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.
Stances Optimised For Favoured Technique
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).
Most people simplify things saying that Karate emphasise hands more and Tae Kwon Do emphasise legs more. But it is more accurate to say that Karate is a style optimised for hands, whilst Tae Kwon Do is optimised for a kicking when you take a look at stances, fighting guard and technique.
Both styles 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 am hoping that this post will give a better understanding of the differences between Karate and Tae Kwon Do, and with that understanding hopefully a bit more tolerance of each other.
Has this post helped you to understand the difference better? Are then any points that you’d like to add to the conversation that will be helpful to others?