Are you tired of the dull fitness scene or simply looking for an athletic challenge? Maybe it is the discipline and tradition of a centuries-old sport of warriors that draws you to Muay Thai, a sport that totally engages your senses. You will feel the adrenaline, and power, of all your muscles trained and capable.
Attention to Muay Thai began to grow with the rise of MMA, with Muay Thai often the style of choice for a fighter’s stand-up game. In the Octagon, UFC stars like Joanna Jodorowsky and ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone have used their Muay Thai skills to put on tremendous fights. Additionally, movies like Ong Bak and The Raid displayed this martial art’s awesome (if fantastical) brutality.
Whether you intend to become a fighter or wish simply to train in a martial art, you must have a foundation built on the fundamentals. This guide will show you the basics of movement, striking, and techniques that are required in learning Muay Thai.
The Benefits & Advantages of Muay Thai Training
Let us begin with a brief origin story. Muay Thai, also known as the “Art of Eight Limbs”, is a fighting style developed in Thailand. In 1560, it became compulsory for military training, and during the 18th-century wars between Burmese and Siamese (now Thai) dynasties.
A captured warrior named Nai Khanomtom gained his freedom by winning a spectacle tournament, returning to Siam a hero and solidifying this fighting style in the national spirit.
Named for its combined use of fists, elbows, knees, and shins, Muay Thai also utilizes clinches and sweeps to offer a complete and devastating system of martial art.
From Thailand’s military roots, Muay Thai began to gain the celebration of spectators in festivals, and in the mid-19th century, under King Chulalongkorn, Muay Thai became a sport of physical training, self-defense, recreation, and discipline.
In Learning Muay Thai, you will:
- Gain Self-Confidence – You will look good and feel good with a strong, healthy body. Your effort translates directly to a tangible reward: healthy hormones and quite possibly those ripped abs you have always wanted.
- Build Explosive Cardio Strength – Muay Thai training builds your ability to output huge energy in a short burst and recover while still under demanding physical stress. This is very much like High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT).
- Become Athletically Strong – Muay Thai trains your muscles and builds flexibility to realize your body’s full potential. This translates into the daily world in more ways than you might imagine, from being able to move that furniture, to catching the bus, to climbing that tree.
- Find Discipline – In the constant trial-and-error of training, your body will become a weapon. Like any weapon, knowing how to be humble with your power will save you and others from unnecessary harm.
- Learn Self Defense – Although not practical in street fights, Muay Thai will help you should a situation be forced upon you. By knowing how to create distance, you can end a fight quickly.
- Find Calm – The focus of drills and sparring drives away all the background distractions of daily life. You will find yourself joyful in the concentration of the moment.
- Discover Punching and Kicking is Fun! – Muay Thai is one of the few places it is not only encouraged but necessary to channel that aggression that modern society suppresses (for a good reason). Of course, releasing that energy in a healthy, safe environment is important.
Choosing a Muay Thai Gym
A Muay Thai gym is more than just a place you go to exercise. You’ll want to put more time into selecting one than you would a gym for lifting weights or cross-training. Your fellow students and coaches will become your family. As you push each other to your limits, you will form strong bonds in mutual support through the intense demand of the sport. There are many things to look for in finding your martial arts Dojo.
- Make sure the head coach has plenty of ring experience. A head coach needs experience and a veteran’s composure to properly tutor new students and other trainers. They will be able to advise you on tried and true techniques and may one day be in your corner of a ring. You’ll want somebody who knows what you’re going through.
- There is no certification that will make you a good fighter, and not all good fighters are good trainers. Spend the time to talk to the head coach. Many gyms will give a complimentary one-on-one session with the head coach to beginners newly arrived at the gym. Then, stick around afterward to see how the Kru (Coach/Sensei) works with the advanced students. There should be some advanced technical sparring that will give you an idea if the coach is really an expert.
- If the head coach is also the owner of the gym, this is a great indicator. It shows their passion and dedication to the sport. They love Muay Thai and want to share that life with others.
- A fancy facility is not a good indication of quality training. Most fighters do not make much money. Therefore, gyms owned by fighters might be a bit grimy. When you walk into a gym, it should reek like sweat. No amount of mopping can wipe away how hard people train in a real gym. Also, the amount of equipment needed to run a gym is basic, and there’s no advantage to having the freshest gear.
- The same goes for the size of the gym. Be wary of “Fitness Mills” who are motivated by profit, churning out as many membership fees as possible. You are less likely to get the individual attention you need as a beginner.
- Look out for bullies. Some, but not all, gyms have a bad attitude about them. Rather than supporting a newcomer, advanced students may give them “jumping in,” unfairly beating on them in sparring. Look for advanced students who will give you technical pointers and encouragement, welcoming you to the gym.
- Ideally, you would travel to Thailand to learn “real” Muay Thai. For most, that’s not easily done. Finding a trainer who has thought is quite common. Many gyms in the West may focus on kickboxing with Muay Thai techniques thrown in. Find out your trainer’s background in relation to the sport.
What Equipment Do I Need for Muay Thai?
The gear needed to start Muay Thai is minimal. Most gyms will have gloves, shin guards, and headgear for student use (bear in mind, they will smell funky). As you progress, you will want to invest in your gear or fancier gear and some extra pieces for sparring. Practicing techniques at home is also possible with the right gear.
Muay Thai Gear for Beginners
- Muay Thai Gloves – Lighter than boxing gloves, with open palms to allow clinching.
- Hand Wraps – Protect your skin and fingers inside the gloves.
- Groin Protection – Clearly, it is important to protect the crown jewels. Get used to wearing this piece as well.
- Shin Guards – While your shins will get tougher through conditioning, good shin guards can prevent unnecessary injuries during full-speed sparring.
- Head Gear – Good headgear can dampen the impact of direct blows on your brain. Always wear it in tandem with a mouthpiece.
- Elbow Pads – Elbow strikes are powerful, these pads offer protection for your elbows, as well as your sparring partner.
- Muay Thai Shorts – Many styles of shorts will work for Muay Thai, but real shorts have wide leg openings for free leg movements.
Muay Thai Gear at Home
- Muay Thai Heavy Bag – A banana bag at home is great for practicing all your punches and kicks.
- Skipping Rope – This simple piece of gear is phenomenal for improving your conditioning.
- Muay Thai Pads – You’ll need a partner to hold them as you practice your combos.
Best Muay Thai Brands
The best place to buy Muay Thai gear online is not always the cheapest place. Get some decent cheap gear at first until you know what you like, then upgrade to gear made by the top Muay Thai brands.
- Top King
What to Wear to Muay Thai Class
As a beginner, things will be simple. You will want to wear a light, breathable shirt (and a sports bra if female), sports compression shorts like Under Armour, and a pair of light shorts that don’t impede mobility.
Bring an absorbent gym towel for sweat, a water bottle, and a small healthy snack to replenish energy after class. Bringing a change of clothes is a good idea to replace your sweaty training gear after class.
When you advance in skill and have more technical training sessions, your Muay Thai gear investments will come in handy.
Learning the Muay Thai Basics for Beginners
Now that you’ve found a gym and are geared up, let’s get started on the basics. Remember, there are no absolutes when it comes to the finer points of style and technique. Even in Thailand, gyms will vary on the best way to position your weight during certain moves. What is most important is that you find a technique that works for you and leaves your guard solid.
Stance, Balance, and Rythm
Balance and footwork are cornerstones for any fight sport. You always need to be in control of your weight and movement, ready to attack, defend, or move out of the way. Footwork drills are a great way to get warmed up for a workout.
Stance will dictate your balance and rhythm in Muay Thai. To find your stance, find a line on the ground. Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart with the line running through the balls of your feet. Now place your dominant foot (your stronger foot – the one you kick a ball with or is better to balance on) a half-step back. Place your other foot a half step forward.
Always stand slightly on the balls of your feet, with your knees slightly bent. Bring your fists up to the level of your cheekbones, wrists straight, knuckles facing out, palms facing in, at about a 45-degree angle to your face. Your dominant hand should rest an inch or two from your cheekbone, your lead hand offset another hand’s breadth away.
Keep your elbows a fist space away from your ribs. Always keep your chin tucked into your chest and your shoulders slightly hunched up. Keep your torso straight. Orthodox stance fighters will have their left foot and hand forward, their right side loaded for more powerful shots. Southpaw fighters will have their right foot and hand forward.
Note: In many Muay Thai styles, the hands will be held further away from the body with the palms facing outward. This is a style that focuses more on controlling distance, which is important when clinches, elbows, and knees come into play, but this is not a recommended style for beginners.
From this stance, you will throw all your basic strikes and will be able to retreat to your Guard. Your Guard is how you will protect yourself during incoming strikes. But before you learn to defend, you must learn the basic strikes.
Keep in mind that all energy in any strike first comes from the ground. You must transfer the movement from the earth through your legs, where it is amplified through the torque in your hips and thrown out through one of the Eight Points.
The Basic Muay Thai Strikes
These will be your bread and butter. They are the moves you will work on the longest, the moves you need to know before you can begin to defend yourself in your guard.
A few pointers to remember:
- Always throw a straight punch across your body, i.e., throw a left jab across your right side, connecting with the left side of your opponent.
- With any punch, try to connect with your first two knuckles on the index and middle finger.
- Punch straight out from the shoulder, do not wind up, i.e., draw your fist back before punching.
- After you throw a strike, immediately reset to your guard, anticipating the counter.
The jab is a very quick punch designed to stun your opponent and help set up a slower, more powerful strike.
- Thrown with your forward hand.
- Take a half step forward with your lead leg at the same time you snap your lead fist forward.
- Rotate your punch so the punch connects with knuckles facing up.
- Not full power, but speed and accuracy.
- As soon as you have connected, snap your fist back to your guard position.
The Cross is your power punch to blast through an opening or knock down your opponent.
- Thrown with your dominant hand.
- In a fluid motion, pivot slightly on your back foot, onto the ball of your foot, and twist that same hip forward, while you drive your dominant fist into the target.
- Rotate your fist as in a jab. Do not over-rotate -keep your elbow facing down as you throw the punch, turning it out to the side will waste energy that would be transferred to the target.
- Always reset your guard as fast as you throw the punch, like a piston.
The hook is excellent for close-range body shots or an opponent whose guard is low.
- Thrown with either fist.
- Pivot the foot on the side you are punching inwards 45 degrees, your hip following with it.
- Swing your fist, thumb facing inwards towards you, at the target.
- Connect with your knuckles.
- Keep your elbow in line with your fist, supporting it as you connect with the target.
- You should throw the Hook with your elbow at almost a 90-degree angle.
- Drive through the target with your hook, but do not overextend.
- Reset your guard.
A Teep is thrown with your lead leg, it is the jab of kicks. Use Teep kicks to unbalance your opponent, and check an incoming attack.
- Push up on the ball of your dominant foot, and snap your lead leg up and out to the target, your opponent’s midsection.
- Push your hips forward.
- Connect with the ball of your lead foot.
- You can rock your torso back slightly to push your hips out for more torque.
- You can swing your lead hand back as a counterbalance but always keep your dominant hand up to protect your chin.
Note: Some Muay Thai styles will emphasize staying planted flat on your dominant leg, your posture upright, and driving your Teep Kick through like a step forward. This takes slightly more flexibility and provides slightly less range in your kick, and can leave you in an unbalanced position, so is not recommended for beginners.
A push kick is thrown with your dominant leg. It is a more powerful but slower version of the Teep. As the name suggests, a push kick is used to push your opponent back or onto the ground.
- Step forward, driving up and through the target with your dominant leg,
- Connecting with the “palm” of your foot.
- Aim for your opponent’s midsection.
- Drop your leg back to reset your guard after the strike.
A Round is thrown with your dominant leg. It may be the most important strike in Muay Thai and can generate a huge amount of force if executed properly.
- Step out slightly with your lead leg at a 45-degree angle, opening up your hips.
- Lift the knee of your dominant leg, then whip your shin like a club into your target.
- Drive your hip and weight behind the kick.
- Always connect with the shin.
- Always keep your toe pointed, in line with your shin.
- Do not overextend e.g. if you miss with a kick, control and slow down the leg, reset your stance, do not spin with the kick, and leave yourself exposed.
The round kick is executed in one of three ways.
- Low Kick – Aimed at the thigh of the opponent in a downward chopping motion. It is easy to drive your hip down in this kick to generate a lot of power. Repeated unchecked kicks to the thigh can end a fight, crippling the fighter’s ability to stand.
- Body Kick – Aimed at the ribs or just under the ribs of the opponent. The body kick is the most common kick used in Muay Thai. It requires lifting your leg higher and driving your hip to the side. Drive up on the ball of your planted lead foot as you pivot for more pop and height to your kick. Do not lean your torso back. Keep straight and balanced.
- Head Kick/High Kick – Requires a lot of dexterity and is not a beginner’s move, as the momentum of an improperly executed high kick will seriously unbalance you. It is thrown like a Body Kick but with a greater stretch to aim for the head.
A kick that needs to be thrown quickly to catch your opponent off-guard. To be practiced after being comfortable with a round kick.
- Thrown with your lead leg.
- The technique is the same as a round kick
- Rather than stepping out, you execute a small “hop” or “scissor” to switch your stance.
- The switch should happen very quickly and should not be a large motion.
- Your dominant foot lands forward at a slight outward angle, and your lead foot is now loaded.
Muay Thai Guard
Now that we have covered the basic strikes, we can learn how to defend against them in the Guard. Your basic Guard is when a straight punch (jab or cross) is thrown at your face, you cover your jaw and cheekbones with your gloves and tuck your chin.
Never cover your eyes or close your eyes. It may take a while to stop yourself from flinching from strikes, but it is crucial that you can see your opponent.
The Slip can be performed to help defend against a straight punch. All a Slip is a slight head movement so an incoming punch does not connect flush. In your guard, rotate your hips, torso, and head, about a handsbreadth to the opposite side of the incoming punch, i.e., if Slipping a left jab, Slip to your right. You do not need or want a large movement, just enough that the punch glances off your guard and does not connect fully.
If a hook is thrown, slide that guard part of the way back to your ear and move your shoulder up to protect your chin.
To block a round kick is a crucial skill in Muay Thai and will be your most utilized defense. To block, or Check, a round kick, raise your knee on the same side as the incoming kick and block their shin with your shin. Always keep your toe pointed down to the floor.
Keep your guard tight to the same side as your blocking leg, with your elbow behind and supporting your raised knee, your glove protecting your head. If it is a high kick, at the same time, cross your free hand over to the blocking side in front of your other glove to help slow a kick coming at your head. Return to your guard immediately after the kick has been successfully blocked.
To block a front kick you need to use your movement. A hop backward will put you out of range, or a pivot, to make the kick glance off you instead of connecting flush.
Advanced Muay Thai Strikes
Now that you have the basic strikes, you can learn more technical strikes that are used in special circumstances – when the distance is closed or when your opponent is rocked or off balance.
While not necessarily an advanced strike, the timing of an elbow is a lot trickier than a punch due to its shorter range. Elbows are thrown in a variety of ways in Muay Thai. The basic elbow strike is thrown like a hook.
Pivot on the ball of the foot throwing the strike, and twist your hip as you throw the elbow. Throw this elbow strike straight across your body. Keep your fist and forearm on the same plane as your elbow, and your wrist straight, not bent or twisted. You want to land with the boney “blade” of your elbow.
Also not necessarily an advanced strike, knees are still better utilized once a foundation of mid-ranged strikes is understood. Like a Teep kick, you drive up onto the ball of your supporting foot while pushing your hips forward, driving your knee into the target. Keep your toe pointed down in line with your shin.
You can rock your torso back for extra torque, but do not overextend and unbalance yourself, and do not drop your hands from your guard. This will leave your chin open for a hook or elbow. Some Muay Thai styles will have you almost fully extend your arm on the striking side, to smother counter punches or clinches while protecting your chin by keeping your shoulder high.
An uppercut should be a quick punch. Do not loop the punch but drop your fist in a low arc and swing up. This telegraphs the punch and leaves you open for a counter.
From your guard, load the uppercut by dipping your knees slightly to the side you want to throw from. Then straighten up, pushing the momentum from the ground, through your hip, and up through your shoulder, driving your fist up into the target.
Slightly turn your fist, so the strike lands with your palm facing in towards you. Immediately reset your guard.
An advanced technique is also known as a scissor knee. To throw a flying knee with your dominant leg, first, take a step forward with your dominant leg. Leap off that foot, leading with your lead knee. In the air, pump your dominant knee, the leg you jumped off, into the target, while pulling the other knee back.
An advanced technique. Spinning moves are not recommended for beginners, as they are difficult to control and can leave you very vulnerable – but they can be fun to practice.
To throw a spinning elbow with your dominant hand, first step with your lead leg across your center line, foot planted at an angle of about 45 degrees. Then pivot on your planted leg, twisting your torso with the momentum.
Look far over your shoulder in the direction you are spinning to sight the target. As soon as you can see it, whip the back of your elbow into it, keeping on a level plane with the ground. You will land with the back of your elbow.
Depending on how exaggerated the spin is, reset your guard by returning the spin by the way it came, or completing the spin.
Muay Thai Training for Beginners
Now that you know some basic strikes, let’s go through a simple Muay Thai routine.
Stretches & Warmup
What muscle groups will we be engaging? The Hip Flexors, Groin, Calves, and Hamstrings will all be heavily engaged in kicks and knees. Your Lower Lumbar will be used in all torsion movements from your hips. Your Rotator Cuffs, Lats, and Shoulders will be used in all punching and elbow strikes. It is important you properly warm up these muscle groups before beginning.
- Dynamic Movements – Dynamic stretches are preferable over static stretching to prevent injury and to limber up your muscles and joints.
- Lunge Walks – Warms up and stretches the hamstrings and calves. Do side lunges for the groin and hip flexors.
- Leg Swings – Stabilize yourself and swing your leg on a north-south axis to engage multiple muscle groups.
- Side Leg Raises – Start by lifting your leg straight out to the side while keeping your torso straight, is a great warm-up for kicks.
- Windmills – Start small and fast, moving to bigger, slower windmills. Then repeat in the opposite direction for a great shoulder warm-up.
- The “Egyptian Pose” – This is my favorite rotator-cuff warm-up. Arms held out straight to either side, one palm facing up, the other down. Turn your head to look at the palm facing up. Then turn that palm down, the other up, while turning your head to look at it.
Many Muay Thai students will go for a run before class. The bread-and-butter of cardio training will be skipping. Skipping will help your movement dexterity, forcing you to keep on the balls of your feet and continuously bouncing, while your forearms can get a good workout from a heavy rope. Skipping rope will drive your heart rate up and force regular, even breathing.
Shadow boxing is especially important for a beginner. It will loosen up your muscles and show you the points in your technique that need improvement.
Find yourself a place in front of the mirror in your gym (every gym worth its’ salt should have a wall-length mirror) and slowly run through basic punches and kicks.
Keep your technique crisp and clean. This is not about power. As you improve, string strikes together, picking up speed, but never sacrificing technique.
Thai Pads are long rectangles that sit along the pad holder’s forearms. To properly hold a pad for a strike, give a little bit of push back as the strike lands, so you are not hit standing still.
To hold a pad for a body kick, hold both pads to your side together, with your elbows braced into your side. As a pad holder, keep the striker guessing. Move around the striker, forcing them to adjust.
Mix up the strikes, speed, and power, doubling up strikes, calling out combos. Occasionally throw some telegraphed and slow strikes at the striker, forcing them to guard and block.
A Basic combo is the Dutch Treat – Jab-Cross-Left Hook-Right Round Kick.
An Advanced combo is the “Thai Wipers” – From an Orthodox stance: Right Round kick- Left Hook- Cross – Switch Kick, Switch Kick-Cross-Left Hook- Right Round Kick. Repeat continuously in a “windshield wiper” like motion.
Bag work will be the place you find your most intense cardio grind. Timed rounds of continuous strikes or “count to” sets. You can also practice your power strikes on a heavy bag without holding back like you may need to during pad work. Having a bag at home is a great way to stay sharp between classes and practice and master those tricky strikes or combos.
A good partner drill can be practicing a blocked round kick, then immediately countered with a switch kick. Keep in mind you should be hitting only at about 25 percent, this is technical work, not sparring.
Feel free to throw a one-two (jab-cross) before the initial kick round kicks to get used to the flow of combinations. Trade-off who is the blocker after three times.
Clinching is essential in Muay Thai, and the whole article could easily be written about the finer points of the clinch. Basic clinch training for two orthodox fighters would work like this: Each has the left hand on the back of the other neck, connecting to the skull, with their right hand on the partner’s bicep, on the outside.
The objective is to connect a “Thai Plumb” where you have both hands on the back of the opponent’s head, completely controlling their movement.
Continuously move your free hand up and through the middle of the partner’s clinch while they try to stop you by squeezing their elbow in or maneuvering their weight and counter-attacking. Keep your hips close to prevent knees, but legs stable enough you cannot be tripped by a throw or sweep.
For a beginner, just work on that hand movement of wrestling through your opponent’s guard to achieve a Thai Plumb while defending against them doing the same.
If you are ready to begin sparring, make sure you have all the proper safety gear. Don’t be afraid of sparring with someone of a higher skill level, this is one of the best ways to learn. Do not panic, and make sure you establish how hard you want to push.
You probably won’t want to spar harder than 50 percent. Work on the lateral movement to find angles you can attack. Do not be predictable with your strikes, and use fake strikes to set up unexpected follow-ups. Most of all, if you are hurt, let your partner know. There is no reason to risk injury while training.
Conditioning your body is important if you wish to take a fight. The Thais are famous for their brutal shin conditioning, which can include smacking the shin with wooden batons and savagely raking the batons down the shin to deaden the nerves. This is unnecessary, and similar results can be achieved by kicking a heavy bag and practicing enough sparring.
Likewise, conditioning your core does not need to injure you. If you do intend on taking a fight, it is a good idea to experience a heavy hit to the liver to get an idea of what will happen to you, e.g., your body will shut down, but no amount of conditioning will prevent that.
A good drill is lying down on the ground and flexing your abs while a partner drops a medicine ball on your core. Flex and push out a small amount of air as the hits come. This will strengthen you against body shots. Be cautious of taking shots to the head, or hard sparring too often. You can’t condition a chin, and hard sparring can lead to injury without proper recovery.
What it all comes down to. No amount of training or anything I write can prepare you for the adrenaline rush of your first fight. Make sure you have a good team in your corner and remember your training. Win or lose, you want to fight well and fight hard.
Training Progression – What to Expect
From the foundations of strikes and movement, you can expect to progress to a stage where a natural fluidity comes to your rhythm. It will take a lot of time, and it happens slowly. But eventually, you will begin to have a sense of where your body position and your opponent’s body position leave you vulnerable and where leaves you an opportunity.
Your striking will become stronger, quicker, and crisper. Confidence will come with time. The strikes and blocks will become muscle memory, blocks coming as reactions, strikes coming as reflexes.
Your fitness will be one of the first things to improve. Hour-long classes that once wiped you out will begin to wear on you less until you are ready to follow up with another hour.
The best part is that your improvement is all up to one person – you. It’s completely in your control. You must work hard for it, but with discipline and patience, you will see the progression as you rise from beginner to intermediate, to one day perhaps competing in the ring yourself.