The Purpose of Forms in Tang Soo Do (Karate)

In part 3 of this series on the purpose of Tang Soo Do, I will be discussing the reasons for doing forms.  Previously in part 2, I went over the purpose of basic techniques and forms is the logical next step. When you look at them, forms are just a pre-arranged set of basic techniques.  If you dissect a form into small pieces, you get just basic techniques.  Sao, a lot of the concepts I introduced in part 2 will also apply here.  However, when you put all of those pieces together, you get so much more.  That is what part 3 will focus on.

From an outsider’s view, next to basics, forms look like the most useless activity for training someone to learn combative skills.  For some, karate forms look like a dance with no real application.  I would agree with this assessment if solely based on observation of demonstrations and some tournaments.  Showy flips, spins, and stances 2 inches from the ground are certainly just for show.  However, if you were to watch an instructor teach a traditional forms class you would get a much different picture.  Traditional forms have so much to offer practitioners that are directly applicable to fighting.

The purposes of forms in karate are numerous
Karate forms have many important purposes

If you think that only people outside karate feel that forms have no practical purpose you would be wrong.  I was at a large training event many years ago and a high-ranking master was teaching us forms.  This master commented that the only reason he still does forms was for the artistic and heritage aspect of them.  He would rather just do self-defense.  I was younger at the time (in age and rank) so I took this in but did not embrace it fully.  Looking back now, after all I have learned, I am a little shocked that he said this.  Anyway, I think the items listed below for why we do forms will clearly contradict that master’s opinion.

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Muscle Memory

As with basic techniques, when you do something over and over again, your body will eventually be able to just do it.  Forms take this to the next level as you are learning to execute sequences of techniques that correspond to a specific self-defense application.  It is important to not only train in forms the traditional way, without a partner, but also to train with a partner doing the applications.  In the Karate Kid Part 3, Daniel is getting his butt kicked by a stronger, more skilled opponent.  Daniel starts doing a form and as his opponent approaches, Daniel executes a hip throw followed by a strike to the grounded opponent.  While this would never happen in a real-life fight or in a tournament, the message is a legit one: practice forms and your body will just take over.

Purpose of forms in karate is not to directly know how to defeat an opponent
Daniel defeating his opponent using forms

Rhythm and Timing 

We are not robots (although I see many students who look like robots when doing forms).  There is an ebb and flow to applying fighting skills.  Some sequences of techniques may need to be done in rapid succession while others need to be done more deliberately.  Forms combine the sequences of techniques within them to provide the practitioner with these skills.  A form is not one giant fight like in the movies.  Forms have several pieces of information that are in follow the same theme.  Think of a form like a blueprint.  You can look at the entire building blueprint to get the scope of the project but when you zoom in on a particular room, you see the details like dimensions, materials, requirements, etc.

Forms teach us to be fluid and not robotic
Forms teach us to be fluid and not robotic


You may think that breathing requires little thinking since we all need to do it to live.  Well, in a combative situation, not knowing how to breathe properly can have a significant impact on your success.  First of all, exhaling when performing a strike will provide more power to said technique.  If you are doing a series of techniques, you need to know how to breathe through all of the techniques, so you are not out of breath.  Also, sharp exhales will tighten the abdomen.  Getting hit without a tight core or while in the process of inhaling will lead to getting the wind knocked out of you.

Learning proper breathing is another purpose of forms in karate
Breathing is an important aspect of fighting taught from doing forms

Techniques Done Fully

Again, as with basic techniques, doing techniques without a partner allows you to do them fully without fear of hurting your partner.  Forms takes this one step further in that you are not just doing a single technique or even a 2–3-part combination, you are doing a full fighting sequence from start to finish, unimpeded.  Throws and takedowns are also incorporated in forms and since there is no partner, you get to perfect the mechanics of the technique before having to modify it to accommodate different types of partners.

Different Fighting Styles Based on Origination

Even though you are doing forms all within your specific style of karate (Shotokan, Tang Soo Do, etc.), each one of those forms teach you different fighting styles since they were created by different people or in different regions.  Some forms were created in Norther China, some in Southern China, and some in Okinawa.  Some forms were created to defend against weapons while some were created quick striking against an unarmed opponent.  One example of this is in the Pyung Ahn forms (Pinan/Heinan).  They were created by Anko Itosu who was a short, strong, stocky guy.  A large part of those forms involves breaking down your opponent’s posture in order to strike them.  So, the Pyung Ahn forms teach you how a shorter person can fight against taller opponents (amongst other things).

Different forms teach different fighting styles for different types of people
Different forms teach different fighting styles for different types of people

Builds Power, Speed, Strength, Balance, and Stamina

When you incorporate all the required elements into your forms and do them with intent, you are improving physically as well.  You get stronger, your balance improves, and your endurance gets better.  Now you could improve these physical attributes by doing exercises, hitting a heavy bag, sparring live opponents, or shadow sparring but by doing forms you are in control and you are improving physically in areas specific to the goal of the form.

Builds Mental Focus

In addition to the physical attributes mentioned above, forms help build mental focus.  Memorizing intricate patterns with numerous details while executing them with power and intensity takes a tremendous amount of focus.  This is the same focus that is required when squaring off against an opponent in combat.

Forms in karate teach mental focus
Forms build the same mental focus required in actual combat

I will end this post with a story.  In Spring 2020 my studio was shut down due to the COVID19 pandemic.  Once we reopened, we were still subject to restrictions and safety measures such as social distancing.  Well, things like sparring and self-defense are fairly dependent on NOT socially distancing.  So, I tasked some of my black belts with creating a form based on all of the self-defense techniques we do at the colored belt level (single/double grabs, chokes, headlocks, bear hugs, etc.).  After a few sessions, they had the first 10 moves (out of 40) completed.  One of the black belts commented that when they did the techniques without a partner, and with full range of motion, the movements looked very similar to those in the forms.  The light bulb went off for him.  Hopefully reading this will cause it to go off for more people.

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