Muay Thai is an ancient martial art that has been refined for centuries. It has a reputation for its sheer power, maximum efficiency, and graceful simplicity. Because of its effortless barrage of kicks and punches, elbows, and knees, Muay Thai is often nicknamed the “Art of 8 limbs.”
Today, Muay Thai is one of the world’s best known and practiced martial arts. It has a long and noble history, and now being recognised as one of (if not, the most) effective styles of striking.
In our comprehensive beginner’s guide we’re going to discuss the origins of Muay Thai, what it involves and how to get started in training. If you’re looking for a place to start, this is it.
What is Muay Thai?
While bearing similarities to kickboxing, Muay Thai is a very different discipline with its own rules and scoring system. Knees, elbows, punches, and kicks are all allowed, as is clinching.
Muay Thai (pronounced Moo-aye Thai) literally means Thai boxing. It is the national sport (obsession) of Thailand.
Muay Thai has ancient roots that evolved from Muay Boran, a Thai martial art. But over the century or so, Muay Thai has developed into the sport we know today.
Traditional martial arts in Thailand, it is believed, first appeared in 16th Century Siam, the country’s former name, as a self-defense and military combat system.
Muay Boran, the progenitor of Muay Thai, is an umbrella term for various styles developed in separate Thailand regions. These include Muay Korat, Muay Chaiya, Muay Lopburi, and Muay Thasao, named after the area in which they originated.
As inter-regional conflict died out, the martial art morphed into a competitive sport. Muay Thai as a sport was popularized between 1868 and 1910 during King Rama the Fifth’s reign. He arranged royal competitions and bestowed military titles on the winners.
The king’s successors further formalized Muay Thai. They introduced the boxing ring, set the number of rounds, and mandated Western-style boxing protective equipment like gloves and groin protectors.
Muay Thai exploded onto the world stage in the Seventies and Eighties. Several international fights pitted Thai fighters against other combat arts practitioners who invariably came off second best.
In the decades afterward, foreigners streamed into Thailand to both train and fight competitively. Now, Muay Thai is practiced worldwide for competition, self-defence purposes, or as a way to get fit.
Can everyone take up Muay Thai training?
A few short years ago, the mistaken perception was of Muay Thai fighters being wiry, mean guys covered in tats. However, this image of people itching for a competitive fight is misplaced.
The advent of MMA and the rise of the middle classes completely changed the landscape. People have discovered the benefits of training at a Muay Thai gym. So much so that they have sprung up worldwide in competition with conventional “pumping iron” type gyms.
I took up Muay Thai in my teens and met and became friends with plenty of others in the same age bracket. But that’s not to say the sport is just for youngsters. In fact, when I began coaching in 2012, most of my students were in their thirties. I have encountered five-year-olds, seniors in their seventies, men and women of just about every age and ethnicity.
So, Muay Thai is indisputably for everyone. No special aptitude is required. You will be fine if you can stand, see, jump, run, and move all your limbs freely.
How dangerous is Muay Thai?
I get asked this one a lot. There’s no denying that Muay Thai as a full-contact sport, is very violent. Fights are games of survival where black eyes, blood, and broken noses are the currency.
However, competitive fights take place in a controlled environment where referees enforce the rules and jump in to stop a fight if necessary. Indeed, there are risks to health involved with professional fights and to a smaller degree in amateur competitions. But rarely are injuries life-threatening.
Like me, most Muay Thai practitioners today got into the sport for purely fitness, health, and recreation reasons. That said, injuries do still occur when sparring or training. These are mainly down to over-exertion, mistiming a kick, or repetitive impacts.
Nothing too serious that won’t mend itself in a few days. To distill the answer, though, yes, Muay Thai can be a dangerous sport. But what, in life, isn’t to some degree or another?
The benefits of Muay Thai
Improved Fitness Levels
This is the most apparent gain since starting Muay Thai training. When training in such a demanding discipline as Muay Thai, you can’t avoid getting fitter.
Not only will you feel fitter, your stamina and energy levels will improve too. You’ll drop body fat like it’s nobody’s business. You’ll improve your muscular endurance. And who knows – maybe you’ll get that 6 pack!
Muay Thai is a great stress-reliver. I feel stressed out or a little down, Muay Thai is always the first thing that springs to mind.
Everything about Muay Thai seems to make the stress disappear. From the instructors to my gym buddies, the grunts and the impact sounds of heavy hits makes my heart sing.
But when it comes to sheer joy, you can’t beat the high you get from being utterly exhausted at the end of a training session. That would be the endorphins, then.
Getting to that point is also good for promoting quality sleep and rebuilding your energy for the next day. So Muay Thai has a significant feel-good factor thrown in.
Better Mental Toughness
By its very nature, Muay Thai is tough and limit-pushing. It’s easy to want to give up mid-training session. It’s mentally tougher, though, to press on and make it to the end. With a little encouragement from your trainer, you can summon up your last reserves. This is how Muay Thai toughens you up mentally.
You will, irresistibly, keep raising the bar on your training sessions. This dogged pursuit is an ongoing process that has translated itself into my job and helped me become more productive. My one regret looking back, is not taking up Muay Thai training sooner. I can only guess at what extra things I could have accomplished.
Friends For Life
Typically, as we get older and the work-life balance tends to tip in favour of the former, there are fewer opportunities to socialise and meet new people. Going to a Muay Thai gym will open up an entirely new world of friends and camaraderie for you.
After all, everyone you meet there has a common interest. You are all working to improve your fitness via Muay Thai. Since getting into the sport, I have formed friendships with people from various backgrounds and age groups. Our common interest is our intense love for Muay Thai.
Who are the best Muay Thai fighters?
Everyone has their favourites, so it would be impossible to give them all a shout out. Some fighters are more celebrated than others in their particular eras. But since you put me on the spot, here are my top fighters you need to know about.
A contender for the “greatest of all time” crown is surely Samart. He is widely considered to be the Muhammad Ali of Thai boxing. He is a master of all the Muay Thai techniques and a legend within the sport.
At the zenith of his Muay Thai career, Samart switched to boxing and lifted the WBC junior featherweight crown. This feat helped cement his legacy and mastery of both disciplines.
As Thailand’s first Olympic gold medal winner, Somrak is a revered figure. His extraordinary boxing skills and Muay Thai form have secured his status as one of the best Muay Thai fighters ever. Check out his fight clips on YouTube to see why he richly deserves his top-flight status.
Petchboonchu FA Group
This fighter is one of Muay Thai’s most highly decorated fighters in history, having lifted 14 title belts.
Petchboonchu is renowned for his clinching and skill as an aggressive proponent of knee strikes. Besides massive stamina and unshakeable willpower, he was an intelligent fighter who knew how to use the scoring system to his advantage.
Despite pushing 40, Saenchai continues to fight and entertain fans worldwide. He truly is a living legend and arguably the best technical Muay Thai fighter around.
He is known for his lightning speed, gravity-defying moves, and flexible kicks. Though short in stature, he has never been at a disadvantage, thanks to his out-of-the-world skills. No one comes close to him for sheer entertainment value and prowess. If anyone deserves the “greatest of all time” accolade, it’s Saenchai.
He may not be the best Muay Thai fighter ever, but he is the sport’s undisputed poster boy. Buakaw has turned millions of people around the world into Muay Thai fans and inspired them into training.
He is probably Muay Thai’s best-known fighter ever. He has a global fan base and has well earned his entry into Muay Thai’s hall of fame.
Preparing For Training
Seize the day by jumping hopefully into the deep end? Or carefully prepare?
I can’t tell you much about the latter as I just dived straight in. No getting my fitness levels up first for me. I just showed up at the gym and hoped for the best.
Ultimately, my fitness did improve along the way. But in hindsight, I should definitely have carried out prep research and got fit first. Thanks to my gung-ho approach, I am well qualified to write about the preparation you should do before starting Muay Thai training.
Can I train at home?
Training alone at the beginning is not the smartest move. I am not saying it’s impossible, just not advisable. When you start out, it is all too easy to get into bad habits, improper forms, and techniques without proper coaching.
Having an instructor to guide your form during bag or pad work is crucial. At my gym, the Thai instructors are all multiple champion winners at Muay Thai’s highest level. Therefore, I am confident I am learning from the best and being taught authentic Muay Thai form.
You also have to factor in the social aspect of going to the gym. This in itself is a motivation to train hard, increase our desire to practice, and tap into the valuable experience of others. Plus, the gym has all the proper equipment.
After training for at least a year, you may be in a better place to think about training at home. It is worth considering if you have a heavy bag, a willing training for pad work, and the inclination to regularly train at home. I would not recommend DIY training for beginners unless they have no access to a Muay Thai gym within a reasonable distance. In that case, search out an online Muay Thai course.
Finding a Muay Thai Gym
There are no set criteria; it depends on what your training objectives are and your personal preferences. As there are multiple reasons to train Muay Thai – from fitness to self-defence, recreation or competition – there are gyms geared up for each.
Gyms also vary in what they charge. Decide whether you need five-star facilities, MMA classes, and so on as these all jack the price up. Increasingly Mau Thai gyms are updating and adding Brazilian jiu-jitsu to their menus. So if you are an MMA fan, you should have no trouble finding a gym.
Luckily, I had a few friends who trained in Muay Thai, so I asked them about their gyms. The trouble is everyone rated their gym. Why would they go there if it wasn’t up to scratch?
Most people will wish to do their own gym research and base their decision on what they find. Review sites like Yelp and so on are useful, and Muay Thai forums on Reddit, etc. Google the instructors, too, to see if they are legit.
The last thing you want to do is sign up for a sub-standard gym. If everything checks out, call up to arrange a free trial. A good gym will offer these as standard so take advantage of this to scope out a few gyms if you have the luxury of choice. You may get lucky and find the right gym on the first attempt.
Some gyms will offer a monthly subscription plan, while others will ask for a year-long commitment. The annual subscription will invariably work out cheaper. But if you don’t fancy being tied to a long contract, a monthly fee gym may suit you better despite being a little more expensive.
So what else should be on your gym selection checklist? Here are my suggestions:
A good quality trainer will be motivational, passionate about teaching, have a robust track record in the ring, and pad holding skills. If not, first-class facilities are not going to compensate.
A gym showing its age tells you all you need to know about their level of care. Poor maintenance and equipment past its best can all lead to injuries. Holes in floor mats or fraying leather on heavy bags are potential hazards that could cause lead to injury.
Be sure the gym is clean and takes cleanliness seriously. Sweaty gyms and training scrapes on your skin are perfect breeding conditions for bacteria.
Make sure the gym classes are at a convenient time.
The gym should be conveniently located. The further away it is, the more excuses you will find not to go.
How do you prepare for your first Muay Thai lesson?
Don’t do what I did and just turn up. Get into shape while you are scoping out gyms.
Muay Thai is high intensity, so some pre-training will help. But it will never be enough as the muscles you use in Muay Thai don’t get much exercise in everyday daily life. However, you can still prep your body for some of the challenges ahead.
If, like me, your main exercise is clicking a computer mouse, give yourself at least a month to get into shape before stepping foot inside a Muay Thai gym.
Swimming and running will help boost the endurance of your cardiovascular system. Your legs will take a pounding as well, so build up the muscles and your anaerobic fitness with skipping and sprint running.
Or go for it and show up totally unprepared like me. Just be aware you will be completely wasted at the end of each class for the first weeks. Stand by for sore muscles and knuckles, bruises, and legs that are transformed into jelly.
It took me around eight weeks to get match fit, but I was disastrously unfit. Hopefully, you will do better with some pre-training preparations. Again, with hindsight, I would have spared myself a little by getting my fitness up to a reasonable level.
If you can tough this out, the endorphin rush after each lesson will be fantastic.
What should I wear to Muay Thai training?
There’s no dress code; wear what you would typically wear to any other gym. It’s an informal environment.
I prefer training in a breathable top and Muay Thai shorts. Or, if training in Thailand when it’s hot, I would dispense with the top. Muay Thai shorts are designed for the sport, so they are comfortable and allow for the full range of leg movements you need to use.
Muay Thai shorts are not mandated, but they are the best option for comfort and respect for the culture. Other sports shorts are acceptable, but make sure they aren’t too tight for your kicks. The material will also have to be reasonably tough to cope with the demands of Muay Thai.
Pro tip: Satin or a satin blend Muay Thai shorts are recommended. I would give nylon a miss as satin is more durable and doesn’t go see-through when drenched in sweat.
Women tend to show up for Muay Thai training in leggings or exercise shorts, teamed up with a sports bra.
Ankle supports are also common. Many Muay Thai fighters and casual practitioners wear them for extra support and protection. However, they are optional. If you get foot or ankle pain after your first training session, you should try them.
Muay Thai training takes place barefoot on mats. But in some gyms – particularly those in Thailand – fighters will go for a run to help with their endurance training. So take a pair along with you in case you fancy joining the run.
Which Muay Thai gloves are recommended?
Gloves are the only compulsory piece of equipment you need for Muay Thai training. I would definitely buy my own as gloves at most gyms aren’t the freshest smelling. I give them a body swerve, but not just for hygiene reasons. If the gym gloves have had heavy use, the padding will likely be too thin to offer your hands proper protection.
Selecting the correct Muay Thai gloves isn’t brain-melting. It boils down to three things: the glove’s weight (size), the price tag, and the design.
A glove’s weight is measured in ounces. A good general-purpose glove will weigh anything from 8 ounces to 18 ounces. The norm is around 10 to 16 ounces, but the main criterion is fit. If you are in the heavyweight division, you may wish to consider a heavier glove of 14 to 16 ounces.
Try on both gloves and ensure it feels comfortable when you make a fist. Gloves fresh off the shelf will feel snug but will loosen off after a few training sessions. If the gloves press tightly against your fingertips when you make fists, they are too small.
Equally, ensure that the cuff can firmly fasten around your wrists to provide adequate support.
The last factor is how the gloves look. Appearance is not a deal-breaker for most, but there are designs to suit most tastes if you have aesthetics in mind.
Modern labels like YOKKAO are popular with younger fighters due to their head-turning design appeal.
However, traditional glove makers such as Twins and Fairtex that offer more basic designs are still favoured worldwide. They are the by-words for premium quality. If you’re on a budget and not concerned with flashy designs, MTG Pro offer almost the same quality as the other big Thai brands at a lower price.
Muay Thai Training
There are no shortcuts with Muay Thai. While the movements are straightforward enough, the training is brutal and energy-sapping.
What is Muay Thai training really like?
Probably like nothing you have seen in the movies, that’s for sure. No blind punching, no kicking lumps out of bamboo trees or meditating under a waterfall. Sorry!
So nothing at all like Jean-Claude Van Damme and his kickboxing training then.
There is no set curriculum or formal structure for Muay Thai training. In most gyms, the training is based on the coaches’ experience and how they were taught. There’s no right or wrong way.
Today, Muay Thai gyms are run by coaching staff who have had every level of experience you can get. In the sport’s Thailand homeland, almost all fight camps operate along very similar lines founded on time-proven principles.
Typically, the regime is that fighters train twice a day. The first session is usually around 8 am and then at 3 pm. Usually, each session lasts around two to three hours and follow this general pattern:
- Warm-up with a 2-5 mile run
- Twenty to thirty minutes of skipping
- Shadowboxing or technique practice
- Pad work for four to six rounds of five minutes each
- Bag work for five rounds of five minutes duration
- Technical sparring or clinching
- General conditioning work like sit-ups and pull-ups
However, this is the kind of strenuous workout for professional fighters. Everyone else has neither the time nor the capacity to manage such a physical regime as this.
For everyday humans at beginner or intermediate level, training sessions last between one and two hours. Each session will begin with running and some skipping to help you warm up. After that, you will be asked to perform a host of training exercises.
You will be taught how to punch and kick and deliver elbow and knee strikes, and a range of blocking techniques. These will be delivered as shadowboxing, drill with a partner, pad, and bag work.
You can also expect strengthening exercises too. These will include sit-ups, push-ups, squats, and other body conditioning exercises. In essence, it’s a cut down version of the training delivered for pro fighters.
We’re born with varying degrees of athletic prowess, for sure. But Muay Thai training will help us develop whatever we possess to its fullest potential. Muay Thai training is all about conditioning the body and practicing moves. To get good, all you need do is show up for training and get on with grinding it out.
What to expect at your first session
Everyone is a little nervous at first when attending your first-ever Muay Thai training session. It’s like travelling overseas to visit a country for the first time, a heady mix of anxiety and excitement.
Being weak, clumsy, or generally out of shape may make you slightly more nervous still. But that’s okay. You’re not alone. Everyone at the gym was a beginner once.
The biggest hurdle for many people is taking that first step and signing up for a training session. Once you have overcome that hurdle, actually turning up for your first lesson is the easy part. In many ways, you have already negotiated the biggest challenge.
Pretty early on, you will realize how ungraceful and uncoordinated you are at particular basic moves. Guaranteed, no-one will be surprised in the slightest; we all suck at Muay Thai initially. So don’t beat yourself up too much.
Your trainer will see immediately where you are going wrong and help you to correct your technique. They will act quickly to ensure your form is correct. Just follow their directions, catch your breath while you listen, and get back to it.
Training tips for beginners
These top tips will make the start of your Muay Thai journey much less painful and agonizing. Plus, they will make the learning curve a little bit less steep.
Here are my Muay Thai beginner tips to help ensure your introduction to the sport is more pleasant.
Run for your life!
Running may be boring, but it is still the most effective exercise to improve your overall fitness level. Running powers up your stamina and endurance. You will see results quickly if you keep at it. The best regime is long-distance running combined with sprint interval training. If you can, use proper running tracks as there’s much less impact on your knees.
Wrap your hands
Never forget to wrap your hands. Your hands take time to be conditioned to Muay Thai. Without wrapping, you’re more prone to wrist injuries. They are common among Muay Thai beginners – and novice boxers – as the bones and tendons aren’t ready for the impact forces.
One of my first wrist sprains took a full month to recover simply because I wasn’t punching correctly and hadn’t bothered with wrapping my hands. Ultimately, hand wrapping is your first line of defence and one of the most important ways to prevent avoidable hand and wrist damage.
I can’t put enough emphasis on form; it’s the number one consideration in Muay Thai. Executing moves correctly is, without a doubt, the best way to avoid inflicting injury on yourself.
Forget fists of fury and all that; start slowly with light kicks and punches on a heavy bag. You can then gradually build your speed and power as you get the hang of it.
Pain, it is said, is Nature’s way of telling you to stop. It is certainly instant feedback when you execute a kick poorly. But pain caused by poor form can and will damage your body eventually.
The advice here is to take your time. Concentrate on making correct form your habit. Speed and power will follow in its wake.
An adult’s body comprises around 50 to 65% water and needs fluid to work correctly. The demands placed on the body by Muay Thai make the sport a very efficient dehydrator.
If you become dehydrated, you will quickly notice nasty side effects including, headaches, nausea, a steep decline in stamina, and even impaired brain function. The medical profession recommends drinking at least two litres (four pints) of water each day to stay healthy. Always take a water bottle to training and keep your fluids topped up.
The body needs a fuel supply for energy. I noticed some days I was quickly really well, and other days I felt like I was out of steam after the warm-up.
The difference I discovered was chiefly whether I had bulked up on food before going to training. While there were other factors at play and contributing to my lethargy, the main culprit was a lack of fuel. That sick feeling you sometimes get after exercising is due to not having sufficient fuel onboard.
What worked for me was eating carbs around two hours before I was due to start training. Supplements like Creatine may also help if taken about 30 minutes before your session. I also drink a chocolate malt around an hour beforehand to get an extra boost. Drinks like these are a handy and rapid energy source if you like to train early in the morning.
You may benefit too from private lessons to reinforce your techniques and confirm they are correct. This may be especially helpful early on if you train in a group. The instructor, even with the best will in the world, won’t catch every mistake.
One-to-one lessons are invaluable and ensure you are on the right course. Private lessons may be expensive, but even one or two can make a significant improvement in your form and technique.
Don’t be shy about asking for help from your gym buddies. People feel uncomfortable about offering advice unless they specifically are asked for it.
If you feel pain when kicking or are struggling with a particular technique, asking your instructor or others in the gym will be a great help in improving your performance.
Take a rest
Don’t skimp on your rest. Inadequate rest and training too often will only lead to more injuries, possibly severe. Say you have a shin bruise, common sense dictates to stop kicking to avoid aggravating the injury.
Instead, focus your attention on your upper limbs and boxing to allow time for healing. Adequate sleep is also crucial to muscle recovery. Muscles increase in size while you sleep, not while you train.
If you don’t get enough rest, it won’t be easy to make progress. Listen to your body if it tells you to skip training and watching Netflix instead. It probably has a point.
Training injuries are part of life for those practising Muay Thai no matter their skill level. Some are treatable yourself, but anything acute requires proper medical attention.
Beginner injuries, however, tend to be less severe and usually treatable at home. In most cases, you will be able to continue training.
I have found injuries to my ribs the most difficult to deal with and a significant inhibitor to training.
Black eyes are unlikely unless you spar. No reputable gym will let a beginner spar too soon. Here is my laundry list of injuries received while a novice:
Unless you have been a paid-up member of Fight Club, you will get bruised knuckles as a Muay Thai beginner.
The better news is that knuckles quickly toughen up. However, do not overdo training as it’s easy to aggravate any knuckle injury and end up with long-term harm. Should the problem persist, switching to heavier gloves with more padding (14 oz or greater) will give you more protection.
Tenderness in your wrist is a sure sign that you aren’t punching correctly. Make sure your hands are wrapped well and that you are using gloves that offer good wrist support. Always punch with your fist closed.
Don’t punch too hard until you have mastered the correct technique. If your wrists are sore, avoid punch bags and weight-lifting. An aggravated injury can quickly become a sprained or fractured wrist instead.
Wrist soreness should go away fairly rapidly but will do so even more quickly with the proper treatment.
Getting a bruised knee is par for the course when practising knees strike on a heavy cement-like bag. Bruised knees are usually minor and nothing to worry about too much.
You can continue training but give your knees a rest from heavy bags until the bruising disappears. Calcium and possibly glucosamine supplements will help with recovery.
This is the most common injury to afflict beginners. It is often a result of kicking a heavy bag with the top of the foot instead of your shin. When this happens, the top of the foot swells up and will hurt for at least a few days.
It’s another lousy technique injury that can be avoided in the future by asking for advice. Treat the swelling and rest your feet until it subsides. You can adapt your Muay Thai training in the meantime while your feet heal.
Another fact of life for beginners is shin bruises. Conditioning the shins takes some time, so be patient.
When you strike incorrectly with your shin bones, you will know about it instantly. Whether it is heavy bags or pads, the secret is to twist your hips as you strike. Twisting helps ensure you strike with the correct part of your shins.
Treat your bruises and allow time for them to heal correctly. Adjusting your technique will make it possible to kick progressively harder.
RICE is the best thing for treating bumps and bruises. In this instance, it’s Rest Ice Compression Elevation.
Rest is certainly going to help you heal faster. But as soon as you do get injured, start applying ice packs to the affected area. One every two to three hours for about ten to twenty minutes should do the trick.
Continue with ice packs for the first 24 to 72 hours after getting injured. The ice will reduce or prevent swelling and relieve inflammation.
During this time, be sure to get sufficient rest, compress the injury with an elasticated bandage or similar, and keep the injury elevated whenever possible.
Everyone’s injury recovery time is different. It will also largely depend on the severity of the injury and whether you avoid aggravating it further. Again, listen to your body.
How dangerous is Muay Thai sparring?
Muay Thai is a full-contact sport. Injuries and accidents are possible but unlikely to be life-threatening.
The point of sparring is to practice your technique and sharpen up your reflexes and instincts. As such, it is dialed down to five or less, and you wear protective gear such as a mouth guard, shin, and groin guards.
Coaches oversee sparring sessions to correct technique and jump in if things get a little too heated.
However, there is no compulsion to spar. Sparring is very much a personal decision, and beginners will never be allowed to spar until they are ready to meet the challenge.
You should be training for several months before considering sparring. Some gyms will allow you to spar after only six months of intensive training.
If you are being asked to spar at full power on your first lesson, pack up your things and leave. It’s neither safe nor a standard training practice.
There’s no doubt that was a lot to digest. In short: Muay Thai is a great option for those looking to learn a martial art, get fit, make friends and take part in a skill-based sport that requires discipline and dedication.
Hopefully, you are better prepared now to get started with Muay Thai training. Get in touch if you have a question or comment, we will be delighted to help if I can.