Northern Shaolin is famous for its great kicking. Northern Shaolin has kicks at all levels. This includes low kicks aimed at the shins, ankles, and knees, medium height kicks aimed at the groin or torso, High kicks aimed at the head, and super high kicks just for showing off. Northern Shaolin is also famous as one of the original styles of martial arts to contain flying kicks. If this sounds like a lot of kicks, it is! But it is not hard to get hold of how to organize these kicks in your mind and think about training them.
When my students begin learning Northern Shaolin they start with low kicks. We actually start with a step called the “dragon step”. We are sure this is exactly how dragons walk… Moving on, this step is a great step to set up your kicks to have plenty of power and to set the correct distance between you and your target. Learning how to kick powerfully and accurately requires kicking targets like bags or posts or other targets. As you start kicking targets and bags you quickly realize exactly where you place your foot is a key to whether you can hit your target and deliver power. The actual range of most kicks “sweet spot” of maximum power is usually measured in inches rather than feet. Learning where to place your standing foot to make sure you are in range and correctly oriented is a key skill to acquire. Where this sense of distance and angle is most important is in sparring. Unlike your heavy hanging bag your sparring partner or opponent is active, and moving to avoid your kicks. Now placing the lead step of the standing leg of your kick is more challenging. So, we practice the dragon step separately in a line advancing across the floor. You’ll take this Dragon Step by turning your foot to the 45 degree corner, carefully lining up your knee over the center of your foot thus setting up the power stroke of your hips turning and thrusting to drive your kick.
Then we practice low kicks and focus on four main kicks:
- Low Toe Kick
- Low Side Kick
- Dragon Kick
- Reaping Kick (a circular or hooking kick cutting in from the outside)
These four kicks are all super practical and cover all the fundamental movements of the hips and legs. This is a great way to balance your muscles and learn how to use them to drive your kicks. Low kicks are easy to practice. They don’t push your flexibility or strain you the way the medium and higher kicks do. This makes them perfect to practice getting your balance, getting your dragon step and kick working together, and working on your foot positions. There are lots of combinations of these four low kicks to practice. The most important combination kick is the Reaping Kick / Side Kick Combination that is found in many advanced Northern Shaolin forms. There are a few other specialized low kicks. However, those four low kicks, and the Reaping Kick, Side Kick Combo are all you need for both sparring and the Northern Shaolin Forms.
Next, we practice high knee lifts, first straight ahead, then circling outside, and circling inside. These are great for loosening up hips for high kicks quickly and easily without the torque and power created by a fully extended leg. After practicing the knee lifts students practice the medium kicks.
Medium High Kicks
The medium kicks are almost the same as the low kicks, just performed at medium height. This makes learning them easy and logical. The one important medium height kick is the stomp kick or heel kick. The stomp kick uses the entire sole for the foot and the heel kick focuses on thrusting the heel forward more. The stomp kick is a kick that can only be done at medium height focused on the chest. The heel kick is essentially the same kick but aiming higher at the head or thrusting more aggressively with the heel at the chest. The stomp is a powerful way to knock an opponent down. The heel kick is more likely to break bones. Both kicks are variations of the toe kick because the straight forward driving action of the hips is the same and the variation is in the foot position.
When we practice high kicks, I like to practice a foundation set of ten kicks. These ten kicks cover most of the kicks found in the Ten Forms. As a group these ten kicks also have a balanced development of the hips and lower back muscles, so our lower back and hips remain poised and balanced. Without a balanced training some muscles risk becoming over developed and others remaining underdeveloped causing the base of the spine and hips to become imbalanced resulting in hip or lower back pain.
Here are the ten kicks:
- Toe Kick
- Heel Kick
- Dragon Kick
- Side Kick to the front
- Side horse to horse
- Lotus Kick
- Crescent Kick
- White Horse Rear kick
- Scorpion Rear kick
- Behind the Shoulder Kick or White Horse – Scorpion Combo Kicks
All of these are variations of the low kicks only performed much higher. This makes the progression form low to middle and then high kicks logical and easy to understand.
Rear Kicks Balance the Spine
The last rear kicks only appear rarely in our forms. Although useful for self defense they are not the easiest kicks to hit someone with or the most powerful. However, they are included in this list for one very important reason. The reason is they use the muscles on the back of the hips and lower spine. It is important to make sure these muscles groups develop strength because they are the muscles that counterbalance the Psoas muscle. The Psoas muscle is on the front of the body and runs from your thigh bone to your lower spine over the pelvis. The Psoas muscle is used constantly in kicking, especially on all the kicks to the front of your body. Because the Psoas muscle is also used for stepping and turning to generate power for striking or throwing it tends to become massively developed in martial artists. The psoas muscles tend become over developed in relationship to the lower back muscles. This can result in the lower back muscles being overpowered by the Psoas muscles. This is especially likely to happen after a huge workout when the lower back muscles become exhausted long before the larger and more conditioned Psoas muscle. Then the Psoas muscles pull the lower back out of proper alignment causing pinched nerve pain and reduced mechanical alignment of the hips for generating power and maintaining balance. Regularly practicing these rear kicks that we don’t that often use is mostly to maintain the balance, health, and stability of the lower back. Training like this is incredibly beneficial for a long-term career in martial arts and can prevent lower back injuries and weakness that could career ending or modifying for many practitioners.
Flying kicks basically combine those kicks with leaping to make all the flying kicks. So, if you want great flying kicks you need to practice up your high kicks and your jumping drills. If both your high kicks and your jumping drills are well practiced and easy, then your flying kicks are going to be easy and fun to learn and dynamic to perform.
- Flying Toe, Heel kick
- Flying Double Toe Kick
- Flying Toe, Inside Crescent Kick
- Flying Toe, Lotus kick
- Straight ahead
- Flying Double Heel Kick
- Triple Kick – Double Toe Kick, Dragon Chases a Pearl, Tornado Kick
- Swallow (Butterfly) Kick
In practice we will practice these flying kicks in lines. In your forms know how each kick begins, from what stance, or series of steps, this varies a great deal from form to form. Depending on the beginning position of the kick, a deep stance or a series of running steps, and the ending position or stance after the kick, the same kick can be easier or far more difficult. A tornado kick is not easy. But a Tornado kick thrown from a Swallow (drop) Stance and then landing in another Swallow Stance is super hard, much harder than doing a Tornado kick in a line with some helpful leading steps. Practicing your flying kicks in lines and working on the mechanics of the kick and coordination your hands feet correctly helps prepare you for the difficult versions found in advanced Northern Shaolin forms.
Extremely High Kicks
Extremely High Kicks are when you do any of the kicks straight up towards the sky. Like doing a full splits at full speed. There is little way you can use these kicks other than to demonstrate the true magnificence of your awesomeness! Even if you were being attacked by disco ninjas dropping from the mirror ball on the ceiling, I am not sure they would work. They are super fun! They look super cool! Most people can’t even imagine doing them. And they do build excess capacity that prevents you from hurting yourself when throw a mere normal high kick.
We have some fun kicking workouts that follow different themes or work a group o f related kicks that you might enjoy, We also have some great strength exercises for developing the muscles you need for certain kicks like the side kicks. We’ll look at those in a future article.