Training in Kicks

In training for real life self-defense, a common question that comes up is, “Should I train in kicks or not?”.  Many schools of thought claim that being left on one leg is something to be avoided, but it’s also telling that those same voices advocate taking every fight to the ground and going for a “submission”…so, draw your own conclusions.

In my opinion, kicks are absolutely invaluable in your self-defense skill set.  There are several reasons for this:

  • Your quads are your biggest muscle group
  • Legs have much longer range than hands
  • I may need my hands to do something else (open the car door, draw a firearm)
  • Legs are more resilient than fingers

That having been said, relying mostly on kicks (Tae Kwon Do, we’re looking at you) is also not a good strategy.  You need a well-rounded skill set.  Any real-life self defense program should encompass a 50/50 approach, 50% hands, 50% feet.

Bruce Lee once said, “I do not fear the man who was practiced 10,000 kicks one time, I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times”.  Learning a large number of kicks is not necessary. Doing a very high number of reps of the basic kicks is far better and much more realistic.

What basic kicks do I recommend mastering?

  • Front Kick
  • Side Kick
  • Roundhouse Kick
  • Knee Kick
  • Back Kick

When learning these, learn all the variations, such as front leg, rear leg, fade in/fade out, step forward/step backward.

These are the kicks that will give you the most benefit for self-defense training.  Every training session, no matter the belt rank, should include some repetitions of these kicks to develop MASTERY, not just SKILL.  

At PKSA Karate (, where I train, we say “Practice, Practice, Practice, leads to mastery”.  It’s not just a fancy set of words we make people learn, it’s a true philosophy.  Everyone wants to learn the “next kick” or the “next form” or the “new weapon” before truly mastering the basics.  It’s VITAL to do thousands of reps of the BASIC kicks.  That way, the skill will be there when you need it.

“How high should I practice kicks?”, is another common question.  That’s an interesting question.  When doing general repetition training, I recommend kicking as high as possible, head level.  This is to develop flexibility, endurance, strength, technique, and (most importantly) CONFIDENCE.  When practicing self defense combinations, I recommend kicking no higher than the solar plexus.

A great kicking drill that is common at PKSA Karate is using one leg to kick at all three levels before setting the foot back down.  For example, let’s take the front kick.  Chamber, then kick at knee level, re-chamber, kick at solar plexus level, re-chamber, then kick at face level, setting the foot back down after re-chambering.

Notice I mentioned chambering between each kick.  Many in the real-life self-defense community teach not to chamber on kicks.  That’s silly.  Yes, always chamber.  Chambering allows you to generate maximum power.  I know that they say it telegraphs the kick and that they say it’s slower.  If you’ve trained properly and with enough repetitions, it’s not any slower.  If the attacker notices a chamber, all they really learn is that A KICK is coming, not specifically what kick or where.  Always chamber for maximum power and effectiveness.

If you stand there with a kick chambered like Daniel-San in the All-Valley Tournament in The Karate Kid, you deserve to have your leg caught or your kick blocked.

The reason for tactically practicing at the lower level is that there is less risk of falling on the uncertain ground you will be defending yourself on.  It’s easy to kick high in the dojang (or dojo) on soft mats; it can be deadly on pavement, icy or uneven ground.

Kicks that have limited real life application, but should be trained on are:

  • Crescent Kicks (both inside and outside)
  • Ground Front/Side/Round/Back Kicks (kicking from the ground)
  • Spin Hook Kick 
  • Spin Back Kick
  • Front Push Kick

The reason why I say limited application is that in each of these kicks, there is a trade off of risk for potential benefit.  On the spin kicks, it’s turning your back on the attacker.  On the crescent kicks, it’s balance.  Ground kicks, it’s the loss of mobility.  For the front push kick, it’s the fact that it can be grabbed because it’s obvious from the start (although I have, in recent history, used it for self defense to keep someone away).

Any kick with the words “jump”, “jump spinning” and “flying” have exactly NO real world self-defense value.  (I can already hear Sabomnim Prosch handing out 500 push-ups to me for that comment and Sabomnim Lisa would just kick me for it.)

Nothing that requires you to leave the ground has any real-life application for defending your life.  Yes, Jet Li made it work in the movies, but those were MOVIES filmed in a controlled environment on level ground.

Now, I didn’t say don’t train on them.  They are valuable for learning coordination, developing flexibility, developing strength, and overall athletic ability; as well as honoring the tradition.  What I am saying is realize that while they have training value, they have no real life value, and when you have limited training time, the first thing to remove is the Super Flying Jump Spinning Dragon Tornado kick, which probably was never really part of the traditional martial art to begin with.

In firearms training, there is a saying, “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast”.  The same principle applies to learning kicks.  Spend a lot of time doing the kick very slowly, learning & developing muscle memory perfect the kick.  You will notice speed developing on it’s own.  Once you’ve mastered the technique, speed it up.

As with every physical skill, learning something isn’t enough.  Training and practice are required to retain physical skills.  Devote time every single week to training in your martial arts skills.  Yes, even on vacation.  

Get out, find a qualified instructor ( has schools all over), and TRAIN.

Train as if your life depended on it, because it does.


Published by JD

I am the author of the Tactical Wisdom Series. I am a personal protection specialist and a veteran of the US Marine Corps. I conduct preparedness and self-defense training.

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