Learn the mechanics and do the drills, then unleash the beast that is your round kick!

Because of its versatility and power, the round kick — known to some martial artists as the turning kick, the saber kick or the roundhouse kick — is one of the most common leg techniques in our world. No matter your particular interpretation, the basics are the same: You swing your leg along an arc until your foot or shin strikes the target.


Unfortunately, that very simplicity can have negative consequences. When teaching students to spar, I often find myself thinking, I get it — you can throw a round kick! How about some variety? Try something else! And when I watch taekwondo in the Olympics, it often seems like I'm observing a round-kick marathon.

Despite its popularity, many martial artists don't have a deep understanding of the round kick. That can prevent them from training properly, using the technique appropriately and maximizing its potential fully. Oblivious to its intricacies, they throw it merely because it's quick and easy to execute.

This article will attempt to remedy that. In the paragraphs that follow, I will break down the round kick and offer insights into the technical details that are necessary to make progress on the path to mastery.

Mechanics

The round kick can be executed in many ways, and as long as it's powerful and fast, there's a good chance it will be effective. The version I prefer derives its power and speed from a precise sequence that starts with the kicking leg being propelled by the hip, then has the knee of said leg extending with a snap as the hip turns over and contact is made.

The most common error I see in the dojang involves students not practicing the kick with a full range of circular motion. Instead, they consistently execute what amounts to a 45-degree round kick. That flies in the face of the philosophy that we all should train to develop maximum power and speed in the full range of motion for a given technique. When that's your default, it's easy to adjust in real time and perhaps throw a shorter-range round kick or one that entails reduced angular travel. Doing less than you've trained to do is easy. However, if you always train for less and occasionally need to do more, you'll likely fall short.

The type of round kick I'm describing can be broken down into four parts, each of which should follow the previous one as quickly as the situation warrants:

  1. Lift your leg with your knee bent.
  2. Pivot on the foot of your support leg so your hips can turn over.
  3. Strike the target by extending your kicking leg while turning over your hips.
  4. Re-chamber your foot, then return to a fighting stance.

The reason you should re-chamber your foot before putting it back on the floor is twofold. One, it affords you the opportunity to throw a second kick or even a third if the first one fails to get the job done. Two, it removes your kicking leg from your opponent's reach, thus preventing a leg grab.

Power

In the martial arts, we often use the word "power" to refer to what scientists call kinetic energy. The relevant formula is: kinetic energy = ½ mass x velocity2

This formula from classical mechanics tells us that if we want to make our round kick more powerful, we can increase the mass of the object that makes contact or increase its velocity.

How do you up the mass factor? One way is to move forward while kicking. That puts more of your bodyweight behind the technique. Another way is to rotate your body toward the target as you kick — in essence, that does the same thing. For the rotation to happen, the foot of your support leg must pivot fully. I tell students to envision a spike holding the ball of their foot in place on the floor. Thus, they must rotate on the ball of the foot with the goal of getting the back of the heel pointing toward the target.

The two most common mistakes I've seen with respect to generating power in the round kick are as follows:

  • Students don't rotate the support foot sufficiently. This leaves the back of the heel several degrees off the line that leads directly from their hips to the target.
  • Students rotate on the support heel instead of the ball of the foot. This results in the body moving away from the target, which reduces the power of the kick.

For the velocity portion of the equation, it's essential to examine hip rotation. The pivot of the support foot should cause the hips to turn over so the buttock of the kicking leg points toward the ceiling. This serves to swing the kicking leg more quickly than it otherwise would move. In effect, the hips act as the fulcrum for the lever of the leg while powering its angular motion.

RIGHT: The author demonstrates his preferred method for executing the round kick. From a ready stance, he chambers his leg in a neutral manner while making sure his hands are in a defensive position.


Velocity, of course, is defined as distance divided by time. (It also includes a direction component, but that's irrelevant here.) Time depends on the rotation of the body and the extension of the leg. Distance is how far the kicking foot travels during that time to reach the target. It follows that if you make a larger arc with your kicking leg in the same time it takes you to execute a normal round kick, you'll create a more powerful blow because your foot will be moving more quickly — although you'll sacrifice the element of surprise to some extent. You can mitigate this by setting up the kick so your opponent doesn't notice it until it's too late or simply by making a slightly smaller arc and thus saving time.

WRONG: Don't kick past the target because it makes you more vulnerable to a counterattack, Simon Scher says.


Details

Now that your round kick is powerful and fast, you should consider several other elements in your pursuit of mastery. The first involves your upper body. Many people thrust their lead hand behind them when they throw a round kick — I'm not sure why. That hand cannot be used to defend or to strike when it's dangling there. Some believe that throwing the hand back helps with the maintenance of balance and the creation of momentum. This, too, seems like a poor reason because both can be achieved with proper core training. For these reasons, I believe that the lead hand should remain near your head — between you and your opponent — so it can be used for attack and/or defense.

The next element is the position in which your round kick ends. When executing it, your pivot pulls your hip around, your hip pulls your leg around and your knee pulls the striking tool around. If the striking tool travels more than 2 feet past the imaginary line between your hip and your target, you'll expose your back. That means your opponent can counterattack — or push the leg to spin you around, making you even more vulnerable. Consequently, I encourage students to stop the round kick when their foot is directly between the hip and the target. This forces them to focus the energy of the kick outward toward the opponent, as opposed to around and past the opponent.

A second danger in letting the kick travel too far past the line between your hip and your opponent is that you'll be tempted to stick your buttock out and sit away from the kick. Doing so not only pulls your mass away from the kick but also disturbs your balance and inhibits your ability to deal with the rebound force. This is why I frequently tell students to avoid performing a "big booty kick." Instead, thrust your pelvis forward at the moment of impact to lock your body into the kick.

Foot Position

Crucial in the effective execution of the round kick is foot position. If you're breaking a board with the kick, I recommend flexing your ankle and toes so the ball of your foot strikes the board. In self-defense, this foot position is useful if you want to break your opponent's bones or hook your foot around a blocking tool.

RIGHT: The two main foot positions for the round kick are the ball-of-the-foot position (top), which is frequently used for breaking boards and self-defense, and the instep position (bottom), which is commonly used for sparring and self-defense.

A different foot position is used in the pointed-foot round kick. This is recommended when striking pads, bags or people you don't want to injure — although it can still cause damage. The pointed-foot round kick strikes with the instep or the shin, depending on your art, your target and the amount of hip rotation you use. Examples: For a 45-degree round kick, you likely will make contact with the instep. For a baseball-bat break, you most likely will elect to use your shin.

RIGHT: The best place to position your hands during the round kick, Simon Scher says, is near your head.

Clearly, the round kick is a versatile tool that's relatively easy to throw. However, it requires plenty of practice, especially if your repertoire includes several of the variations described above. To that end, you should develop a training regimen that hones the attributes needed to execute the round kick through the full range of motion.

WRONG: Avoid swinging your arms into positions that don't lend themselves to immediate offensive or defensive use, the author says.

Drills

The following are some drills that I've found useful in my students' pursuit of round-kick mastery. You are, of course, free to modify them to suit your specific needs.

  • Hold a wall or a chair for stability. Assume a fighting stance and repeatedly perform a fast pivot toward the target and then back to the starting position. Your kicking leg should be lifted and your knee flexed. In addition to polishing your ability to pivot, this will enable you to see for yourself how a quick, snappy pivot can move the kicking leg dynamically. Caution: You may be surprised at how sore the muscles of your core and the calf of your support leg will be the day after.
  • Bolster your balance as described above if you so desire. Pre-pivot the foot of your support leg and lift your kicking leg to the round-kick chamber position. Set a metronome to 120 beats per minute. Set a timer for 30 seconds. Try to execute a round kick every time you hear the signal.
  • Set up a small target; I suggest a pingpong ball hanging from a string. Execute a predetermined number of full-power, full-speed round kicks at the target. Attempt to make contact only with your chosen striking tool — for example, the ball of your foot or the instep. If you hit with the wrong part of the foot or miss the target, start over.
  • Position yourself in front of a heavy bag. Throw a round kick at the bag, but don't put your kicking foot back on the floor immediately. Instead, focus on mitigating the rebound of the kick using only your core. This not only will strengthen your core but also will build your balance.
  • Secure a spacious area where spilled water will not be a problem. Stand at one end of the area with a cup of water in your hand. Execute a series of round kicks while traversing the area. Your goal, of course, is to not spill the water. The result will be improved balance, superior control and enhanced body awareness.

RIGHT: Hold a chair or other stationary object for support while polishing the various component moves of the round kick.

Simon Scher holds a seventh-degree black belt in taekwondo and has trained extensively in aikido, tai chi, capoeira, jiu-jitsu, karate, kali, kyudo and sado. His book The Martial Arts Manual is based on his longtime project of creating a line-by-line commentary on Sun Tzu's The Art of War.

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In the martial arts, we voluntarily subject ourselves to conflict in a training environment so we can transcend conflict in the real world. After all, we wouldn't knowingly train in a style that makes us weaker or worsens our position. The irony of all this is that we don't want to fight our opponent. We prefer to work with what an opponent gives us to turn the tide in our favor, to resolve the situation effectively and efficiently.The Japanese have a word for this: sabaki. It means to work with energy efficiently. When we train with the sabaki mindset, we receive our opponent's attack, almost as a gift. Doing so requires less physical effort and frees up our mental operating system so it can determine the most efficient solution to the conflict.In this essay, I will present a brief history of sabaki, as well as break down the sabaki method using Miyamoto Musashi's five elements

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"Unlike karate training outside a combat zone," Cpt. Yoon explained, "it is important here that the troops be able to turn their techniques into devastating, bone-crushing blows. There is no place for mild strikes in combat when a VC is trying to push a bayonet into your stomach."

For that reason, the compound is peppered with makiwara punching boards, and the Korean Tigers spend much time conditioning the weapons of taekwondo. Also, throughout Vietnam there are plenty of sandbags, which are used to protect all kinds of constructions. They make excellent striking bags for a karateman.

The next unit in the schedule is to display free fighting. The commander again explains that this form of fighting is used to test the Tigers' skills against one another rather than to demonstrate the actual methods of close-quarters combat, as a fight on the battlefield is nearly always over in an instant.

The sparring matches are exhibitions of technique and control. Perhaps the only recognizable difference between these and matches held in tournaments is the consistent power the soldiers put behind their blows and their concentration on hard taekwondo techniques rather than elusive ones.

Against Weapons

At last, a final group prepares to show what happens when an unarmed Tiger meets a VC with a knife or a bayonet fixed to his AK-47 rifle. Two pairs of soldiers stride to the center of the hard-dirt arena, face the commander and render a snappy salute. Then they fall into a four-man square and await orders.

Sgt. Lee barks a command, and the best of the best explode into action. One gladiator leaps for a knife that has been thrown into the arena. He jams it, hard, at another, who violently kicks the striking hand and jumps shoulder height, scissoring the attacker's neck and tumbling him forward onto the unyielding ground with a crash. The knife spins away.

Meanwhile, another black belt catches a rifle with a fixed bayonet that is thrown to him from the sidelines. With a guttural shout, he lunges for his opponent. The defender spins to the left, brings his knee sharply inward against the weapon and rolls the attacker onto his own shoulder while tearing at his windpipe. It's over in seconds.

The couples repeat the performance again and again, smashing full tilt against each other. Every time, the attacker thrusts hard with his weapon. It's just less than miraculous that the practice doesn't turn into a blood bath.

Korean Budomen

Initiated as the Capital Infantry Division, the Tiger Division was activated on June 20, 1949, in Seoul with the mission of providing security for the capital. It was charged with additional security of the 38th parallel in Ongjin in September of the same year. When the Korean War began on June 25, 1950, the division began to prove itself in heavy fighting during battles at Ahn-kang and Kyung-joo along the defense line of the Nakdong River in the southeastern part of the country.

Following the successful Inchon landing by Gen. Douglas MacArthur's forces, the division penetrated deep into the North across the 38th parallel, overrunning enemy strongholds and advancing close to the Korea-Manchuria border. As their ability became recognized, the division was committed repeatedly and saw the armistice signed while fighting at the front in the spring of 1952. They captured more than 9,920 enemy, killed more than 91,000 and seized more than 31,000 weapons. As a result of their valor, the division was awarded five ROK Presidential Citations and a U.S. Presidential Citation, an ROK National Assembly award and 42 other plaudits.

After the armistice, the division had already been dubbed with the Tiger laurel and was deployed along the front line of the central part of the Korea DMZ. They remained under continued training and constant combat readiness.

Upon approval of the National Assembly, the division was directed to combat in the Republic of Vietnam on August 20, 1965. Three separate elements arrived at Qui Nhon on November 1 after four weeks of preliminary training. That month, it received its tactical area of responsibility, which consisted of 1,400 square kilometers in Binh Dinh Province in central Vietnam. The division's general mission objectives are to protect travel routes, military installations and facilities within its TAOR and to assist the Republic of Vietnam in its pacification plan by eliminating Viet Cong in the area and helping the people rebuild their destroyed homes.

Since 1965, the Tiger Division has stabilized security within their area to an impressive degree. The TAOR itself has expanded from 1,400 to 3,800 square kilometers. As of mid-June, the Tigers had killed more than 9,000 enemy, captured nearly 3,000 and counted 4,500 defectors, as well as seizing nearly 4,000 weapons.

All this leaves little room for doubt about whom historians will count as the true elite of Vietnam combat. In the ranks of the VC and the NVA, mention of these ferocious Koreans brings shudders to the comrades. Even as he fights those from North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, the Tigerman knows that he has full command of his body and his mind. When he's faced with hand-to-hand combat, he need not rely only on the ferocity of his rifle to equalize the score. He can hammer out punches with machine-gun rapidity or swing a full-flogging kick with sufficient force to gain the advantage. When a man is trained in karate, or to be more specific, taekwondo, he's ahead of the game and the Viet Cong, that crap-shooting armada of insurgent forces, and the crack North Vietnamese troops who come to do battle. They know full well that the Tigers with their taekwondo as well as armaments are tough to beat.

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The roots of taekwondo are in Korea, and for the ROK GIs who enter the Tiger ranks, the intensive routine of training in the martial art is strictly par for the course. No doubt every Tigerman hopes to use his martial arts training sometime in a tournament as well as he does in combat. That's the dream of every GI in the ROK division.

The Tigers, under Maj. Gen. Lew Pyong Hyon and with taekwondo's Capt. Yoon, have been making headlines throughout the world. They are the only troops, it's been said, who fight fire with fire, who use guerrilla techniques and ambush techniques in much the same manner as the Viet Cong. In a war such as this — where the boundary lines are questionable, where there is no front line and where your neighbor can turn into your enemy — such techniques are indispensable. Thanks to the hand-to-hand techniques and the combat-karate emphasis of this militia, the odds are clearly shaping up in the Tiger Division's ledger. Thanks to taekwondo, the Tigers are smashing the enemy with no holds barred and, if anyone doubts it, plenty of contact!

Read Part 1 of this article here.

text by Jack E. Swift

(This article first appeared in the November 1968 issue of Black Belt.)

Scene: A group of soldiers is gathered for a bull session. The subject under discussion is the Tiger Division of the Korean army. The soldiers are engrossed. One, a lean, tanned GI, pushes back his beret, squints into the darkness and looks out to see a mountain of burning embers.

"We were on recon operations in southern Binh Dinh Province," he explains. "One night, we caught the sounds of a skirmish. My squad leader held up his hand and when he smiled, we knew we were in for some action. As we approached the area, we were a little surprised that there was no small-arms fire, but we could hear a lot of guys yelling.

"When we got there, it was an unbelievable sight. Here were those Korean troops in close-quarters combat with what must have been superior forces, as there were [Viet Cong soldiers] all over the place. I've never seen so many broken necks and caved-in ribs in my life. We helped clean up what was left."

So goes the legend, and just in case you're casting a cynical eye as to the Tiger Division's aptitude in the use of martial arts, the record speaks for itself. If there was ever a primer on combat karate, these troops would write it. In two grueling periods daily, every troop in the Tiger Division trains in the taekwondo method, the official karate of Korea.

At one time, there were many factions, but in the past year or so, they've all been absorbed by the International Taekwon-Do Federation, with its headquarters in Seoul. In fact, with the Koreans, and even in many areas in Vietnam, taekwondo is synonymous with karate. Numerous Vietnamese do not even understand the word "karate" — but mention taekwondo and their faces light up with recognition.

Way of Life

At Qui Nhon, division headquarters, visitors are surprised to see sparkling white uniforms — and a sea of black belts — virtually in the middle of a combat zone. While on actual operations away from their base, the Tigers work out in field gear, but at the training center, everyone wears a gi and keeps it as immaculate as any other military uniform.

On the left side of the gi, each person wears the proud division emblem of a roaring tiger. On the other side, if he's an instructor, the soldier wears a black insignia of a fist with white dots above indicating how many degrees of black-belt rank he holds.

Commander of the massive taekwondo corps of the Tiger Division is Capt. Yoon Dong Ho, himself a third dan. But the rugged, intelligent captain is no armchair commander. He's on hand daily at the dirt arena, watching the troops go through their paces and often teaching a special class of officers.

Capt. Yoon is responsible for the official taekwondo training of more than 15,000 Tiger troops in Vietnam. Although popular belief holds otherwise, there are actually more than 200 black-belt holders in the Tiger ranks. Of them, three are fourth dan, 29 are third dan, 57 are second dan and 115 are first dan. There are roughly 600 red belts and 2,300 blue belts, as well as 9,000 troops holding degrees of white belt. Approximately 2,900 men recently began their training in Vietnam. Many of these, of course, already hold rank they won in Korea.

Deployment

Each element of the Tiger infantry arriving in Vietnam goes through intensive schooling at Qui Nhon. The 26th of these classes began in July, to run just over a month. The sessions lead off with classical techniques under the direct supervision of Sgt. Jun Jae Gun, head taekwondo instructor for the Meng Ho in Vietnam. Sgt. Jun, one of the division's tough trio of fourth degrees, displays a certificate signed by Gen. Choi Hong Hi, International Taekwon-Do Federation president.

When a trooper is promoted in Vietnam, however, he's awarded a military certificate of training by his supplement company commander, who acts as a representative of Lt. Col. Jai Chun Ko, division field commander. All promotions are recognized by the federation. In cases of promotion to the higher grades, however, special recognition is often meted out. For example, Sgt. Kim Duk Ki was recently awarded his third dan by Lt. Gen. Chae Myung Shin, field headquarters commander for all ROK Forces in Vietnam.

"The major objective of our formal taekwondo classes," asserted Cpt. Yoon, "is to take the minds of our troops and replace civilian thinking with military spirit and fierceness. 'Tiger' is the nickname the division has been tagged with because of the fierce nature we have demonstrated in combat. We intend to live up to it."

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Cpt. Yoon reinforced that statement with an impromptu demonstration of his own favorite techniques. Choosing a brawny trooper with a bayonet, the captain rushed him, parrying the weapon with an onslaught of power strikes with the elbow, palm, heel and fist. He ended with a forearm strike to the windpipe, which he explained is effective when one wants to silence the enemy quickly.

Key elements in hand-to-hand combat, the commander explained, are attacking the weapon directly or the hand that holds it while simultaneously attacking the most vulnerable spot within reach, then pressing the assault to keep the enemy off-balance while finishing him.

Field Testing

Stressing physical fitness in preparation for the application of these techniques, Cpt. Yoon said his troops rely heavily on powerful, smashing blows against the smaller Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Communists. He explained that the enemies are often undernourished because of their long treks from the North and therefore may fall easily under a strong attack.

"One particular situation where we encounter hand-to-hand fighting," Cpt. Yoon said, "is when the VC hide in bunkers and Tiger patrols do not have heavy weapons available to blow [the bunkers] apart. In such a case, the troops simply go in after them. The VC stand little chance against my men in close-quarters fighting."

In addition to the training of their own infantry, Tiger taekwondo instructors teach U.S. and Republic of Vietnam soldiers, as well as other Allied Forces infantry soldiers. Presently, some 1,250 Vietnamese and 150 U.S. soldiers are being taught by the Tigers at Qui Nhon alone. At other installations throughout South Vietnam, the Koreans teach their art to Allied Forces and Vietnamese civilians of both sexes and all ages.

There are scores of Korean black belts who are not members of the Tiger Division but who teach taekwondo to the local troopers and civilians. Many of these men belong to the larger White Horse Division. Especially in populated places such as the Tan Son Nhut Air Base–Saigon area, taekwondo has become as popular as baseball is to Americans. Today, self-defense is serious business to the Vietnamese, as no one knows when a VC terrorist squad will break into his home.

The Tiger Lair

Several miles away from the main training area on the Qui Nhon Air Base where the new arrivals hold classes, the Tiger instructors have their own compound, carved out of the verdant Vietnam countryside. Bordered on two sides by mountains and banked by the South China Sea, the encampment nestles into a serene and clean-smelling natural cradle, somehow out of place amidst the turmoil of war. The site has never been successfully attacked, and no one remembers the last time even a single mortar landed within the perimeter.

The perimeter itself is defined by roll upon roll of barbed wire, machine-gun posts and sandbag-reinforced bunkers. When not actually leading class, the instructors perform most of their military duties wearing their gi, often barebacked in the all-pervading heat. Somehow it doesn't seem quite right to see a fierce fighting man carting pails of water for the makeshift shower or spreading rolls of concertina wire — until you recall how budo masters of ancient times made their charges perform menial tasks before they would be accepted. Perhaps this accounts in part for their dedication and the respectful attitude the troops invariably display.

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Cpt. Yoon decides to review the instructors' training methods, so he has the select corps organize into a squadron to demonstrate their prowess. Sgt. Lee Jin Ho, whose official title is post instructor, leads the formation. They fall swiftly into ranks. The commander steps forward and receives the squadron's salute, then turns the command over to Sgt. Ho.

At a signal, the Tigers break ranks and rush into new formations with precision reminiscent of the Roman legions. The first squad is directed to show taekwondo forms. They snap through the kata in coordinated pairs, demonstrating the adroitness that can only come from military discipline. The forms are technically the same as classical Korean karate but are executed with the confident power of soldiers who have seen what their stuff can do to a man.

The next group forms behind a line of boards, bricks and tiles. Stacks of four and five bricks, up to 15 tiles and four 1-inch boards lie before them. The unit is called to attention, salutes again and assumes a ready posture. Sgt. Lee barks a command, and a dozen heads, hands and fists smash into the solid objects. Not a single one remains unbroken.

Read Part 2 here.

text by Jack E. Swift

(This article first appeared in the November 1968 issue of Black Belt.)

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