Created by In Hyuk Suh in 1958, kuk sool won is a comprehensive system of strikes, kicks, animal-inspired techniques, throws, grappling moves and weapons. One of the trademark strategies used with many of its moves is the spin. It introduces the element of surprise and generates incredible power.
When it comes to self-defense, perhaps the most useful spinning technique is the low spinning heel kick. Although kuk sool won teaches several variations of the kick, this article will focus on the basic one.
For the low spinning heel kick to be effective, you need speed, flexibility and commitment. If you execute the technique too slowly, your opponent can counter by stepping out of range. If you lack the requisite flexibility, your body won’t be able to move quickly enough or get low enough for the element of surprise to work. If you attempt the kick but change your mind halfway through, you’ll find yourself inside your opponent’s defenses, off-balance and low to the ground with virtually no way out. However, once you’ve acquired the necessary attributes, you’ll find that the kick is a devastating addition to your arsenal.
The best way to use the low spinning heel kick is by beginning with a setup that places your opponent in the prime position for the technique to be effective. The setup can be intentional (you employ techniques, body shifting, positioning and so on to lure him in) or spontaneous (you trigger the technique the moment the conditions are right). Although both are acceptable, it’s better to train for spontaneous deployment because you can’t depend on having control over anyone’s actions in a fight and because too many negative consequences can result from trying to maneuver your enemy into the proper position.
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That being said, the most advantageous position for the application of the kick is one in which you and your opponent are in “mirrored” stances. For instance, if you’re in a left forward stance, your opponent is facing you in a right forward stance.
It’s best to start by distracting your opponent with a high-line technique such as a jab or finger strike to the eyes. The objective is to get him to raise his hands and, more important, to focus his attention up high. That should be followed by your spinning to the rear and sinking your weight on your forward leg as you squat. It’s OK to place your hands lightly on the ground for support and balance.
Continue the spin as you extend your rear leg and sweep it parallel to the ground. Strike your opponent’s forward leg above the calf and slightly behind the knee. The technique will break his balance and can damage the muscles of his lower leg. The momentum of the kick will enable you to spin a full 360 degrees and stand up, re-establishing a ready position.
An alternate method, although not quite as fast or effective, involves placing your knee on the ground while you spin and executing the technique almost like a low, turning hook kick. This variation is easier for beginners but lacks speed and mobility, so it should be used only as a transitional method for developing the proper mechanics.
An effective low spinning heel kick requires leg strength, and the best way to develop that is through squats. Lots of squats. Start slowly and pay attention to what your body tells you. The key is to build powerful quads, calves and hamstrings without damaging the connective tissue surrounding and supporting your knees. Technique development is important, but it should never be done to the detriment of your health.
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Begin with your feet together and pump out squats in sets of 25 to 50 repetitions. Don’t try to do too many or get too low to the ground. Build from there until you can comfortably do 200 to 300 reps in sets of 50.
Next, add the spin. Start in a left-leg-forward position and turn gently to the rear as you bend your knees. Begin in a relatively high stance to develop a feel for the motion and build leg coordination. As you get more comfortable, spin from a standing position and drop into a crouch with your weight centered over the ball of your forward foot.
Do this turning/squatting exercise until the motion becomes comfortable and easy to perform, after which you should add the kick. It’s effected by whipping your hips around and swinging your leg in an arc until it’s back at its starting position. Then you should immediately stand up and assume a ready position.
Training equipment can bolster the development of your low spinning heel kick. Perhaps the most important is a target that permits you to improve your accuracy. A commercial kicking pad is fine. If one isn’t available, improvise with a plastic jug such as the container engine coolant comes in. Such target training will help you develop a sense of accuracy and distance.
The low spinning heel kick should be executed with the weight centered and the body low to the ground (top). Beginners often fail to bend their support leg, which leaves their butt in the air (bottom). (Photos Courtesy of Daniel A. Middleton)
Two other tools can be used in conjunction with target kicking to fine-tune your body position, boost your leg strength and improve your balance. The drills that go with them are designed to eliminate the most common mistake students make while learning the low spinning heel kick: the dreaded “butt in the air,” which may result in the target being hit but which sacrifices the crouch and spin.
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To correct this mistake, you can use two folding mats, or a target and a foam pad. The mat method begins with the stacking of two folded mats on the floor. Each one should be 14 inches to 18 inches high, or slightly higher than your knee. Pull the topmost mat out so it overlaps the bottom one by about two feet. Place a stationary target under the top mat and against the edge of the bottom one.
Stand in a ready position about one foot from the edge of the top mat, then practice spinning and kicking the target without touching the mat. Exercise caution when doing this exercise. Repeatedly hitting the lower mat, which indicates that you’re kicking too deep, or hitting the upper mat, which indicates that you need to lower your body, can lead to hyperextension of the knee.
Two drills for mastering the low spinning heel kick: A plastic container is placed under stacked mats before it’s kicked (top). A training partner holds a target in his left hand and a foam pad in his right while the student practices the kick (bottom). (Photos Courtesy of Daniel A. Middleton)
The other exercise requires a training partner. Have him hold a target in one hand and a foam pad in the other. As you kick at the target, have him swing the pad over you at waist level. If you perform the technique correctly, you’ll be able to strike the target without getting hit by the swinging pad. If you fail to drop quickly or deeply enough before you kick, the pad will provide immediate feedback. The speed of the swing can be increased or decreased depending on your ability, and your partner can vary his rhythm to help you work on your speed and timing.
Mixing It Up
The final piece of the puzzle is incorporating the low spinning heel kick in combinations. One that’s often taught in kuk sool won is the high-middle-low combination in which three spinning kicks are performed nonstop at head, waist and knee level. This is a great drill for improving your balance during spinning. For best results, execute it in reverse (low-middle-high) from time to time.
In Hyuk Suh, founder of kuk sool won. (Photo by Peter Lueders)
Another combination, one that’s perhaps a bit more application-oriented, starts with a lead-hand jab and proceeds to the low spinning heel kick and round kick. It includes a distraction, the spin kick itself and a follow-up technique. These are merely suggestions; you’re encouraged to come up with your own combinations.
Tactically, the low spinning heel kick can be used just like any other similar technique, such as a sweep or low-line kick. The difference lies in the power of the impact. The tremendous amount of torque generated by the kick makes it better-suited to taking out the muscle or joint via impact trauma, rather than merely disrupting your opponent’s balance the way a sweep does.