Tang Soo Do vs TaeKwonDo: Know Your Korean Martial Arts Styles

To outsiders simply watching Tang Soo Do vs TaeKwonDo students train, the differences could seem slight. Though to those that dive a little deeper, or better yet, those who train in both the differences are stark. What are these similarities and differences and why are they there?

Here is a chart to lay out the 10 main differences and similarities in Tang Soo Do vs TaeKwonDo. The ‘why’ of it all will follow.

#Techniques or PracticesTang Soo Do’s FocusTaeKwonDo’s Focus
1KickingSpeed and simple effectiveness is stressedHigher and jumping style kicks are stressed
2Hand TechniquesMore emphasis is placed on ‘hands’ and head targetingThe ‘hands’ are much less emphasized as well as head targeting
3StancesOlder, wider, and deeper stances are utilizedNewer, narrower, and more natural ‘walking’ stances are used
4Forms, Poomse (Korean), Kata (Japanese)Older Okinawan Poomsae are followed (with Korean names)Modern Korean designed Forms (Poomsae) are practiced
5SparringLess sport based and less padding usedStrong sport emphasis and more padding required
6SportLess developed competitions with more emphasis on traditionHighly developed international competition circuit which includes the Olympic Games
7UniformsThe majority utilize the more Japanese ‘wrap around’ uniform (Dobok)Nearly all use the ‘V neck’ newer Korean designed Dobok
8Training HallBoth call their school a 도장 dojangBoth call their school a 도장 dojang
9TerminologyMost all terms used are KoreanAll terms used are Korean
10HistoryBoth have a shared history with diverging branches in modern timesThey share a common history that developed differently in recent decades

As you can see, there are many things that are different between these Korean Martial Arts styles than may be apparent at first glance. To be honest, overall both are kicking based martial arts systems coming out of the culture of the Korean people. So it is fair to call them similar and correct to call them different as well.

The History Behind Tang Soo Do vs TaeKwonDo

Though these two styles have become somewhat different in recent years, they share a very similar background. Hundreds of years of wars between different sections of the now Korean Peninsula led to the unification of Korea under one kingdom.

This was accomplished by the weaker and smaller of the provinces due to an emphasis on martial training and incorporating empty handed combative techniques.

Once this unification was complete, these empty handed techniques began to be recorded and trained by the military units of the kingdom. Later they made their way into the general populations. They were trained for self defense and even health and fitness.

Then came the Japanese occupation of the 19th and 20th centuries. All forms of these empty handed forms of military fighting and private self defense were outlawed. Japanese forms of Karate, Judo, and Kendo were emphasized and considered superior.

This type of environment had a huge impact on the Korean versions of empty handed self defense. These were practiced in secret and recorded. Later, when the occupation ended, the Japanese Karate forms were shed for the more cultural and nationalistic centered Korean styles.

Though, this took many decades to develop and what we have today in TaeKwonDo is a relatively new version of a martial arts system. Tang Soo Do proports to draw from more ancient roots, though many of the Poomsae or forms are directly pulled from Okinawan Karate systems.

The history points to the fact that both styles are hybrid Okinawan and historical Korean blends. The branching off from one another in recent years has much more to do with sport and specifically the Olympic Games rather than historical context.

TaeKwonDo leaders pushed for unified rule systems and worldwide regulations and recognition. This was in order to promote international competitions and world championship tournament series. National and international rankings, titles, and awards were developed.

TangSooDo leaders shunned this path for the most part. Tradition, history, and claims of a more practical self defense application guided their decisions. Sure, there are tournaments and competitions. Yet, they are much less coordinated nationally and especially internationally.

To the observer from outside of these systems, there may not be a glaring difference in the outcome of these styles, sport or no sport. Yet, to the practitioner there is a definite difference in the practice and application of each of these systems.

Both have similar paths, but due to a reemerging sense of national identity surrounding the Korean people, both tried to provide answers in differing ways.

TaeKwonDo went the route of Olympic recognition and international sporting presence. World titles, rankings, and positions did in its own way put the name of Korea in the minds of many around the world.

Tang Soo Do was led in the direction of cultural and historical remembrance. This also kept the focus on the original ‘martial’ intent of the art. Both have similar abilities in as an additive to any self defense arsenal. Yet, Tang Soo Do claims with its more rounded striking training to accomplish a more effective solution.

For more on the history, see my article here on the ranking systems in TaeKwonDo which gives more details.

The Foundational Purpose of Tang Soo Do vs TaeKwonDo

I have already discussed the fact that these two systems differ in the fact that one is more centered on sport and the other on tradition and maybe even practical application. TaeKwonDo is known as a more sport centered art and Tang Soo Do is seen as a tradition minded system.

There is a pretty interesting reason that they have both went down the paths that they have in the recent past. Both have chosen divergent paths for the exact same reason. National and cultural identity.

In order to find their own history and delineate it from the Japanese culture and history of their recent occupiers, many leaders searched for ways to develop a ‘Korean’ sense of self on the world scene.

In the martial arts realm this took the form of defining a uniquely Korean form of self defense and martial unarmed techniques. TaeKwonDo leaders looked to international notoriety whereas Tang Soo Do leaders gravitated toward the history and unique culture to be found in the past.

The purpose of TaeKwonDo became acceptable sport oriented competitions to bring the world’s attention to the reemerging nation. This happened in the 1960’s and 1970’s in force with pushes for Olympic acceptance, international governance, and unified regulations.

To an international competitor or a local practitioner of TaeKwonDo, this may seem a foreign concept. We as people usually don’t pay much attention to history and accept things as they are as if they had always been.

In the case of TaeKwonDo, a dedicated and directed development toward international relations for a burgoning Korean identity was at its roots, whether many studying it today know it or not.

Tang Soo Do leaders in direct opposition to this more ‘marketed’ version of their arts, tended to shun the over publicized sport world. The emphasis was placed more on the tradition, history, and culture.

Claims were even stretched to claim direct lineage from ancient Taekyon warriors in the more celebrated historical error of Korea’s past. These claims are not necessarily false or true. There was influence from China, Japan, and Korea, but what developed from these was distinctly Korean.

It is interesting to note that the original meaning of Tang Soo Do translates to ‘China Way’. Understandably, leaders that later developed TaeKwonDo from the roots of Tang Soo Do wanted a uniquely Korean name. Thus we have the ‘Foot Fist Way’ that is now TaeKwonDo.

Tang Soo Do can be seen as an attempt to continue the historical development of an art, for better or for worse practitioners can decide for themselves. Though the systems in the end are similar, the focus is determinedly different.

The Self Defense Capacity Inherent in Tang Soo Do vs TaeKwonDo

Here we may simply be splitting hairs. These two systems are very similar in their actual self defense applications. The emphasis on kicking techniques characterizes each in nearly the same fashion.

Neither of the two systems are particularly noted as having well developed hand striking techniques in their respective arsenals. They are known for their kicking techniques, and particularly higher targets on the body.

There may be a distinction in the fact that more jumping and higher kicks are seen in TaeKwonDo, yet this is not necessarily the case. Minus the slightly more prolific hand use in Tang Soo Do, both of the systems look strikingly similar in sparring and self defense.

They share in the use of distance control to apply defensive and offensive techniques. These are not known as close in styles. Keeping proper distance to attack an opponent while staying out of their striking range is present in each.

Some criticize both equally in under representing close quarter combat. Yet these styles came from military systems that utilized long swords and spears. It makes perfect sense to utilize distance in those circumstances.

Besides, adding these techniques to my arsenal personally have resulted in several international competition wins, two specifically with KO’s. No style is complete on its own. None were designed to be. All styles have merit, when used in the way they were intended.

Tang Soo Do tends to blend more hand techniques in with its combinations than does TaeKwonDo. That you can say in most cases.

Does this mean a TaeKwonDo practitioner will be less adept at using hand techniques in self defense? Of course not. The assumption is that all he has learned only comes from TaeKwonDo. I know many martial artists that studied TaeKwonDo and multiple other systems.

Yet, taking them only on their own offerings, TaeKwonDo artists will have more developed jumping and high kicks to some degree and Tang Soo Do students will have slightly better hand integration. This also will depend greatly on instructors, training regiments, and ultimately the students themselves.

If keeping distance between you and an aggressor, then either of these styles will help. The more mobile you become and the better you become at using the kicking techniques they teach, you will take less and less damage and be able to deploy self defense weapons.

The emphasis on more padding and sport may tend to make TaeKwonDo artists more confined to the techniques offered in their style. You do what you practice. Integrating boxing, Kali, or other hands based arts may be more of a challenge for them than TangSooDo students.

That being said, after a year or two of practice, there really will be little difference with the ability to incorporate hand techniques with the kicking taught by either style.

The Health Benefits Available in Tang Soo Do vs TaeKwondo

As with any sport oriented vs other activities, sport systems will usually demand development of better strength and cardio vascular health. Partly this is brought on by the competitors themselves. Knowing there will be an opponent standing across from you in a set amount of time that is training to defeat you is a great motivator to push limits.

In order to stay competitive, a student in a sport based system must keep pushing to higher levels of physical ability to back up learned techniques. This is needed in systems that do not emphasize sport, but without the motivation of immediacy, physicality is usually less prevalent.

With this in mind, you will find that each have the full range of body types, fitness levels, and physical capabilities in their legends of students. That being the case, it still is true that on average, competitors in sport will be more physically fit. This is the case with TaeKwonDo.

This is not to say that for some not wishing to develop the sorts of cardiovascular prowess needed to compete internationally that Tang Soo Do or TaeKwonDo respectively won’t work perfectly for their needs.

Unless you are determined to be competitive on a national or international scale, you won’t be under-served by either system. The truly individual nature of most martial arts allows for the tenacity, fortitude, and determination levels of individual students to determine fitness levels.

For example, if you are generally out of shape and have not utilized your lower body in strenuous activity in quite some time, you can see great benefits from the kicking in either style.

To be honest on the under-developed lower body issue, visit nearly any gym in your area and you will see many beefy upper bodies walking around on chicken legs. Lower body workouts take much more effort and energy than upper body ones. For this reason, many neglect lower body training.

So, for the average student, either style can offer a great workout using some of the largest muscle groups in your body. This equals more energy needed, more calories burned, and better overall health.

There are definitely more strenuous martial arts styles when doing some types of training. Yet, again this will not apply to the average student. Grappling for instance in a highly competitive sparring match with two in shape competitors can’t be beat for calorie burn.

Yet, the vast majority of people learning for self defense, fun, and exercise can get the same workout in many styles with proper effort. Tang Soo do and TaeKwonDo both cannot do it for you. You are the secret ingredient.

The Enjoyment Factor of Tang Soo Do vs TaeKwonDo

To be fair, there is really no way to determine what any individual will find enjoyable other than generalities. Different personalities will gravitate to different things.

That being said, it is a bit easier to describe the merits and let you decide for yourself what will be ‘up your ally’. If you are deciding for your child, to be honest I have a great article on this that doesn’t include either of these styles as the top pick.

To see my article on what martial arts style kids find more fun, click here.

The most important thing in a martial arts style to a child is undoubtedly the ‘coolness’ factor. They want to see what they see on movies and weekly shows. The main thing they will want to see is kicking.

This kids will get in abundance in TaeKwonDo or Tang Soo Do. The more flashy, jumping, and spinning style kicks will be had more in TaeKwonDo, but again for the average student, both will have ample opportunities to learn the trademark martial arts looking kicks.

For adults, there is more than likely a ton of different objectives when studying a martial art style. The fitness and self defense aspects I have covered briefly. There are other things as well.

Historical and cultural exploration can be had in either TaeKwonDo or Tang Soo Do, but you will find more of an emphasis in Tang Soo Do. The history and cultural connection will be stronger there.

The Korean cultural aspect will definitely be in both, but more pronounced in Tang Soo Do. It will cover all the bases from language, to history, to even philosophical systems. Though some TaeKwonDo instructors may add some of this in, it will be and additive to the sport emphasis.

It simply depends on the individual, their age, and specific backgrounds to determine what they will find exciting and enjoyable. Most martial arts are not only begun, but continued because students find that ‘something’ that draws them.

If that important point is understood, you can then see that virtually any martial system can offer fun and motivation to continue. The effectiveness of a style to inspire each individual is just that… individual.

The Tang Soo Do vs TaeKwonDo Takeaway…

Hopefully you have more of an idea what separates and unites these two popular Korean martial arts systems. Looking only on the surface, one might question why there are different names and systems at all.

Yet, when you look closer, which seems to be the case with most things, it is clear that everything from training, application, foundations, and purpose differ noticeably.

Mathew Booe

Mathew Booe is a father of four, husband to Jackie since 1994, retired international competitor with over 50 wins, an international seminar instructor, a master instructor of hundreds of Little Ninjas each week, and the one bringing you the great content like you just read. Sign up for the newsletter to hear about his upcoming books before they are released to the public.

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