Shitō-ryū is a combination style, which attempts to unite the diverse roots of karate. On one hand, Shitō-ryū has the physical strength and long powerful stances of Shuri-te derived styles, such as Shorin-ryū and Shotokan (松涛館), on the other hand Shitō-ryū has circular and eight-directional movements, breathing power, hard and soft characteristics of Naha-te and Tomari-te (泊手) styles, such as Gōjū-ryū (剛柔流). Shitō-ryū is extremely fast, but still can be artistic and powerful. In addition, Shitō-ryū formalizes and emphasizes the five rules of defense, developed by Kenwa Mabuni, and known as Uke no go gensoku (受けの五原則), Uke no go genri (受けの五原理) or Uke no go ho (受けの五法).
- 落花 (rakka, "falling petals"). The art of blocking with such force and precision as to completely destroy the opponent's attacking motion. Examples of rakka are the most well-known blocks, such as gedan-barai (下段払い) or soto-uke (外受け).
- 流水 (ryūsui, "running water or Flowing Water"). The art of flowing around the attacker's motion, and through it, soft blocking. Examples are nagashi-uke (流し受け) and osae-uke (押さえ受け).
- 屈伸 (kusshin, "elasticity or Darting out and in"). This is the art of bouncing back, storing energy while recoiling from the opponent's attack, changing or lowering stance only to immediately unwind and counterattack. Classic examples are stance transitions zenkutsu (前屈立ち) to kōkutsu (後屈立ち) and moto-dachi (基立ち) to nekoashi-dachi (猫足立ち).
- 転位 (ten'i, "transposition or rolling the body by stepping out"). Ten'i is the utilization of all eight directions of movement, most importantly stepping away from the line of attack.
- 反撃 (hangeki, "counterattack"). A hangeki defense is an attack which at the same time deflects the opponent's attack before it can reach the defender. Examples of this are various kinds of tsuki-uke (突き受け), including yama-tsuki (山突き) or Morote Tsuki or Awase Tsuki.
Modern Shitō-ryū styles also place a strong emphasis on sparring. Shitō-ryū stresses speed, and fighting is generally initiated from a higher, more upright stance than Shotokan employs. On the other hand, because the style has so many kata, a great deal of time is spent perfecting any one of its 50 to 60 forms.