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What Are the Different Styles of Taekwondo? Beginner’s Guide

Taekwondo (TKD) is one of the most popular martial arts practiced by millions of people around the world. But there is still some confusion when it comes to different styles of Taekwondo, and how many of them are there.

Taekwondo has four main styles that are also defined as separate organizations: Traditional style, World Taekwondo, ITF style, and ATA style.

Keep reading this article to learn all about the different styles of Taekwondo. We will bring you closer to how these differ from one another in various aspects and provide you with many unique pieces of information.

What is Taekwondo?

Taekwondo is a martial art developed in South Korea in the 1950s as a military combat system. Most people know TKD as a system that puts a lot of emphasis on fast and powerful kicks, which are the primary weapons. It also includes hand strikes, but these are not as important as kicks.

In 2000, TKD variation debuted at the Olympic Games hosted in Sydney, Australia, and it has been a part of the games ever since.

In order to better understand why there are so many Taekwondo styles, you must take a closer look at its history and development.

The history and development of Taekwondo

The story of Taekwondo began shortly after the end of World War 2. At the time, new martial arts schools or “kwans” started opening up in Seoul and all across South Korea. The founders of most schools were martial artists trained in various Northern Chinese styles and Japanese arts such as karate. Each of these kwans used to have its own principles and teaching methods.

This mix of styles practiced between the 1940s and 1950 is what most people believe is the first and original taekwondo style.

In the 1950s, the Korean military was in search of a new combat system that would improve the fighting abilities of its soldiers. The main in charge of the project was the Army officer, Choi-Hong-hi. His initial step was to engage all major kwans (schools) in the creation of the unified Korean martial art. So instead of each one teaching their own style, kwans have united to create a single style.

Gen. Choi Hong-Hi
(Photo Credit: ITF)

The final result of their work was a combat system called “Tang Soo Do”, which translates to tae (to stomp), su (hand), and do (way or discipline). Few years later, Choi advocated for the name to be changed to “Tae Kwon Do”. The new name translates to — ”The way of the fist and the hand”, a name that is more in line with what the unified style represents as a system.

In the following years, the military would adopt the system as a part of their training. And in 1959, Choi founded the first “Korea Taekwondo Association (KTA)”. However, he wanted all major Kwans to adopt his variations as the only style, which was met with resistance and is the key reason why there are different styles of Taekwondo.

When Choi finally broke from KTA in 1966, he went on to create International Taekwondo Federation (ITF). And this is how different styles began to emerge.

What are the different styles of Taekwondo?

Taekwondo has many styles and even more sub-styles. But overall, there are four main styles: WT, ITF, ATA, and Traditional.

All of these styles teach very much the same techniques, but differ a lot when it comes to emphasis, rules, forms, and many other elements. Here is a detailed explanation:

Traditional TKD style

Traditional style refers to the style practiced during the 1940s by the original nine kwans in Korea. At the time, the term “Taekwondo” hadn’t been used yet, and kwans used various names with the most popular being Tang Soo Do:

  • Kong Soo Do
  • Tae Soo Do
  • “Tang Soo Do”

In terms of techniques and teaching methods, the traditional style is often seen as the hardest one, and it is very similar to Shotokan karate. In fact, it shares the same principles of mixing kicks with punches as Shotokan, but it slightly favors kicking techniques over punches. 

It entirely focuses on the self-defense aspect of fighting and training a person for a real fight. Through hard training, they learn all about the physical and mental aspects of fighting. When it comes to techniques, the emphasis is on the following:

  • Fast and powerful kicks
  • Direct punching techniques
  • Elbows and knees inside the clinch
  • Basic elements of grappling such as trips and throws

The methods of teaching are not standardized as each kwan had its own concept and rules.:

  • Forms (patterns) consist of pre-arranged attacks similar to katas in karate.
  • Breathing exercises (meditation)
  • Intense physical workouts which include body-weight exercises
  • Hard sparring

An important thing to note is that the traditional style does not have any competition or rules.

International Taekwondo Federation (ITF)

ITF style of Taekwondo emerged when one of the main founders, general Hong Hi Choi, broke from Korean Taekwon-Do Association (KTA) to form his own variation of the system. ITF is also known as Chang-Hong-style and it was founded in March 1966, seven years after KTA.

ITF is more in line with the traditional style, it primarily focuses on self-defense training. There is competition if you want to test your skills, but it is not as important as in other styles. Students learn how to use all limbs as weapons in a fight and advanced self-defense tactics.

There are 24 patterns (katas) in the official ITF. All patterns relate to 24 hours a day, and each pattern’s name refers to important events in Korean history or important figures.

When it comes to rules, ITF is similar to World Taekwondo (WT). The only major difference is that ITF enables you to attack the head using hand strikes. However, punches to the head are not allowed for kids 10 years of age or younger. And, sparring is not continued as the action resets after each point. 

In tournaments, the point-scoring works as follows:

  • 1 pointfor landing a direct hand strike to the torso, or head with both feet off the ground, or kick to the midsection.
  • 2 points — kick to the high-section, mid-air hand attack with both feet off the ground, jumping mid-section kick
  • 3 pointsjumping kick to the high section.

When it comes to patterns, contestants below the black belt perform one pattern appropriate to their rank. Black belts, on the other side, perform two patterns. They receive up to 10 points based on different factors such as technique, speed, balance, power, and expression of energy.

ITF Black Belt Patterns

American Taekwondo Association (ATA)

ATA was founded by Haeng Ung Lee, a former Taekwondo instructor in the Korean military. In 1969, he migrated to Omaha, Nebraska, where he opened a couple of schools. The same year, he founded the “American Taekwondo Association.”

ATA students study “poome sae” patterns which consist of defensive and offensive techniques. Each technique is designed to prepare a person for self-defense scenarios they may encounter in real life. Each pattern includes different kicks, punches, and combinations. 

ATA also includes sparring, similar to the one in World Taekwondo (WT) where punches to the head are not allowed. Unlike other styles, students also spar with padded sticks to simulate weapons.

Kukkiwon / World Taekwondo (WT)

In 1973, World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) got established by the main governing body, KTA. The main task of WTF was to promote the new academy named “Kukkiwon” and their new unified style of Taekwondo. The name would later be changed to “World Taekwondo (WT),” which is also known as “sports Taekwondo.” This style is the only recognized style by the Olympic Committee.

Most modern WT schools put a lot of focus on competition and preparing you to win matches following a point-fighting system. Students learn how to use all types of fast and precise kicks, strike the upper body area below the neck and mix it with fast footwork to win points. There is little to no self-defense training.

The point-fighting rules are as follows:

  • 1 point — for a punch to the trunk protector
  • 2 points — for a kick to the trunk protector
  • 3 points — for a kick to the head
  • 4 points — for a turning/spinning kick to the trunk protector
  • 5 points — for a turning/spinning kick to the head
Karate vs. Taekwondo: Key Differences And Similarities

Full Comparison of Taekwondo Styles

Following is a detailed comparison of all major styles of Taekwondo:

HistoryOriginal style practiced between the 1940s and 1950sFounded in 1966 by Army officer Choi Hong-Hi in South Korea. Founded in 1969 by Haeng Ung Lee in Omaha, Nebraska, US. Founded in 1973 by KTA. 
PunchesAllows punches to the face and mid-sectionAllows punches to the face and mid-section but not with full power (semi-contact)Allows punches to the face and mid-section but not with full power (semi-contact)Punches are allowed only to the midsection. No punches to the face. 
SparringOne-step sparring in most schools.
One student will throw an attack while the other one defends, and then they will do it the other way around. 
Sparring is not continuous as the match resets after each successful point. Continuous sparring with the emphasis being on technique and precision rather than power. Continuous sparring with kicks, punches, and blocks.
More emphasis on counter-attacks than blocks. 
EmphasisSelf-defense and real combatSelf-defense and CompetitionA mix of self-defense and competitionCompetition (Olympics)
Olympic styleNoNoNoYes, since 2000. 
GearDobok Uniform, Head gear,
Foot gear,
Hand gear,
Mouth guard, Groin cup (for men)
Dobok uniform,
Forearm pads,
Chest protector, Shin guard,
Mouth guard,  Groin cup (for men),
Breast protectors (for women)
Dobok uniform, Head gear,
Chest protector, Gloves,
Feet protector, Mouth guard
Chest protector,
Shin pads,
Arm pads,
Mouth guard,
Foot pads,
Groin cup (for men), Breast protectors (for women)
Taekwondo Belt Ranking System – EASILY Explained For Beginners

Related Questions

Which style of Taekwondo is best for self-defense?

ITF is widely regarded as the most effective style when it comes to self-defense. The traditional form known as “Tang Soo Do” is also practical, but it is not as widely used in modern times as ITF.

ITF is in line with traditional methods of training, and it focuses entirely on real fighting, and its self-defense program is more than practical. Though there is competition, it is not as important as in other styles. And, all students, regardless if they compete or not, must do self-defense drills in classes.

In training, students learn how to use all types of kicks as the main weapon. They also practice closed or open-hand attacks, fundamentals of grappling, dealing with multiple attackers, and many other valuable skills. Apart from techniques, they also learn how to stay calm in an intense situation, assess the situation they are in, and make rational decisions.

WT and ATA styles are not as practical for self-defense due to the emphasis on competition. Instead of learning how to fight, the main goal is to develop skills that you can use to win matches in tournaments.

Which Taekwondo style is the best for competing?

World Taekwondo (WT) is the best form if you want to train Taekwondo to compete and become a champion. WT is the only style recognized and used in the Olympics, and it is also known as a “sports” form.

Most modern schools emphasize competition over other aspects so finding a WT school won’t be hard. In classes, you will learn very much the same punching and kicking techniques as in other styles. But each of these skills is adapted to help you win matches under strict rules, not to fight in real life. You won’t spend much time doing anything else that is not related to competition.

Which Taekwondo style is best for MMA?

Which one is best for MMA really depends on the school you train in, rather than the style itself. All styles of Taekwondo will teach you similar kicks, hand strikes, footwork, and movement and blocks. These styles differ the most when it comes to emphasis and the organizations they represent. But the techniques and the way students carry them out are actually very similar.

In modern times, many schools have weak criteria and focus on producing as many black belts as possible. Therefore, they promote their business as a place where you reach the highest rank in a short time span. But this comes at a certain price. Yes, you will earn a black belt in less time than in other schools, but you will also be less skillful.

Certain elements of Taekwondo work well in MMA as long as you have proper skills. Regardless of the style, a good school will teach you how to execute each move and technique with pinpoint perfect technique in freestyle combat, such as the one in MMA.

You will also develop good reactions, timing, and ability to read the opponent’s reactions, and overall, learn how to apply all of the techniques in a real fight.

What style of taekwondo is in the Olympics?

Kukkiwon, a style overseen by World Taekwondo (WT), is accepted as an official style used in the Olympic Games. The sport first made its demonstration debut as an Olympic sport in 1988 at the games hosted in Seoul, South Korea, and the second time in Barcelona, Spain, in 1992. Finally, it debuted as an official Olympic sport in 2000 at the Sydney Games hosted in Australia.