Muay Thai Starter’s Guide

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Muay Thai is a fascinating martial art that has risen in popularity with the rise of MMA. Still, many people are unaware of what it entails. It’s one of the most intense and demanding martial arts to participate in, and that’s what makes Muay Thai one of the coolest.

I know what it’s like to have limited access to martial arts knowledge, and I want to spare you this trouble. I’ve uncovered all there is to know about Muay Thai so that you can determine if it’s the right combat sport for you. If you’ve already made up your mind, here’s what you’re getting yourself into.

amateur muay thai match



Things to Consider Before Starting Muay Thai

Before I say anything else, be warned that Muay Thai is one of the most brutal martial arts in history. I’d love to sugarcoat Muay Thai to give you encouragement, but your safety comes first. Muay Thai is violent, and its participants pour their sweat, blood, and tears into it, quite literally.

This is not a martial art that you should dabble in blindly or with half a heart. If you’re afraid of pain, aren’t looking for competition or aren’t willing to put an immense amount of effort into fitness, walk away. This is a serious combat sport. One that you need to commit to, perhaps more so than other martial arts.

Don’t get me wrong, there are many people who practice Muay Thai purely to stay in shape. There is a good chance that you might break some bones though. So before you begin, you must ask yourself: Is the pain worth it to you?

I’ll go into detail on the dangers shortly. But first, let’s explore the nuances of Muay Thai.


What Exactly Is Muay Thai?

Muay Thai, as we know it today, is a form of kickboxing. It’s often referred to as the ‘Art of Eight Limbs’ because you can use your fists, elbows, knees, and feet to strike. It’s similar to boxing in the sense that it’s fought in a ring, fighters wear gloves and the goal is to win by knockout or points.

Muay Thai originated in Thailand, although some of its documented history was lost in conflict. Because some of these records have been destroyed, the true origins of Muay Thai can’t be defined. What we do know is that it was designed so that fighters could use their entire body as a weapon in war.

After World War One, international interest in Muay Thai peaked, and its rules were modified to keep it regulated. It was in this time that Muay Thai became westernized, and was organized to resemble boxing.


Is Muay Thai Difficult?

It’s not as easy to answer this question for Muay Thai as it is for other martial arts. Using BJJ as an example, when you first start, you learn moves that feel unnatural for everyone, so all beginners are in the same situation.

With striking arts, however, some people are more adept at it than others, even with no previous experience. Your level of fitness, tolerance for pain and physical strength could influence your first Muay Thai experience. Because of this, I can’t say with certainty whether or not you will struggle.

What I can assure you of, though, is that Muay Thai will hurt. If you’re expecting a painless first lesson, you’re in for a surprise. Muay Thai is a full-contact sport, and while beginners aren’t putting their lives in danger, they will have to take a few hits.

muay thai fighter leaning on rope

There are also other uncomfortable aspects to Muay Thai that you will have to accept if you want to enjoy your first class.

You’re going to sweat a lot, and so will your classmates or opponents. Chances are you will get other people’s sweat on you, and while it is gross, there is no way around it. It’s also going to be exhausting, and you will exert quite a bit of energy in training.

One last consideration is that there are few boundaries in Muay Thai. Strangers are going to put their hands on you. Of course, it won’t be inappropriate, and the environment will be controlled, but Muay Thai is a hands-on sport.

As with any other new endeavor, you’re probably not going to be a prodigy straight away. It’s likely that you’re going to suck. But if you stick with it, you’ll improve, and it won’t be as challenging as time progresses.


Is Muay Thai Dangerous?

After my warning, I am sure that you know the answer to this already. Yes, Muay Thai is an extremely dangerous sport. In fact, it’s one of the most dangerous martial arts in the world.

Most of the statistics on the dangers are based on professional Muay Thai, so new fighters probably won’t be in mortal danger. Even so, the risks are still there and you have to be aware of them before you jump right in.


Common Muay Thai Injuries

To put things in perspective, one study found that more than half of all observed fighters sustained injuries during their bouts. Damage to the extremities was reported the most, with head wounds placing second. To Muay Thai’s credit, only 5 percent of those head injuries were concussions.

Almost 70 percent of the subjects reported that their injuries did not alter or interfere with their matches. Still, of those who were hurt, only 25 percent of fighters were able to continue training in the aftermath.

The truth is that not many studies have been done to accurately gauge the brutality of Muay Thai. It’s worth noting that western boxing, which Muay Thai has been deemed a more extreme version of, has long been considered the most brutal combat sport in the world.

Studies on boxing show that brain damage, as well as lesions and broken bones, is a common concern. Throw in elbows, knees and hits below the belt and we likely have a recipe for many a trip to the ER. In fact, a Thai study raised concerns of brain damage in young Muay Thai fighters, as the sport is popular among native children.

More research is required to prove just how dangerous Muay Thai can be. This doesn’t change the fact that injuries within the sport can be easily observed in MMA. Disregarding how blatantly some Muay Thai moves are, many, many fights end with bloodshed.


Who Can Start Muay Thai?

There are two answers to this question. The first is probably the answer you’re looking for, which is: anyone. If you’re looking to take up Muay Thai casually, for fitness or to quell your curiosity, nothing will stop you from giving it a go.

Muay Thai is very beneficial for fitness, and participating in it can be a lot of fun, but only when it’s not serious. If you’re interested in becoming a Muay Thai fighter — that is, you wish to compete in it — you will have to seriously consider your physical wellness.

Muay Thai fighters have to be strong, insanely fit and able to withstand serious and heavy blows. It goes without saying that if you are prone to injury, this is a sport you may want to avoid.

I’ve also found that, in traditional Muay Thai, there is a sense of discrimination against female fighters. Females are just as capable of fighting Muay Thai, but in Western culture, they’re few and far between.

One theory, which is supported by some of the female fighters, suggests that most women turn away from the brutality of Muay Thai due to mindset, not physical capability.


Is Muay Thai Good for Self-Defense?

Muay Thai is a favorite when it comes to self-defense. For a long time, many believed boxing to be the most effective martial art for a street fight. It was based on the premise that most real-life fights are fist fights, and that the art of boxing gave you an upper hand.

It’s true that Western boxing is effective in a brawl, but it’s also true that it’s limited and could work against you. In this aspect, Muay Thai is leagues better because it’s full contact. Remember that Muay Thai was developed for war, and in studying it, you learn how to use your whole body to fight.

Regardless, no martial art is perfect, and Muay Thai won’t save you from everything. If you’re attacked by a group of aggressors, an armed attacker or someone much bigger and stronger than you, Muay Thai might not help.

Don’t mind that too much though. Muay Thai is highly effective in offense and defense and is often recommended to those looking to protect themselves.

muay thai instructor and female student


How Much Will a Muay Thai Class Cost?

It depends on the gym you choose to train with. Some gyms might offer Muay Thai classes for free with a membership, others could cost you as much as $200 per month. The average seems to be between $80 and $125 monthly.

Muay Thai requires some specialized equipment and this makes it slightly more costly than most other martial arts. The most important item you need is, of course, the gloves. Something that may be a problem to some is that Muay Thai gloves are not boxing gloves and may be harder or more expensive to buy.

If you’re taking Muay Thai seriously, there could be even more costs involved when it comes to fitness. If you don’t already have a gym membership, you don’t want to overlook how useful it can be. If this doesn’t appeal, or simply isn’t viable for you, you’ll have to invest in at least some of the necessary equipment to train.

A plus to Muay Thai is that training at home isn’t as tricky as it is compared to other sparring sports. Fitness can be maintained on your own, and thanks to techniques like shadow boxing, you can practice sparring even without a partner.



How to Prepare for Your First Class

Since this is a striking martial art, you’re likely to have an idea of what to expect from your training. In grappling, certain moves are uncomfortable if you’ve never attempted them before, but this won’t be the case with Muay Thai.

Throwing punches and kicks are not foreign concepts to us, so grasping the martial art itself probably won’t be too difficult. Learning the techniques and withstanding kicks and punches might prove challenging though.

I remember when I participated in my first karate class. I was astounded by how tiring it was. Muay Thai is even worse in this regard, so be prepared to sweat and ache all over.

Another thing that you have to take into consideration is that if you’re new sparring, you will likely walk away with some bruises. Don’t judge Muay Thai too harshly here though. There’s a risk of minor damage in any martial art. For example, carpet burns in BJJ.

You won’t have too much to worry about so long as you present yourself with the correct attitude and go into your training with the right mindset. Expect to experience pain and you won’t be surprised by how demanding this martial art can be.

Finally, pack a towel and a water bottle, and don’t forget your gloves.


Have an Attitude of Conviction

Muay Thai is no place for people with little or no willpower, especially if it’s for sport and not leisure. It can be just as tough on your spirit as it is on your body. If you’re easily intimidated, frightened or offended, you won’t do well in it.

There’s also no room for dishonesty. You will have to face your own flaws and weaknesses head-on. There will be no excuses, no slacking and no holding back. In this regard, Muay Thai is not only fantastic for fitness, but it’s excellent for your soul too. It may not be as ceremonial as the more traditional arts, but it can, and will, work wonders on your spirit.

You have to be tough but not arrogant. In all martial arts, the ego is a hindrance and you will have to leave yours at the door.



Muay Thai Etiquette

Even though Muay Thai is a brutal, full-contact sport, it still has decorum. Its violent nature is not a reason, nor an excuse, to be unruly, mean or distasteful. Pay attention to protocol and do well to follow it.

It will help if you take time to research your gym’s rules, history, and personnel beforehand. Each gym will be different in what they allow, what they expect and what they frown upon. If you’re ever in doubt, call ahead and ask. The last thing you want to do is cause trouble, offend or insult those you will learn from.


Gym Etiquette

Muay Thai may not be as ceremonial or strict as other martial arts, but there are still some common courtesies you should keep in mind. Some of these apply to all martial arts. And, just as a precaution, assume that your gym expects these too.

  1. Show Your Instructor Respect
    Address your instructor how they wish to be addressed. Don’t interrupt them when they speak, nor challenge their authority.
    If you want to film or photograph them, ask for their permission first. Not all gyms want their methods available online, and it’s extremely rude to record them without their knowledge. Speaking of which…

  2. Leave Your Phone out of the Equation
    If your phone rings, it will disrupt the entire session. If you don’t have a locker that you can stow your phone in, turn it off and place it somewhere out of sight.

  3. Be Tidy
    Don’t make a mess in the gym. Don’t bring food in with you, and don’t leave empty water bottles behind. Don’t leave your clothing or towels lying around, and if you make a mess, clean up after yourself.

  4. No Shoes
    This is a law that is universal in martial arts: no shoes on the mat. If you’re allowed to train in a ring, the same applies. Shoes can track dirt and germs onto the training and fighting areas.

  5. Arrive Early
    If you enter a class late, you’ll disrupt it. Respect your instructor and classmates’ time by making sure that you’re on time, or even better, early. This will give you sufficient time to change, wrap your hands and get ready for the lesson.


Partner Etiquette

You should also treat your classmates and sparring partners with respect. Here are some considerations for you to keep in mind.

  1. Don’t Behave Like It’s Fight Club
    There is absolutely no need to go all out on your first day. When you first start to spar, chances are you will use an incorrect or unstable technique. If you use full force, you could hurt yourself and your opponent.
    Take it easy, and relax when you spar. You and your opponent are learning, not fighting, and there’s no reason to attempt to knock their lights out.

  2. Be Respectful
    Just as you will treat your instructor with respect, hold your opponents in high regard too. Treat it as you would any social activity. Don’t bad mouth people, judge them, laugh at their mistakes or make them feel bad. Be friendly, be kind and be supportive.


Hygiene and Dress Code

I’ve said it twice and I’ll say it again: you are going to sweat so much you won’t believe it. Muay Thai is no place to behave like a barbarian. Hygiene is important for a number of reasons, and here’s what you can do about it.

  1. Keep Your Equipment Clean
    For the same reason that you can’t wear shoes in the training area, you have to maintain your gloves. You’re going to hit people in the face with them, and if they’re dirty or gross, you could be putting your opponent’s health at risk.

  2. Shower, Please
    No, not just afterward, before as well. Sweating on your opponent is inevitable, but you can take measures to reduce how nasty it is. It’s also for your sake and for everyone around you in terms of body odor. If you don’t shower beforehand, the sweat you release will smell so much worse.

  3. Never Attend Class If You’re Sick
    Infections can spread faster than you might expect, and in a gym, we’re more vulnerable. Be considerate and wait until you’re feeling better. You’ll be no good in class anyway and will more than likely make yourself feel worse. Continue training when you’re fully healed.

  4. Wear Underwear
    Muay Thai shorts are loose-fitting, and no one wants to see what you’ve got hidden underneath it. Wear underwear and compression shorts to firstly keep yourself covered and, secondly, hold everything in place. This is especially important for men.

  5. Follow Your Gym’s Dress Code
    For gents, following the underwear rule. The least you’ll need is Muay Thai shorts. You can wear a rash guard if you like, or a sports tee.
    For ladies, a sports bra and compression shorts will do, beyond your shorts. If you want to, you can also wear a sports tee or rash guard.
    You’ll have to find out beforehand what rules you’ll have to follow in terms of dress. There are other rules that are almost universal between gyms. Examples of these are no jewelry and keeping your hair tied back. They follow common sense, so be smart and you’ll do just fine.



Muay Thai Techniques

Before I show you how some of the basic Muay Thai techniques, I’m obliged to mention that you should be careful with them. I can’t stop you from trying them at home, but I can warn you that you might hurt yourself or someone else.

The best way to learn how to throw a good punch, or a powerful kick, is to have an instructor show you how.

One more thing: we must cover what’s legal and illegal by going through Muay Thai’s rules and regulations. I’ve broken down the simpler ones for you, but if you’re looking to compete, you should read up on them at length.


Muay Thai Rules

In Muay Thai, the following moves are illegal and may result in disqualification and even a ban:

  • Head butting.
  • Spitting.
  • Biting.
  • Eye gouging.
  • Wrestling moves, including back and arm locks, or grapple holds.
  • Deliberately falling onto your opponent.
  • Striking the groin.

Keep in mind that this is the short version. You can read more about Muay Thai match rules here.


Basic Striking: Arms

Fighting with your upper body is quite similar to Western boxing, and when using your fists, most of the terminology and method is the same too. Of course, this is the Art of Eight Limbs we’re talking about, so your elbows can be utilized too.

muay thai student practicing punch


The Clinch

To clinch is to grapple with your opponent in an attempt to force their head down, or restrain them. From here, you can carry out a number of the strikes I describe below.

There are three common methods of clinching in Muay Thai:

  • A single collar tie is performed by grabbing your opponent behind their head or neck with one hand, and by their shoulder with the other. Your leading hand pulls down their shoulder.
  • A double collar tie involves using both of your hands to pull your opponent’s neck down, keeping their arms locked using your elbows.
  • The double underhook works well on taller opponents because you clinch their upper torso. Using your feet for leverage, you can force your opponent down.


The Jab

This is most likely the first strike that you will learn. Just as in boxing, a jab is a quick, almost weak, punch from your non-dominant fist. It’s used to create distance between you and your opponent or to set up other punches.


The Cross

Also as in Western boxing, a cross is a follow-up to a jab, from your dominant fist. These punches carry more force because they have further to travel. In Muay Thai, you’re allowed to aim your crosses at the face and torso.


The Hook

A hook is a rounded punch from either hand that travels upwards towards your opponent’s face or torso. These strikes are even stronger than crosses and often lead to knockouts.


The Uppercut

These are punches performed by either fist, that are thrown upwards towards your opponent’s chin or jaw.


Elbow Strikes

The basic elbow strikes are labeled according to their trajectory, and you have four to choose from.

  • The horizontal elbow. This is thrown just the same as you would a punch. Your elbow travels straight forwards or in the same motion as a hook.
  • The upward elbow. Here, your elbow will travel upwards, as your fist travels past your ear, almost as though you were brushing your hair back.
  • Diagonal elbows. As the name implies, these are strikes in which your elbow forcefully travels either up or down in a diagonal path.
  • The downward spiking elbow. This is best used while in a clinch or during jumps. The goal is to use force to push your elbow down on your opponent’s head.


Basic Striking: Legs

This is where the differences in boxing become the most apparent. In Muay Thai, you can use your knees and feet to strike. Basic techniques for your legs include:

muay thai student practicing kick


The High Kick

This is a kick that is aimed at your opponent’s head. The target area is the side of their head, neck or jaw. Note that while these are a common move, they require flexibility and balance.


The Low Kick

These kicks are aimed at your opponent’s thighs or lower legs. Your foot travels downwards at an angle and can be thrown with either leg. It seems unlikely, but low kicks can cause knockouts if they’re struck with enough force.


The Roundhouse Kick

One of the more favored and popular Muay Thai moves, roundhouse kicks travel to your opponent’s chest upwards and diagonally. You can use either leg to throw this style of kick, and they rank high in Muay Thai scoring.


The Teep

Also known as a ‘push kick,’ you perform this kick by lifting your leg and pushing your foot forward, directly at your opponent. You can strike any target on your opponent’s body using this move. Its nickname is the ‘foot jab,’ due to how versatile and quick it can be.


The Sweep

This is what you would call disrupting your opponent’s balance so that they fall. There are many ways to perform a sweep, from catching their kicks to tripping them.


The Knee

One of the more powerful strikes, the knee is thrown directly at your opponent, using your kneecap to strike. The common target for the knee is the torso, but if an opponent’s head is brought down you can aim at their face too.



Conditioning for Muay Thai

Muay Thai matches are high intensity and require an incredible amount of stamina and strength to endure. For this reason, Muay Thai fighters keep rigid regimens outside of lessons and the ring.

If you want to succeed at Muay Thai, even casually, you’re going to have to place equal emphasis on cardio, resistance training, and flexibility.

Cardio will improve your stamina, which you will need for training, sparring and surviving in matches. Resistance training will strengthen your muscles, making your strikes more powerful. It will also make your opponent’s strikes easier to withstand, block or recover from.

Lastly, if you have any hope of performing the impressive high kicks and fly kicks you see the professionals do, you’re going to have to work on your flexibility.

You don’t have to train like you’re preparing for war when you’re starting out, but if you are unfit, you will immediately notice how unfit you really are. Muay Thai will keep you in shape, and many people choose it for its fitness benefits.



Is Muay Thai Right for You?

If you think you can handle it, by all means, give it a try. Muay Thai can change and strengthen you in ways that the milder martial arts cannot. I can recommend it if you’re looking for an intense way to stay fit or stay in shape. It’s also one of the best martial arts for self-defense.

Just remember that it’s not for the faint-hearted. It will require dedication, commitment, and determination, in body, mind, and spirit. It can break you, and if you’re not ready or suited for it, it probably will.

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