The more Muay Thai pad holders you work with, the more you realize that there are few that are very good, most are average, and some are plain bad.
As a beginner, you won’t have any reference points to help you determine what is good or bad. Similar to your first relationship, you won’t know how good a trainer is until you compare them with others.
Over the past decade, I have been lucky enough to work with over a hundred different pad holders in Thailand, and I can recall maybe a dozen or so that stick out in my mind as the best. The majority did a good enough job, and there were probably another dozen that were terrible.
It is important to note that the background of a fighter does not indicate whether they are a good or bad pad holder. Saenchai is a legend in the ring, but he is not the best pad holder or trainer. Back in 2011, I remember watching foreigners take private lessons with Saenchai at Sinbi Muay Thai. At the time, I remember thinking that these guys were wasting their money because there were way better trainers at the gym.
Pad holding is a skill that is developed through practice. Just because a fighter is a champion at Lumpinee Stadium doesn’t make them automatically a good pad holder. One of the worst pad sessions I had was when I worked with a new trainer who was fresh off winning the channel 7 title. Unluckily, on his first day at the gym, I had him on pads. I can honestly say I have had beginners hold pads better than this guy, and he was an accomplished champion.
In Thailand, fighters do not hold pads until they are retired. This means that the top-level fighters often have 20 years of fight experience without ever needing to hold pads. These fighters make great sparring and clinching partners, but until they get to practice, they suck at holding pads.
To help Break down the ideal pad holder, I have created a list of 5 traits that I believe make up the best pad holders.
#1. They Are Motivating on Pads (High Energy)
For me, the most important criteria that I have when it comes to pad holding/trainers is the energy they give. Kicking pads is a two-way street. If your trainer is tired and lazy, that energy passes on to you. Conversely, if you work with a high energy trainer who is motivated and enthusiastic, you will find it so much easier to smash pads, even when you feel tired.
When you work with enough trainers you will encounter lazy trainers. These trainers are boring, will continue to call out the same combinations, and don’t give you any energy in the pad session. You can tell just from looking at the trainer’s face that they don’t want to hold your pads and can’t wait to go home.
What I usually do when I encounter a lazy trainer is I’ll purposely piss them off by teeping them down with a hard push kick or throw a fake elbow to be a little bit cocky with them. I would rather have a pissed off trainer who is trying to hit me hard, than a trainer who doesn’t care at all. From my experience, some energy, even if it is negative, is better than no energy at all.
#2. They Hold the Pads Properly
An important aspect of pad holding is knowing how to hold the pads correctly. How you hold pads for someone can have a big impact on how they strike. While every trainer holds pads slightly differently, there are some general dos and don’ts have pad holding.
If you are relatively new to Muay Thai, you might get tricked into thinking that good pad holders throw a lot of fancy combinations and teach a lot of cool techniques. Unfortunately, this is the result of watching too many Instagram videos where people tend to post training videos that get the most likes and shares.
Some of the best pad holders often have the most simple combinations like the jab-cross-body kick, Jab-Body Kick, or Jab-Jab-Cross- Hook. Long combination chains are useless and the only trainers I have ever seen do them are Western guys who have never been to Thailand. As a general rule of thumb, if your combination is longer than 4-5 strikes, you are doing too much. Most combinations should stick between 2-4 strikes at max.
If you train at a Boxing or Kickboxing gym, you probably noticed that your instructor teaches long combination that can be 7-10 strikes. While everybody has their own training methods, how many times do you see Boxers rattle off more than 3-4 strikes before their opponent responds. Like combinations feel more like choreography rather than replicating what actually happens in a fight.
Common Technical Pad Holding Mistakes
A lot of Western pad holders reach forward when they hold for a Thai kick, instead of bracing and letting the kick come to them. By meeting the kick with the pads, the contact point is not the same as if you were to kick someone in sparring. I know that some trainers do this to help reduce some of the power behind the kick, but I found that it makes my kicks feel off. You should brace your pads and bring them down slightly right before impact, but make sure the kick is allowed to reach you.
Another common mistake trainers make is bringing the pads forward and meeting punches half way to the target. Instead of allowing your punch to get full extension, your punch gets stopped half way to the target. This is the equivalent to standing in close range on the heavy bag, never allowing your jab or cross to reach full extension on power.
Keep your pads close together, and don’t create massive gaps so it simulates that you are striking on target. When you throw a jab-cross and the targets are 2 feet apart, that is not a realistic simulation.
#3. They Throw Strikes at You
Once you get past the beginning and intermediate stages of Muay Thai, a pad session with a good trainer will often feel like a fight. They will be attacking you at any given moment, trying to get through your defense and trick you. Throwing light strikes during a pad round helps to keep students honest.
A good friend of mine had his arm broken from a trainer who was kicking him during pads. This trainer is one of my favorite trainers to work with, but he can get overly excited and end up going full power depending on his mood. Ideally, your trainer shouldn’t end up hurting you if you don’t block.
If you know that at any given moment your trainer can punch you in the face, you will have your hands up. Conversely, if you know your trainer won’t do anything, it is easy to form bad habits because there are not consequences of those actions.
The level of activity that you experience from a trainer will often depend on their age. Don’t expect to have an old Ajarn (master) throw the same kind of strikes as a young and in-shape trainer. However, regardless of their age, they should be constantly looking to keep you honest throughout your pad rounds.
#4. They Can Offer Technical Improvements
A good trainer will be able to help you improve areas of your game that need to be improved. It is important to differentiate between offering important tips and over correcting. Some trainers over correct and try to change everything in a single pad holding session.
I’ve found that the best trainers will give you one or two tips, and focus the entire five rounds of pads on drilling those concepts. If you are a beginner then you can expect a trainer to work many more areas like your footwork, and the techniques for each strike. That being said, good trainers will break things down to the basics with beginners and will focus on a few concepts at once.
Some trainers have egos and feel like correcting you is a form of showing authority and power over you. You can generally get a sense of this, when it comes to how they correct your technique. If a trainer laughs at you and tells his friends to watch your poor technique, they are trying to belittle you. This happens often in some Thai gyms, so don’t be surprised if it happens to you.
#5. They Make You Better
The best trainers will push you harder than you thought you thought was possible. Before one of my fights, I worked with a trainer who nearly killed me. After 5 grueling rounds on pads, when I was completely dead, he told me to do 100 kicks with each leg. While I could barely stand by the end of the session, I learned that no matter how tired you feel, there is always more in the tank if you push a little bit more.
When you work with a good Muay Thai trainer, you will finish the pad session feeling like you got better. Whether you improved your cardio, learned a few techniques, or developed better defense, you always feel like you gained something.
Slow improvements over a long period of time can add up to large gains. Good trainers will help you unlock more tools in your Muay Thai toolbox and make you a better fighter.
From my experience, the most important trait that makes a good pad holder is the trainer’s energy level. Anyone can learn how to hold pads correctly from a technical level, but a trainer’s energy is what separates the wheat from the chaff. If a trainer gives off low energy it can feel extremely demotivating and make you lazy on pads.
I’ve worked with some excellent trainers who are great at teaching technique, but after I while I start getting annoyed because they rarely pushed me hard. While some of this laziness could have been that particular day of the week, if you work with a trainer a few times and they have low demotivating energy levels, find someone new.
If you are a pad holder who doesn’t have much experience, the most important thing you need to start off with is high energy. Make the pad holding session entertaining and I guarantee that people will like working with you.
Since most people in the West have to hold pads at the gym, try to become a better pad holder and it will improve the overall level of Muay Thai at your gym.