Tae Kwon Do


Tae kwon do, also spelled taekwondo or taekwondo, is a martial art; it is also the national sport of South Korea. The name tae kwon do comes from three Korean words that mean “to strike with the foot,” “to strike with the fist,” and “the way” or “the art.” Thus, the name of the sport can be loosely translated as “the art of kicking and punching.”


The purpose of traditional tae kwon do is self-defense, specifically, to render opponents unable to inflict harm by striking them with the legs and feet. The purpose of professional or semi-professional tae kwon do is to win a match against an opponent or compete at the Olympic level. Amateurs may participate in the contemporary sport in order to learn self-defense or for overall physical fitness rather than to compete in formal matches; tae kwon do helps to develop the student's strength, speed, balance, flexibility, and stamina. It is also part of formal military training for the South Korean army. More recently, some researchers are investigating tae kwon do as a form of exercise for seniors to lower their risk of falls, as the sport has been shown to improve flexibility and balance in older adults.


A young tae kwon do student attempts to kick through a wooden board at a dojang (training hall) in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, December 2016.

A young tae kwon do student attempts to kick through a wooden board at a dojang (training hall) in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, December 2016. The purpose of this martial art is to render one's opponent unable to inflict harm by striking them with one's legs and feet.


There is some disagreement among historians about the origins of contemporary tae kwon do. Some elements of it can be traced back as far as the Three Kingdoms period (37 B.C.–A.D. 668), when Korea was divided among three rival powers. Silla, the least powerful of the warring kingdoms, had an elite corps of warriors known as Hwarang, who cultivated a style of unarmed self-defense techniques known as subak. As the Hwarang were recruited from the sons of noble families, they were taught philosophy, history, and a code of ethics as well as martial arts and horsemanship, and it is thought that the ethical code of contemporary tae kwon do is a descendant of this ancient tradition of education.

The unarmed combat techniques and other martial skills fell into disuse in Korea when Confucianism became the dominant philosophy. Under the Joseon Dynasty (A.D. 1392–1910), any skill or activity that was not related to academic subjects was devalued. The military lost its former prestige, while the older techniques of self-defense survived only in the army. When the Japanese occupied Korea from 1910 to 1945, they banned all aspects of native Korean identity, from religion and traditional dress to folk customs and even names. Martial arts training was forbidden; however, some forms of subak survived and were taught underground. Meanwhile, some Koreans studied in Japan during the occupation period; there they were exposed to karate and other Japanese martial arts. Some even attained black belt status in Japanese karate schools.


Tae kwon do resembles karate and kickboxing in that it is a martial art that relies on the use of the legs and feet more than the arms or hands because the human leg is stronger and has a greater reach than the arm. In general, tae kwon do utilizes kicks aimed at the opponent from a moving stance combined with blocks, kicks, punches, and open-handed strikes. Some forms of tae kwon do also permit grabbing, taking down, or throwing the opponent in techniques borrowed from judo, or allow the use of pressure points.

Practitioners of tae kwon do wear a uniform known as a dobok (the Korean word for “robe” or “training clothes” ), traditionally made of cotton and usually either white or black. The dobok consists of a jacket-like top and wide-legged pants. It is worn with a belt denoting the athlete's grade or rank. The first belt is typically white, followed by yellow, green, blue, red, and then black to indicate increasing proficiency. Some schools of tae kwon do award brown belts in place of red.

Although there is no single pattern followed by all tae kwon do schools worldwide, most teach students some or all of the following:

The uniform worn to practice tae kwon do. Traditionally made of cotton and usually white or black, the dobok has a jacket-like top and widelegged pants. It is worn with a belt whose color indicates the student's rank.
The Korean word for a tae kwon do school or training hall.
The Korean word for the chest protector worn in sport tae kwon do.
The Korean word for the patterns or forms of movement sequences that are a major component of tae kwon do practice. It is also spelled hyung.
The style of unarmed self-defense techniques taught in ancient and medieval Korea.
Types of tae kwon do

There are two basic types of tae kwon do— traditional and sport, although each has numerous variations.

In traditional tae kwon do, students are expected to recite a student oath at the opening and closing of every class session. The International Tae Kwon Do Association states, “Reciting the Student Oath instills a sense of responsibility and self-discipline as well as respect for one's self and others.” The oath is as follows:

SPORT. Sport tae kwon do is the form of the art represented in the Olympics and such other competitions as the Asian Games. Most tae kwon do competitions include patterns, breaking, and self-defense techniques as well as sparring. In the Olympics only sparring matches are judged. Competitors in sparring matches wear a hogu (chest guard) in addition to protective gear for the shins and forearms. The hogu also serves as a point of reference in the scoring system, as a kick or punch to the hogu counts as one point, a blow to the hogu that turns the opponent's body around counts as two points, and a kick that knocks the opponent down is awarded three points.

Matches take place in rings that are about 30 ft (9 m) square. Each match has three rounds, with oneminute rest periods between rounds. At the end of three rounds, the competitor with the higher number of points wins the match. Blows are full-force; if one competitor is knocked out by a legal blow, the opponent automatically wins the match. There are two age groups in sport tae kwon do matches: 14- to 17-yearolds and 18 years and older.


Preparation for tae kwon do begins with enrollment in a dojang or school to learn the basic techniques of the art and its underlying philosophy of character building as well as physical conditioning. Most schools in the United States have separate classes for adults and children.


No specialty equipment is required for tae kwon do.

Training and conditioning

Individuals should train with a qualified instructor. Due to the physical nature of tae kwon do and the need to use multiple muscle groups and limbs, participants should be physically fit, be able to move quickly, and have a good sense of balance.

Tae kwon do instructors often give commands in the Korean language during class sessions, and students may be required to show that they understand these words as part of their promotion examinations.


Tae kwon do can lead to significant injuries; it is estimated that about 8% of those who participate in sport competition are injured, without regard to sex, age, or level of skill. A study of injuries among athletes in the 2008 Olympic Games classified tae kwon do as one of the riskiest sports, along with weightlifting, soccer, hockey, and boxing. Most tae kwon do injuries are minor, however. Bruising is common, with the leg being the most common location of injury. Tae kwon do participants are also at risk for injuries to the foot and ankle from the twisting and impact mechanisms involved in kicking the opponent and pivoting on the ankle joint.

Participants injured during a competition match should seek immediate medical attention, particularly if they have been kicked in the head or been knocked out.


People who enjoy tae kwon do usually report improved muscular strength, endurance, agility, and coordination as well as overall physical fitness. Studies of the benefits of tae kwon do as a method of fall prevention for seniors differ in their findings.

See also Martial arts .



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“Tae Kwan Do Patterns.” International TaeKwon-Do Association (ITA). http://www.itatkd.com/aa_form1.html#top (accessed January 18, 2017).


American College of Sports Medicine, 401 W Michigan St., Indianapolis, IN, 46202-3233, (317) 637-9200, Fax: (317) 634-7817, http://www.acsm.org .

International Taekwon-do Federation (ITF), C/Mercado, 3 – 1°, Benidorm, Spain, 00 34 965859885, HQoffice@tkd-itf.org, http://www.tkd-itf.org .

U.S. Taekwon-Do Federation, 6801 W 117th Ave., E-5, Broomfield, CO, 80020, (303) 466-4963, Fax: (303) 466-3587, http://www.ustf-itf.com .

World Taekwondo Federation, 5th Fl., Kolon Bldg., 15 Hyoja-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul, 03044, Korea, 82 2 566-2505, Fax: 82 2 533-4728, wtf@wtf.org, http://www.wtf.org .

Rebecca J. Frey, PhD
Revised by Laura Jean Cataldo, RN, EdD

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.