Shaolin monk Shi Yan Ming teaches the comprehensive kung fu kicking method taught at China's Shaolin Temple.
Meet the martial artist who is on the cover of the February/March 2019 issue of Black Belt (and learn some of his best training tips)!
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