Muay Thai, also known as the art of eight limbs is an ancient combat sport from Thailand. Muay Thai fighters battle it out with their hands, knees, elbows and legs and Muay Thai stands alone as the P4P king of stand up fighting.
The training for Muay Thai is brutal. Fighters continually spar against each other, hit pads and bags, jump rope, jog, sprint, S & C and clinch to get in the best shape possible before they jump in the ring. One element of training that often gets overlooked in the whirlwind of non-stop action is strength training with weights and this is often down to a lack of knowledge. Increasing your overall strength without adding useless muscle is going to benefit your overall performance AND speed so it is surely worth a closer look.
How Muscle Is Built
Muscle is built when we put our bodies true tough challenges that cause the muscle fibres to tear. The body then replenishes these fibrous tissues through the nutrition of our diet and they grow back bigger and stronger, better able to handle that challenge should we meet it again.
When you are new to Muay Thai, your body won’t be used to the movements and these fibres will break down a lot and easily just by hitting the pads and doing circuits. This will cause you to get stronger and maybe even your muscles to grow.
As you go on, the same stimulus wont have the same effect on your body as you have already built an engine strong enough for this exercise and you won’t get stronger or muscle growth from Muay Thai training alone and that is when you need to turn to strength training with weights.
Remember, when you go against an equally skilled fighter, whichever one of you has the physical advantage will win the fight.
The Goal Is Never To Build Muscle For Sports
Many Fighters will shy away from lifting weights because they think it will make them slower.
Weights don’t make you slower, useless bulk and muscle does.
Bodybuilders work in the comfortable ranges from 8 to 12 reps. This is enough to rip the muscle and cause it to grow but it doesn’t cause them to get much stronger once the initial beginner gains are gone and they start to plateaux.
The other key element of building muscle is the diet, bodybuilders have to eat all the time to increase their muscle mass and that is not very useful in a Muay Thai ring. Muay Thai fighters will often be tall and skinny and there is nothing wrong with that.
To increase muscle, we need to be in a caloric surplus, we need to consume more than we burn and to lose weight we need to be in a caloric deficit. It’s very hard to increase muscle and lose fat at the same time if you’re not a beginner.
Newcomers to weightlifting or Muay Thai can build muscle and lose weight at the same time but you will quickly hit the wall and the benefits will stop manifesting after some time. Eventually, whether you gain or lose weight will come down to your diet and how many calories you consume vs how many you burn.
Training For Strength
Increasing your overall strength as many benefits in the ring. Your strikes will have more impact and your opponent’s will have less. You will be stronger in the clinch and you’ll be able to take the Center of the Ring.
Something we often see in boxing for both fighters when they are equally skilled is that one fighters punches have much more of an effect than the other and the stronger guy will quickly start to dominate the fight.
Low Reps & Compound Lifts For Strength Gains
The proper way to increase your strength for fighting is with heavy weights for low reps (Less Than 5) and typically from more sets (5) then you will work bodybuilding.
Five by five is a solid set to rep ratio for increasing strength but you could even use lower reps and increase the weight. For overall strength gains, we want to focus on compound movements. Compound lifts involve more than one muscle group and they allow us to increase our overall strength more effectively.
Key compound lifts
The deadlift strengthens the hamstrings, glutes and lower back. There are plenty of different variations but the most important thing to keep in mind is that you keep your back straight throughout the lift. You can even use a Trap bar to make sure your form is correct.
Squats will work the quads, the glutes and the back. It is one of the best exercises for overall strength. Muay Thai heavily involves the legs so it makes sense the strengthen them as much as you can.
Remember to go heavy but also keep your form correct.
The bench press works the front of the shoulders, chest and the triceps. Benching is perfect for increasing your punching power. Remember to keep the weight heavy and the reps slow for strength.
Pull-ups are the squat of the upper body. They work the lats, back and biceps. There are plenty of different angles you can hit the muscles from. When you get better, you can always add a weight vest to increase the weight and make sure you’re in the lower rep ranges. If you can do more than 5, you are not increasing strength.
Military press or Clean and Press
These are perfect for building your shoulders, use a barbell if you can, try not to use your legs until you’re close to failure and go heavy for 5 sets of 5 reps.
There are plenty of other accessory lifts, good quality lifts and power exercises that we can add to our workout. If you’re looking for some more information, don’t forget to sign up for our strength training for Fighters PDF, for a complete guide.
Rest is key
Strength training should be something that takes 100% of your effort, at the end of the session your glycogen levels will be low so get a protein shake straight after the workout or a smoothie to restore your sugar levels.
Try to strength train early in the morning so you have the rest of the day to recover and get a good night’s sleep so you are ready to go again the next day with 100% Force.
Another difficulty in strength training and Muay Thai is the time constraints. People will either train Muay Thai 5 days a week with all their spare time or if you are in Thailand training Muay Thai twice a day, it’s still hard to fit strength training in.
If training twice a day is not an option, you could consider strength training one day a week or preferably twice. You can cover the full body in 2-days at the gym.
Another option be to strength train in the morning, maybe before work. Eat well straight after the session, rest as much as possible and then train Muay Thai in the evening.
Frequently asked questions
Why are Muay Thai Fighter so skinny?
Not all Muay Thai Fighters are skinny, but it is a game that is suited for tall skinny frames as they can kick higher, knee higher and they have more leverage in the clinch. Muay Thai suits the tall skinny frame to begin with.
Muay Thai burns a ton of calories, so if you are training twice a day and you’re not getting 3000 calories you are probably going to lose weight. I think I lost over 10 kilos when I was in Thailand for a month training twice a day.
Speed kills. By being skinny and light, these fighters can become faster. Being the first to land in this sport can make all the difference. Also, remember that strength training isn’t going to make us bulky so we can be strong as an ox and still look skinny to an onlooker from the outside.
Can you build muscle with Muay Thai
It really depends on how much Muay Thai you’re doing, if you’re training once a week and lifting weights the other 4 days, you can certainly put on muscle. If you’re lifting weights one day and training Muay Thai 4 days, you can probably still put on muscle.
Even if you’re only training Muay Thai, and there is some circuits involved or just a lot of push-ups, squats, pull ups and burpees, you can probably put on some muscle if you make sure you have a protein shake after each session and eat plenty throughout the week.
Being a fighter is difficult, if it was easy, everybody would do it. If you want to compete at the top levels, you can’t ignore strength training with weights.