It combines combat techniques, self-defense, sport, exercise, and in some cases meditation and philosophy. In 1989, Taekwondo was the world's most popular martial art in terms of number of practitioners. Gyeorugi a type of sparring, has been an Olympic event since 2000.

There are two main branches of taekwondo development, which are not necessarily mutually exclusive:
"Traditional taekwondo" typically refers to the martial art as it was established in the 1950s and 1960s in the South Korean military, and in various civilian organisations, including schools and universities. In particular, the names and symbolism of the traditional patterns often refer to elements of Korean history, culture and religious philosophy. Today, the Kukkiwon, or World Taekwondo Headquarters is the traditional center for Taekwondo in Korea.

"Sport taekwondo" has developed in the decades since the 1950s and may have a somewhat different focus, especially in terms of its emphasis on speed and competition (as in Olympic sparring). Sport taekwondo is in turn subdivided into two main styles; one derives from Kukkiwon, the source of the sparring system sihap gyeorugi which is now an event at the summer Olympic Games and which is governed by the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF).