Muay Thai fighters are known to be very strong for their size but do they typically lift weights? I wanted to know this myself so I researched the internet trying to find out.
Muay Thai fighters are athletes so they lift weights, few Thai fighters lift weights because most Thai gyms lack the equipment, knowledge, and strength trainers compared to the west. Although Thai fighters have started to lift weights as the knowledge and equipment is improving in Thailand.
The myth of lifting weights making you bulky and slow is only true if you train like a bodybuilder and not as an athlete. I will explain how you can use weight training for Muay Thai and if you can build muscle with Muay Thai plus any other questions you might have.
Why Muay Thai Fighters Lift Weights
Muay Thai is over 2000 years old but that doesn’t mean the current understanding of effective weight training and sports training & physiology hasn’t evolved in the last 2000 years!
With Muay Thai and especially in Thailand fighters, are scared of bulking up and becoming slow, the idea is if your a natural 155 pounder and you bulk up using weights to 170 pounds you will become slow and be less effective in that 170-pound weight class than if you never bulked up at all.
However, this is if you train like a traditional bodybuilder like Arnold who’s the main goal was putting as much muscle as possible.
If you train like an athlete with an educated weight lifting program not only your endurance will increase but also your strength and explosiveness, and you don’t even need to put on any weight and stay fighting at your preferred weight class!
Although weight training like an athlete is a fantastic way to bulk up to a weight class, having all your power, endurance, and strength increased.
If you’ve been to Thailand you will notice that the majority of Thai training is spent running, skipping, hitting the bag and pads, and light sparring. However, this isn’t out of choice but more out of ignorance and lack of equipment & c proper coaching to use that equipment.
But, you can see in this blog post by the fantastic Don Heatrick Founder of Heatrick Strength and Conditioning that in some Thailand gyms things are slowly changing.
Yodsanklai Fairtex a prestigious Muay Thai fighter was seen by Heatrick to be using the free weights gym and training with Kettlebells on specific strength and conditioning days, in the well equipt Fairtex gym in Pattaya Thailand.
See one of the best Muay Thai fighters ever Buakaw perform some strength and conditioning in his gym, in the video below.
Unfortunately, Yodsanklai and Buakaw have access to well-equipped gyms with strength and conditioning that most Thai’s just don’t have. Most Muay Thai gyms in the west will have strength and conditioning equipment; it’s just in poorer areas in Asia like Vietnam/Cambodia where there’s a lack of facilities.
To see the progress modern sports science has taken us just take a look at the amazing records broken in the 2016 Rio Olympics(read more here), to see how sports scientists are strength and conditioning coaches are trying to keep breaking the ceiling of human potential.
Here is what Don Heatrick said about strength and conditioning specifically for Muay Thai athletes in his post about Sports Performance Training which you can read via the link.
Remember, if all else is equal, the better-conditioned fighter will win. Muay Thai rewards power and effect, and the rounds are of increasing importance as the fight goes on. Even technically better fighters can easily lose a fight if they haven’t the energy or power to match their opponent in the later rounds.”Don Heatrick
Even if some of the best Thai fighters don’t have a solid strength and conditioning program, imagine how good they would be if they did? Lifting weights is extremely effective for building endurance and power two things that are very important in a Muay Thai fight.
If you struggle to lift your body weight in a Pull-up and can only do around 2-3 reps, compared to someone who can perform 6.8 pull-ups whilst wearing a 40-pound weighted vest, who’s going to be less tired after a heavy 5 round fight with heavy clinching involved?
You can see the very real advantages to strength training as a Muay Thai fighter, and assuming both fighters are equally skilled and mentally strong conditioning very well could be the deciding factor in a fight.
To be a powerful fighter you must be able to generate force quickly. the stronger you are the quicker you can accelerate and create power. Make sure your training focuses on strength into rapid muscle contraction so you can be explosive.
In the gym, you must focus on progressively overloading the muscles(Wikipedia) to cause a change, your muscles will only change via gradual increases of stress caused to the body via weighting lifting.
Make sure you’re challenging your body during weight training, if you can do 3×10 sets of bodyweight pull-ups no problem then to progressively overload you must either increase the reps or add some weight to cause more stress to your muscles; which increases your power via increasing your strength.
For a Muay Thai fighter likely they don’t want to gain excess mass so they stay in their weight class, this is why Muay Thai training should be focussed on the 1-5 rep range as this builds more strength than mass. Pure muscle building training is more between the 8-12 rep range.
To improve strength you need to use your central nervous system, the best way this is achieved is via heavy compound movements from a barbell such a bench, squat, deadlift, row, etc.
According to the strength and conditioning journal for Muay Thai athletes(read here) to achieve maximum strength gains, you must train at 85% of your 1 rep max for less than 6 reps two times a week with roughly 8 sets per muscle group
So if you one rep max of the bench press is 200 pounds, you should be doing a working set of 170 pounds for 3×5 reps with 3-5 minute rest between the sets twice a week, and only hit 8 different sets for your chest per week to just built strength.
If you want more understanding of why 5 reps are the golden standards for strength building, then please watch this video down below.
Sports science will only improve over time as new things are constantly being discovered and old myths being proven wrong. Make sure you keep up to date and don’t get left behind in your Muay Thai training!
Can you Build Muscle With Muay Thai?
Whilst doing Muay Thai is a fantastic workout the training is not the same as weight lifting and it’s not ideal for gaining muscle. Although it does depend as calisthenics(bodyweight training) is a key component in most Muay Thai gyms and can be as good at building muscle as weight training.
However, punching the heavy bag, doing clinch work will gain you some muscle strength training with weights that will be far more effective.
I noticed this myself as when I started Muay Thai I stopped weight training as I thought I would gain muscle during my heavy training. After a few months despite my fitness level improving I realized I looked the same.
It’s only when I started incorporating a weight lifting routine in-combination with my Muay Thai training did I noticed significant muscle gains. Although training Muay Thai while trying to gain muscle brings some difficulties of its own.
The problem that to build muscle you must be in a calorie surplus of around 300-500 calories, read more about the ideal amount of calorie surplus for muscle gain here from JCD fitness. Or if you prefer a video explanation check out the fantastic YouTuber Michael Kory’s video down below.
The typical Muay Thai session will last around 1-2 hours and will burn around 600 calories an hour!
So if your maintenance calories are 2000 and you need 2300 to gain weight and put on muscle, your Muay Thai session online could burn around 900 calories meaning you would need to eat 900 calories to stay the same weight let alone gain!
If you’re burning too many calories and not replacing those burnt calories with food it is very difficult to gain muscle mass, the only way to train Muay Thai and gain muscle whilst weight lifting is to consume more calories and protein than you burn.
How To Build Muscle While Training Muay Thai
Now a professional Muay Thai fighter will focus on strength workouts keeping most reps in the 1-5 range as this gives the most power whilst increasing muscle mass if your eating in a calorie surplus.
For such a program I recommend looking at Don Heatrick’s great strength and conditioning programs designed specifically for Muay Thai which you can access here. I used one of his routines myself and I felt the strength benefits within a couple of months.
For gaining muscle eating more calories and having proper nutrition is most important than the workouts you do, as 80% of your gains whether losing or gaining weight is to do with your diet.
To gain muscle you must be eating more than you consume as well as incorporating strength and conditioning together with your Muay Thai training.
You need good fats, fiber, protein good carbohydrates to ensure your nutrition is the best it can.
Nutrition is a very complicated subject but check out the biggest fitness YouTuber ATHLEAN-X video on general weight gaining tips, and how to gain weight if you’re struggling down below. Remember that nutrition is key!
Tips On Gaining Muscle With Muay Thai
For Muay Thai Training Ensure You Rest And Recover
Recovering from Muay Thai after hitting the pad/pads running and Sparring is hard enough but if you want your muscles to recover and get stronger you must recover from workout especially if your lifting weights as well.
It takes your body 48 hours to recover completely from a workout which is why full-body routines are separated by two full days if you do your strength and conditioning on Monday make sure to wait until at least Wednesday to lift weights again.
Lifting weights and doing Muay Thai is possible but you have to be more intelligent with your training, consider doing your Muay Thai training and weight lifting on the same day, and letting having the next day completely off; experiment with what works for you.
To ensure your training is optimal you must aim for at least eight hours of sleep. Sleep is super important for muscle building(read here on sleep.org) as its when your human growth hormone is released so make sure you get your eight hours so you can recovery optimally!
Don’t Weight Train Straight After Your Muay Thai Sessions!
The majority of your strength training should be done BEFORE you train Muay Thai or at least a couple hours afterward.
Why? To properly stimulate growth and provide stress to the muscles to make them grow your body should be fresh so it can focus all its output on getting stronger and lifting heavier weights.
The problem with doing the reverse is after a 90-minute Muay Thai workout you will be completely fatigued and your muscles will not be in the best condition to be under stress and stimulate new growth.
I’ve done this myself and I promised never again was I was so much weaker than if I trained fresh which makes sense. You might see but Dillon wouldn’t doing Muay Thai after lifting weights be such as bad for you?
No, as Muay Thai and MMA coaches encourage their fighters to do martial art specific training tired as it’s replicating a real fight you should be able to perform all your combat sports movements whilst you’re tired, no one expects you to beat your one-rep max after you just sparred for 1 hour will they?
The ideal situation if you do your strength training in the morning around 9 am and then do your Muay Thai training in the evening.
You want to give the most popular rest between your strength and conditioning and Muay Thai but always do your S&D before your Muay Thai training for maximum muscle gains.
For Muay Thai Muscle Building Always Focus On Compound Exercises
For combat sports, in general, you always want to focus on the big compound movements, as they give you the most bang for your buck I will list the main ones down below.
- Bench press
- Barbell row
- Barbell Squat
- Barbell deadlift
- Barbell overhead press
- Barbell bench flat/incline/decline press
The issue with combat sports athletes is they will train the bro muscles like the biceps by doing reps upon reps of bicep curls, then do their Muay Thai training and they’re muscles don’t recover as the biceps are heavily involved in specific movements like the clinch for example.
Focusing on these big movements just recruit so many more muscles than isolation exercis\es (only one muscle involved) exercises like a bicep curl which results in a lot more muscle gained.
Check out First Strike Athletics video below on what sort of workouts you should be doing for Muay Thai, but really if your routine is focussing on compound movements on rep ranges of 1-5 reps you should be fine assuming you’re giving yourself adequate rest.
You Must Stretch To Recover Properly Between Workouts!
Whenever your lifting weights to build muscle especially if you’re training martial arts, you must stretch after each session for many reasons.
I have a post where I go into a lot more details on Muay Thai specific stretches you can do here but to summarise.
- Stretching reduces the risk of injuries
- Reduces the muscle ache/pain from both Muay Thai training and lifting weights
- It helps you improve your kicking flex-ability to make those head kicks. easier!
I stretch every single day when I wake up and go to bed and find that it’s the best process to make my stretching consistent. However, stretching for 10-15 minutes after every training session will go a LONG way to ensure your recovering properly between workouts.
Imagine if you DON’T stretch you will be that much more fatigued and stiff which will be even worse if you lift weights and train Muay Thai at the same time.
Every muscle in your body is connected with tissue known as fascia but this fascia could be stopping your muscles from growing larger. It’s like putting trying to fit a big backpack into a smaller backpack there is not enough room no matter what.
Stretching your fascia gives more space for your muscles to grow and get stronger if you want to know more about fascia and why you should stretch to maximize muscle growth then please read this article from stretchcoach.com.
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