The purpose of this guide is to provide you an unbiased overview of the martial art and sport of taekwondo – its purpose is not to persuade you that taekwondo is the ‘best martial art, or even to convince you to train in it.
Instead, our purpose is to lay out a set of facts, as honestly as we can, to give a genuine representation of taekwondo’s strengths and weaknesses, and to let you decide for yourself if it sounds like something worth pursuing.
At Michigan Academy of Taekwondo, we want to help you find the martial arts journey that fits you best – whether that’s here with us in the Northville, Novi and Plymouth, Michigan area, or whether you choose a different school in another part of the world.
We are excited to share our martial art with you! So, in this taekwondo guide we’ll cover:
Ready to jump in? Start reading about what separates taekwondo from other martial arts, or choose from the list above to jump straight to a topic.
Taekwondo’s Distinguishing Physical Characteristics
Taekwondo is best known for its use of dynamic kicks. These kicks are often thrown at head height while spinning and jumping. It’s evident to most that these kicks require tremendous athleticism, but what isn’t apparent to the layperson is the highly refined sense of timing necessary to make techniques like these strike an opponent.
Taekwondo, like all martial arts, begins with a foundation of more straightforward techniques. It could be said that there are no advanced taekwondo skills – only advanced applications of taekwondo basics. So it is that anyone can participate in taekwondo classes by beginning with the simplest techniques and striving to master the more difficult maneuvers as their capability develops.
Through this process, taekwondo practitioners, relative to those who practice other arts, develop exceptionally high levels of the following physical traits.
Taekwondo’s scoring system rewards kicks to the head with higher points than those landed on the body. So while more practically minded martial arts may be aiming for targets below the waistline, taekwondo players are incentivized to stretch until their kicks reach above their own head height.
2. Fast-twitch muscle fiber.
In general, hitting someone with a kick requires you to be faster than if you were trying to hit them with your hands. Because of this, taekwondo practitioners train to explode into motion at speed sufficient to catch even the gamest of opponents unaware. This kind of explosive speed is exceptionally high amongst taekwondo athletes compared to those of other combat sports.
3. Cardiovascular endurance.
Throwing kicks requires more effort than even sprinting or swimming. The more kicks you can throw, the more points you’ll score, so taekwondo athletes train for extreme cardiovascular output followed by active recovery – virtually what every personal trainer recommends for weight loss and calorie burn.
The taekwondo scoring system also rewards athletes who score while spinning, with the highest points being awarded for spinning kicks to the head. Consequently, taekwondo players train for maximum agility. Even taekwondo players who never attain this level of ability increase their balance and agility more than any other combat sport.
Finally, the most overlooked physical characteristic of taekwondo is the masterful sense of timing its athlete attain. Imagine being face-to-face with a high-level taekwondo black belt. They tell you they will turn 360 degrees and kick you in the head if you can’t lean back in time. They have to move their foot five or six feet and make a complete revolution with their body – and all you need to do is move your head back six inches. Do they have any chance of getting you?
Taekwondo players might be quick, but they aren’t super-human – and in the above example, you are sure to evade the taekwondo black belt.
Taekwondo players land these spinning kicks to the head by knowing the exact moment to use them – perhaps while their opponent is in the middle of their kick, or maybe the precise moment they know their opponent’s feet won’t be positioned to allow for a defense.
This heightened sense of timing is especially prevalent in the sport of taekwondo, to the degree that few athletes outside of the sport ever attain the taekwondo players ability to predict the exact moment to try for a hit.
How Taekwondo Competitions are Different
Taekwondo offers a robust competition system with two distinct options for athletes. The largest governing body for taekwondo competition is World Taekwondo (formerly World Taekwondo Federation.) World Taekwondo is the organization elected by the International Olympic Committee to oversee the sport and delegate participants for the Olympic games.
The World Taekwondo Federation directly sanctions the following competitions:
- World Taekwondo Poomse Championships
- World Taekwondo Championships
- World Para Taekwondo Championships
- World Taekwondo Cadet Championships
- World Taekwondo Junior Championships
- World Taekwondo Team Championships
- World Taekwondo Para Championships
- World Taekwondo Grand Prix
- World Taekwondo Beach Championships
- Olympic Games
- Paralympic Games
The Two Kinds of Taekwondo Competition
1. Taekwondo sparring competition.
Sparring competition, often called kyurogi, is a one-on-one contest for points. The rules for taekwondo sparring change depending on the participant’s age and ability.
For younger or less experienced athletes, taekwondo sparring is a safe and light-contact game. Typically the scoring system is adjusted to accommodate the ability levels of its participants. For example, most taekwondo tournaments feature “junior safety rules,” eliminating kicks to the head or penalizing players for kicking the head too hard.
The rules of taekwondo are constantly evolving, especially at the black-belt level. However, there are some general standards for high-level competition that never changes. Competitors score points for solid contact with a kick or punch to the body or a kick to the head. Players earn more points for head kicks and win extra points when they spin as they make contact.
At this black belt level and in some other advanced divisions, taekwondo bouts can also be won by knockout or technical knockout.
Taekwondo sparring is an official Olympic sport.
2. Taekwondo forms competition.
Taekwondo forms competition is an entirely different affair. In forms competition, you perform a ‘poomse’ (called kata in Japanese), and a panel of experts judges you. Each rank is assigned a specific set of poomse they can compete with, so once again, competition is open and fair to all ages and abilities.
Taekwondo forms are judged on several objective factors. The accuracy with which you perform the movements, cadence, eye control, and overall crispness are measured by the judges.
While the judges’ decision is somewhat subjective, standards have been agreed upon by the international taekwondo community, and the winner is the competitor who most faithfully lives up to those standards.
Regardless of the competitive route you choose, be it sparring or forms, you will find opportunities to compete almost immediately. Taekwondo divides its competitive divisions by age and rank, so you can always find a challenge – but you will never be overwhelmed.
Because taekwondo is so widely practiced, you’ll find a plethora of local competitions year-round, almost anywhere in the world. But you don’t have to stop there. Whether you are a five-year-old beginner, a 42-year-old intermediate, or a 22-year-old black belt, you’ll find tournaments on the national and international level as well.
Taekwondo is one of the few sports you can play that will enable you to compete on the world level against people your age and ability level.
Taekwondo in the Olympic Games
Taekwondo became an Olympic sport in 1988, and its involvement in the Olympic community is one of the hallmarks of its character. There are four combat sports in the Olympics: boxing, wrestling, judo and taekwondo, with judo and taekwondo being the only Olympic sports that are also traditional martial arts.
The Olympics push taekwondo coaches and athletes to innovate and push the boundaries of athletic possibility continually. Just as Roger Bannister broke open the sport of running with his four-minute mile, so too are today’s taekwondo athletes pioneering ways of kicking each other the world has never thought possible.
Taekwondo and Korean Martial Arts History
Taekwondo’s earliest roots are planted in Korea during the 1940s. Some claim taekwondo traces its origin through centuries of Korean martial arts tradition, while others assert it is a much more modern construct.
One thing is for sure: the 1940s and 50s were a politically charged time for Korea – and those politics embedded themselves deeply in its National sport of taekwondo.
Over the years, taekwondo’s history has been rewritten many times by many people. It seems as though every old taekwondo master and Korean politician wants to claim a critical role in the development and proliferation of taekwondo. Consequently, the truth of taekwondo’s roots are obfuscated by many claims – and may even be lost to time.
Part of the difficulty in understanding the roots of taekwondo comes from the fact that Korea gave up practicing any martial arts during its Confucianist era. So for many decades, the only Korean people practicing martial arts were learning in Japan, and Japanese martial arts were making their way back to Korea. Early taekwondo clearly borrowed from Shotokan karate, as anyone familiar with the two arts can see many similarities.
Though Japanese karate was most likely taekwondo’s most significant historical influence, we do know that several Korean martial arts had at least some impact as well. These include ssireum, sub and taekkyon. Korea’s legendary nights, the Hwarang (similar in cultural importance to the Samurai), also established a martial art called hwarang-do. Though little of its physical characteristics exist in modern taekwondo, its philosophical influence remains strong to this day.
However taekwondo began more than 70 years ago; it has evolved a great deal since then. Any taekwondo practitioner in the 1990s will tell you that all the forms are done differently now and done according to a completely different ideal and purpose. They will also point out that the rules of taekwondo sparring have changed dramatically and that, in general, taekwondo has changed from self-defense focused martial art to a sport-focused martial art.
Evolution since inception
- November 30, 1972 – Construction of Kukkiwon was completed.
- May 25, 1973 – The first World Taekwondo Championships were held (biannual event).
- May 28, 1973 – The World Taekwondo Federation was established.
- October 18, 1974 – The first Asian Taekwondo Championships were held (biannual event).
- October 5, 1975 – The World Taekwondo Federation became an affiliate of the General Association of the International Sports Federation (GAISF).
- April 9, 1976 – CISM (Counsel International Sportive Militaire) Executive Committee adopted taekwondo as an official sport.
- July 17, 1980 – The World Taekwondo Federation was granted recognition by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) at its 83rd General Session in Moscow.
- July 24, 1981 – Taekwondo was one of the primary events in the World Games (non-Olympic events) held in Santa Clara, California.
- February 5, 1982 – Taekwondo was adopted as a demonstration sport for the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games at the IOC Executive Board Meeting.
- September 28, 1984 – Taekwondo was formally adopted as a Demonstration Sport in the 1988 Olympic Games at the 90th session and Executive Board of IOC held in Berlin.
- July 3, 1986 – The First World Cup Taekwondo Championship was held in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
- September 30, 1986 – The 10th Asian Games Taekwondo Tournament was held in Seoul with 17 participating nations.
- November 29, 1986 – First World University Taekwondo Championships were held.
- August 9, 1987 – Taekwondo was included in the 10th Pan-American Games held in Indianapolis, Indiana.
- October 7, 1987 – The first Women’s World Taekwondo Championships were held in Barcelona, Spain.
- September 17-20, 1988 – A Demonstration Sport of the 24th Olympiad, 192 players from 25 nations (male) and 16 nations (female).
- August 14-17, 1991 – Taekwondo was included in the 11th Pan-American Games held in Havana, Cuba.
- August 3-5, 1992 – A Demonstration Sport for the second straight Olympiad, in Barcelona, Spain.
Traditional Taekwondo, World Taekwondo and the Kukkiwon
Typically, when people refer to ‘traditional taekwondo’, they refer to the style of taekwondo practiced in the 1940s and 50s, after the conclusion of the Japanese occupation of Korea at the end of World War II.
At this time, taekwondo had not yet come into its own. Dozens of schools and organizations taught taekwondo, with little of the organization that would come with the Korean Taekwondo Association (KTA) and taekwondo’s inclusion in the Olympics. These styles are still practiced today but generally under other names, such as Tang Soo Do and Soo Bahk Do.
It was not until 1959 that all taekwondo schools were organized under one umbrella. The Korea Taekwondo Association (KTA) was formed. It eventually resulted in the creation of the Kukkiwon (the headquarters of taekwondo,) which still oversees both the World Taekwondo organization and the grading of participating taekwondo students worldwide.
Traditional teakwood has a through-line to modern sport taekwondo through the Kukkiwon, and is why most people consider World Taekwondo to be taekwondo’s most genuine organization.
Other Taekwondo Organizations
Though taekwondo has other organizations like the International Taekwondo Federation, and the American Taekwondo Association, they have had minimal influence on the sport over the decades. These smaller organizations have waned in popularity as the martial arts world has evolved toward organized sports or more effective self-defense than traditional martial arts training.
Four Reasons Why Taekwondo is the Most Practiced Martial Art in the World
An estimated 30 million people practice taekwondo worldwide. Taekwondo tracks this particularly well due to its strong hierarchal organization. Nearly all taekwondo schools belong to an association, with most schools belonging to the most prominent two associations. These associations make tracking member numbers easy, and it’s how we can state the number of worldwide taekwondo practitioners with confidence.
While other martial arts don’t track participants with similar earnestness, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which is probably the world’s fastest-growing martial art, estimates their number of global practitioners to be between two and three million.
So why is taekwondo so enormously popular?
1. It’s fun to watch and fun to try.
There might not be a more extraordinary martial art to watch than taekwondo. Even its detractors will concede the astonishing athleticism in taekwondo practitioners. Even its basic techniques possess a particular cool factor that is as satisfying to perform as it is to observe.
EMBED THIS WITH PLAYER https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ENKh-1qUvJA
2. It’s suitable for all ages and ability levels.
All over the world, there are people happily doing taekwondo who are as young as four and as old as 104. Each of them feels like they are making progress and that their life is made richer and more satisfying for their practice.
That’s because taekwondo provides its participants with limitless ways to develop physically, mentally and emotionally. Taekwondo practitioners could be…
- A first-grader who manages to memorize all 20 moves in a form
- A 50-year-old office worker stretching until his front kick reaches chest height
- A 22-year-old green belt who wins her first gold medal at a state tournament
- A grandfather of three who makes it to the level of International Referee
- A mother of four who does 77 straight pushups during her black belt test
- A teenager whose jumping front kick can break boards set on basketball hoops
- A Paralympian who wins world acclaim performing a flawless taekwondo form from a wheelchair
Taekwondo has a beautiful way of meeting people where they are and providing them with worthy challenges that open the door to limitless growth.
3. It provides high-level participation opportunities for non-athletes.
The day you walk into your local taekwondo school and sign up for classes, you might not be ready to enter your first tournament, but you can already be a part of the event.
Taekwondo is an amateur sport, which means most of its events are run by a host of volunteers. You could find yourself at the judges’ table keeping time, tallying points, or running for the things senior judges need.
With a little more time, you could learn taekwondo’s scoring system and become a corner judge and watch taekwondo matches right at ringside so you can score points.
Being a corner judge could lead you into being a center referee who controls the competitors, calls fouls, and ensures the safety of the athletes.
Volunteers, judges, and referees might find themselves moving from small, local tournaments to national championships, world events, and even the Olympics. How cool would it be to have USA-Taekwondo pay your airfare and hotel so that you could referee a taekwondo tournament in Europe? Very cool!
Still other taekwondo people find their calling helping their instructor with kids’ classes. Then, little by little, they find themselves running groups of their own. Some even gain such a keen understanding of taekwondo they become coaches – and even though they never competed themselves – find themselves coaching high-level athletes at major tournaments all over the globe.
Suppose you’re the kind of person who prefers to work behind the scenes. In that case, you might find a lot of satisfaction managing the logistics that facilitate your country’s athletes training and competitive opportunities.
The taekwondo community is a family that stretches into big cities, small towns, and remote villages all over the world. Practicing taekwondo allows you to plug into something vast and wonderful yet still make a deeply personal journey toward self-improvement.
4. It attracts many children and families with its on character development.
Taekwondo wins a lot of its 30 million participants by catching them young. Sort of like a McDonald’s Happy Meal – but with more positive health implications. Millions of parents sign their children up for taekwondo lessons because of taekwondo’s almost unique focus on developing character in young people.
What do we mean by character? Parents report that their children increase their focus, self-discipline, confidence, self-esteem and respect after taekwondo training. While many activities foster these traits in young people, taekwondo instructors often make the whole point of their children’s program developing their student’s character.
The Many Benefits of Taekwondo Practice
Cardiovascular Endurance and HIIT
In many ways, taekwondo is an endurance sport. The old saying holds, “Poor cardio makes cowards of us all.” In particular, taekwondo sparring is a natural form of HIIT, which stands for high-intensity interval training. It’s also referred to as a ‘tabata.’
Taekwondo functions like HIIT because taekwondo kicks are full-body, explosive moves that recruit every muscle in the core and lower body. That makes them even more effort than sprinting – throw five kicks in a row as hard and as fast as you can, and you will watch your heart rate spike tremendously.
An unmodified taekwondo sparring match consists of three, three-minute rounds. Each of these rounds will include bursts of kicks interrupted by short periods of active recovery. This makes for a natural HIIT session – and it makes HIIT workouts common among taekwondo practitioners.
Taekwondo and calorie burn.
You can burn calories efficiently with HIIT workouts. One study compared the calories burned during 30 minutes of HIIT, weight training, running and biking. The researchers found that HIIT burned 25–30% more calories than the other forms of exercise.
As your taekwondo workouts introduce more HIIT training into your fitness regimen, you will burn more calories in less time – this is the primary reason so many people lose weight after signing up for taekwondo classes.
Your metabolic rate is higher after taekwondo classes.
One of the ways taekwondo helps you burn calories comes after you finish a class. Several studies have demonstrated HIIT’s impressive ability to increase your metabolic rate for hours after exercise.
These studies also found that HIIT does a better job of this than weight lifting, running or biking – and what’s more, those studies found that HIIT shifts the body’s metabolism toward using fat for energy rather than carbs. Good news for those trying to drop unwanted pounds.
Additionally, one study found that people performing HIIT three times per week for 20 minutes per session lost 4.4 pounds, or 2 kgs, of body fat in 12 weeks — without any dietary changes. Perhaps more important was the 17% reduction in visceral fat, or the disease-promoting fat surrounding your internal organs – which is proven to be beneficial for your heart health.
Lower Blood Pressure in Those Who Are Overweight
Other research indicates that the kind of HIIT training done in taekwondo classes can reduce heart rate and blood pressure in overweight and obese individuals.
One study found that eight weeks of HIIT on a stationary bike decreased blood pressure as much as traditional continuous endurance training in adults with high blood pressure.
It is important to note that these blood pressure lowering effects are only found in those who began with high blood pressure.
As previously mentioned in this guide, all aspects of taekwondo necessitate a high degree of flexibility. That’s true whether you’re engaged in teakwood sparring and trying to kick your opponent’s head for the bonus points, or whether you are performing a poomse and trying to place the perfect kick at your head height.
This makes stretching a considerable part of taekwondo training. Taekwondo may be second only to yoga in its ability to increase the flexibility of its participants.
The benefits of flexibility extend far beyond the taekwondo class. Lengthening and stretching your muscles will help to prevent injuries, back pain and balance problems.
A flexible muscle can more easily attain its full range of motion. This improves athletic performance but also makes everyday tasks seem more accessible. Imagine bending over to pick something up without the restriction of a tight lower back and hamstrings.
Balance and Agility
Taekwondo kicks, by their very nature, get you up on one leg. Not only that, they have you up on one leg while recruiting the rest of your body to keep you there. Taekwondo moves put you in all kinds of unnatural positions – and mastering them increases your overall balance and agility.
Once again, the benefits of increased balance and agility from taekwondo training extend beyond the mat. You won’t be as prone to injuries that result from a loss of balance, you’ll feel more comfortable on your skateboard, and moving through your everyday tasks will feel more effortless.
Taekwondo builds fast-twitch muscle fiber like no other sport. This enables you to explode from entirely still to your top speed in an instant. In general, hitting someone with a kick requires you to be faster than if you were trying to hit them with your hands. Because of this, taekwondo practitioners train to explode into motion at speed sufficient to catch even the gamest of opponents unaware.
This kind of explosive power is helpful in other sports like golf, tennis, sprinting, pitching, etc.
Strength and Muscle Endurance
While taekwondo as an activity doesn’t cause you to move your muscles under resistance the way that weight lifting does, it does cause you to move and stop them with tremendous speed. This increases muscle strength to some degree, but it does more to increase muscle endurance.
Most taekwondo schools will incorporate at least some body-weight resistance training into their classes, and some (like ours) will include health club-style fitness equipment and workouts.
That means your taekwondo training will have you feeling strong and looking lean in no time.
Focus and Concentration
Whether you are practicing your taekwondo forms and trying to place every inch of your body in the right place at the precise moment it’s supposed to be there – or you’re zeroed in on an opponent in a sparring match – taekwondo will improve your focus and concentration dramatically.
The results of a study in 2015 showed that the 4,715 adult participants who spent 15 minutes a day, five days a week, on brain training activities increased their concentration, developed their short-term memory and improved their ability to solve problems.
Just spend one class on the mat trying to make your body move in ‘rub-your-tummy-pat-your-head’ kinds of patterns, and you’ll quickly realize taekwondo is as challenging for the mind as any sudoku puzzle.
Attention to Detail
Many people report an increase in their ability to track details after starting taekwondo classes. That’s because taekwondo is all about the details. Remember earlier when we said there’s no such thing as advanced moves, just advanced application of the basics? It’s attention to detail that makes those applications advanced.
Taekwondo classes provide all kinds of opportunities to increase your mental toughness. Naturally, sparring provides mental toughness in spades. After all, it takes a lot of guts to get in the sparring ring across from someone whose whole purpose in life for the next nine minutes is to try to kick you in the head!
But, even for those who don’t spend a lot of time sparring, there are still mental challenges to overcome. Pushing yourself to do one more pushup than you thought you could or holding a deep stance when your leg muscles are quivering, and burning can sharpen the mind and toughen the spirit.
The best self-confidence comes from genuine achievement. Taekwondo gives all its participants a never-ending series of challenges to overcome. Some challenges are big, and some are small, but all the successes add up to more self-confidence.
Greater self-confidence or an increased sense of self-worth helps you hold your head high and develop a “yes I can” attitude. This can result in:
- More happiness and joy in life: the more self-confident you are, the happier you are with yourself, and the more you enjoy what life has to offer. It’s that simple!
- Less fear and anxiety: when confidence is high, you can accept, adapt, learn, gain, and benefit from any situation in life. In this way, you naturally replace fear and anxiety with greater confidence in yourself and your capabilities.
- Freedom from social anxiety: the more secure you feel in your self-worth, the less worried you’ll be about what others think of you in social situations — this allows you to enjoy people more freely.
- More peace of mind and less stress: freedom from self-doubt, fear, and anxiety naturally translates into greater peace of mind and more stress-free life.
- More energy and motivation to act: the more confident you are that you can achieve things you want to achieve (like personal goals or dreams), the more motivated and energized you are to take action to achieve them!
Fun and Rewarding
It should probably go without saying that taekwondo is fun, but we’ll go ahead and say it anyway! After all, 30 million people aren’t doing this because it’s boring. There are only a few things that can provide a lifetime of fun and enjoyment – and fewer still offer such rich rewards as taekwondo training.
Finally, joining taekwondo classes means joining the global taekwondo community. Longtime practitioners of taekwondo often have friends all over the world thanks to their involvement in various events and tournaments. When you train in taekwondo, you can travel anywhere in the world and be within just a couple miles of a place to train. So everywhere you go, you aren’t far from your second home.
Taekwondo Classes in Northville, Novi, and Plymouth, Michigan
Are you interested in taking taekwondo classes? Do you live in the Northville, Novi or Plymouth, Michigan area? We’d like to invite you to check out our school. You can read about taekwondo for kids, taekwondo for teens, or taekwondo for adults to find out more about our programs.
If you’re not in the Northville, Novi, and Plymouth area, but you have questions about taekwondo training, please feel free to reach out to us via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to help you get started on your martial arts journey.
Not sure if taekwondo is right for you? Check out our definitive guide to finding a martial arts school.