By Iain Abernethy
In this article we will be looking at the effective use of kicks in live situations. One thing I should probably say at the very onset is that kicking is probably the least effective of all the combative methods. This is because your motion and stability are severely curtailed the instant you take a foot off the floor, and you rarely get the space to use kicks anyway. That is not to say that kicking does not have a role to play, because it does. However, I do want to point out that this role is nowhere near as large as much of modern practice would suggest.
In the modern dojo, practically every combination has a kick somewhere within it. This is primarily because kicking is very effective in the competitive environment (you have the space and they score more points). Also, because high-level competitors are amazing athletes, they can apply kicks in ways that would be totally inappropriate for those who are not as physically gifted. If you compare the techniques of modern karate with the techniques recorded within the katas - which are a record of the original version of the art - you will note that kicks are nowhere near as widely used. The simple reason for this is that the techniques of the kata were designed for real combat, and because kicks are not that effective or readily applicable in that environment, they are not emphasised to the same degree.
A key difference between the kicks of the katas and their modern offspring is the height at which they are applied. In modern karate, kicks are generally applied from the waist up due to that fact that this is a requirement of modern rules and safety standards. In real situations, it is always best to kick low; ideally lower than the level of the fingertips when the arms are down by the side. Low kicks are harder to counter, they are quicker, and the chances of you being unbalanced are greatly reduced.
It should be understood that in relatively recent times, many of the kicks within the katas have been elevated, presumably for visual effect and to comply with the methodology of modern competition. However, originally, all the kicks throughout the katas were aimed low. If you practice a modern version of a kata then you may find middle-level or head-height kicks. Practicing your kicks at an elevated height, as a form of physical conditioning, can help to improve your explosiveness and power; however, when interpreting, expressing and applying the katas, and when training for self-protection, all the kicks should be aimed low. Certainly there are no head height kicks within the original katas, as to execute such a kick in a real situation is suicidal! Within the katas, there are some instances of kicks directed to the head, but in these instances the opponent has been positioned so that they are on the ground or on their knees, and therefore the kick is still low.
Another difference between modern kicking and the kicking techniques recorded in the katas is one of power. In the modern competitive environment, kicks are executed with 'control' (they are pulled on contact) to scoring areas. Being able to deliver a high velocity kick and pull it on contact requires tremendous skill. However, in a live situation, we should not "control" or pull our kicks and we need to have trained so that we are capable of kicking with great force. It is for this reason that we must ensure that we make use of kick-shields, full-length punch-bags etc in our training. Practicing kicks against the air can help to develop good form, but only practicing against pads etc will allow you to develop power. For superb advice on how to deliver your kicks with real power, I strongly recommend that you purchase Peter Consterdine's Power Kick video.
To make our kicks as effective as possible, we need to keep them low and deliver them with force. Another component of effective kicking is accuracy. During the chaos of a fight the accurate placement and delivery of strikes becomes extremely difficult. Whilst it is relatively easy to hit a punch-bag, strike a focus-mitt, or deliver accurate blows when practising with a compliant practise partner, it is extremely difficult to deliver an accurate strike to an opponent who doesn't want to be hit!
If you've engaged in realistic combat training, or have been unfortunate enough to experience a real fight, you'll know that live fights are incredibly messy and frantic affairs, and this makes the accurate delivery of blows extremely difficult. It is for this reason that power is more important than accuracy. So long as your kicks are powerful, they will have an effect regardless of where they land. It should be obvious that a kick which hits a weak area will have a greater effect than it would have done otherwise, but it is a grave mistake to say that power is not important if you have knowledge of the weaknesses of the human anatomy. Having knowledge is one thing, being able to apply that knowledge is something else. Although knowledge of weak points can be useful, and ideally we should aim to hit these areas, it should be remembered that hitting these weak points is not at all easy in the chaos of a live fight, and therefore power is the main requirement for effective kicking.
Having discussed the problems associated with accuracy, we will now move on to look at the key targets for low kicks. It is important to understand that there are no "safe" striking areas. A strike to anywhere on the human body can have severe effects e.g. a kick to the shin could cause the recipient to fall which, should their head hit the floor, may result in a fatality just as easily as a blow to the throat. Real fights can have very severe consequences and that is why we must always ensure we do our utmost to avoid them.
As we have already discussed, kicks should ideally be delivered to targets no higher than mid-thigh. However, because this article is entitled "Low-Kicking: Below the Belt?" we will first look at a small number of target areas that are below the belt, but are higher than we should ideally kick in live situations.
This point is located at the tip of the spine or 'tailbone'. The Coccyx is part of the spine. A blow here will affect the entire spinal cord and can have severe consequences. The Coccyx is also directly above the sacral plexus, which is where all the major nerves of the lower limbs originate. A blow to this point will affect all these nerves and will result in extreme pain.
The testicles are very delicate organs and are loaded with nerves. A blow to the groin can result in pain, shock, nausea, vomiting, unconsciousness, difficulty breathing and possibly even death. Although an attack to the groin can be completely incapacitating, it is difficult to land such an attack. Most men will instinctively defend the groin and the protection provided by clothing can often reduce the effect of a blow. It's also worth pointing out that there can be a slight delay between landing a blow to the testicles and the pain being felt by the recipient. In training, have you ever received an accidental blow to the groin, thought that you were ok, and then a few seconds later realised that you were far from OK!? I know I have. Although it is only a very short delay, it should be remembered that in a live fight, everything can change in a split-second and hence landing a kick to the groin does not instantaneously mean you are safe. Kicks to the groin are obviously very effective when they land, but kicks to the groin are not the guaranteed instant fight winners which they are sometimes portrayed as.
The Inguinal Region is the area at the front of the leg where the thigh joins the torso. A kick to this point will affect the femoral nerve, femoral artery, femoral vein and genitofemoral nerve. This will result in great pain and a severe weakening of the leg. A strong kick could also result in temporary paralysis of the thigh muscles.
This point is located on the back of the leg just below the buttocks. The Sciatic nerve is the largest nerve of the body and plays a major part in the control of the hamstring and lower leg. A solid kick to this point will produce cramping, loss of control over the leg, and pain in the hips and abdomen.
We shall now move on to discuss the weak areas of the legs that are located from the mid-thigh down. These are the ideal target areas for kicks, and hence they are also the most frequently used target areas for the kicking techniques of the katas (see my Bunkai-Jutsu series of video tapes).
This point is located halfway down the outside of the thigh. The Vastus Lateralis is the large muscle running down the outside of the upper leg. A blow to this point will produce pain and cause temporary paralysis of the thigh.
This target area is located halfway down the inside of the thigh. The nerve is relatively close to the surface, and therefore kicks to this area tend to have a much greater effect than those on the outside of the thigh, where the surrounding muscle affords greater protection to underlying nerves etc. However, this weak area is generally not as accessible to attack because the leg needs to be far enough in front in order to provide a clear path for the kick (the other leg needs to be out of the way).
The knees can be attacked from the front, back and sides; all of which can have permanent effects on the recipient's mobility. In addition to damaging the joint itself, a blow to the front of the knee could displace the knee cap. This will cause pain, severely limit an opponent's mobility and will most likely need corrective surgery. A blow to the side of the knee can damage the ligaments that hold the knee joint together. This will again cause pain and severely reduce mobility. If the ligaments are damaged by a kick to the knees, it is very unlikely that the recipient will make a full recovery as there is a good chance that their knee joint will be permanently damaged. Kicking to the back of the knees can cause the leg to buckle and is often used to unbalance an attacker. Throughout the karate katas, attacks to the back of the knee are frequently accompanied by a pull to the upper body (these movements are frequently mislabelled as simultaneous kicks and hand strikes, or simultaneous kicks and blocks). This accompanying pull will obviously aid in the unbalancing of the opponent. The simultaneous kick and pull also results in great tension around the knee joint and can cause severe muscle damage.
A kick to the shins is very painful and frequently results in the opponent bending at the waist. A kick delivered around two-thirds of the way down the shin will hit the deep Peroneal nerve, which will cause a sharp pain and a weakening of the lower leg. Control over the foot may also be reduced. In a number of katas the Nidan-Geri (double level kick) can be found. Whereas today, the movement is most frequently performed as two airborne head-height kicks, a more effective application is a grappling manoeuvre followed by a kick to this weak area and then a kick to the Saphenous nerve (see my video Bunkai-Jutsu Volume 3: Kushanku / Kanku-Dai). This will cause the opponent to fall forwards where they are then vulnerable to a follow up strike (in Kushanku / Kanku-Dai, a dropping elbow strike - most often mislabelled as a "back fist" - is delivered to the opponent's back).
A kick to the lower part of the calf will cause pain and temporarily paralyse the muscle. This will greatly reduce the opponent's ability to move. Striking the inside of the shin, below the bulge of the calf muscle, is very painful and will again reduce your opponent's mobility. Kicking this area will also drive your opponent's leg to the outside, which will unbalance them and cause their head to drop (see my Combat Drills video tape for an example of how a roundhouse kick to this region can be used to drop an opponent's head and set them up for a strike).
A stamping kick to the top of the foot will affect the medial plantar nerve, deep peroneal nerve and superficial peroneal nerve. This will result in pain in the leg, hip and abdomen, and loss of control over the leg.
Kicking has a limited role to play in self-protection situations because there is rarely the space needed, and your stability and mobility are greatly reduced the moment you take your foot off the floor (which is why they are relatively sparse in the traditional katas). If you do use kicks, they should be used sparingly, they must be powerful and they should be delivered lower than mid-thigh. Although you would ideally like to hit one of the weak areas covered in this article, it should be remembered that, due to the nature of live fights, delivering an accurate blow is not easy and hence the key thing is to ensure that your kicks are delivered with great force. Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I sincerely hope that you found it useful.
This article has been reproduced with the permission of Iain Abernethy.
Visit his website www.iainabernethy.com where you can read more articles and purchase copies of his books and dvds.
Iain Abernethy has been involved in the martial arts since childhood. Iain holds the rank of 5th Dan with both the British Combat Association (one of the world's leading groups for close-quarter combat, self-protection and practical martial arts) and Karate England (the official governing body for Karate in England). Iain regularly writes for the UK’s leading martial arts magazines, he has written a number of critically acclaimed books on the practical application of traditional martial arts and he is a member of the "Combat Hall of Fame".