How to Get Good at Muay Thai: Roundhouse Kick and Knee Thrust

Muay Thai champ Alex Gong helps you fine-tune two essential techniques that work as well for self-defense as they do in the kickboxing ring.


Before he took up muay Thai in 1993, Black Belt Hall of Famer Alex Gong trained in tai chi chuan, aikido, taekwondo, bare-knuckle karate and judo. While he was being exposed to the hundreds of traditional techniques that those arts teach, an idea germinated in his mind:

Why not seek out a style that's composed of a few proven strikes that can be used in a wide variety of situations?

"When I was finally introduced to muay Thai, I realized that this is what I'd been working toward, and I knew I had found the right style," said Alex Gong, who trained in Thailand with Apideh Sit Hirum, the man who was named Muay Thai Fighter of the Century by the king of Thailand.

"Fighting is about evolution, and in muay Thai, you're constantly fighting and testing," Alex Gong continued. "It's the only true, constantly battle-tested style out there."

Muay Thai is a simple art, one that doesn't have a lot of techniques, he said. Once you've mastered the basic kicks and punches, it's time to focus on what's really important: moving, power, timing and defense.

Alex Gong knows the truth of that statement not only from the time he's put in as president and head coach of the Fairtex USA Muay Thai Team, but also from the time he's spent on the road visiting camps and watching bouts. "I go to amateur and professional fights all over the country, and I know that if more fighters just had a better foundation of the basics, they'd be much more successful," he said.

The basic weapon of muay Thai is the roundhouse kick to the body. "It is one of the easiest strikes to land, and you kick with your shin, so it's very powerful and effective," said Gong, who trains in San Francisco with Phicheat Arunleung Ganyao. "You have so much power because you put your whole body into it. Behind your leg, your hip and your shoulder are driving forward into the target. You don't just kick the target; you kick through the target.

"Too often martial artists kick forward but let their body move backward, especially with the side kick and roundhouse kick," Gong said. "If you do that, where are your power and inertia going? They're not going into the target where they should be."

If you perform the roundhouse kick properly and turn into the target, your shoulder will be positioned between your chin and your opponent's line of fire, Gong said, and that will afford you some protection from a punch.

"If you step forward to do a roundhouse to your opponent's body, you have to be careful not to step straight into the centerline of fire," he said. "That's why, when you step over to kick, your footwork is so important. If you step out at a 45-degree angle to throw a right kick to his body, your right shoulder will be to the outside of his right shoulder. Then his right punch will go right over your shoulder, not right into your nose."Another reason Thai boxers favor the roundhouse kick is it forces their opponent to react with more defensive movement, Gong said. “He's got to work harder to stop it. He's got to raise his leg higher and adjust his body more so than with any other attack you can deliver."

Because the kick makes contact with the lower part of the shin, you can hit your opponent while maintaining a relatively safe distance from his hands, he said. “When you're kicking at full-body length, it's very difficult for him to land a shot to your face."

Practicing body kicks helps you develop better footwork, and in muay Thai, footwork is everything. “If you become better on your feet and have that primary weapon, everything else will follow," Alex Gong said.

The straight knee thrust is another mainstay of muay Thai. It's usually executed when your opponent is rushing toward you. “It's not necessarily you hitting him or him hitting you, but the two of you hitting each other with your knee smashing into him," Gong explained.

Although the straight knee has the potential to knock out an opponent, it's more often used to tire him out and set him up for a knockout technique, Alex Gong said. Because it may not finish him off, you have to think about protecting your face during and after the action — and fortunately, that's relatively easy to do.

“You can use your knees to attack without giving up too much vulnerability," he said. “When you punch somebody, he can punch you, too; but with knee shots, you can keep your head protected."

The knee thrust derives its phenomenal power from physics. You use an unprotected part of your body to strike an unprotected part of his body — usually his gut or solar plexus — in a straight line, Gong said. “And a lot of times, you apply this technique when people are not backing up but are coming forward. So their forward momentum meets your attacking momentum — I call this 'offensive-defense.'"

(Read Part 2 of this post here.)

Editor's note: In 2003 the martial arts world was saddened when Alex Gong was shot and killed at age 32. Obviously, the interview that led to this article was conducted before his death.

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