The Scientific Training for Muay Thai

The art of Muay Thai is steeped in tradition, with its cultural heritage dating back well over two thousand years. The traditions are passed down in a discipleship system, with teachers (kru) selecting worthy students. Unfortunately, this amazing wealth of knowledge isn’t easily available to most Muay Thai enthusiasts. And so, besides trips to Thailand to update ourselves, what else can farangs do to improve our skills?

Well, let’s look towards sports science to see if it offers anything…

A quick biomechanical analysis of Muay Thai allows us to break the complex movement patterns down to specific fitness components that can be readily addressed in training regimes.

Muay Thai Fitness Components:

1. Speed Fitness

Developing fast upper and lower limb movements is of primary importance in catching your opponent unaware, as well as in blocking oncoming onslaughts. Quick acceleration allows rapid limb movements. Agility, on the other hand, is the ability to change direction by accelerating and decelerating. This nimbleness is determined by being both alert, and quick on your feet.

Besides being speedy, the trajectories of your movements determine efficiency and ultimately outcomes of each strike, block or combination. The main idea for each move is to perform it using the shortest path required. Let’s use a straight jab to the head as an example. The idea behind this punch is to strike your opponent with your fist moving in a linear motion (from guard position, mainly horizontally to opponent’s head, and retracing movement back to guard position). The trajectories for most people will not change dramatically with this punch, except in accommodating height differences (see picture 1). In a circular punch, like a left hook to the head, the most efficient trajectory varies according to individual proportions (i.e. the lengths of your upper and lower arms), angular variations and the height difference between you and your opponent.

And so, how does one make movements efficient? Practise, practise, practise… Our neuromuscular systems are primed to remember movement patterns, and after repeating the motions in countless training drills, your muscles and nerves synchronise to produce habitual finely-tuned movements that are easily adaptable to different situations.

Reaction time is something that most of us would have actively focussed on as a vital component of Muay Thai. So much so, that one would naturally think practicing a variety of reactive blocks, counters and combinations would allow a fighter to develop an extensive repertoire, thus reducing the likelihood of having his/her head “caved-in”, to put it technically. However, research has shown that this is not the case. In fact, the more responses or counters you have to a strike (like a punch or kick), the longer it takes react. Hick’s Law (1952) states that for every response choice added, the reaction time doubles.

In a defensive situation, the longer you take to respond, the more likely you will be injured or defeated. And so, having a limited number of well-practised, quickly executed counters and blocks that suit your style, experience and body type is definitely more beneficial in the ring.

2. Strength and Power Fitness

Strength is the major driving force of all your weapons in Muay Thai. Higher force production in your muscles results in higher impact forces. Further, strong core muscle stabilisation allows efficient force transmission through the torso to the limbs.

We know from physics that:

= force x distance / time
= mass x acceleration x distance / tim

So, in order to increase power output, we can address some of its contributing factors. Let’s start with distance. By doing specific stretching exercises, we can increase the distance component in the equation. For example, flexible hip muscles allows for greater distance covered through each kick to impact. Another way to increase distance covered is by using whole body movements.

Reaching, or using your torso in the movement to maximize the distance to impact achieves this. Taking a right hand to the head in an orthodox stance as an example, what we want to do is use rotation of the hind foot, pivoting of the back hip forward, and sliding of the shoulder blades forward, off the torso to extend the distance travelled by your fist from guard position to impact.

We can directly increase power by training to improve force output by sports specific resistance training. This type of advanced gym training involves mimicking the key moves your weapons perform in executing a strike against your opponent. This complex method of resistance training is only recommended for the conditioned gym-savvy amongst us or with the assistance of a strength and conditioning coach.

A simple example of this is doing descending pyramid (increases in weight lifted, with corresponding decreases in repetitions) sets of chest presses. The movement pattern in your upper limbs is similar to the action required in straight punching. The closer you can adapt your resistance training to the movements of Muay Thai, the more cross-over training effect you will benefit from.

Besides developing strength in your prime movers (limbs), an equally important area to train is rotational strength. Core training has become the buzz word in fitness the last few years. Why bother? Well, simply because having strong stabilising muscles enables you to transfer more force through your weapons. Let’s have a look at the example of throwing a right hand to the head in an orthodox stance again.

If our torsos are weak, all the force from the brilliantly coordinated lower limb pivots and pelvic rotations would be dispersed through the torso, producing unwanted torso movements and associated loss of force production at impact (see picture 3). Strong core muscles help increase the force at impact by channelling the forces through the body with minimal wastage. Core muscle training involves low load, prolonged stress (endurance) exercises performed in a slow, controlled manner. Muay Thai-specific exercises involve torso rotations, rotator cuff strengthening exercises and endurance work for the corset-forming oblique abdominal muscles.

3. Metabolic Fitness

Anaerobic power or muscular endurance is the maintenance of power with intermittent varied effort and recovery time (series of movements and diminishing returns). Aerobic capacity or cardiovascular endurance is the resistance of fatigue for greater than approximately 20 minutes. Muay Thai fighters know that they are dependent on both these types of fitness to be competitive in the ring.

We use three different types of energy systems to produce movements: the anaerobic direct phosphogen system with creatine phosphate, the anaerobic glycolytic system which produces lactic acid (both fast twitch), and the slower twitch aerobic respiration (see figure 1). Besides being more than a mouthful, an understanding of these systems allows us to develop a conditioning programme that mimics the demands on the Muay Thai fighter’s body in the ring. In an ideal situation, the Muay Thai fighter should be primed to last the distance of a fight without sacrificing high-speed movements, high force production and power.

This translates directly to Muay Thai training, for the harder and faster you work (generally), the more anaerobic the activity becomes. So, high intensity interval training, like sprint training is useful in developing anaerobic fitness. We should be cautious about the amount of aerobic (cardiovascular) training in the lead up to a fight, as this develops the slow twitch muscle fibres, which is counterproductive in the development of speed.

4. Skill

Besides specific training methods to improve the abovementioned fitness components, we can also develop the consistency and repeatability of movements. To progress in skill, a fighter needs to work on proprioception or joint position sense. Dynamic and static balance work and focussed practice of combinations will also train your neuromuscular system. These, along with coordination exercises and reaction time practice especially at the end of each training session (when you’re reasonably tired) force the body to attend to these complex tasks in a situation that imitates fight conditions.

Now that we’ve covered specific fitness components, other means to improve oneself are: proper nutrition, periodized to suit training and planning a good strategy. Outwitting your opponent and picking strategic targets are an essential part of dominating a fight. Also, good communication with your corner man is a much neglected ability.

And so, I’m sure you’ll agree that there’s quite a bit of scientifically sound Muay Thai training that can be done to improve oneself. Incorporating these training guidelines in your routine will certainly take you a considerable distance on the road to becoming a champion. Written by: Julie Ann Netto BSc (OT); MSc (Human Movement – Biomechanics)

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