Martial Arts Mindful Charlotte Mason

Low muscle tone: how taekwondo can help with neurodiversity

A taekwondo class may seem THE place for the naturally athletic and sports-gifted…

but maybe it’s an even better place for those who aren’t.




Did you know that taekwondo is an excellent sport and exercise for kids with low muscle tone and other motor challenges?  The format and nature of teaching is helpful in that it offers repetition with consistent structure and organization. (1)


Did you know that improving physical strength and coordination can strengthen mental and cognitive abilities? For example, core strength improves symptoms of dyslexia:

Many, maybe even most, dyslexics can have their symptoms radically reduced through a regime of simple physical exercise.  …the journal Dyslexia published an article… that shows that progress in comprehension increased by almost five times after treatment (physical exercise), progress in reading by more than three times and progress in writing by an extraordinary 17 times. On top of this, the children’s perception of their own happiness, confidence and sporting ability increased by 70%. (5)


Low muscle tone is a condition that occurs alongside ASD, CAS, SPD and other diagnostic groupings of letters. (This is in no way substitution for medical advice. Always check with your healthcare providers.) A child with low muscle tone will have decreased strength, more flexibility (in both muscles and joints) as well as poor endurance.Kids with low muscle tone will fatigue faster than their counterparts, may have a slouched posture and may not have the body awareness of a neurotypical student.  In class it may seem they are acting ‘lazy’, are uninterested and not really trying; this isn’t necessarily the case. (2)


The simple fact is taekwondo will challenge a kid with low muscle tone — but it will also help them with many aspects of low muscle tone. It’s asking them to work on everything that is challenging for them–balance, coordination, focus, posture and endurance.  But doing so in the structured, organized class setting and with short-term and long-term goals builds their confidence and self-esteem.


As parents, we can add in support that continues the momentum of taekwondo class and to assist on the more challenging components.

Like many other parents, I observed and participated in hours upon hours of OT with my son, and our Occupational Therapist took the time to help me transition that to home practice to keep momentum. To help my son in taekwondo, I’m using those tools as well as the principles behind it. (Training in yoga therapy and Asian medicine also help.) Let’s look at ways that family members can support the journey by working on muscular strength and other components of martial arts.


Four ways Taekwondo helps and how we facilitate at home:  Confidence, Core, Endurance and Overall Strength, Memorization of Poomse.  If you have an Occupational Therapist, let them know your child is doing taekwondo.  I bet they’ll be more than happy to help and will have some great ideas.  Here are some ideas and resources I’ve used, many learned from our OTs.


CONFIDENCE: Kids with hypotonia will often have lower self-esteem, and Taekwondo builds self-confidence. As well as working toward a higher belt, homework and mastering a skill in class earns them a sticker or stripe on their belt. Short-term and long-term goals are built into the educational system. And everyone, even a black belt, practices the basics in class. Repetition is for everyone. We can support that at home by giving them time and space to practice if that’s what they want.


CORE work is an important one, especially looking at the results from the study concerning dyslexia.  In taekwondo class, core strength affects everything from balance while kicking and push-ups to punching and sparring.  In everyday life it keeps our posture upright and strong.


One facet of low muscle tone is sometimes not having full awareness of their body, and their body in space.  Giving an awareness of their core can be feedback clothing like Spio suits (ask your OT/PT), or by tying a TheraBand around their stomach so they feel constant gentle pressure to guide their attention there. My son’s OT did this; you want the TheraBand tight like their waistband but not so tight it pinches. (Like anything, you can try it on yourself first to see how it feels.)


A typical taekwondo class involves sit-ups, roll-ups and other activities requiring abdominal strength like holding a leg in the air.  In addition to practicing these movements at home, you can make core strengthening fun. For example,  we make “holding planks” a game, and challenge my son to hold a plank longer than me or my husband.  In the beginning we made sure we won sometimes 🙂 since that wasn’t a fair challenge.  If you have a regular or sensory swing, challenge your kid to sit in it different ways– i.e. on the stomach like superman. Do crab walks and games holding table pose. And any exercise or game that challenges balance will build core strength. For example, standing yoga balance poses build core strength.


I love the Pilates for Kids dvd series.  If my son gets tired of listening to me 🙂 having a dvd he can follow is perfect.  As the parent, if you’ve never done pilates,try the dvd first without them.  Then, if needed, you can play the role of assistant while they follow the dvd, adjusting them in the postures. For example, one exercise is sitting in a chair, feet on the floor, back straight, then lifting one knee, then the other.  A child with low tone may have trouble keeping upright posture while doing this, so try the theraband tied around their waist (no tighter than their pants, we want it tight enough to feel but not so tight it pinches) or keep a hand on their back to remind them to keep the straight spine. With my son I play the cheerleader, help with the movements, do it along with him, and use the pause button when we need a moment to process the information.


Yoga also strengthens the core but goes further in building balance and coordination. There are many, many yoga resources out there for every age, from picture books to dvds to Youtube channels. My favorite colorful, illustrated books for the youngest yogis and yoginis are Good Night Yoga and Good Morning Yoga. Both have corresponding dvds.  Youtube has some fun kids yoga channels–check out Cosmic Kids Yoga if you think having a yoga themed with Moana or Spiderman could be an easy sell.


ENDURANCE and overall strength: this is a hard one. My son was never a good walk-a-long-way kiddo.  We travel a lot and that requires a considerable amount of walking. It has been one of the biggest challenges of traveling. Coming in at the 94th percentile in height, at four he was already so tall it was hard to carry him when he got tired, and he’d grown out of strollers. He didn’t have the arm strength to hold on well for piggy-back rides, so I was that harried, sweaty mom schlepping my four-year-old back to the hotel in the August heat of Budapest. It wasn’t a good look, being sweaty, wrinkled and out of breath along beautiful, history-laden streets and naturally-more-elegant-than-an-American Europeans.


One thing that made walking easier for him was a distraction.  Even as he was growing out of his umbrella stroller, he LOVED to push it and would walk further pushing his own stroller than without something to push.  You’d think that would have been harder, not easier.  After he’d grown out of the umbrella stroller (which was fast because he is SO tall) we’d give him a reason to walk more.  Kiddo, we’re going to Disney World next year.  You have to walk a LOT at Disney.  Let’s get ready to walk at Disney!  That could entice him to work on his endurance. Taekwondo has further built his endurance. Short hikes, walking the dog–my son can be hesitant with these things but making them part of a bigger goal can help motivate him.


Taekwondo sparring is great because a round is 2 minutes and every time there’s a “hit” they break . This gives a bit of a breather as they realign and start again. Those short bursts are good exercise and building blocks to endurance, and while you’re sparring the punching and kicking make for an intense workout.


Taekwondo class is an hour long, but built into the class structure are periods of rest, listening, practicing being still, and watching others. The exercise also alternates between being aerobic and anaerobic.  Kids are getting the full spectrum in every class, and will build overall strength and endurance.


Hand strength: our family’s experience with low muscle tone made us realize that fatigued hand muscles can throw the most wrenches in the engine works of the day. Low muscle tone affects endurance with handwriting, and the neatness and readability as fatigue sets in. TKD builds hand strength and coordination through holding the hands–flat hands, fists, blocks– and then moving them in different ways (up, down, out and in).  For sparring they wear gloves, and it takes hand strength to hold the fist and the glove. Taekwondo push-ups are done with fists, not flat palms, and this further builds finger, hand and wrist muscles.


POOMSE asks the TKD student to memorize a series or pattern of movements, and to execute those movements in space at a steady pace. If you’ve never seen a poomse, it is somewhat like a tai chi form but with stronger, sharper movements. The manual for our school says poomse “gives children self-confidence, mental courage and physical power. All the skills learned such as self-control, perseverance and feelings of self-worth will be transferred to all other aspects of your life.” (Sautel, p. 13) Poomse requires memorization and practice which is excellent exercise for the brain.  Poomse was the first time my son was asked to memorize something and then present it during a test. It gets the gray matter working–studies are showing that memorizing and learning increases neuroplasticity. (4)


Spacial relationships and body awareness in space can be a challenge both in and out of class.  For TKD practice, a target helps the student know where in all this space around us to put a punch, a kick or a block.  I bought one of the TKD kicking targets but it just as easily be something you already have, like a small pillow. I personally find the sound of hitting the target part of the satisfaction–there’s a crisp finality to it, a volume to the contact between foot and kicking target that is an auditory reward for accurate aim.  If they lose their arm in space while punching (meaning their punches don’t have a definite, specific direction) you can put something in their hand that keeps awareness there.  I have Zumba weights that are only a pound and each end is a bright yellow ball. (Fun!) I have him hold those for slow punches or blocks to feel how the arm is moving and to SEE where it’s going. It’s both physical feedback plus a sunny orb to focus on as a visual cue.


Our family has seen how much taekwondo can help. If you’re already in taekwondo or other martial arts, how has it helped you and/or your child?


  3. Sautel, James M. CTI Student Manual. Copyright 2018
  6. Photo by Jakob Owens


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