Kickboxing is a full- and semi-contact combat sport that developed in Japan and America during the 50s, 60s, and 70s. It has since grown into a massively popular worldwide sport, often televised and practiced by millions of people. It has become so popular, in fact, that it morphed into an easily accessible non-contact form for cardiovascular fitness, cardio kickboxing.

There are many types of kickboxing, but the most dominant types globally come out of muay thai and full contact karate. While both styles have significant differences, they generally follow similar progressions in terms of when and what techniques are trained by beginner to advanced kickboxers. Since the karate-based kickboxing styles seem to be more prevalent, this article will focus on developing belt level syllabi, but everything can be translated to a muay thai curriculum as well.

Belt Levels in the Kickboxing Curriculum

Even if you come from a kickboxing background that didn’t use belts to track skill progress, you still want to consider adding a belt system to organize your instruction inside your own gym.

Like many martial arts, kickboxing curricula can be easily chopped up into manageable developmental chunks in the form of colored belt ranks. Because kickboxing isn’t based around katas, forms, or other memorized movement sequences, the belts represent a phase of acquisition for basic and advanced techniques and skills for fighting.

While each organization and gym might have slightly different belt progressions, kickboxing typically follows a belt progression like this:

  1. White Belt
  2. Red Belt
  3. Yellow Belt
  4. Orange Belt
  5. Green Belt
  6. Blue Belt
  7. Purple Belt
  8. Brown Belt
  9. Black Belt (1st – 10th dan/degree)

Some Japanese kickboxing organizations will represent higher black belt grades (5th to 10th dan) with alternating black and red or red and white belt patterns, like the belts used for high “dan” belt ranks in Kodokan judo and some Japanese karate styles.

The Kickboxing Grading Syllabus

A kickboxing curriculum is a combination of a syllabus of every defined skill level, lesson plans built off of that guidance, and any other documentation on training progression (including modalities such as mittwork and bagwork). 

The syllabus is the most central piece of the curriculum, so in this section we’ll explore how you might structure yours.

White Belt & Red Belt

  • Punching Techniques
    • Straight punches (jab & cross)
    • Uppercuts
    • Hooks
  • Kicking Techniques
    • Front kicks
    • Round kicks
    • Skipping/Sliding kicks
    • Shin kicks (depending on rules)
  • Defense Techniques
    • Shelling
    • Parries
    • Outside elbow blocks
    • Knee block

Yellow Belt & Orange Belt

  • Punching/Arm Techniques
    • Elbow strikes (depending on rules)
    • Back fist
    • Spinning back fist
  • Kicking Techniques
    • Knee Strikes (depending on rules)
    • Jumping front kicks
    • Ax kicks
    • Hook kicks
  • Defense Techniques
    • Forearm blocks
    • Rolling
    • Slipping
    • Inside elbow blocks

Green Belt & Blue Belt

  • Arm Techniques
    • Jumping punch/superman punch
    • Downward elbow strikes (depending on rules)
  • Kicking Techniques
    • Drop sweep (depending on rules)
    • Spinning hook kick
    • Spinning heel kick
    • Spinning round kicks/tornado kick
  • Defense Techniques
    • Foot sweeps (depending on rules)

Purple Belt & Brown Belt

  • Arm Techniques
  • Kicking Techniques
    • Turning side kick
    • Jump spinning hook kick
    • Jump side kick
    • Jump spinning back/side kick
    • Spinning crescent kicks
  • Defense Techniques
    • Inside crescent kick

Kickboxing Black Belt Requirements

Black belt grading requirements vary from gym to gym, but it typically requires a background of amateur competition, display of competence with the formal syllabus of offensive and defensive techniques, and a certain amount of time-in-training as a kickboxer over all (e.g., 3-5 years of consistent training).

Generally, grading for a kickboxing black belt is more about demonstrating your ability to win matches, show composure, and go the distance. In other words, you’re showing your mental toughness just as much as your physical skill. This is common in other martial arts styles, too, like karate, taekwondo, judo, and jiu jitsu, where black belt tests can sometimes be 3 or more hours in length.

Secondarily, black belts who are progressing through the “dan,” or degrees, of black belt, might be required to assist coaching as part of their grading requirements. Over time, ranking up as a black belt shifts from how skilled of a competitor you are to how much you give back to the sport through teaching and coaching.

Additionally, black belts (and colored belts also) are sometimes required to know techniques that are not competition legal but are leftover from kickboxing’s karate heritage, including:

  • Palm heel strikes
  • Knife hand strikes
  • Spear hand thrusts
  • Hammer fist strikes
  • Takedowns
  • Joint locks & manipulations

Gyms that have these additional requirements usually maintain a very strong connection with karate as a system and the karate competition circuit, common in the United States and UK due to the prevalence of the sport karate-based kickboxing legacy in those countries.

Official Kickboxing Organization Syllabi

Several national and international kickboxing organizations maintain their own standard syllabi for member clubs to follow for the training and grading of kickboxers. Here are two examples:

The vast majority of clubs establish and maintain their own syllabi and belt ranking systems, however. Most major international kickboxing governing bodies, like WAKO and ISKA, simply promote events and maintain competitive rankings. They do not certify belt ranks or require a certain curriculum from their member coaches and fighters.

When Should Kickboxing Students Start Sparring?

The question of when in the curriculum progression kickboxers should start sparring is hotly debated. No two coaches have the same opinion, with one coach advocating for live sparring within the first month of training and others delaying true free sparring until after the first 3-6 months of training. In fact, in programs where a cardio kickboxing class feeds into a contact kickboxing class, it can be up to a year before a kickboxer ever gets to spar.

With proper rules of engagement and attentive coaching, it’s both possible and preferable to start sparring immediately – or as close to immediately as possible. Many coaches will raise concerns about athlete safety, but this is not a real concern if you use the right training methods. Those methods include:

  • Tag/tap contact rules
  • Shoulder and midsection-only matches
  • No hand wraps or headgear, to encourage more controlled striking
  • Longer sparring rounds to incentivize force output moderation

These and other methods are extremely effective and keep your new learners safe. If you start your new kickboxers sparring as soon as they sign up to train, they will have a massive advantage over opponents of the same approximate experience during competition, simply because they have far more sparring experience.

To enhance these methods, foster a positive learning culture where all members take responsibility for the safety (and improvement) of their own partners just as seriously as their own safety. This acts as a further boon against recklessness and potential injury during the early stages of sparring practice.

Conclusion

Designing and implementing a solid kickboxing curriculum doesn’t need to be hard. Start with a detailed syllabus of offensive and defensive techniques required at each rank. Then, put together lesson plans based on those guidelines. Be sure to get students started on sparring early using the safe training methods outlined in the previous section. Finally, execute on this curriculum so that you can test and tweak it by teaching it to real students.

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