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.


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

  1. It is always great to see someone who cares enough to point out the fine details about TKD. I think there are a lot of misconceptions about Karate vs. TKD. Thanks for the great article.

  2. Pingback: Martial Arts: Learning to Kick Butt at Xen-Do | Just A Platform
  3. Well done Karate girl, beating somebody 2 years older when you’re only 13 is very good. But like you say, it’s the player not the style.

  4. Hello Sir, I really like how your ideas are like mine and I also agree your facts and opinions. I am 13 years old and black belt holder. I won to WTF Taekwondo player at our school competition. He’s 2 years older and also a 2nd dan black belt in Taekwondo. He’s not really bad. He always won in Taekwondo to Taekwondo challenges.
    Anyway, I do respect both martial art since Taekwondo is like Karate’s younger brother. I love my siblings and family in real, too. I am a Karateka and I use to fight him with leg with punches as back up. I dodged and blocked his actions. I notice something from his reactions. He didn’t frequently use to block me. He used to jump and move in and out instead and I just focus on his every action turn opposite and high kick his head. Like that way we fight.
    My stance were just right and normal, not too sprung loaded or legs being so straighten.
    Nevertheless, both Karate and Taekwondo are great in their way, there are no “better” in any martial arts. Winning or losing depends on the user’s skill. Even in Karate to Karate competitions, there must be a winner and on the other hand, a loser. Right? The same goes for Taekwondo to Taekwondo competitions. It really is up to the player’s skill and practicing skill they practice.

    If Taekwondo player didn’t practice well, then that Taekwondo will lose when he compete with someone.
    If Karate player didn’t practice well, that Karate player will also lose when in challenge. It is very simple that the answer is depends on the player’s practice skill.

    Thanks for reading this comment. Again, I do appreciate this article about differences. And I wish Karate can be in Olympic soon in future!

  5. I enjoy this selection of opinions because it allows me to make informed decisions about my choices in training. And I deal with enough belligerent people already proclaiming strikes and throws to not work in fights. Then those people fly off balance into steel and concrete along with other items happening. These strikes have a place just like many other things.
    And back I go to slap some iron with people looking for the secret technique used with the hand movement. Things just seem to happen at real life speed and the time to evaluate for the future is through learning at important places like this one.

  6. I liked the article and found it fair to both sides. I practice ITF Taekwondo and appreciate both arts. I have competed against Karateka and enjoyed the challenge. Thanks again for your insight!

  7. Hi Shahbaz

    There are many different types of Karate, TKD and Kung Fu. The different types are usually called “styles”.

    Starting with Karate (which is my main system) the most widely practiced styles are Shotokan (which I practice), Shotokai, Shitoryu, Goju Ryu, Wado Ryu and Kyukushinkai. There are a number of smaller styles and the number is growing all the time.
    You could write a book on all the different styles and the differences, so it is a bit too much to answer here. However, if you go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karate and scroll about a third of the way down you will see links to the main styles which will explain the differences. Very basically, most contain the same techniques, but some emphasise speed, some emphasise power, some emphasise kicking whilst others emphasise hands, some emphasise linear strikes whilst others emphasise circular. Then some people will practice a second system (Aikido, JuJutsu, Kung Fu, Tai Chi, etc) and incorporate elements of those systems into their Karate and create and “new style”. Then again some will adapt what they learn to suit their own physiques, needs and environments and also create a new style.

    As for TKD, there are a number of versions of that too. Some of the earlier versions are quite close to Karate. Some of the later versions have had a lot of Korean development included. If you look at Part 2 of my comparison (http://bunkaijutsu.com/2011/04/what%E2%80%99s-difference-karate-tae-kwon-do-part-2/) you will see that some of the latter versions include a “sinewave” movement. Yet other versions have gone very much down the sports line since TKD became an Olympic sport.

    As for Kung Fu, there are thousands of different styles. As you say, Karate and TKD are quite intertwined. However, Karate comes from Okinawa and was later introduced to Japan and the Okinawan’s learnt a lot of their martial arts from the Chinese. They did of course adapt what they learnt to suit their own specific needs, but Karate (and hence TKD) are very intertwined with Kung Fu as well.

    I hope this helps 🙂

  8. so how many types of karate and taekwondo are there then. forgive me for my basic lack of knowledge but i thought chinese martial art was kung fu, korean martial art was taekwondo and japanese was karate. i learned from this that these forms are intertwined specially karate and tkd and help create each other to the way it is now. so how many types of karate and tkd are there and which are the mains ones and what is the difference between them.

  9. Just discovered that I’ve been linking out to the short version of this book.


    I have since updated my library and corrected the mistake.

  10. Thanks Bob 🙂
    I did consider this to be a bit risky. As I said above, I wanted to help people of each style to better understand the other, though I was concerned that it might end up becoming a big slagging match (with me deleting most of the comments).
    I shouldn’t have worried, people have been more mature than that.

  11. You’re a brave man, Charlie!


    I always like to recommend Tedeschi’s book when this topic comes up. IMO it’s the finest book written on the topic.


    I will only add this to your post: I’ve found that TKD’s stance makes it very easy to add boxing hand techniques. In fact, there is a TKD school in my area that does exactly that (had one of their students visit my old school). Problem is hands are downplayed in competition and score fewer points.

    What this means is that the WTF system is essentially weighted against their use. So, TKD players (me included) generally stop using them. No big deal in a WTF-style match but a big problem from a self-defense perspective.

    Back to my point: My current school (not TKD) teaches kick boxing fundamentals. So it was very easy to upgrade myself to the use of hands. Also I totally agree with King about the back kick (aka reverse side kick). It’s a powerful kick and my old fat butt actually used it to surprise some of our kick boxers with it!

  12. Thanks for your replies guys.
    @ Jo
    Thanks for the link, I’ll have a look later. I agree that the Korean’s played down the Japanese influence. But then when Funakoshi introduced Karate from Okinawa to Japan, he played down some of the Chinese influence for the same reasons (nationalistic fervor). In fairness, at the time of TKD’s inception, memories of WWII would have been still quite fresh, so I can understand them playing down the Japanese connection. It’s all in the marketing 🙂

    @ Bryan
    You make some good points. As I said at the beginning, I don’t practice TKD, so the article above was based on my observations. I don’t claim to have a deep understanding of TKD and all my comments were intended with respect to both arts.
    I would like to answer one point though. Karateka (Shotokan anyway) do use a wider stance than TKD. However, I respectfully feel that it is a bit exagerated to say that the “legs are far apart”. The fighting stance is generally shorter than the stance used in basics.
    The back leg in particular is generally coiled like a spring giving a very rapid forward accelleration when applied. I agree that you cannot step so far when the legs are already spread further, but Shotokan compensates for this by using this “coiled spring” feeling and employing a sliding step with it (so its not just one ordinary step). You can see an example of what I mean in this Youtube video. The guy punching clearly starts from out of range, but slides in reaching his target with ease:
    We would not stand out of range on just on the very limit and try to employ a reverse punch against a kicker, that’s suicidal. However, with the spring and sliding step, it comes down to who is the quickest of the mark.
    I don’t really feel that I’m “comparing apples with oranges”. If I was trying to make a case for either art being superior to the other, then I would say that is a fair comment. However, I’m not arguing for either style to be superior, I’m trying evaluate some of the technical differences in the way techniques are performed, so I feel the comparison is fair. I do acknowledge that is difficult due to the wide range of styles and variations in both Karate and TKD, so the comments will not apply in every case.



  13. All due respect, just to illustrate some points,

    The reason a taekwon-do practitioner keeps his legs in a limber (bouncing) and upright position is exactly the opposite to what you suggest in this piece. There are fighters who do have preference for front leg side-kick….I being one of them. However to be offensive in taekwon-do you need a great deal of thrust to spear the target with the kicking leg. How can you possibly move a great distance forward if your legs are already far apart? Do an experiment for a minute…take a long large stance, now try and move forward…the movement will be slow, inefficient and not adaptable, therefore you are commited completely with no opportunity to adapt.

    Next point, if you are front facing and punch you get no twist from the hips. in taekwon-do (ITF at least) you may jab off the front, hook or launch into a combination.

    Further to that point the side profile minimizes your target area by leaving your back to one side (kicks to the back are not allowed of course) this only leaves the bllind side head shot) the front and side are guarded by the back hand near the face or head and the front hand usually lower to the front to intercept incoming midrift kicks or ready to jab.

    This side position also allows one of taekwon-dos most powerful counters…the back-kick, if a taekwon-do practitioner was to throw one singular reverse punch, they would find that due to the muscle memory built up the puncher would have a foot either in their face or abdomen.

    Anyway as far as I am concerned here you are comparing apples and oranges when the match is stopped after every point it changes the game completely, taekwon-do is based on the presumption that you can engage with hands or feet and you will not be stopped until someone does something illegal or the time is up, it is also a contact sport.

    Shotokan Karate is not a contact sport, it is stopped after every point and has a more traditional grounding. My points are not meant to be disrespectful and infact I have the utmost respect for Karate of every type and indeed every martial art. The simple fact is that without Shotokan, Taekwon-do would not be what it is today and I would have not gained many years of enjoyment from its practice.

    I am thankful for Karate and I am thankful for Taekwon-do and those who practice either should be proud of being part of something that is steeped in history and rich with culture. They are all fantastic ways to develop as a person and no-one should get caught up bickering about the way one or two things are done. Afterall if both of us are asked to clean a car, if at the end the car is clean does it really matter how we cleaned it?

  14. Nice outline of the basic differences between Shotokan karate and Tae Kwon Do. If anyone is interested in some historical articles on TKD’s development and how its roots are based in Shotokan, check this link:

    Also, look for Herb Perez (Olympic Gold TKD champion) articles on Black Belt magazine on the origins of TKD (have the issues, but can’t remember the year they were issued and are boxed out of country). For me, being a shodan in both TKD and Isshin ryu karate, I find the most compelling reason for TKD’s side stance vs karate’s more frontal stances (ie Seisan, zenkutsu dachi) come from emphasis of TKD on one-on-one fighting application, as compared to karate which places more tools at your disposal, at the expense of providing larger target areas. Prior to the WTF making TKD into a sport, the art had much value as a self defense system; but emphasis on competition has robbed it of not just value as a civilian defense method, but as a martial art as well. Also, nationalistic fervor in Korea at the time of TKD’s development did not allow for its creators to admit Japanese influence in their presentation of TKD as an original Korean martial art.

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