Shaolin monk Shi Yan Ming teaches the comprehensive kung fu kicking method taught at China's Shaolin Temple.

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Warning: Before elaborating on Shaolin Temple kicking methods, I must stress that they will not make you a better fighter overnight. To achieve maximum speed, power and accuracy, you must practice these techniques thousands of times. Kung fu literally means "hard work," and the Chinese characters for that represent a man sharpening his knife from early in the morning until late at night. Always remember that you must sharpen your knife every day. The methods discussed below will help you kick with full power, but only if you bring intense effort, discipline and mental focus to your practice. There is no quick fix in the martial arts or in life.


To kick with speed, power and accuracy, you need to be able to move your body effortlessly and instantaneously through a full range of motion. Because that requires an extraordinary degree of flexibility, daily stretching is crucial.

Many martial artists make the mistake of stretching their upper and lower body separately or of assuming that to improve their kicks, they need to stretch only their lower body. In fact, to achieve maximum power, you must kick with your whole body, which means you must also stretch your whole body. Also, you need to be able to kick low as well as high and at close range as well as long range, so the ability to contract your body is as important as the ability to extend it.

A good warm-up involves simple joint rotations. Quickly and smoothly rotate your wrists, ankles, neck, shoulders, waist, hips and knees. When performing your basic stretches before a practice session, a very gentle bouncing motion followed by a brief hold will help "wake up" your muscles and tendons.

Another useful pre-practice exercise is to swing your arms and legs through a full range of motion in a controlled manner at less than maximum speed. Performing straight-leg swing kicks to the front, side and back, as well as inward and outward crescent kicks, will increase your range of motion and get the blood flowing to your extremities.

Never think of stretching a single muscle in isolation. Your whole body must work together. Moreover, because the body cannot be separated from the mind, you must maintain an open, flexible mind to achieve a flexible body. To generate power, the body must be relaxed, and the body cannot relax when the mind is tense.


The Chinese martial arts teach four levels of power: tui li (pushing power), baofa li (explosive power), qun li (inch power) and tou li (penetrating power). The first objective for most practitioners is to develop explosive power in the basic kicks: the front kick, roundhouse kick, side kick, ax kick and spinning back kick.

When practicing the front kick, start with your legs together and face your target. Raise the knee of your kicking leg as high as possible and slide your body forward while kicking up and out. Strike first with your heel, then with the ball and toe of your foot.

Always kick as high as possible in practice, and try to achieve maximum power and speed at the highest point of your kick. As you hit the target, thrust your hip outward so your kick goes through the target, rather than simply hitting it. As you slide forward, the foot of your supporting leg will naturally pivot slightly outward at a 45-degree angle, and the thrusting motion of your hip will cause you to lean backward and arch your spine.

To perform the roundhouse kick, begin by standing perpendicular to your target. Raise the knee of your kicking leg as high as possible to the side. Simultaneously pivot on your supporting foot more than 90 degrees away from the target, twist your hip and kick horizontally, striking with any portion of your leg between your mid-shin and instep.

Depending on the distance to the target, you may wish to slide your supporting foot forward. Lean back naturally as you kick, but keep your torso perpendicular to the target. Focus on kicking directly across at the point of contact; your kick should go through the target.

In executing the side kick, you also should stand perpendicular to the target. Lift the knee of your kicking leg as high as possible to the front or side, then extend your leg to the side while pivoting your supporting foot more than 90 degrees away from your opponent. Drive your hip forward as you strike with the bottom of your foot.

You may slide your supporting foot forward, and your body should remain perpendicular to your target. It is OK to lean backward as you kick, but do not turn your torso away from the target.

Many people limit their explosive power in the side kick by turning their upper body away from the target and rotating the hip of their kicking leg inward, with their knee and toes turned downward. Instead, keep your body sideways, your hips open, and the knee and toes of your kicking leg turned upward.

For the ax kick, begin by facing your target. Keeping your kicking leg straight, lift it at a slight diagonal (if you are kicking with your right leg, lift it to the left, and vice versa). Next, kick diagonally down and across the target (down and to the right with your right leg, down and to the left with your left leg).

As you slam your leg downward with full force, drive your hip forward and arch your back. You can slide your supporting foot forward if necessary. As you kick, that foot will turn slightly outward.

The spinning back kick is usually used in combination with another strike — frequently a roundhouse or inward crescent kick — that first distracts the opponent. When beginning the spinning back kick, stand perpendicular to the target, with your kicking leg on the opposite side. While pivoting your supporting foot approximately 180 degrees, lift your leg out to the side and kick across, with your leg and foot parallel to the floor. The kick should travel in a wide horizontal arc around your body.

As you do the technique, extend your whole body, drive your hip outward and strike with the heel or sole of your foot. Your back will arch naturally. When performed at sufficient speed, the entire motion will generate a powerful whip-like action.

Remember that the positions described above are for optimal conditioning of the body in practice. In a fight, use whatever position is most effective. For example, you might opt to kick low instead of high. However, if you kick high in practice, you will know that your body is properly conditioned to kick at whatever height is most effective at a particular moment.

Similarly, the foot positions I recommend when striking in practice provide optimal conditioning for your legs. In a fight, do not limit yourself to a single foot position for each kick. For example, while performing a side kick, be prepared to use the sole of your foot, the heel, the ball and/or the toe.

It is essential to use your entire body when kicking. You must fully extend it and drive your full force in the direction of your kick. Your whole body forms one uninterrupted line of power. Never try to generate force with only your legs. Use your waist in every kick. It functions like an axle attached to a wheel: Power comes not from your legs, but from the twisting motion of your waist and the pivoting of your foot.

Your body should move like a whip: The power generated by the twisting and pivoting action travels through your leg and explodes into the target. The key to generating this explosive power is being relaxed until the moment of contact. Your technique should be as soft as cotton before striking and as hard as steel when it hits. Remember to strike all the way through the target, rather than merely aiming at it.

Since all your power explodes outward at the moment of contact, your landing and recovery should be light and controlled. Strike with the force of a mountain, but land with the lightness of a feather.


Achieving optimal speed is the hardest part of learning how to kick. Many practitioners slow themselves down by using rear-leg kicking techniques in training. In a real fight, however, by the time you lift your rear leg, twist your body into position and pivot your foot, chances are you have already lost the opportunity to kick.

If you are an advanced practitioner, you should be able to simply lift your front leg and kick instantaneously. If you have not yet developed power in the basic kicks, you can use a small skip or step before executing a leg technique. When using a step, avoid stepping in front because it can lock your supporting leg and make it impossible to generate much power. Once you have mastered this method, practice lifting your front leg and kicking without a jump, skip or step.

It is also important to lift your thigh as you kick. However, do not make lifting and kicking two separate movements. Raise your leg and kick in one smooth, continuous motion. Ensure that your kick travels at full speed from beginning to end and back.

Some practitioners raise their leg too slowly, then attempt to add speed during the extension. Others kick outward quickly but draw their leg in too slowly. Both errors will reduce effectiveness.

Harmony, both external and internal, is essential in developing optimal kicking speed. The three major parts of the body — the head, torso and legs — must be fully coordinated to create the whip-like action that generates maximum speed. You must also coordinate your mind, body and chi.

The more relaxed you are, the more speed you can generate, and more speed usually translates into more power. Move spontaneously, without stopping to think. Thinking too much hinders relaxation and slows you down. Once you begin to think, you have already lost the fight.


The greatest obstacle to developing good timing is often the use of applications. I never teach applications because in a real fight, applications never work.

Forms and basic movements are useful because they develop the strength, power, speed and reaction time that will help you achieve the ultimate goal: to immediately seize any opportunity to knock out your opponent. Clinging rigidly to applications will slow you down by making your mind and body inflexible, hindering your ability to react spontaneously.

As stated above, even the basic kicks are never executed in a fight exactly the same way they are performed in practice. You must be able to kick from different positions and at different heights, using different parts of your feet and legs. You must also be able to use your knees, elbows, shoulders, head, etc. You should learn the techniques as part of your training, but when the time comes to use them, you must empty your mind and act without thinking.

Shaolin fighting philosophy holds that there is no dichotomy in fighting. Offense and defense, striking and blocking, action and reaction — they are all one and the same.

There is also no distinction between internal and external power. Without one, you cannot have the other. The six harmonies (hands with feet, shoulders with hips, elbows with knees, heart with mind, mind with chi, and chi with power) must all be coordinated for you to maximize your power.

Learn how to express your full power in the basic movements before you begin to fight. You must have a strong foundation because there are no beginning, middle and advanced stages in learning how to fight. The only way to learn how to fight is to fight.

Just as practicing applications will slow you down, so will practicing blocking the same kick over and over, or having your opponent tell you what type of strike he will perform before he does it. It is essential to make your reactions spontaneous.

Finally, remember that your training as a martial artist does not end when you leave the ring or the practice hall. Everything you do in life is part of training, whether you are sleeping, eating, standing still, walking down the street, sitting at your desk or climbing a mountain. Shaolin Temple kung fu teaches that your life is the martial arts and the martial arts are your life.

Story by Shi Yan Ming, with Allan David Ondash and Meiling Gong

Shi Yan Ming is on the cover of the February/March 2019 issue of Black Belt. Click here to subscribe.

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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.


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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