I get this question at least once a month. I’m not trying to be funny or poke fun at anyone. When you’re starting a new sport there is a huge learning curve for the mind, the body and the culture that surrounds it. If you factor in the steep decline of our youth’s athleticism and combine it with the new popularity of combat sports like MMA you’ve got a lot of newbies starting a challenging sport that need a huge amount of (re)education about how to simply move their body safely, condition it well, and recover.
These days being athletic is the exception and not the norm. Even playing outside as a kid is unusual. I’ve trained many clients who have never played a sport in their lives and others who played the occasional sport in high school, but from college through several years into their professional career they haven’t done anything athletic consistently for any length of time. Then they show up to the gym with mobility issues, muscle imbalances, poor diet, crappy cardio and a few extra pounds on them. The situation finally gets to the point where they are willing to take action. Change is possible, or course. With effort and consistency, all these things can be reversed or at least drastically improved. I’ve seen adults train and become more athletic and fit than they ever were in high school.
However, if true athleticism is the student’s desire, they have to be open to an entire re-education in fitness and health. Getting an athletic body means you have to develop an athletic training ethic, an athlete’s mindset and the skill of listening to your body, knowing when to push it hard and knowing when to back off. I played basketball and tennis in H.S. I was on the varsity team at a very small private school, but I was far from the star player. I was mediocre at best. It wasn’t until I found Muay Thai after college that I truly excelled at something athletic, developed an athletic body and most importantly learned to suffer through challenges to get rewarded with success. I will share with you what I have learned in my time training Muay Thai since 2002. The physical challenges, conditioning, and setbacks I experience along the way and how I coach my clients through their Muay Thai journey.
In this blog, you will learn how to navigate the new world of Muay Thai training injuries, specifically the physical conditioning and recovery aspects. What to expect, what changes your body will go through, what will hurt, what pain is healthy and what is not, the difference between an injury and the discomfort in stages of progression, how to care for your body, rest, recover and grow. You may also want to check out my Blog: Tips for Muay Thai Beginners
How Sore is Too Sore?
It’s very common for people to have soreness for 1-3 days, after a Muay Thai workout, especially in the beginning. However, after consistent training, you won’t get really sore from a basic Muay Thai workout unless you’re pushing it super hard. Sometimes students get a little freaked out by the soreness, thinking they did something wrong or hurt themselves. Some people also think they need to be 100% not sore to workout again, but this is not true. There are many reasons that your soreness is more severe than others. #1 Maybe you haven’t worked out in a long long time. #2 Maybe you have never worked out those particular muscles in the way Muay Thai works them. #3 Maybe you have a poor diet that has too many processed foods or inflammatory foods and/or don’t drink enough water. #4 Maybe you don’t sleep enough #5 Or maybe you are just sensitive and have a low pain tolerance. I’m serious, some students I’ve noticed are just more sensitive than others.
#1 Maybe you haven’t worked out in a long long time. #2 Maybe you have never worked out those particular muscles in the way Muay Thai works them. #3 Maybe you have a poor diet that has too many processed foods or inflammatory foods and/or don’t drink enough water. #4 Maybe you don’t sleep enough #5 Or maybe you are just sensitive and have a low pain tolerance. I’m serious, some students I’ve noticed are just more sensitive than others.
#2 Maybe you have never worked out those particular muscles in the way Muay Thai works them. #3 Maybe you have a poor diet that has too many processed foods or inflammatory foods and/or don’t drink enough water. #4 Maybe you don’t sleep enough #5 Or maybe you are just sensitive and have a low pain tolerance. I’m serious, some students I’ve noticed are just more sensitive than others.
#3 Maybe you have a poor diet that has too many processed foods or inflammatory foods and/or don’t drink enough water. #4 Maybe you don’t sleep enough #5 Or maybe you are just sensitive and have a low pain tolerance. I’m serious, some students I’ve noticed are just more sensitive than others.
#4 Maybe you don’t sleep enough #5 Or maybe you are just sensitive and have a low pain tolerance. I’m serious, some students I’ve noticed are just more sensitive than others.
#5 Or maybe you are just sensitive and have a low pain tolerance. I’m serious, some students I’ve noticed are just more sensitive than others to pain in general, including soreness.
The only time to worry about muscle soreness is if you are peeing blood, which can indicate a condition called rhabdomyolysis. However, I have never seen anyone get rhabdo from a Muay Thai workout in all my years in the sport. I’ve only seen rhabdo occur from a CrossFit workout, as the weights plus intense exercise can be too much for a unconditioned body to handle. As a side note, you are more susceptible to rhabdo if you are on statins (cholesterol-lowering medication).
I generally recommend that if you are just starting an intense exercise routine like Muay Thai, to train three times a week with rest between the days. M/W/F or T/TR/SAT are good schedules to follow. Come all these days regardless of muscle soreness. Once you warm up and start moving around the soreness will diminish to allow you to workout safely. That’s another reason to be on time for class. You don’t want to skimp on the important warm up. As you get more conditioned you can add more days.
I also suggest you invest in a foam roller. This nifty invention will help speed recovery and help prevent injury. There are plenty of online tutorials on how to use your foam roller for various muscle groups.
One last tip if you are very sore is to come to class and just work on technique, drilling combos while going much lighter than normal. The activity will help you recovery faster while not pushing your body too far. You can also just jump rope, stretch, and shadowbox in open-gym – this is called “active rest” and is good for recovery.
Ouch, my shins! Sorry, this might hurt a little…
Shin conditioning is a necessary part of Muay Thai. For some students, it takes longer than others to condition shins. In order to have shins that withstand Muay Thai fight competition, you have to go through a lot of pain and TLC before your shins are hard enough to check kicks without shin guards. That’s not everyone’s goal, but even if you just want to wail on the Thai pads and heavy bag, your shins will need to toughen up a bit.
When I first started Muay Thai my shins were black and blue. I guess I bruised easy, or maybe I just had wimpy shins. Today I hardly ever bruise. The body is amazing at adapting to outside conditions, this is the basis of evolution… but yes, using your body as a weapon will hurt a little.
If you find that your shins ache, bump or bruise after kicking pads or heavy bags don’t worry, you didn’t break anything. Trust me, a stress fracture of your shin feels absolutely horrible. You will know if it’s broken. It kind of feels like a lightening bolt going up your leg every time you touch it. What’s super common is a basic bruise/lump. If this happens to you, you need to ice your shin after training. I personally spent every day after training for three years with ice packs on my shins for 20 minutes while eating dinner. Then I just stopped needing to unless I got a major bump from sparring.
You don’t need to stop training because of a shin bump. Bumps are common, mostly from sparring and hitting an elbow or knee by mistake, but they can also happen by hitting the edge of a Thai pad the wrong way. Most of the time they just need a few days to heal. It helps to massage them after a hot bath or shower or before training with Thai Liniment, a menthol oil from Thailand used by fighters to warm the muscles before training and fighting. Thai oil helps numb the shins a bit while you train so the bruises hurt less and it also makes it easier to rub out the lumps in your shins…. yeah, this is not a sport for the timid.
It’s important to remember to wash your hands after you put on Thai oil. A swipe in the eye of that stuff and you will be crying. Or worse you use the restroom and forget to rinse the Thai Oil off first! LOL
If the bump is really bad you might have a bone bruise. These can take a longer time to heal usually 2 -6 weeks, but that doesn’t mean you have to stop training. Many times I have hurt my shins sparring: bumps, bone bruises or even stress fractures and I went back to train, but just didn’t kick with that leg for a while.
The awesome thing about Muay Thai is it’s the art of 8 limbs (not 2) so if one of my weapons is busted I can use all the other 7. Unless you are the amazing Baxter Humby you all have 2 hands, 2 elbows, 2 knees, and 2 shins (that guy is awesome, next time you are complaining, think about what he has accomplished). I’ve trained Muay Thai with a busted hand, bloody elbows, bruised knees and completely destroyed shins. It’s not required that you do that, but just a note that this is what fighters do.
Black Blue & Every Shade of Purple
Guys: Girls love bruises and scars, don’t’ sweat it.
Girls: I’ve sported many a dress with sexy bruises on my legs. If you are a Muay Thai chick and some guy has a problem with your bruises, they are probably not the guy for you… However, here’s my suggestions to minimize bruising…
First, if you really can’t deal with bruises I don’t recommend learning to spar. Just stick to pad work. You WILL bruise sometimes if you spar or drill defense and you have little control over this .
Second, make sure you have your diet in check. A poor diet can make you more susceptible to bruises. Eat veggies, drink water, get sufficient protein.
Ready for the magic formula which will allow you to bruise your leg on Tuesday and go to the beach without getting stared at on Saturday? Traumeel! It’s the best thing I discovered since Amazon Prime…and you can get Traumeel on Amazon (of course you can). Buy some and keep it on your bedside table. Slather it on anything that hurts or looks purplish. Your welcome very 🙂
“My Foot Hurts.”
When you are first learning to kick you’ll probably hit the top of your foot a lot. This is one reason why I suggest not going hard when you don’t have the proper technique. Slapping your foot across a hard pad does not feel awesome. Once you learn to kick properly you will crush the Thai pads & kick pads with your shin the right way.
Once you start sparring injuries to the foot and toes are common as it’s hard to anticipate an opponent’s movement and kicking a knee or elbow is common. Sparring more advanced partners helps to cut down on the bumps and bruises, as they are more accustomed to sparring and have better control. If you sustain a bone bruise on the top of the foot just don’t kick for a while with that leg while sparring or doing pad work, until it heals.
Throwing push kicks when sparring is the number one cause of broken toes. Catching an elbow or knee to your toe is not a good time, but broken toes are really not a huge deal, they are just really annoying. Most of the time, it’s not really a break, it’s just badly bruised and needs some rest. If you severely break the big toe you might need a cast or operation, but this is pretty rare. You can’t cast most broken toes. All you can do is tape the broken toe to the toe next to it, creating a splint of sorts and ice it as needed. If it’s still painful when kicking don’t kick with that leg until it heals.
Knees make a great sub in class when you have shin, foot or toe issues. Your knees will get awesome and your opposite side kick will improve significantly as the limiting injury will help you get more reps in as you are forced to focus your attention. The key to training Muay Thai long term (which is the only way to get really good) is to figure out what you can safely do pain-free, while still allowing some recovery for your minor injury.
Troubleshooting Your Wrist Pain
I have the smallest wrists known to man or woman, at least it seems that way. I also had a really bad habit of jacking up my wrist with hooks for most of my career. I finally found a way to throw my hook that didn’t jack up my wrist, thanks to one coach, but by that time the damage was done. I also think it was from years of waiting tables and bartending that started my wrist pain, but that’s another story. Anyway, at the end of my career, I ended up having such bad wrist pain it would just ache while I wasn’t doing anything…. all day. Driving really aggravated it big time. I’m pain-free now, but I only train Muay Thai a couple times a week so I’m not exposing it to constant impact like before. I tell you this not to scare you against punching things. Punching things is fun, but you don’t have to end up with crappy wrist pain like me if you do it right.
First, make sure you are throwing your punches correctly. You should always be hitting with the top two knuckles (the index and middle finger knuckles) with a perfectly straight wrist. If you bend your wrist or hit with the smaller knuckles of the ring or pinky fingers you will hurt your wrist, especially if you are throwing hooks like Vandalay Silva. That bad-ass can get away with crazy punch angles, but he is also super-human. Hooks from strange angles create an uneven distribution of the punch and most often you will tweak the wrist or in the worst case scenario break your hand in a fight, particularly if your wrists are weak or you have other underlying repetitive movement issues like carpal tunnel syndrome.
Second, you must have a good wrap job that keeps the hand and wrist secure. I made two videos on how to wrap your hands for Muay Thai: Version 1 and Version 2 . I think version 2 is a little easier to wrap on yourself, but both work for protecting the wrist. If your wrist is a little tweaked, focus less on the knuckle pad and add more to the wrist protection, notably securing the hand and wrist to prevent bending. I strongly suggest getting some 2-inch athletic tape with which to tape your wrist. Secure the wrist a couple times with the athletic tape before putting on your wrap. Make sure you put the tape on while you are making a fist with a straight wrist.
If possible tape and wrap your hands after your jump rope, so you can make it very secure. Don’t cut off your circulation, but you want a wrist that won’t bend much, which makes warm ups and jump rope more difficult or loosens the wrap during warm up. Do the best you can. If you have to wrap your hands pre-warm up due to class programming. I suggest making a fist on the ground instead of bending your wrist for any body weight movements like mountain climbers, bear crawls or push ups, so as not to loosen your hand wraps.
If you do tweak your wrist ice your entire hand in a bowl of ice water after training for 20 mins, and apply Traumeel until it heels. You can usually go back to training with a good tape job and just hit a little lighter than usual on that hand until it feels 100%, make sure to tell your pad holding partner, so they don’t give you more resistance than necessary. You can ice after every training session if it’s a chronic inflammation.
The Kind of Roll you Don’t want: an Ankle Roll
Rolling your ankles is super common in all sports and the downside is once you roll your ankle once you are more prone to injure it again. Muay Thai is practiced barefoot and you need strong ankles to support all the single leg movements of various kicks and knees. Jumping rope helps to strengthen ankles, which is one reason it’s a good warm up. Those anklets you see Muay Thai fighters wear are actually not designed to support the ankle, they are designed to catch sweat from your body and keep the mat dryer to prevent slipping. That’s good for protecting your ankles if you perspire a lot, but it doesn’t really protect the ankle in any other way. It also, as I found out the hard way one way doesn’t allow the skin on the top of the foot to get conditioned to the heavy bag. I used to wear anklets every day, then I forgot them one day and did a heavy bag workout with a lot of high kicks and wore the skin off my foot. Good times. After that, I just wore them for fights, not training.
To prevent ankle rolls the best thing is to understand your kick angles and improve your footwork. Don’t try to do kick combos too fast before you feel very comfortable using kick switches and transitions. The number one strike in which I see ankle rolling is the left switch kick. When a student switches stance to throw a kick they try to switch faster than they are able to adjust their balance and their foot slides under them. Foot placement matters a lot too. If care is not taken to step off the center of your partner or heavy bag when you kick you have little balance and again the foot can slide or roll under you.
Be cautious with jumping or switching moves. Like with any new combo you should do several reps slowly with focused intention until you feel confident in the footwork and your instructor says it looks clean, then you can pick up speed and power. This concept of learning and breaking things down is the cornerstone of any good athlete’s progress and the key to top technical performance. You have to perfect the movement slowly, breaking down the sequence before doing it hard or fast. If you don’t not only will you not learn good form, but you will risk injury.
Once you do start punching correctly with power, you might notice some redness or even lost skin on the knuckles. If you get bloody knuckles on the index or middle finger you did it right, if you got them on the smaller pinky or ring fingers…back to the drawing board, you’re hitting incorrectly. It’s easy to take care of bloody knuckles. Here is my proven method to getting back to mitt work the next day.:
- Put some antibacterial ointment on the bloody knuckles
- Cover them with a band aid, two or a large one if it’s both knuckles. These work well.
- Loop some 1-inch athletic tape over so it’s double sided sticky and covers the knuckle(s)
- Stick a pad of boxing gauze over the tape and press gently. This will ensure the gauze won’t slip and slide.
- Proceed with your hand wraps as usually, giving a little extra knuckle pad support.
- Punch away to your heart’s desire.
You still might feel it a little bit, but if you are training for a fight you gotta work through it anyway, it will heal if you keep taping it this way, I promise. It’s worked for me countless times. If you are not a fighter, just use this method and punch a bit lighter for a couple days to speed healing.
Pain in the Neck
The first time you train clinch in Muay Thai your neck will get very very sore. To prevent extreme soreness I highly recommend icing for 20 minutes before you sleep that night, or you will be in for some major discomfort the next day. Most people don’t do neck strengthening exercises regularly, and after just one short clinch session you will see just how unconditioned your neck is. As you get better at clinch work your neck muscles get stronger. To help improve this process you can do neck strengthening exercises. There are simple beginner ones like the ones pictured left. Then there is old school shit like this that may or may not give you buck teeth. New contraptions have solved the buck teeth problem while getting resistance from bands.
Personally, I just stuck to some basics head turns and nods while laying with my back on the boxing ring with my head hanging off the side of the ring. Then I just clinched a lot and that got my neck stronger.
How to Hold Pads & Not Jack Yourself Up
Pad Holding is a skill. You will suck at first and you have to work at it to get better. Learning to hold pads correctly will help your understanding of the sport as well as your timing. It will also help you to strengthen your body and keep your hands up.
I try to partner up students by size and power, but sometimes you will be matched with a partner that is stronger than you. It’s important to ask them to go slowly at first to get a feel for their power and how much resistance you need to give back into the strike to deal with the power. If your partner is hitting harder than you can handle and makes no adjustment in their power for you to work with you can always ask to be paired with someone else. If you don’t give enough resistance to your partner not only is it an unsatisfying pad workout for them (too easy), but it’s dangerous for you, as you risk getting your shoulder tweaked when your hand flies back after punches or you risk hitting yourself in the face with the Thai Pad when they kick.
Learning a martial art is learning how to use your body’s power, part of that is learning to punch and kick and defend strikes, but another part is being able to absorb strikes if necessary. Holding pads teaches you how to make your body hard upon impact, allowing you to meet an opponent’s power with your own force and not let it make you off balance or knock the wind out of you.
Breathing is an important part of pad holding, as it is an important part of striking, just like you breathe out sharply from the abdomen when you strike, you breath out when you hold pads and tense against your partners strike. This helps you remember to breathe when you get hit with a body kick, knee or punch so that you can resist the strike. I was taught to say “hush” when I strike, but any sound or grunt that makes your abs hard is acceptable.
Be careful not to expose your elbows when holding pads for kicks. Keep your elbows tight against your body. If you reach for the kick and leave a gap between your arms and body , there is a chance your partners kick will slide under the pad or worse, hit your elbows. For the same reason keep your elbows tucked behind the kick pad when holding it for body kicks. I made this video which is a beginner holding pads tutorial.
The angle you hold the pads matters. For punches always hold the pads straight with the center of the pad at your partner’s chin level (not yours). For kicks, you need to angle the pad slightly downward. If you are looking at a protractor and your partner is directly in front of you the angle of the pads would be about 50 degrees, or 130 degrees depending on if it were a right or left kick. If you are holding pads for someone that can’t turn their hip over well (pivot on the kick) you may need to hold the pads more towards 20 degrees or 160 degrees. Again, communicate with your partner as do a few test kicks if you are working with someone new!
Why you need to stop doing so many (shitty) push-ups and start pulling and rowing.
If you box you are making repetitive pushing motions frequently (punching and pad holding are pushing movements). This can lead to a rounded pack, tight chest muscles, and muscle imbalances, which predisposes you to shoulder injuries.
I highly recommend minimizing the push-ups in your program, especially those shitty ones where your back sags and you go about halfway down, your legs touch the ground, not the chest and you do like 50 in 30 seconds just to say you did 50. Those are stupid and yet I see so many martial arts gyms do them. Not only do they not strengthen your chest or shoulders or do anything for your core, but they make your shoulder injury chances even worse. Here’s an example of good push ups – my client Ali kicks ass at them!. Doing 5 of these correctly is better than 50 shitty ones.
Second, you should focus less on push ups and do more rowing motions to even out your upper body musculature. I love the TRX for body rows 3 sets of 10 at a challenging level 3 times a week is a good start to your rowing program. I also love pull-ups (done right) and the concept2 rower. These are all good beginner exercises. Deadlifts and cleans are also great for fighters, but those are too advanced to go into now.
The C2 rower, pull up bars and TRX are made available to our F5 fitness students at open-gym for this reason!
Push Through or Give it a Rest?
Fighters or other high-level athletes I usually have to send home from the gym from trying to train injured or sick. It’s this kind of “push through” mentality that separates them from the rest and makes them excel at their chosen sport. I’m not suggesting that training injured is smart, far from it, but I am saying that the desire to train regardless of circumstances is what is needed for high-level success. The decision to train with bumps, bruises or soreness is entirely up to you, but I will say that there have been many days when my muscles ached, my shins were battered, my toe blue, my wrist painful and I dutifully slathered on my Thai oil, wrapped up well, got warmed up and in 15 minutes felt no pain, only the adrenaline of competing in a sport I loved.
Of course, there are those injuries the require rest. Have the flu? Rest. Tore your knee? Rest (and see a doctor). Have a concussion? Rest. When I tore my knee a few years ago I took time off, but as soon as I was able to walk I was in the gym doing pull-ups, dips, rows, bench press and shoulder presses, whatever I could think of that didn’t involve the use of my knee. If your goal is to compete as an athlete or just be very fit, injuries don’t mean a complete cessation of your routine, they mean careful and smart modification of it.
Sleep & Body Work is a Requirement
If you are going to push it hard in training, you need to spend equal time and effort on your recovery. I can’t stress this important concept enough. The harder you work, the more intensely you train the BETTER care of your body you need to take. Exercise is healthy, but not getting sleep, regular chiropractic visits, massages and learning some basic recovery and mobility correctives when you exercise regularly is like driving your car more and more miles every day and not taking it for it’s scheduled tune-ups – in time disaster will strike. Exercise is stress on the body, it’s a healthy stress yes, but it’s still stress. So when you stress your body out intensely, (like is necessary for athletes and those wanting athletic looking bodies), you need to spend ample time on R&R.
If you train moderately (3-4 times a week for 45-60 minutes a session) 7-8 hours sleep is required. If you train intensely (5 or more times a week) 9-10 hours a night is best. If you neglect your sleep, not only will your results suffer, but eventually your health will too.
When I was fighting I usually got twp chiropractic visits and two massages a month, more if I had a minor injury. Now that I train less I get about one massage a month and a chiropractic visit every two months or so, just to keep healthy. Even if you don’t have chronic pain it’s smart to get preventative care. Those who don’t have any major chiropractic issues to address will benefit from just some smart recovery exercises like foam rolling and stretching. We offer a “Tune-Up class at my gym for this reason. Everyone should own a foam roller at home. Check out the Mobility Wod for great instructional videos and posts on taking care of your body.
Nutrition for Recovery
If you eat well, keep hydrated and sleep well you will recover faster & experience less soreness post workout.
I’ve written many blogs about nutrition, so check them out. Eating an anti-inflammatory diet will help you recover more quickly and improve your performance in the gym.
No Pain No Gain?
Jane Fonda popularized this catch phrase in the 80’s with her workout videos. She was specifically talking about the “burn” from repetitive aerobics moves, but with bodybuilding popular in the 80’s meat heads worldwide made the phrase their own and it shaped the fitness culture as a whole into thinking that without some level of muscle discomfort gains were not being made. The 80’s were rife with fitness and nutrition myths. While “no pain no gain” is not exactly true because “the burn” does not mean you are getting results any more than repeatedly waving your hand will get you ripped triceps, there is some merit to the phrase.
While actual pain is not necessary to result, I believe some discomfort be it mental or physical is crucial to progress and success. Ask me if someone has the potential to be a top fighter or athlete and the first thing I want to see is their ability to endure suffering. Even if you have no desire to compete at Muay Thai or any sport for that matter, if you want to improve simply for your own education and/or fitness benefit you will need to step out of your comfort zone at some point, experience some degree of physical or mental stress, maybe even “pain”, endure it and come through the other side more experienced and tougher from accepting and beating the challenge.
The challenge is what I love most about Muay Thai. I was never a real athlete before I found the sport. Accepting each challenge along the way from bashed shins to making weight to title fights was what drove me to want to succeed more. Learning a sport like Muay Thai can teach you how to develop your thick skin, something I feel is lacking in our basic educational system. Muay Thai can teach you how to love that something is hard, embrace it, tackle it and win or lose love the journey and go back for more. Even if you never get in a fight in your life, this is an invaluable lesson.