To Cardio…Or Not To Cardio? That is the question.
If you’ve been keeping up with the fitness world over the last few years, you may have noticed that there’s been a trend away from doing it. A lot of coaches and fitness writers now encourage people who are trying to lose weight to lift heavy, keep cardio to a minimum, and let your diet do the work for fat loss.
On a basic level, I…mostly agree. The reason is this- losing weight is, on a purely biological level, essentially a math problem. In order to burn fat, you need to use more calories than you’re taking in.
So if that’s the case, why not use cardio? I mean, we all know that performing aerobic exercise uses calories. So if all we need to do to lose weight is create a calorie deficit, cardio makes sense, right?
Well, yes and no. The problem isn’t so much that cardio CAN’T accomplish this goal. The problem is efficiency. People in general tend to make two mistakes when it comes to losing weight. They tend to a.) dramatically OVERESTIMATE the amount of calories burned through cardio, and b.) dramatically UNDERESTIMATE the amount of calories consumed through food.
The pattern usually goes something like this. You go out for a light jog. Let’s say you’re out for 45 minutes, and you burn somewhere in the neighbourhood of 300-400 calories.
You finish your run and throw yourself down on the couch. You’re proud of yourself for going out and doing it, even though, let’s face it, most of us hate running (no offence if you’re a fan).
You decide that you can afford to have a little treat. So you hop in your car and head to the nearest drive through. You get yourself a bagel, take it home and eat it.
Well, what you probably don’t realize is that bagel you just ate probably has about 250 calories in it. Congratulations. That run you just did now contributed to a grand total of only 50-150 calories lost. Which is NOTHING.
And that’s just if you got a plain bagel. If you put butter or cream cheese on that bad boy, that’s an extra 100 or so calories. And if you decide to get a coffee with cream and sugar in it…well, guess what? You’re now in a calorie surplus- which means your worse off than before you went for your little run.
So, if cardio’s an ineffective strategy, why am I such a big fan of using Muay Thai- a (mostly) cardiovascular activity- to torch body fat?
Great question. But first…some of you may be reading this and either a.) have no clue what Muay Thai is, or b.) kinda know what Muay Thai is, but are a little fuzzy on the details.
For those of you who know better and want to get straight to the good stuff, feel free to skip the next section, but if you’re completely new, read on.
What Exactly Is Muay Thai?
Muay Thai originated in Thailand (no shit), and is the countries national sport.
Usually whenever I tell someone I do Muay Thai, if they don’t reply with “what’s that?”, they say something to the effect of “oh, that’s like kickboxing with knees and elbows, right?”.
To quote professional Muay Thai fighter Gaston Bolanos “I die a little inside whenever I have to say that”.
I would have to agree though. To someone who was unfamiliar with the sport watching it for the first time….it does look a lot like kickboxing with knees and elbows.
Once you start digging into it though, you realize that Muay Thai is SO much more than that.
Muay Thai (which literally translates to “Thai Boxing”) is a predominately striking-based martial art. Fighters are allowed to strike with the foot, shin, fist, knee, and elbow, and with the exception of the groin, strikes anywhere to the body are legal (including the legs).
During competition and training, the hands are wrapped and Western-style boxing gloves are worn.
While Muay Thai is strictly standup and fighting on the ground is illegal, it does feature a form of standup grappling, called clinching.
Muay Thai fights consist typically of 5 rounds, 3 minutes each. Like kickboxing, points are scored for landing strikes (although the criteria for which strikes count and how many points they score differs). And like most striking-based combat sports, fights can, and often do, end in knockouts.
There’s also a cultural and spiritual aspect to the sport as well. Muay Thai is a very old martial art, and has been practiced in Thailand for centuries. Before each match begins, the fighters perform a traditional dance called the “Wai Kru” to pay their respect to their teachers.
In Thailand, there’s even a full band at ringside playing traditional Thai music as the fight progresses.
Why Muay Thai Is Cardio Done Right
I wrote a post a while back on how I lost 20 pounds in 6 weeks. In that post, I used myself and my own experience in the summer of 2009 as a case study for how to drop a lot of weight quickly and get the ball rolling.
Most of what I did that summer came down to diet, but one of the things I did that really helped out was training Muay Thai.
Back in 2009 I committed myself to showing up to train at least 3 times per week. I can absolutely say without question that, combined with diet and weight training, all that time spent hitting pads (and other people) contributed to me shedding those 20 pounds.
I’ve been training on and off ever since. I even took a few trips to Thailand to go train at one of their local gyms (a pilgrimage, if you will).
What sets Muay Thai apart is intensity (and if you’re at a good gym, you WILL be training with intensity). An hour of Muay Thai can burn anywhere from 800-1000 calories.
That’s in addition to some of the muscular development you’ll get from all that punching and kicking.
Finally, what I really love, and what keeps me coming back, is the enjoyment factor. Yeah, it’s hard work. But it’s the kind of hard work that you come to love.
After a few weeks, it becomes addictive.
What Equipment Do You Need To Get Started?
One of the great things about Muay Thai is that unlike, say, snowboarding, you don’t really need a lot of gear to get started. Here’s a list of what you’ll need (with some rough prices):
Boxing gloves (16 ounce gloves are usually the standard for training purposes). $60-$100.
Shin pads. Anywhere from $15 to $80 and up depending how fancy you want to get (I use basic one’s that cost me $20 and I’ve had them for years).
Hand-wraps. $5-$10 (Pro Tip- they get sweaty and stinky, so since you’ll need to wash them in the laundry after each use, get a couple pairs).
Steel cup. $40-$50. For men, and for obvious reasons. Remember, Muay Thai allows leg kicks, and, well…sometimes people miss. You can get a plastic cup if you really want, but I’d highly recommend not fucking around and investing in the steel.
Thai shorts (optional). $30-$60. These are the special shorts that all Muay Thai fighters wear. Although you don’t really need them and can just wear gym shorts, most people will find them optimal because they’re less movement restrictive, more comfortable, and provide better air flow (it gets fucking hot in those gyms!).
What Actually Happens In A Muay Thai Training Session?
A lot of people I’ve talked to that have heard of Muay Thai are usually intrigued enough that they want to give it a shot- but they’re justifiable concerned.
Seriously, this sport is no joke. People can, and do, get fucked up competing in fights.
Fortunately for you, unless you decide you want to compete, that probably won’t happen. The vast majority of people who train Muay Thai never set foot in the ring to actually fight. And the vast majority of Muay Thai gyms know this.
Here’s what you can realistically expect when you get started. When you come in for your first few classes, you’ll be taught the bare-bones fundamentals- how to stand, how to move, how to throw your basic strikes, how to block, etc.
Once you have these down (and it usually doesn’t take long), you’ll start actually learning Muay Thai. The content of these beginner classes often vary from class to class, but some common examples of things you’ll be doing are:
- Practicing your strikes and strike combinations on a heavy bag
- Working specific techniques with a partner
- Hitting focus mitts and Thai pads (either with a trainer or a partner)
- Conditioning works (calisthenics, core stability, etc.)
A Note On Sparring: In my experience, most gyms either a.) don’t do sparring for beginner classes, or b.) keep it VERY light, with the option to opt out if you don’t want to do it.
I’m mentioning this because sparring is usually the aspect of training that newbies are most worried about. Which is reasonable. Nobody wants to walk into a gym on their first day and get their ass handed to them by someone who’s been fighting for ten years.
So, if you’re worried about it, don’t be. You don’t have to spar if you don’t want to, and if you do eventually want to, you can wait until you’re ready.
How To Use Muay Thai For Fat Loss Vs Training For Competition
I’ll admit it. I’ve never actually competed in Muay Thai.
Why? Cause I’m a shit fighter.
I have average (at best) power.
I have a “glass jaw” (i.e. I can’t take a punch).
I’m far below average in speed.
And I have the worst balance of anyone I know.
But at the end of the day, that really doesn’t matter to me.
I enjoy training.
I enjoy going into the gym and pushing myself to get better.
I enjoy the feeling of accomplishment after a hard session on the pads.
I even enjoy the feeling of being sore after I train.
But most importantly, I enjoy the fact that Muay Thai has helped me strip a SHIT TON of fat off my body.
So, with that in mind, it’s important to distinguish between getting into this with the PRIMARY goal of losing fat (as oppose to the primary goal of competing). While the actual contents of you’re training session won’t really change (at least as a beginner), there are a few adjustments that you’ll need to make in your approach.
The big thing to remember is that you need to pay close attention to your body composition. Most competitive Muay Thai fighters don’t give a shit about their abs and biceps. Sure, a lot of them do have six packs and impressive physiques, but it’s not done by design. And it’s definitely not a requirement to a be a champion.
I mean yeah, all things being equal, it’s generally advantageous as a fighter to have more muscle and less fat. But there’s a point of diminishing returns.
Having low body fat only helps to a certain point.
The same thing goes for muscle. Yes, being muscular helps. But being quick, powerful and explosive is far more important. The actual adding of more muscle mass won’t actually help your performance. It won’t hurt it either. It’ll just make you heavier.
Which brings me to the next point. Weight. Muay Thai fights happen within weight classes. Fighters have to weigh in before they fight, and in most cases, the lower the weight class they can fight at and still be quick and powerful, the better.
Weight and fat are two different things. A lot of times these guys will do certain things to make weight that have nothing to do with body fat (dropping large amounts of water weight is the most common approach).
NONE of these things are going to be relevant to you if you’re not competing. And if you’re primary end goal is just to look good naked, then some of them can even be detrimental.
Here’s a few tips:
1. Alternate Muay Thai Training With Heavy Weight Training: Remember, the end goal once the fat comes off is to have a pleasing physique. This means you need to add muscle. While there is a muscle building component to training Muay Thai, when it comes to adding muscle MASS, it’s not enough. You need to be utilizing heavy weight lifting 2-3 times per week.
Yes, I know. There are a lot of competitive Muay Thai fighters who are quite muscular. The confounding variable to understand here is genetics. The guys that do go on to compete tend to be natural athletes. They’re naturally quick, they’re naturally explosive…and a lot of them (though not all) just look naturally jacked without even touching weights.
Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’re not one of them. Hit the weights.
2. Limit Your Muay Thai Training To 2-3 Times Per Week: If your goal is fat loss, then this is the optimal strategy. Any less, and it’s going to affect your progress (both in terms of fat loss and you’re ability to progress with the training itself). Any more, and it’s going to cut into time and energy you should be investing in the gym hitting the weights, and it will affect your ability to recover from those workouts. It also has the potential to burn you out. Which brings me to my next tip…
3. Avoid Burnout And “Compensatory Eating”: The fact that Muay Thai is such intense work is a double edge sword. On the one hand, the intensity makes it perfect for burning a ton of calories quickly. On the other hand, it can also wear you down and drain your energy
For competitive fighters who NEED to train 6 days a week to prepare for their fights, this problem is usually rectified by eating more calories. If they have to make a particular weight for the fight, then before the weigh-in they’ll typically cut a lot of water weight right before they step on the scale. Their weight will immediately shoot back up after they rehydrate.
For people like you and me, this isn’t a relevant strategy. The only weight we care about losing is fat. By eating more calories so that you can train more, you completely defeat the purpose.
So, before you start, figure out how many calories you need to take in per week, and don’t let your training affect that. If you need to take a day off, take a day off.
How To Choose A Muay Thai Gym
The first thing you want to do when choosing a gym is to do your due diligence and make sure it’s an ACTUAL Muay Thai gym. There are a lot of “cardio kickboxing” gyms masquerading as Muay Thai. Most of the instructors are essentially glorified cardio coaches and have never set foot in a ring.
Avoid these places. Yes, in terms of burning calories, you’ll likely get a similar result, but you’ll miss out on all the tertiary benefits.
There’s the obvious self defence factor. But there’s also the satisfaction and motivation factor. Nothing keeps you coming to class every week like knowing that your slowly but surely progressing and moving forward in an incredibly complex and challenging endeavour.
Finally, there’s the artistic side of it. For all it’s brutality inside the ring, Muay Thai is a beautiful art form, and it’s one that promotes discipline, respect, and ultimately, peace of mind.
You just don’t get that with cardio kickboxing. Find a gym that actually teaches Muay Thai, with instructors that have actually competed and know what they’re doing.
The second thing to look for is this. Notice how I said Muay Thai is about discipline and respect. Look for how your gym handles students who don’t understand this.
I’ve been doing this on and off for almost 8 years, and I’ve met some awesome people at these gyms.
Unfortunately, I’ve also met some fucking assholes. It’s unavoidable- any combat sport is going to draw a certain number of guys who are there because they’re insecure and want to prove how tough they are.
There’s nothing worse than sparring with someone who’s 40 pounds heavier than you and just takes the opportunity to beat on you way too fucking hard. Or who doesn’t listen to you when you ask him so go a little bit softer when you’re drilling techniques because you’re not feeling 100%.
The gym is a place to learn and get better, and having training partners who understand this is critical to progressing and making improvements. Look for how the trainers handle guys that don’t. Good trainers who see this will immediately step and tell them to take it down a notch. Repeat offenders will get dealt with, and if it gets bad enough, they’ll be asked not to come back.
Again, most gyms are good about this, but it’s something to keep in mind.
Muay Thai As A Tool In Your Toolbox
When used properly in combination with a rock solid diet and strength training routine, Muay Thai can be an effective and fun catalyst for some serious fat loss. By utilizing these tips and making the correct adjustments to how you train, it’s a powerful tool worth taking advantage of.