I've just started Muay Thai training, and as a strength and conditioning coach a few things have struck me already about the training a lot of fighters put in so I wrote this article.
I don't claim to be anything but a beginner in the fighting world but some of the errors are just basic S&C mistakes which you need to think about!
Hope it helps!
Fighters of all disciplines are a different breed. Whether amateur or pro, it takes something special to drill yourself into the ground in training just to earn the right to face off in the ring with someone who has the sole intention of knocking you out or forcing you to submit.
The dedication is unparalleled, especially in the pro ranks where hours and hours of sparring, strength and conditioning, flexibility and mindset training are required. Ignore any one of these components and it could become the chink in your armour that ultimately determines whether you’re now 10-1-0 or 9-0-1.
Unfortunately, whilst the dedication may be unquestionable, tradition and misguided information often mean parts of the training are.
Here are the five biggest mistakes made by fighters in their strength and conditioning training.
Long, steady-state runs
Gone are the days of fights fought using the Marquess of Queensberry rules which dictated that fights took as long as was required to determine a winner and ‘rounds’ only ended when either man was knocked down. He was given 30 seconds to sort himself out then the fight was restarted. Jack Smith and James Kelly may have gone for 6h 15 minutes, but today’s fighters don’t.
The rules, and consequently the requirements, have changed.
MMA fights currently consist of the longest rounds at 5 minutes. There is no longer a need for extreme endurance at a relatively moderate intensity.
It makes little sense therefore, for fighters to be spending an hour every day, pounding pavements at a moderate intensity over 5-10km. This will serve only to develop the ‘slow-twitch’ muscle fibres of the legs at the expense of the ‘fast twitch’ fibres which are critical for developing power in punches, kicks and knees. The risk of injury also increases.
Obviously the fighter will build cardiovascular strength, but there are much better ways to achieve this.
For example, a combination of hill sprints over 100-200m and interval sessions of 5 x 2.00-3.00 minutes at 85-90% of maximum effort with around 1 minute rest or active recovery (walking or jogging) between intervals, would be much more appropriate for a Muay Thai fighter.
The rest interval is not long enough to fully recover and the heart rate will stay at least as high as that achieved for the duration of a long run developing the cardiovascular strength necessary to last a 5 round fight (many are shorter).
If we were to look at a graph of the heart rate in both runs we would find the maximum heart rate to be much higher in the interval run but the average to be about the same, if not higher in the intervals.
However, the fighter will have also developed the anaerobic capabilities to handle the lack of oxygen associated with the intensity of repeated two minute flat-out bouts in the ring.
Anaerobic exercise develops aerobic capacity but not the other way around.
We must also consider that most fighters maintain a high training volume already. Adding to this unnecessarily is crazy especially when the benefits gained from the training can be achieved with other methods.
Focussing on the working muscles only
Punches require power to be generated by the legs, torso, chest and shoulders.
However, many fighters struggle to improve punching power because they will spend a disproportionate amount of time working with resistance bands, medicine balls and clap push ups to develop power in the chest muscles which accelerate the punch.
Whilst this is clearly a requirement, there is little attention paid to the upper back muscles which act as decelerators to the forward momentum.
Consequently every time the fighter attempts to unleash a bomb of a right hand, their body senses a weakness and an inability to decelerate the arm. The body is always looking to protect itself and will restrict the power that can be generated in the punch because of its awareness that the back isn’t strong enough to decelerate it properly. Unfortunately it doesn’t know that the other man’s jaw is supposed to do this job!
This is an in-built injury prevention mechanism which must be addressed in training.
Spending a little time performing exercises like single arm rows and kettlebell snatches can work wonders for developing punching power, not through direct effects on the working muscles but by ‘releasing the brakes’ imposed on them by the body’s protection systems.
Nobody would slam their foot on the accelerator of a car knowing the brakes don’t work, and neither will a fighter’s body!
The same applies to knees in Muay Thai.
The power from a knee may appear to come from the hip flexor muscles which is true to a certain extent. However, the strength and power in the glutes (buttocks) are also critical.
First, they enable the thrusting of the hips forward into the movement for real damage to be done, and second they act as the opposing muscle to the hip flexors as the back muscles do to the chest.
Take the brakes off and get your butt working for maximum impact! Glute activation exercises, kettlebell swings and snatches, front squats and plyometric split squats should be included in a training program.
Building strength and power but keeping it locked up.
If a fighter has poor flexibility they are not only increasing the risk of injury, but also preventing their abilities from getting out!
Too much running (as mentioned above) and time spent on the heavy bag without sufficient flexibility work, often results in tight hamstrings, rounded shoulders and hips that couldn’t win a hula contest.
Imagine a coiled spring with glue between some of the rings. it’s not going to rebound very fast. That’s the state many fighters find themselves in.
Holding static stretches for 30 seconds is not enough and techniques such as PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) stretching must be employed regularly to not only ‘loosen up’ after a session and return muscle length to normal, but actively improve flexibility.
An example for ‘kick’ fighters would be to go from standing to taking the feet as wide as comfortably possible, making a triangle out of their legs.
Once at this point, contract the inner thigh muscles pushing the insides of the feet into the floor as hard as possible for 6-7 seconds. Release the tension then immediately slide the feet further apart.
Continue repeating the cycle until no further gains can be made then hold the new position for at least a minute to ‘set’ the new muscle length, developing range of motion at the hips.
This method also improves strength by developing the ability to generate strength in extreme range of motions. Anyone who’s ever been submitted in an MMA fight will understand why this is important!
Similar techniques can be used on most muscle groups.
Avoiding strength training altogether
Many fighters (or more often the case, trainers) still have the out-dated belief that strength training results in muscle-bound, inflexible, slow athletes.
This is true when the methods used focus on the bodybuilding protocols of 3 x 10 reps with sub-maximal weights.
The use of power based training which develops the efficiency of the nervous system without building new or larger muscle fibres is absolutely critical to athletes of pretty much every sport.
Some essential exercises for fighters include...
Single arm kettlebell jerks
Jump squats against resistance
Working within a range of 1-3 explosive reps will develop awesome power without unwanted bodyweight, and high rep sets will develop the power endurance required to avoid being a first round, one-hit wonder but go the distance without fading. Again, this is a much more effective and specific way to develop endurance than long runs.
Concentrating on the ‘abs’ and static core movements
Too often fighters will perform hundreds and thousands of crunches each week, maybe paying a little attention to the core muscles with planks and side bridges.
This is a good place to start (apart from the needless crunches) but few understand the need or the methods involved to develop core strength in a dynamic situation as in a bout.
Exercises which require a good deal of body awareness and utilise the whole body will transfer over to the actual art of fighting. Throwing a punch requires the ability to transfer power from the legs, through the hips into the upper body and ultimately into shoulder and arm.
Exercise such as the Get Up, Renegade row, and Windmill are all great examples of core strength being built using the body as an integrated unit.
Medicine ball throws should also be used extensively to build core strength and rotational power simultaneously. Again think specific to fighting. Punches are rarely thrown in a perfectly straight line but with a degree of rotational power to deliver the knock out blow!
Think specifics and you’ll see your performance levels rocket - there’s no point looking like Floyd Mayweather if your abs and core turn into jelly in the ring.
These are some of the biggest mistakes made by fighters in their strength and conditioning training.
Everything in training should be directly correlated to a physiological or technical requirement in the ring and careful attention should be paid to every session to avoid unnecessary volume, stress and time wasting.
All of this becomes even more important as an amateur who doesn’t have time for full time training.
Make every second count or you may find yourself facing a ten count.
Edited by Cord (09/03/09 08:25 AM)
Jon, Storm Force Fitness