K’ihap – the purpose of yelling in martial arts

One of the first concepts I teach new students of Tae Kwon Do is the K’ihap. This roughly translates to “yell” in Korean. For the origin of the word, see the wikipedia article and search for K’ihap.

Why do we K’ihap in Tae Kwon Do and other martial arts? It has several purposes:

  1. To increase your power. When you do any kind of strike in Tae Kwon Do, adding a powerful yell will increase your power significantly. Such strikes include kicks, hand techniques, and strikes with any other part of your body such as your knees, elbows, or head. Why does it increase your power? For several physical and psychological reasons:
    • It ensures you breathe out at the proper time.
    • It can create greater consistency with your technique. If you always K’ihap in class to practice a technique, doing that same K’ihap when you apply it outside of class will increase the probability that you will execute the technique correctly and with maximum power.
    • It reduces fear and hesitation, so that you strike much closer to the maximum power your body can generate.
  2. To intimidate opponents. The K’ihap will be most effective with less experienced fighters, but don’t make the mistake of assuming that it will have no effect on more experienced fighters. Even if you are facing someone with many years of martial arts training, if you can let out a fierce K’ihap, you will give them some pause. It is almost impossible to become completely immune to someone yelling fiercely in your face. This does remove the element of surprise when you are facing an opponent who is unaware of your martial arts training, but if this element of surprise has already been lost (say if you have already used a surprising technique that only someone with martial arts training would be able to execute), a K’ihap is a very good technique to reduce the appeal of a fight with yourself. Often a K’ihap at the same time as an effective strike against an opponent will make the strike seem even more powerful and painful to them, creating an even stronger desire to end the conflict ASAP. In this way, the K’ihap not only increases your power due to an enhancement of your psychology, it also increases your power due to psychological reasons in your opponent.
  3. To increase your confidence. I mentioned that the K’ihap will reduce your fear and hesitation, which results in greater power, but this effect has a much more profound consequence. When you release a crazy powerful yell as you step into a fighting stance or execute a powerful strike, your mind and body step back into the Dojang (the place of training in Tae Kwon Do, called a Dojo in other martial arts), where you executed these techniques over and over until you could do them in your sleep. In the Dojang, you had little to no fear as you practiced the techniques, especially if you have advanced as little as the belt up from white belt (commonly the yellow or gold belt). By bringing your mental state back to the Dojang, you release much of the anxiety that naturally occurs with a real-life conflict or a tournament sparring match.

    This psychological return to the Dojang also transitions the mind to use more muscle memory rather than attempting to overthink the situation and do something that will make the situation worse. The reason that you practice techniques more times than seems useful at times in your martial arts classes is to ingrain those techniques so deeply that they become part of your muscle memory, as much as walking or riding a bike. They are techniques you can execute with little to no thought. The reason this is so critical is that when you are actually in a real-life conflict or tournament match, your mind will be filled with adrenaline and have MANY other things to consider, such as the position and movement of your opponent and many other factors. So if you have to think about every technique you are executing, you will not be able to consider all of the other critical factors of the situation, and your decisions will reflect this.

    By reducing anxiety and shifting to thinking less about the techniques you are using, the very dangerous psychological effect known as “Tunnel Vision” is reduced. This occurs when you become completely focused on the object of stress in front of you and become completely oblivious to your surroundings. This is very dangerous because an attack can come from any direction, as especially in street fights your opponents will likely not hesitate to team up on you. This lack of compunction is something you must always be wary of.

  4. To protect your body from damage when hit by others. If you can see a strike coming and there is no way to defend against it in time, a K’ihap will serve to tighten your core muscles and prevent organs from getting injured, as well as reduce the pain of the strike when it lands. It also serves to reduce the effectiveness of the technique in the mind of the opponent, because usually when they yell they are on the OFFENSIVE. If you land a perfect kick to someone’s stomach but they yell as if they just hit YOU, that’s gonna throw you off, especially if you’re not an experienced fighter.

Now that we have covered numerous reasons WHY the K’ihap is important, let’s discuss HOW to K’ihap. You should K’ihap with your belly rather than your throat. If you’re not a wind-instrument musician, that may not make a lot of sense initially. The best way to tell the difference is thinking about the concept of projection. When you want to project your voice to the other side of a really long room, you don’t just yell louder do you? No, you speak from a deeper, lower part of your body, which you can feel because when you do this correctly, your stomach will deflate as you speak. This is the same for the proper K’ihap: yell from deep within you, not from your throat or nose. When you do this, not only will you be able to K’ihap repeatedly for a much longer period of time, but the sound will travel much farther and hit your opponents ear drums much more powerfully.

Some instructors of martial arts teach their students to only K’ihap in very short bursts. This is effective and the correct thing to do in some situations, but there are times when I feel the long K’ihap is far more appropriate. I believe the short K’ihap should be used in situations when you are executing multiple strikes in a row, performing cardio-intense activities that require higher amounts of breathing (such as lots of moving around as you spar), and any other scenarios when a quick but effective strike is needed. I recommend letting out a really long and loud (almost obnoxiously long and loud) K’ihap when you are executing the final move of a combination, breaking a board or brick in a demonstration (or the last board or brick if you are breaking several, with the previous boards/bricks using short K’ihaps), and when you are first facing an opponent in a real life conflict (which is far more effective at creating doubt in their minds than a short little K’ihap that they may hear for only a split second).

I also recommend a long K’ihap when you execute a technique such as a very difficult board or brick break because it will shift your thinking from the pain your hand (or whatever body part) may be experiencing at that moment to a mindset of confidence and strength (which will also make it easier to do that same technique in the future, especially if you are first starting out with martial arts). If you are in a fight, it also conceals the fact that you are in pain at that moment, as your opponent is likely thinking that what you did felt so GOOD you want to yell about it a little longer. And a longer and louder yell will make the psychological effect of increased pain in their own body from your strike even more pronounced.

The K’ihap is intimately connected to many aspects of martial arts and has many benefits. With practice, you can use this technique very effectively, so I recommend doing so every chance you get in your martial arts classes. And if you scare your instructor with a loud K’ihap that comes out of nowhere, that’s a great bonus. :-)

Posted in Martial Arts
2 comments on “K’ihap – the purpose of yelling in martial arts
  1. Julian Valenzuela says:

    Is it necessary to yell or can we just not yell?

    • corwinolson says:

      Not necessary, but it helps for all the reasons I list above. I strongly encourage you to try it, even if you’re naturally a more quiet person. Maybe even ESPECIALLY if you’re a naturally quiet person.

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