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 are mainly ‘theory’ and ‘combat simulations’ that take place in controlled environments, Muay Thai focuses on developing timing through sparring and fighting.
If you are not interested in fighting or sparring, you can still enjoy Muay Thai for its cardio benefits. Muay Thai classes are highly cardio-intensive workouts that will burn a huge amount of calories if you train hard.
Whether you want to develop self-confidence, get incredibly 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 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, when you first start training, you need someone to watch you perform a technique and give you feedback so you can make adjustments.
The goal of this guide is to provide you with an overview of Muay Thai training and important concepts you need to understand to reach a high level. If you are training purely for fitness goals, then you do not need to continue reading. However, if you want to learn authentic Muay Thai, hopefully this guide can steer you 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 is a very fair question to ask.
Recommended Reading: A Brief History of Muay Thai
When it comes to the striking arts, Muay Thai is hands-down better than any other style out there. While there are other effective striking styles like Dutch Kickboxing, for example, none are as complete as Muay Thai.
The reason Muay Thai is the complete stand-up art is that it utilizes eight points to attack. Often referred to as the art of eight limbs, Muay Thai fighters use deadly knee and elbow attacks in addition to punches and kicks. Additionally, Muay Thai fighters are also masters at clinching (stand-up grappling) and can throw their opponents to the ground with devastating force.
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 matches etc.), the Muay Thai fighter will win every time because of the clinch and extra weapons. The Muay Thai clinch is like the stand-up version of BJJ. If you do not know how to clinch, a good clincher will destroy you.
The addition of elbow strikes, knees and clinching provide Muay Thai fighters with more deadly weapons at their disposal. Instead of limiting their strikes to kicks and punches, they can attack with elbows and clinch in close range. The diverse options are why Muay Thai is the predominant striking style for all MMA fighters.
Muay Thai is a sport that was developed in Thailand as a form of combat for the Thai military and eventually turned into a ring sport by adopting Boxing rules.
While punches used to be the Achilles heel of a Muay Thai fighter, Muay Thai has evolved considerably over the years to incorporate better boxing and movement. In the past 20 years, Muay Thai gyms in Thailand incorporated Western Boxing directly into their training, which 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 time to find a gym. Selecting a gym is one of the most important decisions you will make in your Muay Thai journey. If you choose the wrong gym, you can end up learning a watered-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 a high quality gym will ensure that you develop proper 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.)
To choose a good gym, you need to look up the background of the instructor who will be teaching you and the fighters that the gym has produced. Just because a gym looks nice on the outside doesn’t mean it’s a great place to train.
There are plenty of massive fitness factories out there that have hundreds of students and are terrible gyms. Avoid training at any big commercial gyms like UFC gyms; they are designed to make money, not to train you. The size of the gym is not an indication of the quality. I have found that the best gyms are often smaller gyms that have a more community feel, compared to large ones that are like factories churning out students.
When a gym owner is also the head trainer at the gym, that is a pretty good sign he is passionate about what he does.
Recommended Reading: The Importance of Working with Different Muay Thai Trainers
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 adjustments 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 like H.I.T. and you are good to go. If burning calories is your only goal, then you don’t have to continue reading this article.
There are many excellent 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 Kickboxing gym that is disguised as a Muay Thai gym. If your potential instructor has a background in 5 different martial arts and he advertises that he has a ‘certificate in Muay Thai,’ that should raise some questions in your mind.
If you are new to the sport, it is difficult to distinguish between a good coach and a bad one. Since you do not 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.
In a 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, and you just need to find them.
Look for instructors who have had extensive experience living, training and fighting in Thailand. This is a good sign that they have the right background to teach you traditional Muay Thai.
If you can, avoid training Muay Thai at MMA gyms unless they have an instructor who came from a traditional background. Since MMA requires takedown defense, MMA striking is more like Kickboxing in that it focuses on the in and out movements and rushing forward. If you start training Muay Thai from an MMA gym (I started at an MMA gym back in 2006), you will pick up a LOT of bad habits that take years to correct. Remember, my goal is to help you learn REAL Muay Thai striking, not the bastardized version of it.
Recommended Reading: How to Find the Best Muay Thai Gym in Thailand
Learning the Fundamentals of Muay Thai
The teep (front kick) is a fundamental weapon in Muay Thai.
After you find a gym with a good Muay Thai instructor, you will then start the process of learning Muay Thai. If you have a background in any traditional martial arts like Karate, Taekwondo, or Kung Fu, this is the stage where you try to unlearn everything you have learned. While you can still hold on to some of your offensive techniques like the spinning kicks (those can be very effective), your stance, rhythm, and balance will need to adjust to Muay Thai.
If you are uninterested in learning a proper Muay Thai style and want to keep your Taekwondo (other) fighting style, that is your choice. Just bear in mind that you will never be able to appreciate what Muay Thai truly has to offer if you do not adopt a proper Muay Thai style.
If you come from a Western Boxing background, consider yourself lucky. Boxing is a great sport to know in addition to Muay Thai because the two sports blend seamlessly together. Sure, you can’t bob and weave in Muay Thai because you will eat a knee to the face, but the head movement and punching skills are easily transferable to Muay Thai. Muay Thai fighters with Boxing backgrounds are very deadly in the ring.
Since your goal should be to develop proper Muay Thai techniques, the less you know of other kicking sports, the better. 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 is 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, the instructor will correct you. If you train at a gym where your instructor does not try and fix anything, your alarm bells should be going off. As a beginner, you will need a ton of corrections to learn things the right way.
I wrote an article talking about the learning curve of Muay Thai. I recommend you read it if you want to read about the typical progression of a Muay Thai practitioner over the years.
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 hold yourself back from learning. Nothing is worse than giving students advice and hearing them say, “I know, I know already.” These types of responses indicate that people are unwilling to learn and are stuck in their old habits.
I wouldn’t waste a second trying to help people who think they already know it all. If you come to the gym thinking you know everything, you might as well stay home and train yourself. I’ve been training for over 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 be fluid and throw strikes without thinking.
There are plenty of guys who walk into Muay Thai gyms and want to spar after their first week of 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 participate in real sparring until they have developed the basic techniques first.
Trying to spar when you are a beginner is like giving someone a tennis racket and telling him to play a match. Before playing a real 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 his technique.
Recommended Reading: The Muay Thai Learning Curve – 3 Stages of Development
Patience is very important when you start off in Muay Thai. You will want to learn everything all at once but focus on the basics. I won’t go into much detail about the basics because that would turn this article into an essay. However, I will mention a few points just to get your mind thinking.
Stance and Rhythm
Starting off, the first thing you need to learn is your basic position and rhythm, learning where your feet go and how to move around in your stance. Learning stance and rhythm 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 do not work on it when you start, it is tough to correct bad habits later on. 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 types of guards out there, but the fundamental concept is keep 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 do not have the head movement necessary to avoid damage. Keep 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, focus on your basic punches, kicks, knees, and elbows. Do not worry about any tricky techniques like spinning back elbow or jumping knee.
When you are starting off, focus on these basic strikes: jab, cross, hook, body (round) kicks and teeps (front kicks)
Afterward, you can add low kicks, high kicks and elbows, and knees, but keep it simple in the beginning.
The bread and butter of Muay Thai is the body kick. This video below will teach you everything you need to know about the basics of a Muay Thai kick. Watch and learn before continuing.
While there are dozens of other techniques you will eventually learn like uppercuts, low kicks, head kicks, spinning elbows, and flying knees, keep your methods 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 match. With a 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 Muay Thai shorts. You can also purchase a pair of shin guards as well, but you won’t be sparring until you develop your fundamentals.
For your first pair of gloves, you can buy a pair of 12,14,16 oz gloves, depending on your hand size. If you purchase a pair of smaller 8-12 oz gloves, you will not be able to spar with them because they do not 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 start because you will not be sparring or clinching. So the gloves are not going to make or break anything.
In addition to gloves, you will also need a pair of hand wraps to protect your wrists. If you punch a heavy bag without hand wraps on, there is a chance you can sprain or break your wrist without the proper support. That is why all fighters use hand wraps for training.
The Muay Thai shorts are one of the things that make Muay Thai fighters stand out from the other martial arts. While boxers wear long shorts that go past the knees, and MMA fighters tend to wear skin-tight shorts because of the wrestling, Muay Thai fighters wear short-shorts made out of satin material.
These shorts give your legs room to breathe and also dry fast when they get wet. Because Muay Thai training will make you sweat out a lot of water, you have to avoid wearing any material that will hold on to the water.
Recommended Reading: A Guide to Muay Thai Gloves
Once you start sparring, you will 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 15 times 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 training are each designed to sharpen specific areas of your Muay Thai game. Good gyms will incorporate many of these elements in training to ensure that students develop a well-rounded game.
Every gym has a unique structure and training schedule. You may find some gyms emphasize certain areas more depending on the instructor and class size. (Many gyms don’t utilize heavy bag training because classes are too big.) There are a variety of training methods, and I won’t argue which one is better or worse.
Here 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. Running will help you improve your energy systems and build up your general cardio. Running is completely optional in most gyms and requires you to be motivated to do it on your own. Adding running to your training will help you get in better shape, and allow 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 a five round war in Thailand . There is a reason why Thai boxers and Western fighters incorporated long runs in their training regimens for the past hundred years. Running gives your legs enough energy to last through hard rounds of training and competition.
Recommended Reading: Muay Thai Conditioning 101
Shadow Boxing – At the start of most Muay Thai classes, you will usually shadow box. 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 try 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 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. Practicing resetting your stance will help you develop your fundamentals.
Pad Work – Hitting Muay Thai pads are an essential element of Muay Thai training. In most Western gyms, 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. Working with experienced people 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 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 learn the correct movements, you can then work on other aspects of your game.
A good pad holder is essential at this stage. If you end up 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 the advanced students can help the beginners progress in their technique.
Example of Padwork: Hitting pads with Kru Yod
Bag Work – Another element of Muay Thai training is heavy bag training. The heavy bag is a piece of equipment designed to allow you to work on your techniques and conditioning on your own time. It is hard to train on a heavy bag when you first start because you will not 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. Concentrate 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 an excellent way to build your stamina, and it can also condition your shins and knuckles. If you want to toughen up your shins, kicking the heavy bag is by far the best way to do it. After months and months of kicking a hard bag, your shins will 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, they allow you to focus on your technique and eliminate any risk of being hurt.
Eventually, you can increase your speed when you drill, but the power is always turned off to prevent injuries. The purpose of training drills is to help you develop your reflexes, timing, and reactions when you are facing an opponent.
Clinching – In Muay Thai there is striking, and there is clinching. Think of the Muay Thai clinch as the BJJ/Wrestling side of MMA. This is an area where you are locked in with your opponent and battle for control of the position. Clinching only involves arm control, sweeps, elbows, and knees.
Your development in clinching will depend on the gym you train at. Many western gyms do not 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 will not be clinching until you learn your basics, 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 does not work in reality. Sparring is the element that most traditional martial arts are missing from their training regimens. Practical application is what makes sports like Muay Thai, Kickboxing, and Boxing much more useful than other martial arts out there.
As a beginner, you should not spar until you develop proper fundamental techniques. Trying to spar without cementing your method will result in creating bad habits that are 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 eventually find your own style.
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 hand striking. In Thailand, most of the gyms spar Western Boxing 50% of the time. This emphasis on punching 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 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 an enormous 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 accept. Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts to conditioning your body in Muay Thai. The more you kick and take hits, the tougher your body will become over time.
Fighting – Competing in the ring is the final stage of a Muay Thai training program. Fighting is the ultimate goal because it allows you to test everything you learned in training and see how it applies to a real situation. Less than 5% of people who train Muay Thai ever compete. So don’t feel like you have to compete in order to train Muay Thai.
When you reach an advanced level of Muay Thai, fighting can help take your game to a higher standard. 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 is significantly 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 fall for the illusion that you have mastered the basics after a few classes. In every technique, there are so many movements happening in your body that it takes hundreds of hours of repetition to truly master a technique.
Even when you perform a technique correctly, you will tend to revert to old habits. The moment you stop thinking about how you are performing a technique, is the moment you will revert to any old habits 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. Through hard work and a willingness to learn and grow, you will eventually become more comfortable performing the different techniques.
Once you can throw your techniques without thinking, that is when your learning curve will skyrocket upwards. Once you pass the beginner stage, Muay Thai training starts to become a lot more fun. This new stage is the growth period of your journey and is an extremely exciting time to train. Every time you show up to class, you will improve and get better.
The growth period 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
After a few years in the intermediate stage, you will eventually reach the advanced stage. In the advanced 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 people may be naturally talented when they start, but if they aren’t willing to work, talent doesn’t mean anything. Muay Thai is a sport that rewards those who are dedicated and are willing to put in the hours.
With that 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 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 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 the right way. If you get a chance to visit Thailand and learn from the source, I highly recommend you take it. The Thai trainers will help you develop sound fundamentals that will give you a good Muay Thai foundation to build on.
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