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.

A peculiar flaw in Tae Kwon Do practice

Tae Kwon Do – Image courtesy of Wikipedia

I recently attended the Varsity Tae Kwon Do match between Cambridge and Oxford University.  I noticed, more than ever before, a very common flaw that was uniform across the 20+ bouts I watched.

There seem to be a total neglect toward guards while people are fighting.  In fact I had the impressons that fighters were in fact unaware that their arms could actually be kept in a convenient position to maximise guard and protection of their scoring areas while eventually blocking their opponent’s attacks.  Kicks were thrown without any attention about where the arms were and even when punching with one arm the other seemed to be totally forgotten that it existed.

Let’s face it it’s not easy to keep a decent guard while fighting; being a big fan of proper guards I spend more that 50% of my coaching time reminding people to keep their guard where it should be.   However yesterday I was seriously disappointed by the amount of scoring that Oxford managed to achieve by simply kicking unguarded torsos and faces.

Some Tae Kwon Do fights are full contact but likely not in this occasion; given the average skill I saw I believe it was mostly because of lack of performance and real power training.  If any of those scores, particularly to the face, were delivered with real power they would have needed some serious medical attention.

The kickboxing teach is very much based on kicks so I feel confident I could teach one thing or two to these young men and women if next year they perhaps want to actually beat Oxford.

Improving performance in martial arts: a progressive approach

Image copyright and courtesy of the Judo Channel

Many martial arts techniques require actions that involve groups muscles that are not usually used in any other everyday’s activity; let’s we consider for example:

  • round kick to the head from tae kwon do
  • chain punches from wing chun
  • harai goshi from judo

Each of the above mentioned techniques are part of the basic training for their respective martial arts and yet, they involve several groups of muscles, at a high speed and in perfect synchronization and it could be quite challenging for a novice.

Achieving top performance in any of these moves (or any other technique) usually requires what implicitly most martial schools teach as part of their standard curriculum:

  1. the technique is shown by the instructor
  2. the student tries it and familiarise with the various aspects of the move: starting position, foot work, shifting weight in the right direction and at the right time, maintain a proper guard during the technique and the ending position
  3. once repeated a few times the instructor feeds back some suggestions about adjusting what is not working and the technique is repeated more times until a decent level of performance is achieved

I have been using successfully the approach described above with thousands of students; for some decently co-ordinated people techniques just come natural and everything simply works.  However there are people that struggle to learn a complex move at ones so they get overwhelmed by the whole process or frustrated by the lack of achievement.

If one of my students encounters this kind of difficulties I implement what I am here defining a progressive approach for improving performance.  When we are learning a new technique the aim should be to achieve unconscious competence, when your technique just flows without conscious effort.  Before achieving that state we need to work, consciously on the technique and repeat it until it becomes automatic.

My approach follows these steps:

  1. quickly establish what is already working in the technique
  2. isolate one or more aspects that need improvement
  3. instruct the student to focus his/her attention just on one aspect of the technique at the time until that works
  4. repeat <3> until all non working aspects have been worked on and improved
  5. finally perform the whole improved technique a few times to focus on the positive outcome and ensure it pushed at subconscious level

A typical example of the above process applies well to people that, when kicking front kick, drop or open their guard.  So here is the application:

  1. quickly establish what is already working in the technique: the kick is ok but the guard is not
  2. isolate one or more aspects that need improvement: the guard the unconsciously is opening up while kicking
  3. instruct the student to focus his/her attention just on one aspect of the technique at the time until that works: simply forget about the kick, it’s already work, just think about the guard be conscious to see where it while kicking
  4. repeat <3> until all non working aspects have been worked on and improved: keep kicking until the guard stays in position
  5. finally perform the whole improved technique a few times to focus on the positive outcome and ensure it pushed at subconscious level

The above methodology has been working for me for a long time and, while nobody actually explained to me in the first place I noticed its power and simple effectiveness over many years of practice.

My toughts about Tae Kwon Do

Finding a Tae Kwon Do class is usually very easy, in most places and for this reason I have practiced Tae Kwon Do (TKD) in a number of locations around the world (UK, Indonesia, Antilles, Spain) and I was lucky enough to train several times with some top experts, exchanging, apart from punches and kicks, opinions and ideas about the pros and cons of this art.


TKD is a traditional, striking martial art based on kicks and punches although the focus is mainly on the formers.  By traditional I mean having a structured format for the class, naming techniques in the original language and a strict code of conduct and discipline about addressing the master and interacting with fellow students.  TKD practitioners use a white Gi similar to the use used by other martial art although the top is usually a V-neck shirt rather than a traditional jacket.  Seen from the outside TKD manifest itself with two opponents facing each other and attacking body or the head with either kicks or punches with the aim of scoring or eventually knocking down the opponent.  TKD originated in South Korea where it happens to be the national sport and it is one of the most popular martial arts in the world: it was also the second Eastern martial art to become an Olympic sport after Judo.  TKD is represented in many different styles and it is organised world wide in a number of different associations that all practice styles that are all slightly different from each other.  The two main associations are WTF and ITF.  TKD is also often referred as the Korean Karate: this is a wrong definition because the two arts are substantially different although the original definition of Kara Te (in Japanese translated as empty hand, intending to fight without weapons) can be applied to TKD as well.


Martial arts are usually not invented from scratch but defined by a person that, after studying and practicing other styles, puts together some aspects of those and give to the new art/style a new name, identity, set of rules and etiquette.  TKD followed exactly this route by being a merge of several ancient arts from Korea and the neighbouring countries, with a strong influence from Karate.  The person considered being the father and highly respected founder of TKD was General Choi Hong Hi who was an experienced martial artist from South Korea: he had the opportunity of studying Karate while living in Japan during the Japanese occupation of South Korea and he defined TKD in the late 50es. General Choi also founded ITF in 1966.

What I like about TKD

Practicing TKD develops some of best, fastest and most powerful kicking techniques and if you fight experts of TKD be careful about their legs: that’s where most if not all of their attacks are likely to come from.  TKD training aims at developing a great level of flexibility for the legs and most drills are meant to combine kicks from both the front and rear legs in very fast sequences.  TKD also encourages using many jumping kicks to achieve higher target and, again, allowing attacks from a broader range of angles.  All kicks are practiced at full contact so each strike is very powerful.

What I don’t like about TKD

In my opinion kicks are fantastic weapons and deliver lot of damage: at the same time punches must have a role in a fight because when the distance is too short it’s important to have means of attacking and defending against hand strikes.  The fact that even in Olympic competitions it is allowed to kick the head at full power with but just light contact with punches the whole style develops with rather poor guard. Assuming that kicks will solve all situations most TKD practitioners put little emphasis on a proper guard that protects the head from punches.  Given the level of leg flexibility expected by high kicks, TKD is most suitable for people that are naturally flexible and start training at a young age: in my experience I never met anyone that achieved a decent level of proficiency in TKD when starting in their thirties or forties.  Last by not least: in a self defence situation high kicks are always a dangerous option to go for and they cannot be used when you attacker is already close to you.  Therefore the applicability of TKD in a self defence situation is lower than many other styles available.


I think TKD is an excellent martial art that teaches powerful techniques: I find it incomplete due to poor hand strikes repertoire.  I would suggest it as a good first martial art, particular for children and young people because it instils discipline and respect while I would rule out beginners in their thirties and above for the reasons I explained above.

Differences between Aikido and Tae Kwon Do

I met yesterday a guy and our conversation drifted very quickly into martial arts (surprise!), specifically about self defence.  I was confused when he stated that he wanted to learn Tao Kwon Do for self defence because a friend of his is a high ranked student of the discipline.  My first reply was: “TDK is mostly based on high kicks, really not ideal for self defence and then, also, you are 37 years old reasonably large and heavy male, TKD is ideal with people with lot of flexibility in their legs and trying to achieve it at this age might be tricky”.  He continued with his explanation that in ideal situation he would like to be able to seize the opponent’s attack and avoid striking but simply locking his attacker in a way that would be impossible for him to hurt any further but without risks of injuring him too much.  I then added that what he was talking about was possible doing Aikido, or Ju Jitsu or other styles not primarily based on strikes… and there he came out with: “oh!, yes, Aikido, I meant Aikido, this is what my friend is an expert of…”.

To me somebody that confuses Aikido with TKD is like confusing a steak with a salad, both food but very different in content. So what are the main differences that a neophyte should look out when checking a class, of either Aikido or TKD?

Let’s list the main ones:

  • Aikido is Japanese; TKD is Korean, well no easy to spot by observing them 🙂
  • In a Aikido class you’ll see most people in white Gi, perhaps with coloured belts and the higher ranked people and the masters will wear a black hakama, a very broad pair of trousers that look like a skirt;  in a TKD class they wear white Gi, with coloured belts but their top is some times a “V” neck long sleeves shirt.
  • In Aikido you see people twirling and twisting, throwing and applying arm and wrist locks: people fall and fly around a lot; in TKD opponents are striking each other, mostly with kicks to the upper part of the body (sport rules forbid kicks below the belt).
  • Aikido is mainly defensive, e.g. it starts working when an opponent attacks you; TKD is based on attacking with strikes.
  • Aikido’s techniques can be subtle and usually require a very long time, several years, to be practiced to a level of proficiency to be useful in self defence; TKD can start to be effective with some of its techniques within a few months or a year of practice.
  • Aikido teaches, apart from the bare hand practice, the use of various weapons like sword and staff;  TKD is purely based on bare had strikes.

I have chosen and selected 2 videos to show what Aikido and TKD look like.  It was harder than I thought as many are dispersive and not representative enough.  Please keep the volume down and ignore the part of the TKD video from the boxing ring onward: