When the great Kempo master from Okinawa, Choki Motobu, used to teach kicking to his students, he always stressed that it was necessary to snap the kick back faster that it was thrown out. This was a lesson that James Masayoshi Mitose passed on to his students as well. Unfortunately with the development of tournament Karate, kicks have been modified to be safe and effective for competitive play, which unfortunately has made them less than efficient for self defense.
Many people who are poor kickers try to emphasize the idea that kicks about the thigh level don’t work on the street. Usually this is because those individuals cannot kick above the waist anyway. So in that sense, for them, the kicks don’t work. But for someone who is taught proper stretching, strategy, and proper kicking mechanics, kicks above the waist can be very effective on the street.
An interesting story of a Kentucky police officer might illustrate the effectiveness of kicking. It seems that in the course of arresting a felon, armed with a weapon, the officer used a side kick to the chest, which knocked the suspect from the front door, through a hallway, and out a glass storm door. The kick was not only effective, but devastating.
There are some very important points that need to be recognized, along with proper preparation, that one needs to be aware of and do, in order to have high kicks that do work on the street. There is also one aspect dealing with low kicks that most people ignore, which can have a great influence on the proper use of them or the potential to get hit when using even those kicks.
Like all techniques, low kicks have their place in actual self defense, there is one inherent danger to them that many people overlook. Note that when you kick low to the leg, to maintain proper balance, you must basically stay upright. If you lean too far over, you will lose your balance. To remain centered, so that the kick is powerful and effective, you must stay upright; this can leave your head open and your body in potential danger as well.
Someone kicking low should be reminded to either cover the attacker’s arms with their hand or arms, to have blocked a technique grabbing onto it in order to keep the opponent off balance, or simply keep their hands up high to protect the chin or head, with the elbows in to protect the ribs. Benny Urquidez, during his fight career, was a master of taking a low kick in order to strike hard into the opponent’s head or body.
The best self defense kick is the side kick that comes straight off the hip. This is the longer possible weapon a person has, and uses the strongest set of limb muscles the body possesses. At the same time, for properly centered balance, the body tilts slightly away from an attacker, meaning that their hand techniques cannot reach the defender’s head. This is true even when the attacker is taller than the defender. Because of these simple factors, the side kick is the most effective and powerful of the basic self defense kicks.
Those who criticize any kick above the waist as being too slow and easy to block, are simply those who have not practiced kicking enough to have fast kicks. Taught properly, kicks can be just as fast as hands, the secret to their effective use is more a matter of proper application of technique, rather than speed. Once strategy is used to raise the knee into proper position, the kick itself can be thrown like a jab, quick, powerfully, and snapped back into position for safety and cover.
Self defense situations require that any technique be used in the manner in which it was intended and applied at the right moment. Any technique can be blocked when it is used in the wrong way, or if you simply execute it and hope it hits. This is especially true of kicks. Too many sport practitioners simply throw kicks and hope they will land in such a way to score a point. But on the street, a wrongly thrown kick can cause the person to lose the fight or possibly their life. Any fighting technique must be used in the appropriate manner, at the right time, and aimed at a target that will effectively do damage to an attacker.
It must be understood that kicks are to always be snapped. This was the point that Choki Motobu always stressed to his students, and was an important part of Okinawan kicking. Originally kicks were thrown like jabs, out/back quickly. Due to competitive influences in the sport of Karate, kickers have begun to lock out their kicks for a moment during execution. In Kata competition this adds to the aesthetic quality of the form, making the movement is space beautiful. Some point fighters have said that it also gives the judges a chance to see that a point has been scored, while a quickly snapped kick may remain uncalled.
It is important to realize that when kicks are not snapped, it is very destructive to the knee, putting a great deal of stress on the ligaments that hold the joint together, as well as, potentially damaging to the cartilage. It also slows down the kick making it easier to defend against. One Jujutsu instructor loves to run into Karate people who lock their kicks since it gives him a chance to grab the foot and use it to throw the opponent. Many styles teach the idea of dodging a kick and kicking immediately into the groin. But a properly snapped kick brings the foot back into place where it acts as a block and protection to the groin. This has always been the lesson of the returning wave kick taught by many Karate and Kempo systems.
Before going on it might be pertinent to look at two Japanese words used in regard to kicking, that are generally mistranslated in English, while a third word is almost never used outside of Japan, but has a very important meaning and dimension for all kickers. The two words, generally mistranslated, are Keage and Kekomi. In example, Yoko Keage Geri is translated side snap kick; while Yoko Kekomi Geri is translated side thrust kick. Now to most people this means that the first kick is snapped back quickly, while the second kick is locked out. But that is because the words Keage and Kekomi are mistranslated. Choki Motobu always taught his students to bring their kicks back faster than they go out, keeping this in mind then, all kicks are snapped. Then we must ask ourselves, what does Keage and Kekomi really mean?
It is really simple, when one understands the meaning of the Japanese terms involved. First of all, Age means ‘go up’. Komi means ‘go in’. Ke simply means ‘kick’. Thus Keage means to ‘kick up’, and Kekomi means to ‘kick in’. Therefore Keage is a kick that is traveling in an upward angle. A Kekomi is a kick that is traveling basically in a straight line, relatively parallel to the floor. The third term used in Japan, but generally not seen outside of the Orient is Keoroshi, which literally translates kick down’. Some styles teach the kick under the name Kansetsu Geri, simply joint kick and it refers to kicking the knee joint. In all three types though, the kick should be done quickly and without hesitation. The kick should not pause or lock, in order to avoid damage to the knee, as well as, to keep the kick from being blocked or grabbed. From a defensive point of view, a properly executed kick should be dodged or avoided, since it should be too powerful to make contact without injury. There are stories of Okinawan masters who broke the arms, or caused serious damage to the blocking instrument of those who tried to block their kicks.
The question then is what makes kicks effective? The answer is a simply one, the same one that applies to all techniques, flexibility, strategy, and practice. First of all, it needs to be understood that for a practitioner to really be able to use their kicks effectively, they need to be able to kick to their target of choice cold. After all, an attacker on the street will not give you time to warm up before the fight. In order to be able to kick high while avoiding injury, you must develop high level body sensitivity and stretch daily.
In order to kick a person in the face, it only requires a stretch of around 150 degrees. But to be able to reach that face without warming up first, one should develop the ability to do a training stretch of 165 degrees. A rule of thumb is to be able to go 15 degrees beyond the flexibility you plan to use. Kicks straight off the hip use only 90 degrees flexibility, thus to kick at that level in self defense, it is necessary, for safety, to develop a stretch of 105 degrees.
By being able to stretch 15 degrees higher than you plan to use, it is possible to use the kick when not warmed up and on the street. If a person can do 180 degree splits, they can easily kick to the head without worry. (The author speaks from experience, due to the actual use of kicks in his law enforcement days.) It is possible to go beyond 180 in your training splits, the norm for a person with normal bone and muscle structure is around 195 degrees. When a person can lay their stomach on the floor, with their legs in a perfectly straight line, with their hips solidly against the floor, that is the actual range of their stretch. This type of stretch would allow a person to kick even a person taller than them in the head. Thus kicking anywhere about the waist would be as easy as punching.
Most of all, the elasticity that that kind of stretching produces, allows for a very fast kick, with no antagonistic intrusion. If a person stretches enough to have any where from 180 to 195 degrees flexibility and then include the high number of repetitions necessary to have good form in kicking, then they can have extremely effective self defense kicks. Nothing takes the place of kicking. If you want to kick well, practice kicking.
It is humorous to hear people say they are working on being good kickers by riding bikes, doing leg lifts with weights, and other such activities. While these other activities are good, the only way to improve kicking is by kicking. The skill itself must be practiced in order to be improved, this is a truism in regard to all skills.
If two martial artists decided to improve their kicking skills, with one using auxiliary training and the other kicking for that same amount of time, then the kicker would develop the better kicks. That is not to say that cross training is not important, rather it just points out that if you want a skill actually improved, do that skill. Auxiliary training should be used in support of skill, not in place of it.
However, when practicing, it is very important to practice properly. Imperfect practice only leads to imperfect skills. Thus it is important that good stances are employed in kicking. Plus the knee should be lifted high in training and the legs extended smoothly. The knee should move smoothly, not bounce, during the execution of a kick. Most of all, regardless of the height of a kick, the practitioner needs to be balanced.
Next it is very important to have good kicking strategy. Too many people just throw kicks without any idea of using the kicks with the same intelligence that they use their hands. In the Orient, especially in Okinawa, the idea of using kicks was to use the same dodging techniques that you would use with your hands or even with actual weapons, like the sword, and then apply the kicks from that strong defensive position. Dodging has always been the central principle of Okinawan martial arts and is extremely important to proper kicking in self defense. Kicking strategy would then involve learning how to dodge correctly and then the understanding to use the kicks from that position. Time spent in kicking should also be time spend dodging and working this very simply, yet effective strategy.
High kicks can work in self defense, but only if you are willing to put in the time it takes to be a good kicker. This includes proper and daily stretching. Moderate stretching will be sufficient most days, with a heavy stretch being used only once a month or so. Moderate stretching is much more important in gaining and maintaining proper, full range flexibility.
Self defense kicking requires time spent in actual kicking. Basically it is a matter of hard work. Kick at all levels, it is not just a matter of being able to kick to the head, for when the head is protected you need to be able to kick low, kick middle, and if the hands drop, then go for the head. Proper kicking strategy is not head hunting, it is kicking the target that is open, or seeing the opening as the person moves and then nailing it. A good kicker kicks where they need to, they do not waste time throwing useless kicks that will not do damage in the actual self defense situation.
Two points to keep in mind, don’t listen to poor kickers about how high kicks don’t work, usually they are only saying it because they are jealous of people who can kick well. Second, don’t listen to good high kickers who have never had street experience, because they simply won’t know what they are talking about. Hard work and perseverance pays off in all things, including developing great kicking skills and the ability to use them in actual self defense.
Being a good kicker, that is someone who can actually use high kicks in self defense, only means you have to work hard, understand kicking strategy, and keep yourself in good shape with good flexibility. Actually it is much more enjoyable than it is hard, and the health benefits from the strength, flexibility, and dexterity, more than make up for the work you put into it. So keep kicking, and enjoy the benefits and abilities of the great kicks from the Karate and Kempo traditions.

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