Muay Thai is by far the most effective striking art in the world. What sets Muay Thai training apart from other martial arts is its emphasis on sparring and competition. While other martial arts tend to do a lot of ‘theory’ and ‘combat simulations’ that take place in controlled environments, Muay Thai focuses on developing your timing through sparring and fighting.
Whether you want to develop self confidence, get extremely fit, or compete in the ring, Muay Thai is a sport that is inclusive of multiple goals. There are a million reasons why you may want to train Muay Thai and at the end of the day there are no wrong reasons to train.
In order to train Muay Thai effectively you need to find a trainer who can help you develop your skills from the ground up. While you might be able to learn a few tips and tricks from watching YouTube videos, as a beginner you need someone watching you performing the technique in order to give you feedback on your execution.
The goal of this guide is to provide a brief overview of Muay Thai training and some important concepts you need to understand. If you are training purely for fitness goals, then you don’t need to continue reading. However, if you want to learn authentic Muay Thai hopefully this guide can steer you along in the right direction.
Why Choose Muay Thai?
If you are a skeptical person like myself, the first question you are probably going to ask is why would I choose Muay Thai over other striking arts? And that’s a very fair question to ask.
Recommended Reading: A Brief History of Muay Thai
When it comes to the art of striking, Muay Thai is hands down better than any other style out there. While there are other effective striking styles like Dutch Kickboxing for example, there is nothing as complete as Muay Thai.
The reason Muay Thai is the complete stand up art is because it utilizes 8 limbs to attack. Instead of just punching and kicking, Muay Thai fighters are able to use deadly knee and elbow attacks to hurt their opponents. In addition, Muay Thai fighters are also masters at clinching (stand up grappling) and are able to throw their opponents to the ground.
Recommended Reading: Muay Thai vs Kickboxing – The Fight that Changed History
If you put a Muay Thai fighter in the ring against a Kickboxer with a similar experience level (same number of fights etc.), the Muay Thai fighter will win every time. The addition of elbow strikes, knees and clinching make Muay Thai fighters extremely deadly because they have so many weapons at their disposal. This is why Muay Thai is the de facto striking style for all MMA fighters.
Muay Thai is a sport that was developed in Thailand as a form of combat and eventually turned into a ring sport like Boxing. Because of the competition element, Muay Thai has evolved considerably over the years to incorporate better boxing and movement. In the past 20 years Muay Thai gyms in Thailand began to incorporate Western Boxing directly into their training, which has created a new breed of elite strikers.
Watch This FIGHT: Epic Muay Thai Battle between Thanonchai vs. Sangmanee
The Importance of Choosing a Good Gym
Now that you understand why you should train Muay Thai over other martial arts, it is now time to find a gym. Choosing a gym is one of the most important decisions you will make in your Muay Thai journey. If you end up choosing the wrong gym you can end up learning a water down version of Kickboxing with a few elements of Muay Thai added to it.
Recommended Reading: Find the Right Trainer – 5 Things to Look For
Choosing the quality gym will ensure that you develop good technique from the start of your journey, rather than learning from an instructor who only cares about flirting with girls and getting paid. (I’ve had my share of bad trainers.)
In order to choose a good gym you need to look up the background of the instructor who will be teaching you. Just because a gym looks nice on the outside doesn’t mean its a great place to train.
There are plenty of massive fitness factories out there that have hundreds of students, that are terrible gyms. The size of the gym is not an indication of the quality. I’m not saying that all large gyms are bad (of course there are good ones), but don’t be tempted by places that offer you everything under the sun. Muay Thai should be your focus, so don’t get distracted by places that offer you everything under the sun.
Usually when a gym owner is also the head trainer at the gym, that is a pretty good sign they are passionate about what they do. Try and avoid “factory” gyms that are out there only to make money. You will end up turning into just another number at the gym without a name.
Recommended Reading: The importance of Working with Different Muay Thai Trainers
As I said before my goal is to help you find a REAL Muay Thai gym to learn a proper style. If you learn the right style when you start, it will save you countless hours of changing everything when you make your first trip to Thailand.
If you only train Muay Thai for the fitness benefits then you can find a gym that offers a cardio workout and you are good to go. If burning calories is your goal, then you don’t have to continue reading this article.
There are a lot of good instructors who come from non Muay Thai backgrounds. However, if you want to learn real Muay Thai you need to find someone who teaches traditional Muay Thai. Otherwise you might as well be going to a pure Kickboxing gym. If your potential instructor has a background in 5 different martial arts and it says ‘certificate in Muay Thai,’ that should raise some questions in your mind.
If you are completely new to the sport it will be nearly impossible to know who is good and who is bad. Since you won’t know what proper Muay Thai style really looks like, it is easy to get sucked into believing that you are learning Muay Thai, when you are actually learning Kickboxing with a few Muay Thai techniques thrown in there.
In the perfect world you would book a trip out to Thailand and get immersed in Muay Thai from the source. Fortunately there are plenty of good gyms out there, you just need to find them.
Recommended Reading: How to Find the Best Muay Thai Gym in Thailand
Learning the Fundamentals of Muay Thai
After you have found a gym that has a good Muay Thai instructor, you will then start the process of learning Muay Thai. If you have a background in any traditional martial art like Karate, Taekwondo or Kungfu, this is the stage where you try to unlearn everything you have learned.
If you don’t care about learning a proper Muay Thai style and want to keep your Taekwondo (other) fighting style, that is your choice. Just bear in mind you will never be able to appreciate what Muay Thai truly has to offer if you don’t adapt the proper Muay Thai style.
If you come from a western Boxing background consider yourself lucky. You will be able to incorporate all of your boxing techniques into your Muay Thai game, with the exception of your stance, head movement and boxing rhythm.
Since your goal is (should be) to eventually develop beautiful Muay Thai techniques, you want to start from a blank slate. If you have already programmed your legs to kick a certain way, it can be difficult to try and undo bad habits in order to change. By unlearning what you learned at the beginning stage, it will save you years of frustration when you try to change something that has already been ingrained in you.
Recommended Reading: The Importance of Focusing on Your Muay Thai Fundamentals
Again, this is where a good instructor will come into play. If you have bad habits they will correct you. If you train at a gym where your instructor doesn’t try and fix anything, your alarm bells should be going off. As a beginner you will need a lot of correction in order to learn things the right way.
It is important to lose your ego when you walk into the door. If you have an ego and think you know everything already, you will be holding yourself back from learning. Nothing is worse than giving a student advice and having them say, “I know, I know already.” These type of responses indicate that the person is unwilling to learn and is stuck in their old habits.
I wouldn’t waste a second trying to help someone who thinks they already ‘know it all.’ If you come to the gym thinking you know everything, you might as well stay home and train by yourself. I’ve been training for nearly a decade and I can tell you that I am still learning every day. The moment you stop learning, is the moment you stop improving.
The Importance of the Basics
When you are starting your Muay Thai journey it is important that you focus on the Muay Thai basics. In the early stages of your development things will move very slowly. The goal is to develop your basic techniques, movements and rhythm before you can start becoming more fluid and throw strikes without thinking.
There are a lot of guys who walk into Muay Thai gyms wanting to spar after their first week of beginner training. While sparring will develop toughness, it will also create bad habits if you don’t have good fundamentals. There is a reason why beginners should not be doing any real sparring until they have developed the fundamental techniques first.
Trying to spar when you are a beginner is like giving someone a tennis racket and telling them to play a match. Before playing a match, a tennis player needs to learn how to hit the ball, understand the rules, and be able to serve. If a player plays tennis before learning proper fundamentals, he will turn into a tennis hacker and will cement bad habits into their technique.
Recommended Reading: The Muay Thai Learning Curve – 3 Stages of Development
Patience is very important when you are starting off in Muay Thai. You will want to learn everything all at once, but focus on your basics. I won’t go into much detail about the basics because it would turn this article into an essay. However, I will mention a few points just to start getting your mind thinking about what you need to do.
Stance and Rhythm
Starting off the first thing you need to learn is your basic stance and rhythm. Learning where your feet go and how to move around in your stance. This is similar to learning a new dance. With enough practice you will learn how to move like a Muay Thai fighter. It takes years to develop the right Muay Thai rhythm. In fact, if you don’t work on it when you start, you won’t ever develop it. Muay Thai rhythm emphasizes balance and control. At all times you should be able to attack and defend any attack from your opponent.
Your Muay Thai Guard
In addition to your basic movement, you will also need to develop your Muay Thai guard. There are many different types of guards out there, but the key concept is keeping your hands high so you can block incoming attacks. As a beginner you should never try to learn an evasive guard (like Saenchai) because you won’t have the head movement necessary to avoid damage. Keeping your hands up is all you need to know about your guard. You can work on variations of your guard when you get more advanced, but just remember these important two words: Hands UP!
Your Basic Techniques
Starting off you should only focus on your basic punches, kicks, knees and elbows. Don’t try to worry about any kind of tricky techniques like spinning back elbow or jumping knee.
Just focus on these basic strikes: jab, cross, hook, body (round) kicks, basic knees and elbows
While there are dozens of other techniques you will eventually learn learn like uppercuts, low kicks, head kicks, spinning elbows, and flying knees, keep your techniques limited to these basics until you can perform each technique correctly. These are your pillar strikes that will be used in most of your training, so it is important to learn the correct techniques when you start.
Recommended Reading: A Comprehensive List of Muay Thai Techniques
A good fighter can win a fight using only two or three weapons the entire fight. With good left body kick you can outscore most of the opponents that you encounter in the ring. The basics are everything when it comes to Muay Thai (any sport for that matter). Think of your basic strikes like a good forehand or backhand in Tennis – they will be used 90% of the time.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t learn how to do other techniques, but I am saying you should FOCUS on your basics. Learning how to walk, before you can run is important in developing good fundamentals in your game.
What You Need for Training
As a beginner the only thing you need to own is a pair of Muay Thai gloves, hand wraps, and athletic shorts (Muay Thai shorts are even better). You can also purchase a pair of shin guards as well, but you won’t be sparring until you develop your fundamentals first. For your first pair of gloves you can buy a pair of 12,14,16 oz gloves depending on your hand size. If you buy a pair of smaller 8-12 oz gloves you won’t be able to spar with them because they don’t offer enough padding for your sparring partners.
I suggest you buy a pair of Muay Thai gloves, but Boxing gloves will work fine as well. Muay Thai gloves have shorter cuffs and allow the hands to open up for clinching. As a beginner, you only need a basic pair of gloves to get started because you won’t be sparring or clinching. So the gloves are not going to make or break anything.
Recommended Reading: A Guide to Muay Thai Gloves
Once you start sparring you will then need to purchase a mouthguard and groin protection (optional). Never, ever, spar without a mouthguard. Trust me, I’ve had a tooth chipped from a pad holder smashing me and it is not fun. The dentist fees will cost you 10x more than a good mouthguard, so don’t be afraid to invest in a good mouthguard.
Training Structure of Muay Thai
The structure of Muay Thai training is similar to Western Boxing. The different elements of the training are each designed to sharpen specific areas of your Muay Thai game. Good gyms will incorporate many of these elements in the training to ensure that students develop a well rounded game.
Every gym has their own unique structure and training schedule. You may find some gyms emphasize certain areas more depending on the instructor and class size. (A lot of gyms don’t utilize heavy bag training because classes are too big.) There are many different training methods and I won’t argue which one is better or worse.
This is an overview of the different things you will encounter in your Muay Thai training.
Road Work – Outside of your ‘official’ training hours is when you dedicate time to road work, also known as running. This is designed to help you improve your energy systems and build up your general cardio. Running is completely optional in most gyms and require you to be motivated to do it on your own. Adding running to your training will help you get in better shape, allowing you to feel less tired in training.
If you ever plan on fighting running is an essential part of your training. Anyone who tells you that you don’t need to run before a fight, probably hasn’t fought in Thailand in a 5 round war. There is a reason why Thai boxers and Western boxers have incorporated long runs in their training regiment for the past hundred years.
Recommended Reading: Muay Thai Conditioning 101
Shadow Boxing – At the start of most Muay Thai classes you will usually start off shadow boxing. Shadow boxing takes place in front of a mirror so you can look at your stance, footwork, and techniques. As a beginner, when you shadow box you should be trying to maintain the perfect stance, rhythm, and guard, while throwing your techniques. Seeing yourself in the mirror gives you a chance to see how you look and what you need to work on.
Slow everything down and try to focus on keeping everything simple. Don’t worry about trying to move around and throwing fancy techniques. After you throw a technique always make sure you come back to your original stance. This is going to help you develop your fundamentals.
Pad Work – Hitting Muay Thai pads is an important element of Muay Thai training. In most gyms you will have other students hold pads for you, unless you are doing private lessons or training in Thailand. As a beginner you should try to work with someone who is more advanced and knows how to hold pads. This will ensure that they can give you corrections and help you learn how to hit the pads.
Starting off you want to keep everything simple and focus on your technique, not power. You may be tempted to try and smash the pads as hard as you can, but this is only going to result in you throwing off your technique. Start off slow and focus on developing your basic movements first. Once you have learned the correct movements you can then work on other aspects of your game.
A good pad holder is really essential in this stage. If you end up working with a beginner then both of you won’t know what you are doing. A good instructor will pair beginners with advanced pad holders so they can help the beginners progress in their technique.
Example of Padwork: Hitting pads with Kru Yod
Bag Work – Another area that is used in Muay Thai training is heavy bag training. The heavy bag is a piece of equipment that is designed to give you an opportunity to work on your techniques and conditioning on your own time. It is difficult to train on a heavy bag when you first start because you won’t know what you should be doing.
The key is to keep everything simple and focus on single techniques to start. Throw a jab, reset, throw a right kick, reset, throw a knee, reset. Focus on trying to throw every strike with perfect execution and resetting yourself back to your Muay Thai stance. Don’t worry about trying to string together combinations, just focus on the basics.
Hitting the heavy bag is a great way to build your stamina and it can also be used to conditioning your shins and knuckles. If you want to toughen up your shins, hitting the heavy bag is by far the best way to do it. After months and months of hitting hard bag, you shins will start to harden up.
Partner Drills – One of the best ways to become comfortable punching and kicking an opponent is to work on drills with a partner. Drills can help you develop confidence in your guard and will teach you how to block incoming attacks. Since drills are performed with no power, it allows you to focus on your technique and eliminates any risk of being hurt.
Eventually you can increase your speed when you drill, but the power will always be turned off to prevent any injuries. The point of drills are to help you develop your reflexes, timing and reactions when you are facing an opponent.
Clinching – In Muay Thai there is striking and their is clinching. Think of the Muay Thai clinch as the BJJ/Wrestling side of MMA. This is an area where you are locked with your opponent and battle for control of position. Clinching only involves arm control, sweeps, elbows and knees.
Your development in the clinch will depend on the gym you train at. A lot of western gyms don’t focus on clinching because of time constraints and a lack of clinching experience. When you clinch you should take off your gloves (when you are advanced you can clinch with gloves) and wear a mouthguard. You would be surprised how many head butts you get when you clinch, so protect your mouth.
As a beginner you probably won’t be clinching until you learn your basics first, but it will depend entirely on the instructor.
Recommended Reading: Muay Thai Clinching 101 – An Overview of the Clinch
Muay Thai Sparring – Sparring is the process utilizing all of your techniques against a real opponent. It is in this stage of training that you will learn what works and what doesn’t work in reality. This is the element that most traditional martial arts are missing from their training regimen. This is what make sports like Muay Thai, Kickboxing, and Boxing much more effective than other martial arts out there.
As a beginner you should not spar until you develop good fundamental techniques. Trying to spar without having cemented your technique will result in you creating bad habits that will be difficult to change. While you may be excited to try sparring, be patient and focus on drilling until you have good enough control and technique. This is a stage where you will find your own style eventually.
Boxing Sparring – Even though Muay Thai and Western Boxing are two separate sports, many Muay Thai gyms have incorporated Boxing sparring into their training to improve their hand striking. In Thailand, most of the gyms spar Western Boxing 50% of the time. This allows fighters to develop good head movement and better punches when they fight.
As a beginner you should understand the importance of Boxing and how it can help your overall Muay Thai game. Punches are a big part of fighting, and there is no better sport than Western Boxing when it comes to hands. Sparring with only punches allows you to work on your head movement and your punching strikes, which are essential if you want to reach a high level in the sport.
Recommend Reading: 12 Sparring Tips that Will Making you Better
Body Conditioning – One thing that separates Muay Thai fighters from other fighters is their toughness and conditioning. Fighters who have conditioned their bodies to take pain, are able to withstand a huge amount of damage without going down. As a beginner your goal is to focus on slowly developing a strong body over time. You will notice your shins hurt like crazy when you first start. That is completely normal and something you have to live with. Unfortunately there are no short cuts to conditioning your body in Muay Thai. The more you kick and get hit, the tougher your body will become over time.
Fighting – Competing in the ring is the final stage of a Muay Thai training program. This is the ultimate goal because it allows you to test everything you have learned in training and see how it applies to a real situation. Less than 10% of people who train Muay Thai ever end up competing. So don’t feel like you have to compete in order to train Muay Thai.
When you reach an advanced level of Muay Thai competing can help you take your game to a higher level. As I mentioned before, you don’t need to compete to enjoy the many benefits of Muay Thai. Just keep in mind that amateur competitions are fully padded and the risk of injuries are greatly reduced.
Recommended Reading: Fighting in Thailand – 5 Matchup Scenarios You Will Face
The Process of Development
In combat sports there is a tendency to want to run before you can walk. Because everyone is born with the ability to swing their arm and replicate a punch, it is easy to be under the illusion that you have mastered the basics after a few classes. In every technique there are so many different movements happening in your body that it takes hundreds of hours of repetition to truly master a technique.
Even when you perform a technique perfectly, you will have a tendency to want to revert back to old habits. The moment you stop thinking about how you are performing a technique, that is the moment you will revert back to any old habits you have ingrained in you.
Because you have to learn all of the basics from the ground up, you will need to focus on one thing at a time. The key to surviving the early stages of Muay Thai is patience and perseverance. With hard work and a willingness to learn and grow, you will eventually start to become more comfortable performing the different techniques.
Once you can throw you techniques without thinking, that is when your learning will curve will skyrocket upwards. Once you pass the beginner stage, Muay Thai training starts to become a lot more fun. This is the growth period of your journey and is an extremely exciting time to train. Every time you show up to class you will be improving and getting better.
This is the stage where you go from surviving your training sessions, to thriving. People who used to intimidate you in training will suddenly start to become your equal. You will spar with everyone in the gym and be able to hold your own. This is the intermediate stage of Muay Thai.
Recommended Reading: Why Competing in the Ring Feels so Different than Sparring
Once you are in the intermediate stage for a few years, you will eventually reach the advanced stage. In this stage you will experience stagnation in your growth. Suddenly you will stop learning as fast as you used to and will start to notice a lack of progress. This is the maturation stage and is the final stage of your development. To improve in this stage requires much more work and constant focus in training.
Learning is Your Responsibility
If you want to reach a high level in Muay Thai you need to put in the work. Some guys may be naturally talented when they start, but if they aren’t willing to work it doesn’t mean anything. Muay Thai is a sport that rewards those who are dedicated and are willing to put in the hours.
With this being said, just showing up for training is not good enough. You need to be focused and think about what you are doing when you are training. Ask yourself if you are throwing the correct technique when you strike. Is there anything you can do to improve your technique?
Recommended Reading: 7 Common Injuries You Will Experience in Muay Thai
By constantly critiquing your own technique you will give yourself important feedback that will help you develop good habits from the start. Training hard is not enough, you need to train the RIGHT WAY to reach your potential. Unless you are training with someone one on one, you need to take responsibility for your own growth in the sport.
There is only so much you can learn from a group class of 40+ people with one instructor. It is up to you to spend time on your own game to learn how to do things correctly and the right way. If you get a chance to visit Thailand and learn from the source, I highly recommend you do. The Thai trainers will help you develop good fundamentals that will give you a good Muay Thai foundation to build on.
Want to Learn More?
If you enjoyed reading this guide then you should check out my book Muay Thai Strategy. This book is designed to help you build a solid Muay Thai game from the ground up.
The Strategy bundle comes with 3 books that are each designed to help you with a different area of your game. You can learn more by clicking here.