Martial Arts Kicks; Form vs Substance?

Posted by: John W. Zimmer
Under: karate, martial arts
25 Jul 2010

One Tuesday night back in the late 1970’s I was working out at the school when a couple of Korean Stylists came in and spoke to my instructor (Dick Willett) about doing some sparring. Dick asked me to spar with these guys and I agreed as they seemed to be respectful. I believe that I had my fighting black belt at the time.

In our system, one could do an abbreviated test to wear a black belt early before the official test. The only problem with this strategy was one had to fight 10 black belts in a row and do ok against them to get the fighting black belt. I did it as I wanted to start fighting tournaments as a black belt early. I did later achieve my traditional black belt and beyond.

I fought the guy about my size and did well against him but the other big guy (I’m about 6 foot and this guy was about 6′ 4″) kept saying “Poor Form” as I was kicking his friend. You see I had been fighting lots of tournaments and had the timing down. The first guy I was fighting had some beautiful kicks but they were not connecting like mine were. You see I did not care about form at all… only if my kick or punch connected.

More about these fights later but in this post I will talk about kicking form versus substance and does it really matter? I mean what are the pros and cons of adhering to some long dead master’s view of how to throw a proper kick (no disrespect intended). I’ll finish my recollection of my fights that day in the late 70’s and the surprising (to them) outcome! Here is one video of some of the best karate kicks.




The two scenes I loved were the guy kicking the barrel and Van Damme doing that straight leg side kick! You see these kicks were done with very good form. They looked really cool but in a real fight would they work? With today’s MMA enlightened era – I would have to say any time you leave a kick hanging out there (and it did not take the guy out), you are risking a take down… kind of foolish to lock anything out… but again they looked cool.


First off good form means you execute the kick exactly they way it should be done the way it is taught. A side thrust kick done in kata many times locks out. While it is true doing the kick with good form is probably close to the most efficient way to deliver the most thrust for the least amount of effort; it also does not consider what the other guy is doing.


If you take into consideration substance or perhaps another word is the practicality or usability of the kick – often times you are not fighting a guy/guy in a side horse stance waiting for you to throw your best shot. No – your opponent is going to be moving around and be willing to take advantage of any mistakes in position or timing you might afford her. 

Lets consider you goal now… if you are testing for a belt – by all means do the kick the way you were taught. You need good form to pass the test. What if your goal is fitness? One argument might be to practice the kicks the way you would throw them in a fight because you will fight the way you train. But many people who have never taken martial arts lessons – have taken “kick boxing” at the local gym. What I am trying to say is these folks have no idea how to throw a kick if they are depending on the fitness kick boxing instructor to show them.

What is your goal is self defense or some type of fighting? Does form matter? Nope… the only criteria a fighter is held to is ‘did it work?’ I don’t mean that one should throw away all of ones traditional martial arts training but rather let it evolve in light of the new goal. Guys and gals today move around when they fight. They beg – borrow or steal whatever techniques work in the venue they are competing (or fighting in terms of self-defense)!

Do you remember boxing in the old days…. before they moved around in the right much? Boxing has evolved to today’s highly skilled fighters in the ring. Karate has made a similar transition but there is still a lot of old style fighters out there in schools that stress form. To me this is a lot like the karate tournaments where I used to compete. There for fighting  and forms competition. The form competitors looked very fluid, crisp and flawless in their execution of technique.  

Contrast the forms with the sparring competition. Fighter’s kicks looked sloppy but often times actually connected. If one tried to throw a good form kick – most of the time it would be telegraphed and not connect. The only thing that matters in fighting is if it works… how pretty it looks does not mean squat. Here is a old Keith Vitali vs Doug Smith video to demonstrate effective kicking.



Wow… Keith Vitali’s kicks did not really look sloppy to me as it is pure poetry when a kick lands but you can see what I mean they were all over the place – thrown from any position. That to me is the goal – actually connecting with a kick rather than throwing a good form kick that does not hit anything.


To finish my story – I sparred the big guy next all the while he was talking smack. Every inverted lunge punch or side kick I threw to his kidneys (in response to a high – fast kicking attack), he would growl ‘Poor Form!’ You can see how that might be irritating. I kept my cool as only cool heads can fight and if this guy actually connected with me – it would have been bad. You see my fighting weight back then was 165 and this guy was easily 220.


But in this guy’s defense, all of his kicks were very good form and hard kicks. I quickly realized that I would not be able to absorb any of them so since this guy was going hard – I went hard in my counters. I took no chances and fought a defensive – outside fight. I mean I fought from the outside and did not commit. As his attacks came at me, I would either side-step or back off and counter-strike to his kidneys with a inverted counter-punch or side-kick mostly right after his attack missed!


After about 10 minutes of this I called the match because he had not hit me and I was hitting him at will. His unfriendly banter and not ceased so by calling the match I was ready to take him out if he continued. But he and his friend still had minimal respect for our school and my instructor sat down them them and I and explained to them that form is good but connecting is more important in open tournaments. The guy admitted that I had one hell of an inverted counter punch and showed me his bruised kidney. We parted respecting each other but I hope I impressed on them the importance of substance over form.

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13 Responses to “Martial Arts Kicks; Form vs Substance?”

  1. Zara Says:

    It’s been said techniques should be felt and not seen so it certainly doesn’t matter how they look aslong as they hit the target with enough speed and accuracy to do real damage. Martial arts shouldn’t be about looking good but about being effective. Streetfighters and criminals couldn’t care less about technique, form or tradition and it’s those people you’re looking to beat, not an adversary in a kata contest or even in regulated kumite. If you’re going to use kicks at all in a streetfight keep them low to do maximum damage while retaining maximum protection (avoiding getting hit), people who kick high are just asking for a groinshot or a hard fall. In kicking I’d avoid chambering the knee since this is a dead giveaway, sure you can do some fancy things with this (e.g faking a mae-geri while changing into a mawashi) but it doesn’t really add anything so it’s mostly just for show. Strive for efficiency & effectiveness: aesthetics or tradition are less important (as Bruce Lee said traditions were only meant as hypotheses not absolute thruths) and just winning is impressive enough. Glad to see you keep up the quality of your posts John.

  2. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hey Zara!

    High kicks look cool but as you say if you are fighting a fighter – you just might be giving away the bout.

    I do my high-kicking on the bag (it hasn’t hit me back once).

    My flavor of kenpo favors a lot of flexibility with kicks – being able to transition without much telegraphing but again in a street fight – low hard kicks work the best.

    When are you going to start a blog Zara? I’d be one of your regulars.



  3. Matt Klein Says:

    His statements about “poor form” were his way of protecting his ego, since you were dusting him John. What do they say about leaving it at the door? Vitali was a pleasure to watch–a true legend, he got it done. Believe strongly in substance over form, especially in fighting. Very interesting post.
    Matt Klein recently posted..Kenpo Freestyle Sydney Logo- What Does it MeanMy Profile

  4. Steve Says:

    All i have to say is form may have a big importance even in tournaments as it was not just a contest of strength and technique but also art.
    But when it comes to a real fight in a real world application of self defense, hitting in the groin with an ugly kick would be the right thing.
    There’s nothing wrong in improving your form just make sure it will not decrease the substance of your kick.
    Steve recently posted..Get The Best Self Defense Trainer For ResultsMy Profile

  5. Thomas Says:

    For me martial arts kicks are not just about form and substance… Martial arts are about fighting with style indeed but more on the attitude and strategies. No matter what the form and substance for as long as it will make your opponent weak, then that’s it.
    Thomas recently posted..The Little Engine that CouldMy Profile

  6. BJ Says:

    Substance is everything. Dammit, you can get wonderful form and never give or take a single hit. But you are like a dancer and not a fighter. Yes, form shows skill, training, dedication, but form never wins a fight, for that you need substance.
    BJ recently posted..You Need A Diet Plan to Lose Belly FatMy Profile

  7. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hi Matt!

    I agree that leaving it at the door is the right way to workout… Vitali was one of the guys I really respected coming up… he does not look like a fighter but he could kick some serious butt.

    Hey Steve!

    I with you – substance is first… nothing wrong with form as one might become more effective.

    Howdy Tomas!

    Yep, In the end – picking the right game plan is everything! Thanks for your thoughts.

    Hi BJ!


  8. John Says:

    Martial has always been a very useful self defense kinds of art which can be tried by everybody. It is one way of learning self discipline and exercising at the same time. Apart from those benefits, it is also one way of minimizing crimes. Thank you for sharing this blog post :)
    John recently posted..The Little Engine that CouldMy Profile

  9. Edward Says:

    As always, this is another excellent read. I enjoyed reading all the thoughts written in this blog. Well martial arts is something I do or training for self defense. For the few months I’d been training I can say that I have learned something and that I am improving.
    Edward recently posted..Do What It Takes To Defend YourselfMy Profile

  10. John W. Zimmer Says:

    hey John – yep, lots of benefits, not the least as self-discipline.

    hi Edward – we are all there… improving by practice! Thanks for stopping by.

  11. Anthony Wagner Says:

    I have to say, when kicking that high,its not a good thing.

    My instructor used to tell us never to kick above the waist. it just provides nothing but a good appearance.

  12. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Anthony! – I used to spar with a guy that would nail me with a groin kick every time I tried to kick him high… pretty soon I learned. If I fight a good kicker – I tend to make them pay for their high kicks with groin kicks of my own, as a great mitigating strategy.

    Thanks for your comment.

  13. Zara Says:

    Many thanks for that great compliment John but I’m afraid I’m not qualified to give others advice (not yet anyway) and I should be pretty busy soon so I doubt I’d keep it up. No use starting something you can’t finish, maybe someday.

    Our kick defenses almost always consist of avoiding the kick followed by a swift groinkick followed by throws, locks and/or punches. In a real fight where your health and safety is in danger you take him out asap and kicking someone in the groin is generally one of the best ways to do this: even if it fails for some reason it’s likely his hands will go down to protect that area, giving you a clean shot to the face. Another great tactic is the same avoidance but with a sidekick aimed at the knee: he who can’t stand can’t fight and since his leg will generally be in the air or on the way down he has little chance of avoiding it if you practiced diligently and act without hesitation. Catching the kicking leg is also good aslong as you don’t expose your head to punches in the process and you take him down asap. From there I’d avoid grappling but instead punch or kick him to finish the fight or maybe apply a lock if you think you can get away with it.