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Level Up Your Clinch Game

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The clinch is a unique skill set belonging to muay Thai, that helps differentiate it from other striking sports, like kickboxing. It is most easily described as a form of stand-up wrestling. The clinch is a very technical and strategic area of Thai boxing that includes the use of elbows, knees, sweeps, and throws. Although not always the case, in Thailand, it is usually weighed heavily in fights, and performance in this area can be the difference between winning and losing. 


The clinch only occurs at close range. This range is too close for punches or kicks. Both fighters hold one another, using their arms to control their opponent and create openings for point-scoring. Often chest to chest, fighters will maneuver the other, not by sheer force, but by feeling out when the other fighter is off balance. Being off-balance makes it easier to be successfully swept or thrown onto the floor, which scores massive points for the aggressor, and entertains the spectators.

Here are the key areas to focus on when looking to develop your clinch strength and competency:


The Wrists

It is a misconception that improving your grip strength directly correlates to an increase in clinch strength. The vast majority of competitive clinching will be done with fully enclosed gloves. Additionally, whether in practice or a professional setting, the clasping of the hands or gloves is illegal in the sport. This is exactly the reason why we must develop our wrist strength instead.

It is actually the wrist, not the fingers or hands, that are used to execute the necessary locks and turns. 

Pull-ups are one of the simplest and most effective ways to improve wrist strength. While they can be a challenging exercise for anyone starting out, they are also a staple in a fighter’s conditioning program and should likewise be treated as an essential addition for anyone looking to up their clinch strength. It is advised to perform both regular pull-ups and false grip pull-ups. Both will strengthen the back, core, and forearms but the latter will place more emphasis on the wrists vs the hands.


The Neck:

The neck is another area that requires serious strength to win in the clinch. To give the opponent control of your head can be very dangerous. This is because where the head goes, the body follows. When clinching, your partner or opponent will usually have at least one hand on the back of your head. From here, they will try to maneuver your head to gain dominance and control over you.

Even single-handed grips can be used to pull you into knee strikes or pull you over the leg for a dump. However, when your opponent gains a dominant hold (both hands on the inside) on the back of your head, they can use this position to pull your head down towards the ground. For a start, this is unfavorably viewed by the judges and poses a risk of being kneed in the head. Having good neck strength can prevent this from happening. More generally, decent neck strength often reduces the dominance an opponent can have over you and helps minimize fatigue and frustration in the clinch. 


The Back:

The back is another major muscle group heavily relied on in the clinch. The two primary muscles that make up the back are the trapezius and the latissimus dorsi, which sit above and below the shoulder muscles. Both are worked during pull-ups, which we covered earlier, but the back benefits from being trained in multiple ranges of motion. 

Including rows to the arsenal will help to develop your pulling power, which, of course, is a must when clinching. When we rely on the arms alone to control our opponent, our biceps, triceps, and forearms can exhaust quickly. They are small muscles compared to the back. However, when we engage our lats in the locks and pulls, we access a much more powerful body part that is harder to fatigue.  


The Core

Technically, the core includes the back, which we’ve just covered, but it also consists of the abdominals (among other muscles), which we will focus on here. The abdominals are made up of the transverse abdominis ( deepest layer), rectus abdominis (top layer), and the external obliques ( on the sides).

Overall, core work should always be a part of a fighters conditioning program. Exercises such as planks, hollow holds, and farmers’ walks all sufficiently challenge the core and are easy to do whether or not you have access to gym equipment.


There is an abundance of exercises that target the rectus abdominis. The key here is to know what specific area/s the exercise targets and then concentrate all of your efforts on that area. It is really relatively easy for other areas of the body to compensate for any areas of weakness. Improper technique will fail to get you the best of results, and in the worst case, can cause injury down the line. Essential exercises to target the rectus abdominis include crunches, sit-ups, and hundreds. 

The obliques are the muscles along the ribs that allow the body to perform rotational movements. These will be used heavily when clinching, especially for sweeps, throws, and other body manipulation of your opponent. They are also involved in knee and elbow variations. 


Russian twists are a great way to replicate the twisting motion involved in the clinch. Other oblique exercises include bicycle crunches, side planks, and toe taps. You can also get creative by holding a medicine ball while you shadowbox clinching knees. 


Aside from explicitly targeting the muscle groups involved in the clinch, bag work and technical drills should always be included to ensure a well-rounded training program. Here's how to focus on the clinch in other aspects of your training.


Shadow Boxing:

Shadowboxing is a Muay Thai training essential. It's great to add to a warm-up, cool down, or even as the main component of your session if you are training from home. Add hand weights to your punches if possible, as they help to strengthen the forearms and shoulders. 

Another suitable drill is to imagine entering and exiting the clinch. It can be more difficult to shadow than standard punches and kicks, but this is no reason to exclude it from your shadowboxing.


Bag work:

Numbers on the bag are a staple of Thai training. Gyms often require fighters to perform over 300 knees at the end of a clinch session, and repetition is crucial. If possible, add some clinching knees to the end of your bag workout. 

For the best results, grab the bag at your head height and grip with your forearms and wrists as opposed to your hands. Push the bag slightly away from you at an angle if it is a swinging bag/light enough.


Technical Partnered Work: 

It’s tough to be a successful and skillful clincher without engaging in practice with a partner. The Thais spend hours in the clinch, honing and perfecting their craft every day. To get the best results, spend as much time as possible with a partner playing in the clinch, throwing knees (at reduced power), and practicing throws. For best results, find someone with a similar weight as you can be more successful with dumps and sweeps.


A well-rounded Muay Thai fighter is comfortable in the clinch, and this entails a combination of adequate strength and conditioning, bag work, and technical drills. The clinch is an integral part of the sport and the more time spent practicing, the more comfortable you will feel. Losing in the clinch can be a frustrating feeling - make sure to give yourself the best chance possible by adding these exercises and drills to your regular sessions.


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