Martial Arts Myths: High kicks don’t work in the street

“High kicks don’t work in the street” is another one of those blanket statements that has been making the rounds for decades on end now. Many people still say this today so I wanted to tackle it in this installment of my “Martial Arts Myths” series (if you haven’t read them already, here are article one and two.) As usual, I’ll try to explain my reasoning and back it up with examples. That’s why I included a lot of videos in this post, to make sure you can see all the factors involved.

Without further ado, let’s jump right in and get to it.

High kicks don't work in the street

High kicks don’t work in the street…

High kicks don’t work in the street

To avoid confusion, let’s start by clearing up our terms a bit concerning this statement. When people say that high kicks don’t work in the street, they usually mean the following:

  • The kick is aimed at the head of a standing opponent.
  • The kick is used in a non-competitive, self-defense context like a violent assault in the street or any type of physical altercation between two people.

So we’re not talking about kicking a downed opponent in the head. Nor are we talking about a muay Thai or MMA fight.

Now that we’re clear about what exactly is on the table, I’ll just cut to the chase and say it right away:

The statement that high kicks don’t work in the street is a myth.

I’ve done it.

Friends of mine have done it.

A truck load of other people I know in passing have done it.

Even more people I don’t know have done it too.

All of us have used this technique and it has worked for us. There is no denying this. Therefor by virtue of this fact alone, the “high kicks don’t work in the street” thing is a flat out myth. Now before you go thinking I am advocating everybody starts using high kicks extensively for self-defense, hold your horses. I said no such thing.  What I did say is that I (and a bunch of others) have done so, which doesn’t mean you have to try and do the same thing because there are conditions involved. Conditions that determine if you will be successful when throwing that high kick or not.

Let’s take a look at them.

 

What do you need to make high kicks work in the street?

You need a variety of factors actually, here are some of them:

  • Flexibility. You need to be not only flexible enough to kick high comfortably, you need the ability to do so cold. You won’t get time to stretch and warm up when a thug decides to jump you. That’s just not going to happen. You need the ability to kick high without any preparation whatsoever. If you do not have that ability, then you cannot use that high kick reliably in the street. If you can’t rely on a weapon, then don’t use it.

  I covered this asshole before but the video is a good illustration of the kind of flexibility you need.

  • Clothes. If you’re wearing tight jeans and slippery shoes, forget about kicking high. The jeans will make it very hard to perform a good technique so you’ll have to compensate by leaning into it and compromise your balance. The slippery shoes makes this situation even worse.
  • Surface. Wet grass isn’t a good surface to try a high kick on. Neither are slippery tiles. Even concrete can be slippery. So before you attempt a high kick in a street fight or for self-defense, make sure you’re not setting yourself up to fall flat on your ass. It not only looks stupid, it also sets you up to get your butt whipped. This counts double if you’re wearing crappy footwear.
  • No wind up or telegraphing.  It’s one thing to stop yourself from telegraphing a punch, doing so for a high kick is a whole lot more difficult. Given as you will be further away from your opponent than punching distance, he can spot any wind up motion easily. So if you can’t explode into a high kick, don’t do it. Here’s an example (though not perfect) at the 35sec. mark:

  • Precision. Accurately hitting a target with your hands and fists is so much easier than with your feet. (If you disagree, spend some time flicking a light switch on and off with your feet. You’ll quickly see what I mean.) It takes a lot of time and effort to hone your high kicks to the point of landing them at will on whatever target you choose. This is crucial because there is no referee in the street to pause the fight if you miss with your high kick and fall on your butt. Here’s a perfect example of somebody who shouldn’t have tried that high kick.

  • Balance. You need to not only be in balance during the kick (standing on one leg is more difficult than standing on two.) but you also need to be in balance before you try the kick. If you’re being forced backwards by your attacker or are off balance because of bad footwork or posture, it is very hard to land an effective high kick. Take a look at this:

  • Have you put in the work? Striking with hand techniques is a skill. Using kicking techniques effectively is also a skill, one that takes a lot of practice. If you don’t put in the work to develop that skill, then you are better off not attempting it in the street. Putting in the work means developing the ability to kick high with speed, power and accuracy regardless of what position you find yourself in or where the target is in relation to you. This skill takes a lot of time and effort to develop.
  • Timing. As with all techniques, there are good and not so good moments to throw a high kick: During a wild, chaotic street fight, throwing a high kick is very difficult and usually not that reliable. If you are sucker punched or blindsided and run into an ambush, it will already be plenty hard to defend yourself, let a lone do a high kick. So in those situations, you might want to keep it simple. However, there are moments when a high kick works. If you set it up well with a pre-emptive strike, you have a bit more time to aim and throw it correctly. Here’s one example:

  • Experience. If you don’t have a lot of fighting experience, it’s probably too complicated to try a high kick. First, stick to something simpler you can perform under pressure. Once you can do that with confidence, you might be ready to try more complex techniques like high kicks.
  • Stopping power. One of the biggest mistakes people make is attempting a high kick and not delivering it with sufficient power because something went wrong with the factors I mentioned before. If your kick doesn’t have the power to stop your opponent in his tracks or knock him down, then don’t use it.  You don’t use techniques for show or for fun; you use them to end the fight ASAP. This counts just as much for high kicks than for any other technique. So make sure you have a solid high kick first before you try it out in the street. Here’s what I mean with “stopping power”:

 

All these factors play a critical role in making high kicks work in the street and you can imagine how hard it is to manage them correctly. As a result, high kicks are not a primary technique for self-defense. They are not “high percentage” moves for most people, which means that other techniques offer better odds of success. That is why most instructors do not teach them as a viable technique for the street, though as I’ve shown here above with the videos, “most people” does not mean “everybody.”

There is however one final factor that trumps all the others:

You need to control all those factors while you’re under adrenal stress.

It’s one thing practicing high kicks in the dojo or gym. Even if you can pull them off in competition, that still doesn’t mean you can do so in the street (though you’ll definitely have better odds). The adrenaline of a fight in which your life is at risk is vastly different from those other contexts. So I would suggest caution before committing to a high kick in the street.

 

Conclusion

I think it’s clear by now that high kicks do work in the street, but they aren’t a weapon of choice for most people. Because of all those factors I mentioned, it takes tons of time and effort before you have a reliable high kick. So when people claim that high kicks don’t work in the street, they are very often saying that they don’t work for them because they can’t control those factors. For them, high kicks are indeed a myth for the street. But they are wrong; you shouldn’t judge or discard a technique because of your own inability to perform it. It would be more accurate if they would say:

High kicks don’t work for everybody in the street.

On the other hand, just because some people have successfully used high kicks in the street that doesn’t mean you should do the same. It doesn’t matter what they can do; only what you can pull off counts. If you can’t do it very well, then don’t try a technique. But this goes for all techniques and not just high kicks. So think things through before attempting them when failure means a trip to the hospital or worse.

 

Comments

  1. This blog entry really made me reconsider some of my assumptions.

    I think that many self defense instructors try to provide general advice to the vast majority of individuals. Much of the reality-based self defense advice is aimed at individual with no prior training. Perhaps exceptions should be made for more experienced individuals.

    Someone who practiced Muay Thai or Tae Kwon Do for several years could probably employ kicking techniques much more effectively than an out-of-shape individual with no martial arts background.

    I went to a high school with many martial arts schools in the area. I saw individuals win fights with several techniques that never show up on lists of effective techniques for self-defense:

    Spinning back kicks
    Roundhouse kicks to the head
    Spinning hammerfists and elbows

    Apparently, the people employing these techniques never learned that you can’t perform these moves in a fight because of the adrenaline dump.

    I will say that the individuals pulling off these moves were athletic young men who trained in martial arts for several years.

    I wonder if well-meaning self-defense instructors might be doing experienced martial artists a disservice by telling them to discards parts of their arsenal.

    Again thanks for the great blog,

    Marc

    • Thanks Marc!

    • j.a.mullins says:

      hey marc,
      disservice or not, high kicks can be instantly fighting end for the kicker if he falls, misses, or misses the opportunity by a few seconds. most of the old school styles that i have studied from recorded events or manuals always stated low kicks coming from stepping movements were better to use in most situations because it greatly reduced the risks associated with medium to high reaching kicks and stressed using kicks as a means to break up the opponents base so it was difficult to keep balance, utilize power in the body, and/or move freely.

      experience is the greatest teacher, and most of the old school guys who survived to a significant age probably simply adopted and advocated an attitude of using practical techniques backed by a pragmatic fight philosophy. It drew its defensive mindset from a straight forward and unsophisticated offense. give it twenty generations and you have people teaching that some techniques aren’t, or maybe never were is some people’s opinions, well suited for a real life or death fight.

      i guess it falls yet again on that old adage that the fighter is more important than the style.

      good post by the way marc

    • Good post, Marc. There is a common perception that the techniques you mentioned are only for the ring. Terry O’Neill reportedly used roundhouse kicks in his doorwork in Liverpool with great success but I think it is like Jean Claude Van Damme says it is the knee coming up high that makes the head high kick possible. Sorry if this obvious to you and some readers but may be worthwhile to other readers. Wish I could kick high!

      From your doppelganger, Marc. Need to spell my name with a k now. :-)

  2. j.a.mullins says:

    hey wim,
    nice post man! i think one of the great things about mma is that the use of the high kick has been reinvigorated. people have been able to see what a properly executed high kick can do in the octagon, and that is that can be duplicated outside the octagon as well.

    watching the mma fighters who better utilize the kick shows the important factors that make a kick possible; set up, balance, opportunity, conditioning, and commitment. unlike you light switch toe-flicking fetish i went through a period where i was obsessed with using my feet do anything i could imagine, it led to many trips, falls, cuts, bruises, and embarrassing moments. but, when you do something like that for years you learn a lot about using your feet with intent. and you learn a lot about balance, momentum, and reacting to gravity.
    people take it for granted that whenever their body is in an awkward position that they are in a fight with gravity, even if balance is maintained, because the body has a natural mechanism to work easily with gravity, outside of the normal operating limits of the mechanism the body is still very functional, even very strong and capable of having significant balance, but it is very taxing on the body.

    i guess it’s comparable to fighting prone in some ways, you have taken the body out of its normal operating parameters and forced it to retain high functionality. but, it is very taxing on the body simply because gravity isn’t there to assist our movements as it would if we were upright within our normal operating range where we are able to create leverage and counter leverage within our movements. working with gravity is quite useful, especially when you can use to kick someone’s head off.

    nice post man

  3. Great post, Wim!

  4. Nice post. A comparable: I have more experience with striking and stand up grappling than I do with ground fighting. Ultimately anyone will fall back on their strengths — what they know (or think they know).

    My TKD instructor always said that kicking high is a nice option to have. My Kung Fu instructor preached “grounding” and keeping the kicks to the ribs or lower.

    Devil’s advocate: I know you’ve written extensively about a going to the ground on the street. Which do you think is a riskier proposition: high kicks or ground? Both “could” work under certain circumstances yet both have risks too.

  5. And lets not forget this classic….

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gdWlti9JtLw

  6. j.a.mullins says:

    check this video out, it illustrates a lot of the things often mentioned in these blogs
    especially the influence of mma style fighting on the general public, it includes a few kicks that worked and some that don’t and a several knock out blows, notice how many of the punches do not seem terribly explosive or powerful. hope you enjoy this

    http://youtu.be/zP0PevmvJf4

    its on youtube and is title ghetto street fights 2 if the link doesn’t work

  7. Who gives a crap about what you use to save your ass, or from which disciplines, sports, movies or other stuff you learned it from.

    As long as it does not get you injured or beat/stabbed or shot to death it is oke.
    Oh and if you do not end up in jail for manslaughter that is also nice…….

    I have the idea that what these guys making up these so called dogma,s (don,t kick a standing man in the head) are only thinking from their perspective.
    And also try to demonise the potiental effectiveness for real life violence of other martial arts and combat sports.

    While of course lots of these martial arts have lost stuff or added stuff that is not verry relevant to todays world of violence, the foundation of most of these disciplines was build in combat and written in blood (I know that sounds pretty dramatic).

    Anyway in my humble opinion I think that you can,t expect that a small girl can pull of the same stuff as a huge athletic guy.
    Just like a guy training in certain disciplines can do stuff a normal person can only dream off.

    Goa l= survive

    • Totally agree and well explained, Joshua. Hopefully, the manslaughter charge can be avoided if training can be aimed to use appropriate force for the situation and if safe put the guy in the recovery position before leaving or staying there to explain the situation if escape is not possible or you feel it is the right thing to do.

      Marc (doppelganger of the first post above, sorry for the confusion). :-)

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