How To Counter Kicks In Taekwondo, Kickboxing and MMA

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Of all the martial arts, Taekwondo reigns supreme in general foot techniques, specifically their dynamic kicking attacks. These kicks can be used as counter attacks to offensive kicks.

When the opponent launches a kicking attack, one can counter it with various techniques. In this article, we will examine some of the most effective and common counterkicks to opponent kicks.

Taekwondo kicks will come either linearly towards you, such as in the front kick, the back kick, the side kick, or the axe kick. Or, the kick will come in a circular motion, like the spinning back kick, the reverse hook kick, or the roundhouse kick.

Some counter kicks also have their roots in Muay Thai, which we will also take a look at. Korean names will be shown for the popular counter kicks that originate from Taekwondo, but these names also differ depending on translation. In general, chagi refers to kick in Korean.

The Counter-attacking Mindset

The mindset of the counter fighter is to time and anticipate these kicks and counter attack it simultaneously. Counter kicks are a way of taking control of the fight by taking advantage of the weaknesses of the opponent when they attack through well-timed offensive and defensive kicks. As we’ll see, footwork is also a very important factor in successfully landing powerful counter kicks.

Under-kicking is one of the most important concepts in taekwondo counter kicking, and one of the hardest techniques to master. It involves kicking underneath an opponent’s kick. While this may feel dangerous and vulnerable during practice, under-kicking can transform your game far beyond that of the average fighter. Over time, one develops an intuitive understanding of when the opponent is attacking, and whether these kicks are feigned or genuine.

“Kicking while an opponent’s kick is under way is a risky business, but not impossible. Constant practice is the key to success”
Yeon Hwan Park, 1988 U.S. Olympic TKD team co-coach

1. The Back Kick (Dwi Chagi)

The Spinning Back Kick

Why the spinning back kick? The spinning back kick (dwi chagi) is perhaps one of the most powerful kicks in TKD by force output and an extremely effective counter to the roundhouse (dollyo chagi). If done properly, it can be a fight ending kick because the amount of torque the movement generates is enormous.

Countering the Roundhouse with a spinning back kick

Roundhouse kicks are very likely the most used kicks in Taekwondo and are a seriously deadly weapon, so knowing counters to this kick is very useful.

 

As with all well-executed counter kicks, timing is essential, especially anticipating the opponent’s offensive attack and setups. Although this kick is a linear kick (with the attack shot straight forward), the kick will land very strongly with the momentum generated by the rotation of the body.

What are the basics?


1.First, you close distance between you and the opponent to gain momentum for the counter.


2. Spin your body until you are facing away from the target. If you stepped with the left leg forward, you will spin clockwise. The ball of the foot or the toes will often land the kick instead of the heel if the body over-rotates, so stepping forward (but not across too far) is important!


3. Continue turning and look over your shoulder to know where you’re aiming at. This can land high or often times in the middle section. You want your body behind the kick to generate maximum force.


4. Drive the heel straight back into and through the opponent. If you really want to launch them across the mat (like this), slide the planted leg and push through with the body (with the butt behind the kick). This is crucial to getting maximum force. Sliding is useful if flexibility is a bottlenecking factor. After making contact and following through, regain stance for the next attack (if they aren’t already on the floor).

If the opponent decides to do a rear-leg roundhouse, the spinning back kick is also an effective technique, as seen here.

Countering the Axe Kick with a spinning back kick

The spinning back kick can also be effective against the axe kick if the counter begins at the same time as the axe kick, as seen here:

When your opponent attempts a rear-leg axe kick, they will be aiming to drop it directly down on the face or clavicle. In response, quickly turn to deliver a right-leg back kick. The kick, as usual, should begin the moment the axe-kick goes airborne. It’s important to be sure the kick shoots straight back at the target so that the move doesn’t leave you in a place to receive a follow-up axe kick on the upper spine or back of the head.

Stationary Back Kick (Jejari Dwi Chagi)

back kick

The stationary or in-place back kick, is one of the best defensive techniques to diffuse the opponent’s attacks and gain distance. It is often used as a counter kick when the attacker is moving towards you and you decide not to back up. It is extremely powerful when the opponent is standing square.

How is it done?
In this kick, the front foot is pivoted while rotating your body and spotting the target over the shoulder. Then, after chambering your kicking knee, kick deeply through your target in the middle.

Watch UFC commentator and Taekwondo black belt Joe Rogan drop his opponent with a deadly back kick

2. The Hook Kick (Huryo Chagi)

The hook kick, also known as the whip kick, strikes the target with a hooking motion using the heel of the foot. This kick requires a lot of flexibility and is generally aimed at the head. There are many variations of the hook kick, all involving unique footwork. This includes the rear or front-leg, the half-pivot, the oblique, the spin-back, dropping, and others.

If you want to be sneaky with this kick, avoid attacking with a run-of-the-mill spinning hook kick. Oftentimes this kick can be slow and hard to recover from. Instead, the switch turning kick is an effective counter technique. To do this, lead into the spinning hook kick with a turning kick, throwing your opponent off-guard.

Countering the Side Kick with a whip kick/hook kick

The side kick arrives as a very straight, powerful kick with everything in a line. As long as you are in the alignment zone of this kick, it will have great power. Moving out of the line or closing the distance are effective footwork maneuvers to defusing and countering this kick.

As seen above, countering with the lead leg, the hook kick can be a powerful counter move. In this technique, the counter attacker pushes off with the ball of the foot on the lead leg, keeping the shoulder, hip and foot in a line while splitting the legs. This is completed as one continuous movement rather than putting the lead foot back down and then raising for the hook kick.

3. Reverse Hook Kick (Bahndae Dolrya Chagi)

The reverse hook kick is one of the most forceful head kicks out there, and a great KO counter on the roundhouse if executed properly.

What is the most important factor at play?
Timing, as always. Anticipating the opponent’s kick is crucial, and committing to the counter simultaneously.

To perform this kick, step back to manipulate distance, pre-pivot, look over your shoulder, chamber (while turning knee sideways), and hook, following through on the head.

Here is an example of the spinning hook kick used to counter a roundhouse kick in taekwondo sparring.

4. The Push Kick (Miro Chagui)

The push kick is a great counter kick, combining a snapping movement with a powerful thrust. It is used when you try to push the attacker away with the bottom of the foot. It is done similar to the front kick in that the knee is brought up (while pointing at the target) before the leg is extended to the target.

In an ideal world, the push kick makes contact with the heel (backed by the bones in the leg), but the ball of the foot also gets the job done.

Countering the Roundhouse with a push kick

This particular counter kick is one of the most effective and least risky defense maneuvers in Taekwondo. As an example of this in action:

This is an effective technique because it is a quick, linear motion and arrives much sooner than the circular motion of the roundhouse kick. In countering the roundhouse, it’s important to keep your hips forward when you push, especially with a lot of weight coming forward from the roundhouse it may destabilize you and throw you back. If you want to add extra power, you can slide your rear leg forward as you kick.

In a closed stance, the counter is very similar. With a quick step setup the push kick will be aimed at the opponents thigh, the idea being that the heel will be pushing right through the thigh.

A roundhouse kick can cause head concussion if it hits the head in full force without being blocked. Sometimes knockouts occur even if the kick is blocked. Many martial artists compare this kick to getting hit by a baseball bat.

The push kick can also be used to counter an axe kick. When he attempts to land the axe kick, aim for his solar plexus with the push kick. If this is timed correctly (read: started simultaneously), the opponent will end up on the ground. 

For this to work, it has to begin before the axe kick is at its highest point (the axe kick has to travel vertically upwards to its peak before slamming down hard, giving a small counter attack window). If you wait too long, you risk having a heel land on your face, since in this case you are not turning away from the trajectory of the kick.

Overall, this kick has a very similar function to the side kick, except it is not fully chambered. They both work to create distance and quickly capitalize on vulnerable positions of the opponent, such as when they miss the roundhouse.

The push kick or the teep as it is called in Muay Thai is one of the most used defensive kicks in Muay Thai fights

5. The Low Kick


The low kick, or round kick, is a great counter option to damage or sweep the opponent. As suggested by the name, the goal of the low kick is to attack the thigh, especially in the Muay Thai-style low kick where the shin comes down sideways in a powerful chopping motion on the lower quadricep. These sorts of leg kicks can be actually very devastating, as seen here

In general, many variations of these kicks exist. They can be done for damage, to knock the opponent off balance and sweep them, or done with less force but great speed (like in the “dutch style” low kicks).

When using the low kick to attack the outside leg, it’s useful to take a cheat step with the leading leg to open up the hips and create the natural swinging motion for the low kick. Extending out the arm across will also speed up the motion for a more powerful leg kick.

The low kick can also be used to attack the inside leg, sweeping the opponent off balance while they are offensively kicking. In this case, a pendulum step is helpful to close the distance and finish the kick. This is done by replacing the lead foot with the rear foot while throwing the kick and keeping the guard up.

Countering the Roundhouse with a low kick

Below is a good example of a well-timed low kick counter to a rear roundhouse kick.

In this case, Sterling attacked with a roundhouse kick to the body, then followed it up with another without having much of a delay or setup in between. Barao was able to counter the second kick with a right inside low kick to Sterling’s supporting foot, sweeping him down.

How is it done?
if your opponent is throwing a rear low roundhouse kick, he will step to set up, shifting his center of mass and momentum. Aiming at the leading leg knee is effective because it’s utilizing that moving momentum already. Driving all the way through or pulling after hooking behind their lead foot ankle with the lead leg will sweep the opponent during their attack.

Countering the Low Kick with the Low Kick

In this counter, you first turn into the kick to absorb the kick’s force, then return with your own low kick. This low kick can come either from the inside or the outside, as seen below in this slowed down version of the counter.

Other options in this situation are to check the low kick or slide the lead leg out to evade the low kick, and then return with your own low kick.

Now keep in mind, during low kicks oftentimes the guard will go down during the attack, which presents an offensive counter attack from the receiver with their own roundhouse, going high for the head. Which brings us to the roundhouse itself as a counter kick.

6. The Roundhouse kick (Dollyo chagi)

The counter kick in taekwondo (generally referred to as bada chagi) is typically seen as a roundhouse kick. Moving backward and kicking at the same time, this kick can be a great counter when the attacker is coming at you. The body falls backward with a quick hop step and kicks at the same time by leaning back for maximum reach.

The roundhouse kick can also be delivered as a switch kick. Begin the roundhouse like a seemingly genuine front kick, then at the last second arc over the top and deliver the real roundhouse. This, when executed properly, takes the opponent by surprise and might make the winning difference in the counter-attack.

Countering the Roundhouse with the Roundhouse

This is a common back-and-forth that you see often in Muay Thai. If the attacker is throwing a roundhouse kick of their own, this roundhouse can be checked and immediately responded to with a roundhouse counter. This is done efficiently by blocking with a knee up, then stepping forward with the other leg and then kicking, as seen below.

When shielding with the blocking knee it’s important to not throw it out directly in front, because then the opponent can just knock the shield out of the way (and turning you in the process, exposing you to more attacks). The best way to shield is to bring it up at about a 45-degree angle so a good stance can be regained after the kick has been blocked.

What about other options? It is all context!

The counter attacker also has the option of evading the kick by stepping backward (instead of blocking) and then returning a roundhouse of their own. If the attacker comes in with an inside kick, the kick can be taken by lifting the knee up and responded to with a roundhouse from the opposite leg, all in one continuous motion to generate the most force.

When the opponent decides to kick high, the technique is similar. Instead of blocking with the leg, the kick will be absorbed by the upper body (or strike the elbows and guard) and followed up with a roundhouse towards the thighs. If this is timed well, when the opponent kicks high, the counter-attacker can step or move quickly sideways and then land their own roundhouse, maintaining control of the fight.

Countering the Side Kick (Yeop Chagi) with a roundhouse

The roundhouse is also a great counter-attack to the side kick. The side kick is a very linear and direct kick with an impressive amount of range, especially if it is done as a skipping side kick with the lead leg. In this counter, you move slightly out of the line diagonally and then send out the kick. In this case, the roundhouse arcs up and under rather than up and around, or over the top.

Ideally this counter attack lands below the elbow, exposing the opponent to further head attacks by momentarily dropping their guard.

A slightly more advanced technique to the rear leg side kick involves under-kicking with the roundhouse. To perform this, begin your kick by the time the leg of the opponent is chambered. As his leg begins extending, lean your upper body back and deliver a right-leg roundhouse kick under your opponent’s kicking leg and into his abdominal region. If you are distanced correctly, you can avoid the kick while simultaneously counter kicking without the need to step back

Countring the roundhouse with a side kick

One of the best ways to use Yeop Chagi is after throwing a roundhouse and missing. Usually when you miss a roundhouse you end up close to your opponent in a vulnerable position. This is where the side kick comes into use, it can be thrown directly with the same leg you used for the roundhouse to push your opponent away and escape the vulnerable position.

 

Countering the Hook Kick

This is another under-kicking technique. From a closed-cover stance. When your opponent begins by throwing a back hook kick off of his rear leg, you counter with a rear-leg roundhouse kick well before the opponent’s kick reaches your face.

Sometimes this will be baited with a sloppy hook kick, giving the opponent an expected underkick to which they will respond with a genuine, full-force back hook kick. Through time and practice, these sorts of faking maneuvers can be spotted more easily.

7. The Axe Kick (Naeryo Chagi)

While requiring great flexibility, the axe kick can be a crushingly powerful kick and usually unexpected at the same time, as it comes directly from above unlike other kicks. For this reason, many fighters don’t know how to properly defend against it. The axe kick is particularly specialized in breaking through guards and punishing the opponent’s arms but can be used as an effective (possibly fight ending) counter kick.

Swiss heavyweight Andy Hug mastered the art of the axe kick, and this video breaks down the technique he used as well as several beautiful examples of it in action.

Countering the Push Kick or Side Kick with an axe kick

Here, you can see the opponent on the right opting to create distance and strike the midline by setting up a push kick. He pops forward and chambers the knee but by the time the kick has made contact off-center the quick axe kick has already reached its highest point and slams down hard and unexpectedly on the upper body, ending the fight.