muay thai vs kickboxing

Muay Thai VS Kickboxing: What’s the Difference?

For martial arts practitioners, Muay Thai and Kickboxing are worlds apart. But for a combat sports fan like you, they can look strikingly similar. The fighters of both martial art punch and kick almost the same way. So, what makes them different?

What separates Muay Thai and Kickboxing is unclear, thanks to how the latter has so many variations. But the differences will show if one compares Muay Thai and American Kickboxing. Knees, elbows, and low kicks are allowed in the Thai fighting ring but are illegal in its counterpart.

Of course, that’s not all there is to it. More specifics separate these 2 sports apart. Read on and discover the two worlds of Muay Thai VS Kickboxing.

Is there a difference between Muay Thai and Kickboxing?

This question might be trickier than you think. Why? Because while Muay Thai is a term referring to Thai-style boxing, Kickboxing can refer to various existing and mixed martial arts.

For example, Japanese Kickboxing originated from the combination of Muay Thai and Karate. (Source) American Kickboxing is an evolved version of the Japanese with more striking limitations. (Source)

See the problem now? Muay Thai will always be Muay Thai. Kickboxing, however, can be many things. And sometimes, people refer to Muay Thai as Thai Kickboxing too.

So, this article will primarily discuss American Kickboxing. Now, let’s start with the arsenal of both fighting styles.


Muay Thai is more well-rounded in usable body parts. And here’s why.

Originally, Muay Thai was a tool of war. The point of each attack wasn’t to score points or play tricks. All strikes were meant to kill as fast as possible. So, ancient Muay Thai fighters would use anything to finish the job quickly, including knees and elbows.

Of course, modern Muay Thai isn’t like that anymore. It was modified to preserve the longevity of each fighter’s career. However, elbows & knees are still around, low kicks are still legal, clinch-fighting is okay, and even some forms of throws get the green light. (Source)

Basically, most Muay Thai original weapons are legal. Modern matches only limit how you use them.

Kickboxing, on the other hand, is full of limitations. And it makes sense, considering how the sport was created in the 1900s. Back then, martial art was already more common as a sport and self-defense than a killing tool.

Elbows, knees, and low kicks are a big NO in American Kickboxing. However, the international ruleset allows the use of knees and low kicks. (Source)

American kickboxers cannot engage in clinch combat either. Basically, you can look at Kickboxing as ordinary boxing with kicks. But don’t underestimate it, though. Despite the fewer weapons, it still is among the best global fighting styles.


Let’s discuss the general rules of both sports before diving into the technical ones.

A Muay Thai match consists of 5 rounds — 3 minutes each. The fighters get a 2-minute rest in between. (Source)

Despite the small number of 5 rounds, Muay Thai fighters tend to go slow in the first round. The “real” fight usually begins in the 2nd – 3rd.

And if you think about it, this timing technique makes sense. With the green light on the low strikes, fighters prefer to destroy each other’s legs with kicks before getting up close.

American Kickboxing, however, has 3-10 rounds — 2 minutes each — with a 1-minute break in between. (Source)

With such a short round, most fighters usually go all-out from the first bell. They have to make each second count and maintain their momentum. 

In terms of protection, both sports use similar gear. These include mouth-guard, hand wraps, 10 oz boxing gloves, and groin-guard.

However, kickboxers also wear shin pads under their long-legged pants and kick boots. Meanwhile, Muay Thai only requires a short. So, Muay Thai is generally more brutal with less protective equipment.

Now let’s discuss the technicalities. 

Even though both sports are full-contact, Muay Thai is less strict on the ruling.

Striking below the waist is a common occurrence in Muay Thai. Of course, groin strikes are illegal. Leg strikes, however, are encouraged. (Source)

And to be fair, leg strikes might be the most effective weapon in the Muay Thai arsenal. They are long-ranged, hard to dodge, and devastating. A kick to the thigh or shin can shut down your opponent before they even throw their first punch.

Kickboxing, on the other hand, forbids any strikes below the waist. This means you cannot attack your opponents’ legs at all. If you want to kick, your only targets are the torso and head. (Source)

However, leg sweep is allowed in Kickboxing. Just make sure you sweep below the opponent’s ankle. Or else you’ll get a warning from the referee.


The main difference between Muay Thai and Kickboxing (other than elbows and knees) is the kicks. More specifically: the kick’s contact point.

Most Muay Thai kicks are bone-focus. You usually hit your opponent with the hard shin bone, creating a massive destructive power. (Source)

This technique, however, is high-risk-high-reward. If you mess up the kick and land it on the wrong side, you might injure yourself. Fighters hurting their legs with their own kicks isn’t uncommon in Muay Thai.

To lower the chance of such an accident, most local Muay Thai fighters started their training as elementary school students. They need that much time to strengthen their legs.

Kickboxing’s kick, however, mostly uses the balls of your feet and heels. The damage might be lower, but they are safer to use and more consistent.

Of course, this doesn’t mean Kickboxing doesn’t utilize shin bones. Some roundhouse kicks use this part as a contact point too. But still, using bones is not as mainstream as in Muay Thai.

Muay Thai VS Kickboxing: Which one is for you?

This question can be tricky to answer too. Why? Because it depends on what your goal is with the martial arts. Is your goal to train in self-defense, or is it to exercise? Maybe you want to enter the MMA ring.

To make things more complicated, the answers aren’t limited to A or B but also “both.” 

After all, Muay Thai has been a part of Kickboxing from the beginning. So, if the answer is Kickboxing, you can learn elements of Muay Thai from it too.

But anyway, let’s answer this question in a more simplified way.

Self-defense/street fight: Muay Thai

Muay Thai might be a bit more advantageous in real fights.

In case of assault, you don’t have the time to worry about “Will my strikes hurt the assailant too much?” Your mind should focus on “How can I get out of here fast?” And Muay Thai provides a better answer. Why? Because it simply has more weapons.

Elbows and Knees are lethal. One hit to the face marks the end of the encounter. However, they might be risky to use thanks to the short range.

So, you might want to perform the low kick. If the assailant is not prepared, they will immediately go down. And that’s where you run.

Of course, Kickboxing can do the same. However, performing a move you rarely practice can be dangerous at such a moment. So, Muay Thai is just a better option here.

Exercise: Both

To be fair, this actually depends on where you are. If you’re in Thailand, then Muay Thai is a better choice. But If you’re in a Western country, go with Kickboxing.

Both of them are great exercises. They strengthen the muscles of your entire body, provide great cardio sessions, and get the endorphins (happy hormones) rushing. So go to the closest gym and they whatever they have.

And if you go to the gym with coaches, they will keep you safe and secure. It’s rare to injure yourself under the supervision of a pro.

Joining MMA: Kickboxing

If it’s a fight between Muay Thai and Kickboxing, the result might be in Muay Thai’s favor (thanks to the more lethal moves in its repertoire). In MMA, however, pure Muay Thai will probably fall short.

You see. Kickboxing is already a mixed martial art. This means that it’s more flexible to add more fighting styles to the ingredient list. Wrestling and Jiu Jitsu are common choices since they cover floor moves.

Muay Thai, however, is more specialized and strict. Most Muay Thai stances would fail under the choke, grab, and floor situation. At its core, Muay Thai is all about striking. And if you can’t strike, you’re done.

So, Kickboxing is a more sensible choice here. But if you’re confident you can get out of your opponent’s floor moves, feel free to go with Muay Thai.

Similar… but still different

Even though Muay Thai and Kickboxing share some characteristics, they are still two different sports.

What ties them together is the use of punches and kicks. The rest, however, is way off — like elbows & knees, low kicks techniques, strategies, and even protective equipment. Muay Thai is more open in these regards.

But in the end, enjoy what you like. Nothing is wrong with appreciating one sport more than others. The point is you have a great time.

Like always, if you want to discover more about Thailand, stay guided with ThaiGuider. You might learn something you never knew about this unique country.


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