A bit about kicking.

by Ryan Gregory, February 11th, 2012

Different martial arts place varying degrees of emphasis on kicks. Taekwondo, for example, focuses largely on kicks — and some pretty fancy and powerful ones at that. Other styles, such as grappling arts like Judo, may not use kicks extensively. Goju-ryu karate does use kicks, although this is often limited to front kicks in the major kata (and even the walking basics may not include side kicks or roundhouse kicks, depending on the school).

As a person with rather long legs, I have always liked kicks. I used to be quite good at them, too. Back in the day, I could hit the top of a door frame with a front kick. I once even kicked the ceiling of an elevator when some friends challenged me to see if I could. Of course, kicks like that have no practical utility — they’re purely for fun (and maybe a little for show). And I certainly can’t do that anymore.

Students in karate are often taught that there are four parts to a kick. 1) The knee comes up, 2) The kick extends, 3) The leg returns to the “chamber” with the knee bent, 4) The foot returns to the ground. To hammer this point home, we would sometimes be instructed to hold each position (go ahead and try holding your leg out straight for a minute). Once, when I was a brown belt and assisting with a kids’ class, Sensei had me do step 1 of a kick (knee brought up) and hold it. He then placed his cup of coffee on my knee and proceeded to walk around talking to the students, returning occasionally for a sip, then replacing it on my knee. I didn’t spill it — and needless to say, I gained a good appreciation for bringing the knee up at the beginning of a kick.

In Goju-ryu, most of the major kicks start with the knee being brought up, including front kicks, side kicks, and roundhouse kicks. One advantage of this is that it is very difficult for an opponent to predict which kick you will throw because they all look the same at first. Where things differ among styles (and even within Goju-ryu) is which part of the foot one uses to deliver the kick. In the past, I learned to perform front kicks using the ball of the foot, and side kicks with the “blade” of the foot. (Roundhouse kicks used either the instep or the ball of the foot, the latter of which is more difficult to perform).  In the Meibukan dojo I am in now, we kick with the heel in both techniques.  It’s a minor change overall, but it does take a little adjustment, especially since kicking with the ball or blade is not intuitive and has to be practiced a lot before it becomes automatic. I even used to sit with my foot in blade position while watching TV just to make it feel more natural.

Comfortable? No. But good practice for getting the foot to go into blade position automatically.

I can see advantages to both kicking approaches. Using the ball of the foot provides greater reach and focuses the strike on a smaller area, thereby creating more pressure on impact. It also seems easier to aim versus the heel, but maybe that’s because I am more used to it. On the other hand, kicking with the heel works much better if one is wearing shoes (which we usually are, right?). It is also a harder part of the foot in some ways, and there is less risk of injuring one’s toes if the kick is blocked or improperly executed. Once again, I think it’s a case where the different approaches each have merit and it is useful to train in more than one.

But whatever you do, keep that knee up.


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