HOW TO BE A GOOD TAEKWONDOIST
Since I received a black belt in the summer of 2004, I quickly realized how easy it is to lose some sharpness with the taekwondo techniques. Not only did I notice it in my techniques, but I also noticed it in other black belts. Also, I noticed that some newer black belts didn't quite have the same kind of sharpness that was expected of me when I was training. I asked myself, "What is happening here?"
First, for me it was probably that I wasn't training enough of the basic techniques that earned me the right to wear a black belt. Second, I had switched do jangs during the past year and noticed a difference in the regular training there compared to what I was used to during my formative years as a colour belt. Thirdly, as a black belt I need to learn advanced techniques on the assumption that my basic techniques are good enough; consequently, much time is spent on learning these rather than reviewing the basics. Not wanting to lose even a margin of the skill I achieved (hey, it was a rough haul getting to my black belt having knee surgery and having to re-learn everything), I reviewed some of the best training I ever received while I was a colour belt.
Here in this article, I present some of the best basic training drills that I know. Please note: if you do not currently train in taekwondo, DO NOT try these drills without any guidance. Proper technique in martial arts can only be taught in person and cannot be learned from any book or article. As with any martial art book, the techniques in this article are to be done in conjunction with current training practices. This article is primarily aimed at black belts (whether or not you received your black belt yesterday or five years ago) as well as colour belts (9th to 1st gup). Beginners (white belts) may not know all the techniques mentioned here, but are welcome to take some of the ideas here. If you are a beginner, I'd recommend asking an advanced belt to help you with some of the techniques mentioned here. Nothing is better than having someone in person who might be able to give you more tips on your training.
Now here's some of my best training drills for the basics. These are the drills that helped me sharpen my techniques and become not just good, but one of the better black belts. It should take about 30 minutes to run-through these at least once.
Horse stance drill punches
This drill should be familiar to almost all taekwondoists. From joonbi go into horse stance chambering both fists to your hips and then left punch out. Then do a total of 150 speed punches. First, do 50 then 40, 30, 20, and finally 10. Do these punches as fast as you can while maintaining proper form, i.e., fully extended punches and full chamber to the hip. Remember the punch starts palm up at the hip then twists to palm down for the strike. To add more power to your punches, twist your hip and shoulder into every punch. Maintain proper breathing technique while punching, exhaling with each punch.
The horse stance helps with your posture and technique which is why I found this drill to be particularly effective. Good form and posture helps with all your martial arts techniques. This stance in particular also helps with maintaining an open energy pathway for chi to flow and helps with your breathing. A side benefit of punching in horse stance if done with proper chambering will help loosen your back and oblique muscles (side muscles). Hold your horse stance position as low as you can to build quad muscles, feet pointed straight forward (builds the middle of the quad). If you need to build the outside of your quad, turn your feet inward about 45 degrees; conversely, if you need to build the inside of your quad, turn your feet outward about 45 degrees. Just remember that correct horse stance in taekwondo has the toes pointed forward. Lastly, check to make sure your horse stance isn't too narrow or wide, it should only be about 2 shoulder-widths apart. Your back should be straight and you should not be leaning forward or backwards. If you get a back-ache doing punches in horse stance, you'll need to correct your form.
Horse stance blocking
Practicing blocks in horse stance provides the same benefits as when doing punches. In addition, once horse stance becomes quite natural, you don't have to think about the stance as much and can just concentrate on your blocks and punches. This stance was also used in a set of hand strike and blocking forms I learned at my former do jang. This drill is obviously just an adaptation of the above. To practice your blocks, go into horse stance, fists chambered at the hips. Do 20 to 40 repetitions of low block, the three types of middle blocks, and high blocks. Alternate left and right, so that you do 10 to 20 for each side.
As with the punching, maintain your horse stance and put full power into each block as if it was a striking technique. Do these blocks as fast as you can without losing proper form. Make sure you are blocking correctly with the blade part of your forearm and snap the wrist at the very end of the technique. (If you were to do this on a focus pad, snap the wrist just before you make contact.) All these blocks should end about one fist away from the body. Make sure your low blocks aren't too straight, your middle blocks aren't too extended, and your high blocks are angled at 45 degrees. For the high block, the wrist should line up with your body's meridian (the invisible vertical line dividing your body in left and right halves from top to bottom). To add more power into your block, advanced belts and black belts should be using their body and shoulders - just like in the punches, the hip and shoulder should twist into the technique. With blocking though, there is one additional variation to the hip and shoulder twist - turn away from the direction of the technique first then twist into the block (don't look away though; keep your eye on your target - in this case an invisible one, use your imagination!). Over time, you will notice that you automatically twist into your blocks. Adding the twist to your techniques will also greatly improve your patterns.
Back-stance knife hand blocking
There are at least two sets of drills for this. First is the single knife hand block and the second is the double knife hand block. These drills are done starting in horse stance, then switch to back stance when executing the block. (If you have space, you can do this drill in back stance stepping forward and backward and turning around.) First, go into horse stance. The first drill is the single knife hand block. Start with the left side and alternate - left then right. Do at least 20 (10 both sides). Next, practice double knife hand. Then for the really advanced and to build speed do double knife hand twice - one middle, one low (instead of alternating, do 5 sets on one side, then another 5 on the other).
The double knife hand block in back stance is admittedly one of the hardest blocking techniques to learn to do well. Often the biggest mistake is not extending the arms fully all the way back before executing the block. The blocking hand should start palm up and end palm down and the other hand should start palm down and end palm up. Both wrists should snap into the block. The elbow of the blocking arm should be pointing straight down and it is better to have the wrist straight and not bent. Your blocking arm should not be extended too far forward - there should only be a fist gap between the arm and the side of the body. The arm should be bent at the elbow about 90 degrees. When executing the double knife hand block, the supporting hand should be blocking your solar plexus and should not be tucked into the body. It should be about a fist away from the body (if you get hit hard in your supporting arm, you won't hit yourself with your own knife hand!). Remember that only the tips of fingers of your knife hand should be bent - the rest of your hand should be straight and held firm. The thumb should be bent and held snug. As with your other blocks, turn with the hip and shoulder to get more power.
When doing your back stance, remember that your feet should form an L-shape about 1.5 times your shoulder width. Your front foot should point straight forward and your back foot should point to the side. You should be able to draw a straight line from heel to heel - that is, your heels should line up. Your weight distribution should be about 60% to the back and both knees should be bent.
No, I'm not going crazy! Believe it or not, this is the best way to learn every kick after front snap kick, stretch kick, axe kick and crescent kicks. This drill helps correct your body alignment and loosens up the hip joint which is needed for roundhouse kick, side kick, hook kick, back kick, and spinning hook kick. It also helps you get used to the balance needed for these kicks.
First, find a wall and stand in fighting stance in front of it about an arm's length away. Make sure you have good clearance space around you for your kicks, especially in front. To make it easy to explain, let's start in left fighting stance (left foot front, right foot back). You'll be practicing the kicks on the right leg. (Note: these kicking drills are all rear leg kicks.) Put your left hand on the wall behind you, lean back and slowly turn your supporting foot towards the wall (your toes should point to the wall). Your body moves to face to the left. As you turn, lift your right leg into chamber position (i.e., knee bent).
Starting with roundhouse kicks, your leg at this point should be bent fully back, your heel almost touching your buttocks (depending on your flexibility) and your knee pointing straight out. Push your buttocks in. Then slowly extend your leg into the roundhouse kick position. There are two foot positions for roundhouse kicks. The first one is what is used in olympic sparring and when kicking focus pads. You kick with the top of your foot, toes pointed. The second one is with your ankle extended, but toes pulled back - kick with the balls of the foot. This one is the one you actually use if you were to kick a board or someone on the street. Work with both of these variations for this drill. (If you can't kick high, start low. You can modify this same drill so that you can stretch to kick high.) Check to make sure that your ankle, your knee, your hip and your shoulder are all in one line - that is, your body should be in one line and fully extended forward into the kick. Your hip should be turned over and your buttocks should not be sticking out. Until you get used to being in this position (perfect body alignment), you might feel a bit of muscle pain in your gluteus and obliques (buttocks and side muscles). To stretch out your leg and get higher kicks, hold your extended kicking position then lift your foot higher and hold the stretch for 10 seconds. When you are ready for higher kicks, chamber your knee higher and lean a bit further back without losing your balance. The higher the chamber and the more you lean back, the higher the kick. This applies for every kick except for axe kick, stretch kick, and crescent kicks.
There are a variety of drills based off of this. First, in chamber position, keeping your knee up and never touching the ground, do about 30 to 50 kicks as fast as you can. Since this is roundhouse, you just have to snap out your kick at the knee. This will build your quad muscles. Remember to fully extend your kick and keep your alignment. Also, it is very important that you also re-chamber properly after each kick. This uses your hamstring muscles. Basically, this drill starts out in a chamber position, then you kick and re-chamber each time. IF you have a bad knee, start out this drill doing ten SLOW kicks. This will help loosen up your knee and warm it up by gently getting the synovial fluid in your knee to move around. The next drill is to do the kicks from fighting position using the wall behind you for support if you need it. Remember that as you chamber for your kick, you have to start turning your supporting foot a full 180 degrees facing the wall. If you are not used to the balance, you may be very thankful there is a wall behind you for your hand to touch! Executing a good roundhouse kick requires timing. Just as your supporting foot is turned nearly 180 degrees is when you should extend your kick. Practice will help you develop your intuition for this. Do about 10 to 30 kicks from fighting position as fast as you can with proper alignment, full 180 degree pivot, and a fully extended kick (turning the hip over). Also, remember to re-chamber using the hamstrings. After re-chambering, return to fighting stance without putting your foot down in front and then pulling it back. This means that you will pivot for the kick and then pivot to get back to your starting position - doing so allows you to build better balance. When you're done, switch fighting stances and do the same drill on the other leg.
For side kicks, do everything as above up to the chamber except switch your chamber to a side kick one. This is pulling your knee towards your chest. With your knee to your chest, adjust your kicking foot to a blade position. Then extend your leg. Use your hip to push straight forward. In contrast to the roundhouse kick, this kick is 100% hip. All your power comes from the gluteus, so push straight out with the kick. Again, check to make sure your alignment is correct. The alignment is the same as with roundhouse. Once fully extended, your ankle, knee, hip and shoulder should line up. Your buttocks shoud not be sticking out. Like the roundhouse drill you can also stretch with this to get higher side kicks. Next, do the drills like the roundhouse ones. This time though remember your chamber is knee to chest and the kick is snapping straight out using the hip. Turn the hip fully over as you extend your kick forward. Always re-chamber your kick.
Next is hook kick and spinning hook kick. Do everything up to the chamber like the side kicks. This time instead of extending the kick straight out, extend it about 30 degrees off center to the opposite side of your kicking leg. Extend the kick just as if it were a side kick, then using your hips, sweep across with your leg keeping a level straight line. Your toes should be pointed for the sweep. Your kick ends about 30 degrees off center on the same side as your kicking leg. Then re-chamber as in a roundhouse kick and move into the side kick chamber for the next kick. When you are doing this kick from fighting stance, only re-chamber as in roundhouse kick and then return to fighting stance. Remember to pivot for the kick and then to pivot back. Do this kick as in the roundhouse drills above. Remember to re-chamber in roundhouse (this kick is often thought of as a reverse roundhouse because of the sweep motion and the chamber) and chamber in side kick. Try to keep your sweeping motion level. It should be parallel to the floor. It should not start high and drop low or start low and end up high. If you're not sure when your kick ends, one thing I keep in mind is does my hip keep turning more? If not, then you probably reached the end of the kick and should re-chamber. With practice, you'll start to intuitively know when you've completed the kick. Once you can execute a hook kick well enough, you're almost ready to learn spinning hook kick. You need to learn the back kick as well. The basics of the back kick and hook kick are important to executing a good spinning hook kick.
Finally the back kick. This one is done slightly differently from the three above, but is perhaps one of the easier ones to do off the wall. In fighting stance, turn so that you face the wall square and lift your leg into a front snap chamber. In turning around, your supporting foot should have turned 180 degrees to face the wall as well. Your knee should be facing the wall and your toes pointing to the ground. Look over the shoulder of your kicking leg and extend your leg straight out. Use your hips to put more power in the kick. You should feel this in your lower back muscles. Then re-chamber. Do this kick as in the roundhouse drills. The major difference is when you are doing this in fighting stance, you have to turn to face the wall and then kick. When you re-chamber, you return to your original fighting stance. This means you will have turned 360 degrees completely. One good tip to remember is to stay on your toes. Actually, you should do that for all your kicks. You'll notice that your kicks will execute faster and smoother when you pivot on your toes.
Here are some tips for spinning hook kick, after you've worked on back kick and hook kick and have developed good balance, you can practice the spinning hook kick. You can't do this off the wall - that's why you need the good balance - so this drill just stands on its own and if you have time for it. The back kick and hook kick drills really are just the basics for a spinning hook kick. To execute a spinning hook, I like to think of it as turning to do a back kick except that the kick is executed about 30 degrees off center to the side opposite my kicking leg at which point this is just a hook kick. All I have left to do is finish the hook kick. As with the back kick, look over the same shoulder as your kicking leg and use your hip to put power into the kick. As with the hook kick, try to maintain a level straight line across. Re-chamber when your hip turns over as far as it can. As with any kick, chamber the knee up and lean back while maintaining balance. As with all kicks and most importantly for the spinning hook kick, stay on your toes!
The above drills in total should take about 30 minutes, but it's perfectly fine if it takes you longer. It's better to learn the techniques properly first and be comfortable with them before building up speed. Eventually, you will need to work on besting your own speed. If you have extra time, practice other blocks and hand techniques in horse stance - cross blocks, knife hand variations, back fist variations, elbow strikes (there is also a form to do this in horse stance), spear hand, ridge hand, palm-heel strike, arc-hand strike, and knuckle punch. (Remember to twist your shoulder and hip into all your techniques!)
Once you've covered all the basics in a quick review, you can work on some advanced techniques or combinations. It's time to hit the do jang and bug your Master. There's much to cover in taekwondo once you get to black belt (or advanced colour belt), but try to take it slow and work on maybe 2 to 3 new techniques each time you train. Most people start doing 360s at black belt (granted, some advance colour belts who are extremely talented already know how to do this and even some lower belts - this is often due to prior martial arts training). Advanced colour belts should now be learning jumping back kick and jumping spinning hook kick as well as tornado kicks (roundhouse and axe kick variations). Intermediates should already be learning hop step kicks and jumping front snap kicks. There's a good variety of hand techniques for a black belt. You can work on combinations with blocks and strikes. Think Jackie Chan style. :) Of course, you can work on kicking combinations and olympic sparring techniques. Also work on any required techniques - you know, the one-steps (I also learned appreciation forms and self-defence forms). Don't forget about your patterns! If you aren't breaking a sweat after doing all eight colour belt patterns and your black belt patterns (up to your level), you aren't doing them properly. If you take what is taught in the drills I listed above and apply them to your patterns, you'll notice a big difference. For one thing, your patterns will be more exciting - just like those 9th dan Grandmasters.
In addition to the basic training drills, good physical conditioning definitely contributes to being a good taekwondoist (or martial artist). Cardio work and weight training helps ensure that your body stays strong and can handle more intense training. Running is by far the best for cardio. Try to run at least three times a week. Aim to be able to run one mile regularly in under ten minutes. Weight training keeps your muscles strong and prevents injuries from all the strenuous hand strikes and kicking. Never deny the benefits of a good stretching regimen. You want those extreme high kicks and an edge on your competitors? Even if you're not competing, the added flexibility from stretching is a plus in self-defence. Plus, stretching promotes better breathing technique and helps with your body alignment and agility. All of this contributes to being a good taekwondoist and maintaining it. (Yes, I know it's a lot of work, but it's worth it!)
Tae Kwon Do: the Ultimate Reference Guide to the World's Most Popular Martial Art by Yeon Hee Park, Yeon Hwan Park, and Jon Gerrard (An excellent primer on taekwondo and contains all eight colour belt patterns.)
Black Belt Tae Kwon Do: the Ultimate Reference Guide to the World's Most Popular Black Belt Martial Art by Yeon Hee Park, Yeon Hwan Park, and Jon Gerrard (This book continues where their last one left off - black belt. It contains all nine black belt patterns and even has a chapter on how to run your own do jang.)
Taekwondo: the State of the Art by Master Sung Chul Whang and Master Jun Chul Whang with Brandon Saltz (One of the best books I've read on taekwondo. It contains loads of information. It describes the techniques well and tells how to practice. I've done many of the drills in this book at the do jang. It has loads of information on the sport of olympic sparring, but emphasizes the difference between sport and self-defence. It has all eight colour belt patterns.)
Modern Taekwondo: the Official Training Manual by Soon Man Lee and Gaetane Ricke (This book is best used for the patterns. It has two basic patterns, all eight colour belt patterns, and all the black belt patterns. In addition, it has the former and rarely taught palgwes - an older set of eight patterns. I mainly bought this book for this reason. I love doing patterns and wanted to learn the palgwes.)
Ultimate Guide to Tae Kwon Do: the Best of Inside Kung-Fu edited by John R. Little and Curtis F. Wong (A good selection of articles from Inside Kung-Fu. Often gives some interesting ideas and things to think about.)
Copyright C.J. Chow January 2006