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HardStyle Training and Muay Thai: The RKC meets the Science of Eight Limbs

January 19, 2012 04:30 PM

SteveMilles articleEmilyBearden article
"Simple but not easy."
We've loved that HardStyle motto since the first time we heard it. It is an accurate -- if deceptive -- way to describe RKC training.
It is also a template for training properly for the combat sport and martial art of Muay Thai. Also known as "the Science of Eight Limbs" for its use of kicks, knees, punches and elbows, the techniques of Muay Thai are simple but not easy to perform correctly: with speed and power.
Watch a YouTube video of a Thai great such as Saenchai, Namkabuan, The Ring Genius or Namsaknoi, The Emperor, or a similarly talented westerner such as Dany Bill or Fabio Pinca. The fighter appears relaxed, the motion effortless, until it's time to strike with speed and power. At our academy we have produced regional, national and world champions by complementing traditional Muay Thai training with the HardStyle system. There are three main justifications for our approach:
1. The training time-line
Unlike many sports there is no off-season in Muay Thai. Fight promotions happen all year round, all over the world. An active fighter needs to stay in "gym shape" nearly all the time. Not at peak, but able to get there within 6 weeks, more or less. So skill training and strength training continue pretty much all the time. The strength return on time and energy invested is high with kettlebells the RKC way. The HardStyle doctrine of moderate intensity, most of the time, means the trainee has energy -- both physical and mental -- for skill training.
2. Shared principles
HardStyle cues and precepts are familiar friends to Muay Thai fighters. Breathing behind the shield is so obviously a martial arts concept that it is referenced that way at the RKC. The same goes with bracing "as if for a punch." Power breathing is what a fighter does by exhaling on the strike. The interplay between tension and relaxation in the swing and the snatch are reflected in the relaxation of the fighter before tensing as he strikes. One uses the whole body to lift a kettlebell, not just an individual muscle.
In the same way, a fighter does not punch with the arm or kick with the leg. That is the limb for delivery, but the power comes from the cooperation of the entire body. Every RKC knows that leakage is the enemy of a strong, solid lift. Strikes are undermined when thrown with poor technique that doesn't most effectively harness the forces of the body: a wild haymaker is never as powerful as the punch that is essentially born of the legs and rotation of the body; a kick that derives its force merely from snapping the leg lacks the crushing impact of a roundhouse that has the entire body turning on its axis to slice through its target; an elbow strike generated from the shoulder is not nearly as devastating as one that results from stepping out with the leg and turning the hips... Simply mastering the swing can change a fighter's game.
A fighter who understands how to drive his feet through the floor as he strikes, to use the glutes and hamstrings in harmony, how to really snap the hip through the intended target, is a fighter who can generate true power in a strike. Different names, shared training tenets. It's a wonderful thing when patterns and practices are reinforced in all aspects of a fighter's training.
3. Balance and durability
A. The Performance Pyramid - As presented in the FMS, the Performance Pyramid is a diagram constructed to represent human movement and movement patterns, encompassing fundamental patterns, performance (gross athleticism or strength) and sport specific skill. The base and second level of the "Performance Pyramid" are very often the weak links in the fighters who train with us.
The historical model for Muay Thai training -- for most combat sports -- is for the practitioner to "train themselves fit:" to get strength and conditioning through Muay Thai training. This is been exacerbated by the long-standing prejudice against weight training in combat sports: that they will make you stiff, slow, bulky and inflexible. We can (and do!) train excellent Muay Thai technique, but if the fighter lacks the ability and body awareness to implement the movements, the strength to throw powerful blows, the endurance to keep up the pace over the course of the fight, or the conditioning to absorb punishment...It's really heart-breaking to see a brilliant technician lose because he or she has no power, has dislocated a shoulder because a punch missed and the joint couldn't handle the force, or is simply too exhausted to put combinations together.
HardStyle kettlebell training is the perfect tool to address such deficiencies, demanding proper movement patterns and giving power and endurance in return.
B. The inevitability of injury and asymmetry - Muay Thai is a contact sport. Train and fight for any amount of time, especially at an elite level, and a fighter will incur injuries. Some of the injuries we have sustained during our careers: assorted cuts requiring stitching, repeated soft tissue trauma and bruising, concussions, broken nose, torn sinus cavity, broken ribs, torn intercostals, fractured ulnar, fractured iliac crest, fractured vertebrae, rotator impingement, dislocated knee, torn mcl, fractured tibia... The beauty and the danger of the body is that it will find a way to continue moving, compensating for the injured and weakened part. Over time and without attention this becomes problematic, locking in asymmetric and dysfunctional movement patterns that, in turn, lead to weakness and further injury.
A more subtle risk comes from what we’ve heard Master RKC Jeff O'Connor refer to as "living in the posture of your sport." Stand in a slight crouch, hands high, shoulders rounded forward, chin on your chest, repeating essentially the same movements (punches, kicks, knees, elbows) for 1000s of hours, 1000s of rounds...years. See if you don't pick up certain movement patterns, ways of standing in life, that you don't just leave in the ring. We've experienced the effects personally and with our fighters.
Steve originally started with kettlebells after retiring as a fighter because he couldn't really train the sport properly any longer: left shoulder so jacked-up that a jab was a painful impossibility, both shoulders tight and excessively rounded, kicking ability compromised by lower back and hip pain. Emily had hip flexor issues and fractured vertebrae that precluded any impact in training -- her physical therapist told her she wouldn't be able to fight again. It wasn't pretty.
It is no exaggeration to say that HardStyle sorted us out, allowing Steve to continue practicing and coaching the art that he loves and Emily to return to the ring, without any real intention on our part -- the WTH phenomenon. (As an aside, we are embarking on a project to make these improvements more mindful, implementing the FMS screen and CK-FMS corrections with our fight team. We'll keep you posted.)
So, what's the best kettlebell training for Muay Thai? The training that addresses what the fighter needs, of course! That being said, these are some training regimens we like, with which we have had personal success, and which we recommend to any fighter or martial artist:
1. Swings and Turkish Get Ups. Master RKC Mark Reifkind labels the Swing the "Center of the RKC Universe" with good reason. Power production, tension/relaxation's training the body to deliver hard shots, each and every time. The Get Up is total body work, through multiple angles and ranges. The TGU is great for stability and durability, for mental toughness and even for cutting weight when performed in a longer, wave-loaded scheme.
2. VO2 with Snatch, Viking Push Press or Swing. Great conditioning in all variations, so the kettlebell proficiency of the trainee or inhibiting injuries to the hands or wrists are usually the deciding factor. This is what Emily used to stay fighting fit and at weight when her fractured vertebrae prevented her normal training regimen.
3. Double Clean and Jerk -- the infamous long cycle. Yes, it is punishing, and yes, it sucks. But it will make a fighter strong both mentally and physically. But, no, a reason for doing it is not because the hands in the rack are just like a fighter's hands in guard. If you stand in the ring with your hands that low, you will get knocked out.
4. Armor Building. Senior RKC Dan John applies this to football, but it is every bit as applicable to combat sports such as Muay Thai that are matched by weight class. Fighters -- with the exception of heavyweights -- almost always have to cut weight to be at their most competitive. But it's a fine line -- too much cutting and you're weak, too much time spent cutting and essential time for strength and skill is wasted. Dan John's Clean and Front Squat Ladder is an excellent way to put and keep useful muscle on a fighter while stripping away excess mass.
5. RKC Omelet. Senior RKC Jon Engum wrote about the Omelet in a previous Power by Pavel. It's basically 5 rounds of all the Level 1 lifts, flowing from one to the next. It is a brilliant, under-appreciated and efficient way to increase strength and endurance.
6. Kettlebell Intervals with Skipping Rope. Any intervals: swings, snatches, level 1 lifts, level 2 lifts, TGU... Whatever techniques are in the current training regimen. Gray Cook has pointed out that skipping rope is a self-correcting exercise: you can't do it wrong. No, really you can't - try it. The rope won't let you. It also helps with footwork, burns calories, has less impact than running, flushes lactic acid...we skip a lot of rope. You should, too. It's one of those WTH things.
So what is a good example of effectively integrating HardStyle with Muay Thai training? Remember that the typical fighter – even one not in fight training per se – will spend four to six days per week, two to three hours per day in skill training. This will include shadowboxing, heavy bag work, pad work, light and heavy sparring, skipping, stretching and more over the course of a week. Even structuring the training as splits/two-a-days, this is quite a lot of volume, which demands adequate recovery. A major consideration, then, is that the strength training provides a big return for a relatively small additional investment in time and effort. This is a program we’ve used successfully to increase our strength, striking power and endurance without interfering with skill training:
*4 days per week total, in A/B format
*"A" days: an evil marriage of Rif’s Power Swings, Irontamer’s Furnace and skipping rope for active recovery (if skipping is work for you, substitute your own recovery activity).
One set of 5 power swings with an appropriately heavy kettlebell, 5 TGU to the forearm, right then left. Skip for one minute.
Another set of 5 power swings, 5 TGU to the hand, left then right. Skip.
3 Power swings, 3 TGU to the high bridge, right then left. Skip.
3 Power swings, 3 TGU to windshield wiper/kneeling windmill position, left then right. Skip.
2 Power swings, 2 TGU to kneeling, right then left. Skip.
2 Power swings, 2 TGU up and down, left then right. Skip and you’re done.
*"B" days: Double Kettlebell Clean and Jerk and skipping. Again, if skipping is work for you, choose an alternate recovery strategy: fast and loose drills, shadowboxing, etc. This one is, to plagiarize Hobbes, "nasty, brutish and short."
5 rounds of 5 Double Kettlebell Clean and Jerk, with two minutes of skipping for recovery following each round including the final round. Pick kettlebells that are challenging, but not so heavy that the jerk becomes slow or a push press as the session progresses.
"Train hard, fight easy" is the Muay Thai gospel for fight training. Integrating the "simple, not easy" mantra of the RKC and the concepts of HardStyle into Muay Thai training is a successful way to do just that. Enjoy!

Steve Milles, RKC 2, CICS, CK-FMS
Owner, Muay Thai and kettlebell instructor at Five Points Academy NYC.
Trainer to multiple US National Team members and regional, national, world champions
Retired professional fighter and title holder: WKA US Welterweight and Jr. Middleweight Champion; ISKA Welterweight US Champion; USMTA Welterweight Intercontinental Champion; Bronze Medal, 1998 IAMTF World Championships.
Muay Thai and kettlebell instructor at Five Points Academy NYC.
Professional fighter and title holder: 2X WKA Muay Thai Bantamweight World Champion; WKA Bantamweight US Muay Thai Champion; Silver Medal (Muay Thai), Bronze Medal (Kickboxing), 2006 WKA World Championships.