Muay Thai vs Kickboxing  –  Key Differences Explained and FAQ


Photo by Richard Kkok (Right pic)

Muay Thai and Kickboxing are two separate striking martial arts that actually share a lot in common. In fact, there are so many similarities that people often mix these two styles with one another. But what are the main differences between Muay Thai and kickboxing?

As a general rule, the key difference between the two is that Muay Thai allows the use of both hands, elbows, feet, and knees, while kickboxing only allows the use of hands and feet. Muay Thai also includes sweeps and clinches, while kickboxing focuses on striking and distance.

The emphasis is also different as Muay Thai focuses more on power, damage, and throwing each strike with a lot of power while kickboxers prefer to have a higher output and are more technical.

However, this is just a brief explanation of how these two systems differ from one another. Thus, be sure to read this article to learn more about it.

What is Muay Thai?

Muay Thai is a versatile striking system that emerged in the 19th century in Thailand. In martial arts circles, it is widely known as a complete striking system that trains you to use all of your eight limbs as weapons in a fight. In training, students learn how to throw basic boxing combos, and powerful kicks from the distance, and fight at close range and in the clinch with elbows and knees.

It is a brutal style that emphasizes a hard method of training, simple but effective techniques, power and damage. The main goal is to hurt the opponent as much as possible with every single strike thrown, and knock them out.

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What is kickboxing?

Kickboxing emerged in the 1950s as a mix of Kyokushin karate and Muay Thai full contact rules. It has many styles and forms out of which the following four are the most popular and you can learn more by clicking on each style:

The emphasis in kickboxing is on mixing various types of kicks with advanced boxing combos. As a whole, there is no fighting in the clinch, landing elbows, or knee strikes. However, the only exception is the K-1 style where limited clinch and knee strikes are allowed. In addition, the Dutch style of kickboxing allows knee strikes but elbow strikes are not allowed. 

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Muay Thai vs Kickboxing  – Key Differences

Here is a list of all the major differences between Muay Thai and kickboxing:

Techniques and weapons

Muay Thai is a versatile system that enables fighters to strike with:

  • Kicks (front kicks, roundhouse kicks, sidekicks)
  • Punches (jab, hook, uppercut, cross)
  • Elbows (downward elbow, horizontal elbow, spinning elbow)
  • Knees (straight knee, flying knee, diagonal knee)
  • Grab a clinch position (double/single collar tie, double underhooks, over/under)
  • Execute various types of sweeps, throws and trips

Though it has more weapons, Muay Thai focuses more on simple techniques that do not require much time and effort to execute but still do a lot of damage.

Kickboxing has fewer weapons on paper as the focus is on mixing punches with the kicks. However, it is more versatile than Muay Thai when it comes to punches with kicks only. Compared to Thai boxers, kickboxers use more kicking techniques and are far better boxers.

Punches

Muay Thai fighters rarely use their hands as the main weapon to do damage. Instead, they prefer to use punches just to set up the powerful kicks from the distance. Or, they might punch their way in to get a clinch position which allows them to unload with a barrage of elbows and knees.

Kickboxing differs here because it actually focuses more on punches than kicks. It is easy to spot a fighter trained in kickboxing because they rely more on their hands than legs, while in Muay Thai it is the other way around. 

Stances

Muay Thai fighters stand in a squared stance with their feet at the shoulder-width apart and hips facing forward, elbows tucked in, and hands up in front of their face with palms facing outwards. This enables them to quickly check the kicks, and counter the attack much faster than from the bladed stance. Also, they put slightly more weight on the back foot.

Most kickboxers stand in a slightly bladed stance with their hands tucked right below the chin and elbows tucked in to protect their bodies. Since the emphasis is on quick punching combos, they tend to put more weight on the lead leg and keep their knees and torso slightly bent.

Footwork and movement

In Muay Thai, you will rarely see fighters bouncing around or moving quickly in all directions. They prefer to stay in front of their opponent, some of them even flat-footed, apply forward pressure, and wait for the opponent to attack first because most of them prefer to counterattack.

Kickboxing includes a lot more dynamic movement on the feet, changes in direction, and angles. Footwork plays a big role in the way fighters set up the attacks, keep their range, and most of them know how to fight from both stances.

Defense and head movement

Thai boxers prefer to stay in line of the attack and take full-blown punches right on the guard, and instantly fire back. One of their main defensive strategies is to go for a clinch as soon as the opponent steps into their range, and by being first, get a dominant position. They rarely use any head movement, or footwork to pivot their way out of the exchange.

Kickboxers rely more on head movement and footwork. They tend to dodge/slip, bob and weave, and apply many other boxing techniques to defend and create openings for the counters. 

Should I learn Muay Thai or kickboxing for self-defense?

Muay Thai might be a better option for self-defense as it is more versatile and covers more scenarios. On top of that, it performs much better at close range, notably in the clinch, and its emphasis on power and damage is more in line with fighting on the streets. But make no mistakes about it, kickboxing is also a very practical system. If you have a hard time finding a Thai boxing gym in your area, do not hesitate to choose kickboxing instead.

One aspect that clearly makes Muay Thai better is fighting in the clinch. Most scenarios you may encounter on the streets are chaotic brawls with a lot of grabbing, pulling, and striking at close range. Whether it’s a bar, room, or parking lot, most fights end up at close range at some point. Despite being chaotic, this scenario is where Muay Thai works the best. 

You will learn how to use this scenario to your advantage to secure a dominant clinch position first. This allows you to unload with vicious knees to the body/head, or elbows to do damage, or just throw the attacker down to the ground. But the best thing about it is that limits the attacker’s ability to strike back or escape. The average person doesn’t know the exact procedure to escape, and they can’t just muscle their way out of the clinch.

Overall, both systems are practical and will teach you all about the mental and physical aspects of fighting. Both are full-contact styles, embrace a hard method of training, lots of hard sparring and are very effective. The only major difference is the clinch, which makes Muay Thai a better option in the end.  

Muay Thai vs Kickboxing – Which is Better For Fitness?

Both of these arts are great options if you want to improve your fitness in a dynamic and fun way. Yes, training is intense, but at the same time, it has many health benefits, and it will make you physically stronger.

First, training in both of these styles is a full-body workout that enables you to improve both strength and cardio with each training session. Each class is a mix of aerobic (long runs, rope jumps) and anaerobic (sprints, bodyweight exercises) workouts. Doing all types of drills, sparring, and hitting the bag will strengthen every single muscle group in your body, burn a lot of calories, and make you more flexible.

On top of that, most gyms put a lot of emphasis on cardio and conditioning your body to absorb punishment. You will do a lot of grueling cardio workouts that, on one side, will break you physically and mentally, but on the other, will get you in top shape in a very short time span. In fact, just a single Muay Thai class burns between 600–900 calories.

However, do not expect to build huge muscle mass because there is no weight lifting. Instead, you will develop functional body strength and look ripped.

Should I learn Muay Thai or kickboxing for MMA?

Muay Thai is more effective in MMA because it fits better within the rules of the sport than kickboxing. It represents a great striking base on top of which fighters add grappling skills to develop all-around game. 

MMA is a dynamic sport where, as far as the standup is concerned, fighters are enabled to fight at all ranges, including the clinch, using all limbs as weapons. Sounds familiar right? Muay Thai is the only martial art that covers all the aspects of standup fighting in MMA. And its focus on aggression and damage just adds to its overall effectiveness. MMA athletes who have strong defensive wrestling and top-level Thai boxing skills are among the scariest and most successful in the UFC. Some of the best examples are Jon Jones, Israel Adesanya, Max Holloway, and many others.

Kickboxing is also more than present and do not underestimate its power in MMA. On one side, it is not as effective as Muay Thai Thai due to the lack of clinch. But on the other, it teaches you much better boxing combos, footwork, head movement, and more types of hand and leg strikes. So there are actually many areas in which kickboxing is more practical.

For example, Thai boxers tend to stand in a squared flat-footed stance in MMA and in the centerline of the attack which makes them prone to takedowns. They also lack some crucial skills like head movement, a volume of strikes, and angles, the areas in which kickboxing excels.

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Muay Thai vs Kickboxing  – Which one is better for beginners?

Kickboxing might be a better option for beginners because it is slightly less intense and includes fewer techniques. On top of that, it is more technical than Muay Thai when it comes to mixing kicks with punches, movement, and defense. In the best-case scenario, you will enroll in kickboxing to develop a solid base within 1–1.5 years, and then move to Muay Thai. 

Muay Thai is physically more intense due to its emphasis on damage and power and the fact that it includes elbow and knee strikes. But bear in mind that, in modern times, training is adapted to the modern-day lifestyle, and the intensity of beginner classes does not differ much from the same ones in Kickboxing. Each Muay Thai gym includes an amateur group where you can learn techniques at a steady and less intense pace. 

Whether you choose to train in Muay Thai or kickboxing, you will spend the opening six months of your journey working on improving your fitness, flexibility, learning the basics, and doing live drills. You will wear full protective gear each time you do exercises that increase the risks of injuries and be respectful towards other students. The intensity increases as you become stronger, more flexible, and skillful, and start sparring and competing.

Muay Thai vs Kickboxing – Which one is harder to learn?

To better understand which one is harder to learn, you have to take a closer look at the following factors:

More techniques — Muay Thai

Muay Thai has more techniques because, apart from punches and kicks, it also teaches you knee and elbow strikes, as well as the basics of grappling like trips, sweeps, and throws. Kickboxing is less versatile because it focuses “just” on punching and kicking techniques. 

Takes more time to learnMuay Thai

As a more versatile style, Thai boxing requires more time to master. On average, students with average talent and fitness may expect to develop solid skills in 2.5–3 years. This is the average time you need to spend in the gym before starting to compete in pro matches.

Kickboxing takes a bit less, around 1.5–2 years. But the exact time depends on the quality of classes, and many other factors.

Carries a higher risk of injuries — Muay Thai

Muay Thai carries a really high risk of injuries. One study has shown that more than half of the participants in a Muay Thai fight (55.4%) have reported some type of minor or severe injuries afterward. Most injuries occur to the lower extremities (58%), while head injuries are in second place.

As for kickboxing, the injury rate is around 109, 7 injuries per 1000 fight participations, which is much less than in Muay Thai. However, the most common are head and neck injuries (52.5%) followed by lower extremities (39.8%)

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Muay Thai vs Kickboxing  – Who would win in a fight?

Fighters from both of these arts have an equal chance of beating each other in a street fight, and this is the only fair answer. If you look back at history, many kickboxers traveled to fight against Thai boxers in Thailand and vice versa. When it comes to these regulated matches, it’s fair to say that athletes from both arts enjoyed a lot of success competing against each other.

But what would happen if two fighters, equal in size, skills, and experience meet in a street fight?

Kickboxers have a small edge if the fight is in the open where they would have enough space to apply footwork and movement. They perform much better at distance, are far better at creating angles, and can quickly get Thai boxers into serious trouble. However, the tables would start to turn around as soon as the Thai boxers close the range and go for a clinch. Kickboxers are not trained to fight in this position, or to defend against elbows and knees, or trips and throws. This gives Muay Thai fighters a big advantage at close range like in a bar or a room.

Overall, fighters from both arts have all the weapons and skills needed to defeat each other in a fight, and the exact outcome is very hard to predict. It would all come down to the place of the fight, and the individual set of skills.

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Muay Thai vs. Boxing – Who Would Win and Differences Explained

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