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Many martial arts spend time in practicing high kicks, for instance to the face. Is there a situation in a street fight where high kicks would be the best choice? Why not prefer low kicks? With low kicks, you have fewer chances to lose your balance, fewer chances to miss the kick, and higher strength in the contact. In addition, you don't have to be flexible for kicking with a low kick.

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One possible use for a high kick is intimidation. A high kick delivered cleanly is impressive-looking, and may convince other attackers to back off. That said, I'd only recommend it if you're really certain of your ability to pull it off, and to recover if it doesn't come off cleanly.

Of course, there is another purpose to training high kicks, namely stretching out your body to make it less likely that you'll pull something kicking something lower while not warmed-up. If you can kick 6 feet in the air when warmed-up, 3 feet isn't as bad when not warmed-up. But if you train for kicking at 3 feet when warmed-up, you're more likely to strain something.

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    In a 'street fight' situation, I am not sure that the potential for intimidating one's opponent is as valuable as maintaining the element of surprise. In my experience it is better to leave a perspective assailant guessing about your skill level and technical expertise until the moment you reveal it to them upside their head. Besides, I think it is much more intimidating for an opponent to casually, and calmly transition to a ready fighting position than it would be for them to blast through their wushu floor routine. – Zen_Hydra Mar 24 '16 at 14:11
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    @Zen_Hydra I suppose I could see it going either way. My answer was partially inspired by reading a Capoeira mestre's account of how he'd defused one impending fight through a backflip. It served no combat purpose, but it made the young men swaggering toward him take a step back. You occasionally get anecdotes of something similar with muggers getting scared when they see their target has a faded black belt around their waist. – Sean Duggan Mar 24 '16 at 17:12
  • I'm honestly a bit surprised this got accepted as the answer, but thank you. – Sean Duggan Mar 27 '16 at 15:48
  • @SeanDuggan, Could you please share the source of the Capoeira mestre's account that you alluded to? This sure sounds interesting to read. – Vaibhav Garg Mar 29 '16 at 5:25
  • @VaibhavGarg: It was Unknown Capoeira: Secret Techniques of the Original Brazilian Martial Art by Mestre Ricardo Cachorro. Despite the somewhat hokey name, it's basically a listing of Capoeira movements, how to train for them, recommendations for when to use them in the roda or outside of it, and what to do in response to them. – Sean Duggan Mar 29 '16 at 13:00
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Unfortunately, some martial arts as practiced in the training hall are unsuitable for general use in street fights.

The danger with high kicks is not just the surface as mentioned by cs1971, there are other factors too:

  • high kicks are slower (they have further to travel)
  • you are more vulnerable during the delivery and retraction stages of the kick
  • there is a good probability you may be faced with multiple opponents in the street
  • street fights are far more unstructured
  • there can be environmental factors like crowds, bystanders, furniture, etc. in the way

It is my understanding that historically high kicks are a relatively recent addition in karate; the Okinawan masters were never documented kicking above the waist. It's not because they couldn't, it's because they didn't need to. If they needed to kick someone in the head they would take the opponents head down to waist level or lower!

So fundamentally you are right - a low kick is faster, more stable and safer to execute than a high kick, especially in a street fight situation. That doesn't mean you shouldn't train in high kicks, but it does mean that you shouldn't make them a priority (depending on the intention of your study).

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    High kicks are just another tool in your bag of tricks. Your job as a martial artist is to learn which tool is best for a given job. A journeyman of his craft can find applications for his tools that would never occur to a novice. A master of his craft can see entirely different solutions to his problem, and may not even need to open his tool box. – Zen_Hydra Mar 24 '16 at 14:27
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    Sorry - have to disagree with the thrust of this answer... IMHO, it shows a lack of understanding of the way a good kicker sets up and utilises high kicks. The variability of street fights is more reason to want to be able to kick high when the opportunity's there, not less. A committed reverse punch makes you more vulnerable than a jab too, but that's no reason to discount it. There's nothing in the question asking about karate in particular, so while the Okinawan masters are relevant expertise, there are lots of counter examples ignores, like historical use in Indochinese kickboxing. – Tony D Mar 27 '16 at 8:24
  • @TonyD You can disagree if you want, no problems :) I did mention that low kicks were faster/more stable/"safer", I didn't say you shouldn't do high kicks, especially if a good opportunity arises. There is no lack of understanding, I just don't head hunt with kicks when I could be doing something else. As Zen_Hydra said, they're just another tool - and they shouldn't be prioritised to the exclusion of other techniques. – slugster Mar 27 '16 at 10:58
  • As for "setting up for a high kick" - street fights are fast and disorganized, the chances of setting up for head kicks are slim, although you should take that chance if you've got it. Street fights should be ended as fast as possible, the only set up you do is for the very next technique. Unless you were talking about organized/ring fights, which is not what the question was about. – slugster Mar 27 '16 at 11:00
  • @slugster That's a good point. There are going to be few situations in a street altercation where a feint is going to be a productive use of time/energy. Most of us are fortunate to live in a place and time were combat isn't a common part of life, and because of that few people have any practical combat discipline. The chances of being assaulted by someone competent enough to warrant the use of advanced tactics are very small. They are definitely worth learning, but I wouldn't focus on them when teaching self-defense. There are more important things to emphasize. – Zen_Hydra Apr 14 '16 at 16:49
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This is going to vary from individual to individual. What is going to matter most is one's training and comfort level. I don't advocate throwing a spinning jump kick when your life is on the line, but if you are a taekwondoin and you are really comfortable with busting out a roundhouse kick to your assailant's brainpan, then by all means do so. I have trained in a wide variety of martial arts over my life, and while I am comfortable throwing out a variety of kicks at varying heights, in an unfriendly conflict I rarely discharge a 'high' kick. In those situations, I consider my footwork to be paramount, and any kick I release is likely to either be an attempt to foil my opponents footwork as I close on them, or a feint to setup something else. That said, if there was a golden opportunity for me to end a fight with one kick to the head I might be tempted to take it. I'm operating with about 30 years of experience though, and a younger me may well have given you a very different answer to this question.

  • +1 for "busting out a roundhouse kick to your assailant's brainpan"! Hilarious! – Steve Weigand Mar 23 '16 at 21:41
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    And yes, this is going to depend on the individual's abilities. Risk is increased, generally, with high kicks. But if you train these enough, you've probably already made all the mistakes you can possibly make, and so you have learned to do it more reliably. And more importantly, you've learned how to recover if it goes wrong. Kicks to the head are very surprising, also, and catch people off guard. The reward of nailing a high kick is large: a potential KO or damaging your opponent so much that it stops the fight instantly. – Steve Weigand Mar 23 '16 at 21:45
  • Just saw this and thought it was appropriate: i.imgur.com/OrzsG4N.gifv – Steve Weigand Mar 24 '16 at 3:27
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    I'd seen that gif before but I just noticed the sunglasses... – slugster Mar 24 '16 at 11:33
  • Yup. It's clearly edited. I have seen similar things happen that I know are real, though. Just not with the glasses. :) – Steve Weigand Mar 24 '16 at 17:10
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Outside the training hall the ground surface is unpredictable. Inside it's completely predictable, you can kick all day and on every step it'll behave the same. You can throw any kick you like and your supporting foot will remain planted. Exactly the same kick outside, on damp or dusty, or gritty, or whatever ground wearing whatever footwear, will put you on your back and your assailant will walk over and stab you.

I recommend you practice kicking outside, on pavements, in parking lots, outside pubs at night, with your normal footwear and then decide for yourself if it's a good idea.

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    It's also tremendously important to learn to kick while in motion. It is a fatal flaw to stop and root every time you want to throw a kick. Practice your kicks mid-stride, and from awkward footwork (like you might have after a slip or hard parry). You can't really master a technique unless you can apply it in any number of sub-optimal situations. – Zen_Hydra Mar 24 '16 at 14:20
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Is there a situation in a street fight where high kicks would be the best choice?

Lots of them. I once had an opponent charge at me from about 10 metres away, right hand raised obviously intending a big hook: I delivered a gliding side kick to his chest - laying him flat. If I'd wanted to hurt him seriously, I'd have gone higher. It had the advantage of closing the gap towards him and engaging him earlier than expected, he had no chance to adjust his movement. The longer reach of my leg meant he had no chance to throw a punch earlier (he was taller with more reach, so it was best not to give him the chance as I'd be the one who had to dodge or deflect it before making contact myself).

This reach aspect - the contrast with arms reach - is an important benefit of kicking, be it high or low.

Simply having a larger variety of ways to attack the head is a fundamental advantage.

Consider full contact karate, kickboxing, Muay Thai etc. - I've not heard of rules under which competitors have to kick high, and yet it happens quite a lot, obviously because - on balance - it helps win fights. While there's massively more variety in street fight situations, there's plenty of times when you've got good footing, and enough awareness of the situation to make informed, rational decisions about the pros and cons of using high kicks, or any other techniques.

Front kicks / mae geri in particular are very easily and powerfully delivered at chest or chin level with little compromise to your position, it's easy to watch how the opponent's moving and decide whether to kick, the recovery is fast, you can keep your hands in a decent guard and block or punch freely. If they're moving to stay just out of arm's length, it's easy to bring a front kick through.

Another benefit of kicking is that you're likely to be wearing shoes, and a kick to face doesn't have the risk of teeth cutting you and their blood getting onto those cuts, the way a punch to the face has.

Why not prefer low kicks? With low kicks, you have fewer chances to lose your balance, fewer chances to miss the kick, and higher strength in the contact.

I disagree with "fewer chances to miss the kick", if you consider low roundhouse/turning/mawashi geri jammed by a raised leg a miss. Further, given humans' centre of mass, if you kick between the waist and sternum the defender can't just pivot out of the way with a switch-step, or lean their torso this way or that.... it requires a good block or significant power against the ground to move their core.

"higher strength in contact" is true for roundhouse kicks, but isn't true of front kicks, side kicks, spinning back kicks (all of which have greatest power around sternum height), spinning hooking kicks with the heel (which most naturally and powerfully target the head), vertical/slapping/uchi mawashi and crescent/soto mawashi....

Even if you get a low kick in, they're less likely to end a fight than a strike to the head. If your opponent is a conditioned full-contact fighter, they can probably take many minutes of such strikes, and - in street fight situations sans gloves - it's the head strike whether with hands or feet, that's likely to be decisive.

In addition, you don't have to be flexible for kicking with a low kick.

Sure, but that's a bit like saying "we shouldn't punch because some people have soft, unconditioned hands". If you're not flexible, either put the work in at stretching or don't use high kicks - whatever works for you. There are technical aspects that affect how much flexibility and leg strength is needed for high kicks too - for example with a side thrusting kick, the right footwork sling-shots the leg using hip rotation, making it easy and effortless to kick high, but of course such footwork may constitute telegraphing, depending on the situation and opponent's skill.

While a low kick is a great go-to first option for a street fight, it's not a good idea to take high kicks off the table. Still, nobody can be a master of every martial skill - if you've been developing other skills, it may be better to stick with what you're comfortable with, but under-estimating the utility of high kicks is not wise, even if you're not planning to use them yourself. If you think you perceive disadvantages, get in the ring for some full-contact sparring with people who kick high, and put your ideas to the test. Whatever you learn there will be worth more to you personally than all the replies here.

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If you can kick high, you can kick low.

If you can kick high, then you have achieved good flexibility. So if you fall or otherwise end up being bent about, things are less likely to go snap.

If you can kick high, and in a brief moment in the heat of a skirmish you see one brief opening in an otherwise strong guard, and that opening happens to be high, you can take it. Even if you abort the kick in transit, it's going to bring the opponents guard high, making more opportunity for your low kicks or any other move.

If two big chaps have restrained your arms, and a third is about to crack your face, if you can kick high, you can crack his face first, which might buy you some time.

Kicking high requires more energy and strength than kicking low. So by training it, you are potentially developing greater stamina and muscle strength than if you practiced exclusively low.

There are many reasons to train to kick high. Even if you never had to use a high kick, it has to be nice to know it's available to you, and that all the strength, stamina, balance and flexibility that goes with it is there at your disposal, should you need it.

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In the street, I prefer to use low or middle kick, since we use jeans and clothes that are not completely comfortable not like trainning clothes, if the pants are a much fitting closely you can fall down. In addition with the high kicks, you have little low posibilities of success, and i think it is a excesive energy loss. I prefer to use kick with high percent of success like low kick. You cannot send your opponent to ground with one of this kicks, but him loss energy whith every kick.

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There are already a lot of excellent answers describing how the two compare in balance etc. Her I would like to advocate the a single technique instead of comparing the two in general. This technique is often forgotten, because it is not allowed in most sports-based martial arts: the kick to the groin, which is of course a low kick. It is the single most effective technique in self-defense (after running away). Here are some of it's advantages:

  1. Speed: it requires nothing more than a snap kick with the lower leg, which is faster than any kind of roundkick or roundhouse kick, even slightly faster than the higher aiming front kick. The only kick that comes close in speed is a kick to the knee, but that requires more force, which brings us to the second point.
  2. Damage per power: even if it is only a light kick that hits correctly, the damage is fatal to the extent that any opponent (unless he/she is a crazy shaolin monk who practices this sort of thing...) will at least cringe, which sets up for further attacks/punches. So even if the opponent is significantly stronger this will be the kick of choice.
  3. Reach: Due to not requiring a lot of power, one can train to make this one of the highest reach kicks in your repertoire.
  4. Required precision: Depends on the distance, but as long as the kick ends up between the legs, it is not very hard to hit.
  5. Lack of fatal damage: A factor that is not to be underestimated in self-defence is that unlike for kicks/punches to the head, the opponent can easily recover from a kick to the groin on the long term. This is important since in unclear legal situations (i.e. it is not obvious that you were the defender), you would not be sued for having used inappropriate measures for your defense. Especially in Germany beating up an attacker too hard can get you in quite a bit of trouble.

How does this answer the question?

Why not prefer low kicks?

You should, in fact you should prefer a very specific kick as elaborated above. This is for real self-defense situations. Of course if you are fighting in a bar kicking to the groin might count as cowardly.

Is there a situation in a street fight where high kicks would be the best choice?

There are, specific examples are opponents that charge at you, against which the best defense is a step to the side and a high/medium-high round kick. Of course if the situation is a 1vs1 fight rather than an actual street self-defense situation (the distinction is that in the latter there will usually be not much facing off, it is just an attack and a defense maybe with some follow up) then you should use all the tools at your disposal and have a fight strategy. If high kicks are part of that depends entirely on you.

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    I'll counter with this: What is universally the specific type of kick every adult male has practiced defending himself from? Protecting our exposed genitalia is one of the first defensive techniques boys learn, and it is almost ubiquitously so. – Zen_Hydra Apr 13 '16 at 21:34
  • @Zen_Hydra i've for about 3 years with groin kicks allowed and i dont find it easy to defend at all. mainly because of the speed of the kick. also untrained attackers usually have their eyes on the opponents head. to back this up and show it's not just my opinion: check out krav maga globals curriculum. most techniques have a groin attack of some sort. you may dispute this, but in my opinion there is nothing that goes over their expertise when it comes to self-defense. they even interview members who got into defense situations to see which techniques were effective and adapt accordingly – Wolpertinger Apr 13 '16 at 21:45
  • @Zen_Hydra if you have any experience indicating otherwise i would be very interested to know more! – Wolpertinger Apr 13 '16 at 21:49
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    "Self defense" doesn't have a particular style, it is an accumulation of techniques and strategies from whatever arts you choose. We teach a whole bunch of different self defense techniques, but we advise not to go for the groin kick because of its low rate of success and victims will tend to focus on it therefore getting into more trouble. A (downward) punch to the groin actually has a better chance of success than a kick due to it being unexpected, and also due to it actually hitting (and stretching) nerve clusters rather than hitting the scrotal area. – slugster Apr 14 '16 at 2:08
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    @Numrok I have a lifetime of experience being a male, and growing up around other males who regularly ambush attacked each others genitals (i.e. 'cup check'). Having done some degree of world travel when I was in the Army, I found this kind of male horse-play to be fairly ubiquitous. I have studied Western and Eastern combat arts since I was deemed old enough to hold a fencing saber and learn the fundamentals of boxing and wrestling (some of my father's passions). The depth and breadth of my experience has shown me that groin kick's are a sub-optimal choice for self-defense. – Zen_Hydra Apr 14 '16 at 16:07

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