What’s The Difference Between Karate & Tae Kwon Do? (Part 2)

Well my last post on the differences between Karate and Tae Kwon Do certainly got a quite a lot of discussion going (especially on the Facebook page).  So I thought that I would look at the subject a bit further.

First of all though, after my last post it was commented by some Tae Kwon Do guys that I had mainly described Tae Kwon Do from a sports perspective.  I totally accept that comment.  But I will repeat what I said in the last posting:-

“Tae Kwon Do has been through a number of incarnations starting with a form that was quite close to Karate, through to a much more Olympic sport oriented version.   Therefore we have to accept that not all of my observations will apply to every Karate/Tae Kwon Do style.  These observation are intended to be of a general nature”.

I think it is fair to say that those who practice applied practical Tae Kwon Do will generally learn two approaches.  For competition, they will use a stance and techniques as broadly described in my earlier posting, yet for practical applications they use more traditional stances as used in the patterns (which after all contain the more “street-wise” self defense moves).

There is also another quite pronounced difference in approach in some (but not all) versions of Tae Kwon Do and that is the inclusion of a sine-wave movement.  This where the practitioner will raise their centre of gravity up as they approach the half way mark of the technique (usually seen as a chambering position) then sink down as the technique is executed.  When executed with a step, the practitioner will move up and down in a sine-wave motion.  The theory behind this is that the on impact the striking surface (lets say the fist) will have both a forward vector  (from the step) and and downward vector (from lowering the body) applied to it, thereby increasing its impact.

Karate and older versions of Tae Kwon Do will remain at the same height throughout the step.  This removes the downward vector of dropping the body weight, but makes more use of compressing the supporting leg half way through which is then released like a spring to increase the drive forward.  I would like to emphasise that I’m not saying either method is better than the other, just that they are different.

You can clearly see the difference in these two video clips.

The first is Ed Newcomer, 6th Dan Internation Tae Kwon Do Federation and the second is Kanazawa, 10th Dan Shotokan Karate.

Sometimes in the Tae Kwon Do (with sine-wave) version, there appears to be a little pause half way through, or the first part of the movement seems to be slow then accelerate during the second half of the movement.  In contrast, Karate and older versions of Tae Kwon Do accelerate from the very beginning of the movement.

I am going to take a guess here and suggest that for those that practice the sine-wave version, that this is seen as a training method rather than a practical way to step.  After all, how often do you need to take a full step like that when sparring/fighting (and if you did, you wouldn’t start slowly).

If I’m wrong, then I’m quite happy to be corrected, it is just a guess!

The older version of Tae Kwon Do which is still very widely practiced does actually look a bit more like Karate than it does Tae Kwon Do with sine-wave (just my opinion).  You can see and example below with former World Patterns Champion, Ray Smeathers.

Another difference between the more modern version of Tae Kwon Do and Karate is that the Tae Kwon Do exponents usually make a “ch” sound as they exhale with each technique.  You will notice that this is missing from the Kanazawa’s kata and Smeather’s pattern.  I have seen/heard this so many times that I know it is intentionally put in, though I don’t really know why.

As exhaling on completion of technique is practiced in Karate, Kung Fu and older versions of Tae Kwon Do, without the “ch” sound, it is clearly not required make exhalation happen.  Again I can only guess, but it seems to be a way to let the instructor know that the student is exhaling at the right places. Maybe it is felt that the “ch” sound makes the exhalation happen more quickly (again a guess . . . . I don’t know).

I would appreciate any Tae Kwon Do exponents who practice with the “ch” sound, to please leave a comment below to let us know the true purpose of it.

Again I emphasise that this posting (as with the last one) is simply to look at the  differences between Karate and Tae Kwon Do so as to help practitioners gain a better understanding and hopefully a better appreciation of the other style.  It is not intended to be a one-up-manship for either style.

It was commented last time that I was “brave” as comparisons between styles often end up as a big slagging match.  I would love for people to comment and fill in any gaps that I’ve let out, but I will delete any derogatory comments about any style or organisation.  Keep it friendly.

What’s The Difference Between Karate & Tae Kwon Do? (Part 1)

Karate and Tae Kwon Do are related styles.  Tae Kwon Do is largely based on Shotokan Karate.  When Karate was first introduced to Japan by Funakoshi, it had very few high kicks.  As high kicks became more prevalent in Karate decades later, some Karateka turned to Tae Kwon Do to perfect these kicks.

So both styles have been influenced each other to some degree, yet they have a very different flavour and (sadly) often a lot of rivalry.  So I thought I would have an unbiased look at what the differences are, and what has influenced them to become so different.

This is not intended to be an attack on either system.  Instead, I hope it will give people of either style a better appreciation of where the other style is coming from.  I have to confess though that whereas I have a in depth knowledge of Karate, I am basing my opinions on Tae Kwon Do on my observations; so I don’t claim that I am necessarily 100% correct.

I also have to point out that as there are many styles of Karate and Tae Kwon Do and that my Karate observations will be mainly from a Shotokan (and the older traditional Karate styles) perspective.  Tae Kwon Do has been through a number of incarnations starting with a form that was quite close to Karate, through to a much more Olympic sport oriented version.   Therefore we have to accept that not all of my observations will apply to every Karate/Tae Kwon Do style.  These observation are intended to be of a general nature.

So having established that, what actually drives the differences?  I would say that the main driving factor is that Karate is primarily focuses on hand techniques with legs as backup, whereas Tae Kwon Do is primarily a kicking style with hands as backup.  This leads to a number of other changes as the styles gear themselves up for their favoured techniques.

The first thing is the stance.  The Karate stance is generally lower.  As Karateka focus on hands, the legs are often more “coiled”, ready to drive the body forward.  The body weight is lower, knees relaxed but more bent and the legs often have a feeling of being “sprung-loaded” ready to drive forward.  This is very sensible for a puncher.

However, if you are primarily a kicker, you may not want your legs “spring loaded”.  Tae Kwon Do fighters often like to kick of the front leg.  To do that, you want your legs to be “looser”, with the stance generally higher and legs straighter.

One of Karate’s most favoured techniques is the reverse punch.  To do this properly you need a full hip rotation.  This in turn means that you feet (when viewed from the front) are about shoulder width apart and the weight distributed fairly evenly between the feet.

If however, your favoured technique is a leading leg kick, you are more likely to fight with your feet in line and most of weight on your back leg, allowing that front leg to come up very easily.

The first time I sparred with my brother in law who is a 2nd Tae Kwon Do, we took up our fighting stances and squared up to each other.  With a bit of a smile on his face he looked at me and said, “big target”.  My first thought was, “is he trying to say I’m fat”?  However, it got me thinking.  He had been taught that standing side on makes you a smaller target.  With respect to Tae Kwon Do people who are taught that, I think that’s a flawed argument for several reason.

  • Many Tae Kwon Do techniques are aimed high at the head and if you train for hitting the head, then the torso is a much bigger target (side on or front on).
  • With circular techniques like roundhouse kick/turning kick, which come in from the side, a side on profile obviously offers the larger target.
  • Many of us (unfortunately) have a side profile as wide as our front profile 🙂

Respectfully I would suggest to Tae Kwon Do fighters that your side on fighting stance has nothing to do with being a smaller target, it is to do with your front leg kicking being much easier.

Punching is also effected.  In Karate, the punch is powered by the hips with the shoulders relaxed and low.  The “spring loaded” legs also drive the hips round very fast.  In Tae Kwon Do, the punch is also primarily powered by the hips.  However, when feet are in line (for front leg kicking), it is not so easy to get the hip round.  Also with the legs almost straight (not spring loaded) the hip rotation is not so easy to drive forward.  Therefore Tae Kwon Do compensates by committing the shoulders slightly more than a Karateka does.  Being a newer art than Karate, Tae Kwon Do has some boxing/kickboxing influences which the older traditional Karate styles do not have.  Boxing/kickboxing also commits the shoulder that little bit more than Karate.

The arms are also held differently in the fighting stance.  Being Karate’s main weapons, a Karateka will tend to be hold the arms more forward (a Karateka will usually expect to engage with his hands/arms first).  The arms provide a defensive barrier keeping the opponent at bay and allowing time for the hands to cover the both the head and body.  The leading hand usually points towards the opponents head, ready to extend the moment the opponent come to close and also guards his own head.  The rear hand is usually about stomach height ready to take a powerful finishing blow and also covers the lower torso.

Tae Kwon Do fighters on the other hand expect to engage with their legs first.  Kicks to their body are often intercepted with their own leg coming up looking for an opening to counter kick.  There hand therefore tend to be kept further back and higher to guard to head (as the legs already guard the body).

So that to my mind is the main differences between Karate & Tae Kwon Do.  Both can kick and punch.  However, Karateka will not kick as efficiently, especially of the front leg as half of their weight is on that leg.

Tae Kwon Do people will not punch as efficiently as their legs are not sprung loaded to drive forward and the feet being in line makes the hip rotation that little bit more restricted.

I hope this will give a better understanding on the differences and with that understanding, hopefully a bit more tolerance.  I hope people will comment and leave their views, just keep it respectful or comments will be deleted.