Deconstructing Taekwon-Do

Taekwon-Do and “Patching:” Making Techniques “Better”

In another post, I talked about why pattern movements seem to have little practical value. I also talked about how a few experts may be finding some genuinely practical applications for Karate techniques. If those experts are right, and we want to start working some of those practical applications into Taekwon-Do, then we have to consider one important factor: Taekwon-Do techniques were modified from Karate techniques.

Like most Karate practitioners, General Choi and the other Taekwon-Do pioneers learned the common theories of how the movements in the Karate kata (patterns) can be applied in a real-world situation. As Karate techniques morphed into Taekwon-Do, similar applications were formalized in the Encyclopedia of Taekwon-Do. For example, the application of a low outer forearm block―whether it’s used in TKD or Karate, no matter how it’s performed, whether it’s called “low outer forearm block,” “najunde palmok makgi” or “gedan barai”― is to forcefully block and redirect an attack aimed at the lower abdomen or pelvic area.

But as I discussed in that other post, General Choi, and the vast majority of Karate students, may be wrong about how to apply those techniques in real life. I can’t blame them for being wrong, because their instructors were wrong. Those instructors weren’t lying, because they believed themselves to be right. So why would anyone question them? It seems like very few people realized that many of the commonly-believed applications make no practical sense. Or if they did realize it, they just went along for the ride and perpetuated the myth.

Dissecting the techniques

Again, let’s go back to the low block because everyone knows it and it’s easy to dissect. When TKD students prepare for a low block, we cross at the wrists, with the hands away from the body. In Karate, however, one hand is near the face while the other is extended downward, and the arms are crossed near the elbows.

If this application actually turns out to be more practical than the forceful-block theory, then preparation is extremely important to the technique. Without it, you’re missing the “block” in the block. However, under the common theory, the preparation is basically just a detail. While different preparations and executions will change the block somewhat, it will get to the same place in the end.

Choi and the other pioneers wanted to make Taekwon-Do a distinctly Korean art. They didn’t want to continue doing Japanese Karate; they wanted something all their own. They wanted everything to look as powerful as possible to show that their art was superior to Karate. And later, they wanted to distinguish themselves from WTF Taekwondo as well. So they modified the movements. Now, for a low block, instead of crossing the arms near the elbows, we cross at the wrists, away from the body. It adds momentum to the block, and makes it appear to be more powerful. It’s a relatively minor detail, but it changes the look and feel of the movement.

In Choi’s eyes, adding power to the techniques made them better. We can see evidence of this in the fact that he put so much emphasis on his Theory of Power. He wanted Taekwon-Do to look like, and be, a powerful art.

But if power takes all the practicality out of a technique, what good is it?


Marc “Animal” MacYoung describes a process that he calls “patching”. Patching is what happens when someone doesn’t understand the elements that make a technique effective and compensates by adding elements that the technique was originally meant to overcome. For example, let’s say that the preparation-as-a-block theory is accurate. In this case, things like the blocker’s speed and power aren’t a serious issue because it’s relatively easy to cover up and protect yourself. But if you don’t know that this is a necessary part of the movement, and you believe that the key to success is performing a quick, powerful block, then why not add more speed and power?

If the alternate application theories are right, then Choi and the other TKD pioneers didn’t understand the purpose of most of the techniques because most Karate instructors don’t understand the purpose of the techniques. Choi compensated by trying to make the movements more powerful. But in the process, those movements have become even further removed from practical application.

So what do we do with this information? I’m not suggesting that we modify Taekwon-Do techniques to be more like their original Karate counterparts or that we all start training in Karate instead. I enjoy Taekwon-Do as it is. Maybe it’s because it’s what I’m used to, but I like the aesthetics of TKD patterns. However, if it turns out that the modifications that were made to develop TKD techniques have made them less effective in real life, then we have to keep this in mind when discussing things like self-defence applications or even the purposes of the movements.

Anyone who is interested in practical applications can find ways to educate themselves. I suggest starting with authors like Iain Abernethy and Elmar Schmeisser (they discuss Karate). Stuart Anslow has written a book about the practical application of TKD techniques, but I haven’t read it yet, so I can’t comment on it.

The other important factor is training. If you can’t or don’t want to take the time to train in Karate, then even doing a little self-study on the individual Karate techniques can help. Apparently, doing a little training in a grappling and throwing art like Judo can also help to understand how there may be applications to things like stepping in the kata/patterns that go beyond simple stepping.

I have to admit that I haven’t educated myself to this level yet. So I’m no expert by any means. But I want to learn more about what seems to be a series of unintentional mistakes so I can delve further into the art that I love so much.

  • Ørjan

    The way Chang hon taekwondo does their low block with chamber might be more practical than you think. I am a kukki taekwondo student (often wrongfully labeled as WTF), so we do it the same way as you describe the karate low block. However my teacher comes from Ji Do Kwan and they do it the same as in chang hon. Therefore I looked into how it holds up in the “alternate application theory”.

    If you look at the preperation for a low block as a flinch panic block against a haymaker toward your head (you lift your arm and cross them to block his haymaker), you grab his arm after contact has been made and pull it toward your hip, while the other hand executes a hammer fist strike toward opponents groin, bladder, liver or kidneys depending on the situation.

    Let me know if you don’t follow this, as it is difficult to explain using text alone.

    • I think I get exactly what you mean, and that’s a great point. I hadn’t thought of that before. I doubt that’s the way the Ch’ang Hon TKD pioneers intended it to be used, but they might have accidentally made it practical in the process. I’m really glad you pointed that out!

      • Ørjan Nilsen

        Actually there might be okinawan karate styles doing the same chamber for low block as Chang hon too. I personally don’t know any, but I was suprised when I first discovered that knife hand guarding block is chambered the “taekwondo way” in okinawan. I believed this to be “patching” buy it turned out it wasn’t. Even shotokan did it that way in their early years.

        Reading a book by Oyama yesterday I noticed that Kyokushin Karate chambers their low block the same way as Chang Hon.

        • Huh. Interesting. I didn’t know that. I’ll have to look into it. Thanks for sharing!

          On a related note, I attended one of Iain Abernethy’s karate seminars about a couple of months ago, and I was asking him about a couple of things like the knife-hand guarding block. His stance was that even if the movement was changed from karate, there still have to be practical applications. It’s just a matter of figuring out how the technique works and finding out how all the component pieces can be applied. He also mentioned that some karate styles prepare for the block similar to how we do.