BJJ vs Muay Thai: The Ultimate Guide to Help you Choose

Everything you need to know about these MMA-ready martial arts

Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu-jitsu (BJJ) are fighting styles that are known to complement each other when it comes to MMA. Muay Thai, known as the art of eight limbs, is a striking martial art that involves smashing the opponent with hard punches, kicks, knees and elbows. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu on the other hand is a grappling martial art that uses submission holds to force an opponent to tap out. The question is, which one is better?

Today, We will talk about the basics of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu and Muay thai, from the origins, to the rules, which is better and why, and a lot more. Before deciding on which path you want to take, remember to take into account all the points given in this article.

Table of contents

What are the key differences between BJJ and Muay Thai?

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a Brazilian martial art with judo roots that focuses on the grappling aspect of fighting. The main goal in BJJ is to make your opponent “tap out” by using various submissions and holds. Matches always start standing, so a practitioner has the option to either take the opponent down or pull guard. The guard is a position made famous in BJJ which revolves around the idea that being in the bottom is just as deadly as being on top. No form of striking is taught in a traditional BJJ class.

Muay Thai or Thai boxing is a striking martial art originating in Thailand. Just like western boxing, the objective in Muay Thai is to knock your opponent out, except you are allowed to use kicks, elbows and knees in addition to just your fists. The clinch is one of the technical aspects of Muay Thai used in MMA today where you control your opponent so you can launch a flurry of attacks or try to trip your opponent and go for a take down. 

History and origins of BJJ and Muay Thai

Origin of BJJ 

Carlos Gracie, son of Brazilian politician Gastao Gracie, learned judo from a Japanese judo master named Mitsudo Maeda, who had moved to Brazil in the early 1900s. After becoming adept at the new martial art and teaching this new found fighting style to his brother Helio, the Gracie brothers started creating their own techniques from the ones they had previously learned, focusing on different submission holds and joint locks as a way of finishing opponents, and thus Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was born and made for the weaker person to defend themselves against a bigger opponent using technique and leverage over strength and power.

Hélio Gracie
Helio Gracie

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu went mainstream on November 12, 1993, when Royce Gracie (son of Helio Gracie and nephew of Carlos Gracie) , stunned the world when he won the very first Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) event. He used the still unknown Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fighting style and beat three larger opponents in the process. 

Origin of Muay Thai

Muay Thai is an ancient battlefield form of hand to hand combat used by the Siamese (Thai) army. This martial art was said to have evolved from Krabi Krabong, a weapon-based fighting system and was to be used in scenarios where a soldier would find himself unarmed in the presence of enemies. To test their mettle, different soldiers in the Siamese army would fight each other in unarmed combat called Muay Boran, which aside from Muay Thai, included grappling and submission holds too. The rule set is similar to modern day MMA but a wider array of dirty moves like hitting the groin and punches to the back of the head. 

Depictions of Krabi Krabong

Muay Thai and its teachings were introduced to different countries during the late 20th century.  News of its effectiveness as a form of fighting and self defense was recognized slowly over time and it perplexed most individuals as they had never seen the whole body, not just the hands and feet, being used as a weapon.  In MMA, Muay Thai is one of the four staple forms of fighting, aside from boxing, brazilian jiu-jitsu and wrestling.

BJJ vs Muay Thai rules

BJJ competition rules

In a Brazilian Jiu-jitsu competition, each division you can compete in will be decided by these four factors: Gender, age bracket, belt level and weight class. The standard competition format for the International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation (IBJJF) ruleset is single elimination, meaning if you win you move on and if you lose, you go home. 

There are three ways to win a Brazilian jiu-jitsu match

  1. Submitting your opponent using the legal submissions allowed by your belt level.
  2. Your opponent gets disqualified for doing anything stated as illegal in the rule book.
  3. Having more points than your opponent when the timer ends and no submission is made. 

Below is the point system in BJJ. Points are awarded through performing certain techniques and securing dominant positions. Competitors with more points at the end of the timer are declared the winner. 

2 Points3 Points4 Points
Takedown
Sweep
Knee on belly
Guard passMount
Back mount

Slamming and striking is strictly prohibited in BJJ class and most formats of competition to protect practitioners from serious injury. Any competitor caught slamming or hitting another competitor is immediately disqualified. 

Muay Thai competition rules

The rule set of Muay Thai has a slight resemblance to that of western boxing, with a few slight differences. Fighters are separated into 18 different weight divisions, starting from mini flyweight at 105 lbs, to super heavyweight at 209 lbs+. Matches can be a maximum of five, three minute rounds with a two minute break in between. Fighters must wear gloves that do not weigh less than six ounces and can not be deformed or misshapen in anyway before a bout. Only blue or red trunks are allowed to be worn and an athletic cup and mouth guard must be worn for protection. 

Ways to win a Muay Thai bout:

  1. Knockout. When a fighter is knocked unconscious. 
  2. Technical knockout. When a fighter is still conscious but cannot continue fighting because of the inability to defend themselves.
  3. Points. If both competitors are still standing after the final bell has gone off, the match is left to the judges scorecards. The more dominant fighter in the eyes of the judges is declared the winner. 
  4. Disqualification. When a  fighter commits any illegal act stated by the rule set.
A professional Muay Thai fight

Belt system and progression in BJJ and Muay Thai

Progressing in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is done through a specific belt system. You start as a white belt, and go on to your blue, purple, brown then finally your black belt. It may seem easy, but don’t be fooled, time in between each belt level is measured in years, and the average time it takes to get from white to black belt is 8 – 12 years if you train consistently 2 -3 times per week. BJJ is a martial art where time on the mat translates to how fast you get promoted. The more you train, the better you will get and the faster you will progress.

The BJJ belt system

Belt LevelMinimum time required at this beltMinimum age
WhiteNone
Blue216 years old
Purple1.5 years16 years old
Brown1 year18 years old
Black31 years(For Red Belt)19 years old

Our guide to BJJ belt levels explains this in more detail.

Traditional Muay Thai ranking system

Traditional Muay Thai gyms in Thailand do not use a specific ranking system. Someone who teaches Muay Thai for a living is called a Kru or “teacher”, just like your sensei in karate or professor in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.  Any student the Kru agrees to take on will be given a traditional armband called a praciat or prajead. Unlike other martial arts where a belt color signifies rank, a Thai Boxers rank is seen by his experience and fight record. The more matches you have been in and won, the more skillful you are deemed as a fighter.

Modern Muay Thai ranking system

The World Thai Boxing Association (WTBA) administered an armand progression system in the USA. Beginning Muay Thai practitioners are given a white armband to start as to signifying their rank.  The progression starts at White armband up to black and gold. Here is a short list of all WTBA approved armband colors in order:

  • White
  • Yellow
  • Orange
  • Green
  • Blue
  • Purple
  • Red
  • Brown
  • Black
  • Black & White
  • Black & Red
  • Black & Silver
  • Black & Gold

Source: WTBA

BJJ vs Muay Thai: Class structure, gyms and schools

BJJ

The typical BJJ class usually runs for 1- 2 hours and usually follows a set format:

  1. Warmup and drills (30 mins)
  2. Technique and positional drills (1 hour)
  3. Sparring (30 mins)

Each of the class portions includes various activities explained in the table below.

Class portionTimeActivities
Warmup and floor drills30 minutesFloor drills like front rolls, back rolls, break falls, shrimps etc are done during this portion.
Technique and positional drills1 HourTechnique of the day
Positional drills 
Sparring30 MinutesStart from standing or kneeling
Full contact/no striking/submissions allowed
No slamming
Rules according to belt level (lower belt level rules always apply)
One round is 5 minutes

BJJ classes generally cost $170USD per month in the United States, which usually includes unlimited classes and access to gym facilities. We’ve written a full guide to the various costs associated with BJJ in the USA, UK and Australia for more information.

Muay Thai

When you attend your first Muay Thai class, expect it to last for around an hour to an hour and a half. The format of your class may be similar to this:

Class portionTimeActivities
Warm up20 minutesJogging
Jump rope
Stretching
Ladder drills
Shadow boxing5- 10 minutesSimple combinations
Footwork
Beginner techniques20 minutesPartner drills
Solo drills
Pads and bagwork15 minutesCombinations
Techniques
3 minute rounds
Sparring/drilling20 minutesSparring drills
Objective based
No going 100%
Wear protective gear
Cool down10 minutesDeep stretching

The average cost for attending Muay thai classes in the United States is anywhere from $80 – $140 per month. This includes access to all the Muay Thai classes as well as unlimited gym use. 

Training Muay Thai kicks

Clothing and equipment in BJJ vs Muay Thai

BJJ clothing

In Brazilian Jiu Jitsu there are two types of clothing styles: gi and no gi (with or without the kimono):

Class typeAttire
GiTypical BJJ kimono called a “gii” made of thick, durable material
Rash guard to minimize skin on skin contact
Mouth guard
BJJ belt
No-giMMA/BJJ fight shorts
Rash guard
Mouth guard
A BJJ gi

Muay Thai clothing

In Muay Thai, rather than a kimono, you’ll generally wear shorts and a tank top or rashguard, plus gloves. Here’s a full list of the clothing and equipment you will need if you want to start Muay Thai:

EquipmentDescription
GlovesUsed for pad and bag work. Remember to buy the appropriate pair of gloves for the type of training you will do.
Hand wrapsFor protection of your hand and wrist.
Workout clothesUsual attire is Muay Thai shorts and a rash guard or tank top.
Mouth guard, shin guard and head gear.Used for protection during sparring and drills.
Typical Muay Thai shorts and gloves

Which is more popular, BJJ or Muay Thai? 

It’s difficult to gauge the popularity of one martial art against another, but one rough estimate is through the number of people on the internet searching for a particular martial art versus another. 

Using Google Trends, you can see the difference in popularity of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu over Muay Thai in the United States. The interest over time of both martial arts are displayed from the year 2004 to the present:

The popularity of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu over Muay Thai in the United States can be attributed to the following factors:

  • Royce Gracie winning UFC 1
  • The number of BJJ schools that have opened up in the past 20 years.
  • The intense competition circuit BJJ has in the United States.
  • The rise of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA)
  • California as being the new mecca of BJJ instead of Brazil.

The amount of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu academies that have opened up in the United States, the UK and Australia are quite alarming as the sport has risen tremendously in the past decade. It would not be surprising to find a number of different Brazilian jiu-jitsu academies present in all the major cities you may visit as well as a competition every weekend to join if you’re the type. 

The number of pure Muay Thai schools are starting to dwindle as MMA academies have the capability to offer quality Muay Thai classes in addition to other martial arts like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, wrestling and boxing. Competitions in Muay Thai do not happen as frequently as BJJ competitions, though kickboxing competitions  are the closest you can get if you want to fight more frequently in the United States.

Though BJJ is not close to becoming an Olympic sport yet, Muay Thai is already recognized by the International Olympic Committee as a provisional sport, which is one step closer to becoming a recognized Olympic sport. 

Cross training in Muay Thai and BJJ 

It is common to find most MMA fighters cross training in both BJJ and Muay thai at the same time, as both styles of fighting complement each other. Many in MMA recognize that being able to utilize both arts effectively is crucial to becoming a well rounded fighter. Here’s a short clip from respected MMA trainer Firas Zahabi explaining how to properly  cross train for Muay Thai and BJJ:

Tips for learning BJJ and Muay Thai at the same time

  1. Double up. Don’t split up training days. If you train BJJ three times a week, you should train Muay thai three times a week too, right after BJJ. Both styles need daily attention.
  2. Emphasize one over the other. You can’t master both at the same time. Choose one to master and really focus on if the amount of training time is an issue. 
  3. Put in extra work. If you are really set on becoming a master of both Muay Thai and BJJ, don’t split up the training schedule, instead put in extra hours of work.

“When you say yes to something, you are saying no to something else” Firas Zahabi

Is BJJ better than Muay Thai or vice versa?

It’s difficult to answer which martial art is “better” from an overall standpoint, since both styles are good in different situations. Below is a list and explanation of which style is more advantageous for different reasons.

Self defense 

Both Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu are good forms of self defense. In this case it just depends on if you prefer to learn mostly stand-up and striking self defence techniques or mostly ground self defence techniques.

Here’s a video of popular podcast host and UFC commentator Joe Rogan explaining the limitations of BJJ in a street fight and why it’s good to learn striking for self defense:

  1. Striking teaches you proper distance, range and space.
  2. You can read dangerous situations better if you learn striking.
  3. BJJ is not good for multiple attackers.

Mixed Martial Arts

Both martial arts are equally effective for different reasons in MMA. Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu are complementing fighting styles, so you will often have MMA fighters training both of these styles together. MMA is composed of ground fighting (grappling) and stand up fighting (striking). Having mastery of both will make you a more complete fighter, thus the reason why these two fighting styles are compatible with each other.

Fitness

A normal Muay Thai or kickboxing class can burn you about 500 – 600 calories an hour, while sparring in Muay Yhai can burn you up to 730 calories per hour. Sparring for an hour in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu on the other hand can burn you up to 1000 calories. Although BJJ may burn a few more calories than Muay Thai, both are equally great forms of fitness and choosing which one to go for should be a matter of preference and overall enjoyment.

Kids sport

There is a great competitive scene for kids in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Competitions are held a couple of times a month, and are hosted by international and local organizations alike. There are a lot of kids who participate in these tournaments, with the turnouts sometimes being bigger than the adult division. These events are usually well managed, giving the kids the feeling of being in a “professional” scene. 

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is also arguably safer than Muay Thai for kids as it doesn’t involve striking.

Competitive opportunities

For people looking for good competition, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is the way to go as the competition circuit is insanely plentiful. In the United States, there are competitions set up almost every weekend. Not to mention major IBJJF competitions being held in hotspot cities like London and Sydney, and countries like Japan and Brazil.

BJJ vs Muay Thai: Pros and cons

BJJ

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a martial art that is great to learn for self-defense as well as for personal fitness. “BJJ for everyone” is a term within the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu community referring to the sport not having any bias towards size or body type, and that anyone who is determined enough will excel at it. If you are a beginner with no athletic background or martial arts experience looking to find a first martial art to learn, BJJ could be the art for you.

Pros

  • Great as a first martial art. BJJ is beginner friendly and requires no prior martial arts experience.
  • Fitness. Jiu-jitsu is a whole body workout. It mixes aerobic and anaerobic movements through BJJ specific drills. Expect to get a good workout with each class attended.
  • Worldwide popularity. With Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu schools opening up all around the world, you will have no excuse to skip training even during those long out-of-town business trips.
  • Gentle art of self defense. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a great form of self-defense as it teaches you how to restrain an individual without any strikes having to be thrown or anyone having to get seriously injured.
  • Everyone is welcome. No matter if you have different goals from the person next to you, everyone shares the same love for BJJ. A competitor and a hobbyist can train side by side and still get a fulfilling experience without the quality of training having to be compromised.
  • Unlimited techniques. The number of techniques and variations you can learn and do in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu are endless.

Cons

  • Mastery is difficult. The average time it takes to get to blackbelt is 8 – 10 years. And a majority of practitioners quit at blue belt. Be sure you are ready for a long but rewarding journey ahead.
  • McDojos. As more academies are being opened every year, some fake black belts are starting BJJ schools to try to make money out of the popularity of the sport. Always research the school you are visiting before you come in and train.
  • No striking. No form of striking is usually taught in your typical Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu class. All forms of fighting are taught from a grappling point of view where you will only need BJJ from start to finish. 
  • Takedowns not required. Since the guard was made famous by the sport, a good amount of practitioners neglect to train the stand up portion of their game because of the viability to just pull guard and conserve energy.  

Muay Thai

Muay Thai is another martial art that is beginner friendly and is also great for self-defense.. You do not need to practice it for super long to be familiar with the basics of the sport. Here’s a list of pros and cons to look out for if you do decide to start:

Pros

  • Effective form of self defense. Learning Muay Thai will teach you all the ins and outs of fighting and how to defend yourself in many scenarios.
  • Beginner friendly. You will have no trouble enjoying Muay Thai even as a beginner. Drills scale with skill, so you will always have something to learn and do at your appropriate experience level.
  • Great form of exercise. Muay Thai is a great way to get fit and ripped. It has a very tiring regimen but it achieves great results. 
  • The art of eight limbs. Learn how to use your elbows and knees as deadly weapons in addition to powerful punches and kicks.
  • Extreme mobility. Being able to make those amazing roundhouse kicks require a great degree of mobility. Practicing Muay Thai will help with any mobility and flexibility issues an individual may have.
  • The king of striking martial arts. It is often said that Muay Thai is the best striking martial art to learn because it incorporates all forms of striking and not just one aspect.

Cons

  • No submission grappling. Muay Thai does not incorporate any submission grappling systems into its training regimen. 
  • Takedown defense. The stance in Muay Thai arguably leaves the fighter susceptible to wrestling-style takedowns. This requires a lot of Muay Thai based MMA fighters to make adjustments to their fighting stance to be able to defend takedowns better.
  • Taxing on the body. Muay Thai often teaches you how to absorb strikes instead of dodging them. This can take a toll on your body as you absorb more and more punches and kicks, especially if you like to spar a lot. Expect some bruises!
  • May get repetitive. If you have been doing Muay Thai for sometime, the techniques you learn and do may get repetitive as there are fewer techniques in Muay Thai as there is in BJJ.

BJJ vs Muay Thai: extra resources and communities

BJJ 

Here are some resources on where to start if you want to learn some Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Experienced practitioners will also find a variety of articles that they may apply to sharpen their game.

Muay Thai 

If you are looking for more information or more guides for beginners as well as anything Muay Thai, check out the list below.

Frequently asked questions about BJJ and Muay Thai

Which is better for MMA? Muay thai or BJJ?

You will need to learn both if you want to be a successful MMA fighter. Muay Thai and BJJ are two of the four core fighting styles in MMA (boxing and wrestling are the others) and the more skilled you are at incorporating these four aspects of fighting, the more successful an MMA fighter you will become.

What is easier to learn for pure self-defense?

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is arguably the easier martial art to learn for pure self-defense, as it incorporates self defense techniques for both stand up and when you are on the ground. Most of the self defense techniques taught in Muay Thai are for stand up only.

Is BJJ or wrestling better if you’re over 40?

As a hobbyist, both are viable options to try as they are both beginner friendly and very useful to learn as self-defense martial arts.

As a competitor, BJJ might be the better sport to join as you are grouped into specific age brackets in increments of five after 30 years old, so you will always be fighting someone of equal age. Also, Muay Thai competitions are generally more taxing to the body than BJJ competitions as you can get hit with strikes.

Can Muay thai and BJJ be trained together?

Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu are a great combination if you want to become a complete fighter. A number of successful MMA stars like Anderson Silva and Jose Aldo come from both a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Muay Thai background, so this goes to show how effective both martial arts are if used together.

Conclusion

You should now have a clear idea on the differences between BJJ and Muay Thai after reading this article and why they are both very effective fighting styles to learn self-defense as well as fitness. I would suggest it would be wise to train both styles equally as having a background in a striking and grappling martial art will make you a more complete fighter overall.

What has been your experience in Muay Thai or BJJ? Comment down below and tell us all about it!

About the author

My Name is Ariston and I am a Purple Belt from the Philippines. I am an instructor at Carpe Diem Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as well as a certified Brazilian Jiu-jitsu Instructor at UFC Gym Philippines. From time to time you will see me competing and testing my mettle, but you will often find me teaching Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu wherever there are mats. I teach 5 days a week, and train just as often as you can always train when you teach. I have a degree in Marketing Management and I spend the rest of my time off from Jiu-Jitsu pursuing a career in Digital Marketing.

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