“My (insert body part here) hurts. Is this normal?” – Says 99% of new Muay Thai students at some point.
Now, I’m not a doctor, so I can’t say with 100% certainty what’s going on with your body, nor can I diagnose any injury.
However, I do know Muay Thai, and I understand the most common tweaks, bumps, bruises, aches, and pains that beginners experience. Based on my time in the sport, I can give general advice on how to prevent some of these annoying aches and pains.
There is no “normal” pain, but there are frequent physical complaints and discomforts and simple precautions that coaches and students can take to make Muay Thai training a safer and more enjoyable experience.
When you’re starting a new sport, there is a huge learning curve for the mind and body. Your neurotransmitters are firing at warp speed to help you learn, move, and retain new info. Unfortunately, our physical body doesn’t always cooperate as quickly as the mind wants in the learning process when some underlying issues are present.
You may also want to check out my Blog: Tips for Muay Thai Beginners.
There are a few possible reasons for the minor injuries, aches, and pains I see most commonly in Muay Thai that are not a direct result of sparring (which beginners should not be doing).
- Lack of mobility
- Poor posture
- Lack of body awareness
- Increasing volume of exercise too rapidly
- Putting power before the technique
- Poor recovery practices
- Poor nutrition
When any combination of the above reasons is present minor or significant injuries can occur.
The decline of our youth’s athletic programs in school, combined with our sitting culture behind desks, and the recent popularity of challenging workouts, like Muay Thai, means many adults begin physically demanding exercise programs with movement limitations and less prior fitness experience, which leads to a higher risk for injury.
In this blog, I will review:
- The most common physical complaints from Muay Thai students
- The changes your body will go through when starting Muay Thai
- Things to consider when deciding the difference between an injury and the discomfort
- How to prevent everyday aches and pains
- How to care for your body with proper recovery techniques
HOW SORE IS TOO SORE?
It’s common to have soreness for 1-3 days after a Muay Thai workout when you are first starring Muay Thai or coming back after a long break. Soreness is NOT an indication that you got a better workout than on days when you aren’t sore.
Once your body has adapted to training Muay Thai, you will experience less soreness, or soreness only when you do a new drill or exercise or when you increase your volume or intensity of training.
It’s common for students new to exercise to get freaked out by the soreness, thinking they did something wrong or hurt themselves, in my experience, this is unlikely if you had a proper warm-up and an experienced coach to guide you through your first workouts.
Think your extreme soreness is unique? There are some reasons that your soreness is more severe than others when beginning Muay Thai:
- No prior experience with a rotational sport
- No prior experience with kicks or lower body sports (if you just did boxing or throwing sports)
- You don’t drink enough water
- You have a lower pain tolerance than most people
The most common of these reasons are lack of prior exercise or dehydration. Make sure to drink plenty of water the day before, day of, and after your session.
Hydration is just as important before training than after, as it can help prevent injuries. When adequately hydrated, you will have these benefits:
- Improved mental sharpness
- Lubricated Joints (helps injury prevention)
- Improved performance
- Better temperature regulation (prevents overheating)
- Reduction in muscle cramping
Muscle strains, tears, and bone fractures are common effects of exercising with tense, cramped muscles, so keep hydrated!
While many athletes drink sports drinks, coconut water, and other alternative sources of hydration, water is the best bet for most Muay Thai Students. It’s unlikely you need the extra sugar, and there’s no added sugar or calories in plain water.
Since a lack of electrolytes contributes to muscle soreness, making sure you’re hydrated helps reduce soreness and prevent injury.
The only time it’s crucial to be concerned about muscle soreness is if you are peeing blood, which can indicate a condition called rhabdomyolysis or “rhabdo.”
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 very high-intensity or repetitive workouts like CrossFit. As a side note, you are more susceptible to rhabdomyolysis if you are on statins (cholesterol-lowering medication).
If you are starting a sport like Muay Thai without prior experience with high-intensity workouts or combat sports, train three times a week with rest between the days. It is not necessary to rest your next session if you are still sore.
Second-day soreness (DOMS) is often worse than next-day soreness, which makes new students nervous about training, but it’s a common occurrence.
Come all these days regardless of muscle soreness, unless there is another type of pain that suggests injury. Once you warm up and start moving around, you’ll feel better. Sitting at your desk is not going to make the soreness go away, go to class as planned. You can always go lighter with less intensity if needed; it’s the technique that’s important to learn in the beginning anyway.
Lastly, I suggest you invest in a foam roller and a lacrosse ball. Using these tools helps speed recovery and help prevent injury. Make sure to foam roll in conjunction with stretches and mobility exercises.
MAKING SHINS OF STEEL
Shin conditioning is a necessary part of Muay Thai training. For some students, it takes longer than others to develop the hardened shins needed for sparring and fighting. To have limbs that withstand Muay Thai fight competition, you have to go through some pain and TLC before your legs are ready to check kicks without shin guards.
While checking kicks is not ever one’s goal in training, some students just train in pad work for fun and fitness, there’s always some level of shin conditioning needed to kick Thai pads and hard, heavy bags.
When I first started Muay Thai, my shins were black and blue most days. I bruised easy, “baby shins,” I called them. My body eventually became adapted to the constant pounding on bags and pads and the bruises because less frequent.
The body is fantastic at adapting; however, using your body as a weapon will hurt a little. Go figure!
If you find that your shins ache, bump or bruise after kicking pads or heavy bags, don’t worry, you probably didn’t break anything. Trust me, a stress fracture of your shin feels horrible. You will probably know if it’s broken. It feels like a lightning bolt going up your leg every time you touch it. Unless you have very brittle bones, a fracture usually only occurs from shin to shin contact in fights, rarely in training if you are wearing good protection.
A simple bruise or shin bump is common in Muay Thai. You get them mostly from sparring and hitting an elbow or knee by mistake, but they can also happen by kicking the edge of a Thai pad the wrong way. To heal your bruises faster, these are the three steps you need to remember:
- Thai Oil (Liniment)
If you need an acronym, it spells “IOMP,” which incidentally is kind of like the sound you might make when you hit your already bruised shin on the coffee table and try to stifle your screams.
ICE – Ice helps to lower the swelling of a shin lump in the first 24-48 hours. However, if you are continually kicking pads when already bruised like all fighter must do if they are in training camp, icing most days after training can help with continued swelling from inflammation.
I spent every day after training for three years with ice packs on my shins for twenty minutes while eating dinner. I found a bag of frozen peas to work best. After diligently icing post-training for some time, my baby shins gave way to hardened shins and the bumps and bruises were less frequent.
You don’t need to stop training because of a shin bump. Most of the time, shins only need a few days to heal. After the bruise begins to darken, 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 Liniment helps numb the shins a bit while you train, so the bruises hurt less. The oil also makes it easier to rub out a bump in your shins, which is sometimes done by those who can bear it, immediately after the contusion occurs.
It’s important to remember to wash your hands after you put on Thai oil. A swipe in the eye of Liniment, and you will be crying. Or worse, you forget to wash your hands before using the bathroom.
If the bump is nasty, you might have a deep bone bruise. These can take a longer time to heal, usually 2 -6 weeks, but that doesn’t mean you have to stop training. If one shin hurts to kick with, use the other, or practice knees or teeps instead.
The remarkable thing about Muay Thai is it’s the art of eight limbs, not two, so if one of your weapons is busted, you still have seven.
I’ve trained Muay Thai with a swollen hand, bloody elbows, bruised knees, and bumpy shins. It’s not required to train Muay Thai with minor injuries, but if you are otherwise healthy and very dedicated to your training, you can certainly work around the small stuff.
One last note about shin conditioning, it is not necessary to kick hard objects like trees or metal posts to get stronger. There is no point in intentionally damaging your shins for conditioning. The goal is to harden them over time, which will happen with regular training.
Kick hard pads, kick heavy bags, spar with shin guards, and take care of your bumps and bruises with the IOMP method, and over time your shins will be fight-ready. Don’t be the YouTube idiot who tries to take out the tree with a low kick. If you are reading this blog, you are probably not a seasoned Thai fighter training since the age of five; the tree always wins.
Roxy Balboa (USA) vs Sheree Halliday (UK), Quiet Canyon, CA. July 2010.
BLACK AND BLUE AND RED ALL OVER
I think that bruises and scars are badass when you get them doing something cool. However, I’m a fighter and I understand that not everyone feels the same way. An injury can be a burden on your personal or professional life.
Ladies, let’s talk fashion for a minute. I’ve sported many a dress with bruises on my legs and never felt sexier. If you are a Muay Thai fighter or avid practitioner and some guy has a problem with your black and blue legs, they are probably not the guy for you.
But, I know, sometimes, you want to wear that cute skirt or dress without people staring at you; or maybe your best friend is pissed cause you ruined her wedding pictures looking like a leopard in heels – let’s talk bruise prevention and care.
First, if you really can’t risk visible bruises on your body, I don’t recommend learning to spar. Just stick to pad work. In Los Angeles, I know quite a few actor friends, men, and women, who love Muay Thai but don’t want to risk getting a black eye before an audition. You will sometimes get bruises if you spar, so make the choice that is right for you.
Second, make sure you have your diet in check. A poor diet can make you more susceptible to bruises. If you bruise easily, it may be a sign of malnutrition or a lack of adequate amounts of certain nutrients, including folic acid and vitamins B12, C and K. These vitamins can be found in fruits and vegetables, mainly green, leafy veggies – so make sure you eat enough of those.
If you suspect your fruit and vegetable intake is low, you can supplement your diet with a quality multivitamin to help speed healing.
Lastly, age and genetics play a role in bruising, so if you eat well, get plenty of sleep and stay hydrated, but still find you bruise easier than most people, you may have thinner blood or weakened capillaries, a genetic disease, or an infection.
They changed the formula of my favorite homeopathic cream that zapped my bruises in just a couple days in the U.S., but there’s a new product, an Arnica Bruise Cream that looks similar and has decent reviews.
“MY FOOT HURTS.”
When you are first learning to kick in Muay Thai, you’ll probably hit the top of your foot on the pad more than a few times. You are supposed to aim with your shin, but as a newbie, mistakes are common.
Slapping your foot across a hard pad does not feel awesome. Once you learn to kick properly, you will crush the Thai pads with your shin the right way.
There are three possible reasons you incorrectly kicked the pad with your foot.
- Your aim is off
- You did not turn your kick “over enough”
- Your pad holder is holding the pads at the wrong angle
- (Or all of the above)
If you often hit your foot kicking, ask your coach for technique tips. Here are some simple beginner tips I made for the body kick.
When you start sparring, injuries to the foot and toes are common as it’s hard to anticipate an opponent’s movement, and it’s easy to misjudge aim. Kicking an elbow or knee happens to all fighters, but more so to beginners.
Sparring more advanced partners who know how to do technical sparring, helps prevent injuries, as have better control and can set the pace of the round for you.
Another common injury is a bruised or broken toe. Throwing teeps (push kicks) and body kicks when sparring is the number one cause of broken toes, as it’s easy to catch an elbow, so go light when you throw them and focus on aim and speed, not power.
Most broken toes heal in six weeks without complications. If it’s a horrible break, a compound fracture, an open fracture, or a severe break to the big toe (which impedes walking), you can deal with toe fractures with ice, bruising ointments, over the counter pain meds, and time.
I often used the “Buddy System” with a bum toe, where you tape the broken toe to the toe next to it, creating a splint of sorts. If you have a numb or tingling sensation, you should see your doctor, or if the toe is straight-up pointed in the wrong direction, then yes, you need to get medical help.
Knees make a great sub in class when you have shin, foot, or toe issues. Your knees will get excellent, and your opposite-side kick will improve significantly.
The key to training Muay Thai long term, is prevention, and adaptation – you need to figure out what you can safely do, pain-free, while still allowing recovery time for your minor injuries.
TROUBLESHOOTING WRIST PAIN
I have the smallest wrists known to man or woman, seriously. I jacked up my wrist, throwing shitty hooks for most of my career. I finally discovered that a palm down hook was more wrist-friendly and gave me a better range for Muay Thai, but by that time, it was too late, and I had chronic wrist pain for the last three years of my career.
Don’t be dumb like me. Use these tips to prevent wrist pain.
- Always wrap your hands correctly before training
- Invest in quality gloves
- Never bend your wrist when punching
- Make a tight first when you make an impact on any pad, bag, or person
- Hit the target with the top two knuckles of your first
You should always be hitting with the index and middle finger knuckles with a perfectly straight wrist. Poorly thrown hooks create an uneven distribution of impact and will either cause chronic pain or injury if severe enough.
If wrist pain, if concern to you, invest in a pair of gloves that have added wrist support, like the Hayabusa T3 Gloves.
I also suggest getting some 2-inch athletic tape for added protection. Secure the wrist a couple of 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.
Don’t cut off your circulation. You want a wrist that won’t bend during training, but don’t get overzealous and make your hand go numb.
If possible, tape and wrap your hands after your jump rope, so you can make it secure. Jumping rope requires wrist rotation, so it’s no ideal for tight wraps. If you have to wrap your hands before warm-up due to class programming, be sure to secure them again if they loosened.
If you get wrist pain, you can place your entire hand in a bowl of ice water after training for ten to fifteen minutes, which can help reduce inflammation. You can usually go back to punching pretty soon with a good tape job if the pain is minor. You can strike with the tweaked hand until it feels one hundred percent.
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 chronic inflammation.
Rolling your ankles is super common in all sports. The major bummer is, once you injure your ankle, you’re more prone to hurt it again.
You need strong ankles to support all the barefoot, single-leg movements of various kicks and knees. Jumping rope helps to strengthen ankles, which is one reason it’s an excellent warm-up.
If you Google “Muay Thai ankle support”, you will get a thousand different takes on why fighters wear them and why you should or shouldn’t ear them in training.
Here’s my take on Muay Thai ankle supports:
- The ankles of fighters were wrapped in athletic tape for fights. It made their instep into a hard cast of sorts that could them land harder kicks and prevent some injury to the lower part of the shin bone that is weaker than the middle and upper sections.
- Since taping the ankles is illegal in fights today due to the killer kicks it can inflict, and taping your ankle for each training session is expensive and tedious, cloth ones offer a similar alternative.
- Elastic cloth ankle supports over time will stretch and wear and don’t offer the same benefits as sports taping.
- Cloth ankles can become kind of a “crutch,” and you may feel vulnerable without them.
- Cloth ankle supports can catch sweat from your legs and make gym mats less slippery, so if this helps you feel safer, cool.
If you like the feel of ankles supports, go for it, they can prevent cuts and remind you where the ball of your foot is, which is where you need to pivot.
I think the overuse of ankle support can hinder your training. The Muay Thai ankle wrap doesn’t allow the skin on the top of the foot to get conditioned and can give you a false sense of protection.
I used to wear ankle wraps every day, then I forgot to put them back in my gym bag one day, and after a heavy bag workout with a lot of high kicks, I found I was missing skin off the top of my foot. Good times. After that, I just wore the cloth ankle supports for fights, not in training. I liked to tap the bottom on them in a little water before the match started to help the ring be less slippery.
If you want to prevent ankle injuries, the best thing is to understand your kick angles and improve your footwork and balance. Don’t try to throw kick combos too fast before you feel 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 stances to throw a kick, they try to switch faster than they can adjust their balance and the ankle rolls under them.
Foot placement matters a lot too. If care is not taken to step off the centerline of your partner or heavy bag when you kick, you’ll compromise balance and put your foot in a vulnerable position.
Like with any new combination, you should do several reps slowly and focused until you feel confident in the footwork, and your coach says it looks clean, then you can pick up speed and power.
Practice your footwork in shadowboxing with keen focus every training session. Good footwork equals fewer injuries.
Bloody knuckles might sound like a hardcore punk band, but they are also a common minor injury in boxing or Muay Thai.
If you punch with power on hard mitts with a tough pad holder, even the most technically accurate punches can leave your knuckle sores or wear away the skin even through hand wraps.
Getting bloody knuckles on the index or middle finger means you punched correctly; if you got them on the smaller pinky or ring fingers, you should focus on turning over your punches.
It’s easy to take care of bloody knuckles. Here is my proven method for getting back to mitt work the next day:
- Use antibacterial ointment.
- Cover any exposed skin with a super sticky, flexible fabric bandage made for knuckles.
- Loop 1-inch athletic tape over, so it’s double-sided sticky and covers your bandaged knuckles with the looped tape.
- Stick a pad of boxing gauze over the tape and press gently. The gauze shouldn’t slip around on impact now.
- Proceed with your hand wraps, as usual, giving a little extra knuckle pad support.
- Punch away to your heart’s desire.
You still might feel knuckle soreness a bit, but if you are training for a fight, this will help you get through your next training session.
If you are not a fighter, use this method and punch a bit lighter until your hands heal, or practice kicks, knees, and elbows instead.
THAT PAIN IN THE NECK PAIN
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 twenty minutes before you sleep that night and maybe even taking a couple of ibuprofen or you will be in for some major discomfort the next day.
Most people don’t do neck strengthening exercises regularly. After one short clinch session, you will know how unconditioned your neck is.
As you improve at clinch techniques, your neck muscles get stronger. You can also do additional neck exercises, like the simple ones pictured here.
Please don’t string a weight from a rope in your mouth and lightweight with your neck, your dentist will not approve, and it’s not necessary for your next strength.
I used basic head turns and nods while laying with my back on the boxing ring with my head hanging off the side of the ring. Bodyweight resistance and practicing clinch frequently are all you need to develop your Muay Thai neck.
HOW TO PREVENT PAD HOLDING INJURIES
Pad Holding is a skill. You will suck at first. If you work at it, you will get better. Learning to hold pads correctly will help your timing, tension, and add to your overall understanding of the sport. It will also help you develop the strength to keep your hands up.
In our classes at F5, we try to partner up students by size and power, but sometimes you will be matched with a partner that is stronger than you.
If your partner is striking too quickly for your pad holding skills, ask them to slow down. 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 get paired with someone else.
If you don’t give enough resistance to your partner, not only is it an unsatisfying pad session for them (too easy), but it’s dangerous for you, as you risk getting your shoulder tweaked when your hand flies back after punches. You also risk hitting yourself in the face with the Thai Pad when they kick if you don’t create enough tension.
Learning a martial art is learning how to use your body’s power and function, part of that is learning to strike and defend strikes, but it’s also able to absorb blows when they land.
Holding Thai pads teaches you how to make your body hard upon impact, allowing you to meet an opponent’s power with your force and not let it make you off balance or knock the wind out of you.
Breathing is an essential part of pad holding, as it is an integral part of striking, just like you breathe out sharply from the abdomen when you strike. You breathe out when you hold pads and tense against your partner’s strike.
Holding pads helps you remember to breathe when you get hit with a body kick, knee, or punch so that you can resist the attack. My first instructor taught me 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 for body kicks.
The angle you hold the pads matters. For punches, always keep the pads flat (v.s. angled down) with the center of the pad at your partner’s chin level.
For kicks, you need to angle the pad slightly down. 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, i.e., pivot on the kick, you may need to angle the pads down more or hold them lower.
Again, communicate with your partner as do a few light “test” kicks if you are working with someone new.
“WOOPS, MY SHOULDER POPPED OUT!”
Stop doing so many (shitty) push-ups and start pulling and rowing more.
If you train Muay Thai or boxing, you train repetitive pushing motions frequently. Punching and pad holding are pushing movements.
Unbalanced training can lead to a rounded pack, tight chest muscles, and muscle imbalances, which predisposes you to shoulder injuries, the most common I see in Muay Thai are shoulder dislocations.
I highly recommend minimizing push-ups, bench press, and other pushing exercises. If you do insist on doing push up, be sure your form is on point. Elbows should point behind you at a 45 (or less) degree angle, not flare out to the side for optimal shoulder health.
If you can’t do a push-up chest to ground with proper form, please, for God’s sake, use an incline. There is no point in performing partial reps of an exercise because you are too proud to use the right assistance.
Instead of pushing, do more rowing exercises to even out your upper body function. I love the TRX for body rows. Three sets of ten at a challenging level 3 times a week is an excellent place to start if you are new to rows.
Pull-ups, chin-ups, lat pulldowns, 3-point rows, Gorilla rows, band pull-a-parts, no money’s single arm cable rows and, even the C2 rower are all excellent exercises for Muay Thai students.
SHOULD YOU PUSH THROUGH OR REST?
A “push through it” mentality separates fighters from casual Muay Thai students. But there are times when mental toughness can hurt you.
I don’t recommend training injured, but the desire to train regardless of circumstances is commonplace in high-level athletes. I’ve written this article about injuries because I know many people will train injured without any knowledge of recovery and care.
Hopefully, my tips can help you decide when is the right time to push through or take a rest day.
Training with bumps, bruises, or soreness is entirely up to you.
There have been many days when my muscles ached, my shins felt battered, my toe looked blue, my wrist throbbed, and still, I dutifully slathered on my Thai oil, wrapped up well, got warmed up and in fifteen minutes felt no pain, only the adrenaline of competing in a sport I loved.
There is also something to be said about being in your twenties and playing a sport. You are quicker to heal and don’t require as much targeted recovery measures.
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 and see a doctor. Need stitches? Don’t superglue your face. Go to the ER, please.
When I tore my knee a few years ago I got medical attention and took time off, but as soon as I was able to walk, and had the doctor’s go ahead, 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 you have lofty fitness goals, minor injuries don’t have to mean a complete cessation of your routine. If you choose to train, however, you need smart, careful modification of your programming.
NO PAIN NO GAIN?
Jane Fonda popularized this catchphrase in the ’80s with her workout videos. She was specifically talking about the “burn” from repetitive aerobics, but with bodybuilding popular in the 80’s meatheads 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 ’80s were rife with fitness and nutrition myths. The “burn” does not mean you are getting results any more than repeatedly waving your hand will get you ripped triceps, but there is some merit to the phrase.
What Jane probably meant by pain, was discomfort.
While pain is not necessary to results, some discomfort is. I believe struggle, 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 I’ll evaluate their ability to endure mental and physical struggles before I give you an answer.
If you have no desire to compete at Muay Thai, but you want to make significant improvements in your training, you will need to step out of your comfort zone at some point.
Experiencing some degree of physical or mental stress, i.e., pain, endure it and come through the other side tougher from accepting the challenge.
The challenge is what I love most about Muay Thai. I was never a successful 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.
Muay Thai can teach you how to love that something is hard, to embrace it, tackle it, and win or lose, still love the journey. Even if you never get into a fight in your life, the mental and physical toughness you gain from Muay Thai training will be priceless.
x Coach Roxy