Revisiting the Sine Wave for Tactical Training

I practice a version of Taekwondo that was exported out of Korea in the mid '50s.

That is, exported out of Korea before the formation of the ITF and WTF. Our patterns are done in long stances, we stress an equal emphasis on feet and hand strikes, and our timing and focus seem straight out of Karate 101 - All that thanks to our Chung Do Kwan lineage.

While attending seminars, another difference that has been pointed out by my ITF brothers is that I have yet to adopt Taekwondo’s new Sine Wave concept. Thus it seems I’m not keyed in on the massive evolution of Taekwondo from the 1960s and onwards.

The Sine Wave concept is one of the core components of a scientific approach modern Taekwondo instructors say defines Taekwondo. It is a power generation tactic which originally relied on a raise of one’s centre of gravity between techniques, ‘cocking’ the striking weapon fully and then dropping it when the strike is delivered. Apparently, a newer version of the Sine Wave exists which requires first a drop, then raise, before the final drop and delivery. It seems between these two, there are further variations that affect the timing and the amplitude of the drop.

A quick search on YouTube will show numerous examples of proponents pumping their legs through their pattern demonstrations; rising and falling whilst emulating sine wave graphs you might find in a tertiary-level physics or maths textbook.

Matching the number of Sine Wave proponents is the criticism of the Sine Wave from both non-Sine Wave Taekwondo practitioners and the wider martial arts community. Looking at a thread from one online forum shows the following general complaints:

  • Dislike for the bounciness and robotic rhythm
  • Affects the stability of the stance
  • Doesn’t really help with the generation of additional power
  • Other ‘hard hitting’ martial arts don’t use such exaggerated motion
  • It slows you down

They are of course right, and wrong.

As a power generation tactic, the Sine Wave can be a legitimate technique that will generate power. How often have we heard the self-defence advice to ‘drop your body’ whilst striking? The body drop stabilises you to the ground and improves the skeletal structure supporting your striking tool.

You can try this - strike a focus mitt with a heel palm whilst dropping your body with the strike. Irrespective of the body dropping perpendicularly to the strike, you strike harder when your body compresses and when a ‘lock down’ your muscles occurs at the point of impact. The effective mass behind your strike consists of your arm connected to your upper body in turn connected through your body core to your legs.

If you had done the same standing upright and relaxed, your strike would have only been driven by arm strength. An arm-only strike would have been disconnected from the rest of the body without muscle ‘lock down,’ and upon impact would have rebounded, sending your upper body backward. Without the drop of your body, your centre of gravity would have been further away from the ground and thus the effective mass behind the strike would have been far less than if you had dropped your body to support your strike.

Beyond this justification for power generation, I think the Sine Wave concept is a brilliant fit for the modern Taekwondo practitioner’s preference for high section and long range kicks. Stretching out for a high kick naturally lifts one side of your hip upwards, elevating your centre of gravity. After delivering such a kick, to drop your centre back down to reengage with upper body strikes requires the very same body drop the Sine Wave concept encourages.

Unfortunately, while the Sine Wave can be a legitimate power generation technique, there are many other power generation techniques that are equally legitimate. I myself drop body weight all the time, though not necessarily for all strikes. The reason is this - my centre of gravity is kept low to the ground anyway, so when lunging forward to gap close, I don’t want the additional rise and drop which slows me down. So while some die hard Sine Wavers might feel badly for my backward ways, I feel I can still pride myself on the speed of linear movement.

From a Traditional Taekwondo perspective, one thing that surprises me is this constant focus on the Sine Wave as a ‘new and improved’ power generation technique. In my curriculum, you don’t need to go very far beyond the basics to feel good hard-style power. To list our main power generation tactics, you have: a linear lunging motion, hip twist or vibration, shoulder rotation, dropping of centre of gravity, raising of centre of gravity (they don’t always go together,) body compression, body expansion, ‘pendulum’ swing, shearing of the arms, and a whipping action.

I think the real challenge for Sine Wave proponents is to stop thinking of the Sine Wave as a be-all-end-all power generation catchphrase. What needs to happen is for proponents to figure out how dropping and raising your centre impacts combat effectiveness vis-à-vis the sophisticated kicks Taekwondo players are renown for. For example, why do boxers bob and weave? They don’t do this to generate power. They bob and weave to make it harder for an opponent to land strikes! They move so they can locate openings! Thinking this way would prompt a person to ask how would a kicker use the Sine Wave to support hand strikes or how will it increase the versatility of close quarter defences?

In the following lists, I overview some advantages of body compression and expansion which are similar mechanics to Taekwondo’s Sine Wave motion. This is a brief description of what our school does in both self-defence and close quarter fighting. For example, when you drop your centre or compress the body, this helps techniques that are improved with gravity, like limb destruction techniques and takedowns. When you rise or expand the body, this may complement techniques like the rising block, an upset punch, or even a head butt.

Body compression and expansion from a Traditional Taekwondo Perspective

(Apex to Trough)
Limb destruction techniques
Trapping of opponent’s hands
Takedowns or joint locks
Reduction of target area

(Trough to Apex)
Rising strikes into face/neck/solar plexus
Use of non-orthodox weapons like headbutt, shoulder strikes

As an example, in a ‘self defence’ scenario, if someone made a grab for my shirt and pulled his arm back to strike, I could respond by striking the opponent’s arm with a downward forearm strike and body drop. As he falters forward I would then rise up and apply an upper block into his neck.

On the other hand, applying the Sine Wave in sparring may prompt proponents to alternate between high and low section attacks using hand and leg combinations. This is as opposed to just relying on kick combinations and then throwing the occasional hand strike.

The body compression and expansion I have mentioned above have been a part of my training ever since I was adopted into this lineage back in the early 90s. But ours isn’t a directive applied to pattern performance. It’s just a skill that complements tactics we use in our training.

My conclusion is that the use of natural body movement and good martial principles has to be at the heart of any solid martial art practice. I know there are always those practitioners overly concerned with the cosmetics of their style. Do you think this has happened with the Sine Wave? Is this why it's been taken to the nth degree?

In conclusion, the Sine Wave is not entirely misplaced, and I see opportunities where it can bring value to a practitioner. Again my own practice includes similar body dynamics; I’ve just chosen not to make too much of a fuss about it.

Note: This article, originally titled "Is the Sine Wave a New Trick for this Old Dog?" was submitted and published in Totally Taekwondo Issue 35 January 2012. This document has been modified July 28 2017 and republished on this blog.

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Rick Matz said…
Shotokan karate was one of the inputs into the formation Chung Do Kwan. Do you find the power generation to be more similar to Shotokan then?
Colin Wee said…
Are you asking me if my power generation is more similar to Shotokan?

In our basic training, and for our beginning belts, and especially when we do line drills ... there is a tendency to not only look like Shotokan, but to draw on some of their fundamental footwork and leg movement.

But that is more prevalent when we are teaching specific movement and a specific way to engage the opponent - which we continue to use against opponents.

However, this kind of movement is not entirely advantageous when it comes to self defence or close quarter or throws. When the opponent is in your face, both legwork and tactics vastly differ from the power generation shotokan uses.

Certainly so when the distance closes and then you find yourself on the floor.

Why do you ask?

David Holland said…
Interesting. I also come from a pre-sine wave ITF offshoot, and it's common for people in my organization to mock the sine wave. You do see the same principle of dropping into a technique in other arts; the boxer's falling step punch, for example. But my issue is with how it's used for every. single. movement, even for sets of "continuous" movements. It does make sense to drop for some techniques, but for other techniques is makes sense to rise upwards, and for other techniques it doesn't make sense to use level changes at all. Proper level changing, like head movement, is something that traditional martial arts seem to lack for some reason.

The way you explain it -- compression vs expansion -- sounds much more realistic. Good post.
Colin Wee said…
David - 'style' is where so many martial arts stumble. In this case, this awful bobbing motion throughout the pattern blatantly applied on all techniques. It is the most ridiculous thing I've seen aside from that bicycle kick from kyokushin. I will defend the level changes, the drop of body weight, plus the rising of body weight - but only if done tactically. And yes, there are those who say that is not sine wave because it doesn't incorporate the whole movement cycle. It's hard to be a proponent when you're dealing with this narrow thinking. LOL. Colin
Yunshen Guo said…
Nice post. I used to do Rhee Tae Kwon Do in Australia and we were always told not to do the bobbing motion like the sine wave. One way to look at it is the bobbing motion is just like having gears that that does not have a fixed axis and moves all over the place, thus torque power is not effective. I think that power generated from the concepts of levers, torque and gears is way more powerful than using the sine wave concept. Also I find that you can rush in and unbalance/control people that try to bob in order to generate power, that is in between techniques before the actual hit, they tend to be vulnerable.
Colin Wee said…
Hi Yunshen - is that for mid to long range sparring bouts? I really think the pumping of the legs makes for more practical sense when the distance decreases and you're working close quarters. But you're right - there's not much sense with level changes at those distances or during gap closing. :-)
Yunshen Guo said…
Hi Colin. I actually think pumping the legs or the sine wave technique makes even less sense in close range combat. I feel that in close range, even more so, power should be generated by rotational force or torque. In many cases the hips is like the gears for generating power and it should not float around. Just think of a lever, the power requires a fulcrum that does not move. There is just not enough time time to bob around in the sine wave in close range. However I think the sine wave concept can be used in mid to long range. In longer ranges moving like the sine wave can be used to close the distance, just like bobbing and weaving which also generates power, not by torque but by movement.

Colin Wee said…
@Yunshen - I think we're talking about the same thing differently. I totally agree with you regarding the power generation from rotational force or torque. But I also think that decreasing height ... basically bobbing and weaving is an excellent tactical skill for close range. Colin

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