Muay Thai vs. Kickboxing: What Is The Difference?

December 9, 2020

Martial Arts has been popular for centuries, and the hype is nowhere near dead. As MMA has become more popular, so have the traditional martial arts that make up MMA. Two such types are Muay Thai and Kickboxing.

While they may seem similar in the fact that they both employ punching and kicking techniques, Muay Thai is the art of 8 limbs while kickboxing would be considered the art of 4.

Furthermore, kickboxing generally consists of greater mobility through footwork and unique kicking techniques while Muay Thai employs techniques such as clinching and sweeps.

These are only some of the most notable differences when comparing Muay Thai vs. kickboxing. But what else makes them different?

What Is The Difference Between Muay Thai And Kickboxing?

What is the difference between muay thai and kickboxing

Despite what the common narrative or even your community gym might suggest, Muay Thai and Kickboxing are not mirror images. They might be cut from the same cloth hence have some similarities; however, they differ in technique, rules, and gear, amongst other things.

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Many professional Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighters claim that their skill resides in their training in Muay Thai and Kickboxing alike. This creates an illusion for the general audience that the two can be used as a substitute for the other.

As mentioned above, it cannot be disputed that there are commonalities, but they are more diverse than alike. While Kickboxing refers to a sport that makes use of kicks and hands in a total contact setting, Muay Thai involves stand-up striking with the addition of elbows and knees. Clinching techniques and sweeps are prevalent in both arts but is more prominent within Muay Thai.


The differences in technique can be broken down as:

Striking System

There is one rather striking and distinguishing difference between the two. While Muay Thai is an eight-point striking system that allows a fighter to land blows using elbows, knees, kicks, and punches, kickboxing is a four-point striking system that employs kicks and punches only. Some kickboxing competitions do allow elbows and knees, however.


In Muay Thai, you are taught to focus more on moving forward. Participants gauge the strategy of their opponent and take their sweet time to wait for the opponent to present them with an opening in which they take an aggressive stance and strike forward.

These openings usually follow a strike by the opponent; hence, counterstrikes are a primary feature of Muay Thai. Some head movement, circling, and weaving can also be observed in Muay Thai, which bears some resemblance to boxing or kickboxing.


As explained above, Muay Thai demands patience from its fighters, as opposed to kickboxing, where you overwhelm the opponent with a flurry of blows. You wait for the opportunity to present itself and then make a move.

This isn’t to say that rapid blows cannot be found in Muay Thai; it’s generally not how the more professional and skilled fighters choose to fight.

Kickboxers, on the other hand, are generally more versatile and reliant on their footwork. While a Muay Thai fighter will advance, a kickboxer would be able to circle his/her opponent and move forward and backward with fluid motions.


While Muay Thai places a stronger emphasis on simple and powerful blows from punches, knees, kicks, and elbows. Kickboxing offers a wider variety of kicking techniques where some moves are a little more sophisticated and thus, difficult to master and can throw you off balance if not executed properly.

However, they can add finesse to your game and prove to be extremely effective if the rival hasn’t anticipated it.

Punches And Kicks

Both forms of art have a more significant overlap in punches and some kicks. However, they both possess some techniques that make them distinct.

Since kickboxing evolved from Karate, it has more sophistication and variety to offer in terms of kicks, footwork, and leg movement. Axe kicks, spin kicks, and sidekicks are just some of the exotic kicks under its umbrella. However, they are not used extensively in fights- except for spin kicks.

Muay Thai doesn’t make use of such kicks much in their form of fighting. Certain prominent fighters like Samrak Kamsing have used variations of spinning kicks in their fights; however, in the mainstream arena, it remains absent. These fancy spin kicks are referred to as Muay Boran in Muay Thai.

Some fancy forms of kicks that can be observed in Muay Thai are the Teep and the Saenchai Cartwheel Kick. The Teep or the front push kick is an essential skill in the arsenal of a Muay Thai fighter and allows the fighter to create distance or even serve as a deadly strike independently, although that is harder to achieve.

This is something that you don’t find commonly in kickboxing. Saenchai has mastered the cartwheel kick and uses it flawlessly and so eloquently in fights that it’s beautiful only to witness.

See the cartwheel kick in action at 0:45sec

Delivering The Kick 

Muay Thai fighters rarely use their lower shin or foot to kick and focus more on using the middle portion of their shin. On the other hand, Kickboxing employs a fighter’s foot, middle shin, and lower shin.


While most of their rules are similar, since they are two distinct forms of martial arts, they have some different rules as well.

Firstly, kickboxing generally has three to five rounds of three minutes with one to two minutes rest between. Similarly, Muay Thai, consists of five rounds of three minutes each. The time you get to rest in between is two minutes.

A major difference is that while in a Muay Thai fight, clinch fighting, throws, and sweeps are allowed, the same are strictly forbidden in kickboxing but allowed in some organizations. The Chinese version of kickboxing, known as Sanda or Sanshou, generally allows the usage of elbows and knees in their competitions.

The International Kickboxing Federation (IKF) is one of the world’s most prominent bodies that sanctions kickboxing competitions and events. They have various chapters and while the IKF Unified Rules and the IKF International Rules do not permit knees and elbows, the IKF Sanda General Rules do make an exception for them.

The Indian form of kickboxing known as Adithada also allows knees and elbows and so does the K-1/Low kick.

Moreover, in Thailand, hitting the groin used to be allowed in Muay Thai, but the same doesn’t apply to kickboxing. Muay Thai also allows leg trapping, whereas kickboxing does not.

Lastly, the most obvious difference is that Muay Thai is an eight-point striking system, which means that elbows, punches, knees, and kicks are all allowed. However, kickboxing is a four-point striking system; hence it permits kicks and punches only.


The palm of a kickboxing glove needs to only deflect shots, but in Muay Thai, it should have a grip as well for when you clinch or to hold kicks with your hands. Therefore, in kickboxing gloves, the fingers are fairly rounded, which gives a more natural feel.

Some of them even have variations and have mesh fingers to facilitate ventilation. Most allow fighters to have a better clench fist than an open hand. Muay Thai gloves have the palm more open; hence the gloves have appropriate padding. They generally do not have mesh across the palm. 

The placement of the thumb is also different. With kickboxing gloves, the thumb is kept as near to the fist as possible to keep it protected, but in Muay Thai gloves, the thumb helps with the grip, so it is more functional.

Another difference is in the side padding. Boxing gloves are padded more on the palm and often have little to no padding on the sides. Muay Thai gloves are not padded heavily at the palm but have more padding on the sides.

Is Muay Thai or Kickboxing Better For Self-Defense?

Is Muay Thai or Kickboxing better for self defense

While it could depend on the person’s expertise, Muay Thai is likely better when it comes to self-defense. The aggressive style of the art and its ability to inflict muscle damage to the opponent can be valuable in a crisis where you might need to use it. 

Firstly, it makes use of every weapon on your body. This means in a situation where you might not be able to kick your attacker; you would be trained to use your knees or elbows to strike and potentially end the conflict.

You can use different combinations of strikes and deliver heavy blows to and make him/her rue the day they decided to do this.

Secondly, Muay Thai techniques are not only explosive but also fast. This incapacitates your opponent pretty quickly as not many people can withstand hard kicks to the legs or knees to the midsection. Therefore, it can be used to end a conflict in a shorter period.

Another great thing about Muay Thai is that it allows you to potentially defend yourself against more than one attacker. It is one thing in practice sessions, but when you are out in the real world and find yourself in such a situation, the chances are that you could be facing multiple attackers.

Muay Thai will equip you with the footwork and intelligent thinking to strike from a distance and tackle one opponent at a time, all the while creating an opportunity to flee.

Finally, different Muay Thai techniques are used for different ranges. At a distance, you have teeps to keep an attacker away from you. If a conflict gets into your personal space, you have clinching techniques at your disposal in order to sweep, knee, and elbow until you’re able to escape.

Should You Learn Muay Thai Or Kickboxing?

Should you learn muay thai or kickboxing

There is no definite answer to this and it boils down to preference. It depends on the kind of fighting specialty you are looking for, your aptitude, and the circumstances under which you want to take up martial arts.

Muay Thai focuses on delivering powerful blows to the opponent with your knees, punches, kicks, and elbows. Your leg muscles are used for powerful kicks that bear injury to the muscles of your rival’s thighs and calves, which makes it extremely difficult, for your opponent to ensure movement in them, at least for the duration of the fight.

Elbows prove helpful in opening up cuts in your opponent’s face while making use of the clinch to have control over the fight, keep the damage to acceptable limits, all the while making use of the proximity to land distressing knees and elbows. Not to say that Muay Thai is deficient in defensive tactics, but its real specialty lies in its offense.

A Muay Thai fighter establishes dominance by delivering such powerful blows early on in the fight to render the enemy unable to keep up. Therefore, Muay Thai training is intense and tough, leading to physical and mental robustness.

If you have ever taken up simple boxing, you will observe that kickboxing teaches many techniques that can be found there as well.

Hence, if you put a skilled kickboxer against a regular boxer in a boxing arena, he will be comfortable playing along with those rules. The same, however, would not be true for a Muay Thai fighter as they differ in their rules and techniques.

While kickboxing includes kicks and punches like Muay Thai, it also focuses greatly on footwork and the fighter’s general mobility. This allows kickboxers to circle their opponent with ease, and they move with swift and fluid motions to advance on their opponent.

Another distinct and fundamental feature of kickboxing is head movement. This is why it includes quite a variety of strikes that can translate into striking blows. Axe kicks and spin kicks are only some examples of that.

So if you’re looking for more mobility of movement, kickboxing may be best for you. If you want to learn how to strike with all 8 bodily weapons, then Muay Thai is for you.

About the author 

James de Lacey

I am a professional strength & conditioning coach that works with professional and international level teams and athletes. I am a published scientific researcher and have completed my Masters in Sport & Exercise Science. I've combined my knowledge of research and experience to bring you the most practical bites to be applied to your combat training.


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