When most people think of martial arts, two things usually come to mind. It’s either board breaking or flashy kicks. For today, let’s focus on kicking techniques and some ways to improve them using drills. We’ll discuss breaking at a later time.
Accurate and powerful kicks are a big part of most martial arts systems. They tend to be a core element of Korean-based karate systems like Tang Soo Do. One of the first things we teach white belt students is how to throw a proper front kick. As students progress, they learn other kicks such as the side, roundhouse and spinning kicks which supplement their arsenal.
Why Improve Your Kicks?
In the past, having powerful kicks was part of one’s tools for survival. Whether it was to keep an animal at bay or an enemy from getting too close in hand to hand combat, they were a necessity. In modern times, these situations aren’t as common, however, good kicks should still be developed in the off chance that you need them.
Here are a few reasons why every martial artist should constantly work to improve their kicking ability. From a self-defense perspective, a well-placed kick can be a very effective deterrent. It provides you with a method of striking that doesn’t require getting too close to an attacker. This allows you to either retreat, diffuse the situation, or attack effectively. The martial artist has more options on how to best respond.
Using good technique also reduces the likelihood of injury by allowing you to train longer and harder. This allows us to develop our bodies for many years which provides physical benefits and mental well-being.
Good kicking ability helps your forms look better. This is relevant at competitions such as Tang Soo Do regional and world championships. It also provides you with more options for breaking techniques. Plus let’s face it, being able to throw a fast and accurate kick with lots of snap is just plain cool.
Improving my kicks is something I’ve worked very hard on throughout my years of training. I’d like to share a process that’s helped my kicks to become more effective. It consists of static and dynamic drills that have proven to be very effective if done consistently over a period of time. Like most things in martial arts, you get out of the process what you put into it.
Strength and Flexibility
Improving your flexibility is important towards being able to throw good kicks. Being flexible is often thought as being important only to softer arts like Tai Chi and Yoga. In reality it’s important to all martial arts.
Flexible muscles are more elastic which allows you to more easily generate speed and power. It also reduces the chance of injury since your body is able to twist and bend without straining. In my post on dynamic stretching, you can find a stretching sequence and accompanying video that will help improve the flexibility in your hips and legs.
Feel free to use it as a starting point to develop your own routine. Later on, I’ll provide a drill that I regularly use to improve my kicks. A great feature of the drill is that it can be done practically anywhere. About the same amount of space as a sofa is pretty much all you need.
But first, let’s talk about kicking mechanics.
A Total Body Movement for Powerful Kicks
Your entire body plays an important role in throwing an effective kick. A mistake most beginners or those without good kicks make is only focusing on the kicking leg and foot. A proper kick requires the coordinated movement of your entire body.
You may have also been told or read about the importance of “throwing” your techniques. What this means is you’re leveraging the power of body mechanics to powerfully deliver the strike. This is in stark contrast to “placing” a kick. When you place a kick, your foot technically ends up in the same place but how you got there is slower, inefficient and far less powerful.
It’s helpful to think of throwing a kicking along the same lines as cracking a whip. Your body and base leg make up the handle. Your kicking leg and foot are the whip. Much like cracking a whip, the first part that moves is the handle or your body. This stored energy is later translated into movement of the striking leg and foot. This motion is what creates power and heft.
In the purist sense, your body generates the power and your leg and striking foot are simply along for the ride.
A Quick Lesson from a Stiletto
Focusing the energy of the kick to a smaller area allows it to deliver more force. Consider the following example. Getting your foot stepped on by a stiletto heel hurts far worse and produces greater damage than a wide, flat heel. In both cases, the same amount of energy is involved. But by concentrating this energy to a smaller space, the stiletto creates a much more shall we say “memorable” experience.
The same applies to our kicks. When delivering any kick, the goal is to transfer all that energy your body has created to as small an area as possible. This results in more damage which is typically the point of throwing a kick in the first place.
The Front Kick
Let’s use the front kick as our first example. You begin in a fighting stance with your right leg back. The first thing you do is square your hips to bring your kicking leg in line with the target. Next, bring your right knee into a chamber position. As you begin to straighten your leg towards the target, your hips also thrust forward to add amplify speed and power in the movement. Finally, with your leg fully extended, the ball of your foot strikes the target.
The effectiveness of that last step (extending your foot and striking the target) relies on your correctly executing all the steps before it. Don’t square your hips and you’ll have a slim chance of hitting your target. Fail to bring your knee to the correct position and your kick will either be too high or too low. If you don’t involve your hips as you extend your kicking leg, your front kick will lack snap, speed, and power.
As you can probably now tell, there is a lot more to a proper front kick than flinging your foot into the air and hoping for the best.
The following images and videos should help visualize what I just described.
Front Kick Demo
Front Kick Detailed Explanation
The Side Kick
A proper side kick is a thing of beauty when done correctly. Because of the balance required, it tends to be more difficult than a front kick for most people. Let’s break it down.
We begin the same way as the front kick with our right leg back in a fighting stance. Next you bring your right knee into a chamber position while simultaneously turning to the left. This turn is accomplished by pivoting on the ball of your left foot. At this point, your right hip is pointing at the target. Finally, we simultaneously drive the blade of our right foot towards AND our left heel towards the target. The end result is your entire body is aligned and tightens as you strike the target. And that’s it. That’s the side kick.
It can’t be emphasized enough that throwing a powerful side kick requires alignment and balance. If you’ve experienced falling forward or backward as you throw a side kick, it’s likely because your alignment was not where it should be. As you perform a side kick, your upper body, kicking leg and base leg should all be on the same virtual line. By maintaining proper alignment, you’ll be to throw a powerful kick while preserving your balance.
The following images and videos should help visualize what I just described.
Side Kick Demo
Side Kick Detailed Explanation
The Roundhouse Kick
The roundhouse kick is also a fairly challenging kick that a new martial artist learns. It’s different from the front and side kick in that the strike is delivered in a sweeping or cutting fashion instead of in a straight line.
A powerful roundhouse kick relies heavily on your hip twisting to generate power. The waist is the central balance point for your body. In Tang Soo Do, we refer to it as the “Hur Ri”. When throwing a roundhouse kick, the Hu Ri is used in a twisting action which coils the upper and lower body. This creates a coiled tension that when released, generates the speed and impact force required for a powerful kick.
This process of coiling of the body to generate power is called “Hur Ri Twul Ki” which loosely translates to hip twisting. In the case of a roundhouse kick this coil is created by rotating on the ball of your foot to quickly twist your heel towards the target. This heel twist causes the hips to rotate which creates a whipping action in the kicking leg. When done correctly Hu Ri Twul Ki helps the martial artist to efficiently throw a very powerful kick.
A side benefit of throwing your roundhouse kicks this way is it reduces stress on the knee of your supporting leg. The most common injuries long-term martial artists face tends to be knee related. By using Hu Ri Twul Ki in your roundhouse kicks you get a two for one – more power and less chance of injury.
The following videos should help visualize what I just described.
Roundhouse Kick Demo
Roundhouse Kick Detailed Explanation
Exercises and Drills
Lunges, weighted squats and other traditional leg exercises are a great way to build up strength and stability. I also recommend adding yoga to your strength training program. It will improve your core strength which helps every aspect of kicking.
Next, I’ll share a great drill I regularly do that involves using an isometric hold in a front, side and roundhouse kicking sequence. It targets your hip flexors, obliques and glutes. I’ve tried several other kicking drills and this one is by far the best. Within 2 weeks I saw greater improvement in my kicks using this drill than the others I’ve tried in the past.
Kick Development Drill
I hope the drills and explanations help you improve your kicks. With consistent effort and embracing the grind, your kicks will become more powerful and accurate. Do you have any suggestions for kicking drills? Let me know in the comments below!