From basic kicks (e.g. roundhouse kicks, side kicks, and back kicks) to more advanced moves like axe kicks (i.e. kakato-geri) or hook kicks (i.e. huryeo chagi), mastering the art of the kick is one of the most important tools in your martial arts arsenal.
Improve your kicks — and beat your opponent into submission — by understanding the biomechanics of an effective kick. Today, we’ll outline five specific exercises to improve your kicking. Each exercise targets the types of strength and flexibility you need to increase your kicking power, enhance your kicking speed, and amplify your overall combat readiness.
How to Improve Your Kicking Speed and Power
What’s the strongest kick you can use in your next fight?
Many martial artists believe that a front kick carries the most direct force. However, one research study used a timer and a force sensor. The researchers found that the front kick was actually one of the weaker types of kicks you could choose.
This misunderstanding is likely because many of us don’t fully understand kicking mechanics. When wielded properly, factors like your coordination, flexibility, balance and overall strength come together to knock your opponents off of their feet.
Before we explore the best exercises for improving kicking speed and power, we need to first discuss everything that goes into a strong, fast kick.
Studies have pinpointed minor ways that your kicking mechanics shift depending on the type of kick you’re doing (e.g. the angle of your ankle, or the positioning of your knee). However, some general truths are observed in all types of kicks.
Every effective kick begins with a strong, stable stance. Something as simple as poor foot positioning or angling can throw off your balance, leading to overcompensation mid-kick and reduced speed and strength.
This is why the shallow, standing squat is one of the most widely used starting stances in martial arts. It is stable, it is sturdy, and it prepares you to react and act swiftly.
Next comes the actual kick. Kicking is a very complex, whole-body movement.
Using electromyography (EMG), we now know the primary muscles involved in a kick: Your core, your glutes (butt), your thighs, your quadriceps, your calves, and your shins.
While smaller muscle groups, such as those in your feet, obviously play a role, it’s these major muscle groups that carry most of your kicking force and speed.
In general, the kinetic movement begins in your thigh, supported by your glutes and your core for balance and stability. The kinetic momentum then travels down your leg to your foot. Pivoting and snapping, which requires flexibility and movement in your hips and knees, also correlates to your velocity (speed).
A quick pivot and snap maximize speed and power, and thus damage inflicted to your opponent. It also allows your kicking leg to return to the starting position quicker, empowering you to get more hits in rapidly and destabilizing your foe.
Flexibility and Balance
Beyond just leg strength, you also need proper balance. A study published in the journal Human Movement Science found a significant correlation between balance skills and kicking accuracy.
Strengthening your balance control doesn’t just help you kick your target more accurately. Proper balance also helps you to maintain a tension arc, which refers to your ability to generate velocity (i.e. speed and power) in your leg.
A tension arc is the backswing that your leg does in a kick, maximizing your hip extension and knee flexion as your core rotates and your arms swing to counter-balance your movement. This also highlights the importance of flexibility. Without proper flexibility in your hips, core, and knee, your tension arc (and therefore your velocity) gets significantly compromised.
Leg Strength and Explosiveness
There are two types of muscle fibers: Slow twitch fibers, which give you strength and endurance, and fast twitch fibers, which provide speed and rapid muscle contractions.
The former is important, but don’t neglect the latter. Brute strength does impact kicking power, but speed has dramatic effects on your kinetic energy equation. It’s simple: The faster your leg and foot are moving, the harder the force of impact, regardless of your actual strength. Simply doubling your kicking speed actually quadruples the force of your kick.
Combined, improving your strength and speed will cause brutal damage to your opponent.
The bottom line is that the exercises that give your muscles strength are not the same exercises that give your muscles speed. This is why it’s important to add leg exercises to your workout that don’t just build strength (i.e. your slow-twitch fibers), but also add explosive speed (e.g. your fast-twitch fibers). We’ll dive into specific exercises to help with that below.
5 Exercises to Increase Kicking Speed and Power
The following exercises will develop the key muscle groups involved in throwing a kick. These workouts will also build your flexibility, improve your balance, and increase the number of fast-twitch muscle fibers responsible for explosive, quick speed.
1. Leg Stretches for Flexibility
Proper mobility in your hip flexors allows full movement of your hip joint. They play a major role in bringing your thigh forward and pulling your knee up, and are activated anytime you do a kicking motion. Tight hip flexors lead to not only reduced kicking speed and power but also straining injuries (one of the most common lower-body injuries in sports).
Hamstrings, which cross the hip and the knee, are activated when you bend your knee inward during a kick. Recently published research noted that tight hamstrings or previous hamstring injuries are one of the most commonly seen reasons why athletes have difficulty doing the backswing of a kick.
Improve full leg flexibility with hip flexor lunges and kneeling hamstring stretches.
Hip Flexor Lunges
Target Muscles: Hips, quads and glutes
- Kneel with your right knee on a yoga mat or similar comfortable surface.
- Place your left foot in front of you with your knee bent and your foot flat on the ground.
- Lean forward from the waist, slowly bringing your right hip toward the ground.
- Squeeze your glutes and ease down as far as you can go.
- Hold for 30 seconds to start (as you get more used to this stretch, you may hold this pose for up to 120 seconds).
- Return to the starting position, then switch sides.
- Repeat once on each side, extending how long you hold the pose every time you do this stretch.
Kneeling Hamstring Stretch
Target Muscles: Hamstrings, calves, thighs and glutes
- Kneel with your left leg on the floor.
- Extend your right leg fully, stretched out in front of you with your toes pointed to the ceiling.
- Elongate your spine, and imagine someone pulling you up and forward.
- Bend at the waist and lean forward towards your outstretched leg.
- Try to keep your spine and neck straight, so that your head, neck and back form a straight line from the side.
- Hold the pose for 30 seconds (more advanced users can hold this for up to two minutes).
- Return to the starting position and switch sides.
2. BOSU Ball Balance Exercises
A bosu ball creates instability in your workout. This instability forces your muscles to work harder to keep yourself stable and balanced, while also activating a lot of the smaller muscle groups that get ignored in more traditional movements.
The following exercises don’t just strengthen the leg muscles involved in a strong, swift kick. They also strengthen your core (important for the twisting and pivoting involved in many kicking styles), and dramatically improve the balancing skills necessary for more advanced kicks.
Bosu Ball Single Leg Balance and Kick
Target Muscles: Core, hips, thighs, glutes and quads
- Stand on a bosu ball with both feet firmly grounded and your hands resting on your hips.
- Keeping your core tight, raise your left leg off of the bosu ball until your thigh is parallel to the floor.
- Kick with your left leg 10 times.
- Return to the starting position and repeat with your left leg.
- Aim for three to four sets of 10 kicks per legs.
Bosu Ball Single Leg Squats
Target Muscles: Your core and glutes, but also your hips, hamstrings, quads and calves
- Stand on a bosu ball with both feet firmly grounded and your arms hanging at your side.
- Shift your weight to your right leg and slightly bend the knee of your left leg.
- Extend your arms in front of you if you need extra balance support, or leave your arms hanging at your side.
- Pull your shoulders back and straighten your spine.
- Raise your left foot off of the bosu ball.
- Lower your body down into the squat position, keeping your weight on your right leg.
- Go as deep as you can (your depth will improve as you get used to this workout).
- Return to the starting position and repeat for 10 squats on your right leg.
- Switch sides and repeat with your opposite leg.
- Aim for three sets of 10 squats per leg.
3. Barbell Squats
Target Muscles: This heavy compound movement hits every single lower body muscle group, especially your quads, glutes and hamstrings, but also requires back strength, core strength, and cardiovascular endurance
Barbell squats are often referred to as the “king of exercises” because they hit the entire body and improve your overall strength and conditioning. Unlike more isolated movements, this compound exercise also ramps up your endurance and total mobility (even your shoulder mobility), which brings added benefits to your next fight.
- Set the rack height to just below your shoulder height.
- Step into the rack and under the barbell, bending your knees slightly so that the barbell is now resting on your rear shoulder muscles.
- Grab the barbell behind you with your palms facing forward.
- Stand up, lifting the barbell off the rack, and take a few steps backward so you have space to move.
- Stand with your feet shoulder width apart.
- Squat down as deep as possible, pushing your knees outward while pivoting your hips backward.
- Pause when your hips are lower than your knees.
- Push up with explosive strength until your legs are straight and your knees lock. That’s one repetition.
- Aim for three to four sets of eight to 12 reps.
Tips: This exercise is prone to trigger injuries if you don’t do it properly. To avoid injury, keep your chest up and don’t bend forward too much as you squat. Your elbows should also be pushed forward during the entire movement.
4. Single Leg Knee Drives on a Box
Target Muscles: Hamstrings, glutes, quads, calves and minor muscle groups (e.g. your ankle stabilizers)
Pushing yourself up with a single leg requires explosive movements, which helps build those fast-twitch muscle fibers we previously discussed. The single-leg movement also requires advanced stability, improving your balance and activating your core. Finally, the cardio component enhances your overall conditioning and endurance.
- Stand in front of a box that’s approximately knee high.
- Place your right foot flat on the box (make sure your heel isn’t hanging off the edge).
- Driving with your right leg, push off of the ground with your left foot.
- Bring your left knee up to your chest while standing tall on the box with just your right leg.
- Pause and maintain balance before returning to the starting position.
- Repeat for eight to 10 reps, then switch legs.
- Aim for three to four sets of eight to 10 reps on each leg.
Tips: If you find this movement too easy, add resistance by holding a dumbbell or a weighted medicine ball in front of you while doing the step ups.
5. Dumbbell Lunges
Target Muscles: Glutes, hips, hamstrings and quads, but also some activating of your lower back, calves, core and arms
This leg-strengthening exercise improves overall flexibility and balance due to its dynamic movements. Because of the balancing component, you’re incorporating core strength and back strength while also feeling the burn in your entire lower body. Pushing off of the ground to get out of the lunge also recruits the explosive muscle fibers you need for better kicking velocity.
- Stand straight with your feet shoulder width apart.
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing inward, with your arms relaxed at your side.
- Step forward with your right leg, bending at the knee. Your right leg should form a 90-degree angle at the knee and the hips.
- Balance. Your left leg should be extended behind you, knee bent and your weight balanced on your front foot and the toes of your rear foot.
- Push back up to the starting position with an explosive move.
- Repeat with the opposite leg.
- Aim for two to three sets of eight to 12 reps on each side.
Improving your kicking speed and power requires more than just brute strength, but also hip flexion, lower body flexibility, and balance.
Strengthen your stability and balance with single-leg movements on a non-stable surface, such as single-leg kicks and single-leg squats on a bosu ball.
sThen, use dynamic, compound movements such as barbell squats, lunges and knee drives to blast those fast-twitch muscles.
Not only will you see enhancements in your kicking speed and power, but you’ll also bolster your total conditioning and see enhancements in your overall fighting prowess.