Tai Chi vs Muay Thai

With all the differences between most martial arts, there are two arts on completely opposite ends of the spectrum that actually have very similar roots, histories, and how they are practiced and perceived by their nations. In thinking about the differences between tai chi vs Muay Thai, it’s hard to imagine how the hard attacking of Muay Thai could share any similarities with the slow graceful movements of tai chi chuan. But we only have to look as far as their origin stories to see the overlap.

Muay Thai and Tai Chi both originated as a way for people to defend themselves. They were both adopted by monks who not only need to defend their temples from thieves and attacks but also fortified their health to meditate better. Also, despite having completely different goals and training, practitioners of both arts benefit from a focus on relaxation under pressure, breathing, and calming the mind.

Let’s dive into the history of Muay Thai as a comparison to tai chi’s history and talk about the benefits of the art. New martial artists often find it difficult to choose between hard and soft arts at the beginning. For those of you inclined towards the fighting side, Muay Thai is something to consider because it has a bit of both. At the end we will compare the two to make the decision easier.

tai chi vs muay thai history

Tai Chi vs Muay Thai – Similar History and Key Differences

Muay Thai can be traced back to the 1500s and was practiced in its original form as a fitness regime for the soldiers of the Ayutthaya Kingdom which is now present day Thailand. The 1600s and 1700s were marked with several wars against the Kingdom of present-day Burma. Muay Thai took on special significance as the invading armies from their west ransacked temples and villages in an attempt to take possession of the region.

Muay Thai is based on “the art of eight limbs” where practitioners attack with their shins, knees, elbows, and fists. It is an art almost completely based on offensive moves because defensive moves are still primarily attacks. The art was meant to be taught and learned quickly to monks and civilians who were easy targets. In learning the art for their own survival, the monks combined their meditative practices with the fighting to both benefit on the fighting side from a calmness of mind and on the meditative side from better physical health.

What’s lost in most of the history about this warring period is that the Ayutthaya Kingdom, then Siam, and finally present day Thailand were almost always the ones being attacked and invaded. They invited first the Dutch, the Chinese, then the French, and even England into their country for commercial reasons and also as a way of making alliances to resist being taken over. The English interactions had an influence on Muay Thai because of their boxing history. Boxing and Muay Thai were taught side by side in the 1800s. By the beginning of the 1900s, fighting rules, timed bouts, an elevated ring with red and blue ropes, and the use of padded gloves were all borrowed from boxing to formalize Muay Thai into the art that we have today. The use of gloves was a step away from knot-tying and bindings that protected the hands of the early fighters.

Muay Thai Knot Binding

Choosing Between Tai Chi vs Muay Thai

Understanding some of the history of Thailand as well as the progression of the martial art is needed to be able to understand the similarities and differences of tai chi vs Muay Thai. The level of mental concentration, calmness, and body control needed to train one’s shins, elbows, feet, and hands to be “hard as weapons” would be beyond what the body is capable of with just physical training. The philosophical implications of measuring an opponent and responding to their attack rather than being the first to initiate is shared by both Muay Thai and tai chi. Nowadays, most Muay Thai gyms focus exclusively on the external aspects of the art but internal development is needed to make any real progress. In the very least, to harden a practitioner’s discipline to continue undertaking this physically demanding sport.

Let’s take a look at seven considerations for choosing between Muay Thai and tai chi. Despite it’s ferocious reputation and hard external fighting style, it is a martial art that can offer a student the fitness, self defense, and an ability to adapt and remain calm and clearheaded under stress.

Tai Chi vs Muay Thai Fighting and Self Defense

Hands down, if you are choosing between tai chi vs Muay Thai and your primary concern is fighting, this is a no brainer. Practice Muay Thai but also consider practicing both if you are interested in tai chi. Muay Thai is not typically practiced by people over 30 or 40 for long so most practitioners transition on to something else (hopefully) or stop practice. On the other hand, progress in tai chi takes years so getting your foot in the door and beginning will pay off when you inevitably transition away from Muay Thai.

Muay Thai is an aggressive, primarily offensive fighting art that employs fists, feet, knees, shins, and elbows. The use of all the appendages is what makes it categorically different than the other stance arts like Taekwondo or Karate. As you can imagine, this is how the self defense and fighting training differs from the other arts because the attacking joints and bones need to be strengthened to receive and give blows.

Muay Thai Fight Scene

We could continue to try to describe Muay Thai in words but wouldn’t it be more fun to see it in action?! It is such a beautifully unique art and one of the best fictional representations of the art is watching Tony Jaa in Ong Bak.

Physical Fitness

Muay Thai is possibly the best martial art to train in terms of physical fitness. It uses weights, rigorous training regimens, partner work, etcetera. While tai chi can be used to get fit, Muay Thai does it at an incredible level. It also has a specific history with jumping rope which is pretty cool. They even have a traditional heavier rope. I often wonder if this is how jumping rope became part of western boxing routines. Maybe a payback for the British introduction to boxing’s rules and structure?

Muay Thai Fitness with a heavy rope.

Here is an example of the training regime of Muay Thai flyweight champion Rodtang Jitmuangnon. You will see it is shear physical fitness and weight training to support better performance in the ring. My favorite part is around 30 seconds when he is doing sit-ups and getting punched in the stomach between each crunch!

The only way to have any physical fitness comparison would be to discuss Chen tai chi vs Muay Thai because it is the one style that retains low stance work, heavy ball and heavy weapons training, and partner push hands competitions. However, it is a very limited comparison and Muay Thai could possibly be the all-time best martial art for physical fitness.

Popularity / Availability of Both Arts

While Muay Thai is certainly popular in that most people know what it is, it is not an easy art to find unless you are in a larger city or in an area with a larger Asian population. It’s also not an art that you would be able to learn from Muay Thai YouTube videos. Certainly, we can all benefit from their fitness regimens and maybe learn some tactics, but those would probably be applied in other arts, not to improve your Muay Thai.

Ability to Practice

For Muay Thai you need to be part of a Muay Thai gym, with partners, and part of an organization that competes. Again, there are many martial artists and fighters who learn some Muay Thai principles to use in their MMA competitions or their art but they are not doing Muay Thai exactly. I have also scene Krav Maga trainers use Muay Thai techniques and examples because it fits into their art as adopting anything that works.

Community / Socialization

The gym community of Muay Thai schools resemble western boxing schools where there are set classes but also open times to come train, get in shape, or to schedule sparring sessions. There are regional competitions but I am not sure that it counts as socialization because of the competitive nature of it. Some dedicated fighters are going to Thailand to train which would be amazing because within the country it is practiced widely and considered part of their national heritage. However, if you are looking for a social community, tai chi would be a better choice.


Muay Thai requires personal protective gear and a gym with a ring and a lot of training space and equipment. It’s not something you can practice on your own and may need equipment to stay in shape and stay competitive when you are not at the school.

Need for Gear / Location

And yes, the expense is related to the need for gear and the need for a location to train in. It is what you would expect to pay to learn a fighting art like Muay Thai. However, when put up against tai chi where you need very little to get started and practice, tai chi would be a better choice if you are limited geographically or space.

Overall, Muay Thai is an amazing art for someone who is young and looking for physical fitness as well as self defense. It might not be the best art for someone with injuries or health conditions. If you are interested in both Muay Thai and tai chi, doing both is a good idea because most people do not do Muay Thai when they are older and tai chi takes a while to make progress so should get started early.

A Comparison Chart of Tai Chi vs Muay Thai

ConsiderationTai ChiMuay Thai
Self Defense / Fighting310
Physical Fitness510
Popularity / Availability105
Ability to Practice103
Community / Socialization74
Need for Gear / Location104

Choosing Between Tai Chi and Other Martial Arts

This is one of a series of articles covering the similarities and difference between tai chi and other martial arts. We all have very different personalities and luckily there is a martial art for everyone. What is important is that more people on the planet are pursuing fitness that is functional and addressing their external and internal development. Whatever you choice and where ever you are in life, we all benefit by having more people improve themselves and interact with a like-minded community. Check out how all the major martial arts compare to tai chi be clicking on the headings.

ConsiderationTai ChiKung FuWing ChunKrav MagaMuay ThaiMMAAikidoBJJKarateTaekwondo
Self Defense / Fighting35710101031075
Physical Fitness587810104978
Popularity / Availability1088359101088
Ability to Practice1010433467610
Community / Socialization7775467877
Need for Gear / Location10786444487

Scott Prath

Scott has been practicing and teaching tai chi and qigong since 2000. He is a lead instructor for the Austin Chen Tai Chi Association. His interest in the internal martial arts began after traveling in India and Nepal, and he has since traveled to China to train. Scott has published over 100 articles on tai chi with a focus on research showing the benefits of practicing.

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