How do roundhouse kicks work? Are they actually combat efficient?
The roundhouse kick is a common kick seen in street fights, and for this reason lots of counters have been developed for it. So, it does work, it is effective, and easy to do compared to other kicks. It’s powerful (though not as powerful as the sidekick or back kick), but is the riskiest because it’s easy to trap.
Of the four beginning kicks, the roundhouse is the only kick that comes across the body. The others all strike directly. The roundhouse targets the side of the body or enemies in the fighting stance. This is part of what makes the roundhouse more visible than the other kicks. Your peripheral vision is great for noticing motion coming in on the edge of your vision, and circles are eye-catching. The roundhouse kick is an arc. Like all kicks, it’s one big body movement coming at you in flashing neon lights.
As a general rule, kicks are always riskier than punches. They’re reliant on speed and balance, and they come with obvious tells. Still, kicks are much more powerful than a punch, delivering more force at high speeds directly into the body. After all, with more risks come more rewards.
A single well placed kick can end a fight before it begins… if you can land it.
As for whether the roundhouse is combat efficient, that really depends on the individual and how limber they are. Cold kicks will punish you, pull your hamstrings, and wreck your legs if you’re not stretching on the regular. Your success with using kicks in combat is almost entirely dependent on your flexibility. When jumping into straight into a fight, you don’t get a time out for a five to ten minute warm up.
With that covered, let’s get down to the basics for the roundhouse.
The roundhouse is the second kick you’ll learn in most martial arts systems, after the front kick and before the sidekick. It relies on the rotational power of the hips to bring the leg across the body, striking with either the top or the ball of the foot. The attack comes on a diagonal, with points at either the head, stomach/ribs, or (in some variation) the legs/upper thigh. The structure of the roundhouse is as follows:
1) Beginning Stance:
Unlike the front kick which can be done from any forward facing, standing position, the roundhouse requires you be in a fighting stance.
A stance is a basic part of martial arts, but usually skipped over by Hollywood and beginners for strikes. Strikes are the big flashy moves that get attention because they are flashy. As with everything, the building blocks are often skipped.
Stances are what we call your “base” or how you set your body and your feet. Most martial arts disciplines will have a full set of stances from the front stance to the horse stance, and they will be referred to by different names. The fighting stance is easily recognizable. As it is the stance you’ll see everyone drop into on or off screen when they’re getting ready to fight.
The fighting stance is meant for basic defensive positioning, allowing you to move quickly. In Taekwondo, the fighting stance is one foot forward and the other foot is a step behind (about the width of your shoulders) on a diagonal. The back foot twists sideways roughly to a 45 degree angle, the front foot points forward. Your upper body turns on a diagonal following your back foot. Your hands clench to fists, and rise to your face. The hand over the front foot extends out, the other hand hovers beside your cheek. Your elbows come in, just inside the silhouette of your body. Your knees bend. Weight will adjust in a tilt slightly forward or slightly back depending on attack vector. The bouncing seen in sparring tournaments or boxing is meant to cover these weight shifts. In the fighting stance, you should never stand flat footed.
This is the basic protective stance for sparring.
Body Reader Note: Elbow, hand, upper body, and feet placement are all dead giveaways when someone doesn’t know what they’re doing. Failure begins with your feet. The hands especially, most beginners do not keep their hands far enough apart, their elbows come out too far from the body. Beginners will often leave the front foot flat on the ground with their weight unbalanced, slowing their reaction time.
On Weight Shifts: Leaning back generally means a kick as the upper body tilts backward
for balance when the leg extends. Forward for hands. Settled on the back
leg can also be a defensive posture, versus weight forward which is
more aggressive. You want to be on the balls of your feet because that means quicker response times.
The chamber is the intermediary step between the fighting stance and the kick. This is when you lift your leg off the ground with knee bent. The transition between chamber and kick is where most of the classic mistakes happen. You chamber with either the front or back leg. For the roundhouse kick, the foot left on the ground twists on a ninety degree angle. Your foot to your body should form a perfect right angle. (This is why the roundhouse kick is easy, you only shift another forty-five degrees rather than the full 180 for the sidekick.) The knee is on a similar forty-five degree, ready to extend across the body.
The upper body doesn’t move that much with the roundhouse, unlike the sidekick where the whole upper body tilts onto a forty-five as the leg extends. It tilts ever so slightly to retain balance as you kick and your hips twist.
3) The Kick
As I said before, the roundhouse strikes horizontally or diagonally across the body. It is true to its name. It comes around in a circular motion. The leg extends and swings across/through the opponent’s body as the hips simultaneously twist. When done in a simultaneous motion, the supporting foot twists to a ninety degree angle at the same moment the hips turn over. The upper body tilts with the hips. The leg swings through.
If the hips don’t turn over, then the kick is what we call a “snap kick”. In the case of the roundhouse, this is a kick than snaps up off the knee on a forty-five degree diagonal. It is fast but without power, and usually performed with the front leg only.
Power comes from the hips. You can lay in as much speed as you like, but without turnover there’s no power. (Snap kicks find their best use as openers in point sparring.)
The second problem with most kicks is visualization. You don’t stop when you reach the enemy, you kick through them. This carries the impact and force further.
The roundhouse strikes with either the top of the foot or the ball of the foot. Ball of the foot requires you pull your toes back, or else you’ll break them. Top is the speed kick (light, fast), ball is the power kick (can break ribs). Top of the foot is generally only seen in sparring exercises when your feet are protected by pads, but it’s a good option when you’re wearing shoes and your toes can’t bend.
This is the return to the chamber. After extension finishes, the leg snaps back out of danger. If your opponent doesn’t catch your leg in the moment before the full extension, they can still catch it after the fact. Quick recoil is as essential to a kick’s success as the extension. It’s also necessary to keep us from overextending.
After they’ve mastered the chamber and extension, beginners will often have difficulty with this step. It has all the same problems as the chamber, just going in the opposite direction. A good recoil is a sign of strong control over the leg.
Return to start or prepare for transition into the next kick. The leg comes down, plants itself on the floor, and the fighter is ready to either continue attacking or begin defending.
A poor plant means that you’ve now messed up your fighting stance. If the foot comes down in the wrong place, the stance becomes unbalanced. A stance that is either too wide or two shallow creates opportunities for your opponent to destabilize you and make it difficult to attack again without over extending.
Those are the steps of the roundhouse. Throw them all together and you’ve got the full kick. The roundhouse has a very specific usage in martial arts that makes it valuable. The purpose of the roundhouse is simple: it’s a kick built for striking an enemy who is also in a fighting stance.
When our bodies are turned on a diagonal our vitals are better protected than they are when we’re forward facing. It becomes difficult, or more risky for a direct forward strike to land. The roundhouse attacks in a circle, coming around from the side and on angle. It creates a new vector attack those protected vitals like the stomach.
This is why the roundhouse is a popular kick. It is simple, and effective at ghosting around the first, opening opposition. (It’s also easily blocked with both hands and legs, but that’s a story for another day.) However, this is not why Chuck Norris’ roundhouse became the stuff of legend.
Perhaps more so than the sidekick, the roundhouse is iconic in popular culture.
The roundhouse looks fantastic on film.
It has a beautiful silhouette, it’s eye catching but also easy to follow. It looks more dynamic than most of the other basic kicks, and it’s simple. An actor you’ve only got three months to train before filming can learn the basics of this kick. They won’t look great, but no one can tell. It doesn’t require the same flexibility as the more advanced kicks like the axe kick. Nor does it require the finesse, balance, or control of the sidekick. It’s the sort of kick where general audiences can’t tell if the practitioner is new or their technique sucks, and blends easily with the stunt doubles. Audiences have a difficult time telling the difference between a kick with power and a kick without power.
The roundhouse is the most common kick seen in taekwondo tournaments, and very common in kickboxing for its speed. It is faster and easier than the front kick and the sidekick due to the twist necessary to throw the leg across the body. With the roundhouse, momentum will do most of the work for you. This is why it’s the most common kick to see untrained fighters attempt to mimic, and why it gets used on the streets.
It can be effective without much training, but that person can be totally screwed when paired against someone who knows what they’re doing. Due to it’s vector, the roundhouse is the easiest kick to catch. Whether it’s caught and hooked under the arm for a knee break or the full thing gets caught and lifted into a throw, it doesn’t matter. A poorly performed or unlucky roundhouse can really screw you over. The other problem is that the circular motion of the roundhouse makes it the least camouflaged by the body and the easiest to see coming.
So, yes, the roundhouse can be combat efficient. They’re also dependent on your ability to follow through the steps on rough terrain where friction is not amenable to foot twists. They come with obvious tells for when the kick is about to happen, and there are a lot of counters developed to deal with them.
Whether coming or going, for one side or the other, the roundhouse has the potential to wreck your day.