Hapkido: Can One Martial Art Function in All Four Ranges of Self-Defense?

by Robert W. Young
Photo by Rick Hustead – February 8, 2013

CSK2Most martial artists now realize that all fighting takes place at specific distances, which are commonly designated as kicking, punching, trapping and grappling range. Many also have learned that proficiency in only one range does not guarantee success in a street fight because real confrontations can flow from one range to another in the blink of an eye. Therefore, students often look to other styles for supplemental skills that their primary art does not teach. For example, a boxer may decide to study savate for kicking, wing chun kung fu for trapping and judo for grappling.

Yet hundreds of thousands of martial artists around the world see no need to search outside their own system for these techniques. Practitioners of the Korean art of hapkido claim to be privileged to study a style famed for its powerful kicks, varied hand strikes, effective trapping-range techniques, and versatile joint locks and throws.

In this article, Stephen Petermann and Jeffrey D. Harris — instructors under Black Belt Hall of Fame member and Jang Mu Won Hapkido founder Chong S. Kim, an original student of Choi Yong-sool — examine the issue at hand: Does hapkido effectively cover all four ranges of combat?
Kicking Range

Perhaps more than any other country’s arts, those of Korea come well-equipped for fighting in kicking range. Hapkido is no exception. Yet its leg techniques differ from those of many other arts because of the tremendous power imparted by pivoting on the supporting foot and following through with full leg motion.

“In hapkido, the goal is to deliver as much impact as you can,” Stephen Petermann says. “If you don’t add those last few inches with the pivot of the foot, you’re holding something back. So you pivot on all your kicks; that gives you the ability to get six inches [of reach] the person didn’t think you had and to move your energy farther toward him.”

Hapkido divides kicking range according to distance, and certain kicks fit into each category. “How do you kick an opponent when you’re face to face?” Stephen Petermann asks. “Let’s say you want to get out of a situation and retreat, but you feel you need to defend yourself while you’re doing it. You can turn and do a scooping back kick or inside kick, even face to face. If you’re going to grapple with him, you might still use a heel kick to hit him on the tailbone or thigh while retreating. Just because you’re face to face doesn’t mean you have to grapple; you can still kick.”

Jeffrey D. Harris identifies several ranges within the art’s concept of kicking range: very close, where knees are used; medium distance, where a front-leg front kick will work; greater distance, where you can use a rear-leg front kick; and the greatest distance, where a jumping front-leg front kick or rear-leg jump kick can be used. “We don’t just train close; we don’t just train far,” he says. “We train in all the ranges so we can defend against those ranges.”

For practical self-defense, though, Jeffrey D. Harris advises beginners to stick with the basics. “The low- to middle-range kicks work best for self-defense,” he says. “The high spinning heel kicks and [similar techniques] are extremely difficult, especially in a fighting situation, but they’re not impractical because you’re also dealing with the element of surprise. Who’s going to expect you to jump into the air, do a 360-degree spinning heel kick and land it?”

Three Heights

“The high, middle and low kicks are very important because they give you better choices, better opportunity,” Stephen Petermann adds. “When you’re fighting a particular stylist and he defends middle or high body very well, you can kick him low. In styles where they tend to squat more and place more weight on the front leg, obviously a sweeping kick will not work. But because of that disadvantage, a high kick can be successful because he can’t get out of range quickly enough.”

Low-line hapkido attacks can knock a leg out from under a person or even tear flesh and break bones, Jeffrey D. Harris claims. “We have kicks to the knee, shin, ankle and feet; sweep kicks to the back of the leg; stomping kicks; kicks in which you grate the blade of your foot down the front of your attacker’s shin and end with a stomp on his foot and a twist at the bottom for good measure,” he says. “There are also hooking kicks to the back of the leg, blade kicks to the shin and muscle-tearing kicks.”

Not surprisingly, some Korean arts have been criticized for having too many specialized kicks that might never get used in real life. Outsiders are sometimes left wondering why more practical leg techniques are not emphasized. “First, younger students have to accomplish the basics — the front kick, inside kick, outside kick, side kick and roundhouse kick,” Stephen Petermann says. “If they don’t accomplish those, the rest of it is wasted. Once they have, they go on to other kicks [according] to whatever level they’re capable of. But the basics have to be good. For beginners, having a kick for every possible situation becomes overload — they don’t really need it.”

Yet Stephen Petermann acknowledges the usefulness of such varied kicking practice. “How often are you going to use a jump two-man front kick?” he asks. “Probably not very often, but you need to train your body to accomplish these things so your basic kicks become even better. Certainly, we have some very esoteric kicks, such as the toe-in-the-throat kick. That’s one of my personal favorites, but would it be my first choice in a fight? Absolutely not. Is it one you’re ever going to use? Gosh, I don’t know. But it’s still a useful technique, and it improves your overall understanding of what you’re capable of.”

Once they’re inside kicking range, where hand techniques usually take over, hapkido practitioners are quite capable of continuing to defend themselves. “Most of the punching we do is straight, karate-style punching; beyond that is open-hand strikes,” says Stephen Petermann of Jang Mu Won Hapkido, the self-defense system founded by Black Belt Hall of Fame member Chong S. Kim.

“A jab is something that is difficult to deal with, but because a boxer isn’t trying to put you away with his jab, there’s the opportunity to get around it and hit him,” Stephen Petermann says. “Most people know how to jab when they come in; we don’t have to train them. But they don’t know how to deliver a very powerful punch, stab or palm strike when somebody is right up close to them.”

In addition to the ordinary straight punch, hapkido students learn closed-fist and open-hand strikes for varying distances. “When you’re in close and try to punch somebody, that’s not the best time” Stephen Petermann says. “For the most damage, you want him out at the extreme range of your arm. But you have to be able to deal with him up close, so you’re going to change that straight punch into a palm strike or stab.”

Fight Strategy

In hapkido, the goal is to make students move away from technique-oriented striking — throwing an uppercut and aiming for the floating-rib area — and toward target-oriented striking — wanting to attack a certain pressure point and determining that a precise knuckle strike will best accomplish that. In other words, an exact target is identified before a technique is chosen. “If you fight somebody and you just want to punch him, you shouldn’t think in those terms,” Stephen Petermann says. “In self-defense, you should think, I’m going to hit this point, not this area.”

“Pressure points are very important when using your hands, especially when your opponent is more powerful than you,” says Jeffrey D. Harris, also an instructor in Jang Mu Won Hapkido. “You can’t overpower him with strength, but you can create severe weakness in his body by using the various pressure points.” There are half a dozen good ones all over the body that function well for the average person, he says.

But not all hapkido hand strikes target a pressure point, Stephen Petermann says. “We hand-strike for a particular target — not necessarily a pressure point but certainly a weak spot.”
Another important strategy of hapkido hand strikes is disguising what you’re doing, Stephen Petermann adds. “Very rarely do you see [other arts] put proper attention on looking at the person’s eyes, making your face not say, ‘Here it comes; get ready for it.’ Also, looking into a person’s eyes tends to make him look into yours; that allows you to sneak your hand up and hit him with something unexpected.”

Combat Options

Whenever hand strikes are discussed, a question emerges: Should you opt for open-hand strikes to prevent injury to your knuckles and wrist or choose closed-hand strikes, which can inflict more pain on your attacker but which may damage your own body? Hapkido promotes the view that the art should include all techniques and the student should choose what works best for a particular target in a particular situation.

“Everybody knows that if you palm-strike, you’ll never hurt your hand,” Stephen Petermann says. “But if the target is the bone over the eye and you want to make him bleed so he can’t see what you’re doing, are you going to use a palm strike? You may, but you won’t accomplish what you want. So you have to use a knuckle strike. Yes, it might hurt you to get that, but if you don’t, you may lose.”

On the street, you must be prepared to exploit any opportunity to stop your attacker, even if it means risking injury to yourself, Jeffrey D. Harris says. “As Master Kim is fond of saying, ‘You don’t always have a chance to get to what you’d like, so when you get a chance, you take it.’”

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