It’s hard to dispute the effectiveness of Thai style training methods. After all, they’re the best in the world, with Bangkok stadium level fighters being able to not only compete but dominate in at the highest levels of international Muay Thai and kickboxing outside Thailand while the reverse is not necessarily true. Very few foreigners have been able to compete and gain recognition in Thailand’s biggest stadiums. There is, of course, the argument that Thais start at such a young age, and because of that, can accrue so much more experience over Westerners. While this is certainly true, I would counter that that is part of the Thai training method, and in my mind underscores the guiding principal to Thai training in general. Experience is the best teacher. There are many instructional courses, and books out there which promise to improve your skills in any pursuit. At the end of the day though if you want to be a better driver you have to get in a car and drive.
It’s hard to lay out the typical training schedule in the west. Its going to vary from one gym to the next, and that’s probably the first difference you’ll notice when you train in Thailand. Of course, not every gym is the same here in the land of smiles, but more or less, they follow the same structure of training. Pretty much any gym you walk into in Thailand you’re going to run, skip rope, and shadow box to warm up every session. After that, you’ll hit the bag for 3-5 rounds while you wait for a trainer to hold pads for you for the next 3-5 rounds. Next, you’re going to clinch and spar before doing some kind of finisher. This is usually when they torture you with hundreds of knees, and kicks. To end the day, you’ll do some light bodyweight workouts before stretching and heading home to repeat the process over again in the afternoon.
Let’s contrast this with a generalized example of western training, keeping in mind that it does vary quite a bit in the west. The first thing is the emphasis on running. In Thailand there is a rule that’s countrywide; if you don’t run, you don’t fight. They will accept no other form of cardiovascular training. They will not allow you to swim, ride a bike, use rowing machines, etc. It’s the iron law here. Now running is obviously a great form of cardio. but so is swimming and cycling, and these come without the threats of damage to the knees and shins that can result from running twice a day six days a week. Most gyms in the west will not require you to run like this, even ones who claim to be traditional Thai boxing gyms. They will be more likely to follow a scientific approach to cardiovascular training, allowing you to substitute methods in order to reduce the risk of injury. Very likely they will not require you to do cardiovascular training at all but only recommend it. It will be on you to do this outside of normal training hours whereas in Thailand the fighters all run together.
Skipping rope and shadow boxing seems to be common warmups in both the west and in Thailand. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever walked into a gym that didn’t do both. The intensity is usually higher in Thailand though. Every rope I’ve ever used here has been a weighted rope. And since training sessions in Thailand run 2-3 hours long, compared to a usual 1-2 hours in the west, you’ll spend a lot more time doing both.
Bag work is more or less open in Thailand. Trainers will come around to make sure you’re not being lazy, or maybe to give you a little instruction on something, but by and large, the quality of your bag work is going to be up to you. After 3-5 rounds a trainer will call you over to hit pads. Now here’s where I think there is a huge difference in training. Every gym in Thailand employs former fighters as trainers and there can be up to ten or more of them, meaning every round you’re hitting pads it’s with an experienced fighter. Often in the west there will be only one instructor for a class of upwards of 15-25 people who will all have to hold pads for each other. Every fighter in the world knows how much it sucks to get a shitty pad holder, and just doesn’t happen here.
Clinching and sparing in Thailand is done very differently than it is the west. Clinching in the west, for example, is usually composed of lots of drilling of specific techniques. In Thailand, it’s pretty much just open. Sometimes you do 3-5 rounds or sometimes they just let it go for 30 minutes. Very little instruction is given, and it has a very playful feel to it. Sure,instructors will come around and correct technique as they see fit but for the most part the goal is just to develop a ‘feel’ for it. You must be able to sense positions and balance, and that’s just not something you can drill. Sparing is also done very playfully which is important because it’s done daily, or twice daily. Light sparing like this can be hard to get used to if you haven’t done it much. You can’t always just shut your opponent down. There are times where you have to let them work. As somebody who has always done hard sparing once a week or so, I’ve noticed that the slower pace forces you to focus on not telegraphing your offense. Controlling your techniques so that you can land them without power takes tremendous balance as well; which is arguably the most important factor in Muay Thai.
My sparing in Thailand has been so enlightening because of this. I’ve realized how much I rely on speed to land my techniques and power to avoid being countered, but this has kept me from developing setups to my strikes, and the balance needed to be able to defend and counter. I’ve heard coaches in the west and in Thailand say that focusing on your timing is the primary purpose of sparing, and I think the regular sparring and clinching here allows the Thais to develop a sense of timing in striking range, and feel in the clinch that really separates them in competition. We’ve all heard how you should set up your kicks with punches first right? Well if you watch enough high-level stadium fights,you’ll notice Thais throwing kicks with seemingly no setups all the time and still landing clean. It’s because they can sense where your balance is in the moment. They can see the weight shift and know for a split second you’ll be unable to check their kick. It’s the same thing when they turn or dump you in the clinch. It’s not a technique that can be drilled or explained. It’ssort of like an experienced mechanic how can tell what’s wrong with a car just by the noise it’s making. A less experienced mechanic may have come to the same conclusion, but he would’ve had to run tests and take more time because he’s not familiar with the sound. I’ve been become a big believer in daily light sparing. I think the only reason you should hard spar is to become mentally comfortable at a fighting pace, but again if you’re fighting once a month then there’s no need to hard spar at all.
So which training methods are superior? Well, I’m nowhere near qualified to make a statement on that. Both have their strengths and weakness of course. Sometimes I wonder about how many kids were told not to come back to the gym because they weren’t throwing kicks in their fights due to horrible pain from shin splints. How much more explosive could the Thais be if they incorporated strength programs that used explosive compound lifts as opposed to slow bodyweight exercises? How many knees were blown out due to incurred damage spent on the road? Sometimes when I’m clinching, I just feel like I’m drowning, and I want somebody to explain to me why I can’t get out of this lock. I think there’s definitely a lot of training methods the Thais are missing out on, but I also think they got the most important things right. It reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend about how many things were discovered in the east before the scientific revolution. Like how experienced meditators have higher levels of serotonin. It’s their traditions that brought them there not the scientific method. In Muay Thai their traditions and culture brought them to the training principle of volume. They do more than you do. When you’re doing deadlifts, they’re clinching, when you’re doing abstract drills they’re sparing. They are the experienced mechanic and they know what’s going on with the car before you started running tests.