Do you remember all your fears about the first day of a new high school or college? Worrying if you could find the right class room, wondering if you were overdressed, under-dressed, or had even picked the right image to present yourself to your new classmates. Always checking your schedule, trying to figure out where to sit, trying to decide if you should raise your hand or not in class. Looking around the room and wondering who would be a good person to talk to and become friends with, wondering if you were cool enough to be their friend. Well thank God that’s over for me, and for most of you, but I like to remember that feeling because it can be a little like the first day of school for people when they walk into a Muay Thai gym for the first time.
If you have been in the fight scene for a while, you forget what it was like when you first started. For a newbie, instructors, fighters, and other students are intimidating. Muay Thai traditions are completely foreign. You don’t know a Thai pad from a kick pad, Thai oil smells funny, three minutes of jump rope feels like an eternity, and you have no idea how to take 180 inches of fabric and somehow with what seems like 37 different twists and turns, wrap it neatly around your hand without either cutting off your circulation or having the whole wrap fall apart after the warm-up.
At my gym, I try to make beginners feel comfortable and explain to them all the things they will need to know before they move on to the mixed level classes, but I will probably always fall short. It’s so hard to remember all the things beginners don’t know because it’s been so long since I was one.
I am always grateful when a student asks me a question that is very obvious to me, but they couldn’t possibly know without being told. It gives me a chance to share with them my experience and pass on knowledge that was passed down to me in a true tradition of martial arts. This blog is for all the teachers like myself that need reminding how little we knew in the beginning and for all the Muay Thai newbies who just started training or are curious about starting. These Tips for Muay Thai Beginners are for those who I assume care about getting better at Muay Thai. if you are training just to get a ripped body you might want to consider other less technical means like those of boot camps or cardio kickboxing. Just my two cents.
1. You don’t need to be in shape to start training Muay Thai. MuayThai is a skill based sport. If you focus on the techniques you are being taught, drill them with focus and patience you will naturally get more conditioned as you practice, being able to do things faster and harder as you get better. If you are gassing out on the first round of pad work try going lighter, it will help you focus on your technique anyway. Sure the warm ups and the conditioning drills will be challenging at first, but you probably signed up to be challenged and improve your fitness. Besides, your instructor and the other students know you are new. No one expects you to be in top shape coming in and no one will make you feel bad if you aren’t. If you feel genuinely uncomfortable in class find a gym that makes you feel welcome. There are many different types of Muay Thai gyms with different vibes and gym cultures. If you are lucky enough to live in a large urban area you should have a variety of gyms to choose from.
2. Expect to Suck at First. Every great fighter sucked at some point. My first coach used to say, “If it was easy everyone would do it.” I tell this to my students all the time. Learning how to use your body as a weapon in a rule-based sport is not an easy task. Instead of getting frustrated by not being able to do a strike or combination perfectly, get FASCINATED by the sport and use that drive and passion to focus your practice. Sure there are always those students who pick it up faster and look like a pro on the pads in a few months, but that is rare and usually that “natural athlete” is just an average person that wanted it more and spent more time working at it. If something was earned through hard effort and rigorous practice it is appreciated much more and that journey from sucky to awesome will stay with you forever.
3. Watch Fights. There is actually science behind this. You will improve at your sport by watching other people play that sport. If you are not an avid fight watcher and don’t know where to start ask your instructor for the names of their favorite fighters past and present. They will be happy to share them with you and you can get started on your YouTube education right away.
4. Shadow box and mean it. I know shadow boxing sucks in the beginning. It’s one of the things I distinctly remember. I hated it. I felt stupid, didn’t know what combos to do and just wanted to hit something solid. I may not absolutely love shadow boxing even today, but I understand it’s benefit and see it’s results. Shadow boxing gives you the opportunity to practice strikes, footwork and new combos with precision, by slowing it down, checking your work in the mirror, fixing mistakes and then speeding it up. To get better it’s very important that you drill things the right way in shadow boxing and not be sloppy. My pet peeve is bad shadow boxing footwork like crossing your feet or students dropping their hands randomly just because they are bored during shadow boxing. Try working on a combo you did in your last class during shadow boxing or focus on a particular element of your game like keeping your left hand up or extending your hips on the knee. If you don’t know what to work on in shadow boxing, ask your instructor for suggestions.
5. It’s okay to stick to the basics. If your gym has mixed level classes chances are there will be days when the class format calls for some advanced footwork or a long combination. Don’t get overwhelmed, tell your partner or pad holder you just want to focus on the first strike or two to make things easier since you are new. They will understand. If you are working the bag, take your time and think about your cues and instructor’s suggestions before each strike. Don’t just drill the strikes incorrectly over and over because you are trying to get a workout. Take the complex and break it into small pieces, putting them together one at a time paying particular attention to the transitions. If you stick to the basics in the beginning and refine them, before you know it a 6 strike combo will not be so confusing.
6. Come early, stay late and ask questions. Remember that kid in school who was always in class before you, they always raised their hand and had something to say and when class was over they stayed late to ask the teacher to elaborate on a particular lecture point. Yeah that kid was a nerd, but that kid also went on to run a fortune 500 company, discover a new gene or write a best selling novel and probably earns more a year than the kid that showed up late, closed their book as soon as the bell rang and never participated. Want to be good at Muay Thai? Be a fight nerd. Get fascinated by the sport, do extra work, take advantage of open gym, ask your instructor lots of questions, no one will think it’s weird. Every great Muay Thai fighter had been obsessed with the sport. The only way to get good is to care too much and put in work.
7. Your shins will hurt. You will get bumps and bruises. There is no way around this, but there is an end in sight. You don’t need to go kicking trees and hitting yourself with bamboo to make your shins hard. There are a lot of strange “wives tales” when it comes to shin conditioning. My take on it is this: 1) Kick the heavy bag often. 2) When you do get a bump, bruise, or pain of practically any kind on your leg, shin, or foot ice it. 3) Rub out your shins and legs with Thai oil before training. Massage out the bumps and bruises (yes this will hurt a little, but nothing worth having comes easy, remember?). I was not gifted with hard shins. There was a bunch of soft tissue on the top of my shin that gave me grief in the beginning. My legs were always so bruised that my Thai coaches used to point at me, laugh and call me a “leopard”. Only their English was hard for me to understand and I thought they were calling me a leper. During my first 2-4 years of training I came home from the gym and put packs of frozen peas on me from my feet to my knees for 30 minutes while eating dinner and watching TV. Then magically, one day my shins didn’t really bruise much anymore and when I caught the occasional knee or elbow to the shin in sparring, I was pretty much okay. For more on this see my Muay Thai injuries blog.
8. Don’t buy cheap gear. Invest in some quality equipment. I can understand why at first you might buy a cheap pair of gloves because you are not sure if Muay Thai is for you. But once you have been training for a bit and want to take it seriously you’ll want gear that lasts and is protective. With most gear the price indicates quality. So yeah, that $50 pair of gloves will wear out much sooner than the $100 pair. With most brands you really are getting your money’s worth. As far as style and brand, that’s a personal choice. Ask your instructor, fighters, or advanced students at your gym what they like and read online reviews… and for God’s sake do not buy cheap headgear and mouth guards.
9. You don’t have to fight. You don’t even have to spar. No one is going to think any less of you if you don’t want to. Crazy people like training that involves getting punched in the face. Fighters are insane, we acknowledge this and don’t think any less of people that want no part of it. Sparring will definitely improve your Muay Thai, but it’s not necessary to being a welcome contribution to your gym. If your gym insists on everyone sparring or pressures you to spar too early in your training, just find one that doesn’t, they do exist.
10. Be a good partner. Learn to hold pads well. Not only will being a good pad holder make your fellow students appreciate you but it will also make you stronger. You don’t have to think of exciting flashy combos to call out for your partner. Some of the world’s best pad holders keep it straightforward and basic. Just call basic punches kicks and knees, keep the pace up, work on your footwork while holding and hold pads with a good amount of resistance. Communicate with your partner about the right height, angle, and resistance of the pads. They will be grateful for your thoughtfulness.
11. Don’t forget to breathe! Breathe out when you strike, breathe out when you hold pads, pushing against your partners strikes and breathe out when you get hit in sparring. You don’t have to make funny grunting noises if you don’t want to, but at least breathe out and tightly flex your abdominal wall. My first coach told me to say “hush” when I strike. It helps your power in a big way, and ’til this day I still make kinda funny “hush” noises all the time.
12. Don’t expect to get proficient at Muay Thai training just once a week. If you want to get decent at the sport, start training three days a week. If you want to get good at Muay Thai, train five to six days a week. If you want to be great, get so obsessed with Muay Thai that at least once you get asked to stop training because the gym is closing.
13. Only real men wear pink. You don’t need tons of flashy Muay Thai outfits to get good at Muay Thai, but eventually you’ll probably want to buy a couple pairs of Muay Thai shorts to train in. You can’t get them at local stores. You may find them at fight events or at your gym’s retail store but most likely you will want to get some online. Here are some things to note about purchasing Thai shorts. 1) Most of the cool designed shorts ship from Thailand, they will take forever to get to you, be patient 2) Thai sizes are different than American sizes, they run about 1-2 sizes up and are unisex. For example I wear a Thai “large” but am a size 6-7 in women’s. Most averaged sized guys will wear an XL. Check and re-check the sizing charts on the website you order from to see if you are ordering Thai or American sizes. 3) Most fighters fold their Thai shorts over at the top, but not all do. It’s just a matter of preference. 4) Only bad-ass fighters wear pink. Until you can throw down in the gym and at least school a few of your teammates don’t get the pink shorts. In Muay Thai you have to earn the right to wear pink. I’m not exactly sure if this applies to women, but just to be safe I didn’t wear pink until I felt bad-ass too 😉
14. Stand up straight and do your rows. While an awesome workout, Muay Thai is not great for your posture. Coupled with a desk job and our faces in a smartphone all day you got yourself a recipe for a hunchback. If you don’t want to look like an osteoporosis-ridden eighty-year-old, then make posture a priority and do some other functional training besides Muay Thai. At my gym Function 5 Fitness we like the Concept2 rower, TRX or gymnastic ring rows, kettlebells and lots of recovery and mobility exercises. At the very least do way more rowing exercises than you think you need and chill on those push ups and your bench pressing, those will only make the hunch back worse and you’ll probably end up with some sort of shoulder injury down the road.
15. Support your team. To get the most out of your Muay Thai gym you have to be a part of the community. Go to your gyms events, parties, and especially go see your gym’s fighters compete. One of the best parts of Muay Thai is the community. If you just come to your 2-3 hours of class every week and keep to yourself you are missing a vital part of the experience.
16. No one likes a gym hopper. There is nothing wrong with checking out a few gyms when you decide to start training Muay Thai, that is a great idea, and I encourage it. You will find the right gym for you if you look around. There is also nothing wrong with changing gyms if your needs change or training at two gyms because you are bi-coastal, but “gym hopping” is not doing you any favors. As a beginner and even as an amateur fighter it is important to have a home, a team and one head coach you listen to. If you just pay drop in fees at various places and jump from gym to gym you will not make the improvements you could if you committed to one style and system, staying and training long enough with someone to actually work on your weaknesses. Learning a variety of different styles and approaches won’t help you in the beginning, it will only confuse you. Have the courage to trust one team and learn from them, if you need to move on later you can. Professional fighters may utilize different training partners and coaches, but those are professional athletes that have already honed their style and skills at a high level, that is entirely different.
17. Offer to help. I’m not the most traditional of coaches. I don’t ask students to Wai (bow) to me every time they see me. “Yes, sir!” or “No, sir!” just feels too formal to me. But I do want to believe that the classic martial arts concepts of respect, honor, and gratitude still exist. I believe that respect is earned and through my teaching students will respect me just as through their hard work I will respect them. One way to show your instructor you appreciate their time and dedication to your Muay Thai education is to offer to help with stuff. It could be as simple as mopping the floors after class or helping a new student wrap their hands. If you have a skill like design, baking, or music you can offer to help with a new logo, bring cookies to a gym party, or offer to DJ an event. Muay Thai coaches don’t teach because it makes the big bucks, we teach because we love it and when our students recognize that by offering their help be it big or small it makes us feel like a million bucks.
18. Invest in private lessons. Group classes are excellent but ask any great fighter how they got great, and they will tell you they had one on one coaching as well as team training. Even if you can’t afford privates every week, getting a private lesson once a month would do wonders for your progress. There is only so much individual instruction teachers can give in a class setting. Don’t think that private lessons are just for fighters or advanced students, anyone can benefit from them.
19. Don’t go on the mat with dirty feet. Anyone that goes to my gym knows this is a major pet peeve of mine. But let’s think about this: The mat should be a clean sacred place where Muay Thai magic happens. We all know to take our shoes off before going on the mat. Some schools make you Wai each time you enter the mat. In what world would it be okay to go to the bathroom (the dirtiest place in the gym) barefoot and then walk on the mat? I actually witnessed a girl one time run outside to get her gloves from her car with no shoes on and then walk back on the mat like it was nothing. I think my staff had to physically restrain me from strangling her. Okay, so I might be a little OCD, but really, you wouldn’t want to do push ups and stretching on a mat that someone just stepped on with their pee-infused or Los Angeles dirt-encrusted feet. Eww. Seriously, that’s so gross. If your gym doesn’t care about this sort of thing I question their sanitary practices in all other areas.
20. Get regular massages or chiropractic work. It’s unrealistic to think that you can train your body hard day after day and not give it some TLC. Don’t set yourself up for injury by ignoring this last tip. When you train in Muay Thai you are hitting things HARD and there is a lot of resistance coming back at you from that bag, pad (or person). If you spar you’ll be jacking up your alignment on a regular basis. A little monthly maintenance will go a long way to ensuring you train healthy & fit for a long time.
I could probably think of 10 more tips for newbies, but “Top Tips Lists” over 20 annoy me, so I’ll stop there. But for you, Muay Thai coaches please free to leave your top tips I didn’t mention in the comments. I’d love to read them.