Tae kwon do and flexibility

Copyright Duncan GrisbyTao Kwon do is a Korean martial art mostly based on kicks, delivered above the belt.  Having trained with several black belts of this discipline over the years I got to the conclusion that lower body flexibility is not really optional when training and practicing Tae Kwon Do.  So in my perhaps naïve interpretation I always assume that people practicing this martial art should be flexible or at least having pushed their flexibility to its limits.  Most of the experienced Tae Kwon Do practitioners which joined my club have usually a few common treats:

  • Typical side stance when sparring
  • Good combination of fast kicks from different angles
  • Not very good punching skills
  • Hardly any guard

This description is perhaps stereotypical but accurate for over 90% of the people I met in many years of experience.  Good news from my point of view as a teacher and fighters’ coach is that:

  • They have good kicks
  • Stance and guard can be adjusted
  • Punches can be taught

So in general I am happy to train with and teach kickboxing to experienced Tae Kwon Do practitioners.

A few weeks ago I had an enquiry from someone with over two years’ experience in Tae Kwon Do who I welcomed him to join us which he did.  After training with us a few times with a group of beginners, he proved to be part of the 90% I described above.  Nothing too surprising apart from his flexibility which was quite modest despite him being in his early twenties.  On his third or fourth lesson I suggested him to train with a group of more advanced students as, on that night, the beginners were practicing very basic material.

Funny enough he decided to stop his membership immediately after this lesson justifying himself he wanted to pursue his Tae Kwon Do experience. Read between the lines: he did not like getting punched and felt overwhelmed by the pressure that punching combinations caused.  This is not really the first time this happened but the surprise came to me when he prised, among the good things about our club, how good is the stretching we do as a warm up which gave him an inspiration about improving his flexibility.  I do appreciate we spend a considerable time stretching, but I just considered funny the fact that someone who did Tae Kwon Do for over two years had to realise his lack of flexibility at a kickboxing club.

The essentials of traditional training

Front Kick - pictures courtesy and copyright Duncan GrisbyI have been training kickboxing since 1981 and in the few years before then I learnt Judo and Karate Shotokan. Over the last 20 or so years I trained a variety of traditional martial arts and appreciated some aspects of them. My approach to martial arts was always as Bruce Less suggested: “try everything, acquire and make yours what works and discard what doesn’t work and the inessential”. I previously wrote about my not too positive opinion about traditional martial arts and too formalised etiquette in certain clubs but I will spend today some time praising its pros.

Just a couple of days ago I was running a class with the Cambridge University Kickboxing Society. While I was teaching some basics to total beginners Phil, one of my assistant instructors, was coaching some intermediate and advance members. Among Phil’s group, made of about 20 people, 7 were regular members of our club with 6-24 months experience and the rest were experienced newcomers. When, later one, I swapped role with Phil and took over the advanced class just to assess their skills I realised how poor some people’s technique was, despite several years of training in other clubs and schools.  Some of them could punch and kick in a decent way but their combinations, coordination and footwork was appalling.

At the end of the class it was refreshing hearing from Phil that the footwork and execution of most beginners, after one hour with me was better of most of the advanced students we just acquired. I am not trying to undermine other coaches and instructors’ work; over the years I just realised how important are the very few basic, traditional exercises we do which apply to footwork, stances and coordination of arms and legs to ensure active and passive guard during both attack and defensive work. People who have never seen regimental training (what in Japanese would be referred as Kihon) simply have no mind set to simply de-construct techniques and postures in a way that they can be easily learnt, adjusted or corrected.

Martial arts schools vs. fight clubs

I was having a conversation with a new student the other day and he was asking clarifications about sparring and competing in fights.  We discussed the typical approach to fighting and teaching in Boxing, Muay Thai and then MMA, then I explained my philosophy of running my club.  I consider myself a martial artist and a martial arts teacher.  As it happens we specialise in kick boxing and we do spar regularly and train for fights that many of our members attend.  Sparring is and should be a fundamental part of martial arts training and nobody should use excuses to avoid it.  Sparring, however limited by rules, is the only way of testing whether your techniques can be really used against a non collaborative opponent.  At the same time my martial art approach philosophy is that everybody should be trained and inspired to improve their skills but nobody should be discriminated against their, perhaps not great, fighting performance.

My main point about martial arts school like mine and the difference of approach compared to fight clubs is the emphasis and focus on fighting and fighting capabilities.  In many Boxing, Muay Thai and MMA club they assess very quickly whether you could be a good fighter and will invest their time in you just in case of positive outcome.  In my club the attention your will get from me, other instructors and senior members of the club is just proportional to you attendance and determination to succeed.  Talented people will achieve results faster but the truly determined will succeed anyway.

In my pitch to new these students I simply stated: “I am martial artist and I teach martial arts; fighting is a result and a necessary consequence of training martial arts but not the only result”.  Being a martial artist is much more than being a fighter.  Fighters train and fight to win; for many this is a career that can have a beginning and an end; when they finish that career they retire and stop training.  Martial artists train for, among other things, personal improvement and for them; there is potentially no end in their training, perhaps an evolution of styles, often dictated by their body getting older.

How rules affect fighting styles

Front Kick

Image courtesy and copyright of Duncan Grisby 2013

Have you ever heard a sentence like: “this guy fights like a karateka or like a Thai Boxer”? There are indeed typical techniques that characterise various fighting styles.  However, while different martial arts styles or even individual schools promote or enhance the use of certain techniques it is more often the case that rules will have the strongest influence on fighting styles; this post analyse how and why this is happening.

Fighting rules affect two key aspect of a fight: what punches, kicks or other strikes are allowed and what area of the body can be hit with these strikes. A typical and very obvious example comes from American Kickboxing that I have been practicing for over 30 years and teaching for more than 20. When fighting full contact or light continuous style, assuming no kicks to the legs are allowed, fighters tend to adopt a front stance with their weight on the front leg that allows easy use of punches from both arms in a very similar fashion to boxing. Adopting a front stance enables kicks with the rear leg to be delivered quite naturally, usually as the natural final part of powerful combinations of punches.  Kicks with the front leg can be delivered by quickly switching into cat or side stance.  On the other side of the spectrum when fighting according to semi contact rules (also called point fighting) the importance of delivering super fast kicks is paramount, together with a reduced need of complicated punching combinations; single punches often rule.  Equally important in semi contact is the need of offering the smallest possible scoring area to the opponent because every touch scores; for this reason most of the semi contact fights see fighters adopting a side stance and same apply to Tae Kwon Do as they hardly ever punch.  Shotokan or Wado Ryu Karate fighters will usually fight in front stance with low guard in front of their chest because they don’t use many punches in combination; Kyokushin Kaikan Karate relies on the fact that no strikes will hit face or head.

Thai Boxers face a completely different reality due rules allowing strikes to any part of their body including to kicks to the legs.  If Thai Boxers relied on the same front stance that we use for American Kickboxing they would find themselves in lots of troubles as their front legs would become easy targets for strong kicks. That’s why they adopt a stance that keeps their weight heavily shifted backward.  Boxers naturally know that nothing but punches will come their way while fighting therefore they can swing and bob their head quite low and wide around their opponent’s punches.  Some of these positions would attract troubles if performed while kicks or knee strikes are allowed.  Final example is how MMA rules, allowing grabs and grappling, condition their stand up fight.  Most MMA fighters are great boxers and kickboxers but they simply cannot exploit their full potential as strikers because of the strong risk of their limbs to be grabbed and them being thrown on the floor for the grappling that will follow.

I have been experiencing for years how rules affect one’s fighting style when I welcome new members to my kickboxing club and some of them join after years of experience in various other styles like Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Thai Boxing and Kung Fu.  At the beginning they all try to keep their style and use techniques and stances they were used to; as their experience evolves their whole style also mutates and they become more and more like the other members of the club.  Although we teach our techniques and combinations according to our style there is no implicit or explicit suggestions that people should give up what they learnt, as long as they are fighting respecting our rules; however fighting according to our rules progressively inspires them to adopt the techniques and combinations we teach because they fit very well with such rules.

The Wing Chun foundation for Jeet Kune Do

I just the found the video below on you tube and I just could not resist to write this post.  Having read many books and articles about Jeet Kune Do (JKD) as well as having practiced wing chun solidly for over 5 years I was kind of giving for granted what I see in the video but it’s obvious that for some people it is not.

JKD is a concept and not a style; basic principle behind JKD is to learn various martial arts and just retain what works for the individual, discarding what doesn’t work.  This is somehow a precursor concept of MMA fighting, mixing styles to have a complete repertoire of techniques that cover all ranges of fighting including grappling and ground work.  In my opinion that is somehow fine for a person which has decent experience in one style, then moves on to the next one and so on.  Trying to learn at the same time different styles just creates confusion because a correct stance for one could be wrong for the other and you never know which one is which.

In principle different practitioners of JKD could have developed, given the hundred of martial styles available, completely different kind of JKD.  However if you join a JKD school, as long as it is authorised from one of the original students of Bruce Lee (Dan Inosanto, also portrayed in the video, comes to mind), you will learn from scratch techniques that seem to be unique of JKD but, apart from some simple adaptations of footwork and other details they replicate very precisely basic Wing Chun techniques and concepts.  Enjoy the video: