Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Some thoughts on stances...

Neko Ashi Dachi
(Cat stance)
I’ve been thinking a lot about stances recently. I like to see good stances: correct feet positioning, strong bend of the correct knee (or knees), correct weight distribution, good back posture, head held up looking forward etc. Good stances look strong and stable.

Beginners find stances difficult to master; they generally lean too much with their upper torso, don’t bend their knees enough, have their feet in a line, have incorrect weight distribution or look down at the floor. I’ve been there; it’s hard to get it right or for it to feel natural. It takes a long time and a lot of practice to get stances right and even longer to get the transitions from stance to stance smooth and quick.

A lot of people would argue that stances are for beginners or that they slow you down or are just too unnatural to be useful in real self-defence situations. I would beg to differ.

Stances are an essential part of achieving economy of movement when doing self-defence. Economy of movement is essential if you are to move swiftly around your opponent, getting yourself into advantageous positions to apply a technique, unbalance them or evade a strike. Good footwork is essential to achieving this; if you teeter around your opponent with lots of small steps, getting your legs crossed and generally wrong footing yourself you are likely to come a cropper.

Good use of stances helps you to:

…Shift your weight smoothly and quickly from one leg to the other as required.

…Maintain your own balance and stability by keeping your centre of gravity low but your posture upright.

…Unbalance your opponent either by directly using the stance to destabilise a balance point e.g. placing your knee directly behind theirs using a zenkutsu dachi (forward stance) or shiko dachi (sumo or horse stance) or more indirectly by using weight transference e.g. grabbing them and stepping back into a kokutsu dachi (back stance) or neko ashi dachi (cat stance).

…Quickly put yourself in the most advantageous and stable position to execute a restraint, takedown or throw.

…Move out of the way quickly and effortlessly if required.

Zenkutsu Dachi
(Forward stance)
Karate pays a lot of attention to stances. Most karateka will have spent many hours of their training going up and down the dojo in shiko dachi or neko ashi dashi with sensei picking up on the smallest postural transgression –“bend your knee more”, “stick your bottom in”, “turn your back foot in more”, “turn your back foot out more”, “put your weight back more”, “put your weight forward more”…….

It can all seem so picky sometimes and people will question the wisdom of needing to be so precise with your footwork and postures. After all, if you are attacked would it matter if you weren’t in the perfect cat stance?

Well, yes it would matter if cat stance was integral to the technique you were trying to execute on your assailant. If your technique depended on you suddenly shifting your weight backwards, pulling your opponent off balance whilst allowing your front foot to follow through quickly with a swift snap kick and then be able to spring forward off the back leg to land a punch; then being able to instantly get into a perfect cat stance may be crucial. Failure to achieve it may leave you unable to pull your opponent off balance and with too much weight on your front leg you won’t be able to kick effectively either and if your back leg is too straight you may not be able to spring forward for that punch – that could all lead to disaster!  

Stances are more than just good footwork, they involve the whole body. Good upright posture is crucial to a good stance. Without good posture you cannot engage the core muscles properly and without the core muscles engaged you cannot get any power in your strikes. Also, with poor, bent over posture you are liable to lose your own balance and be easily pulled over by your opponent.

Stances aren’t always an integral part of a technique; sometimes the situation may require you to be lighter and quicker on your feet. Evasion may be more important than getting a technique on your opponent. The art of tai sabaki (body movement) is an exercise in good stance work, except this time the stances are higher and lighter allowing quicker movements. Tai sabaki still involves attention to posture, feet positioning, weight transference and good transitioning so it is still stance work even if you don’t choose to call it that.

Shiko Dachi
(Horse or sumo stance)
I really feel that we neglect stance training at our peril. Without good stances our techniques will be weak and our movements clumsy. When you watch a senior black belt in action the thing that really stands out more than anything else is the way they move – it is precise and effortless. This is because of their use of stances; they always put their feet in exactly the right place with their weight distributed correctly and their posture upright and it all flows so smoothly and naturally.

So if your own or your student’s stances are poor and their movements clumsy get back to some formal stance training – up and down the dojo until their thighs ache; you’re actually doing them a big favour….

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Rick Matz said...

Stance work is a training method.

Charles James said...

Stances lead to kamae .... I have witnessed more often than not a bypassing of proper stance training and practice for the rapid need to hit the fun stuff .... too bad.

I believe stances are to be natural while the deeper stances in fundamentals is more a strengthening posture where at a later stage the assumption of stances for transitional purposes is assumed in a more "natural state" to the body, body type and the individual.

It is a natural progression and is too often overlooked as not essential .... assuming that if you can get close your ok ..... not.

But then again, I am not a MMA master so what do I know about fighting ..... :-)

Charles James said...

I do so much enjoy your posts Sue, thanks.

Sue C said...

Rick, stance work SHOULD be a training method - I think it can get overlooked sometimes though or its importance not fully appreciated.

Charles, a lot of people share your view about natural vs deep stances but I actually think that deep stances have their place in self-defence too - depends how you're being attacked I suppose. Thank you for your kind comment;)

Rick Matz said...

"Charles, a lot of people share your view about natural vs deep stances but I actually think that deep stances have their place in self-defence too - depends how you're being attacked I suppose. Thank you for your kind comment;) "

If attacked by someone that short, I'll use my dwarf-tossing waza.

Sue C said...

Rick, I didn't mean you'd need a deep stance because your attacker is small! I know you were probably just being facetious but I can think of several scenarios where a deep stance may be required. You have to remember that I think of self-defence scenarios from a female perspective i.e. I think of attacks as being mainly grabs - wrists or bear hugs 'cos they are for women. Some of the escapes I know require big shifts in weight to unbalance an attacker.

The Strongest Karate said...

I dunno. I am a little torn on the concept of "stance practicality".

I can agree that they are excellent for muscular training and the burn is great for mental training, too.

But I have yet to come across a situation in sparring in which I have "fallen back" into a deep stance, even momentarily, before executing a technique.

I hasten to add that I am merely a 6th kyu, though. And I'm not egotistical enough to believe that my experience is the full measure of Karate.

Still, good reading Sue. It's always refreshing to read a differing point of view.


R. William Ayres said...

I have read another martial arts blogger describe stances, and kata in general, this way: in a "real fight", you don't do things exactly as you do in kata. You do the same basic things, just "rounded off". But only by doing them "properly" do we teach our muscles what to do when we need to be fast and right. Stances are a training method. People who dismiss them generally think they can find a shortcut - but as any expert in any field will tell you, there are no shortcuts. Master pianists do scales; we do stances!

Sue C said...

Brett, I can't imagine using deep stances during sparring either but then I wasn't talking about sparring I was talking about self-defence training and in my karate style these are two very different beasts. However, I suspect you give more attention to the stances you use during sparring than you realise otherwise you will be wrong footing yourself all the time.

William, there are definitely no short cuts in karate. You can tell people who ignore stance training, they are just clumsy and awkward in their techniques.

R. William Ayres said...

Another useful point (stolen from a better martial artist than I am) - we think of sparring as "more real", but sparring isn't really a realistic model of self-defense. It's not all-out, it has rules. In particular, one of the rules in sparring is NOT to get away - whereas in self defense, that's the primary goal. Watch a few street fight videos on YouTube; for the most part they don't look anything like sparring matches (opponents stalking each other, trading blows in a clash then withdrawing, etc.) I love sparring, but we can't hold it up as the "highest ideal of realism".

John Coles said...

Just finished redrafting chapter six: Stance and Motion. It's interesting reading your blog and the posted comments. It's interesting because my chapter informs on the blog and comments and provides information that better informs the discussion.

Sue C said...


Sparring is certainly not a realistic model of self-defence the way we do it, it's purely a sport. I know that some forms of sparring are a little more realistic than the way we do it but they are still very rule bound and focused on winning rather than escaping.

Are you planning to write a blog post about stances - an extract from your chapter perhaps?

Journeyman said...

Some good discussion Sue, and I like the new look.

I've had a love/hate relationship with traditional stance work for quite some time. A bit less love, truth be told.

I think there is value in stance work. Who can argue that learning balance, movement and power generation isn't useful. As mentioned, it's also good exercise.

My current position on stances? You use a stance in every technique you use. In my own study, I utilize mainly high stances, favoring mobility and flexibility most of the time. Having said that, all the basics of the deep, more traditional stance work still apply, whether we consciously register it or not. In your observation, you mentioned that you'd likely end up crossing your feet if you didn't have the basics down. Very true.

Overall, I think stance work has its merits. It was important to note (as it was in comments) the differences between self defense and sparring.

My caution with deep stances (and anything practiced over and over) is to not so deeply ingrain the deepness of the stance into the brain so that it becomes automatic. Practicing high and low stances and applying different ones to self defense drills will hopefully provide the balance (no pun intended) needed to prevent an automatic deep stance response when you really needed to get the heck out of Dodge!

I enjoyed the discussion, thanks.

Sue C said...

Journeyman, everyone seems to have a love/hate relationship with stances! In my limited experience of jujitsu whenever I was being taught a throw, especially variations of hip throws and half shoulder throw, I was always being told to bend my knees more and keep my feet closer together. In my opinion this was a 'deep stance'. It seemed to me that deep stances were used a lot in jujitsu or was this just because I was a beginner? Do experienced jujitsuka execute throws with their legs straighter? It seemed to me that the point was to get your weight lower than your opponents centre of gravity if you wanted to throw them so I thought that deep stances were a requirement in jujitsu? However, like I say, I'm a novice in jujitsu - and I'm playing Devil's advocate a bit here as well ;)

Journeyman said...


When I think deep stances, I think horse stance, back stance and forward stance. I don't really think of getting low for a throw as a stance, but you're right, it is. A throw is a bit of a misnomer anyway, as it's more like a controlled fall, with you as the thrower being the one controlling your opponent's fall.

And some 'classical' styles of Jiu Jitsu do indeed have deeper stances in their techniques.

My issue remains with walking up and down the dojo in deep stances. I'm still not one hundred percent sold...

Thanks for being so devilish...

Sue C said...

Journeyman, I'm sure there's no real purpose to going up and down the dojo in stances in jujitsu, its very much a karate thing. Being able to move quickly and cleanly from stance to stance i.e stance transitions is a really important skill in karate and the leg strength built up by this type of training is really important to enable you to shift your body weight around quickly. Plus going up and down the dojo becomes excruciating after a while so its good for building/testing mental strength too - important if you're into the 'do' aspects of martial arts:-)

Unknown said...

Great Blog my friend, congratulations from:

Sue C said...

Thanks Oz - I'll check out your blog


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