How to “Train Like a Thai” – Why Many Get it Wrong
The phrase “train like a Thai” is so legendary that it is literally scrawled into the cement at the famous Lanna Muay Thai camp in Chiang Mai. The romance of the notion is, of course, that Thais train harder and from earlier in their childhoods than anywhere else in the world. For many Thais, Muay Thai is a way of life. From the outside, however, actually training like a Thai is, I think, largely misunderstood; or perhaps misinterpreted by our gaze.
When you first arrive at a camp where there are high-level fighters training, you can be left with your jaw dropped open at the sheer power and speed with which these young men hit pads. The padholders, too, are simply incredible. Watching Sam A bust out 50 non-stop kicks at a speed you can’t muster on your best day, and every single one of those kicks is the same, consistent power that you couldn’t manage with your best attempt… it seems like for these Thais their effort output “goes to 11.” But that’s not what you’re actually looking at. We as westerners are on a very different training scale than these fighters, those at their peaks in their late teens or early 20’s having already put 10 or more years of consistent training into their bodies. We in the west are used to training 45 minutes or an hour at a time, putting in maximum effort for extended bursts. We’ve developed a whole cult following for the importance and brilliance of HIIT training; we love it. In Thai camps, you’re training for 2 hours or more at a pretty steady gait, not taking breaks and chilling at the water cooler (you’ll see westerners doing this, not the Thai fighters). You go from a run straight into skipping rope, shadow, bagwork, pads, maybe some drills and then to conditioning all without really stopping. To someone new to a Muay Thai camp this can be more than daunting. There’s naturally an acclimation period involved in going from the western way of training to the Thai marathon training – I’ve found that’s a 7-10 day period of just getting used to it, including the heat and weather, need to sleep and everything else – but the misunderstanding, or misinterpretation, we take from watching these high-level Thais slamming the hell out of pads or bags and thinking that this is what we should be doing is something else.
The western tendency is to hit as hard as possible and train at 100% or not at all. This 100% of effort for 100% of the time is a symbol of our dedication and our love of the sport. It’s how we prove we love it – it’s our work ethic. This tendency of all or nothing can lead more to the “not at all” end of the scale than the 100% end, unfortunately. In my years here I’ve witnessed an overwhelming pattern of folks training very hard for 2-4 days and then taking several days completely off to recover. It’s a binge and purge way to go about it. It’s not good. It can be very deflating to arrive off the plane for the first time, armed with intense commitment. Then to throw yourself completely into the intensity of a “Thai style” workout, day after day, and to find yourself not only depleted physically, but probably sore-shinned, blistered, and mentally fried. You try to work back up to it again, only to be banged back down once more.
The “Secret” of Thai Training
There is a lot to the formula of Thailand adjustment, and some of it really is just toughing it out. But this article is about a specific piece of the puzzle: the inspiring example of Thais themselves. If you really watch what these top fighters are doing, and it’s taken me several years to more powerfully see and understand this – you’ll start to notice these micro-breaks; you have to train your eye to it, but it’s always there. To give specific illustrations: Yod PT is an 18-year-old fighter at my gym, Petchrungruang. He’s in a tournament at Lumpinee at the moment and he’s started gearing up for the next round of fights. I watched him on pads with my trainer, Pi Nu, and when I stopped gasping over how goddamn hard every single one of his kicks are (yes, I still gasp at this), I noticed how little he moves between any of his strikes. He’ll move if he needs to, to block or parry or take up space, but he’s basically either completely still or driving a strike straight through the mitts. He’s utterly relaxed all the time and makes no excessive movements. PTT, the absolute superstar of the gym and the newest fighter to join Thai Fight, looks like he could be sipping coffee or eating a sandwich between each of his strikes. It’s like if Michael Jordan in his prime was hanging out in the stands at a game and the announcers saw him and invited him to do a dunk to show off for the audience at halftime. Jordan would smile and wave, maybe hand his drink to whomever is sitting next to him and casually stroll onto the court. But once he touches the ball it’s like a rocket being launched and the slick moves and power just explode out of him – he couldn’t do it wrong if he tried. That’s like watching PTT. Like you interrupted him from his quiet dinner and asked him to kick the bag and he just kind of swaggers over and then BAM! Same with Pi Nu, my trainer in his 40s, who sometimes kicks the bag when he’s feeling a little spunky. It’s thunderous when he does so, like the whole bag is going to crack in half; but Pi Nu is totally relaxed. It’s the common thread between all the fighters who have steeped in real Muay Thai. They’re pushing, it is effort, but it’s an explosion out of repeated relaxation. Like power-lifters putting the weight down on the ground to start and finish a move. The way a lot of westerners go about it, and I completely put myself in this, we keep holding the damn weight between lifts. What the hell is that?
So, to really “train like a Thai,” we have to invert our process. Thais start very young, but even if they start later in life it’s the same method: relax first, flow first, then comes power, then comes the hard. We do it the opposite in the west: power first, power last, some day you’ll be comfortable after a few thousand hours of practice – then you’ll start to relax. And that’s where I’m coming from, because I’m a westerner. I’m learning how to relax nearly 9 years into my process. But almost 5 years into being in Thailand, I’m also realizing that this lesson, this method is ubiquitous. Westerners don’t see our own tension. Once you see it, you see that it’s everywhere, all the time. I would say that there is no western Muay Thai fighter I look at, no matter how good, in whom I don’t see it. In contrast, you can see the relaxation in Thai fighters – it’s everywhere and it’s all the time. This doesn’t mean you stop and hang out by the water cooler between kicks on the bag – Thais aren’t doing that – what it does mean is that the difference between the all-out effort of a powerful kick and the zero effort of not kicking become more defined and yet also indescribably close, so that you can move between the two at break-neck speed and with total ease and fluidity. This isn’t a simple thing to learn; but it’s more important than anything else.
This is the secret to the endless hours, the years of marathon training that the Thais do. They are relaxing within techniques, between strikes. They are relaxing in front of the bag, as it swings away. Yes, they can and do machine gun kicks, but throughout training they are resting. My husband wrote about this from a different perspective Precision: A Basic Motivation Mistake. So, when you come to Thailand and watch the better Thais at the gym, don’t only watch for the explosions on the pads, however impressive that can be. Look closer. Look at what those fighters are doing between strikes. See how slack they become, the little, micro-rests they take through the long hours. It’s like little sips of water that might preserve you in the desert – no gulping. As you seek to mimic them, mimic all of it. See the silence between the notes. And the same exact thing happens in clinch. Yes, 20, 40 even 60 minutes of hard clinch is a work out for anyone. But if you don’t learn to grow slack, to take micro-rests, to move from being at ease, the stress of it is just at a higher level. It will wear you down. And not only that, you are not understanding something important and fundamental about Muay Thai.
Now this isn’t just a prescription for how to endure the long work outs in Thailand. How to keep up with the Thais. This is also extremely important to fighting “like a Thai”. All those micro-rests that occur throughout training is how Thai style fighting is conducted in the ring. The best Muay Thai strikes, both aesthetically and physically, come out of the body being at ease and immediately return back to that ease, on balance and sabai. This is how Muay Thai is fought in Thailand – and why so few westerners, even though some are very tough fighters, grasp it. Thai fighters rest throughout the fight. Between strikes, using footwork, using a shove or a teep, or a lock they are constantly falling into a very short repose. They fight like this because they train like this. This is one of the enduring purposes of training as long and hard as the Thais do. It forces you, eventually, to learn how to relax.
Update: adding this quote here from Joy on Demand which I’m reading. It’s about building mindfulness, and talks about breathing. What is important is the coupling of both gentleness and intensity. I believe this reflects also how Thais learn, and train. Replace “gentleness” with relaxation, or play, or being at ease. Intensity, explosion is built out of and on the foundation of ease, but they go together. When Thais in training see that intensity is too much ruling over ease, when ease is lost, they will eventually find a way to bring it down so the two can be built up together. Sometimes they bring it down through repetitious fatigue training which forces relaxation, or by lowering the challenge. But it is always with the purpose of making sure that ease and intensity can be brought together.
For me, even though I’ve been aware of this conceptually for a long while, and I first started applying this principle this year more in padwork and sparring by learning how to laugh and play, it has been a continual excavation. In the last few months my admiration for the energy and attitudes of the legends Karuhat and Namkabuan, who I’ve had the very good fortune to train with, has brought even greater levels of relaxation and explosiveness as I’ve tapped into that. But it really wasn’t until I trained with Golden Age great Hippy Singmanee last week, filming for my Patreon Supporters, and he simply refused to accept the bagwork style “drill” approach I was taking to what he was teaching me – that post and video is coming soon! – did I realize how much I have powered through these four-plus years here, 6 and a half days a week. You see, I am one of those hundred-percenters. I prove my love for Muay Thai in every moment, but for long stretches I didn’t see how I was robbing myself of explosiveness, and how my willingness to push myself on every second on the bag was training not only strikes, but also my idle. My idle was very high and because of the way my trainer Pi Nu holds pads for me, I was forced to find relaxation in that idle or I’d pass out. Lately I’ve been exploring how low my idle can go, in small moments. It doesn’t mean training less hard. It means training the transitions. How fast can something come out of ease? How chill can you be after throwing the hardest kick you can? Muay Thai is about the quiet and the storm.
There is another final dimension of micro-relaxation that perhaps I’ll leave you with. When you are relaxed you may not realize it but you are hiding yourself, like a camouflaged fighter jet. You become in-visible to your opponent who is trying to read you. When you train strikes on the bag, or on pads, or even sparring, and you do not also train slipping back into this invisibility, you are missing a huge piece of the whole ethos of fighting. It’s one reason why in most Saenchai vs westerner match-ups he can see nearly everything an opponent is about to do, and they can see almost nothing until it is already underway and practically too late to counter – tension is a projector, telegraphing every move. Westerners train and fight at a pretty high, tense idle; it’s part of western fighter-ness. As skilled as Saenchai is, and as incredible as his timing is, he is operating with an advantage in time and vision – it’s said humorously, but indeed he is in a way living in the Matrix – everything is telegraphed to him, and yet he is fighting with a certain kind of invisibility – it’s not just his fakes, it’s the ease of his body. For a short time I was training clinch and sparring with Tak at his gym in Pattaya, Cho Nateetong, and just getting absolutely destroyed by his endless and stinging strikes. He’s very evasive, very fast, and very tricky like Saenchai. The more he “stung” me with his moves, the more I tensed up and plowed forward to try to snuff him out. Finally, out of some kind of mercy, he told me the secret: “I like when my opponent is angry, because then I can see everything,” he said. The tension made every movement on the surface of the water readable. But a fish moving below the surface is invisible, smooth, deadly. He let me try waiting for him to come to me and I just countered and suddenly I could see his movements, like his invisibility cloak had slipped off. Looks like a magic trick, but it’s just relaxation. Saenchai and Tak are somewhat exaggerated examples, but relaxation vs tension is key to seeing what is unique about the Muay Thai of Thailand.
The above video is a short recording I made for my husband Kevin today, who isn’t with me at the gym all the time but is a huge part of my whole Muay Thai process. He was with me when I learned the exercise from Hippy that has reformed my tactics to focus on training relaxation and this video isn’t great in any particular way, it’s just an example of how I’m approaching it in training right now. I’m also not saying this is how you should train – this approach will make more sense when you see the Hippy Singmanee video, and I’m really exaggerating the relaxation to get a hold of it) – I’m saying this is how I currently train towards relaxation. Okay, but the point is that between the strikes I’m making efforts to relax – hopping, bouncing, flopping my arms down (I do this when running to relax my shoulders, which I stole from my former trainer Den), and taking my time between each kick or push. I’m training power in the kick, but 90% of the actual practical part is training relaxation out of which that kick will explode. Funny enough, the person I’ve seen demonstrate this method the best is PTT, who absolutely rips the bag apart with his kicks and knees but they’re few and far between all his relaxing. He walked by me when I was doing this exercise today, watched me for a few seconds, then gave me a huge smile and an approving thumbs up. Does he know what I’m doing? Or does it just look right to him?