Almost every Taekwon-Do instructor I’ve met has touted the values of General Choi’s Theory of Power like it’s the heart of Taekwon-Do. The Theory of Power defines our martial art almost as much as the techniques we do. Choi wanted Taekwon-Do to be a powerful martial art above all else, and the Theory of Power acts as a guideline to shape the techniques and extract every last ounce of that power. Not only that, but it uses science to show how Taekwon-Do is a superior art.
That’s the thinking, anyway.
The problem is that Choi’s science is questionable, at best. Even when the underlying principles are correct, his scientific explanations often are not. In other cases, such as his thoughts on reaction force, the principles themselves are wrong.
Much of my criticism has to do with Choi’s use of scientific terminology, like his often incorrect use of the word “force.” I understand that in everyday language we don’t stick to strict scientific meanings. But the entire point of the Theory of Power was to give scientific merit to TKD. If that was Choi’s goal, he should have at least gotten his science right.
I’m no physicist by any means, but I’m going to try to use my knowledge of high school-level physics to point out the issues I have with the Theory of Power. Why? Because I believe that BS should not be one of the things that we teach our students. Because we should not continue to lionize bad explanations and even pseudo-science when we should know better.
On that note, if you notice any errors in my explanations, please let me know.
In part 1 of this article, we will look at reaction force (the most incorrect of Choi’s principles), concentration, equilibrium and breath control. Also check out part 2, where we will break down the issues with Choi’s thoughts on mass and speed (the most poorly explained principle).
Choi’s entire principle of reaction force is based on Newton’s third law, which basically says that if I exert a force on something, the other thing will exert an equal force in the opposite direction. To illustrate, Choi wrote, “When an automobile crashes into a wall with the force of 2,000 pounds, the wall will return a force of 2,000 pounds.” That much is correct.
He goes on to say, “if your opponent is rushing towards you at a high speed, by the slightest blow at his head, the force with which you strike his head would be that of his own onslaught plus that of your blow.” That’s not quite accurate. That’s not how force works. Your fist exerts a force on his head, but his head also exerts an equal and opposite force on your fist. A force doesn’t become greater just because the two objects are moving in opposite directions. What does change is kinetic energy. When two objects are hurtling toward one another, their kinetic energy is multiplied, not their force. That’s what makes the hit harder.
Choi’s next sentence is wrong by definition: “The two forces combined; his, which is large, and yours, which is small are quite impressive.” There are no large and small forces here. They’re equal. Energy and force are not the same thing.
So what? I’m splitting hairs about physics terms. Your punch is still harder when the guy is moving toward you, so the spirit of the point still stands, right? I just want to show that we’re only into the first “scientific” paragraph of the Theory of Power and the science is already dodgy.
The reaction hand
When I hear Taekwon-Do instructors talking about reaction force, they usually aren’t talking about someone running into your fist. Instead, they mean pulling your opposite hand back to your hip when performing a technique. As the theory goes, the “force” of your punch is made stronger by the “reaction force” of the opposite hand being pulled back to your hip.
This is also wrong (and definitely worse for a Taekwon-Do student than mixing up “force” with “energy”). You put power into your punch by accelerating your fist as quickly as you can and putting as much of your body weight into it as you can (while still keeping a stable position). Pulling your opposite fist back to your hip does none of these things.
Let’s use a standard TKD reverse punch as an example. Because you’re moving your fists in opposite directions but keeping your body square to the target, you may be robbing yourself of some power. Think about it: if your right hand is punching and your left hand is pulling backwards, your hands are trying to turn you counter-clockwise. Your hips have to compensate for this so you can stay full-facing to the target. You’re taking away some of your ability to put body weight into the target. Watch a boxer throw a reverse punch. Their body will twist, meaning they can get more extension on the punch, but can also put more weight behind it.
Even if pulling the fist back to the hip does somehow increase power when punching, what’s the point in doing it for, say, a downward block? If you would want the forces to be equal and opposite, wouldn’t it make sense for the reaction hand to move upward? That’s what we’re supposed to do for a pressing block with the palm, so why not a downward block? For that matter, why don’t we throw our hands forcefully in the opposite direction when kicking?
Going back to the boxing analogy, boxers don’t pull their hands back to their hips and I would say that, on average, they throw harder punches than we do. Not only does pulling your hand to your hip not add power, but it leaves you tremendously exposed to counterattack.
The purpose of pulling the hand back to the hip isn’t to add power to the punch itself. This is another case where General Choi and the other TKD pioneers likely heard bad information from their Karate instructors. That hand is actually grabbing someone by the wrist or clothing and pulling them in closer, either so you can guarantee you hit them or so your punch hits harder (see the whole part above about an opponent moving toward you). Don’t believe me? Watch this old Karate video to see the effectiveness of the grab-’n’-pull in action.
Unlike much of the Theory of Power, Choi’s thoughts on concentration seem pretty sound to me. They can be summarized as:
- Use a small attacking or blocking tool to concentrate your energy into a small target area so you can cause the most damage.
- Concentrate on tensing your muscles at the point of impact, not throughout the technique.
- Concentrate and coordinate all your muscles toward the attacking or blocking tool: big muscles like those in the hips and abdomen move first, smaller muscles like those in the arm move last.
The first point is related to the concept of pressure. If a force is applied over a smaller area, the amount of pressure will increase. To see what I mean, slap yourself on the thigh with an open palm. Now make a fist and extend your middle knuckle, and hit yourself at the same speed. Notice which one hurts more?
The second point is the only one that could be a problem, but it’s standard practice in boxing and every other striking-based martial art that I’m aware of. Relax the technique to get speed, and tense just as you make impact. The faster you can throw your punch, the harder you can hit. However, note that the tension we apply when doing patterns (to stop the motion and prevent hyperextension of joints) is different than the tension we apply when hitting something (when the target stops the motion and prevents hyperextension).
The third point is also standard practice. Uncoil your body like a whip. If you want to get the most power possible in your punch, don’t just start from the hips; start from the feet. Grind your feet into the floor and move up through your legs, to your hips, to your abdomen, to your shoulders, to your arm. Your body should rotate as you go. A similar idea applies to kicking, but from the top down. Move your shoulders first, then your abdomen, your hips and finally your leg.
This principle also makes sense. To put power into your technique, you can’t be off balance. But I would prefer if this point were simply called “balance” and not “equilibrium.” Equilibrium, in this sense, means that an object is in a state of rest or uniform motion (in other words, it’s not accelerating). If you want to produce a powerful strike, you have to accelerate at least part of your body. It’s possible to stay in balance without being in equilibrium.
There are a couple of other things to note. First of all, I’m not quite sure what this means:
Equilibrium is classified into both dynamic and static stability. They are so closely inter-related that the maximum force can only be produced when the static stability is maintained through dynamic stability.
So I can only produce “maximum force” when I’m in balance while standing still because I’m also in balance while moving? That’s some quantum-physics level stuff right there. I’m sure there’s a valid explanation for it, and I could make a serious guess if I wanted to, but I wish Choi had just told us what he meant.
My other point of contention is this:
One additional point; the heel of the rear foot should never be off the ground at the point of impact. This is not only necessary for good balance but also to produce maximum power at the point of impact.
That’s not always true. For example, when a boxer throws a cross, the heel of the rear foot is supposed to be off the ground. Otherwise, the punch isn’t as effective.
General Choi says that proper breath control does three things:
- Gives you better stamina
- Allows you to better take a shot
- Allows you to put more power into a strike or block
The first two are definitely true. The third may be.
If you’re breathing effectively, you’ll be less prone to fatigue. That’s exercise 101 right there.
If you exhale sharply and tense your abdomen when taking a shot to the body, it hurts much less than it would otherwise. I know that from experience, and if you’ve ever tried it, I’m sure you do too. However, Choi says that a proper sharp exhale can stop a person from going unconscious. I really have my doubts about that. All the breathing techniques in the world won’t keep the lights on if you take a hard enough shot to the chin.
Finally, we come to adding power to a technique through breathing. This one’s debatable, but quite possibly true. In not only Taekwon-Do, but also in styles like boxing, Karate and Muay Thai, students are taught to exhale sharply when throwing a technique. Even in weightlifting, proper technique involves exhaling during the lifting phase. That exhalation may help produce more power. In TKD and Karate, the breath is meant to be cut off for a split second during the moment of impact, helping to tense the body. This tension helps lock all the parts of the body in place, which may also help produce more power. I know from experience that it’s much harder to throw a strong punch when holding my breath throughout the punch or inhaling.
On the other hand, maybe all that tension in the abdomen isn’t necessary. Boxers aren’t taught to tense quite like we are, and, again, they tend to punch harder than we do. Come to think of it, when was the last time you tensed your abdomen when throwing a technique in a sparring match?
General Choi also tells us to “never inhale when focusing a block or blow against an opponent” because it can slow your movement and reduce power. True, if you want to produce power in your technique, inhaling at the moment of impact is a bad idea. But as Karate expert Dr. Elmar Schmeisser points out, there are situations where inhaling during a technique is a good thing. Inhalation works well when you don’t need to put power into the technique; for example, if you want to parry an opponent’s strike and not block it forcefully. The benefit of inhaling is that it produces better combinations: you can launch your counterattack more quickly and fluidly, rather than using the staccato out-breath, out-breath rhythm of blocking and punching that we’re used to in our patterns.
To be continued…
In part 2 of this article, we dig into mass and speed, and talk about why all of this pedantry even matters.