Posts Tagged ‘heavy weights’

Problems With The Taekwondo Male Body Image: Skinny Legs And 6 Pack Abs Don’t Win Fights

        For the longest time in Taekwondo culture the Taekwondo approved male body image has usually been a tall and thin male. Most often it is the standard long legged, skinny Asian body of the Korean male. I believe the current standards for a serious Taekwondo fighter’s body is very biased for a certain caliber of people and usually only focuses on poomsae and Olympic sparring sport competitors. When a body type for western specific men is presented for Taekwondo in general, whether they be white, black, hispanic etc., the models closely resemble the ideal tall Korean body in shape. I find this to be an unrealistic standard and unfair. Also, many Korean men are not even tall but there are a lot who are. It isolates other effective body types for martial arts and fighting by presenting only one standard as the ideal Taekwondo body type for males: the tall and lanky sport competitor.

        I know there is also a Taekwondo body image for females. For women it is the petite and shorter, yet still skinny Asian bodied, Korean female. You see this all the time in martial arts catalogs. And Mexico has recently tried to introduce a new “female dobok” specifically for sex appeal and also making the claim that spandex material is better for sparring (which it is not). Even so, this article will focus on the male body image and leave the female body image for another discussion.

        Taekwondo models do not necessarily look unhealthy usually. They look athletic and attractive. Once in awhile I do sense that possibly the models have a bit skinny legs that are ineffective for serious kicking, which won’t cause any serious impact on a person. For western models in Taekwondo culture, the influence of the Korean standards for a proper body carries over into any ethnicity almost, whether it be European, African, Latino or other. I do believe that the standards for a Taekwondo fighter’s body in most of Taekwondo pop-culture are unrealistic and also wrong for many people to have. The k-pop music influence of Korean pop-culture has heavily influenced Taekwondo worldwide. The idea of the proper shape of a body for a serious martial artist is shown to be somewhat effeminate for the males and also very thin, and most often tall. I do not find this to be accurate of what many true Taekwondo masters look like. Many of the old masters over 60 years old have shorter legs, even some stubby compared to western legs, and many of these Korean grandmasters have thicker thigh muscles and shoulder muscles from decades of hardcore training. A few have bulky muscles and look built. Of course most often these masters are naturally wiry or thin, but they are still very masculine and tough. Of course some masters are more bulky and shaped like a barrel and do not even have 6 pack abs. This is because they have functional muscles for actual use, not for show.

        Here are some examples of the male body image portrayed in current Taekwondo culture as ideal for martial arts in magazines advertisements, and catalogs for uniforms:

To find these images I typed “Taekwondo male dobok” into Google.

Here are some examples of Taekwondo athletic body types for WTF sports:

For those images I typed in “Olympic Taekwondo athlete” into Google. Almost every image has this similar look for body type. It is still the thin and long legged body type.

        Now this is not necessarily wrong or a bad body to have. Many people obviously naturally are tall and lanky. This body type works very well within Olympic sport Taekwondo where kicking from distances to score points works best with long and thin legs. They can reach farther, often times faster moving, and are harder to see than a larger mass. This kind of body works best for Olympic sports and is probably why most of the heavier bodies of male athletes are not seen in this sport often. At least they are not showcased as much. But Olympic sport Taekwondo is only a part of Taekwondo and not the whole. Taekwondo is a self defense art.

        Believe it or not ITF Taekwondo is not immune to this. Here are a couple examples:

Hands down sparring exactly like WTF with lanky bodies

This ITF Demo team is much like any WTF body type

        The most desires or acceptable body for a Taekwondo fighter can be summed up in the poster boy for Taekwondo pop-culture, Olympic gold medalist Steven Lopez:

In my opinion he looks somewhat anorexic. Yes he has very defined muscles, but he is incredibly skinny. Yes he is trying to be sexy by showing his Fruit of the Loom’s in the front. But realistically that does not matter, his muscles and body type are not well for any serious combat without rules, let alone MMA. He needs to bulk up. He has the tall and lanky, long legged, tiny armed body that is popular. He does not need arms as much as legs for his sport.

      I have in the past been called obese or fat by a Korean master because my body type is more bulky and tank like. No I am not fat, I just do not have a perfect 6 pack of abs and I have thicker muscles and big arms and a big chest. I lift weights and work out to keep my fitness up so I can be a better fighter. There are a lot of typical athletic males like me out there who do various sports, including various styles of martial arts who are thick framed and bulky. In the past it has seemed that it was understood that to be a better fighter you should be stronger, bigger, tougher, thicker and faster. This is not talking about storing up body fat like a sumo wrestler, this is talking about working out. Lifting weights, doing pushups and eating protein etc. I believe it is self evident that someone who is larger and stronger will defeat someone with the same skill level who is smaller and thinner. Of course someone who is smaller and thinner with more advance skill than a larger opponent will win in a fight, but if that larger opponent ended up being just as skilled as the smaller guy it is obvious the larger guy has a better chance of winning. This is why world championship fight leagues have weight classes. Every combat sport has weight classes including Taekwondo. But take sport out of the picture and put the emphasis on fighting in general and self defense where there is no rules and it is better to be larger.

        This mentality in Taekwondo culture also affects the way companies produce doboks (uniforms). Companies now make doboks tighter and longer. So the uniform becomes stitched for someone with a thin frame and who is very tall. Most companies sell the uniform’s sizes by the weight of the person, not actual measurements. So, someone who is muscular and 200lbs. or so will buy a size 6 dobok and when he gets it in the mail he tries it on only to find out that the uniform top is tight around the midsection and the sleeves go past his wrists over his hands. The pants crotch hangs way too low and restricts kicking so he has to roll down the top of the pants a couple of times, and the pants go over his feet and touch the floor so he has to roll them up a few times.

        So, buying a properly fitting dobok  for average athletic males who do not fit the stereotype body find it nearly impossible to find a well made uniform that is WTF approved and fits properly. This exact thing happened to me when I bought a Mooto Basic uniform. When I ordered over the phone they told me if I got a size 5 it would be too tight so I need to get a larger uniform. When I said the sleeves or legs might be too long they said just alter it. So basically now I have to pay someone to alter a uniform and when they alter it they never alter it to be the same stitching as the original. It is very annoying. So, I just roll my pant legs up, pant waist band down, and arm sleeves of the top up. The is the only way to wear the uniform functionably for me. Even so, the quality of the Mooto basic uniform is very top of the line and I am satisfied. But it would be nice if they made them fit better. This is what many guys have to deal with when buying doboks now. The only decently fitting uniform I had in the past was when I was 16 and bought and Addidas uniform. A Taekwondo uniform is supposed to be a practical training suit that allows for total mobility in every direction. It should not be tight or have a low crotch that restricts kicking and it should not flop over the hands and feet.

        Within sport fighting events such as the UFC and GLORY Kickboxing the most respected fighters, the ones seen as the most dangerous, often times are very large men with large muscle mass. They have a lot of mass, but are not necessarily thing or perfectly toned. Most of the top fighters in mixed martial arts do not even have 6 pack abs and store a thick layer of body fat over their strong bodies. Examples of top fighters body types are bellow:

Cain Valasquez the current heavy weight UFC champion

Feder Emelianenko the Legend “Last Emperor”

Daniel Cormier 

UFC Hall of Famer Chuck Liddell and his famous pot belly

Now here are some images of random Taekwondo masters or grandmasters:

The late Tiger Sang Soo Kim, 9th dan black belt from the 1970s. He has a very muscular body and is very bulky and large framed. He is not lanky and thin and tall. He has thick muscles.

Grandmaster Hee Il Cho, 9th dan of AIMAA. He has thicker muscles than a typical Taekwondo guy today, yet he is naturally thinner as a Korean. But he is one of the most serious fighting masters alive in Taekwondo today.

Master Sang H. Kim, 8th dan Kukkiwon who has authored various Taekwondo books including Taekwondo self defense and combat. He also has made various DVD’s on Taekwondo and self defense. His body type is the shorter with stubbier legs that is common among many Asian men. Not all Koreans are lanky and tall, I believe more are shorter especially from the older days (born before the 70’s possibly due to nutrition) as Korea progressed with wealth after the war.

9th dan grandmaster Lee Kyu Hyun of Kukkiwon with another 7th dan master. Shorter and thicker bodies than the typical thin models of Taekwondo magazines.

The late grandmaster Tae Hong Choi of Oregon. This man signed my 1st dan black belt certificate as well as applied my rank into the Kukkiwon. He looks like a standard Karateka yet he is a Taekwondoin from the oldschool days. This is what a Taekwondo master looked like as it was about mastering the fighting art and not simply doing poomsae and Olympic sport tournaments. When I tested under this man asked me specifically what Taekwondo was and he wanted to make sure I knew it was a fighting art first and only a sport after that. This grandmaster taught U.S. Special Forces and the South Vietnamese Army Taekwondo techniques. He also taught Taekwondo techniques to CIA operatives. This was a man who understood real combat and self defense, and the fact Taekwondo is a combat art. He was a highly respectable Kukkiwon grandmaster and even heavily promoted WTF tournaments, and served as a USTU Vice President. Yet, he would never be chosen as an ideal male body type for current standards of WTF/Kukkiwon Taekwondo culture.

        Realistic, martial artists’s body types are featured often in other martial arts styles. They are seen as badass and tough. The body that matters for fighting, not for show. One of the most serious, fierce, and hardcore fighters of the last century was Grandmaster Masutatsu Oyama or Kyokushin Kai Karate fame:

No real martial artist who knows anything about this man would dare call him fat or think he was not a true master. he is barrel shaped, much like a ball or tank. He is thick muscles but has an obvious layer of fat, yet he was a true fighter and beat hundreds of opponents. Even in his younger days he never seemed to have a 6 pack of abs, yet he did have more muscle tone. Most Kyokushin fighters are built like a tank. Their aim is to train for throwing the hardest kicks and hardest punches in order to win fights. That is their goal, to show they have the “strongest Karate.” Taekwondo could really benefit fromt his mindset. Not that Taekwondo fighters need more body fat, but that the focus should be on practical bodies with functional muscles and health. Not to look long and tall only.

Fumio Demura is one of the greatest Karate Legends of our time:

Grandmaster Demura is a 9th dan of Shito-Ryu Karate and one of the most famous and skilled Karate masters from older times still alive. His body type is more round. Yet no martial artist who knows anything would argue against his legitimacy as a master simply because he does not have a lanky tall body with 6 pack abs.

Gichin Funakoshi was one of the most influential martial arts masters of our time especially for Taekwondo:

Taekwondo itself is heavily based on this man’s created Karate style. If it was not for Grandmaster Funakoshi, Taekwondo would not be what it is today and might not even exist. Several of the founding kwan masters were high ranking dan grades under Funakoshi. Look at Funakoshi’s body type. He is very small, short, does not have extremely hard and defined muscles and has absolutely no 6 pack abs. People today would say he was even chubby and would not respect him because he does not have an “elite fitness” body. Yet, he was considered very dangerous. He himself claimed that Karate was like a gun, a deadly weapon that is very dangerous and should only be used in (or taught to) the right hands. Funakoshi was about fighting for self defense. Only later did Shotokan start a sport specific focus, but even so most serious Shotokan practitioners train for self defense and not simply to win tournaments.

These are just some examples.

        A martial artist’s body needs to be efficient and practical. It needs to be healthy yet it needs to have functional ability not aesthetics. Also, beauty is in the eye of the beholder often times. Martial arts is not a beauty pageant and martial artist’s bodies should not be trained simply for display, but for actual use. In a self defense situation or any fight the body that wins matters. Not how good it looked before the fight. Through hard training, though, you can and do get a better looking body because you become more healthy but this is not the goal. The goal is health and ability: cardio, strength, speed, power etc. not looking sexy.

        Taekwondo, if it wants to be considered as a fighting art and about what matters, the Taekwondo consensus on what is a proper body for males needs to change. A focus on men who can fight and have good skills much like the masters of 60 years ago. The Tae Hong Choi’s are the past norm. Only when Taekwondo got overly commercialized and watered down and superficial did the desire for one body type, the lanky and tall with long legs male become what is desired in a male Taekwondo practitioner.

        To be sure, in no way am I promoting obesity or laziness.  I am not saying people should be fat or no one should try to lose weight or be fit. There are plenty of really fat and out of shape fake masters out there. The point I am making is there are fit bodies of various shapes and sizes and for each individual master of martial arts they won’t always have the same body type. Some are thicker, some have layers of body fat yet are strong as an ox and can kill you, some are shorter legged, and not everyone of them has 6 pack abs. Taekwondo needs to focus on the badass, hardcore body image of a fighter and not simply a model type Olympic only sport competitor who is tall and lanky with no chest or shoulder muscles (because they barely punch). Koreans need to also understand that other ethnicities have different body shapes and not everyone can look like a Korean man and be thin or wiry. Besides there are large Korean men who are thick like wrestlers.

        Taekwondo practitioners who have dealt with such prejudice against larger bodies for males need to keep training with confidence and not worry if someone thinks you are fat. If you can stronger and tougher that is what matters. Do not listen to the ignorance of certain people. I would rather be tough like Mas Oyama and be big, than skinny and lanky and only be good at sport competition and male modeling.


White Dragon is a 3rd dan Taekwondo Black Belt with over 19 years experience in the Martial Arts and head instructor of the White Dragon Dojang Martial Arts Training Program.