Posted by: B Gourley | November 11, 2012

My Week at the Muay Thai Institute: Was it “Brutal”?

There is one obligatory word in travel guides in the section addressing Muay Thai: “brutal.” Mostly, the guides tell one where to go see a fight, with a caveat that they are not for the faint of heart. Some tell one where to go to learn about Muay Thai, often with equally dire warnings. There is usually mention of how much of a blood sport it is. While I did go to see a few, re: 21, bouts — both professional and amateur– my motto in life is “vicarious living ain’t living.” Therefore, during my  recent vacation to Southeast Asia, I spent one week at the Muay Thai Institute in Rangsit, Thailand following a standard training regiment of 4 hours a day (two X two-hour sessions) for a six-day week. I wanted to see for myself whether this reputation for brutality paints and accurate portrait.

Before getting to the question of whether Muay Thai is brutal in its combative exchanges, let’s consider whether the mere practice of the art is degrading to one’s own body. The quintessential image of a Muay Thai fighter is a young guy in the jungle kicking down a banana tree with his bare shins. There is also a belief that middle-aged Muay Thai practitioners are mythical creatures that don’t really exist. In other words, Muay Thai is a young man’s activity and by the time one is 30 one is too over the hill to continue. If this is the norm, one might rightly be hesitant to take on the practice of this art.

Let me provide some background about myself that may help the reader understand how I was came into this training. I am, on both sides of my family, almost 100% Irish (a little Scottish slipped in.) Furthermore, I was born and grew up in Northwest Indiana — in the land of ice and snow. While I’ve spent the last 16 years living in Atlanta, Georgia, there’s no escaping the fact that my body is genetically optimized to keeping warm in cold, damp climates –rather than staying cool in a tropical environment. I am –as they say– corn-fed, and my sweat glands have sweat glands. So while I did come into this with a modicum of fitness, it was clear that I was going to sweat my ass off — and I had a lot of ass to sweat. I do have over 20 years of martial arts experience. On the positive side, this meant that I probably had an easier than average time learning new movements. On the negative side, it was sometimes difficult to override hardwired tendencies that were deeply engrained from training in a completely different type of martial art. (e.g. In my first few days I was often told I was getting too low, something I don’t think I ever heard in a kobudō dōjō over the past couple decades.) Finally, I’m over 40 years old, which makes me far from the typical student at the Institute.

Returning to the question of how the preconceptions of how Muay Thai training was on one’s body matched reality, it was a mixed bag. One confirmed stereotype that I had about Muay Thai was that its practitioners are fit. Muay Thai puts great emphasis on fitness. However, Muay Thai is not just practiced by the teen and twenty-something fighters with the Bruce Lee physiques that, granted, make up most of the competitive fighters. The instructor that I spent most of my time learning from was my same age, 42, and I saw him training in his “down-time.” Despite the emphasis on fitness, the training at the institute was not so “high-impact” that it was beyond the capacity of a middle-aged student who was not in peak condition. We did nothing that would degrade one’s body. (e.g. We used shin guards if there was any possibility of kicking shin against shin/knee/elbow.) Furthermore, one could control one’s own pace for certain activities (e.g. running.) While one doesn’t want to be wussy about it, I would encourage one to learn to pace oneself.

For those afraid that the training will be too much for a middle-aged person who is not in prime physical condition, I didn’t pass out once. The instructors carefully watch one for signs of fatigue and windedness and they seem to place breaks accordingly. It is true that I went through 6 liters of water per training day to replace lost fluids. Those who believe that sweating is good for eliminating the impurities in one’s body probably see this as a good thing, but I was afraid that vital materials might leach out of my body as well. However, I’m freakishly camel-esque when it comes to water storage, and –as I said– my body is not optimized to cooling.

The gym viewed from my room on the third floor.

So, what was the training like exactly? While I have no great experience with boxing, if the training montages from the Rocky movies, Million Dollar Baby, Raging Bull, etc. are correct, then Muay Thai training is a lot like boxing training – the speed bag + elbows + knees + shins + feet. Each session began with about a fifteen minute run. Laps were run inside the cavernous two ring gym and were followed by five or so minutes of jumping up and down on truck tires (front-to-back, side-to-side, switching feet, etc.) to develop one’s footwork and calf stamina. The latter allowed movement with a little more similar spacing of feet than jumping rope, though advanced students jumped rope instead. Next, we usually did a stretch/warm up that was good for developing the hip rotation needed for the famous/infamous Muay Thai roundhouse kick. This involved standing on the ground and with one leg, placing the other up on the edge of the ring with toes pointed up, and then rotating the leg so that the inner edge of the foot lay flat on the ring. As one rotated the leg on swung one’s outside hand down as one does in the actual kick to guard and help one’s balance. One also rotated on the ball of one’s support foot as one might when kicking.What came next varied according to one’s level, but for the level 1 and level 2 students it was most commonly footwork/striking drills. In the beginning one starts with just practicing stepping. One practices advancing, retreating, changing one’s forward side, shifting laterally, and shifting in a circle (as if around a heavy bag.) A great deal of emphasis is placed on footwork that is balanced. There is a natural intermediary between too long a step and too narrow of one, and one is conditioned to stay in that natural distance. One then transitions into adding in strikes. This may begin with just one strike, say a jab. Then one works with two hit combinations, e.g. jab-cross, and then one moves to series, e.g. jab-cross-hook-uppercut. One also practices defensive activities such as sweeping aside punches and kicks or blocking roundhouse kicks.

For the more advanced students (or, like me, the less advanced students that were classed “freestyle”) what followed warmup might included shadow-boxing, focus mit drills, interactive drills (i.e. one side practicing a jab-cross combo while the other practices sweeping aside a jab-cross combo), or sparring. Having so little time, I was given a “sampler platter” of all of these methods after my first couple days of rudimentary drills. Shadow-boxing was essentially a free-form version of combinations of the drills practiced earlier, but it was much more than that in that it required one to be mindful about what attacks one delivered. One had to imagine watching and waiting for one’s moment. This is an important and difficult skill. Focus mit drills added in having something to actually watch for. One had to watch for what mit was extended and at what angle so that one would know what to hit. The interactive drills also take the mechanism out of the process and instill some reality. While there is free sparring practiced by competitors and more advanced students, I did not practice sparring in the free form that one might ordinarily think of sparring. Rather, the sparring that I was exposed to was designed to convey lessons. “Kick” he would say, and then he would catch the kick and indicate I should keep crosses coming. We also practiced getting knees in while in the clinch and how to stay safe in the clinch.

So the training was physically challenging, but not by any means brutal. There was no shin-kicking of steel pipes or picking up steaming cauldrons with one’s for arms… wait, that’s kung fu. Anyway, the training was intense but not particularly high-impact. There seems to be an implicit understanding that training, like an actual bout of Thai boxing, is an endurance game. In other words, while being able to go balls-out is valuable, one must also learn to pace oneself.

The bouncy-tires.

A fight at Rangsit

Having said all this, I can’t deny that this the reputation for brutality has some basis, and it’s seen during the fights themselves. Out of seven professional bouts I watched in Chiang Mai, there were two clean knockouts. At the Rangsit Stadium I saw another 14 or 15 fights, and the results were not all that different — though a smaller percentage of knockouts. The use of gloves in a sport that allows one to use elbows –not to mention knees and feet– may seem to miss something a bit. On the other hand, the “brutality” of the matches is matched by a high degree of respect and good sportsmanship. A couple of weeks before I went to Thailand, I saw a Mixed Martial Arts program in which a fighter reached out his glove to bump gloves — a common show of sportsmanship in many pugilistic sports– and when the other fighter reached out to return the gesture the first fighter decked him. I can’t imagine a Thai boxer’s career surviving such a douche-bag maneuver (unlike like the MMA show in which the douche-bag won the bout and was advanced.) As with all sports where showmanship valued, young Thai boxers can by cocky (e.g. dropping guard, etc.), but they always seem to show good sportsmanship. Winners by knockout always went over to check on the well-being of the opposition, and losers invariable accepted decisions good-naturedly.

My experience at the Muay Thai Institute, while brief, was both insightful and productive. I would highly recommend it to others, and –if you go– make sure you go by this nearby restaurant and order the pad Thai. It’s just one more delectible reason to train at the Institute.



  1. Thank you I am taking 4 guys there in april we are all in our forties. We all have extensive martial arts background but no Tai experience.

  2. You’ll have a great time. But get some Tiger Balm.

  3. Excellent could you suggest a few restaurants or places to get sundries like ager protein drinks etc. Hey Did you pass the test?

  4. There’s a little hole-in-the-wall place a couple buildings south of the Institute. I don’t remember the name, but it probably wouldn’t help due to lack of English signage, but if you ask where Shy-poom’s (phonetically, not correctly, spelled) place is, someone should be able to direct you there.

    No I didn’t take the Level I test. I wasn’t there long enough.

    As for other stuff, there’s a big shopping mall to the north and you can get anything around there. MTI also has a store that mostly sells gear, but there was a cooler around where they sold beverages.

    Best of luck.

  5. leaving on april 20 for thailand to go to Mauy Tai institute I will share my experience with you when i return. Thank you for your help

  6. Have fun.


  7. hi im really interest to sepend some time training in muay thai institute,just wonder if you know if there is cheap and basic accommodation near by?
    many thanks

  8. Yes. MTI has rooms onsite that are cheap but comfortable with all the basic amenities one needs for extended periods of living.

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