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Hands up!


If you watch World Taekwondo Olympic style sparring, the competitors hold their arms at a low guard at best and usually just let them hang at their sides. If you watch International Taekwondo Federation (ITF) style sparring, most competitors hold their arms at a high guard. Some martial arts hold their guard hands low and outward, some hold them high and outward. I know of no art that advocates holding guard hands low and close in. So, which is the best guard, hands held down or up, hands held outward or close-in?

Guard is determined by the rules

If you watch modern boxers, they hold their hands near their cheeks with the elbows held close to the body to protect the ribs. Look at photographs of 19th and early 20th-century bare-knuckle boxers and you will see they hold their guard low and outward. Is the modern boxing guard an improvement in the older version?

Guard hand position is not so much dictated by the style of martial art or by modern improvements, as it is by the rules of the competition. Fighters hold their guard in the most effective position as dictated by the rules under which they compete.

Bare-knuckle boxing matches had no time limit and fighters could grapple and throw; the match ended if a man hit the ground. No matter how well you punched, if you were grabbed and thrown to the ground, you lost the match. Therefore, it was advantageous to stay away from the opponent and use straight punches thrown from a distance.

When wearing large gloves, the gloves may be used to pick off punches. However, when fighting without gloves, since the smaller sized fists cannot effectively be used to block another fist, the most effective way to fight is to stay back and deflect or parry punches, which, along with the need to defend against grabbing, dictated using a low, extended guard. As the rules of boxing changed, gloves were introduced and holding was eliminated, the more effective guard became a high, tight guard.

Competition in taekwondo, karate, and other striking martial arts is more like bare-knuckle boxing than to modern boxing, even though they wear protective gloves. The competitors fight at a long-range, allowing more time to react, long-range kicks are used, and hand attacks are usually straight. To score more points, most attacks are to the larger and lower target, the body, so the guarding the head is not as important.

Development of the guard

The various martial arts were not originally developed by warriors for use on the battlefield or by athletes for use in competition; they were primarily developed by the unarmed public to defend themselves against attackers. The public was not concerned with killing or scoring points, they merely wanted to be able to defend themselves against attacks and stop their attackers from continuing their attacks. It may be assumed that since this was their original purpose, that what they developed would be what was most effective for this purpose. However, they did not develop guards! Look at the old traditional patterns, not modern patterns, and you will not find many guard positions. Since patterns were supposed to be the teachers of the arts, why did they not teach guards?

Guards are used when two opponents are facing each other in combat. Each is trying to protect against attack while looking for openings and formulating attacks. In a self-defense situation, this is not desired; what gives you time to think also gives the attacker time to think. In a self-defense situation, the primary actions are either to run away or to strike first before the attacker is prepared.

A fight is combat between two people. An ordinary person is not looking for a fight and does not want to be in a fight; he or she wants to protect him or herself, stop the attack, and flee; therefore, a guard is rarely necessary. Thus, the old patterns emphasize active blocks and strikes, not passive guarding.

Instead of guarding, the original martial arts emphasized controlling the attacker's limbs to prevent attacks and to provide opportunities for counterattacks. The training emphasized "one strike-one kill;" it did not emphasize standing around fighting until the attacker was convinced to stop the attack, as is taught in "politically correct" martial arts where students are taught to be sensitive to the plight of the attacker.

If a self-defense situation evolves into a fight, then a guard becomes necessary, but even then, the major concern should be in controlling limbs and attacking, not waiting for an attack. In a fight, whether it’s in competition or on the street, the guard used should be what is best for rules or the situation.

Olympic style taekwondo sparring competitors rarely use hand attacks, so they do not need to guard against them. Most kicks come from the floor so the foot travels from the floor to the target in a straight line (usually a 45-degree angle of travel). This means that, for most of a kick's travel, the leg and foot are always moving upward. In this case, a low guard is useful to block a middle kick or stop a high kick before it gets to a high target. Practically all Olympic style taekwondo sparring is done from a medium to long kicking range that is too far away for effective hand attacks. From this range, a low guard is effective. Since competition sparring rules are used during training class sparring, hand attacks are generally ignored so the law guard prevails.

Tradition taekwondo sparring emphasizes using both hand and foot attacks, both separately and in combination. The kicks come from a high chamber, so the foot starts its forward travel from about belt level. From this location, the kick may travel either level, upward, or downward. The opponent knows a kick is coming but there is no indication of whether the target is low, middle, or high, so the guard must protect all targets. Traditional sparring is done from short to medium-range, so hand attacks are constantly a threat. For these reasons, a high guard is most effective.

During completion, some taekwondo organizations, such as Taekwondo America, do not allow hand contact to the head but do allow hand fakes to the head. However, during school sparring sessions, they do allow and encourage light hand contact to the head. This ensures that students are used to using hand attacks to the head, that they always keep their guard up, and that they learn to avoid, deflect, or block hand attacks to the head. This means that students are always alert to hand attacks to the head, even during competition. In competition, it is the attacker's responsibility to avoid hand contact to the head, but mistakes happen, so the guard is always up.

Overall, it is best to keep the guard high and to always stay alert for hand attacks to the head. When angry, humans want to punch each other in the face, so you must always be alert for high punches. This means a high, close-in guard is more effective in real fights when you cannot risk letting even one punch reach the head. When the guard is low, you are inviting punches to the head, especially when the opponent has quick hands. As a general rule, as the range increases, the guard moves lower and more extended, and, as the range decreases, the guard move higher and closer.


  • Abernethy, I. (2006). The use of the 'Karate Guard' in Kata and Combat. [Online]. [2006, June 21].
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