INB #09: The Truth About Kicking

art_kick3Martial education, like all other forms of education, is provisional. We don’t hold this provisionalism against good teachers. We know that while we may learn the spelling rule “i before e” in the first grade we may also have to modify this to “except after c” in the second. Some provisionalism, however, borders on misrepresentation. We know that when our candidates say that they will lower taxes and end a war the assumption is “to the best of their ability.” We become angry, though, when we learn that they never had the slightest notion of fulfilling provisional promise.

There is no other aspect of martial training that so walks this very thin line than that of kicking. Take, as an example, what is, in many styles, the first and simplest kick taught: the snap kick. In this the student is asked to raise his knees to waist level with the foot cocked back at the opposite standing knee. The lower leg is then briskly snapped out and back before the foot is replaced on the ground. Lift. Cock. Kick. Cock. Reset. These five actions define the snap kick. As any advanced martial artist might tell you, there could hardly be a kick that so violates most of the rules of real kicking.

(Before we go on, we should note that the reason this kick is taught in this manner combines considerations of safety, explicitness and balance. Note, also, that effectiveness is NOT one of these considerations.)

What do I mean about these defects? Well, first, the wrong muscles lift the leg with elevation tightening the thigh. Secondly, the cocking of the foot proceeds in the opposite direction it should – that is, away from the opponent. Thirdly, the frozen knee position, though basic to accuracy, negates much of the kick’s power. And, finally, the re-cocking action before planting wastes much time.

art_kick1So how should we run our kicks? Is this good or bad provisionalism since, as teachers, we intend to modify this form of kicking significantly? The answer lies in how long the student is kept bound by these provisions. As soon as we can we should begin the process of teaching better and more natural methods.

Provisionalism is good of you do not have to go back and undo what you have already taught. Can we agree that college level is too late to discourage students from reading pho-net-ic-al-ly?

And what of better methods? The answer lies before us in the way we move. We walk every day with a natural and effective gait. We do not raise our knees to step. We swing our hip and move our lower legs like the sweeping of simian arms. The knee contributes only what is known as “attitude.” Attitude is basically height with some slight angular modifications.

In other words, kicking should be as similar to the natural requirements of locomotion as we can make it. When I first studied Kung Fu I was already a black belt in Chinese Kenpo. Being twenty I was a pretty good kicker, I thought. I had numerous “self-defense” kicks, such as side and wheel. The Northern style of Kung Fu I studied, famous for its kicks, actually seemed a little ineffective to me. We had the straight leg kicks of the Tan Tui form and the wide crescents and Tornado kicks of the Shaolin forms. Many of the kicks seemed flamboyant but unfocused. I will admit, readily, that much of the practical knowledge of kicking has leaked from Kung Fu consciousness. But in the main, having spent many years performing and teaching kicking, I can see that the general principles of correct kicking lay in those loose and waist-driven leg actions of the Kung Fu forms.

Now I use everything but kicking as an example of kicking. I make my students trudge as though shod in snowshoes. We perform Frankenstein shuffles up and back. They are asked to swing their hips like showgirls and flip their feet like ice skaters. The knee, the stupidest joint in the body, is a controlled mediator between the hip and the foot, nothing more. I see every stance now, and teach it so, as one or another kind of kick. I impose rules: you must never kick longer than the reach of your hands. You much not break your rhythm to kick. You must not use your hands exclusively to aid the balance of the kick.

There is an old saying, “Rules were made to be broken.” This is, of course, not true. Rules were made to illuminate pathways where students can learn new inroads and create better, more telling rules. The truth about kicking is that constraint in the begining should lead to more freedom later on. The teachers job is to add just enough weight to encourage the student to jump higher, but not enough to inhibit the student’s flight. We start teaching highly controlled movements so that later we can allow the fullest expression of movement itself.


Nowadays, there is a lot written about martial arts, probably more than any time in human history. But very little of this is at the instructor level dealing with the problems, goals and strategies of imparting the arts. This series, written by martial instructors, will be a frank and directed discussion of such topics. If you are a beginner and new to the martial arts, you may find some of these subjects a little distressing. And, indeed, this may be premature for you. The only thing we guarantee is a sincerehandling of informed viewpoints.

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