What follows is not authoritative, it is just the things I’ve gleaned in my nearly 5 years of full time training at my various gyms, and in traveling around and taking privates from some of the best in Thailand. You can get access to my growing Muay Thai library with legends for a suggested pledge of $5.
I read a rant on Reddit that, despite its intense language, does open up that some people do get frustrated training in Thailand, finding a lack of instruction and padwork that be repetitive. I do believe there is no better place in the world to learn Muay Thai, but there’s no such thing as a Matrix-like download of martial art knowledge; it takes a lot of time and patience. In the years I’ve been living, training and fighting full-time in Thailand I’ve seen how the differences between how westerners like to learn and how Thai kids are raised in gyms to become skilled fighters is vastly different. It’s hard to come to Thailand and train for a stretch of time without learning something – I’ve seen jaw-dropping progress in as short as 3 weeks – but there are certainly ways to get the most out of your time and money spent in gyms here, especially in padwork, since most of us don’t have the 8-10 years that Thai kids have to become skilled fighters, and padwork is something that Thais do better than anyone in the world.
There are of course many different types of gyms in Thailand, from traditional and small to the large-scale “Globo Gym” tourist-oriented enterprises. On both ends of that spectrum are opportunities to learn a lot, as well as opportunities to become very frustrated. You’ll find different types of trainers as well and knowing how to respond and engage with these different styles can make a big difference in your learning curve. For the most part, because Muay Thai is a way of life with years dedicated to learning the balance, timing and skills required to be a proficient fighter for Thais, the traditional teaching style is not largely broken down into technical instruction, or overt instruction (though in more western-oriented gyms you can expect to get more of this). Generally, if you watch very young kids, like 7 years old, first coming to the gym to learn Muay, you’ll see some detailed correction of stance, arm positions, turning the hip on kicks and angles of knees… all the things we as westerners really want to have broken down for us are shown to little kids. But we come here as adults and the starting from scratch approach is less meticulous for us. Maybe it’s a respect or expectation thing – you wouldn’t put training wheels on an adult’s bike, even if he’d never ridden one before. However, a lot of us really need and crave this instruction and, as adults, the best bet for getting it is to ask for it. A trainer will let you kick incorrectly for months, knowing that eventually with the repetition of practice the kinks will kind of work themselves out as you watch the better kicks in the gym. But we don’t necessarily have months and years, and we don’t really come with the open minds of children either.
Step 1: Empathy and Dignity
The first order of business is that you really have to understand where your Thai padman is coming from. In the west, instructors (gym owners) often act with a kind of captain of their own ship quality. They are the ultimate authority in their space, knowing more than their students; they can be lords of their kingdom. As western students we can come to Thailand and assume this same kind of reverence and respect for the Thai kru – respect is always a good thing, you won’t ever go wrong with respect. But keep in mind, in general, padholders do not hold high status in a Thai gym. There is an invisible hierarchy of power and respect among them, usually first and foremost by age, sometimes by accomplishment, but as a class they are (often) just seen as workers by the owners of the gym, and ultimately replaceable workers. You may be wai-ing deeply and listening to every word, awaiting their wisdom, but in their reality they are often just working for remarkably low wages, and pushing through rounds with an endless stream of western (farang) enthusiasts. This padwork is very far from their experiences as kids when they were developed as fighters, or when they were fighters themselves. The entire process of growing slowly into a fighter who will eventually become a money earner, and respect earner, is missing. You want them to impart the secret techniques of their style, often in a short time, but they’re just doing work. If there are Thai boys at your gym, the work they are doing with you is probably different (and secondary) to the work they are doing with them. It takes years and years to mold a fighter.
So what is one to do? I’ll repeat: the first thing is to realize where your padman is coming from. If they aren’t super respected within the gym structure (and I’ve seen former Lumpinee Champions with very little status), you can always respect them yourself. You’ll see me using that word a lot, there is no substitute. Treating your padman as a teacher and not a worker is a big deal, to him and for him. The last attitude you want to take is: I’ve paid you for a service, you better be giving me what I paid for. First of all, you didn’t pay them, you paid the gym, and if they are slacking it is probably because they don’t feel the value in what they are doing. But teachers in Thai culture have a good standing, it’s a respected status, so treating your trainer as a teacher puts him in a social position that is dignified above being a “worker” in the gym, which is a reality of what he’s doing in many western-oriented gyms. Give deference, treat them as a teacher, and that changes to some degree. This involves asking questions, and then listening to the instruction that follows. Asking questions is something I had a very hard time with my first two years here. I felt I was imposing myself to ask questions, that the deferential thing to do was to wait for the trainer to show me or teach me something. I’m a shy quiet type, and would rather just put my head down and do the work. But I would also grow frustrated at the lack of instruction or correction, while culturally my trainers were probably waiting for me, as the student, to ask. Remember, every time you ask a question you turn your padman into a teacher and not a worker. It raises their status and acknowledges their dignity. So don’t be shy and ask for correction or clarification. More on this below.
Side note: There are some cases where the gym owner is also a padman, like Arjan Surat at Dejrat gym, Kru Nu at Petchrungruang (my gym) and Chatchai at Sasakul gym. These men are not “workers” in the gym and have high status despite getting their hands dirty, so to speak, as well. In these cases it’s important to treat them as gym owners first, so offering cash tips – which is certainly appreciated by the low-wage workers – is not advised. (You are not expected to tip your trainers in most gyms. It will always be appreciated but it can also complicate relationships, so either save it for a farewell gift or for after fights when it is an appropriate time. I don’t know what is the appropriate amount for this; use your own discretion and take into account the difference in economies – what is $5 to an American is maybe seen as $15 to Thais.)
Step 2: Going Off Script – Tapping Into Fight Energy
After starting with respect, the next step in getting the most out of your padwork is counter-intuitive because it feels like the opposite of respect. As respectful students we feel we should just listen to whatever our padman says. You wait patiently for what he calls, you defer to his pace, you try to please with your technique. To get the most out of padwork you have to really get beyond this stage. If you just passively follow your padholder there is a strong possibility that the padwork will just fall into boredom for him. He’s done this a million times and will do it a million times more. He’s seen everything from the know-it-all kickboxer to the inattentive and uncommitted day-tripper. This can be numbing work. What you need to see is that the man in front of you is first and foremost a fighter. He has vast reserves of fight energy within him, and that is where all the technique and learning is kept. You have to tap into that. This means you need to go off-script. Yes, you follow his combination calls, but you also teep to interrupt rhythm, cut off the ring instead of following him in a circle, close too much distance to make him move, stiff arm or shove off. This will engage his fight energy – it wakes him up – and will allow the padwork to start to involve some of the most important things to learn: defense (he will hit you back more), spacing and timing. Padwork becomes not only exhausting, but also thoughtful and, importantly, playful. And this very, very important: you must laugh (or smile) when you get hit. If you can do this your padwork will transform, it will move to something that is between padwork and light sparring. And not only will you enjoy it more, but so will your padman. He will look forward to holding for you.
warning: now this is the hard part and there is no easy way to guide you in this. You can’t go to a new padholder and in the first round start flying off-script. You will be a complete dick. The progression from respectful student to actively engaged fighter is one that takes feel and sensitivity. If you think about Muay Thai as learning a language, padholder combinations are like fake, rote conversations that simulate Muay Thai. “How are you?” “I am fine.” “Where is the bathroom?” “The bathroom is over there.” As you press through these fixed exchanges and you get comfortable with them, you can start adding bits of extra talk. You want to move towards a real conversation. You have an unbelievably fluent speaker in front of you, you want to be conversing with him. But you have to feel your way forward in this. Watch and see how he responds to making the exchange more lively. Everyone is different, so watch to make sure that there is still respect. Draw back into the called strikes if it looks like improvising isn’t appreciated. It may take several sessions or even much longer to find the right place where your padman and you are having a real “Muay Thai” conversation. But this is the gold of padwork in Thailand.
Things You Can Do Off-Script
- Teep – this is a primary, go-to move. The belly pad is always there, and as a strike this isn’t too aggressive. It allows you to experiment with spacing and to impose your own timing.
- Light or medium kicks to the leg – this is a very advanced move and is only for padmen you really know and already have established a relationship with. Requires extreme control, and it will get you whacked back.
- Feinting punches or elbows – make sure that these are not close, only gestures towards the strike. Any punch that lands should be highly controlled and slowed. Advanced stuff.
- Crowding – purposively taking up too much space, snuffing what they are calling for, forcing them to move.
- Stiff arming, shoving – warding off your padman when he is advancing, or moving your padman off his spot.
- Enter into clinch – this creates space variety.
- Cutting off the ring – a subtle way of going off script. It is very easy to just passively follow your padman in a circle. Cutting off the ring lets him know that you are thinking.
- Knees or body punches to the belly pad – this signals to your padman that you want to work in the intermediate zone, and will produce counters.
- Deep pivots into their blindspot – lots of padholders will see this as a desire to work on footwork and ringmanship
- Baiting trainer strikes by blocking repeatedly – you can subtly suggest to your padholder that you want to be hit more if you repeatedly create the block for an imagined counter strike. If you raise your leg to check over and over, he’ll start kicking it. If you go into Dracula Guard or anticipate a hook, your trainer will start meeting your block and challenge it.
- Call your shots – this makes everything more playful. If you gain an advantage in something in any of the above improvised moves, give a good “ooiii”. This will encourage him get his point back, and you have to keep it light, but this moves things more towards fighting.
- Win rounds – treat your rounds like rounds of a fight. This means that round 1 is different than round 3, and it also means that you want to come on strong at the end of a round. If you do well at the end of a round, act like you won it.
A note on sweeps and throws: putting an opponent on the ground is a “fuck you” move. I would say it’s generally okay to sweep and throw your padman, but be sure to keep it light and read his response off of it. If he goes to the ground give him a wai before starting again, just to acknowledge his status. And pay attention to the age and physical condition of your trainer. Many of these guys have long-standing injuries to their knees from their fight years, so don’t go nuts on caught kicks or turns in the clinch to get them down. It’s case by case. Some of these guys are fine being thrown, some are in great condition but have egos and it’s best to just leave it at a “could have thrown you” move that doesn’t actually put them down. One thing that may help with any tension is to have your padman teach you sweeps or throws, so that if you are successful, it’s because of something they taught you.
Ask Your Trainer
If you know your kick isn’t quite right, ask the trainer to help you – be specific, “no power,” or “slow” or whatever quality you want to address. Then, when they show you, make sure you watch their feet, their hips, and their shoulders – in that order. Not every trainer speaks English to a degree that you can get a whole verbal communication of your question and the answer, but generally a single word (like those above) or a pantomime of the problem will get your point across and then you just really watch to figure out the technique he’s showing. It’s good to get these questions in during your pad rounds, as that’s the most one-on-one time you’ll get with him unless you opt for a private session. After your rounds you should go work in shadow or on the bag to practice the technique he just showed you, demonstrating your eagerness to learn and willingness to listen (as well as to actually learn it yourself). Visibly display that you appreciate his attention through this work – they will notice. If you have more questions or can’t quite get it, be patient. You can ask again in the same training session when he’s not working with someone else but know that you will probably have to keep working on it for days/weeks, so you can always ask again tomorrow.
At the face of it, taking privates in a gym is probably one of the best ways to get quality instruction and padwork, and by my experience this is true. But do be warned that paying for a private can be a complex move especially if you are staying long term at a gym. Not only does this mark you as a source of significant income for a padman, it also inadvertently can be seen as a rejection of other trainers. You are playing a favorite, and in a pubic way. I haven’t had experience in larger, commercial gyms where isolating students for regular private sessions is sometimes said to be a major competitive goal for trainers who deal primarily with westerners, but even in smaller gyms choosing out a trainer for private sessions can be a major political move, and should be weighed carefully. I can’t go into this at length here, but it is more than just paying for a service.
Types of Padmen
This may seem at first like a slightly negative list, but it really is a caricature of tendencies that can be found in many padmen across Thailand, so you can think about ways to get more out of your relationship with your pad holder. The truth is that the man standing across from you in Thailand is in all likelihood in possession of more fight experience, and more instinctive and earned knowledge than most anybody you will find in other parts of the world. The beauty of Thailand is the plenitude of this knowledge and experience and really padwork is just the attempt to come in contact with that in the best and most rewarding way possible, for both of you.
The Endless Pattern Padman
This padholder generally does the same 5 strike combination over and over (and over) again. As a total beginner you might not pick up on the pattern and it’s not a terrible thing, but it’s mostly designed to be easy, somewhat predictable and allows the padholder to check out mentally while just getting the farang tired. Even as a total beginner, this kind of padwork lets you feel that there’s something lacking. This trainer is generally bored out of his mind and has more or less checked out. You can usually break these guys out of their patterns by getting a bit cheeky and throwing something that’s not being called for. Obviously don’t be a jerk about it, but if the guy is wearing a bellypad you can always teep – always – to break things up. If you throw something else just be controlled about it – fake a punch or tap the leg with a teep or kick. Usually this wakes up the fighter that is dormant deep within these guys and they’ll start playing a little bit. If you keep it light-hearted and laugh with what’s being thrown back and forth it will go really well. This is an excellent way to work on your timing. If you’re not comfortable throwing off-script, or if your trainer isn’t into it, the other thing you can do is stand way too close to him. Just take up his space and make him move. Likely he’ll start hitting you to get you to move back and you can work on your blocks, but you can shove him backwards to create space as well, which is another excellent skill to practice and learn.
The Relentless Combos Padman
This guy just makes you go and go in a variety of combos to the point of exhaustion and then a bit beyond that. He’s a sadist, sure, but he’s also building your endurance. It can be horrible though, burning in your stomach and limbs feeling like they’re going to fall off. With this guy, again, you want to improvise. If you throw a few teeps in order to keep him at bey and bide your time a little bit, you can breathe. Throw a couple of jabs and move to the side to give yourself a second to pause and think. Again, this helps you work on timing and spacing, as well as learning how to catch your breath while staying active.
The Old Master Padman
This is someone like Ajarn Surat at Dejrat gym. He’s in his 60s and is very clear about what he wants from you, as well as a stickler for you giving him that and only that. Keep off-script action only moderate with the old master, if at all. You don’t want to “get strikes in”, but they may appreciate teeps and spacing changes, but slowly introduced. This is the perfect guy to ask to show you details in the technique. Mostly this kind of padman is going to want you to have rhythm between everything, so you work on your rocking footwork, the slow, slow, slow, explode! pattern for each strike. These guys (as well as many of the other types listed here) might have a repeated pattern in their padwork. It’s not the same as the endless pattern guy, who literally only holds for the exact same pattern all the way throughout, but rather he will bring the same move back many times in order to train your response time to it. They’re insistent on where you keep your hand in your basic guard, where you put your foot for the kick, how you respond to a caught kick or how to kick back on a block – just show that you know what they’re asking for, even if it’s seemingly impossible to get it right.
The Hanuman Padholder
There are some padmen who will punish you and basically be assholes all through your rounds. I had a trainer who would punch me in the stomach seemingly every 4 seconds, which over time actually taught me to put my ass back all the time, a bad habit, and it was detrimental to my fighting. It’s taken me a long time to work my way out of that, but if I’d been more aware of myself and my training at the time I was working with him I could have used it to my advantage. I have a padman now who is similarly aggressive, but because I’m in a really different and more developed stage of my awareness, I use it as a way to work on my “fuck you, I’m staying in,” skills. If you go off-script with these guys, they’ll play with you, but they may also accelerate the intensity a little too much, so be ready. If you really stand in and show confidence, I’ve found that they may even play nice for the most part. But if you flinch and get pissed at being stung by their punches and leg kicks, they’ll just double down. So these guys are good for working on your attitude and learning how to poker-face your way through everything. You can’t “win” with them, you just have to meet their energy with an “I can handle it” energy. It’s an amazing skill to learn.
The Worker Padholder
You don’t often encounter these these guys but when you do it can be rough as they may not be super skilled. They may or may have grown up in Muay Thai and may not be very good teachers or instructors in general. You’re not learning from ex-champions all the time and champions aren’t always good trainers anyway. But gyms need bodies to hold pads and sometimes that’s exactly what they get – just a dude who can hold pads in his hands, not necessarily well. Working on your improvised teeps and footwork with these guys can be good, since they don’t really have to “hold” for those. It also turns it into a game and takes away the stress of figuring out what to try to do with you. You generally can’t ask these guys for instruction, but you can work on trying to move them with your timing and spacing. Try not to stand right in front of them; get your footwork going to break up the patterns on the pads. I had a guy like this for a short time right before changing gyms and I basically just acted like it was sparring – it was really great padwork and a lot of fun, but certainly for the purposes of learning technique you don’t want to be stuck with this guy for weeks on end.
The Too Cool Padman
Usually these guys have status in the gym due to age or seniority, but it’s just an attitude thing. Annoyingly, they’re usually very skilled padmen but they’re checked out, so they hold for a string of moves and then drop the pads to their sides and walk around, maybe start talking to someone. Some people like this because you get a break, but most people don’t – it feels shitty, like they don’t care. I haven’t had this kind of padholder in a long time and I was pretty inexperienced when I did, so my suggestion for how to deal with him is how I would deal with it now: when he drops his pads and turns to walk around act like you would in a fight if your opponent dropped their hands, just advance and press up on him. Don’t necessarily hit him unless it’s a light tap, but rushing and closing the space will show that you’re not into the break.
The Free-Style Padman
This is just the best guy in the world. There’s usually only one or two guys at any given gym who is a free-styler and generally you have to be a little bit acquainted with each other for it to really flow, but they are open to full improvisation. You just throw whatever you want and they catch it, then hit you back AND call for specific strikes. There’s no advice here other than that if you have one of these, just laugh as much as possible.
The “Superstar” Padman
There aren’t a lot of these, and there are a lot of well known padmen who are not “the superstar”. This is a difficult padholder because they are of a reputation where you sense that there is so much to get from them because of their vast experience and knowledge, but because of their reputation, if there are other people around, you have to be careful around their “face” in the gym. Some absolute legends who I’ve trained with have absolutely no problem with me tripping them to the ground (and Karuhat taught me three different ways to do it and then let me practice numerous times; he’s incredible) or landing a light punch to the chin, but other “superstar” types have a bit of a fragile ego and with others around it’s a loss of “face”. So you have tread carefully when tapping into their fight energy. Test the waters gingerly and see how they respond to small improvisations or “getting one in” on your part, then proceed off your readings. But with any of these guys, whether they’re willing to play or not, put respect before all else.
I’ve been fortunate enough to do a lot of work with legitimate Muay Thai legends as part of my growing Patreon Muay Thai library of long form training videos. You can see that here. These are often unique men who are not full time trainers, or even sometimes trainers at all any more, but who scaled the heights of ring Muay Thai. What seems to unite these men is really how diverse they are in padwork, or that many will not even hold pads at all. If you are lucky enough to work with someone like this you really have to do everything I advise above, 10-fold. All the respect, all the possibility of play, and just find out where they are comfortable and can give the most of themselves as a guide. The energy alone of these men, aside from even their techniques, can be the greatest gift of all.
The Bottom Line in all things: have more fun, protect your padman’s dignity, get as close to their fight energy as possible while doing both.
In this clip below you can see some of the interruption strategies I discussed. This is my padholder Pi Nu who I feel is the best padman I have ever had, among many, many excellent padmen. And this work is part of a collaboration of more than 2 years, so there is real comfort with each other. But hopefully you can find illustration of what I’m describing.
If you’d like to find out more about padwork, and what makes a great padman, the clip above is from a running monthly series I’m doing for Nak Muay Nation members. In each hour long video I break down what makes Pi Nu subtly special, month by month following my own progressive work with him.
Subscribe for free to my blog and read articles like this every week!