Strength & Conditioning

Today, we had the pleasure of talking to Former Muay Thai Pro Fighter turned Strength & Conditioning Guru Don Heatrick! Enjoy!

Starting Muay Thai Strength & Conditioning Webinar Course

Q1. Thank you for taking the time out to speak to us Don. Firstly, give us some brief history on yourself, and how you got to this point in your martial arts career?

I’m equal parts Muay Thai freak and science geek…

I’m husband to a long-suffering wife (also a gym fanatic and former Thai boxer), father to a 12-year old son (a Formula 1 addict and promising Karting racer) and a 10-year-old daughter (a Royal Ballet Junior Asscociate dancer).

I’m also the “alpha” pack member to the stupidest Tamaskan “wolf” dog ever; he eats socks, underwear and boxing hand-wraps, and rolls around in anything that smells bad!

When I left school, I got a proper job as a graduate mechanical design engineer, while simultaneously studying and training for athletic performance, and competing as a Thai boxer and coaching Muay Thai too.

As a Muay Thai fighter myself, I’ve competed internationally as an amateur, winning a European silver medal, and I’ve previously been professionally ranked 4th Super Middleweight in the UK at the age of 40-years-old by the UKMF…

…I’d describe my fight style as “aggressive clinch monster”!



After nearly 19-years living a dual-life as a design engineer and fighter/coach, I ditched my engineering career and pursued my real passion – I started up a full time Muay Thai and strength and conditioning gym!

That was back in 2010, and I’ve since taken another (big) step…

Due to the worldwide interest in the training methods I’ve shared on my website, I no longer run the full time gym. I now focus “hands on” with a small number of private clients, while offering online support to Thai boxers looking for legitimate strength and conditioning programming specifically for Muay Thai.

Q2. Concentrating on Strength and Conditioning, how big a factor is it in the training of a Pro Fighter? Do you believe that to compete at the top level you need a strategic approach to S & C?

I believe strength and conditioning is the missing part of the puzzle in any athletes training programme. And Pro fighters MUST have a strategic approach to supplemental S&C…

It’s essential, not only to maximise athletic performance (strength, power and endurance), but even more importantly, to reduce injuries. Everything is about balance.

Supplemental training must give you something that isn’t adequately addressed just practicing your sport. That’s why you need a strategic approach, or you’re wasting time and effort that would be better spent just practising more Muay Thai!

I use the analogy of a Formula 1 racing team (my son loves it)…

Strength and conditioning is like taking a racing car into the workshop and increasing the size and power of the engine, or improving the fuel economy, fuel tank capacity, upgrading the brakes, suspension and tyres – to both improve the car’s performance and make it more robust and less likely to breakdown.

Whereas, Muay Thai technical skill training is like coaching the most talented driver, and placing him in that highly tuned car!

And when you have two equally skilled ‘drivers’, the one in the ‘best car’ will win.

Q3. In your opinion, how has Strength and Conditioning evolved since your involvement?

Strength and conditioning itself is continually evolving. New research constantly discovers more about how the body really works, and how it relates to physical performance.

And strength and conditioning for Muay Thai has changed vastly! It’s gone from something of a taboo, with perpetuated myths like “weight training slows you down”, to something that fighters are far better educated about, and now aspire to have in the arsenal.

When I first started my blog in 2012, I was frustrated at seeing so much wasted effort! My objective was to convince Thai boxers to exploit sport science to become the best fighters they can be.

At the time, this message was not being said in the Muay Thai community. And I expected aggressive countering from fighters and coaches that saw the training methods of Thailand as the only way. But despite this, I was keen to present an alternative, more efficient approach.

To my surprise, the “flaming” never came – I got questions rather than attacks! And now my purpose is to explain HOW to use strength and conditioning as a Thai boxer, rather than WHY you should.

Interestingly, Thailand is waking up to this too…

Currently, the knowledge of sports science just isn’t there, but Thai promoters and coaches recognise the need for education. They’re concerned that foreign fighters have the strength, power, knowledge and the nutritional education to dominate the sport given some time…

For example, Yokkao are now recruiting S&C coaches to work with their sponsored fighters like Buakaw, Pakorn and Saenchai at their training centre in Bangkok.

So things are changing. The evolution of strength and conditioning in Muay Thai is accelerating as it begins to play a greater part in the performance of the top fighters. And I look forward to Thai boxers becoming the truly world class combat athletes they deserve to be.

Q4. How does Strength and Conditioning differ depending on what sport you compete in? Take Muay Thai against MMA for instance.

That’s a great question. And it’s where I see many fighters going wrong. Although they now understand they should be using strength and conditioning to improve their performance and reduce injuries, they don’t know HOW to do it.

Every sport uses a different mix of movements, at different intensities and for different durations. And your body needs to adapt to meet this specific demand.

Strength and conditioning coaches begin by conducting a sport needs analysis, to determine exactly what these demands are. Then comparing the performance of the athlete to the needs of the sport, you can design a strength and conditioning programme to bridge the gap.

Muay Thai is an intermittent, repeat sprint type activity, heavily dependent on the aerobic system to recharge between bursts of attack and defence. And although on the face of it, MMA may appear to be the same, the demands are different and the training should be too.

For example, although both sprinters and marathon runners are ‘running’, you realise there’s a big difference in how they prepare for these different events. The same is true of ‘fighters’.

Muay Thai places greater emphasis on speed rather than maximal strength. In MMA greater time is spent manipulating your opponent’s body weight in grappling, both upright and on the ground. The greatest strength demands for a Thai boxer is in upright clinching, which predominantly uses unbalancing technique rather than physical lifting.

Both an MMA fighter and a Thai boxer require a good foundation of strength, but aside from clinch work, a Thai boxer will need less strength in a fight. A larger proportion of the round time is spent explosively striking in Muay Thai and therefore speed is a bigger focus.

Generally, MMA uses longer rounds, but fewer of them (unless it’s a title fight). Thai boxers also need a strong finish to win fights, because of the holistic Muay Thai scoring, weighting greater importance on the later rounds. This difference in pacing affects the cardio conditioning requirements of both sports.

Depending on the style of the fighters involved, generally Muay Thai requires more of a power-endurance focus and MMA a strength-endurance focus. This all affects the ratio of strength, power, speed, extensive interval and intensive interval conditioning training in an effective strength and conditioning programme for each sport.

Q5. What are your opinions on supplements? The market for them is ever increasing, do you think that it steers people away from gaining all the required nutrients from the foods they eat?

There’s no substitute for eating a balanced, nutritious diet!

A fighter should take this seriously, and not expect to make up for eating badly with a few magic supplements.

In my experience, most supplements are put together and cleverly marketed by “cherry picking” conclusions from various research studies…

Different supplement ingredients are often packaged together into products touting combined effects that have never been tested together at all, and in quantities that are ineffective!

It’s marketing. At the end of the day, the only research proven supplements I use or recommend to others (depending on their individual needs) are whey protein and creatine monohydrate. All other supplements only provide marginal athletic benefit.

The role of supplements should be just that, to supplement your diet, not replace it. They should give you something you can’t get from your meals alone.

…So get the best out of your meals first!

You need a lot of protein to repair and recover from intensive training as quickly as possible. Unless you’re a featherweight fighter, you’re unlikely to consume enough daily protein to serve this purpose effectively.

Whey protein is a cost effective supplement to boost your intake without taking your total calorie intake too high.

And it’s impossible to eat the quantity of meat required to get enough creatine to gain a performance benefit. If you need it, supplementation will give you this when your diet can’t.

Q6. What advice would you give to someone who is a newcomer to S & C?

Learn to move well. Form robust movement habits and invest in building a foundation. Don’t “jump the gun” and miss out important steps in your athletic development – trust me, these gaps will come back to bite you.

…Spend 4-weeks doing what other fighters won’t, so that you can spend the rest of your life doing what they can’t!

In fact, I’ve just updated my free ‘Starting Muay Thai Strength & Conditioning’ short video series which explains exactly:

  • What your first training block MUST target
  • Which training methods to use and WHY
  • HOW to combine them into your training week

Feel free to get hold of that via the following link:

Starting Muay Thai Strength and Conditioning The Right Way >>

Don’t just do CrossFit and expect it to help you fight. Develop the habit of progressive training, targeting specific goals over the long term rather than random workouts. Always know where you are going next… and WHY!

Also, appreciate that you have a different training age in different aspects of your training…

Unless you’ve subjected your body to resistance training, power training etc., your body hasn’t adapted to it yet. Be patient. Being an advanced Thai boxer doesn’t qualify you to use advanced strength and conditioning techniques and vice versa.

Your strength and conditioning training should complement, but be different to Muay Thai training. Don’t try and make it the same. You’ll spoil your technique and cause overuse injuries.

Most ‘fighter’ training on YouTube is extreme for the sake of getting shared on social media, and that’s about it. They showboat attention-seeking exercises that don’t improve fight performance, presenting a high injury risk without any benefit. It’s more entertainment than real substance.

As strength and conditioning becomes more popular in the Muay Thai community, it’s inevitable that low quality ‘me too’ fads will emerge… steer clear! Pick legitimate sources of information and do what’s effective.



Q7. For cardiovascular conditioning, in your opinion, what would you recommend for pro athletes to provide the biggest benefits?

That really depends on the individual fighter, but generally pro athletes would get the biggest benefits by progressively planning their cardio conditioning training.

That is, periodise training to build aerobic capacity, aerobic power, anaerobic capacity and anaerobic power; using a mixture of longer duration, lower intensity work and shorter duration, higher intensity interval work.

Doing the same thing over and over won’t make you fitter! Once your body has adapted to it, you must change things up, take it to the next level.

Many fighters are burning calories and maintaining fitness levels, but not getting better. Doing more is not the only, or the best option.

Conditioning should overload specific adaptations to get the most out of them. It must be targeted. And once you’ve hit the target, move on to the next one and get that.

Planned training must build from general to specific as you approach your key fight, to peak your performance at the right time.

Energy systems or cardio conditioning is a massively misunderstood area of strength and conditioning. Pro athletes must learn how to structure this aspect of their training, or find someone who has the knowledge and understands the demands of Muay Thai to do it for them!

Q8. Talking Muay Thai specific, what single exercise would you recommend all athletes include in their training programme to improve their all round game?

That’s a tough one. There are so many aspects that need to be covered from a movement patterns, strength, mobility, stability and energy systems perspective, that one exercise obviously can’t satisfy everything…

But, if I had to pick one high-quality ‘all rounder’ that would fill gaps in most Thai boxers training, then I’d opt for the Turkish Get Up


It challenges coordinated movement patterns throughout the whole body, reduces likelihood of injury, demands great mobility and stability, and depending on how you load it, can build great functional strength too.

And working a Turkish Get Up continuously with a lighter load can build great work capacity, giving you an opportunity develop appropriate cardio conditioning as well…

…But, do take the time to learn the exercise correctly! As always, every exercise is an opportunity to develop movement ‘skill’. Perform it badly and you’ll anchor bad habits, poor mechanics and hamper your athletic development rather than boosting it.

Q9. We thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to talk to us, would you like to conclude the interview with any words of wisdom?

No problem John, it’s a pleasure to be asked to share some ideas. As for words of wisdom [laughing], I think I’ll leave you with this…

Things are moving on very quickly in Muay Thai, and a competitive fighter’s career window is relatively short (I know this personally)!

If you want to capitalise on the gifts you’ve got, learn how to get the most out of your athletic engine to support your fight skill. And look after that engine properly, so you can have a longer career than other fighters too…

…And above all, enjoy the ride – it’s a rush!