What’s The Best Conditioning for Fighters… & Fat Loss?

I wrote this article in July of 2010 when it was printed in Caged360, an online publication no longer in operation. I have re-issued it with a few changes and updates here.

Conditioning for Fighters

When I first started fighting 10 years ago I got up every morning and ran 3-5 miles. I did this because a) I wanted to keep my weight down b) I wanted to have good cardio c) my trainer told me to. After my run, I would have breakfast,sometimes take a nap, then train again around 4pm for a couple of hours. This was my routine 6 days a week, with sometimes a longer 5-6 mile run on the weekend.

My cardio routine looks very different now. Today I know that although the long runs I did in the morning may have done something for my character, they did very little for my goals of maintaining a healthy fight weight, staying strong and improving my fighting cardio in the way I wanted it to. Plus my knees hate me today. When I first started Muay Thai I didn’t have the health & fitness knowledge I have today. In my naive fitness days I was always hungry (living on a high carbohydrate diet), never satisfied, always worried about making weight and definitely not as strong as I could have been.

“But running is good for me, right?!” “It makes me fit and improves my wind!” Well, not exactly. Let me explain.

Running long distances, or any long duration, steady state, medium-intensity cardio makes little sense for fight conditioning and it makes very little sense if you want to loose fat. Before you throw your running shoes at the wall in fury of all those wasted, boring miles, let me explain and you will hopefully feel much relief knowing that less is more.

First, if you have ever been in a Muay Thai fight, sparred, or even just gotten worked over on the pads by your trainer, ask yourself does that feel like a nice long run does? I know at the end of a long pad work session I’m breathing heavily, my legs feel like jello, I can barely hold my hands up, things ache, I may even feel a little queasy – all this and I just had a 1 minute break 3 minutes earlier after the round before. I’ve never felt exhausted like that doing a long run.

Sprinting

This is me sprinting. Look how happy I look! Yeah, I never said high-intensity-intervals were easy! 😉

When you are training in intervals of punches, kicks, knees and elbows you are working many different energy systems. The first two systems are anaerobic, meaning they create energy without the use of oxygen for activities that last up to 2 minutes. The phosphagen system, also called ATP-CP, is used for quick busts of energy that last up to about five to seven seconds using the preferred fuel source available in the muscle, adenosine triphosphate (ATP). After ATP is depleted, the glycolytic system (also anaerobic) kicks in and uses stored muscle glycogen to form ATP for fuel. That muscle “burn” you get during an anaerobic workout is the byproduct of the muscle glycogen breaking down forming lactic acid and hydrogen ions.

These anaerobic systems are the systems you work when you punch, kick, knee, or clench. Sure, you need to be able to work the anaerobic energy systems in bursts of striking and clenching with a little help from the aerobic (with oxygen) energy system which kicks in after about 2-5 minutes and uses both fat and glucose as fuel, but the majority of a fighter’s work is done in the first two energy systems. You could argue that for amateur fighters long runs are not necessary at all since the rounds are only 2 minutes and the total time you actually work is 6 minutes. But even in a professional fight what happens after the 3 minutes is up? You rest, and then start another round.  So, why would you constantly train the aerobic energy system with steady state moderate-intensity cardio for 30 or more minutes if you never use it the same way in a fight? It’s counter productive.

Check out this study performed on swimmers competing in 100 and 2,000 meters who trained in high-intensity interval training (HIIT) which is anaerobic vs high-volume training (HVT), which is aerobic… “The increases in competition performance, T(2,000 m), Lac(max) and VO(2peak) following HIIT high-intensity interval training were achieved in significantly less training time (~2 h/week).”

Even if you aren’t a fighter training more in the anaerobic pathways makes more sense. Just check out some differences between the two.

The benefits of anaerobic workouts (HIIT/sprints/weightlifting/circuit training etc):

  • Increased cardiovascular function
  • Decrease in body fat
  • Increased muscle mass & aerobic capacity
  • Improved strength power & speed
  • Side effects? Just some soreness at first, but your body WILL adapt and be stronger and more conditioned for it.

Side effects of too much long duration moderate-intensity exercise include:

  • Muscle loss
  • Joint problems
  • Adrenal fatigue
  • Fat storage!
  • Plus LDC requires a high carbohydrate diet which negatively affects your health and can make you fatter.
  • Benefit? None for fight conditioning and none for fat loss and general health so unless you are training for a marathon or triathlon (and love it) I don’t recommend it.

And don’t worry HIIT is safe for everyone, just a long as you don’t go beyond your capabilities. They have even done studies on the benefits of HIIT in cardiac rehabilitation. If it’s safe after heart surgery I think you’ll be okay 😉

Want proof? Check out how HIT out performs over moderate intensity continuous training (MICT) in overweight women. Or this study which shows, “the decrease in the sum of six subcutaneous skinfolds (body fat test sites) induced by the HIIT program was ninefold greater than by the ET (endurance training) program”. Fact: HIIT burns fat and improves muscle better than Long Distance Cardio!

Today I keep one longer duration steady state workout for about 45-60 minutes in my fighters routine. I’ve found this to be helpful for general endurance. If anything it helps the fighter get through long padwork and technique sessions, and with that low volume it can’t hurt, but more than once per week is not necessary and we don’t just run in these sessions. Since my knee injury in 2010 I stopped running distances over 1-2 miles and my cardio never suffered. You can do steady state cardio using a variety of different cardio “stations” jump rope, shadow boxing, rowing, cycling, etc. It also breaks up the monotony of the workout and can be done with the whole team. The steady state days should not be very taxing at all. Steady state is just long and boring, so it helps to have partners to keep you motivated or at least a good playlist.

If you enjoy them, limit LDC sessions to once per week at a low-moderate intensity. To some people a nice long run can be very relaxing and that’s ok!

I know you are probably saying, “Wait, how can running make you fat?!”  Well, during a long duration, medium-intensity workout your body is burning primarily fat and some glucose (carbohydrate). After your long run (or bike ride or elliptical session) in preparation for your next fat fueled workout the body will store fat. Smart of the body to do this, but bad for us who want to fit into our skinny jeans.

On the other hand, during an anaerobic workout the body will burn primarily glucose to fuel the workout (and little fat) but then after an anaerobic workout the body will store carbohydrate to replenish all the muscle glycogen used for those busts of energy. Then it will continue to burn fat throughout the day due to a process called excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). EPOC is a response to the oxygen debt caused by intense exercise. EPOC increases your metabolic rate, balances hormones, burns fat and returns the body back to a balanced state. EPOC occurs after any exercise, but it occurs at a much higher rate after anaerobic exercise, particularly HIIT which uses anaerobic energy systems.

So if you could train your fighter energy systems correctly, loose fat and gain muscle in the process you’d want that, right? Adding HIIT to your routine can achieve that. Wait don’t throw out the Nikes! You’ll need them for sprints. Sprints are one type of HIIT you can do and they are great for fighters. When I started adding sprints to my routine a few years ago I noticed increased cardio, power and speed very soon.  Here are the basics of HIIT work:

  • Remember to warm up at a low intensity pace for 5 minutes before you start sprinting.
  • I also suggest a good foam rolling session before you start.
  • Mix up your work/rest ratios between 1:1 and 2:1, each one can be beneficial
  • Mix up the duration of the work intervals ranging from 15 seconds to 2 minutes. This give you a chance to work different energy systems, switch up the pace and keep you interested in your workouts.
  • Sprint sessions should not last longer than 15-25 minutes total (rest included)
  • When you sprint at a high-intensity it should feel like a 9 or 10 on a scale of 1-10. then you rest and repeat. If after your sprint session you felt like you could go more, you weren’t going hard enough.
  • If you are new to sprints try a ratio of 1:2, run all out for 1 minute, rest for 2 and repeat that 8 times.

You can choose a bike, Airdyne, stairs, stair-mill, treadmill, track, rower or even an elliptical to do your HIIT. You could even just step up on a park bench for intervals – use any thing that challenges you. HIIT is great to do with your fight team or a friend for best results, so that you can be pushed by others, or just get some really hard motivating music on your iPod and go!

There are other forms of anaerobic training that are great for fighters’ conditioning like kettlebells, powerlifting and circuit training that uses a mix of gymnastics, plyometrics, weightlifting and metabolic conditioning drills in a quick 10-15 minute workout that uses all the energy systems in a way that simulates the demands of a fight. However these techniques require professional training, and I would encourage all fighters and those interested in these training methods to consult a strength and conditioning specialist to get properly trained first.

Not every fight trainer is an expert in athletic conditioning. Most fighters understand this and hire separate strength coaches. It’s also important to note that HIIT training should be done apart from other fight training, with at least 6 hours of rest before the next workout. Also It’s generally better if you are doing a second workout that day, to do it on days where fight training technique is being emphasized more that fighter conditioning. Two, maybe three HIIT sessions a week are plenty for an active fighter.

This is the the training schedule I give to my fighters today:

  • 5-6 Muay Thai Session (pad-work, technique and/or sparring)
  • 2-3 HIIT Sessions (sprints, stairs or circuit training)
  • 1 longer steady state cardio session

For those just looking for a good fitness program to increase muscle, loose fat and improve cardio try HIIT such as sprints twice a week on non-consecutive days and train general weight lifting 3 days a week focusing on functional movements like squats, dead lifts, presses, pull ups, push ups and rows.

If you incorporate HIIT training with a healthy, real food diet, based around protein, good fat and veggies you can get in the best shape of your life. I see it with my clients and I know if for myself – there is no better conditioning.

  • What a great post! My fitness journey started with martial arts as a child, but then I got into distance running for many years with cross country in school, then running a marathon and many shorter races, with strength training as a side endeavor.

    But in the past several years, further education and training have changed my tune, and I do pretty much exactly what you describe, and I’ve never been fitter! I love strength and high-intensity training and do just a relatively short endurance session every week.

    • Thanks Kari. I can say firsthand that when I met you at RKC you looked ripped, strong & fit! 🙂

  • Nicole Newman Wagner

    Roxy, I’m somewhat new to muay thai (within the last 9 months) and have fallen in love with the sport. I’m trying to get my body weight (fat %) down to get ready for a fight. I’ve always been told that higher intensity exercise relies more on carbs for fuel to burn, but slower paced exercise uses fat to burn…..I see what you are saying though about preparing oneself more from a cardio standpoint though by doing more high intensity workouts.

    • Thanks for reading Nicole. Using HIIT to burn fat is about the fat that is burned POST exercise not during, plus getting the benefit for cardio that actually works for fighters conditioning. Low, steady paced exercise does burn fat that is correct, the lower intensity of the exercise the high percentage of fat is burned. Walking for example burns a very high percentage of fat compared to running but the over all energy expenditure is low so that’s not really the best or most time efficient way to do it, although I do think people should walk more in general. When most fighters run they use a moderate intensity not low which means they use carbs and fat as fuel, but this steady state moderate intensity is not the most effective way to burn fat or condition for fighting. Fat burning is much more complicated that simply what fuel is burned DURING the workout. It is about EPOC as I mention in the article, muscle building (or breakdown) and most importantly hormones – which is a topic for another blog and has a lot to do with diet. Although I will say that long duration, moderate intensity exercise like running steady state raises cortisol levels which impairs fat burning.

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  • scott

    I am looking at subsantial fat loss (60-70lbs) and was wondering if you thought Muay Thai classes would be good for the cardio and conditoning aspect. I am active already, and I lift three days a week. If I add two days a week of hour long classes at a solid Muay Thai gym in my area, is that enough or would i be better off doing traditonal HIIT. I enjoy lifting and have a great interest in learning Muay Thai but my could not handle three days of lifting, 2 of HIIT and 2 of Muay Thai. Can I remove HIIT from the equation and see good results. My Diet is in check so Im just asking about the excercise component to aid in the weight loss journey. thanks. sorry for bumping an old posts but this was highly relevant to my interests.

    • For fat loss I would recommend 2 Muay Thai, 2 strength & 1 HIIT. Assuming your sleep and nutrition are in check that sounds like a great plan to me!

      • scott

        thank you for getting back to me. Great Blog BTW, very informative.

  • David

    Hi Roxy, great info. I started Muay Thai (this week) after a fifteen year hiatus from combat sports. I started lifting weights about 6 months ago. I got diet down, I am training hard at Muay Thai, I have adjusted my lifting for Muay Thai BUT I have a problem. I work 7 nights a week for 10 hours. I don’t get more then 3-6 hours of sleep in the day. What can I do with diet and supplement to help? Thanks.

    • Sorry to tell you there is no substitute for sleep. It’s a human necessity and even more important if you train hard. Lack of sleep plus hard training will eventually lead to massive adrenal burn out and cause a myriad of health problems. Best to change your life style to adjust for better sleeping routines or not take on such hard training in combination with such poor sleep, as that will only exacerbate health issues.

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  • Danni

    Roxy Thankyou so much for this Blog it answers everything i drill my head on when im not training!!

    • Glad you liked it , thanks for reading 🙂