Conditioning For Muay Thai

December 28, 2020

Road running has a deep-rooted tradition when conditioning for Muay Thai especially in Thailand. Outside of their grueling pad or sparring sessions, it’s onto the road for long hill runs or sprints. This certainly works in Thailand with the vast talent they have.

But those in other parts of the world may want to take a more targeted approach to their conditioning especially if you’re not training full time.

Muay Thai requires large contributions from aerobic and anaerobic lactic processes with bouts being fought at heart rates above the anaerobic threshold. The effort-pause ratio is 2:3 where 9 seconds of high-intensity activity are interspersed with 12 seconds of break.

Unfortunately, the research investigating the conditioning requirements for Muay Thai is scarce. While there are a few studies looking at the demands of a Muay Thai fight, others have had to draw from similar combat sports to make inferences and conclusions.

However, we will focus on the research currently available.

Physiological Profile Of A Muay Thai Fighter

The first study to investigate the physiology of Muay Thai took ten Thai boxers who were regular competitors with 6 competing internationally and 4 competing nationally [1].

These Thai boxers had an average VO2max of 48.5 ml.kg–1min–1 which would be considered quite low compared to other striking combat sports such as amateur boxers and karateka.

However, this may have been due to mixing international and national level Thai boxers but the differences between the levels were not reported.

A later study took twenty Muay Thai fighters where 12 were competing internationally and 8 were competing nationally [2]. These Thai boxers had an average VO2max of 54 ml.kg–1min–1 showing a more well-developed aerobic energy system compared to the previous study.

Unfortunately, that is the extent of the research on the physiological profiles of Muay Thai fighters. Luckily, we can derive more information from the physiological demands of a Muay Thai bout.

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Physiological Demands Of A Muay Thai Fight

Physiological Demands Of A Muay Thai Fight

The first study looked at the demands of a simulated Muay Thai fight [1].  They used the same 3 x 3-minute rounds with a 1-minute break but the rounds were performed on the pads. Each round consisted of 6 attacks and 6 defensive actions with each lasting 15 seconds. These were planned combinations.

They did this so they could have the Muay Thai athlete wear a gas analyzer to accurately measure aerobic contributions during the rounds.

They found VO2 and heart rate were above the anaerobic threshold throughout the whole simulation. The 1 minute recovery period was not enough to recover between rounds. Indicating a large contribution from the anaerobic lactic energy system.

As the rounds progressed, VO2 also increased showing the greater demand on the aerobic processes as the fight progressed.

It’s important to note that in this study, anaerobic threshold occurred at very, very low heart rates averaging 137.5 BPM which would be considered low-level aerobic exercise. This coincides with the lower VO2max seen in these fighters.

This may suggest that the level of conditioning of these Muay Thai fighters was not at a very high level.

The second study on the other hand took blood lactate and heart rate measurements during a real Muay Thai competition [2]. As previously mentioned, these Thai boxers had a better developed aerobic energy system.

They found blood lactate concentration increased with each round but the change in blood lactate between each round decreased as the fight progressed. Indicating that the aerobic processes become more prevalent as the fight progresses.

Like the previous study, heart rate was steadily maintained above the lactate threshold throughout each round. However, heart rate at lactate threshold in these Thai boxers average 168 BPM. Around 30 beats higher than the previous study!

We can conclude that Muay Thai requires high levels of anaerobic and aerobic contributions.

Activity Profile Of A Muay Thai Fight

Muay Thai Fighter Kicking Bag

Only two studies have investigated the activity profile of a Muay Thai fight. The first looked at amateur Muay Thai and categorized each phase of activity as [3]:

  • Observation – periods of little or no activity
  • Preparation – exchanges of blows at low intensity or strikes missing opponent
  • Interaction – high intensity, fast, powerful actions, and combinations.

They found Muay Thai had an effort-pause ratio of 2:3 where 9 seconds of interaction were interspersed with 12 seconds of observation and preparation.

The second study categorised the phases of activity and inactivity differently:

  • Study phase – not engaged in any attack or defense.
  • Distance phase – fighting at a distance including single and combined attacks, and counterattacks.
  • Struggle phase – clinch fighting.

40% of the time was spent in the study phase (inactive), 20% clinching, and the final 40% in the distance phase. Most of the activity at distance consisted of single attacks.

Unfortunately, no effort-pause ratio was determined but taking a 40:60% ratio of pause to effort coincides with the previous research of 2:3.

What Dictates Success In Muay Thai

Women Fighting Muay Thai

Only one study has investigated the differences between winners and losers in Muay Thai [2]. They found that regardless of winning or losing, both fighters displayed the same physiological events of heart rates above anaerobic threshold and high blood lactate concentrations.

They also threw a similar number of attacking actions. However, winners were slightly more effective with their attacks compared to losers. Meaning that winners were not more physically “fit” than the losers, but had a much higher technical proficiency than losers.

This means that performing as much of your extra conditioning training within the sport of Muay Thai is preferable in order to spend more training time perfecting technique.

Conditioning For Muay Thai

With large contributions from the anaerobic lactic and aerobic energy systems, targeting both is of vital importance. Just sparring and roadwork won’t do the trick, unfortunately. Taking a more targeted approach can level up your Muay Thai conditioning.

Aerobic Capacity For Muay Thai

Aerobic Conditioning For Muay Thai

Cardiac Output

Cardiac output, aka long-duration, steady-state cardio, is often seen in a bad light. For example, an older study suggests that running is detrimental to Muay Thai performance because of its adaptations to the aerobic energy system [4].

I would strongly disagree with the idea that aerobic adaptations are detrimental. While aerobic adaptations oppose anaerobic adaptations, we know that high-intensity activity is underpinned by aerobic development.

Further, if targeting the aerobic energy system is out of the question, then extra conditioning will be solely targeted towards anaerobic energy system development. Training at constantly high blood lactate concentrations is not only hugely fatiguing, but the improvements start to slow down very quickly.

Lastly, as a Muay Thai fight progresses, the contribution from the aerobic processes increases.

With these points in mind, I would not avoid performing extra conditioning emphasizing the aerobic energy system. But I wouldn’t use traditional cardio methods such as running. I prefer to use Muay Thai training due to the fact winners and losers are separated by technical proficiency.

Cardiac output should be performed with heart rates between 130-150 BPM using a heart rate monitor. Ideally, a chest strap monitor. I recommend the Polar H10 (link to Amazon) as it’s accurate and the best price. I still have the older model of this and works great.

This is a great example of how you can use the clinch as a ‘flow’ in order to drill the highly technical elements of the clinch while targeting the aerobic energy system. Not to mention the added benefit of conditioning the body to various blows.

Due to the low-intensity nature, it can be performed often and for long durations. It can even be placed within an aerobic capacity circuit along with skipping and shadowboxing.

This is an amazing example of how to use ‘flow’ as a way to develop aerobic conditioning and reap the benefits of sparring. Develop timing, technical proficiency, and agility while improving aerobic capacity.

This kind of sparring can be done every day if you want to. Same thing as the clinch fighting above, you can put this into an aerobic training circuit with skipping, shadowboxing, or even alternating with flow clinching!

Your circuit could look like this:

ExercTime
Flow Sparring10 minutes
Flow Clinch5 minutes
Skipping5 minutes
Flow Sparring10 minutes
Flow Clinch5 minutes
Skipping5 minutes

That’s 40 minutes of high quality of work with 30 minutes specifically using Muay Thai techniques. No need to run the roads!

If you don’t have a partner, you can perform similar circuits using shadowboxing, bag work, medicine ball throws, and skipping.

Cardiac Power

Because Muay Thai is fought at such consistently high heart rates, we need to improve the heart’s ability to resist fatigue when working so hard. These would be best performed on the heavy bag with high-intensity combinations keeping the heart rate as high as possible throughout each rep.

Here is a simple 4 week progression:

WeekExerciseSet/RepRest
Week 1Muay Thai Drills4 x 90 sec2-5 min or HR between 120-130 BPM
Week 2OR6 x 90 sec2-5 min or HR between 120-130 BPM
Week 3Off-Feet Cardio8 x 90 sec2-5 min or HR between 120-130 BPM
Week 410 x 90 sec2-5 min or HR between 120-130 BPM

Threshold Training

As heart rates remain above the anaerobic threshold throughout a Muay Thai fight, the further we can move the anaerobic threshold to higher heart rates, the less involved the anaerobic lactic energy system will need to be increasing the time to fatigue.

As mentioned earlier in the article, one study had Thai boxers with heart rates of 137 BPM at the anaerobic threshold while another group reached 168 BPM. The first group would dip into their anaerobic energy stores much earlier than the second group potentially gassing out earlier.

Performing threshold training can shift the point in which the anaerobic threshold occurs to higher heart rates delaying the time until the aerobic processes shift to predominately anaerobic processes.

Lactate Threshold Heart Rate
Courtesy of Sportstracks.com

Generally, the anaerobic threshold sits between 160-170 BPM so keeping your heart rate between those ranges is important if you are not able to test it.

Here is an example 4 week progression you can use:

WeekExerciseSet/RepRest
Week 1Muay Thai Drills3 x 3 minutes2-3 min or HR between 120-130 BPM
Week 2OR4 x 3 minutes2-3 min or HR between 120-130 BPM
Week 3Off-Feet Cardio5 x 3 minutes2-3 min or HR between 120-130 BPM
Week 43 x 5 minutes2-3 min or HR between 120-130 BPM

Anaerobic Power & Capacity For Muay Thai

Lactic Capacity Intervals

Buffering (removing) the by-products due to anaerobic metabolism is an important feature to delay the onset of fatigue. Ideally, perform these intervals on a heavy bag. If your training volume is very high, then you can use off-feet cardio equipment.

Each interval should not be maximal, but near maximal. You should be able to maintain the intensity for each interval without losing intensity.

Here is an example 4 week progression:

WeekExerciseSet/RepRest
Week 1Muay Thai Drills2x (2 x 90 sec/120 sec)6-8 min active recovery
Week 2OR2x (3 x 90 sec/120 sec)6-8 min active recovery
Week 3Off-Feet Cardio3x (2 x 90 sec/120 sec)6-8 min active recovery
Week 43x (3 x 90 sec/120 sec)6-8 min active recovery

Lactic Power Intervals

This is where you can throw your power combinations. Lactic power should be performed, like all other modalities, using Muay Thai techniques. Adaptations happen in the working muscles of the movements. So if you perform lactic power intervals on a stationary bike, adaptations will occur in the legs and not the upper body.

Increasing lactic power will increase the rate at which you can generate energy for your muscles to use. Each interval must be maximal.

Here is a 4 week progression:

WeekExerciseSet/RepRest
Week 1Muay Thai Drills2x (3 x 20 sec/120 sec)8-15 min active recovery (shadowboxing)
Week 2OR3x (3 x 20 sec/120 sec)8-15 min active recovery (shadowboxing)
Week 3Off-Feet Cardio3x (2 x 20 sec/90 sec)8-15 min active recovery (shadowboxing)
Week 43x (3 x 20 sec/90 sec)8-15 min active recovery (shadowboxing)

Alactic Power & Capacity

No study to date has investigated alactic contributions to Muay Thai. Based on other striking research in boxing, we can assume that alactic contributions would be great due to the speed and power of various kicking combinations.

Alactic Power

Alactic power will primarily be developed through Muay Thai training itself throwing power combinations with plenty of rest. It will also be supplemented by getting stronger and faster in the gym.

Alactic Capacity

When further away from a fight, you may use alactic capacity protocols using various ballistic exercise variations such as jumps squats, or explosive push-ups.

Here is a 4 week progression:

WeekExerciseSet/RepRest
Week 1Muay Thai Drills10 x 10 sec/20 sec
Week 2OR Explosive Push-up2x (8 x 10 sec/20 sec)8-10 min active recovery (light shadowboxing)
Week 3OR Split Squat Jump2x (10 x 10 sec/20 sec)8-10 min active recovery (light shadowboxing)
Week 43x (8 x 10 sec/20 sec)8-10 min active recovery (light shadowboxing)

Specific Muay Thai Intervals

Unfortunately, no study has given ranges regarding the duration of high-intensity efforts and pauses so providing general guidelines for worst-case scenario training is impossible. However, you could determine this yourself by watching footage of yourself or your competition fighting.

Instead, specific Muay Thai work intervals can be used on the bag or pads of 9 seconds high intensity striking with 12 seconds of observation or study.

Perform approximately 9 intervals to replicate a 3 minute round.

References

1. Crisafulli, A., Vitelli, S., Cappai, I., Milia, R., Tocco, F., Melis, F., & Concu, A. (2009). Physiological responses and energy cost during a simulation of a Muay Thai boxing match. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism34(2), 143-150.

2. Cappai, I., Pierantozzi, E., Tam, E., Tocco, F., Angius, L., Milia, R., … & Crisafulli, A. (2012). Physiological responses and match analysis of Muay Thai fighting. International Journal of Performance Analysis in Sport12(3), 507-516.

3. Silva, J. J. R., Del Vecchio, F. B., Picanço, L. M., Takito, M. Y., & Franchini, E. (2011). Time-motion analysis in Muay-Thai and kick-boxing amateur matches. Journal of Human Sport and Exercise6(3), 490-496.

4. Turner, A. N. (2009). Strength and conditioning for Muay Thai athletes. Strength & Conditioning Journal31(6), 78-92.

About the author 

James de Lacey

I am a professional strength & conditioning coach that works with professional and international level teams and athletes. I am a published scientific researcher and have completed my Masters in Sport & Exercise Science. I've combined my knowledge of research and experience to bring you the most practical bites to be applied to your combat training.


Tags

muay thai


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