Whether you’re starting muay Thai as a pure beginner or coming in from another martial art, it can be intimidating. The atmosphere of a muay Thai gym is more like that of a boxing gym, and the types of people who are drawn to muay Thai are different from the types that are drawn to karate, taekwondo and other martial arts.
In this post, I will explain how you can get started in Thai boxing, and I will tell you what to expect if you already have a martial arts background.
How to Find a Good Gym
Once you’ve scouted your area for muay Thai gyms, you will need to determine which one is right for you. The easiest way to do this is to watch a class. Any good gym will be more than happy to let you watch a class to see if it’s for you. Alternatively, the gym might offer you a free trial class.
Consider it a red flag if a gym doesn’t let you watch. It’s not good if the staff won’t allow you to get a feel for the atmosphere and determine if it’s a friendly environment conducive to good learning.
When I started muay Thai, I was sold on my gym (the same gym at which I now coach) because of its video package, which showed what life there is like. When I took my first class, I was surprised to find that the coach was actually from Thailand — which is one of the first things you should look for, in my opinion.
Muay Thai is not as widespread as karate, and as a result, it’s not as watered down. You are far more likely to find a coach who is from Thailand or who was taught by someone from Thailand. If this isn’t the case, it’s no deal breaker — but it is something you should keep an eye out for.
When you watch the class, note how much time is dedicated to clinching and practicing the teep. Muay Thai is different from kickboxing in that clinch work and the teep are the name of the game. Unfortunately, if you’re in the United States, the quality of clinching is far weaker than in the United Kingdom, mainland Europe and, of course, Thailand, so it’s harder to find gyms that do it well. As a result, muay Thai in America often winds up being more like kickboxing.
There is a good chance that you will find muay Thai classes in MMA gyms. This is because muay Thai is the preferred striking style for MMA. If you come across an MMA gym in your area, ask if it has a muay Thai competition team. If the answer is no, consider whether you would like to compete or pursue it as a hobby. If you want to really study muay Thai as an art and get a few fights in, you should try to find a gym that regularly sends people to compete in the sport.
What to Expect if Coming From a Different Background
The following might not make me any friends among those who love the East Asian martial arts, but it’s the truth. Unless you have a background in kyokushin karate or one of its offshoots, you might have difficulty adjusting to the level of intensity found in muay Thai.
Muay Thai students spar full contact, and they spar hard in continuous exchanges. If you come from a taekwondo background, unless you are at black-belt level and have a lot of competition experience, expect that adapting to sparring will be a challenge.
It’s also true that muay Thai practitioners typically kick harder than karate and taekwondo practitioners. There is also no taboo about kicking through the target in sparring. When you spar, you’re expected to use control, but you’re also expected to kick your target properly. You’ll feel thuds to the ribs and legs, and quite likely you will be limping the next day after your first few sparring sessions.
There are, of course, plenty of people from the East Asian martial arts who will have no problem adjusting to this, and they might even be used to sparring hard for fun with their training partners. But in case you’re used to point sparring only, I felt as though I should give you this warning.
What to Expect if Coming from Boxing
While you might not be used to kicks, if you’re a boxer, you will probably have an easier time adjusting to muay Thai. The stances are similar, though not identical, and muay Thai uses the exact same punching techniques as boxing.
Also, you will be sparring in a boxing ring with timed rounds and full contact. So as a boxer, you will feel at home as soon as you get accustomed to the kicks and knee strikes — which is all part of learning.
What to Expect if You’re a Beginner
If you have no martial arts background, you will have the easiest and the hardest time learning the “art of eight limbs.” This sounds like a complete contradiction, but it’s the truth. I will explain.
If you have a martial arts background, you will have the advantage of fitness and the advantage of proprioception, which will help you learn the techniques. You also will have the downside of having developed habits that can cause problems in muay Thai.
For example, keeping a narrow stance like you see in taekwondo or one of the more extreme stances used in boxing will cause you nothing but trouble in muay Thai.
However, when you know nothing — when you’re a blank slate and can just learn — it will take longer for you to pick up these techniques than an experienced martial artist, but you will learn everything properly from scratch without having any of those old habits creeping in.
The downside is that unless you have a lot of strength and conditioning under your belt, fitness will be hard at first. It’s the fitness component that drives people to quit muay Thai. The only thing I can say is that every day will get easier — but you have to train hard every day.
Sparring can also be scary at first. You just need to get in there. You’re going to have a bad day sparring eventually, one that will make you question what you’re doing in a muay Thai gym. When you reach that point, get your gloves on and do some more rounds. Bravery is doing something even though it scares you. Not being afraid isn’t bravery; it’s stupidity.
I hope this article has given you an overview of what to expect. Muay Thai is a beautiful martial art, and taking it up can be life changing. Don’t be afraid to take the plunge.
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