Finding a Good Muay Thai Gym
Selecting a proper Muay Thai gym is an important decision if you are serious about training. It is easy to become confused with the label of ‘kickboxing’ and the various styles that can be labelled under it. If you want to train Muay Thai, it is important to ensure your gym trains Muay Thai. Be as sceptical as you need to be, especially if the instructor has a background in many different martial arts.
Furthermore, many gyms claim to have elements of Muay Thai in their martial arts workouts. They will later prove to be just another flashy gym with ‘boxercise’ workouts. Not slagging those kinds of workouts off, but they are not Muay Thai! Ultimately, if you want the real deal you have to go out and find it.
It is always a good idea to do a bit of a background check and look up the background of the instructor who will be teaching you, what are there credentials? Where have they trained? Is the training certificate legitimate? Have they trained any well known Muay Thai fighters? The internet is always good for research of this kind. Do your homework!
What to Expect in Training
To learn Muay Thai you will literally have to put everything you have previously learned to one side and literally start over. If you’re from a background in another fighting system such as Karate this might be disappointing. The reason being is that Muay Thai moves are very different to Japanese, Chinese and Korean forms of combat. Indeed, everything from the stances, to the way strikes are delivered to the conditioning is very much different. For example, a Thai roundhouse kick is nothing like a roundhouse kick delivered from a Karate or Kung-Fu Practitioner!
Most of what you have learned previously will be of little value, the conditioning from past training may help you out but that will be about it… The exception to the rule would be if you possess a Boxing background since you will be able to use your boxing techniques with your Muay Thai training. Muay Thai has learned massively from the superior hand striking techniques found in Western Boxing. It should be noted that there are a number of differences between movement and stance with the two disciplines. However, hand strikes such as jab, cross, uppercut are all to be found in Muay Thai.
Starting out, your instructor will help you iron out any habits you drag with you from previous martial arts practice. They will study your technique and how you move and make suggestions and corrections. Don’t be disheartened by any criticism, at the end of the day they are there to help you progress. Start out expecting to make lots of mistakes and use the feedback to improve your technique. In fact, it would only be if I didn’t hear any criticism that I would be worried, that the instructor wasn’t being attentive to new students!
Muay Thai Basics
So, the Muay Thai basics. Here it’s important not to run before you can walk. Concentrate on learning the basic moves and observe and take advice from your fellow students. Patience is very important when you are starting off in Muay Thai.
The first few weeks should be just partner work, shadow boxing and pad work to give the instructor an idea of your level and ability. Don’t expect to be sparring until you are more proficient and able, because although sparring helps develop toughness, it can create bad habits without good fundamentals.
The fighters stance and footwork
Starting off the first thing you need to learn is the basic Muay Thai fighters stance and guard. You will learn how to move like a fighter, how to throw strikes and return to the fighters stance. The basic Muay Thai guard is essentially keeping your hands high so you can block incoming attacks (especially to the head). Remembering to keep that guard up when you deliver kicks and other blows can be tricky initially!
With regards to the rhythm element, Muay Thai rhythm stresses balance and control. The basic idea with stance and footwork is that you should be able to attack an opponent from any position. It should also allow you to defend from any of their incoming attacks coming from any angle.
The fundamentals strikes are all you should be concentrating on during your first classes. The basic Muay Thai strikes are, namely the jab; cross; hook; the deep (push kick); body-shot; uppercuts; roundhouse kicks, and strikes with the knees and elbows.
When you think you have learned them, practice them again and again and again! Listen to your trainer and your peers when they correct you. Also keep an eye on the mirror, video record and watch your movement and make adjustments accordingly. If it doesn’t look right, it probably isn’t, ask for advice and build on feedback.
What Equipment Will I Need?
Starting out, the only thing you need to bring is some training clothes. The instructor will look after you and not throw you to the sharks during your first few weeks. No footwear is needed as training is barefoot. After a few weeks if you are happy with your training you may wish to purchase a pair of Muay Thai gloves, hand wraps, and even some Muay Thai shorts. Keep it simple, if you become hooked you can splash out on more expensive gear later.
For your first pair of gloves ask your instructor, they will undoubtedly recommend heavier gloves for sparring. Heavier gloves are easier on the hands and wrists than the smaller bag gloves. Once you are hooked and maybe sparring, you will then need to purchase a mouthguard, shin guards and groin protection. NB: Always spar with a mouthguard, unless that is you want teeth like the Pogues singer Shane McGowan!
An Overview of Muay Thai Training Methods
To progress as a Muay Thai fighter there are many physical components that a person must aim to improve. Technique, speed, power, endurance, motor skills, flexibility, mental toughness, physical conditioning, they are all important elements that a Muay Thai fighter must address for progression. The structure of Muay Thai training is designed to improve and enhance these different areas of training. For example, skipping will improve your cardio, heavy bag work will improve your power and technique. A typical Muay Thai session will engage all key areas, sometimes focussing on one area heavily. Below is an outline of the type of training you can expect to find in an average Muay Thai gym.
Drills can help you develop confidence in your guard. Constant drilling practice will help you develop the reflexes to defend against incoming attacks. They also help improve your timing as well as judging range and distance for strikes. These drills are performed slower with decreased power. The aim of the game here is to let you concentrate on technique and reduce any risk of being injured.
After you become more proficient and are training with an opponent of equal ability you can up the speed slightly. That said, always keep the power level down! The objective of the drills is to help develop your abilities. The object is not to KO your poor drill partner!
Starting out, you should work with someone more proficient and experienced and who can hold pads effectively. This will ensure that they can give you feedback and help you learn how to hit the pads. They will also school you in how to hold the pads to avoid injury when it’s your turn. Concentrate on technique rather than hitting the pads as hard as you can!! Power will come with time.
The heavy bag is a great piece of equipment with many benefits in training. It allows you to work on your techniques and not have to worry about holding back (the bag won’t hit you back!). Pounding the bag is also a great way to improve your stamina, several 3-minute rounds on a heavy bag will have you gasping for breath. Finally, it can be used to conditioning your shins and knuckles (which will get bruised initially!) Be warned! However, after several months of hitting the hard bag, your skin will start to harden up.
The key is to keep everything simple and focus on basic moves to start. Concentrating on striking with perfect execution and resetting yourself back to your Muay Thai stance. You are training yourself essentially to recover quickly after throwing a strike and not leave yourself exposed for a counterstrike!
Muay Thai fighters are legendary for their physical and mental toughness. They have conditioned their bodies to absorb pain and take tremendous amounts of damage in fights. This is developed from constant practice and drilling over the years. For you starting out as a beginner you will be exactly where legendary Muay Thai fighters began. Initially, your body will hurt with bruises to your shins, knees, elbows, burns on the balls of your feet, muscle soreness and stiff hips!!
Relax, however. This is normal and something you just have to grin and bear as the body learns to adapt to the new stress. Over time your body will adapt to deal with the conditioning and you will become..tougher!
Shadowboxing takes place in front of a mirror so you can scrutinise your own technique. Starting out concentrate on maintaining a textbook stance and guard whilst moving. Keep an eye on the mirror to check your technique. Check for areas that need improvement or technique that looks incorrect (telegraphing punches or failing to use your hips effectively with kicks). Focus on how you move and your angles, do you leave yourself open after throwing a blow? Is your footwork clumsy? This is the opportunity to find chinks in the armour before an opponent does. Always remember after you throw a strike or combination to always come back to your original stance and to keep your guard up!!
Clinching involves the use of grappling to set up for a strong position or close quarter move such as a knee thrust, elbow or uppercut. It involves grabbing your opponent around the neck and forcing the neck down to put them in a precarious position for the blow. Clinching can also be used to ‘throw’ the opponent knocking them off their balance and setting them up for a heavy blow before they can recover (such as a shin kick).
An important element of clinching is defending or countering the opponent’s intention, blocking their moves and responding with your own controlled positioning. As mentioned earlier it is a great developer of cardio and endurance. Clinching involves arm control, sweeps, elbows, and knees.
NB: When you clinch always wear a mouthguard to protect against accidental headbutts.
Cardio training – (skipping/running)
The cardio side of training is designed to help you improve your energy systems and build up your general cardio. The main methods utilised in Muay Thai is with the use of skipping, continuous sparring and pad-work drills and running.
There will be lots of practice and skipping in the gym but running will be something you do in your own time. A good combination of all three will vastly improve your cardio allowing you to practice for longer periods.
Sparring is an element that most martial arts are missing from their training regimen and which provides you with actual fighting experience. Unless you have that element of realism, learning any martial arts will not be worth much in a real-life situation. This real-life fight experience helps make Muay Thai more practical and relevant than many other hand-to-hand systems available.
With sparring, you get to use all of your techniques against a real opponent. It is in this stage of training you learn all of your strengths and weaknesses as well as what works and what doesn’t work in a straight up fight. You will not be sparring until you developed the techniques to a satisfactory level to your instructor. If this is a side that you would like to develop, be patient. Your instructor will get you in the ring as soon as they feel you are ready.
Fighting in the ring is the ultimate stage of Muay Thai training. This allows you to put all your skills to the test against an opponent who will not be holding back. Again, this is where Muay Thai really shines as a martial art because you will be gaining real-life fighting experience.
However, don’t feel intimidated as there is no pressure to compete. If you show an interest and your instructor thinks you are capable you might be asked to consider representing the club. If that is something that isn’t for you then fine, just keep practising and enjoy yourself.
A Final Word – Advancing in Muay Thai
The key to surviving the early stages of Muay Thai is patience and perseverance. With much hard work and an appetite to learn you will gradually become more comfortable performing the different techniques. It can be a slow process depending on your level unless you have trained in Muay Thai before you have to learn all of the basics from scratch and focus on one thing at a time. However, once you can use Muay Thai moves without thinking, training starts to become a lot more fun.
Every time you show up to class, you will be improving and getting better. You will be more comfortable with the classes, getting used to faces and making friends. People who used to intimidate you in training will suddenly start to become your training buddies. You will be comfortable sparring with people of different levels. Holding your own, getting fitter and god forbid actually having some fun!!
You may not be naturally talented when you start. However, if you are willing to work hard, Muay Thai is a highly rewarding training system.