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Karate vs. Taekwondo: Key Differences And Similarities

Photo by Martin Rulsch (Left pic)/CC BY-SA 4.0

At first sight, Karate and Taekwondo may look the same to many people due to similar uniforms and belts. It’s really easy to mix these two striking martial arts with one another, which a lot of people do. Still, when you set them against each other, these two arts actually differ in many aspects. Whether it’s a place of origin, emphasis, or rules of competition, they actually don’t share much in common.

Taekwondo is a striking art famous for putting a lot of emphasis on fast kicks. Karate, on the other side, is a full-contact art that slightly favors hand techniques. In terms of similarities, both arts will teach you how to fight without weapons, use both stances, kick and punch, take the opponent down and even fight on the ground.

But, which one is better for you? To help you make the right decision, we will take a closer look at the key differences and similarities between these two arts and much more. This way, you can clearly see which one suits you better and why so let’s get started!

What Are The Main Differences Between Taekwondo And Karate?

Taekwondo and Karate may look similar at first sight as they are both striking arts. But watch just a single match from both arts, and you can easily spot the differences. We are going to address some of the biggest ones below:

The emphasis

Taekwondo puts a lot of emphasis on fast kicking over the other aspects of fighting. This is due to the theory that legs are a longer and more powerful weapon than hand strikes. You will spend most of the time learning how to throw spinning, jumping, and various other kicks. Other skills like punches, trips, and sweeps are seen as backup weapons.

Karate, on the other side, focuses equally on using all limbs as weapons on paper. You will spend the same amount of time learning all aspects of karate. This includes punches, kicks, takedowns, ground fighting as well as knee and elbow strikes. But in reality, most karate dojos slightly favor hand strikes over other aspects.

History And Forms

Karate emerges from the South Okinawan Islands in Japan. Its origins date back to the Ryukyu Kingdom in the 19th century and it draws influence from Chinese martial arts. There are many forms of karate out of which four are most popular ones:

  • Goju-ryu
  • Shotokan
  • Wado-Ryu
  • Shito-ryu

Founded in the 1940s, Taekwondo is a modern martial art with its origins in South Korea. Initially, it was used by the Korean military for self-defense before becoming a very popular sport. Like karate, it has many forms that differ between many Taekwondo organizations. Here are the three major forms:

  • International Taekwondo Federation (ITF)
  • World Taekwondo Federation (WTF)
  • American Taekwondo Association (ATF)


The word “karate” means “empty hands” which relates to self-defense without weapons. The word “Taekwondo” translates to “tae-kicking”, “Kwon-punching” and “do-discipline”. In full transition, it means “the way of the foot and fist”

What Are The Similarities Between Taekwondo And Karate?

Even though they differ a lot, Taekwondo and Karate are also very similar in some areas. Following is a list of similarities why people often mix them with one another:

  • All students must wear a uniform which consists of a jacket and pants made out of light cotton. In Taekwondo, the uniform is called a “dobok” while in Karate a “gi”. The uniforms and belts around their waist look very much the same in both arts.
  • Both of these martial arts embrace a method of hard training and high discipline. Each student must stay humble, show a strong desire to learn, and respect other students. Before you make a decision to join either of these two dojos, be sure to check your ego at the front door. In case you don’t, you will be in for a very short ride.
  • Both arts consist of a pre-arranged set of postures based on the techniques students may use in a fight. All beginners must learn how to carry out these postures before they can apply them in sparring. In Taekwondo they are called “Poomsae” whereas Karate refers to them as “Kata”.
  • They are both Olympic sports. Taekwondo was the first one to become a part of the Olympic Games in 2000. Karate got inducted into Olympic Games 20 years later in 2020. 

Which One Is More Effective For Self-Defense?

Both Taekwondo and Karate are martial arts created with self-defense in mind. The most popular karate style for self-defense is “Shidokan karate” which consists of striking as well as grappling. As for Taekwondo, most people choose ITF version as it tends to focus more on self-defense than other forms.

Training in both arts will prepare you for all types of scenarios in which you have to defend yourself or others. This is because you will learn how to fight from a distance, close range, and even advance to the ground. In the end, Karate is more effective than Taekwondo simply because it teaches you a broader set of skills.

Karate is better as it covers most aspects of fighting. It teaches you how to fight at distance, in the clinch, or on the ground. First, you will learn how to keep your range using footwork and kicks. Then, vicious elbow and knee strikes allow you to damage in the clinch. And you can use various trips to take the attacker down to the ground where you can apply joint locks to subdue them.

Karate is also better when it comes to defense. It puts a lot of focus on keeping your hands high, blocking strikes, and countering. Due to their unique side stance and emphasis on kicks, Taekwondo fighters tend to drop their hands low, not bothering much about blocking strikes, which is bad for defense.

The good thing is, both karate and Taekwondo consist of sparring sessions in which you can test your skills against the partner. Sparring is great for self-defense because it gives you the feeling of how it is to be in a real fight. Apart from how to fight, you will learn to keep your mind calm, control fears, and keep laser focus in a stressful situation.

Still, we can’t escape the fact that the number one priority in both arts is to prepare you for competition, not for self-defense. In most schools, the goal is to prepare you to fight in tournaments and under the rules which differs a lot from street fighting. But this doesn’t change the fact you can apply these techniques in real life as well.

Taekwondo or Karate — Which One Is Better For MMA?

Both Taekwondo and Karate have their place in modern MMA. Although these two arts alone won’t help you much in MMA fighting, they stand for a solid MMA base on which you can add other techniques.

MMA fighters who have a strong base in Taekwondo have, perhaps, the best kicking skills. In modern days, fast and powerful kicks have become a key weapon in MMA. And as said earlier, Taekwondo fighters are masters in executing them.

On top of that, they all have really good footwork and can fight from both stances, which is also great for MMA. Here are some of the best MMA fighters with a Taekwondo base:

  • Bas Rutten (2nd degree black belt in Taekwondo)
  • Anthony Pettis (3rd dan black belt in Taekwondo)
  • Anderson Silva (5th dan black belt in Taekwondo) 

Karate, on the other side, also stands for a very good MMA base. This is mainly because MMA fighters with a karate base are a tough matchup for fighters from any other style. Their footwork is amazing, and they are always on the move. It’s really hard to cut their movement to close the distance and land a single clean strike.

What they do best is creating angles and moving in and out really fast without taking any damage. They all attack in a blitz using fast kicks and straight punches. Following is a short list of famous UFC fighters who came into MMA from karate:

  • George St. Pierre (3rd dan black belt in Kyokushin Karate)
  • Stephen Thompson (5th degree black belt in Tetsushin-ryu Kempo)
  • Robert Whittaker (Black belt in Goju-ryu Karate)

But, we must point out that having Taekwondo or Karate skills is not enough for one to succeed in MMA fighting. They stand for a good base on top of which every MMA fighter must add skills from other arts like wrestling and BJJ.

Can You Train In Both Taekwondo And Karate At The Same Time?

Yes, you can train in both Taekwondo and Karate at the same time, but be careful. Training these two arts at the same time is good to keep your mind open and learn new techniques you might be missing in your game. In the end, they do complement each other in some way.

But the issue is, splitting your time between these two arts might slow down your progress. This is because the techniques, tactics, or the entire approach to fighting differs a lot between them. For instance, kicks you learn how to throw in karate might be wrong in taekwondo and vice versa.

The other great instance is the stance. You can’t use karate stance in Taekwondo and expect to carry out the techniques and vice versa. It won’t work no matter how skillful you are. And if you decide to learn both stances, you will only confuse your mind and reflexes. Being stuck between is the worst thing that can happen to any beginner.

The best way is to focus on one art and set your goals to becoming a black belt before even thinking about cross-training. Then as an experienced martial artist, you can go into other dojos and learn new things that may improve your skills by cross-training in other martial arts.

Taekwondo vs. Karate – Who Would Win In A Fight?

Looking at both styles, we must say that fighters from both Taekwondo and Karate have all the skills to beat each other in a fight. In the ideal scenario, we must give a small advantage to karate as karatekas know how to defend against kicks and they have better hand and grappling techniques. But the outcome really depends on many factors we just can’t ignore.

First, are we speaking about a match under the rules, a street fight in the open or the bar? Do we have weapons involved? What is the level of experience and size of the fighter from each of these two martial arts? In reality, the outcome really comes down to the individual set of skills rather than the martial art itself.

Which One Is Harder To Learn Taekwondo Or Karate?

Learning any martial art and reaching a black belt rank is really hard. Both Taekwondo and Karate are no different and one must spend many years working hard in the gym to succeed. According to MMA/Taekwondo expert Gideon Ray we interviewed, depending on the school, Taekwondo students need around 4-5 years of training to reach a 1st-degree black belt. An eager student in karate can earn a black belt in five years, but this also depends on a school and form of karate.

Which one is harder to learn depends on talent, athleticism, and how much time you are spending in the dojo. As humans, we all have different genetics, levels of athleticism, and overall talent for fighting sports. So saying that Karate is harder than Taekwondo is maybe true for some people. But the other side may find Taekwondo to be harder simply as karate suits them better.

But one thing is for sure, becoming a black belt in both of these arts is very, very hard. They are both known as hard styles in which you can’t earn anything without sacrifice and hard work.

Final Thoughts – Which One Is Better For You?

This really comes down to your personal preference. They both offer you a full-body workout that will get you in top shape and you will learn great fighting skills.

Taekwondo is for people who want to learn the best kicking techniques in the world. No other martial art will teach you better and faster kicks than Taekwondo. In terms of health, training will make you very strong and flexible which prevents many potential injuries. And, the classes are known to be cardio intense so expect to improve your conditioning. 

Karate is a better option for people who want to learn self-defense and develop a rounded set of fighting skills. It should be your choice if you want to learn how to mix punches and kicks together with grappling techniques. And, it allows you to quickly shift to other martial arts like kickboxing or MMA later.

Related Questions:

Karate or Taekwondo—Which One Is Better For Kids?

At kids’ age, either of the two is fine. This is really based on the personal interest of the child as well as what they find to work better for them. The best way is to go to the nearest Taekwondo and Karate schools where your kid can take part in a trial class before they can finally say which martial art they prefer.

One thing is sure, all kids will have a ton of fun training in both Taekwondo and Karate. Both are playful arts that will keep them active, healthy and teach all about respect and discipline. And above all, they are very safe to train and the risk of any potential injuries is low. This is mainly because kids have to wear protective gear during the parts of training that may lead to injuries such as sparring.

As for the parents, you should always pick a school that focuses on safety and keeping their dojo clean. Don’t hesitate for a second to check the dressing rooms and bathroom to be sure the school is maintaining a high level of hygiene. And, you should always ask the instructor about their martial art background and achievements.

Karate and Taekwondo classes for kids have similar benefits. They will keep kids strong, flexible and help them grow into a person with good values.

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