Many different martial arts utilize the roundhouse as an effective long range, powerful attack. The startup of this move involves you to lift one leg off the ground and pivot on the ball of your supporting foot, while releasing at full length, your kicking leg in an “outward to inward motion”. If used properly, not only do you get the snap of your knee as force behind the kick, but also your hip and torso rotation and elements of power that will assure maximum power.

What you’ll commonly see, however, is that there are different points of contact depending on the martial art. In Tae Kwon Do, I was taught to kick with the instep, the top part of your foot. In Kickboxing, I was told that kicking with my shin was more effective. In Shotokan Karate, I was taught to bend my toes up and kick with the ball of my foot. These are three different ways of doing the same kick and each are light years different in kinesiological terms. I’m going to break down the pros and cons of each, as well as when I believe is most appropriate to use which one.

The Instep:

Pros: When doing a roundhouse with the instep, your first advantage is the amount of distance you’re covering and the minimal amount of flexibility needed. Your knee simply comes up to the side of your body, you rotate your hips and pivot the supporting foot, and connect with the top of your kicking foot.
This roundhouse kick is just as easy to pull off as a shin-inspired roundhouse. It’s fast, the surface area is greater than the ball-of-the-foot roundhouse kick (which means it’s easier to hit a target with), and it has the most distance.
Cons: Although you have more surface area to connect with, what you’re in fact connecting with is usually 10 little bones towards the surface of your foot. You have 5 metatarsals that make up the bulk of what you’re hitting with, and as you get closer to your ankle, 5 more little bones, including your navicular, cuboid, and 3 cuneiforms. These bones and their supporting tissue can be hardened, but are still relatively fragile. The possible injures are a broken ankle or even shattered metatarsals. After all, if a foot stomp to your foot is damaging, so too can be your own instep roundhouse kick to someone or something.

The Shin:

Pros: Your lower leg, from knee to ankle, is made up of two bones; the tibia and the fibula. The primary bone that makes contact when kicking with your shin is fortunately the larger of the two bones (tibia). Your advantage here is primarily the size and strength of the bone beneath the skin. When you do a roundhouse with this style, it means that you’re going to get more of a deep thud, than a slap. You also can more effectively train to strengthen this bone, than the bones in your feet. It’s also as fast as using the instep.
Cons: The amount of distance you’re able to reach, is far less than kicking with the ball of the foot or the instep. This puts you at a disadvantage if you’re not extremely flexible and are trying to kick someone as tall as you (or taller) in the head, with your shin. This is definitely a distance issue more than anything else, for the closer you are to your opponent, the more likely you are to get hit as well. If you crawl down your shin and kick with your ankle, to improve your distance, you get to a much more vulnerable and week part of the leg, so be aware.

The Ball of the Foot:

Pros: A roundhouse kick from the ball of the foot is the most deadly and precise of the three kicks. You get more reach than kicking with the shin, yet harder surface area than the instep. If you think about how hard the ball of the foot is, you realize that you’re kicking with the same part that you so effortlessly are able to stand on your “tippy toes”. The sesamoid is one of the primary bones located here, and behind it, has all of the bones in the foot backing this kick up, going long ways from ball to heel, as oppose to the instep which has less depth. Think of this kick as lying down on one nail instead of a bed of nails. You’re delivering more pounds per square inch than any other roundhouse.
Cons: Of course, the most deadly and precise roundhouse, is also the most difficult to pull off. First of all, you have to be very flexible in both the ankle and toes, to really bend both, and kick properly. If you don’t bend your ankle or toes, almost 90 degrees each, you’re going to do massive damage to your own toes and possibly break them. This kick also requires more flexibility in the hip, since you’re trying to kick with your big toe always angled downwards. It can also be as fast as the instep or shin roundhouse kicks, but it is far more difficult pulling it off as quickly and in succession.

Which Roundhouse Kick is the Best?

In distance, the instep and ball win. In power delivered, the shin and ball win. In ease of pulling off, the instep and shin win. In preventing your own injury, if used effectively, the ball is the strongest, followed by the shin, and then the instep. So at the end, is there a clear winner? I really think it depends on the situation in the fight. If you’re close distance and have an opening, I personally would use my shin to drive into someone’s ribs. Since I have the toe and ankle flexibility, if I’m trying to kick someone at mid distance, I’ll hit the side of their knee or possibly head, with the ball of my foot. For my normal thigh and head kicks at furthest distance, I’ll use my instep. In the end, I recommend trying to become good at all three kicks and really learn when to use each.

6 thoughts on “Martial Arts: The Roundhouse Kick: Instep vs. Shin vs. Ball of Foot”
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  2. Paul, this is really helpful. I’ve been taking karate for about a year now and have always wondered about the pros and cons of an instep vs. ball-of-foot strike. Any tips on how to gain flexibility in the toes and ankles so I can pull off that kick without injuring myself?

    1. Hey Jeff and thank you for your comment and question on my article. I’m glad to hear that you’re taking karate and wish you the best in your training. I do have some tips on how to gain flexibility in your toes and ankles and I hope they help.

      For your toes, get a towel and place in on the floor. Now with a partner, stand on opposite ends of the towel (with only half of your foot on) and play a little “tug of war”. This will strengthen your toes ability to flex. Equally as important however, is to get that level of extension, and honestly…there are two really helpful things you can do right off the bat.

      For one, any time you’re just sitting around, flex your toes up and bring them back flat, flex them up again and bring them back. Rinse and repeat 20-30 times and that’ll be one good set. (Likewise, flexing your ankles towards you or “dorsiflexion” will help strengthen that part of your body). Back to toes…I do a lot of pushups and always keep my toes flexed when doing them. In time, something as simple as these exercises will strengthen your toes and give them more flexibility.

      As for your ankles, it’s certainly easier to work on your calves (which you should still work out anyways), but you can work on your feet’s dorsiflexors. I like to put a little weight (you could use a small dumbbell or a sandbag) on my foot and flex is up and down. This type of resistance will make it easier to keep your foot flexed when competing.

      Now the final tip is to honestly just keep on practicing against a pad or bag. Kick it slowly and lightly at first, slowly mastering perfect form, and then graduate to more powerful, faster kicks. Also…know this: your roundhouse kick can only be as good as your hip and its flexibility. Work on this, make sure that your kicks up, over and down, and that your toes are lower than your heel so that you’re kicking with maximum force.

      I hope that I was of some help.

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