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 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.
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 to give you accurate 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 I would choose Muay Thai over other striking arts? And that’s a very fair question to ask.
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.
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. Selecting 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 watered down version of Kickboxing with a few elements of Muay Thai added to it.
Choosing the 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.)
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 it’s a great place to train.
Look for a gym that has a good competition track record, teaches difficult combos (even if you don’t get it at first), the instructor has quality Muay Thai experience (ask about his background), puts you through an adequate warm up, and you enjoyed the class structure!
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 basic 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 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 their technique.
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 position 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, it is tough to change 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 BASIC TECHNIQUES
Starting off, focus on your basic punches, kicks, knees, and elbows. Don’t try to worry about any tricky techniques like spinning back elbow or jumping knee.
Just focus on these basic strikes: jab, cross, hook, body (round) kicks, 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 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.
A good fighter can win a fight using only two or three weapons the entire match. 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 need 16 oz gloves. If you purchase 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.
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 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 training to ensure that students develop a well-rounded game.
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.
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.
Pad Work – Hitting Muay Thai pads is an essential 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.
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’s hard 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. 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 together combinations, just focus on the basics.
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.
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 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.
Muay Thai is a sport that is inclusive of men and women.
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 useful than other martial arts out there.
As a beginner, you should not spar until you develop proper fundamental techniques. Trying to spar without having cemented your method 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.
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 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.
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 correctly, you will tend to revert to old habits. The moment you stop thinking about how you are performing a technique that is the moment you will revert 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 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.
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?
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 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 sound fundamentals that will give you a good Muay Thai foundation to build on.