If you want to get fitter, stronger and more flexible, there’s only one workout to try: Muay Thai. Kickboxer and writer Alice Porter has been finding out why the martial art has attracted so many women recently.
Boxing has become one of the most popular ways to exercise in recent years, with boxercise classes and studios popping up all over the UK. And thanks to more of us realising just how enjoyable punching a bag can be, what was once a male-dominated sport is now being embraced by women on a large scale.
In fact, of the 85,000 people who have memberships at Kobox, one of London’s most popular boxing studios, a whopping 75% are women.
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But not everyone is interested in limiting themselves to uppercuts and right hooks, which is why kickboxing, and Muay Thai in particular, are becoming increasingly popular.
What is Muay Thai?
Originating in Thailand (it’s the country’s national sport), Muay Thai is a form of kickboxing. Known as “the art of eight limbs”, it’s a full-body workout that equips you with a range of skills and ways of moving that can be useful both inside the ring and out.
Across Thailand, you’ll find hundreds of camps offering programmes designed to teach the art of Muay Thai in a matter of weeks or months. But to benefit from the practice, you don’t have to commit yourself for that long; there are plenty of Muay Thai classes in the UK that combine conditioning workouts with technique drills, pad work and, for people more experienced with the sport, sparring (practising fighting with another person).
Why are so many women practising Muay Thai?
Since Covid, more of us have been looking to move our bodies in a way that’s fun and engaging. And we also want to pick up skills that are going to keep us mobile for longer; it’s that combination that has drawn more women into the sport.
UK-based Zhara, 34, decided to temporarily move to Thailand to try a Muay Thai training camp this year. “I started doing boxercise classes at home, but in a class of 30 people with one trainer, there’s only so much learning you can do,” she says, explaining why she decided to do the programme abroad.
“There’s something incredibly mindful about hitting a bag, learning a skill and doing three to four hours of Muay Thai every day with the same people. You all eat and train together and have the same mindset – you become a community,” Zhara says of her training programme at Diamond Muay Thai in Koh Phangan.
‘Mindful’ probably isn’t the first word that springs to mind to those of us who have sweated our way through a kickboxing session, but it’s a theme that keeps coming up with women who do Muay Thai.
“It’s meditative for me in ways that traditional meditation or yoga never have been,” says 32-year-old Rosie. Sravyaa, 26, agrees: “I like that [Muay Thai] is a combination of sequences, almost like a synchronised dance. It helps me clear my head, and it’s also a great way to practise self-defence.”
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Elena Cresci turned to Muay Thai four years ago to help her deal with various personal and professional issues; she’s now a semi-professional fighter. “Muay Thai is a sport which is as brutal as it is beautiful,” Cresci tells Stylist. “It’s steeped in tradition and, while people on the outside may think it’s mindless violence, it’s actually a complicated game of chess the more advanced you get.”
Cresci believes that one of the reasons so many women are taking up Muay Thai as a form of exercise is because of the boom in the competitive scene for women. UK-based fighters like Amy Pirnie and Iman Barlow are making a name for themselves in the worldwide Muay Thai scene and, as Cresci notes: “The strides that professional female fighters make inevitably filter down to the women who come to the gym to do it for fitness.
“It’s so exciting to be fighting at a time when more and more doors are opening for female fighters,” she adds.
How does Muay Thai differ for men and women?
Whatever level you’re at, the training you do as a woman is almost identical to that of your male counterparts. “Particularly in Thailand, where I’ve done most of my Muay Thai, the coaches don’t make me feel any different because of my gender – I work just as hard and they push us just as hard,” Zhara says.
Given that many Muay Thai classes can be two or three hours long (particularly in Thailand), simply surviving the session will boost your fitness. “It’s very high intensity compared to other exercises I do, such as spinning,” says London-based Natalie, “so your level of fitness has to be high to begin with.” But, she says, “It’s given me so much confidence and inner strength.”
“I’ve never felt so strong physically and happy mentally as I do after two months of training Muay Thai every day,” Zhara agrees.
The authentic experience: what a Muay Thai class in Thailand is really like
After booking a trip to Thailand earlier this year, I was keen to try a Muay Thai class to see what all the fuss was about.
I still had a lingering fear that the session would be populated only by sweaty men with their tops off ready to, well, punch me in the face. But turning up to a class at Diamond Muay Thai on the island of Koh Phangan, there were actually more women in the class than men – some beginners but also others who’ve trained there for many months.
The session I went to was two hours long (which sounds brutal but is, in fact, totally standard). We started by skipping for 10 minutes (not a walk in the park when done in 30°C heat), followed by a period of stretching, which gave me a chance to get my breath back and mop my already-sopping brow.
We were then individually paired with a trainer to practise our technique. My trainer showed me how to do a number of different punches, kicks and defence moves, all the time correcting my stance. After only 15 minutes of working with him, I felt that I’d improved significantly.
After some shadow boxing, we were taken straight into the boxing ring where, again, we were paired up with individual coaches for some pad work. This kind of personal training is something you don’t often find in a class format, but it was so worthwhile because it ensured that I was pushing myself to my limits at all times.
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I was surprised and more than a little nervous at being encouraged to spar during my first session, and despite going easy on me at first, it wasn’t long before the trainer was throwing punches and kicks in my direction. Unsurprisingly, I missed a few shots coming my way but it was more hilarious than painful, with my trainer and I laughing at each slip-up.
Although Muay Thai is an incredibly serious sport – particularly for people who fight professionally – for me, the two-hour session was some of the most fun I’ve had in a long time, and certainly one of the hardest workouts I’ve ever done. I’m a keen CrossFitter, but the types of movement involved in the Muay Thai class meant moving in ways I’ve never even thought about before.
The next day, my DOMS were off the scale, as were the post-exercise endorphins. Feeling so happy, confident and strong after a two-hour class, I can certainly see why so many women are taking up the sport. Thankfully, there are many places in the UK where you can try out Muay Thai.
Where to try Muay Thai in London
London Fight Factory is a world-renowned mixed martial arts gym, training everyone from complete beginners to professional fighters. They offer Muay Thai classes for different levels, including beginner classes that strip it right back to the basics.
With locations in Nine Elms and Battersea Park, MMA Den offers women-only Muay Thai sessions, meaning you can practice the sport surrounded by women who are just as excited about it as you are.
Bloodline Gym is one of the UK’s top Muay Thai gyms and they offer introductory classes and private sessions. This is the place to go if you’re looking to take your Muay Thai training seriously.
There, of course, loads of classes throughout the UK – including Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. Simply Google your nearest studio, fight gym or trainer.