My first Muay Thai instructor would nearly spit on me when we did pad work. He would call for a one-two, which I would deliver accompanied by a pair of subdued hisses. As the snap of the two punches’ reverberated off the high-ceilings he would respond with a noise of his own: two loud outcries not without an inevitable amount of saliva. The exhalations sounded like someone screaming “eye” and “shh” in one strained breath. He would wait for a second to make sure I registered the lesson, and then he would call for another one-two, and if I dared respond with the same feckless hisses, he would again reprimand me with more yelling. Eventually, I got the hint and got louder. Breathing in Muay Thai is an important part of the sport.
At the time I was hesitant to make much noise when striking. I didn’t believe those unnerving exhalations were anything more than a war cry and melodrama, and, quite frankly, I was embarrassed to make such a spectacle of myself. But my instructor insisted on audible breaths, so I dutifully complied. He never explained the purpose of those loud breaths; he just barked at me when I failed to make them.
Now, many years and rounds of pads and sparring later, I have learned and relearned their purpose. Not only does exhaling sharply at the end of your strikes ensure you are breathing (try holding your breath for 30 seconds while hitting pads and see what happens), it also makes you stronger. Quick, forceful breaths engage all the muscles of the abdominal wall and ensure that the force you derive form pivoting on the mat travels all the way to the end of your fist or shin.
Think about your body as a conductor rod. An electrical charge starts where your feet pivot against the mat and travels up your body, where, ideally, it will discharge with full force at the point of contact – your target. Your goal is to transfer that energy without any loss of force.
Soft, timid exhalations allow for a soft midsection, and a soft midsection does not transfer force very well. Loud, harsh exhalations engage the entire midsection, allowing for all that force that starts at the floor to end on your opponents face.
And if that doesn’t convince you maybe this will: those loud breaths are also miniature abdominal workouts. An hour of effective breathing (and remember that you must also breathe out when holding pads, not just hitting) in Muay Thai will strengthen your entire midsection. So even if you don’t care about effective striking, breathe for the sake of that ever-elusive six-pack.
– Daniel Davis-Williams, NSCA CPT, CSCS, Muay Thai Coach