Disclaimer: This is not an article designed to teach you how to kick. This article is designed to teach you about kicks, the principles behind them, and how to include them in your writing. For the uninitiated, you can risk a lifetime of injuries in your legs by practicing any of these without sufficient stretching and an instructor present. If the martial arts are something you’re interested in pursuing, feel free to message us and we can talk about the steps you can take to find a school that might work for you. Remember, we’re not liable for the damage you do to yourself or others in absence of proper training.
This is the second part of the Weapons Primer on Kicks. In the first part, we discussed basic body parts and terminology for kicks and went over the parts of the feet are used in combat. Read the first one here. In this primer we’ll be discussing the four basic kicks themselves: the front kick, roundhouse, side kick, and back kick. We’ll also talk about some of the requirements your character will need to make their kicks effective and some of the important footwork. This is all basics, we’ll be dealing with advanced kicks later. I (Michi) am a Taekwondo practitioner first and foremost when it comes to my technique, so this primer is written from that perspective. Some other fighting disciplines that use kicks as primary are: Savate, Muay’Thai, and Kickboxing. The four basic kicks appear in almost every martial art (though the technical base supporting them changes), if the martial art you choose does not draw it’s techniques from an Asian base (such as the French’s Savate, Brazil’s Capoeira, or Russia’s Systema), then the techniques will look different from what we’re used to seeing out of Hollywood. So, research as needed.
The Front Kick: The front kick is, as you can probably guess given its name, a forward facing kick. Out of all the kicks on this list, it’s the easiest to learn and requires the fewest muscles stretched to perform. It’s fairly easy to develop flexibility in the hamstrings, compared to other muscles on the body.
Step-by Step: To begin a front kick, your character must be facing their opponent with shoulders, toes, and upper torso pointed towards the enemy. The kick can be performed with the back foot or the front foot by combining it with a slide step forwards. The back is more common. The knee drives straight up, much like any knee into the chamber, for the front kick, the knee faces the enemy. The toes pull back towards your fighter and the ankle locks into place, then lower half of the leg snaps upwards driving the ball of the foot into either the stomach, the chest, or to the face.
The Roundhouse: The roundhouse is one of the most common kicks you’ll see on screen. It’s easy to learn, to perform, and its circular motion means that it looks better on camera. The roundhouse has two different versions for how it can connect: the top of the foot or the ball. The top of the foot is safer and used in sparring drills or professional sports like Kickboxing or Taekwondo. The roundhouse is an easy, safe kick. Its rotational power is much stronger than a front kick and is less risky (both in balance and visibility) than the more powerful side kick. The leg moves across the body and makes for an easy transition into any spin kick such as the back kick, the wheel kick, or the tornado kick. For any character that practices a martial art which bases itself in kicking techniques, the roundhouse will be an important part of their bread and butter repertoire.
Step-by-Step: The fighter begins this kick facing their opponent, usually in a fighting stance but if the character is limber enough and has excellent balance they can kick from any standing position. The step-by-step instruction is pretty much the same in theory for both legs. The knee comes up on a diagonal, the balancing foot shifts to point behind the fighter on a 90 degree angle, it either extends up along the line of the hip (faster but weaker using the top of the foot) or the hip flips over to strike in a line across the body and drives the ball of the foot into the stomach, the ribcage, or the chest. A limber fighter can go to the face, but it requires more turn-over in the hips for a solid connection. A roundhouse like any other kick can break bones if it connects solidly enough. The shoulders in the upper body twist with the kick as it extends outwards and the upper body leans back slightly to adjust for balance. The shoulders will follow the leg if the roundhouse precedes going into a turn and point down as the hip fully turns over.
(Pro-Tip: You can tell whether the hips have turned over or not from the position of the foot, if it points upwards on a diagonal then the hips have not turned over, if it points down on a diagonal (the proper position) whether or not the foot is horizontal to the leg with the toes pulled back and the ball extended then the hips have turned over and the leg can sweep across through the body, either stepping through or pulling back. If your character is using the roundhouse to transition into a spin kick, the hip must turn over.)
The Side Kick: The side kick is the most powerful kick on this list. If there is one kick a military expert or police officer will be familiar with, it’s the side kick. It’s also one of the most difficult kicks on this list to learn and like the others is unusual to turn up in any curriculum where the student is required to learn the techniques in a few weeks or months. (Its snap kick version is common in self-defense courses, but that’s because the students don’t need to get it above the waist.) True to its name, the side kick must be performed when the hips are pointing sideways at the target. It’s commonly used against enemies who attack from the side and it saves time, because the fighter doesn’t actually have to turn. It’s slower and more obvious than the other two because the hips have further to go before the kick can be executed. The sidekick strikes with either the blade of the foot or the heel depending on the style.
To use this kick as an opening gambit (or at all), pair it with the slide step to create the speedy slide side kick. Or take a trick from the Russians and grab your opponent first, by the hand or arm so they can’t escape, then drive the foot into the enemy’s side, breaking their ribcage and plowing the bones into their internal organs or alternately, if your character is limber enough into the side of the knee (both of these techniques are either permanently crippling or kill strikes, so use with caution).
The side kick is most easily performed if the hips are already on a line towards the opponent. So, this step by step has more to do with the slide side kick, but the principles are the same. Trying to drag one leg all the way across the body to kick outwards is awkward, so keep that in mind when kicking with the back leg. The side kick can be done to hit an opponent coming from behind, this is known as a reverse side kick or it can easily become a back kick. (Michi Note: The side kick and the back kick can look exactly the same to someone who has never been taught the difference between them and honestly, the differences are minor. We’ll discuss the back kick in the back kick section.)
Step-by-Step: The fighter will start facing their opponent, usually in some form of fighting stance. Turning their hips towards the opponent (the body turns in on the same vector as the leg they plan to kick with as they face sideways), the toes of the balancing leg turn outwards to approximately between 135 and a full 180 degrees, so that the foot faces the direction opposite from that the kick is headed. The knee comes up, the foot pulled sideways on a horizontal so the blade of the foot is facing the opponent. Then, the knee tucks in against the stomach as the upper body leans backwards to adjust for balance as the hip turns and strikes outwards with the blade of the foot.
The side kick, most importantly, can be used in extremely close quarters if the character is limber enough. The others become useless if the opponent gets inside the leg range, this won’t happen with a side kick, which can be thrown even if the character is pressed up tightly against their opponent.
The Back Kick: The back kick is basically the side kick thrown while spinning (if going forward) or the side kick thrown if the enemy is coming in from behind: so, backwards. It’s a little more complicated than that, but this is the general gist. The main difference is that the back kick uses the heel to connect with instead of the blade of the foot (and the chamber can be slightly different, it’s not in Taekwondo which has two different versions: the back kick and the mule kick). So, if you encounter the side kick versus back kick debate just remember: martial artists are like any nerd, they like to argue about which martial style or technique is best. My advice: don’t sweat it, if what you’re doing works for you then stick with it. It will only matter to characters who are traditionalists and sticklers over style.
Step-by-Step: The fighter begins facing their opponent while in a fighting stance. They turn their upper body and look over their right shoulder as it faces their opponent. Both feet shift to face the opposite direction with the heels facing the opponent, the front leg of the fighting stance has become the balancing leg. The knee of the back leg lifts up into a chamber tucked in against the stomach and the leg extends out wards to strike the opponent with the heel of the foot. The back of the body faces the opponent as the fighter looks over their shoulder. When the fighter steps down and resets position, they have switched the legs (right to left, left to right) they were leading with (switched sides).
So, what’s the difference between a side kick and a back kick?
Traditionally, a back kick strikes with the heel instead of the blade of the foot. This is easily recognized by the position of the toes which point on a diagonal downwards, which tells us that the hips have fully turned over. In the chamber of the back kick, the knee points more towards the ground before extending outwards, another sign of hip position.
The Snap Kick: These are the versions of the kicks taught in self-defense, if the kicks are taught at all. They don’t usually go above the waist (though the roundhouse version can) and are more like stomps than kicks. The snap kick is essentially a half-kick; the turnover of the hips isn’t required and can be done by characters if they’re striking to the legs without much need for stretching. These kicks usually go to the groin, the mid-thigh, or the outside or inside of knee. (Pro-Tip: The knee won’t break if you hit it head on or from behind and it can take a lot of weight coming down on top of it, the side of the knee can’t take much and is weaker overall. However, a broken knee is a permanent injury. Even if they can recover the ability to walk on it, they will always limp.)
Some of the Steps (Basic Footwork Terminology):
Kicking effectively requires a lot of footwork and the ability to transfer position easily between the legs beyond just kicking using the back leg or the front leg. The front leg must also easily become the back leg and the back leg becomes the front leg for a dynamic offense and defense. A fighter who specializes in kicking will always have their legs in motion and because of this the footwork supporting the techniques can be difficult to understand. When we watch kicking demonstrations, the legs flying through the air every which way are very distracting and can, for some, end up feeling a bit more like a magic trick than an exhibition of skill.
While a kick can be performed with either leg, it’s generally assumed that if the kick is named on its own that your character is using their back leg. Any kick done using the below steps will have the name of the step in front of it to detail what the kick is and what the student is being asked to do with their feet. Below are three common steps taught between the ranks of white to blue and brown belt in Taekwondo. It’s not all of them, but it’s a good start.
Switching Sides: This is learned at white belt, the basic idea of this step is to allow for the fighter to switch between leading legs quickly. This allows them to easily mask their movements by shifting the weight back and forth between their legs. It sounds similar to a cross-step but these are actually two different steps.
Step-by-Step: The fighter begins in a fighting stance facing their opponent. They proceed to hop, using both legs to transfer position between legs to switch things up. The whole body moves into another fighting stance, it just happens to have the right leg leading instead of the left. A good Taekwondo fighter will be able to speedily hop between left to right and right to left to confuse their opponent, it looks fancy when done quickly, but it’s actually very simple.
In ever kick done with the back leg moving forwards, the fighter will again switch their stance. This is not the same as switching sides. The foot instead comes down in a new position than the one it left as the fighter goes towards their opponent. When we talk about ambidexterity in kicking, this is why.
The Slide Step: The slide step is used to close distance between the fighter and their opponent, while also allowing them to gain the momentum they need to effectively use their front leg. Kicks that use the slide step get the word slide attached to their name as an indication that it’s a separate technique. So, slide front kick, slide side kick, slide roundhouse. You don’t really slide for spin kicks like the back kick; those always use the back leg. (You can, of course, the slide back kick does exist as a technique. The step does the same thing. It just doesn’t make the back kick that much faster, unlike combining it with a side kick or roundhouse.)
Step-by-Step: To perform a slide step, the fighter will step forward with their front leg while in a fighting stance. The back leg will slide forwards until it the heels of the back foot and front foot are touching, with the back foot pointed on a 50 degree angle outwards. Imagine it on a dial on a map, the front foot is pointing North and the back foot is pointing either East or West, depending on which side is leading (left side front foot: the back right foot points East, right front side: the back left foot points West) when the heels are touching or are close enough, the front leg pulls up into a chamber for the kick in question and kicks outwards.
The Cross-Step: The cross-step is a fast step, faster in fact than the slide, it’s meant to allow a fighter to switch their front leg to their back leg without having to change position. Since the legs hop to create a cross-shape, the body twists allowing for more powerful kicks with greater momentum. It will also quickly close distance between the fighter and their opponent, bringing them into kicking range. Kicks that use the cross-step have the term cross-step attached in front of their name such as cross-step roundhouse, cross-step sidekick, cross-step axe kick, etc. Again, this is irrelevant for spin kicks.
Step-by-Step: The fighter is standing in a fighting stance, let’s assume with the left leg forwards (common among those who are right handed). The fighter hops as the back leg goes forward and the front leg goes back to create a cross-shape, the back half of the cross lifts up into a fast kick.
Feints: We talked about feints in the section The Art of Blocking, those were for hands. Feints are a part of fighting. We call it the Art of Tricking Your Opponent, so how do does a character trick someone with their feet? Beginning students do believe it’s all in the feet, they stamp or stomp the ground with their front foot to convince their sparring partner that they’re about to attack. But for a feint to work, it needs to be more subtle. While a good fighter may shift their foot, they’ll also be shifting their legs, their hips and their shoulders with tells to suggest that a kick is about to begin. Taekwondo matches can be very boring because it ends up being nothing but feints with the first person moving being the loser, try not to worry about that.
The Requirements for Kicks:
I’ll be honest here, kicking is the domain of those who train and usually they keep to kicks from a specific style, unless their training has branched out. For a character to be able to kick well enough to use them in combat, especially to use combinations, they have to have begun training at a young age: usually between four and twelve. After that, the brain has developed to the point where it cannot build the necessary connections to transmit the data quickly enough from brain to leg and foot. Actually do deal in necessary simultaneous control more muscle groups to maintain balance, build muscle memory to achieve the required speed, accuracy, and power. Flexibility is just one of the necessary requirements. In my experience, teens that start as late as fourteen are handicapped by a good few seconds while their brain transmits the data to their legs. The older your character is, the harder it will be for them to develop the necessary flexibility and fine muscle control. (There are exceptions to this rule such as if your character was a dancer or competitively practiced some other type of exercise that demanded a fine amount of muscular control. It’s not the same, though and their ability to change up combinations in combat will be hampered.)
So, what does a kicker need?
-A character who fights, especially one who kicks much stretch at least three times a week, once in the morning, once in the evening, and train almost every day to maintain their flexibility and combat readiness.
-Some of the stretches include: butterfly stretch, the inverted butterfly stretch, full or side splits, front splits (left side, and right side), some sort of hamstring stretches, jumping jacks to warm up the muscles, and some varieties of kicking that involve swinging the leg straight up until the top of foot touches the forehead (usually they cannot get it that high).
Your character does not need to be able to do a complete side split to be able to kick above their head (visually impressive), they just need a decent one.
(Michi Note: Someone who begins older can develop flexibility (and the ability to kick over their heads), along with a satisfactory level of accuracy and power. While the speed portion may not seem important, it’s the difference between being caught camera and moving so fast the camera can’t catch your motions. Most people won’t be able to tell the difference between someone who trained as a child and someone who began training as an adult. It won’t hurt your characters martial prowess anywhere but in their legs.)
That’s all for today, in the next segment, we’ll discuss the value kicks have in combat, some of the different kicking combinations and the principles behind them, how to incorporate kicks into your fight scenes and your characters, and give you some outside sources to continue your research and watch some folks who know what they’re doing.