Finding the Right Muay Thai Gym for You

So you’ve decided you want to take up Muay Thai or Kickboxing and you have begun to search for gyms near you. It’s exciting to try something new, but where do you start and what do you look for in a gym? If you are new to martial arts or the last time you look a martial art you were in the little dragons karate program, you probably have a lot of questions and are not sure which are the right ones to ask. So how do you go about finding the right Muay Thai gym?

Finding the Right Muay Thai Gym for You

What is your reason for wanting to learn Muay Thai?

Get Clear About Your “Why”

I suggest that the first thing you ask yourself is,  “Why do you want to take up Muay Thai?” Take some time to sit down and write down your reasons.  Do you want to lose some weight or increase endurance?  Do you want more confidence?  Are you just interested in self defense or do you want to learn to spar and have plans to compete in the sport one day? If you don’t have specific reasons that’s ok too, sometimes people want to start a martial art simply because they want to try something new. Maybe you know you should be active to be healthy but clocking thirty minutes on the treadmill at 24 Hour Fitness followed by a half-hearted trip to the free weights area surrounded by grunting people wearing headphones just isn’t doing it for you anymore. That’s a good reason too.

After you have a clear picture of your reasons for wanting to start Muay Thai then start looking online for gyms in your area. If you have a clear idea about what your goals are it will be easier to narrow it down.

Some kickboxing gyms will be very fitness based, but not have a technical Muay Thai program or train fighters. If you have no interest in competing then maybe this could be a good fit for you, but don’t discount a more fight oriented program.  There are many fight gyms that have general population classes for those with fitness and body composition goals just looking for a different way to workout. Besides, if you are gonna learn a new skill it might as well be the right skills, not just randomly swinging your limbs around in the name burning calories.

Some gyms will be more along the lines of a class pack, drop-in aerobics class, other gyms will be more of a real school with a program. Most real Muay Thai gyms that teach the sport are membership only because you are not going to learn Muay Thai by dropping into a class randomly once or twice a month, even once a week is too little to make real progress in my opinion. There is no right or wrong, just think about what it is you want from your training.

There are many MMA gyms that offer Muay Thai programs, some are great and could stand alone as their program or school, others are just an add-on to a predominantly grappling oriented MMA gym. Go check them out if this is all that is available to you; they could be great. However, if learning real Muay Thai is important to you be sure the Muay Thai classes are taught by Muay Thai coaches, not just MMA fighters that have dabbled in striking.

If building confidence or general health and fitness is your number one goal, you’ll want to make sure the gym has a strong community and a culture that is supportive of each other. Some gyms frequently get together for events and parties; the right community can help you build a healthy lifestyle and be accountable.

If you want to fight, you’ll want to research a little on the head coach. Did they have a fight career?  Do they currently train or have trained fighters? Do they have sparring classes and/or fight team training times? Don’t be afraid to ask these questions, a good coach will be happy to answer truthfully and what you can’t find out in person, you can probably Google them to find out if they are full of shit. The Internet makes it pretty easy theses days. Don’t just take the stats from their website as gold. Someone can say they are an undefeated boxer, but only had two low level fights. They could say they have a black belt, but really they just paid for it and took a weekend course (sad that these things exist, but they do).  Anyone can make a claim these days and a “Kru Certification” means absolutely nothing except they went to a seminar and got a piece of paper for being there. By the way, there is no belt system in Muay Thai, in case you were wondering. The standard ranking for fighters is their overall record, however some gyms rank their students to create a levels system. That’s okay, just know that it’s not a universal system, it’s simply a way to incentivize student’s progress and possibly a method for the gym to make additional income.

Remember that just having fight experience doesn’t automatically make someone a good coach, just like having a certification doesn’t make someone an excellent personal trainer. There’s a lot more to coaching than just knowing how to fight. Finding a coach that has some experience with coaching fighters over the years, usually starting out as an assistant coach under their coach, should be a minimum requirement if you are looking to compete.

Choosing a Muay Thai Gym - Girl Punching

Learning how to punch with proper form will minimize risk of injury

It’s Okay to Shop Around Before Committing

I suggest calling or emailing and making an appointment to see each gym that you are considering. Don’t make your decision solely based on price, convenience, the website or the reviews before visiting different options or you may be missing out.

Most gyms offer some complimentary consultation, first session free, two weeks or thirty-day trial. Take advantage of these intro offers so that you can make the decision that is best for you.

Be honest with the coaches and/or gym manager of the gym you are considering that you are looking around for the right gym for you. As a gym owner I always appreciate when people tell me they are “shopping around” because then I know they are serious about their training and I respect that. I also know that there are different gyms for different people. Only shady or naive gym owners will try to verbally convince you they are obviously the best choice over the phone or when you come in for your first session. Good gyms just prove their value to you with the solid training and good customer service.

Once you are in the gym, keep your reasons for starting Muay Thai in mind. Getting lean? Learning to fight? Community and Fun? Look around, ask questions and see if there are other students at that gym getting the results you expect to get from your training in the environment you envision being helpful for you to learn in.

I recommend a gym that offers not just a free class, but a longer trial period, even if that more extended trial period costs money, it is worth the investment to know if this is the right gym for you. One class is just not enough time to get to know the coaches and other students or to fully experience the training. Remember this is a skill-based sport unless you are looking for a cardio kickboxing class the quality of instruction matters and quality can be more expensive.


Muay Thai pad work kick

A private lesson is a great way to start training.

The Gym has Some Sort of On-Ramp Program

Make sure you are not just thrown in on day one into a mixed level class where you are one of many students. Some smaller gyms can manage a beginner in a mixed level class if they have small class sizes of six to ten or less, but even this is not the ideal way to learn on day one, especially if you are shy and have never done any martial arts before.

I prefer some one-on-one lessons to start beginners on their training, or a small group beginners only class. This ensures you can learn at a speed that is right for you, get a handle on the basics and be in a safe environment with a coach’s eyes on you to make sure you are not doing something dangerous.

Muay Thai is a combat sport. You are using your body as  weapon. If proper instruction is not given for kicking and punching something in a safe manner you may end up with a jammed wrist or a sprained ankle.  Even when proper instruction is given injuries can occur, so as a beginner you’ll want to minimize that risk with some sort of on-ramp program that teaches you how to safely do things.

If the gym you are trying out has large classes (15-30+ students), make sure they have classes with different levels, so that you know it will be easier to learn what is right for you with step by step instruction. Or if the class is large it has assistant coaches teaching (not taking) the class. I have found that in a mixed level class one instructor for every 8-12 mixed level students is manageable (depending on the coaches expertise at teaching), after that the coach must rely on his or her advanced students to help some of the newer students, which is fine once in a while, but not an ideal situation in every class, as neither beginner or advanced student get the best training session possible.

If the technique is important to you will also want to ask how their class programming works. Does the head coach program all the classes, even the ones he/she doesn’t teach? Is there some laid out program for the day, week, month or do the instructors just “wing it”? If you care about improving in Muay Thai technique, you’ll want an answer to those questions that shows that your gym has a plan in place for your progression.

Muay Thai Sparring

When Should You Start Sparring?

The First Rule of Fight Club…

Maybe you want a rough and tumble gym where people just sign a random liability waiver, throw in a mouth guard, jump in the ring and beat the shit out of each other without much instruction? I’m going to assume this is not what you’re looking for, and in that case, I’ll say this: If you get thrown into sparring on day one, this is NOT a safe gym. Look elsewhere.

Every good fight gym I know of treats sparring with an air of respect for the sport. You get to learn to spar when you have a handle on the basics and will be able to intelligently defend yourself. Besides, if they let you spar on day one when they don’t know you at all yet then who else will they let spar their students? The random psychopath who just paid a drop in fee and wants to hurt people? Yeah, that’s not a good sign.

I reserve sparring at my gym for members only and have all students wait a minimum of three months before taking our Intro to Sparring Seminar, which upon successful completion allows them to join a sparring class. Every gym will have different criteria of when you get to spar, but the most important thing is that there is some set policy.

Remember you don’t have to spar to train Muay Thai, so if sparring is not for you, you’ll want to make sure that the gym has pad work and bag classes where sparring is not required.

Muay Thai Fighter Pre Fight Prayer

Prayer before a fight between coach and student

Professional Training From Professional Coaches

Every gym has their own culture and there will be certain things that one student finds acceptable in their gym culture versus another. Some gyms you can curse in. Some gyms you have to bow every three minutes and if you curse in class you get penalized with push-ups. Personally, I like the option to say “fuck” when I want to and not get my hand slapped like a five year old, but I don’t want my gym environment to be in anyway negative, sexist, or discriminatory. You know what’s important to you. The right gym for you will share most of your personal values and will be a place you feel comfortable being yourself in.

The martial arts world is interesting, in many ways your Muay Thai team becomes your family and that family can have all the qualities of family: the good, the bad and everything in between. Often professional and personal lines are blurred in Muay Thai because bonds are formed in contact sports that go way beyond just a high five for getting a workout in. In Muay Thai you sweat, hug, punch, kick, bleed and cry with each other. You trip each other to the floor to learn sweeps and then extend a hand to pick each other up. Who would have thought punching your friends in the face would make you so close? Because of the nature of the sport you have to be careful to establish a close bond with only those that will honor and respect the trust that is exchanged between students and coaches.

It’s common for students to form bonds with other students and their coach. There are parties, bbq’s and dinners together. Your gym family might go out for beers after a training session, and they may celebrate significant life events together like birthdays and even weddings. Your Muay Thai family will be there for each other, but there must always be a degree of professionalism and mutual respect between coaches and students.

If in a trial period (or any other time) at the gym you notice any unprofessional or harmful behavior from the coaches or students I urge you to ask yourself if any of their behavior goes against your values. No one can tell you what’s right for you, but I can tell you what I don’t find acceptable.

  1. Coaches are hitting on students in the gym.
  2. Coaches are making women (or men!) feel uncomfortable, i.e., sexual harassment.
  3. Coaches or other students demeaning a student in a way that goes beyond lighthearted joking between friends.
  4. Blatant favoritism – certain students always getting more coaching then others in a group class setting. Some students may get special treatment outside of group classes. It’s common for fighters to get special attention and even additional “free” coaching when preparing for a fight. This is normal and something that the coach decides based on a fighters commitment to the gym and the sport – blatant in class favoritism is different. Every paying student receptive to constructive corrections deserves relatively equal coaching. If you regularly get looked over in class you might want to self check your attitude toward criticism. A coach might not want to keep giving you direction if you have a know-it-all attitude or never make adjustments when they give you instructions.
  5. Coaches that don’t step in when students are bullying in class or being rude or other students.
  6. Using abusive tactics to “motivate” students, i.e., calling someone fat, or lazy or stupid to get them to “improve.”
  7. Abusing a student’s contact info with un-solicited emails, phone calls or texts unrelated to training.
  8. Coaches are putting their students in dangerous situations they are not prepared for like being partnered with a much bigger student who has no control or forcing them to spar in class when they don’t want to and are scared to do so.

In my professional opinion regardless of what your “deal breakers” are any of the above are examples of abusive or negative coaching and no one should tolerate them. It always upsets me when I hear a story about someone having a negative experience like any of those above at a martial arts gym. I love Muay Thai so much; it breaks my heart to hear that anyone had a bad experience training.

My Muay Thai Family

Your team will become your family

Don’t Quit Before the Miracle

Once you have made a decision on a gym that fits your “why” and that shares your values, make a commitment. I suggest making a commitment for a full year. It may sound daunting, but I always tell people something my coach told me:

“If you train Muay Thai regularly for one year and really give it your all, I promise you will be amazed at the person you become.”

Training Muay Thai will shape you in the most positive, incredible way. You will be more confident, happier, less stressed, healthier, and more productive in your life outside the gym.  Why not commit for a year and give it a shot? Most gyms have a three or six month option if you are still unsure after your trial period, but if you know that the gym fits your “why” and shares your values just go for it as soon as you can answer yes to those two questions. A commitment to learning a new skill in an environment you enjoy is not something you will not regret.

I’m going to be honest with you, getting good at Muay Thai is hard. Let it be hard.  Improving your Muay Thai skills will not be a walk in the park. It will require effort, sacrifice, and passion, but that is exactly why it’s worth it. All your hard work will make you proud of you.

At some point in your training, you will probably get hit in the head by life. You’ll get busy; your boyfriend will breakup with you, you will need to find a new job and then that new job will have crazy hours, you will get a dog and realize it’s way more work than you anticipated. Something will happen that threatens your commitment to Muay Thai. This is life.

I humbly suggest that these tough times are NOT the time to put training on the back burner. When you feel depressed, or life is stressful those are the times you need a community and an outlet more than ever, plus this might be the time when quitting would mean you left right before the miracle.

I watch students all the time. They go through phases. In the first three months everyone generally looks like baby giraffes. Limbs flying all over with no aim or balance. Then in 3-6 months they begin to get a hold of their alien limbs and strikes become more fluid. They might still drop their hands at the wrong time when they aren’t focusing and they might make a footwork mistake while doing drills or sparring, but they generally start to look like they know how to kick and punch. At 6-9 months I often see students have breakthroughs. Something they were struggling with finally happens. “OMG, I pivoted on my left kick properly and my hip turned over!”,  “Holy crap, I made it through 5 minutes of jump rope and I didn’t stop once!”, “I hit the mitts and this nice satisfying snap came from my cross – I finally got awesome power in my punches!” It’s a fun time to watch these breakthroughs. Then around 12-18 months the real magic happens, you get like super badass. Okay, maybe not everyone will be professional fighter status after one year of training three-four times a week, but like I told you earlier, you will be amazed at yourself.

You will look in the mirror and think, “Who is this badass?  Oh yeah, that’s me! Let’s kick stuff. Woo-hoo!”

I’m not kidding; you will have this warm and fuzzy moment with yourself if you commit to Muay Thai and consistently put work into your training. I promise. If not you can come back to this blog and leave me a comment saying I’m full of shit… but I doubt you’ll do that since you’ll be too busy doing badass things.

Muay Thai Sparring Fighters

Train Muay Thai = Happy, Confident, Badass 😉