Think your workouts are hard? Try going a few rounds with the top trainers and elite fighters on Thailandâ€™s gym road
Johnny Cash is burning.
The almost-life-size portrait of the singer tattooed on Alan Belcherâ€™s left arm roasts in the midday heat, but the UFC champ hardly notices as he leans on the tricolor ropes that surround the ring.
His sparring partner is late. And as the temperature rises under the open-air gymâ€™s bamboo-and-aluminum roof, so too does Belcherâ€™s impatience. And then. . .action.
Belcher straightens as Lamsongkram â€œLamâ€ Chuwattana appears at the far end of the concrete floor. At 6 feet tall and 158 pounds, Lam is 2 inches shorter and 70 pounds lighter than Belcher. But compared with Belcherâ€™s 17 UFC victories, Lamâ€™s 245 wins (51 by knockout) in Thailandâ€™s fiercely competitive Muay Thai league make him the seasoned veteran.
And from the look on Belcherâ€™s face, he knows heâ€™s about to get schooled.
â€œThatâ€™s why Iâ€™m hereâ€”to learn from the best,â€ says Belcher as Lam jogs casually toward the ring, his high-cut polyester shorts doing little to hide the bulging calves and muscled quads sculpted by decades of high kicks, low sweeps, and crushing holds. The black T-shirt tied around Lamâ€™s forehead flutters as he ducks under the ropes and hops into the ring.
â€œMuay Thai is a pissing contest,â€ says Belcher. He pulls on his gloves while Lam warms up. â€œThese trainers are incredible, but theyâ€™re mean. Sure, they smile a lot, but behind those eyes are stone-cold killers. I like that.â€
This is Belcherâ€™s third trip to Tiger Muay Thai, one of seven fight houses that line Soi Ta-iad, a bustling thoroughfare on the outskirts of Phuket City known locally as Gym Road.
Long a destination for globetrotting backpackers and European sunbathers, Thailandâ€™s largest island is now attracting a new type of tourist, one who couldnâ€™t care less about the raucous nightclubs and luxury resorts. Professional fighters, martial arts aspirants, and fitness enthusiasts from all over the worldâ€”more than 20,000 a yearâ€”converge on this 1 1/2-kilometer stretch of asphalt to trade punches with Thailandâ€™s top Muay Thai athletes. Belcher might be among the most famous of these pugilistic pilgrims, but like the rest of them, he hopes that a few weeks with the likes of Lam will transform him from a talented fighter into an unbeatable warrior.
â€œLetâ€™s do it,â€ says Belcher. Lam guides a pair of pads over his arms and then smiles and yips, inviting Belcher to battle. Belcher smacks his gloves, breathes deeply, and enters the ring of fire.
Pound Every Angle
Muay Thai turns your entire body into a weapon. Fights are a blur of fists, elbows, knees, and shins, which is why the sport is also known as â€œthe art of eight limbs.â€ Good mobility isnâ€™t just an advantage; itâ€™s the key to survival. â€œYou rotate your hip with each attack and block,â€ says Belcher as he pummels Lamâ€™s pads with enough force to shatter bone. Lam absorbs each impact and then quickly repositions himself to guide the next strike.
Unlike ubiquitous disciplines like boxing and wrestling, Muay Thai is indigenous to a single country, making the art of pad holding a rare skill outside Thailand. â€œNobody at my gym can do it like they do here,â€ says Belcher, breathing heavily as his kicks become increasingly labored. â€œSee how Lam dances around? Heâ€™s forcing me to kick and punch through full ranges of motion. You donâ€™t see that kind of technique back home. Hell, you donâ€™t see it anywhere but Thailand.â€
Lam notices Belcherâ€™s fading effort and pounces, demanding 20 more kicks. Soaked in sweat, Belcher chuckles, plants his left foot, and begins swatting at Lamâ€™s pads with his right leg; 5, 10, 15, 20. . .Belcher bellows in exhaustion as he reaches his goal.
â€œI was getting cocky and lazy,â€ says Belcher as he limps to the corner of the ring, panting. Lam sheds his pads and follows, pouring water over Belcherâ€™s head and rubbing ice into his ribs. â€œNeither of those qualities lasts long around here,â€ says Belcher. â€œThey get beaten out of you pretty quickly.â€
The education is painful, but the lessons are critical: Fatigue is often in the mind and, more important, mobility is everything. â€œYou can think of your limbs as levers,â€ says Brendan Weafer, P.E.S., C.E.S., director of coaching and nutrition at Epic Hybrid Training in New York City. â€œThe more you can extend the lever and the greater the range of motion you can move it through, the more torque and velocity youâ€™ll develop.â€ The result: a nastier kick and a faster takedown.
Muay Thai trainers have always been innovators when it comes to the mechanics of strength and power; they understand innately what science proves empirically. â€œBut range of motion isnâ€™t built solely through sparring and pad work,â€ says Lam. â€œYou also build it in the gym by incorporating it into your workouts.â€
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Scientists at the University of North Dakota agree. They found strength training to be as effective as stretching for improving flexibility. â€œBut you have to lift with good form, which meansâ€”you guessed itâ€”lifting through a full range of motion,â€ says Weafer. In practice, that means sitting deeply into a squat, extending your arm fully during a biceps curl, and lowering your chest to within a few inches of the floor during a pushup. It also means working your muscles in positions where theyâ€™re weakest. â€œThat not only helps you build them up but also teaches your body to recruit them more efficiently,â€ says Weafer. Consequently, youâ€™ll be able to lift heavier weights down the road.
Youâ€™ll also probably spend less time on the sidelines. â€œWhen you can move a joint through a full range of motion, other joints and muscles no longer have to compensate for it,â€ says Weafer. â€œBottom line: Enhancing your range of motion equates to fewer injuries, greater strength, and a lot more power.â€
Rested but not fully recovered, Belcher reenters the ring and launches a flurry of elbows at Lam. Each strike begins with a complete turn of his hip and ends with a whap! against Lamâ€™s pads. Then he loses momentum, throwing a punch-punch-kick combo that limps into Lamâ€™s midsection. Lam bops Belcher on the head and yelps at him. Belcher isnâ€™t amused. He slams Lam with a full extension kick that sends him stumbling backward, grinning in approval. That makes Belcher crack a smile.
â€œThatâ€™s it,â€ says Belcher, his intensity subsiding as he yanks off his gloves. â€œIâ€™m hungry. Letâ€™s eat.â€
Attack Your Dinner
Every meal at Tiger Muay Thai is an exercise in extreme gastronomy. Drained from hours of sparring, pad work, strength training, and mobility exercises, the fighters descend on the kitchen with ravenous zeal. Belcher slides 12 eggs from a serving dish onto his plate, grunting appreciatively as he mixes his soft-boiled protein into a mountain of steaming sweet potatoes.
Such unchained eating is new for Belcher. Until recently, he watched what he ate with an obsessiveness that verged on paranoia. â€œI used to kill myself trying to make weight,â€ he says. Like many UFC competitors, Belcher would starve himself in the weeks leading up to a fight so he could compete in a lighter weight classâ€”and gain a size advantage over naturally smaller opponents. â€œAll that cutting screwed me up,â€ he says. â€œThe yo-yo dieting fucked up my hormones and made me fat. I wasnâ€™t in shape like I knew I could be.â€
So earlier this year, Belcher decided to shift his focus from the middleweight to the light heavyweight class. With an upper weight limit of 205 pounds, itâ€™s more in line with his stocky body type and allows him more freedom with his food intake. Belcher now eats five or six meals a day to pack in calories and feed his muscles a constant supply of nutrients. â€œThe more muscle you have, the more fat you burn and the more food you must consume to sustain a high level of energy and performance,â€ says nutritionist Glen Tobias, M.S., R.D., who works with several top UFC fighters. â€œBut increasing your calorie consumption alone wonâ€™t cut it. You need to make sure youâ€™re eating the right foods at the right times with the right balance of nutrients, and that youâ€™re doing it consistently.â€
A walk down Gym Road later that day reveals what foods are trending among fighters: local sweet potatoes, coconut water, coconut oil, and (of course) Thai chile peppers, as well as black rice from the Philippines. â€œYou can eat five organic meals cooked to order for $15 a day here,â€ says Belcher as he seeks yet more high-octane fuel. He ducks into one of Soi Ta-iadâ€™s most popular eateries, Calorie. â€œItâ€™s the best deal on the planet.â€
Belcher is the first to admit that eating this way isnâ€™t realistic for most guys. â€œIt isnâ€™t even realistic for me back home,â€ he says, adding that he doesnâ€™t always have the time, money, or inclination to stock his kitchen with organic groceries. â€œI take a meta-approach to my diet, focusing on getting enough carbs, protein, and fats. Fighting is hard enough. Eating shouldnâ€™t be.â€
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The results of his approach are evident in his physical power and chiseled appearance. Where before heâ€™d fluctuate between baby-cheeked and gaunt, he is now permanently ripped. â€œGuys are always trying to look lean, and what you eat plays a big part in that; but it shouldnâ€™t give you a headache,â€ says Belcher as he orders a plate of black rice and turmeric chicken. â€œBe smart about your diet, but donâ€™t overthink it. The right way to eat helps you perform well and feel good.â€
PHOTOGRAPH BY PATRICK BROWN
The next morning, Belcher is up early and darting between tuktuks (noisy, three-wheeled buggies that pass for taxis) on his scooter as he races to meet with Brazilian jujitsu legend Olavo Abreu. The third-degree black belt is the head instructor of Phuket Top Team, a high-profile fight gym that plays the eastern bookend to Tiger Muay Thaiâ€™s western position on Soi Ta-iad.
Abreu greets Belcher with a hug. â€œI saw you knock out Rousimar Palhares in 2012,â€ he says. â€œFucking amazing.â€
Palhares was a jujitsu fighter with a reputation for executing leg locks vicious enough to snap ligamentsâ€”and a nasty habit of not letting go even when opponents tap out. Belcher was the 2-to-1 underdog, but when the final bell sounded it was Belcher, not Palhares, who had his hand raised in victory. â€œI trained to stay calm and find a way out of his holds, not avoid them,â€ says Belcher. â€œBreathing played a big part in that.â€
We donâ€™t normally associate fear and trepidation with professional MMA fighters, but even the most ruthless among them suffer from the chronic effects of panicked (i.e., shallow) breathing, says trainer Steve Maxwell, C.S.C.S., a former jujitsu champion. Itâ€™s a natural consequence of being in an adrenalized state, but it floods the body with stress hormones, reduces oxygen intake, accelerates time to fatigue, bottlenecks energy and brainpower, and increases muscle tension. This, in turn, limits strength, power, mobility, and range of motion. In short, such breathing sabotages your performance and exponentially increases your risk of injury, Maxwell says. And its effects arenâ€™t limited to fighting.
â€œDysfunctional breathing can also destroy a workout,â€ says Maxwell. â€œBut learning to stay calm when youâ€™re training has precisely the opposite effect; it improves motor coordination and focus, optimizes muscle use and lifting technique, and increases power while reducing the risk of injury.â€
The secret, says Maxwell, is to breathe through your nose, using your diaphragm to draw as much air as you can deep into your lungs. That first part, breathing through your nose, is key; it stimulates the vagus nerve, which calms your nervous system by counteracting the fight-or-flight response. â€œYour performance might drop initially while you get the hang of it,â€ says Maxwell, who often has clients hold water in their mouth to make sure they breathe through the nose. â€œBut youâ€™ll quickly begin to see improvements in strength, power, and mobility as you lift and breathe in a calmer, clearer, more controlled state.â€
With the students and trainers at Phuket Top Team looking on, Belcher and Abreu put that principle to practice, flinging each other around the mat as calmly and effortlessly as if they were teaching a tumbling class for toddlers.
â€œOnce you learn how to breathe and remain calm, you can begin to master all the other elements of your game,â€ says Abreu. â€œThatâ€™s the secret to becoming a championâ€”staying calm and putting it all together.â€
Fight On All Fronts
After three days of alternating between jujitsu and Muay Thai workouts, Belcher steps into a black-walled room at Tiger Muay Thai for some technique work with UFC legend Roger Huerta. They make polite conversation for a minute, but itâ€™s 4p.m. and a group of 24fighters is waiting to learn how to optimize footwork while throwing combination attacks.
At first glance, the drills look like the kind of repetitive exercises you might expect to see in a YMCA karate class. But here they take on a greater significance, demonstrating a seamless integration of MMAâ€™s four major fighting styles (wrestling, boxing, Muay Thai, and jujitsu).â€Weâ€™re cross-training,â€ says Belcher.
The various martial arts might look similar to the uninitiated, but their physical demands can be as different as weightlifting and bicycling, and practicing several styles concurrently delivers both strength and endurance benefits. â€œWhen you challenge your body with new movements and exercises, you stimulate your muscles as well as your nervous system, helping both become stronger,â€ says Weafer. You also reduce your risk of overuse injuries. But for MMA fighters, the benefits of cross-training extend beyond fitnessâ€”theyâ€™re essential for survival. â€œMastering jujitsu but remaining a mediocre wrestler doesnâ€™t exactly boost longevity,â€ says Belcher. He adds one more reason to mix things up: â€œVariety keeps training fun.â€
Right then, Tiger Muay Thai coach George Hickman wants Belcher to practice a brutal double-leg takedown. Belcher whiffs at his first attempt, gets closer on his second, and nails his third, slamming Hickman to the mat.
â€œAlanâ€™s one of the most well-rounded fighters in mixed martial arts,â€ says Huerta as he watches Belcher grab a protein shake and flop against a wall next to a group of Chinese fighters.â€ And heâ€™s that way because heâ€™s always willing to challenge himself and try new techniques.â€
Heâ€™s spent from the dayâ€™s training, so it takes Belcher a moment to realize heâ€™s the object of hero worship. Unable to communicate in English, the Chinese fighters pantomime what they want: selfies with the American striker. Belcher smiles. â€œSure. Gather round.â€
One by one, the fighters stand next to Belcher, taking a picture with one hand while making the other into a fist. â€œAinâ€™t this fun?â€ says Belcher. â€œTrain, eat, and fight in paradise. It doesnâ€™t get any better than this.â€
Want to get Muay Thai muscle? WeaveÂ the following MMA moves in your daily workouts to get stronger, more mobile, and more athletic.
ILLUSTRATION BY MATT HUYNH
Targets Shoulders, Core
Benefits Hand Speed, Cardio
Grab a pair of light dumbbells and assume a fighterâ€™s stance. Alternate left and right forward punches for 30 seconds. Repeat with shoulder presses and hook punches. Rest 1 minute. Thatâ€™s 1 round; do 3.
ILLUSTRATION BY MATT HUYNH
Targets Lats, Quads
Benefits Strength, Explosiveness, Mobility
From a standing position, push your hips back, squat, and put your hands on the floor. Kick your legs into a pushup position and drive your hips down. Return to a squat and jump up. Do 3 sets of 15 reps.
Hindu Press-Up And Rolling Plank Complex
Targets Chest, Core, Hips, Shoulders
Benefits Upper-Body Strength, Hip Mobility, Total-Body Stability
From a pushup position, raise your hips to form an upside-down V. Drop your hips and pull your body forward, raising your torso until your arms are straight. Return to the starting position. Do 4 sets of 10 reps. Between each set, do a rolling plank: Assume a pushup position with your weight on your forearms. Hold 30 seconds. Then rotate to your right side, back down, and on your left side, 30 seconds each.
Muay Thai Knee Strike
ILLUSTRATION BY MATT HUYNH
Targets Hips, Core
Benefits Range Of Motion, Balance
Stand with your hands locked around the neck of an imaginary opponent. Simultaneously pull down to your right and thrust your right knee up (as if youâ€™re striking him in the gut). Do 3 sets of 20 reps per leg.
Source by menshealth