5 ways to improve your kicking techniques in Taekwondo

Taekwondo is a martial art known for its impressive kicking techniques. Fast and complicated kicks are a part of every Taekwondo demonstration, and kicking techniques usually score higher in sparring competitions.

Performing kicking techniques well requires excellent balance, flexibility, strength, and precision. These are not physical characteristics that most people have naturally, so it takes a long time and a lot of effort to learn how to perform kicking techniques well. It also requires good training methods, and so here are five ways that you can improve your kicking techniques.

1. Practise regularly and often

This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. The best way to improve your balance, flexibility, and strength for kicking techniques is to simply practise the techniques often. I have often found that a good time to practise kicking techniques is just before a regular training session. I often spend the 10 minutes before a class starts practising kicking techniques. If you do two or three training sessions a week, and practise kicking before each one, your flexibility and balance will steadily improve.

Similarly, I find that certain routines of kicking techniques work better than others. I find that the best routines gradually increase the difficulty of the kicks, and also don’t jump from one muscle group to another. The routine I often use is:

  • front rising kicks
  • front snapping kicks
  • inward crescent kicks
  • outward crescent kicks
  • side kicks
  • turning kicks
  • rising side kicks
  • reverse turning kicks

After that you can do any other kicks you like in any order. I tend to do about 20 of each kick before moving onto the next one. That might seem like quite a lot of kicks in total, but you don’t have to do the full list each time – I often just do down to turning kicks.

2. Stance holding

This is actually one of my favourite training activities, though I can imagine most people would find it boring. It’s quite simple: just choose a stance, perform it well, and then hold it for a certain amount of time – often 1 – 2 minutes.

That might sound easy – and for a walking stance it is – but for a low sitting stance (or the most difficult one – a low fixed stance) it’s harder. Doing this activity for certain stances helps improve your balance – in particular sitting stance, bending stance, and one-leg stance. This in turn helps to improve your kicking techniques.

When you start, you might only hold a stance for 1 or 1 ½ minutes, but over time, that will get easier, so increase the length of time you hold the stance for to 2 minutes, 2 ½ minutes, and so on.

3. Basic jumping

The most difficult kicks to perform in Taekwondo are jumping kicks. One of the brilliant things about Changheon-yu Taekwondo, and the patterns that Choi Hong-hi designed, is that the training for jumping kicks is partially built into the patterns. The first jumping kick in the Changheon-yu patterns appears in the black-stripe pattern Chungmu, and then the next ones appear in Gwanggae and Gyebaek. But also in Chungmu is a move consisting of a 360-degree jump and spin on the spot. This technique is just one of several fairly basic jumps that are good for improving your jumping kicks.

The basic jumps are:

  • ‘l’ stance, jumping on the spot and landing in the same stance
  • ‘l’ stance, jumping on the spot and changing from a left to a right stance (or a right to a left)
  • ‘l’ stance, jumping on the spot and turning to face the opposite direction, landing in the same stance (180-degree turn)
  • the same as the above, but spinning in the opposite direction
  • ‘l’ stance, jumping on the spot and spinning 360 degrees in the air, landing in the same stance in the same direction
  • the same as the above, but spinning in the opposite direction

If you’re just starting out at learning jumping kicks (or you are an instructor looking for some basic jumping technique exercises to give your students) these exercises are excellent for improving your balance through a jump. They get you used to landing correctly after having jumped and spun in the air.

4. Slow kicks

This is probably the most effective method for improving your kicks. Try performing kicking techniques much more slowly than usual, holding each of the important positions of the kick. For example, if you were doing a side kick, first bring the foot up next to the opposite knee, then hold for 5 seconds, then lift the foot up so that it is at the height of the kick, but the knee is still pulled in, then hold for 5 seconds. Over 5 seconds, extend the leg to the position of the side kick, then once the leg is fully extended, hold it in position for 5 seconds. Then over another 5 seconds, lower the foot again.

As you get better at the exercise, increase the amount of time you hold each position for.

This technique is excellent for improving your balance, strength, and the precision of your kicks. It’s probably the most effective method for doing so, but you have to do it often – probably at least twice a week – with a wide range of different kicking techniques.

5. Foot shape exercises

A lot of students find it difficult to get the right foot shape for different kicks. A side kick is usually performed with the foot-sword, thus the foot-sword must be pushed forward (so that you don’t hit your opponent with the sole of your foot). A front snapping kick is usually performed with the ball of the foot, thus the toes must be pulled back.

Practise moving your feet into these different shapes – practise pulling the toes back or pushing the foot-sword forwards. This is an excellent exercise because you can do it even just while lying down watching television.

Taekwondo Forms in 1958

It could be argued that the first book ever written on Taekwondo was a book published by Hwang Ki in 1958. The book is called ‘Tangsudo Textbook’ – now while it could be counter-argued that this makes it a book on Tangsudo and not Taekwondo (particularly since Hwang Ki’s Mudeok-kwan remained separate from the other kwans of the Kwan Era, and since Hwang Ki’s style of martial arts still exists today, and still uses the name Tangsudo) Mudeok-kwan was one of the nine original kwans, and this book is about the style of martial arts that were being practised in Korea at this time. The first book to be published with the name ‘Taekwondo’ on it was published by Choi Hong-hi a year later.

Hwang Ki’s book is freely available to view online. A copy of the book is owned by the University of Hawaii in Manoa, and they have scanned the book and made it available online here: http://evols.library.manoa.hawaii.edu/handle/10524/1073

On page 19 of the book is some fascinating information. Hwang lists the forms that are practised in Tangsudo:

List of forms from Hwang Ki's 'Tangsudo Textbook' (1958)

There are a number of things that are fascinating about this information. Firstly: the spellings of the names of these forms. Hwang lists a series of five forms that are called the 삥앙 pping-ang forms. These are clearly the Pinan forms from Karate (here Hwang uses the Okinawan name for them, rather than the Japanese, which is Heian). Unlike nowadays, when it’s relatively easy to use various dictionaries to find the correct Korean pronunciation of Japanese words, Hwang has simply best approximated the Japanese pronunciation of the name of each form using hangeul.

So in order to find out which forms Hwang is talking about here, the first thing we have to do is match each one to the correct name of the form.

Section 1:
  1. 기초형 1부 gicho hyeong 1 bu – This is actually the correct name of the form – 기초 gicho – a series of three basic forms still practised in some schools today.
  2. 기초형 2부 gicho hyeong 2 bu
  3. 기초형 3부 gicho hyeong 3 bu
  4. 삥앙 초단 pping-ang chodan – Clearly Pinan – a series of five basic forms – called Heian in Japanese Karate. The correct name for them in Korean is 평안 Pyeong-an.
  5. 삥앙 2단 pping-ang 2 dan
  6. 삥앙 3단 pping-ang 3 dan
  7. 삥앙 4단 pping-ang 4 dan
  8. 삥앙 5단 pping-ang 5 dan
  9. 나이한찌ー 초단 naihanjji chodan – Clearly Naihanchi – a series of three forms, of which this is the first. The series is also called Tekki in Japanese, and 철기 Cheolgi in Korean.
  10. 빳싸이 ppatssai – Clearly Passai – called Bassai in Japanese Karate. The correct Korean translation is 발새 Balsae.

There’s nothing all that odd about the forms in section 1. This is a fairly standard list of forms that colour belt students today practise as they progress towards black belt. What’s mainly of interest in section 1 is how Hwang has approximated the pronunciations of the names of the forms.

Section 2:
  1. 나이하찌 2단 naihajji 2 dan – Clearly Naihanchi Nidan – no idea why Hwang changed the spelling here from that in section 1.
  2. 나이하찌 3단 naihajji 3 dan
  3. 찟듸 jjitdui – Clearly Jitte.
  4. 찐도ー jjindo – Clearly Chintō.
  5. 소림 장권 (小林長拳) sorim janggwon – This is fascinating – more on this further down.
  6. 꾸상군 (公相君) kkusanggun – Clearly Kūshankū. The correct name in Korean is 공상군 Gongsanggun.
  7. 로ー하이 rohai – Clearly Rōhai. The correct name in Korean is 로학 Rohak.
  8. 54 보 (步) 54 bo – Clearly Gojūshiho. The correct name in Korean is 오십사보 Oshipsabo.
  9. 지욘 jiyon – Clearly Jion. The correct name in Korean is 자은 Ja-eun.
  10. 완시유ー wanshiyu – Clearly Wanshū. The correct name in Korean is 완수 Wansu.
  11. 삼전 (三戰) samjeon – Clearly Sanchin (based on the hanja).
  12. 전장 (轉掌) jeonjang – This is the form Tenshō. It’s not obvious from the hangeul, but the meaning of the hanja is the same as that of the kanji for Tenshō.
  13. 씨ー산 (十三) sshisan – Clearly Seisan.
  14. 세ー시얀 seshiyan – This would appear to also be Seisan. There are multiple different pronunciations of the name of the Karate form – this is probably why the form is listed here twice.
  15. 씨빠이 (十八) sshippai – From the hanja this is clearly Seipai.
  16. 싼씨빠이 (三十八) ssansshippai – It’s not obvious which form this is. The hanja means ’38’, implying that there are 38 movements in the form, but there is no Karate kata with this name. It’s possible that there is an error on this line in the book, and that this should say 三十六, which is the name of a form – Sanseirū – meaning ’36’.
  17. 빼지유린 (百步連) ppaejiyurin – This is interesting – this would appear to be the form Pechurin (based on the hangeul). Not much has been written about this form in English, and this is the first time I’ve seen hanja / kanji written for it anywhere. The correct hangeul writing of 百步連 is 백보련 Baekboryeon, and it roughly means ‘100 continuous steps’.
  18. 소ー진 sojin – Clearly Sōchin.
  19. 사이후아ー saihua – Clearly Saifa (there is no corresponding letter for ‘f’ in Korean, so here it’s been approximated as a ‘h’).
  20. 구르룽후아ー gureurunghua – It’s not obvious from the romanisation, but from the pronunciation this is clearly Kururunfa.
  21. 로하이 初段 rohai chodan – Clearly Rōhai. Again, Hwang has already listed this form further up. Here Hwang seems to suggest that there are three Rōhai forms, and that this is the first.
  22. 로하이 2단 rohai idan
  23. 로하이 3단 rohai samdan
  24. 얼 씨쓰슈 (二十四手) eol sshisseushyu – This again is interesting. There’s no Karate form with this exact name, but there is one that’s similar: 二十四歩 Nijūshiho. 二十四手 means ‘twenty-four hands’, whereas 二十四歩 means ‘twenty-four steps’. A lot of Karate forms have a name that’s a number followed by ‘hands’ or ‘steps’ so the difference isn’t significant. What’s particularly interesting here, however, is that Hwang’s phonetic approximation using hangeul is not a phonetic approximation of the Japanese pronunciation – eol sshisseushyu and nijūshiho clearly sound nothing alike. But it is a phonetic approximation of the Chinese pronunciation of 二十四手, which is èrshíshǒu (in Mandarin). (If you’re not used to reading romanised hangeul or Hanyu Pinyin, then you’ll just have to trust me that the pronunciations of these words are very similar.) This shows that Hwang had a knowledge of how certain words were pronounced in Chinese.
  25. 운슈 (雲手) unshyu – Clearly Unshu.
  26. 담퇴 damtoe – There is no Karate kata with a name like this.
  27. 타이그권 (太極拳) taigeugwon – This one’s complicated – more on this below.

There’s a lot to remark here.

Firstly is Hwang’s use of the character ー. While this character looks like the Chinese character 一 yi, meaning ‘one’, it probably isn’t. It’s quite likely a character known as a chōonpu in Japanese. In Japanese, the basic phonological unit is a mora rather than a syllable. A single syllable in Japanese can be comprised of one or two morae – a syllable with two morae has a greater stress or length than a syllable with one mora. Hwang is trying to represent the Japanese pronunciation of words using hangeul, and it seems like he’s borrowed the chōonpu character from Japanese in order to represent the stressed syllables. (Read more about this character here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ch%C5%8Donpu)

Now by far the most interesting form listed in section 2 is the one called Sorim Janggwon. This is interesting because there is no Karate kata with this name. (If there were, it’s name in Japanese would be Shōrin Chōken.) Any time the characters 小林 appear in Korean and Japanese martial arts, it’s usually a reference to the Shaolin Temple in China. Since this form has not come from Japanese Karate, the presence of this form in this list would appear to show some Chinese influence on Hwang’s style of martial arts.

This is crucial because Hwang reportedly studied martial arts under a Chinese instructor for a while, but the veracity of this is uncertain. The fact this form appears in this list may support the idea that Hwang had some training in Chinese martial arts.

The name 小林長拳 altogether means ‘Shaolin Long Fist’.

This Chinese influence may be further supported by the last two items in the list. The penultimate item is 담퇴 damtoe. There’s no Karate form with a name anything like this, so it’s nothing to do with Karate. But this sounds very strongly like Tántuǐ – from Chinese martial arts. It’s difficult to discern more about this from the information given, but you can read more about Tántuǐ here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T%C3%A1n_Tu%C7%90

The final item, 타이그권 (太極拳) taigeugwon, is interesting – it could be a reference to several things. There is a series of three forms in Karate called Taikyoku, which has the same kanji 太極. These forms are known to have been practised in Korea at this time, and they appear in Choi Hong-hi’s 1959 book, as well as many others. However, 太極拳 is also the name of the Chinese martial art Tàijíquán – more commonly known in English as Taichi. The fact that Hwang has given the full name of that martial art style here, rather than just the name for the Karate form, suggests that here he is referring to the Chinese martial arts style. Why he’s referring to this in a list of forms is not clear; however, it would further support the idea of Chinese influence on Hwang’s style of martial arts.

Taekwondo Training Advice: Practise a form no more than three times on any one day

Something that I say to students when I teach them forms is that you should not perform the same form more than three times on any one day. (Three doesn’t have to be the limit, but the point is don’t repeat the same form too many times.)

When I see students practising forms, I often see them do the same form over and over again, at the same speed, and without much concentration on the individual techniques. This is not a good way to practise forms – if you just repeat the same form over and over in the same way, it will become boring, and then you’re more likely to perform the form with incorrect technique. Over time you then learn the form incorrectly, and it then takes much more effort to correct the techniques.

The key to learning forms well is regular repetition. It’s much better to perform a form once a day for ten days than it is to perform that pattern ten times in one day. Regular repetition is much better for building memories. In this regard Taekwondo is similar to learning a music instrument or learning a foreign language. It’s much better to practise a piece of piano music once a day for ten days than it is to practise it ten times in one day.

Similarly, don’t always practise a form in the same way. Vary how you practise a form to prevent forms practice from becoming boring. Sometimes perform the form very slowly, or pause on each technique and check that it’s correct. Sometimes just perform the stances of the form, or practise a particular combination that’s in the form in line-work. Sometimes look at techniques in the form and think how they could be used in sparring or self defence.

Why do we practise forms in Taekwondo?

Forms are practised in all styles of Taekwondo, and they are practised by students of all grades and degrees. Clearly they are central to Taekwondo training. Some people (like myself) like forms, and like practising them, but a number of people dislike forms. I’ve met a number of people over the time I’ve been training in Taekwondo who strongly dislike forms, and who vastly prefer to do other kinds of training such as sparring and self-defence training, and who wonder why we train in forms at all in Taekwondo. It is to those people that this post is written – I aim to show that even if you don’t like forms, there are good reasons why they’re such a big part of Taekwondo.

1. Body Control

This, I think, is THE most important reason to practise forms. Body control is just the ability to move your body into a specific position and know, without looking to check, that your body is in the correct position. It’s the ability to perform a punch and to know that your wrist is straight and that the opposite hand is on your waist without having to look to check, or without having an instructor come along and adjust the position.

This might sound like a very basic ability – and it is – but a lot of people, when they first start training in martial arts, do not have this ability. This is especially true with older students (30 years and older), who – if they have never done any physical activity that requires precise movements of the body, such as martial arts or dance – will have become used to a certain way of moving. When they first start training in martial arts they have to unlearn the way they have learnt to move over the first few decades of their life.

Forms are excellent for teaching body control, because they are a choreographed sequence of movements, and they should be performed in a very precise way. Importantly, the transitions between movements in forms are very specific – you have to move a specific foot, you have to turn a specific direction, you have to start the next technique at the correct point, and you have to maintain balance throughout. All of this forces you to think about how you are moving, and this is how forms train you in body control.

(This point isn’t so relevant if you’ve been training in Taekwondo or another martial art for several years. After a few years of training, you will have learnt body control, and it’s not an ability you will forget quickly. However, for beginners, learning body control, and hence practising forms, is essential.)

2. Competitions

Some people dislike the ‘sport’ side of Taekwondo: the style of fighting that’s used for competition sparring – which is often criticised as unrealistic – and the performance of forms. However, Taekwondo practitioners want to be able to compete, so there should be a part of Taekwondo which allows them to do that (even if it doesn’t completely emulate a real fight).

Forms are an excellent way of judging a Taekwondo practitioner’s ability. They are a test of balance, flexibility, and just the ability to accurately perform any given technique. Since everyone in a given style of Taekwondo will learn the same forms, they are a standardised way to compare the abilities of a group of practitioners. Indeed, so useful are forms for competitions, Kukki-won created a set of 10 new forms specifically to be used in competitions.

3. Forms are the lexicon of a martial art

This is another very important reason for practising forms. The forms of a particular style of a martial art contain all of the techniques that are part of that martial art. They are a dictionary of techniques – if you learn all of the forms, then you have learnt all of the techniques taught in that martial art.

This idea is arguably somewhat undermined by the fact that people like Choi Hong-hi and Hwang Ki wrote encyclopaedias for their styles of Taekwondo, and those encyclopaedias are far more detailed and specific than the forms are. Nevertheless, it is still the tradition, in the martial arts that are related to Karate, that each generation of students teaches forms to the next generation, and that knowledge is passed down through those forms, which encapsulate all of the knowledge of that style. Forms form a kind of ‘oral history’ – a ‘choreographic history’ or a ‘choreographic lexicon’ – and passing that from one generation to the next is part of the traditions of Taekwondo.

4. Fitness

Forms are not performed particularly fast, but practising them does improve your fitness. Forms often involve performing low stances and various different kicks, which improve your flexibility and strength. They often also involve one-leg stances, which together with any high kicking techniques improve your balance.

One could argue that there are plenty of general exercises you could do to improve these aspects of fitness, but forms do all of them at the same time. Forms are excellent for improving your general fitness.

Forms do not teach you how to win a fight, but they’re not supposed to. They’re supposed to be a foundation of training from which other forms of training – free sparring, self-defence training – develop.