Monday, 2 April 2012

Vital Points; Are they a part of Taekwondo study?

For a Traditional Taekwondo student the question in the headline is not even an issue. Of course it is! For the mainstream Taekwondoin (even some who call themselves "Traditional") it is a question of great controversy. I have to say that I can not blame many for a lack of knowledge in this area as even in my own organisation the study of vital points are not really dwelved into until you get close to a black belt ranking. That said all my students from white belt and up know at least three vital points that Taekwondo exploit relentlessly during Poomsae practise and they know how to attack them.

All the techniques in Poomsae are said to attack either the "low section", "middle section" or the "high section" of the body. In each part there is one "main" vital point the students attack and that is "Danjun" about 5 cm under the navel for low section, "Mjeung Chi" better known as solar plexus for middle section and "Inchun" better known as the philtrum or the area just below the nose. All these points are located along the center line of the body.

In my Dojang this is basic knowledge and this is learned before you reach yellow belt (the second belt you get). Most of our training back the knowledge of vital points that we get through Poomsae practise up.

For instance in formal (one/two/three) step sparring the attacker and the defender both aim for vital points when they attack/defend. There is no denying that an attack at a weak spot on the body amplifies the effect of the attack vs an attack to a strong part of the body. For instance a straight punch delivered full force to the opponents shoulder might hurt a little. The same punch focused just right spot on the solar plexus will send the opponent to his knees struggling to breathe or to keep his food on the inside.

Taekwondo`s main aproach to vital points has always been to strike them with various parts of your body. That is why our art is called the art of kicking and punching. We also have some techniques on an "advanced" level of study that focus more on grasping and squezing the opponents various vital points, but as I said that is not the focus of attention in Taekwondo (but do not make the mistake and say it is not there).

The last 20 years with raw focus on "sport Taekwondo" has lead an entire generation of students and instructors alike to believe that vital points are not a part of Taekwondo. And for those who practise for sport why should they study vital points? The vital points are padded up or out of bounds when it comes to sport sparring anyway so there is really no reason as to why bother with the study of vital points in that setting. Even "Sport Poomsae" wich has increased incredibly much since the last 6 years or so does not require any knowledge of vital points at all. All that is needed is to know the correct motions of the form. That is all. But for those who still practise Taekwondo as an holistic martial art (either hard style/old school, or the formsbased students) need to study this.

Right from the earliest beginning of Taekwondo vital point study has been a part of the training. Lee Won Kuk founder of the first Kwan said in an interview that the techniques of Chung Do (Taekwondo) "were aimed at various vital points on the body". Choi Hong Hi also lists vital points in his publications starting with "Taekwondo" from 1965. Henry Cho stated in his publication from 1968 "Korean Karate" that the difference between Chinese, Japanese and Korean martial arts were how the vital points was attacked/exploited (Paraphrasing). Also my own teachers first two books ("Taekwondo 1 & 2) contains lists and charts of Vital points. Kukkiwon Textbook also contains detailed charts on Vital points right up to the latest edition (2006).

Marc Tadeshi`s landmark publication "Taekwondo" from the early 2000s states another viewpoint on vital points. The author does say that he tries to document Taekwondo according to contemporary trends and so he might be right when he says detailed vital point study is not a part of Taekwondo. That in Taekwondo we do not use acupuncture points or TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) in our study. He also goes on to say that we do not use traditional names for the striking points rather basing our study on MWM (Modern Western Medicine). And rather than basing our "striking targets" into minute small areas like in TCM points we tend to group them together into larger areas like ribs, chest, side of the head etc. I am not saying he is wrong because I do believe that for some and maybe even the great big majority of Taekwondo students this might be the case, but it goes against what the founders of Taekwondo states in their publications, it goes against the standard texts on Taekwondo (both Kukkiwon Textbook and the writings of Choi Hong Hi), it also goes against the publications on the teachers of the founders of Taekwondo. It should be noted that the vital points in Kukkiwon Textbook can be said to be based on MWM but the points correspond with TCM, they are minute small target areas and not just grouped together into bigger "scoring areas".

I honestly believe that the knowledge of Vital Points and how to exploit/attack them are right there in Taekwondo, but most people just does not care to look for it in their studies, rather seeking the knowledge outside Taekwondo instead. I am a great believer in Cross training, but I am also a believer that everything I really need to know is contained within my chosen art. Yes we do a lot of kicking and maybe they are not that practical in a "street fight" (what ever that means), but overall I have never been dissapointed in the knowledge of my teachers even when it comes to areas outside the core curriculum.

I guess the reason the study of Vital Points are not included in main stream Taekwondo is because many people start to teach before they have a good grasp of the system they teach.. Or that many teachers focuses on sport Taekwondo eventhough they might call themselves "traditional". If all the sparring that is done is competition sparring and the forms done is just for demonstrations (training the execution of the form only) then you are not really what I would call a "traditional" school.

In my grading for black belt I needed to do a written test before we were actually allowed to grade. One of the tasks on the written exam was to list vital points (I have forgotten how many but atleast 10) in both our native language and Korean. I also had to describe just where each vital point were. In addition I also had to give examples of techniques best suited to exploit these vital points. Does this sound like a martial art with no vital point study?

That being said Traditional Taekwondo does require the study of vital points, but it does not rely on them exclusivly. They are considered the poison at the tip of the arrow so to speak. The basic techniques of Taekwondo should be so refined and well trained that they should be very powerfull (and fast). It should not matter if you hit a vital point or not, the Taekwondo technique should have some effect anyway, but hitting a vital point is the goal, and it will of course provide a bigger effect than not hitting a vital point. Maybe this is the real reason the mainstream does not focus on vital point study? I know it is the reason why the real study of vital points does not start untill you get near to black belt level in my Dojang. But as I have allready said, a basic knowledge of Vital Points is provided (at least to my students) at a very early level (not to children).


  1. Hello
    i really should stop writing all over your blog, but you keep bringing up things i have an interest in!
    yes they should be part of study, but for the most part they are not. the ones that you mention are fairly common to all schools-west or east. it's when you get into the more complex stuff that it generally stops. this is a shame as so many of the moves that are utilized in the forms make very little sense without these forming the basis of at least some of the applications. the TCM model is ideal for target location and does not have to be the basis of a modern explanation. few are shown proper angle. direction, or sequence in the points they use.
    i have gotten tremendous interest from students -just show them how you can weaken a major limb just by reversing meridian flow!, but much resistance from many instructors regarding the introduction to this material. i suspect much of it is an additional study in addition to the common syllabus, hence if they don't know it they don't want it shown.

    1. "i really should stop writing all over your blog, but you keep bringing up things i have an interest in!"

      I will take that as a compliment Richard:) And for what its worth I really enjoy your comments so please do not stop;)

      "the ones that you mention are fairly common to all schools-west or east."

      Yes and they should be, but how common are they really? I have encountered a lot of black belts that would have trouble listing 3-5 vital points... As these three are the 3 most basic vital points in Taekwondo I am glad to hear that they are common in the Dojan you train and visit:)

      The statement in your comment regarding some of the moves in the forms making little sense without a vital point knowledge is so profound it could probably be a book worth of material on its own. You are very welcome to do a guest post on that issue;) Or maybe an article on Totally Taekwondo Magazine? Your application on the opening "ready stance" of Koryo Poomsae fits in in that statement I guess. Great article by the way;)

      That you have gotten tremendous interest from students in vital points is great. This is where I think mainstream Taekwondo fails. We have a great system when it comes to "simple" hard style martial art, it is well defined, but there is often a lack of "advanced" material for the "advanced" students. Maybe many quit after gaining black belt because they are led to believe that Taekwondo training/learning stops it is just a question of refining the things you have allready learned? Or in other cases, it is more of the same (more forms, formal sparring, etc)? I think that dwelving deep into the different aspects is important to retain students..

      Hmmm I think I am feeling a future blog post is comming:p

  2. "This is where I think mainstream Taekwondo fails....."
    damn! that hurts! why? because it is so true, and echoes my past and present feeling of being somewhat adrift. there is so much to learn, but for many it all stops at punch and kick--higher and faster.the majority of the teaching of so much is devoid of anything subtle. all is surface. if it looks right it is right.
    i have been blessed to meet a few instructors that can teach at a high level, and have also been cursed (America being a big place) that they are all thousands of miles away.
    i had mentioned this to Mr. Cook and he said that i should go to Korea(on his tour) and train there. i have found that given his experience trying to research the two Koryo forms for his book, he basically hit a wall because no one was very forthcoming with info-even with GM Chun acting as intermediary. this was exactly what i expected. I would be very interested in your experience training there.
    anyway, i started writing the articles for tkd because i thought that there was a hunger for a greater understanding of just what we were doing--when we did that!
    i find that practitioners are amazed when given explanations and concepts that occur at a higher level, or are more complex, than the usual. their interest and respect for the art goes up.
    i also think that the simplicity is what causes practitioners of other arts to have a lower opinion of tkd in general. all they ever see is the sporting manifestation, and in that respect they are right.
    sorry for the rant and legnth.
    best, richard

  3. Keep them articles comming Richard:-) As for the answers you are seeking, I am not sure that traveling to Korea is the answer. I have done a lot of travels to Korea, and I have been there for extensive periods of time. The focus is on either competition in some schools at the cost of all else (but the level of the Taekwondo competitiors is unbelieveable), or if you are lucky you can find a "hard style" dojang.

    While these Dojang will teach the block kick punch Taekwondo they are usually a little more sophisticated as the main stream kick block punch style. For instance instead of blocking a front kick thrown with the right leg with your left hand low block, they might teach you to get to the outside, do a right hand low block so the attacker is of balanced and exposes his back to you.

    Great realistic applications have been shown to me in korea, but they are the exceptions instead of the norm. But there is still tons and tons to learn. The more traditional masters will have a great knowledge in vital point study, all aspects of ho sin sul (self defense), and "correct" basic technique. Sometimes it is like the Ho Sin Sul they teach is straight from the forms even though they do not say so. Keep an open eye if you are shown Ho Sin Sul techniques.

    If you can find a traditional Master and you do not expect to find the textbook realistic applications to the patterns I still think that a trip to Korea is worth while:-D

    If nothing else you need a high standard Poomsae to be able to get the meaning of it as a porly performed Poomsae is like a text that is poorly written (=harder to read). Besides, the food and people are usually more than enough reason to travel there;)

    My teacher also organises a yearly trip to Korea and has been doing so for the last 15 years or so (maybe more). I have been with him about 8 times to Korea now (not including my one year stay) and I do not regret a single trip as I learned a lot each time.