I’ve been learning about the differences between karate and kickboxing. I did some research and here’s what I found.
So, what are the differences between karate and kickboxing? The differences between karate and kickboxing are where they’re from, in sport karate you’re not supposed to do damage with your strikes, in karate they wear a gi whereas in kickboxing they wear shorts, and kickboxing is more favored in MMA training.
This is a broad overview but there are 8 differences between karate and kickboxing which I’ll list and explain below:
The main differences between kickboxing and karate
Not including those covered above, the main differences between kickboxing and karate are:
- The strikes and kicks they use
- The stance
- The way they are trained
- Kickboxing is seen as a career rather than a hobby
- Kickboxing has rituals before you fight
Here they are explained in more detail.
1. In sport karate you’re not supposed to do damage with your strikes
Sport karate is considered a point-scoring sport whereas, in kickboxing, the objective is to either strike your opponent until they get knocked out, give up, or either competitor wins on points.
According to the sport karate rules listed on the official World Karate Federation’s website, in sport karate matches, you are prohibited from:
“1. Techniques which make excessive contact, having regard to the scoring area attacked, and techniques which make contact with the throat.
2. Attacks to the arms or legs, groin, joints, or instep.
3. Attacks to the face with open hand techniques.
4. Dangerous or forbidden throwing techniques”
How hard you strike is a bit open to the interpretation of the referee. But, in almost every karate tournament that follows the WKF’s rules, competitors don’t strike hard enough to injure each other.
There is anecdotal evidence online that some referees allow more contact than others but knockouts are rare, and the objective is not to injure your opponent.
Karate moves that are illegal in kickboxing
There are also some moves that are legal in karate matches that are not allowed in kickboxing matches. For example, in kickboxing, you’re not allowed to hip throw, as shown on the official Kickboxing Federation website.
The best example of what hip throws are is seen by looking at Judo. Hip throws in Judo are called ‘koshi-waza’ techniques and there are quite a few of them.
Here’s a video that shows all of the hip throw techniques in Judo. These are all banned in kickboxing, but are allowed in karate:
The objective in a kickboxing match
In kickboxing, however, the objective is to really hurt your opponent so they can’t continue and they employ really hard strikes for example kicks to the thigh, which makes your leg bruised. As well as, really hard kicks to the body, and head.
Also, kicking any part of the body is fine. But, kickboxers know that the harder they strike their opponent the harder they will fire back.
2. In karate they wear a gi
Karate is originally from Japan, and Japanese people in olden times would wear a kimono almost everywhere. A kimono is what inspired the gi.
A gi is a kimono that’s designed for training martial arts and the word gi comes from the Japanese word ‘keikogi’.
It’s thought to have been invented by the creator of Judo – Kanō Jigorō, according to Wikipedia. Where the jacket is much thicker and tougher material so that it doesn’t rip when it’s gripped to do throws.
It’s common practice to always wear a gi when practicing karate and is compulsory according to the WKF rules to be worn by karate competitors in a tournament.
In kickboxing, however, most people wear shorts and no shirt, a t-shirt, or a singlet to train in the gym. And during kickboxing matches, they don’t wear a shirt or singlet.
In traditional Muay Thai fights in Thailand competitors also wear a tight armband on the bicep known as a pra jiad that is traditionally made by the parents of the fighter to give them good luck.
They also wear a headband made out of silk and rope, called a mongkhon which is thought to have spiritual powers. It’s given to the fighters by their trainer after they have reached a certain level of skill according to Grant’s MMA.
3. Kickboxing is more favored in MMA
If you go to an MMA gym to learn MMA, they will almost always have a kickboxing and boxing class for striking rather than karate.
The famous UFC commentator and podcaster Joe Rogan, who could be thought of as an MMA expert describes the 4 pillars of MMA as boxing, kickboxing, wrestling, and jiu jitsu.
Therefore, kickboxing is more commonly trained in MMA whereas karate isn’t emphasized. That being said karate is still useful for MMA, and there are many UFC champions who have a background in karate, for example, Lyoto Machida and Stephen ‘wonderboy’ Thompson.
Interestingly, Stephen Thompson has said that karate is making a comeback in this video:
But, because the emphasis is on point scoring in tournaments rather than finishing your opponent, it’s seen as better for MMA.
4. The strikes and kicks are different
Muay Thai is famously called ‘the art of 8 limbs’ which refers to the 8 strikes which are taught and used in kickboxing:
- Left elbow
- Right elbow
- Right punch
- Left punch
- Left Kick
- Right Kick
- Left Knee
- Right Knee
Apart from looking like the buttons in a Playstation game, these are the main strikes in Muay Thai.
In karate they use these techniques as well but they also incorporate open hand techniques such as chops and slaps.
Some people wonder how effective karate chops are, I recently, wrote about that in this article, so check it out if you’re interested.
Karate also traditionally doesn’t use round punches, which in kickboxing are called hooks. And in karate, they put more emphasis on straight punches.
These are where your fist comes straight out in front of you from. And the starting position for the fist is resting on your hip.
5. The stance is different
In kickboxing, the main stance is to stand square to your opponent, with one foot back a bit. The foot that you have back a bit is your strong side, for example, if you’re right-handed your right foot will be back.
But, in karate tournaments, they stand side on and bounce on their toes. And when I learned karate they said that to make a smaller target for your opponent. Here’s a video of a karate tournament so you can see what I mean.
Notice their starting position, and after they throw strikes they always return to that position.
And here’s some kickboxing sparring so you can see the difference.
You can see in the video that they stand square on.
6. The way they are trained
Karate and kickboxing are trained differently. In kickboxing a general training session goes like this:
- Go for a 30 minute run
- Do some sit ups, and press ups
- Do some pad work with a trainer
- Hit a heavy bag, and other smaller bags
- Sparring – striking only
- Sparring – clinch work only
- Weight training
Here’s a cool video from a guy who spent some time training at a professional Muay Thai gym in Thailand, that shows a day in the life of a professional kickboxing fighter and their training schedule:
In a typical karate class, they do the following, as explained on these karate studio websites here and here.:
- Warm up – running, press ups, sit ups, forward rolls.
- Drilling techniques – punching and kicking the air
- Sparring – for intermediate and advanced
- Form work also known as ‘kata’
The main difference is the pad work, and the weight training following the workout.
7. Kickboxing is seen as a career rather than a hobby
Karate by most people is seen as a side hobby, and it’s generally not thought of as a career. In Thailand, however, kickboxing is seen for the most part as a career and a way for them to support their family, where children start as early as 5 years old.
They make money by winning fights, which are very popular among punters who bet on fighters. And towards the later rounds people in the crowd will shout out to the fighters that they will give a bonus to a fighter who wins by knockout to encourage them to fight hard.
In general, some of the prize money the fighters win will be given to their parents to help support the family.
Here’s a video showing how kickboxing is seen as a career in Thailand where they interview professional kickboxing fighters, and their trainers about kickboxing culture:
Some people who train karate for a very long time and become black belts will often open up a school and train others.
However, in most people’s opinion, it’s not seen as a valid career choice as compared to traditional roles such as accounting, or engineering.
8. Kickboxing fighters do a ritual before they fight
Before any Muay Thai match, the fighters will perform various rituals to bless the ring known as a ‘wai kru’ which includes:
- Touching their head on each corner of the ring
- Kneeling in the center of the ring and bowing
- Doing a warm up in the middle of the ring – which looks kind of like a dance
During the pre-match ritual and throughout the match they also play music.
It’s also very important how a Muay Thai fighter enters the ring according to Muay-Thai-Guy.com.
He says the head is considered very sacred in Thai culture and the feet are considered unclean. So, as they enter the ring they’re supposed to climb over the top rope, and their head is supposed to stay above their feet as they enter the ring.
Rather than sliding into the ring, or bending over at the waist and lifting your feet over, this will bring their feet inline or above their head.
These are the major differences between karate and kickboxing, below I’ll give you some answers to some common questions about the striking arts.
Which is better: karate or kickboxing?
Karate for most people is better than kickboxing because kickboxing is more brutal than karate, and there is more risk of getting brain injury when doing kickboxing. Karate tournaments don’t involve nearly as much contact as kickboxing, and the objective isn’t to knock each other out.
There are more health risks in doing kickboxing than there are in karate. Related to how hard you’re allowed to strike each other. A kickboxing match is essentially a real-life fight where you can hit as hard as you want, to try to seriously injure your opponent with punches, kicks, and elbows.
But, in the karate tournament rules, you aren’t allowed to use “techniques which make excessive contact, having regard to the scoring area attacked.” as quoted from the official World Karate Federation rules.
A common strategy in kickboxing is to strike the body to make it sore, and tire out your opponent, and then strike them to the head to knock them out or make them give up. In a really one-sided match, the trainers of the losing fighter will tell the officials to stop the fight.
That way their fighter doesn’t sustain too much damage. However, there is nothing stopping either fighter from striking each other incredibly hard to the head, in a way that can cause permanent brain injury.
Scientific link between strikes to the head and brain injury
This study showed that you want to avoid as many hard strikes to the head as possible and the more strikes that you take the higher the risk of developing permanent brain damage.
There is also a common term known in boxing as ‘punch drunk’, which in medicine is called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Where fighters have memory loss and can have speech impediment which occurs 16 years after the injury according to Sharecare.com.
And it occurs in approximately 20% of boxers according to the doctors at WebMD.com. Nearly all of this risk is avoided in karate because you take virtually no hard strikes to the head. And it’s not encouraged at most schools.
If you’re thinking about learning karate to do thorough research into their training practices to make sure they don’t spar too hard, where you’d have the potential to get hit hard in the head.
Is Karate a form of kickboxing?
Karate is not a form of kickboxing. Karate is a martial art from Japan, whereas kickboxing is thought to have originated in Thailand. They are considered different martial arts, and they have a different culture and different strikes.
In the opinion of Liveabout.com, Muay Thai has its roots in a form of boxing known as Muay Boran which was used by army soldiers in Thailand from around the year 1200 to the 1300s. It later evolved to involve kicks. And the literal translation of Muay Thai is ‘Thai boxing’.
There are also many substyles of kickboxing, that are practiced throughout the world such as American kickboxing and Savate – in France, as stated on Wikipedia.
Karate, on the other hand, is thought to have been developed in the 1600s and originated in Okinawa, which is a group of tiny islands off the Southern coast of Japan, and to the North East of Taiwan.
Here’s a summary of the key points I covered in this article.
The major differences between kickboxing and karate are that kickboxing involves harder contact than karate, they have different stances, different strikes, and wear different training gear.
In karate tournaments and sparring the objective is to touch your opponent rather than to land heavy blows, and hip throws are legal in competition.
In kickboxing, however, hip throws are illegal in competition, and the objective is to hit hard blows that force your opponent to give up, knock them out, or win on points.
Both are effective in a real fight, and for self-defense but the risk of getting permanent injury by training kickboxing is higher because of the heavy contact involved, especially to the head.
- Wkf.net: Karate Competition Rules 2020
- Ikfkickboxing.com: Muay Thai Rules
- Wikipedia: Keikogi
- Wikipedia: Pra Jiad
- Grantmma.ca: Why Do Muay Thai Fighters Wear Headbands?
- Beckenhamkarate.co.uk: Training structure
- Angrymonkeykarate.com: Class Structure
- Muay-thai-guy.com: Showing Respect: MUST-Know Pre-Fight Rituals In Thailand
- Lim, L., Ho, R., & Ho, C. (2019). Dangers of Mixed Martial Arts in the Development of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. International journal of environmental research and public health, 16(2), 254.
- Sharecare.com: What is punch drunk syndrome?
- WebMD.com: Chemical Proof for Punch Drunk Effect
- Liveabout.com: A History and Style Guide of Kickboxing
- Wikipedia.com: Karate