I know exactly why you’re looking for beginner tips for Muay Thai. Do you remember all your fears about the first day of high school or college? Worrying if you could find the right classroom, wondering if you were overdressed, under-dressed, or had picked the perfect “new you” to present to your new classmates.
You nervously checked your schedule, “Am I even in the right building?” Then when you got the classroom, you noticed your pits getting sweaty.
You looked around the room for an empty seat and wondered who to sit next to and if you were cool enough to talk to them.
Well, thank God those days are over for me, and hopefully for most of you, and if you’re still in the thick adolescence and young adulthood, I send you my deepest sympathies wish you all the strength you can muster during this time. It will eventually end, I promise.
I like to remember the feelings of being the new kid in school because it can be a lot like the first day someone walks 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, coaches and other students are intimidating, and Muay Thai traditions are entirely foreign.
A new student doesn’t know a Thai pad from a kick pad, the aroma of Thai oil in the air reminds them of their arthritic grandma, three minutes of jump rope feels like an eternity, and they have no idea how to take 180 inches of fabric and with what seems like 37 different twists and turns, wrap it neatly around their hand without either cutting off circulation or having both wraps fall apart, like their broken ego, shortly after the warm-up.
At my gym, F5 Strength and Muay Thai, we try to make beginners feel comfortable with a private intro lesson where we can explain all the things they need to know before they take a class, but we probably fall short some of the time. It’s hard for coaches to remember all the details beginners don’t know because it’s been so long since we first stepped into a gym.
I am always grateful when a student asks me a seemingly simple question they couldn’t possibly know without being told. It gives me a chance to share my experience and help them.
I’m going to share with you my top tips for students new to Muay Thai, which are also great for coaches, like myself, who need a reminder of all the small details of being a nervous beginner just starting our Muay Thai journey.
1. YOU DON’T NEED TO BE IN SHAPE TO START TRAINING
Muay Thai is a skill-based sport. If you focus on the techniques taught in class, drill them with focus, and patience, you will naturally get more conditioned as you practice. You’ll be able to strike faster and harder as you improve. If you gas out in the first round of pad work, try going lighter.
Paying attention to form instead of power will help learn the proper mechanics of techniques. Sure, the warm-ups and the conditioning drills will be challenging at first, but you (hopefully) signed up to be challenged and improve your fitness and toughness. 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 your gym makes you feel uncomfortable in classes due to your conditioning, find a gym that is more welcoming and accepting.
Muay Thai gyms have different gym cultures and core values.
If you are lucky enough to live in a large urban area with more gym choices, you should be able to find a gym that fits your style. If you don’t, you may find what you are looking for in pursuing a different martial art until you find the right Muay Thai home for yourself.
2. EXPECT TO SUCK AT FIRST
Every champion fighter was shit at some point. My first coach used to say, “If it were easy, everyone would do it.” Yes, that’s a line he borrowed from a League of Their Own, which I didn’t figure out until years later.
Learning how to use your body as a weapon is not an easy task. Instead of getting frustrated at not being able to drill a strike or combination perfectly, get fascinated by the sport and use that drive to focus your practice.
Sure, there are always those students who pick it up faster and look like a professional 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 a great deal of time in the gym. Anything earned through hard effort is more rewarding. Muay Thai is no different.
3. WATCH FIGHTS
There are scientific studies behind watching a sport without even training leading to progress. You will make even more progress by watching Muay Thai and practicing it. If you are not an avid fight watcher and don’t know where to start, ask your coach 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 fight education the right way, not the YouTube rabbit hole way.
There’s a lot of fight footage out there. Not all fighters have perfect technique, and some fighters may have techniques that aren’t the best for your body type. There are also different styles of Muay Thai. Your coach will most likely guide you in the right direction to align with the style you are learning, so you don’t get confused and start doing weird shit in shadow boxing because you saw it work for Sanchai. Folks, there is only one Sanchai.
4. SHADOWBOX LIKE YOU MEAN IT
I know shadowboxing sucks in the beginning. I distinctly remember hating it. I felt stupid, didn’t know what combos to do, and just wanted to hit something solid. Even after I started fighting, I didn’t love shadowboxing the same way I loved hitting pads, but I understood the benefits.
Shadowboxing allows you to practice strikes, footwork, and new combos with precision by slowing down the techniques to enable you to learn the correct sequence of movements and correct mistakes. It’s only beneficial to speed things up when the sequence of movements is correct.
If you want to improve at Muay Thai, you must drill things the right way repeatedly. Sloppy shadowboxing leads to poor technique on the pads and bad habits overall.
My pet peeve is poor shadowboxing footwork, like crossing your feet, or dropping your hands randomly just because you’re bored. If you do this in shadowboxing, it will someday translate to sparring, which equates to getting hit – a lot.
If you’re not sure what to do in shadowboxing, try working on a combo you did in your last class or focus on a particular element of your game like keeping your left hand up or extending your hips when throwing knees. If your coach doesn’t guide the shadowboxing rounds, you can ask them for suggestions before or after class.
5. BASICS WINS FIGHTS
If your gym offers mixed-level classes, chances are there will be days when the class format calls for some advanced footwork or a complex combination. Don’t get overwhelmed.
You can tell your partner or pad holder you want to focus on a couple of strikes in the combo to make things easier to learn. They will understand. If you are working the bag, take your time and think about your cues and your coach’s instruction before each strike.
If you drill the strikes incorrectly over and over because you are trying to “get a workout in,” you will never progress in Muay Thai.
Cardio-kickboxing classes exist if you are only looking to punch, kick, and sweat without learning a real sport.
To learn complicated things, you must drill the basics. Break complex combos down to what you can manage to do well. Add new elements when you are able. A good coach will help you do this.
If you stick to the basics when you are new, especially paying attention to footwork, before you know it, a six strike combination will feel smooth like butter.
6. COME EARLY, STAY LATE, ASK QUESTIONS!
Remember that kid in school who was always in class before you? They always raised their hands and had something to say, and when the bell rang, they stayed late to ask the teacher to elaborate on a particular lecture point.
Yeah, that kid was super annoying and probably got beat up regularly in recess and was buying himself some time. But that kid probably went on to run a Fortune 500 company, discover a new gene, or write a best selling novel.
Want to be good at Muay Thai? Be that kid. Be a fight nerd. Get fascinated with the sport, do extra work, take advantage of open gym times, ask your coaches lots of questions, just not when they are on a lunch break or something, though.
Speaking of coming early, be on time for class every time. It’s incredibly disrespectful to coaches and classmates to show up late. If you show up late to skip the warm-up because you hate jump rope and shadowboxing, you not only increase your chance of injury, but you decrease your progress, squash your balance and agility training from missing jump rope, and totally piss off the coach that will punch you in the face much harder if you decide to spar one day.
So, be on time and be a fight geek. Every champion Muay Thai fighter got obsessed with the sport. It’s the fasted way to improve as it creates a mindset for accelerated learning.
7. YES, 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 kick trees and hit yourself with bamboo to make your shins hard. There are a lot of strange “wives tales” when it comes to shin conditioning.
My advice? Kick a hard heavy-bag often, and when you get a bump, bruise, or pain of practically any kind on your leg, shin, or foot ice it. Massage your legs with Thai oil before training, rubbing out the bumps and bruises. Yes, this will hurt a little, but nothing worth having comes easy.
I was not born with Muay Thai hard shins. There was a bunch of soft tissue on the top of my tibias that gave me grief in the beginning. It’s better to have a sharp shin bone directly in the center of your leg. My shinbone if off to the side slightly, so with every kick, I bruised soft tissue. I had so many bruises that my Thai coaches used to point at me, laugh, and call me a “leopard.” Only their English was hard for me to understand with the thick Thai accent, so I thought they were calling me a leper at first.
During my first few years of training, I came home from the gym and put packs of frozen peas on my legs from my feet to my knees for twenty or thirty minutes while eating dinner and watching TV. Then magically, one day, my shins didn’t bruise much anymore, and when I caught the occasional knee or elbow in sparring, I was pretty much okay.
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 equipment, the price indicates quality. So yeah, that fifty dollar pair of gloves will wear out much sooner than the one hundred dollar ones.
With most brands, you 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 unless you’d like a broken jaw and head trauma.
While we’re on the topic, please, for the love of everyone around you, WASH AND SANITIZE YOUR GEAR! Do not leave your gym bag in the car; it will smell like a moldy jockstrap in 24-hours. Bring you back inside, air out your gloves and shin pads, spray them with Lysol, leave them in the sun to dry out, and wash your hand wraps!
If you have a mouth guard for training, I’ve found soaking it in Listerine or denture cleaner is an effective method for a fresh, minty grill.
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 improve your Muay Thai, but it’s not necessary to be welcomed and supported at your gym. If your gym insists on everyone sparring or pressures you to spar too early in your training, find one that doesn’t, they do exist.
10. YOU’RE A PART OF A TEAM NOW – LEARN TO HOLD PADS WELL
Not only will being a kickass 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 pads and hold with the right amount of resistance.
Communicate with your partner about the right height, angle, and resistance of the pads. They will be grateful for your thoughtfulness and, you will both be safer for it.
11. DON’T FORGET TO BREATHE
Breathe out when you strike, breathe out when you hold pads, pushing against your partner’s 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 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. PROGRESS OCCURS WITH WEEKLY CONSISTENCY
If you want to get decent at the sport, start training three days a week. If you are new to high-intensity exercises, like Muay Thai, don’t train too much more than three times a week until your body has adapted (about 30-45 days).
If you’re going 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.
I often get asked, “How long until I’m good at Muay Thai?” Unfortunately, I can’t answer that because of everyone’s ability, work ethic, and time management is different.
However, I can tell you that if you train a minimum of three days per week for one year, you will learn a lot and you will improve to the point that you are a stronger and more confident person. It will change your life.
13. FLASHY THREADS NOT REQUIRED
You don’t need tons of expensive Muay Thai outfits. I was a broke fighter who wore the same thing to train each day – a free shirt someone gave me, sports bras from Ross, and black cotton spandex shorts I got for free from my sponsor Revgear.
My wardrobe choices didn’t affect my ability to punch and kick. In fact, it probably improved my performance because I spent my money on healthy food and supplements, not expensive gold-stitched Muay Thai shorts and Lululemon bras in every color.
Eventually, if you have the money, decide to splurge, or you decide to fight, you’ll probably want to buy a couple of pairs of Muay Thai shorts. I sometimes treated myself after a fight to a sports bra and shorts.
You might be able to find Muay Thai shorts at a local store like Superare, but not likely unless you live in a major city. You may find them at fight events or your gym’s retail shop, and if not, they are available online.
Some things to note about purchasing Thai shorts:
- Most of the cool designed shorts ship from Thailand, they will take forever to get to you, be patient. There are American companies making then now, so you have better options than I did in the early 2000s.
- Thai sizes are different than American sizes, they run about 1-2 sizes up to and are unisex. For example, I prefer a Thai “large” but am a size 6 in women’s. Most averaged sized guys will wear an L or XL.
- Check and re-check the sizing charts on the website you order from to see if you are ordering Thai or American sizes.
- Some Thai short styles are short, some are long. Check the leg length for the ones you want.
- Some fighters fold over the waistband. If you want to do this, you might want to size up, (like I do).
- The other way to wear them is hiked up, so the band sits on your waist. The only way that’s not ideal to wear them is low on the hip, as it makes them too long for kicking and you’ll look like a boxer or b-ball player.
14. STAND UP STRAIGHT AND DO ROWS
While an awesome workout, Muay Thai is not great for posture. Coupled with a desk job and our faces in smartphones all day, you got yourself a recipe for a hunchback if your only workout is Muay Thai.
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 F5 Strength and Muay Thai, we like the Kettlebell swings and get-ups for our Nak Muay (that means, Muay Thai practitioner), TRX rows, the Concept2 rower, 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 bench pressing. Pushing exercises will only make the hunch back worse, and you’ll probably end up with a shoulder injury down the road.
15. SUPPORT YOUR GYM FAM
To get the most out of your Muay Thai gym, be a part of the community. Go to your gyms events, parties, and especially to see your gym’s fighters compete. One of the best parts of Muay Thai is the community. If you just come to your two or three hours of class every week and keep to yourself, you are missing a vital part of the experience. Who knows you may meet your new BFF or the love of your life!
Side note PSA! Please don’t use a Muay Thai gym as your personal dating service, it’s a recipe for disaster and will likely lead to gym drama. However, I will say that it makes me happy that a handful of my students over the years did find true love at the gym and are currently happily married. Most of them, however, had to settle for true love with a heavy bag.
16. GYM HOPPING IS NOT A SPORT
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” as a beginner or intermediate is probably not doing you any favors.
As a beginner, and even as an amateur fighter, it is important to have a home, a team, and a head coach you trust. If you only pay drop-in fees at various places or 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 to 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, which 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, ma’am or sir” feels too formal to me. But I do believe in the classic martial arts concepts of respect and discipline. Just as respect from a student is earned through clear, useful instruction, support, and compassion, respect from coaches is earned through work ethic, consistency, and attentiveness.
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 helping a new student wrap their hands or helping to lock up after the gym closes.
I usually decline help because I have control issues, but I still appreciate the offer.
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, big or small, it makes us feel like a million bucks.
18. INVEST IN PRIVATES LESSON
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 will do wonders for your progress.
There is only so much individual instruction coaches 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. THE MAT IS SACRED, YOUR FEET ARE DIRTY
Anyone that goes to F5 knows this is a pet peeve of mine. But let’s think about this: The mat should be a clean sacred place where Muay Thai magic happens.
We take our shoes off before going on the mat out of respect and for sanitary reasons. Some schools make you Wai each time you enter the mat, as the Muay Thai tradition is to Wai before stepping in a ring.
Given this tradition, in what world would it be okay to go to the bathroom, the dirtiest place in the gym, barefoot and then walk back on the mat?
Once, I witnessed a girl 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 restrain me from strangling her physically.
Okay, so I might be a grade-A neat freak, but really, it’s just a matter of being a clean, respectful person and if for some reason, your gym doesn’t care about dirty, pee-infused feet that might land on your face in a sparring drill, I question their sanitary practices in all areas.
20. GET REGULAR MASSAGE AND CHIROPRACTIC
It’s unrealistic to think that you can train your body hard day after day and not give it some TLC. At F5, we offer massage and recovery classes for this reason.
Don’t set yourself up for injury by ignoring this last tip. When you train in Muay Thai, you are hitting things hard and a lot of resistance coming back at you from the heavy bag and Thai pads.
If you spar, you’ll be jacking up your alignment regularly, that’s just one of the trade-offs. A little monthly maintenance will go a long way to ensure you stay healthy, strong, and functional.
I could probably think of 10 more tips for newbies, but a top 30 list a bit much. I’ll just have to write more blogs.
If you’re a Muay Thai coach reading this, free to leave your top tips I didn’t mention in the comments. I’d love to read them.
– Coach Roxy
All photos by Ian Stoker-Long of Compel Pictures