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Here's how you can get the most out of training Muay Thai for fitness

By Karl R. De Mesa Published Mar 11, 2023 5:29 pm

Using the striking arts for fitness has retained an attraction that’s resonated throughout the decades so much that it gets recycled in some watered-down form every few years or so.

This also means that the idea of being able to take a percent of the fighting art from its competitive mission in the ring and channel it just for better cardio, muscular power, and overall fitness has borne out some pretty weird and sometimes downright hilarious spinoffs.

Once-popular exercise programs like Boxercise and Taebo still reasonably resonate with the techniques, if not the spirit, of their core disciplines. But there are some truly far-out and even harmful programs that have come out of the woodwork capitalizing on the “fighting for fitness” theme—which is to say that doesn’t seem to have happened to Muay Thai. 

As one of Thailand’s best cultural exports, the spirit and core techniques of what’s been called “The Art of Eight Limbs” has been kept mostly intact, even as a non-competitive practice. Certainly, nobody goes to Bangkok and books a Muay Thai fitness retreat only to balk at the morning runs or the conditioning after pad work—both, of course, already diluted and tailored for non-competitors, yet still damn challenging and rigorous.

I took up martial arts in my late 30s, eventually earning enough experience to coach striking for fitness through Muay Thai and a meta form called "Striking Protocol"—“meta,” meaning, it’s a system that is a précis of other systems. 

The author is a combat sports fight analyst and commentator. He’s also a certified grassroots striking instructor with the Muay Thai Association of the Philippines and Striking Protocol under Brawlers Lab.

Although I have competed in grappling, I have only ever been certified for and coached Muay Thai for fitness enthusiasts—never with an eye to competing in the ring. Despite this, I have always felt that I am part of an ancient and grand tradition. That behind me stands a long line of warriors who imbued the sandpits of yore with their blood and honor, fighting for family and glory, often a way out of poverty, often a way into a life without refusal. 

In the handful of years that I’ve taught striking, endeavoring to spread the gospel of how martial arts can lead not just to a healthier physical and mental state but also a better understanding of self, selflessness, and empowered suffering, teaching has also greatly helped educate my own self. 

As I instructed others how peaceful violence could be empowering, whether I was holding pads at public parks, in high-rise condos, beside the Pasig River, or even on the beach, I was discovering how kneeing your problems and pushing past comfort zones could definitely be applied to everyday life. Training past limits in Muay Thai and striking is a transferrable and analogous drive that, as far as your brain and synapses are concerned, bears zero difference to the stress of an upcoming board presentation or written exam.  

If you are just starting out or have been training for a while, here are a handful of tips I've found useful to understand the dynamics of the practice. It’s helped me get the most out of my own training, whether it’s drilling by myself or learning with my coach or kru (master). These might be helpful in your own training.

Be coachable and let go of distorted expectations

One of the biggest hurdles I had to learn to vault with students was how they had “projections” about the martial art.

Often, the portrayal of the striking arts in media and movies is the culprit. I’ve found that a particular distortion exists in those who have only started to train in martial arts or who have not trained at all. Basically, it’s “I am not who I think I am. I am not who you think I am. I am who I think you think I am.” 

In a nutshell, circumventing expectations means letting go of a huge illusion in a new student’s life that makes up their view of what actual training in martial arts means. This could range from prevailing social views, pop culture and entertainment, social media, their family and friends who may or may not have trained too. These illusions could range from the simple "I can train hard enough to KO someone with one punch!" to the strange "I will so get abs if I train hard enough and then 'Who you kayo?' sa akin!” and up to the redonkulous "I can pick fights on the street so nobody will mess with me ever!"

Sure, we are basically doing an activity for training violence. No, we are not doing Van Damme stuff. Those splits will never let you walk again! And sometimes, no matter how much you say you’re teaching somebody so they’ll be fitter and healthier through striking, it’s still pretty much violence.

If your coach is worth his salt at all, he will have tailored your training to your age and current fitness level after a session or two and already developed a regimen for your steady improvement through beginner to intermediate. Even beyond. 

Whatever you do, don’t ask him when you’re going to learn those cool Saenchai cartwheel moves. 

As one of Thailand’s best cultural exports, the spirit and core techniques of what’s been called “The Art of Eight Limbs” has been kept mostly intact, even as a non-competitive practice.

Camouflage repetition 

My head coach in Striking Protocol always emphasized this to his instructors. Drills repeated ad infinitum can become routine and will make students quit faster than melting ice cream in tropic summer. But because repetition is one of the bulwarks of learning a martial art, you always needed to remember how to initiate myelination without the drill becoming boring. 

Myelination is the formation of the myelin sheath. When someone learns a new physical skill, like a jab or a combo, the brain fires off a new set of synapses that then thicken and become second nature the more it’s repeated. 

To combat boredom (especially when drilling alone) while still inducing the thickening of said myelin sheath, change the attributes of a given combo so you don't notice the repeats. Mix up your combos. Liven them up with footwork. Vary their intensity. 

This will also ensure the activation of another acronym. We call it the SSL shorthand for Smiling, Sweating, and Learning. This way, you get the enjoyment and dopamine hit of a new skill, the benefits of full exercise, and the retention of the concept right that has already formed its own neural pathway. 

Trust in your repetitions and it’s always a win.  

Convincing yourself of wellness and health is no easy feat, but tricking your mind with the help of creative visualization is something that champions are well aware of and diligently practice.

Use creative visualization 

Here’s where the science of bio-hacking comes in.

Convincing yourself of wellness and health is no easy feat, but tricking your mind with the help of creative visualization is something that champions are well aware of and diligently practice. 

I remember Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter in Thomas Harris's novels going into what he called "the memory palace." Somewhere he would work out his preparations for murder that also served as both mental gym (where he would affirm his convictions) and a happy place (he could revisit memories as data) that shielded him from any vicissitudes while his body lay in a high-security criminal psychiatric ward. Take out the cannibalism planning and it's much the same: a war room for your thoughts and meditations. 

How Dr. Lecter frescoed the walls of his mind is the same way Einstein solved physics experiments in his head. Creative visualization works marvels when applied correctly and practiced consistently. “Hannibal Lecter’s palace is vast, even by medieval standards. Translated to the tangible world it would rival the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul for size and complexity.” 

In my interview with Rhiannan Iffland, a multiple-time Australian cliff-diving titlist, she told me that when she fractured her legs and was unable to dive to train or even swim, she would climb to the diving board daily, sit on the edge, and visualize what she would do when she next stepped on it with toes in the air. That bio-hack plus her years of experience and 10,000 hours of practice netted her latest cliff diving championship, her fourth consecutive World Series title for Red Bull.

Mentally imagine yourself going through the previous session’s techniques and how they felt when your coach caught you doing them right. Feel their weight and strain on your body in motion. Enter the next class you have having visualized yourself prepared and fresh, emptying your cup and ready to take in more knowledge.