Some eastern martial arts (such as karate, taekwondo) prohibit straight boxing-style strikes/punches to the head in their sports rules:

A punch that makes strong contact with the opponent's hogu scores 1 point. The punch must be a straight punch with arm extended; jabs, hooks, uppercuts, etc. are permitted but do not score. Punches to the head are not allowed.

Punches to the face, groin, and joint are prohibited but all bare-knuckle and elbow strikes to the body and limbs (with the exception of joints), and kicks (including kicks with the knee) against legs, arms, body, head and face are permitted, as are sweeps.

But why, historically? With respect to these arts, it seems somewhat impractical - these arts have large amount of possible moves, why are such punches prohibited?

My question is absolutely not an attempt to belittle eastern martial arts, but mainly, to ask why. A lack of these strikes influences style and moves - you cannot (in general) afford such a degree of complex kicks in kickboxing (or muai-thai, for example) - you sometimes just don't have time for it - as your opponent is coming close, within knee/fist striking distance.

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    Those arts as far as I am aware only exclude strikes for sparring/competition. Which means that only the competition side of things are affected - giving a different spectacle. Are you asking why the competition rules for these arts exclude these strikes?
    – Collett89
    Jul 23, 2019 at 7:42
  • Really? Sorry for my nescience, I've never ever heard about that. Would you provide an answer? Or should I rephrase/remove question? Jul 23, 2019 at 8:02
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    As far as I know, both karate and taekwondo do allow head strikes. Could you provide some reference for your claim? Jul 23, 2019 at 8:09
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    Why not write your own answer? It's encouraged in stack. Jul 23, 2019 at 9:00
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    I am always right. Even when I am wrong. ☺ Jul 23, 2019 at 9:38

3 Answers 3


As per what was mentioned in the comments, these are competition rules. But these arts do teach and practice face punches/strikes in their syllabus.

I'd like to draw an example from my style: Kyokushin karate. It did have a category for bare knuckle face punches for awhile, but it was messy, it was bloody, and because the head (especially the face area) can be punched easily fighters only focused on the face and disregarded all other less damaging techniques like body shots and kicks. This turned into a boxing match with fighters wearing karate gis.

It made competition uninteresting and dangerous and participation was lacking after the first 2 years. As for Taekwondo, they will never allow head punches with fists for safety reasons, as it is an Olympic requirement.

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    Also (historically) the reason point-sparring was introduced was to allow different dojos a way to express their rivalries without, you know, killing each other. Head strikes can be very dangerous, so it makes sense to exclude them under the same strictures. (Kyokoshin karate, of course, is well known for regularly using full contact knock-down rather than point-sparring) Jul 25, 2019 at 11:11

The reason for the no-punch-to-the-head is to encourage the kicking aspect of the style.

Punches are easier, kicks are far more difficult. Therefore, to encourage use of kicks, there are more point options with kicks: standing kicks, turning kicks, and standing and turning kicks to the head garner more and more points.

Taekwondo needs to ensure that it is distinct from other sports in the Olympics, as well. To ensure a stronger delineation between it and boxing, punches to the head are eliminated. Now that Karate is coming to the Olympics, they, too have the burden of creating a ruleset which distinguishes itself from wrestling, boxing, and taekwondo.

It should also be noted that while official WT-sanctioned events will formally use no-head-punch rules, local competitions that are not WT-sanctioned (eg, open tournaments) can (and often do) allow head punches.

So bottom line, head-punching is disallowed to encourage more dynamic movement with high kicks, and to distance itself from other sports (karate, kickboxing, boxing, etc). While you may be asking about head-punches, you could just as easily have asked about grappling, too. It's for the same reason: to encourage use of kicks in competition. Grappling is a part of taekwondo as evidenced by examination of your poomsae/hyung. But only in the Olympics is this generally enforced: local competitions are free to establish whatever rules they want.

  • I disagree that the reason Taekwondo had no head punches was to distinguish itself from boxing in the Olympics. Since the 1980s (prior to Taekwondo even becoming an exhibition sport in the Olympics); from the time Taekwondo was fought with no chest protectors and no headgear, head punches were never legal. I am referring to Taekwondo WTF Jul 25, 2019 at 3:18
  • Taekwondo had to distinguish itself from any other sport in the Olympics, that is an absolute requirement for any sport. Two similar sports would have to be classified either as an event under a generic umbrella (skating and gymnastics are examples), or else they are so different that they are different sports. Punching to the head comes up all the time, and it did when entering the Olympics. WTF decided to continue to ban it so as to more distance itself from boxing as well as to encourage kicks. This we know from Rio when the point system specifically changed for this purpose.
    – Andrew Jay
    Jul 25, 2019 at 14:17
  • It is a small nuance, I think; but Karate will be thinking about the same issues. IDK what their ruleset will be, I haven't been following them much lately. With the inclusion of kata, they don't have to worry too much about the sparring. If they didn't have kata, then sparring will have to appear different not only to boxing, but as well, it will have to appear different to taekwondo.
    – Andrew Jay
    Jul 25, 2019 at 14:23
  • I have never seen any non sanctioned Taekwondo events that allow head punches. Mind to share? Jul 31, 2019 at 7:04
  • I compete in them once or twice a year, and I ref them as well. Sometimes they're open tournaments, so not exactly proper to call these "taekwondo events", but in these, and in those where only taekwondo-in compete, we often allow head punches. This is more prevalent in ITF style tournaments (the distinguishing element is the hyung). About 6 months ago we had a tkd tournament that allowed head punches for adults only, continuous sparring, and ko allowed. So they do exist, but I wouldn't say that it is common.
    – Andrew Jay
    Jul 31, 2019 at 10:18

Because of CTE. I would not want my kid boxing, or any other full contact, continuous impacts to the head.

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    Those rules emerged before CTE was coined or scientifically examined, though. Jun 4, 2023 at 6:14

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