolic (muscle-building) activity, focused on building muscle relatively quickly. Whereas, Muay Thai is more of an endurance game. It falls under the umbrella of cardio. And cardio is primarily catabolic. Catabolic means that it breaks down molecules. This includes fat AND muscle. This would explain why most of the top Muay Thai fighters you see are fairly lean. The good news is, however, that muscle size is not the only indicator of strength.
The Perfect Routine. You caught me. There’s no such thing as perfect. But, there is a specific set of protocols you should develop to capitalize on your strength-building efforts. This may sound pretty basic, but I know people don’t do this, I’m telling you. If you follow these three simple rules, you will be better for it. Modifications may be needed based on how much time you have (I assumed you have about an hour and a half, 1-3 times a week).
1) Warm-up – The purpose of the warm-up is to get your body ready for the intense work you are about to engage in. Here, you will slowly ramp up your heart rate and gently stretch out the muscles you will be using. The warm-up can be broken down into 4 parts.
i) Foam Rolling – If you have a foam roller, make a few passes slowly over each area. You want to get the gastrocnemius/soleus (back of the calf), the iliotibial (IT band), the glutes and the quads since that is primarily what you will be working. The thoracic spine (low-upper back) is always good too. Time: 10 minutes.
ii) Light, General Warm-up – Just to get your heart rate up a bit, you should do a general warm-up: skipping, jumping jacks, stationary bike, Tabata. Time: 5 minutes
iii) Dynamic Warm-up – It’s best to focus on movements that you will be doing in your workout.
The Men’s Fitness Exercise Bible by Sean Hyson has a good routine as follows:
Shoulder Over and Back x 15 reps
Hip Hinge x 15 reps
Overhead Squat (using resistance band) x 10 reps
Side Lunge x 10 reps (per leg)
Bentover YTW x 8 reps (of each)
Cat/Camel x 10 reps
Bird Dog x 10 reps (each side)
Hip Circle x 10 clockwise+10 counterclockwise (each leg)
Groiner x 10 reps (each side)
iv) Dynamic Stretching – stretch whatever areas you feel need it most. Stick to dynamic movements, not static stretches.
2) Core Routine – this is where you get into the main part of your routine which I will discuss below.
3) Cool-down – The cool-down is just as important as the warm-up. As the warm-up was about preparing your body for exercise, the cool-down is all about bringing your heart rate back to a relaxed, pre-workout state. For this portion, you can do light jogging, light skipping or slow dynamic stretching. Time: 5 to 10 minutes
4) Recovery – Most people neglect this part. Proper recovery, of course, depends on how much work you did, but it’s better to over-recover than under-recover. Building muscle or strength is a two step process. Step one involves the actual weight program where your muscles get stretched, torn and pushed to new limits. Step two involves recovery where your body effectively repairs and adapts – taking into account the new limits to which you have pushed it.
For your recovery, you can do several different things. If you have a foam roller, you could go over the areas you just worked. If you go to a gym where they have massage chairs or if you can get an actual massage that would be awesome. If you can afford it, a nap is great too. Time: Your recovery (from resistance training at least) should last 24-48 hours.
Resistance Training Exercises
Aim to train 1-3 times a week. Since you are probably doing regular classes, you would want to be careful not to over-train.
You’ll also find that the bulk of this program is focused on the lower body. In Muay Thai, the power you hope to exert when you punch or kick all originates from the ground.
Keep these points in mind:
Focus on compound lifts – since you won’t be in the weight room that much, it’s best to get the most bang for your buck.
Lift heavy, explode – focus on a controlled tempo.
Use free weights wherever possible – this will build stability.
Here are my recommendations for building power and strength:
- Builds strength of the posterior chain
- Low reps (1-6), long rest (2-3 minutes)
- Front Squats
- Strengthen the lower body while saving the knees and lower back
- Low reps (1-6), long rest (2-3 minutes)
- great for training those major upper body muscles needed to manipulate an opponent’s bodyweight from the clinch
- slow reps, use full ROM (range of motion)
- Alternate these with Pull-Ups
- slow reps, use full ROM
- 3D Cable Crossover (instead of Bench Press)
- work with heavy weight, but save your shoulders
- standing forces stability
- focus on turning your hand all the way over
- until failure, long rest (2-3 minutes)
- Wind Sprints
- good for explosive power
- long rest (2-3 minutes)
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