There’s an old legend that’s told in the kung fu world from the “old days.”  This story is probably apocryphal, and you know how it plays out:  some young kid comes to an old master and wants to learn kung fu/karate/<insert your martial art of choice here>.  Said old master, to test the boy’s resolve, tells the kid to stand in a horse stance until the length of an incense stick burns out.  This, depending on the story, can be anywhere from 3 minutes to 3 hours.  The kid struggles, in agonizing pain, and at the end of the incense stick’s burn, having proven his worth by not quitting, the old master nods in acceptance and the kid is taken in as his disciple.

Good story, and I’m sure we’ve all heard some version of this and thought about it while we went through our own agonizing stance training. To be honest, I was never a big fan of stance training.  At least not stance training for the sake of getting good at stances.  I know, I know, it’s a necessary process, it’s good for you, etc, etc.  Still, I always thought that I’d rather be doing 20 more pushups than 20 more seconds of stance training.  It took me a while to appreciate stance training.  But in the meanwhile, I always wondered what stance training was really about.  What are the purpose of stances?  Why are they emphasized so much in traditional martial arts?  Is training in it useful anymore, given what we know now from modern sports science and MMA training?  Is it really to “build up leg strength” and “build character”?

Before we begin, I want to first clear up some points regarding terminology.  Every art uses different terms for the stances that are in their system, so before we can intelligently discuss anything regarding stances, I want to make sure we’re all talking about the same thing.  Although I’ll try to address stances as a general concept here, there are a couple of the key ones that we should all be familiar with and that I’ll keep bringing up for illustrative purposes.  So for this reason, let me state them here:

Horse stance. See the Jackie Chan picture above.  There are a number of different versions of this, and depending on who you ask, they’ll give you good reasons for why they do it the way they do it.  Suffice it to say that the commonality in this stance is that the weight of the body is equally distributed between the two legs, you lower your center of gravity below that point that you would be at if you were fully upright, and the balance is strong side to side but not so much front and back.

Bow and arrow stance.  For sake of my typing, I’ll just call this the bow stance for short.  Again, a number of different version are there (are you seeing a trend?) but the most common, well, commonalities are a forwards distribution of weight where one foot and leg is forward of the other and bent, bearing the majority of the weight (up to 90%) and the back leg is straight and locked out, the body is facing forward, and the spine is straight.

OK, so in most martial arts schools, the standard explanation for why we do stance training is that it’s to build leg strength, that it builds character in the trainee as they learn to grit their teeth through the pain of the training, and that the stances are used in the forms and therefore to do the forms well you must learn the stances well.  I’ll submit to you that while these statements are all very true, they are also very incomplete and unsatisfying.  If I wanted to build leg strength, I can do leg presses or run stairs or a million other leg specific exercises that Olympic athletes have been doing for a century that we know specifically targets the leg muscles.  If I wanted to build character in someone by using strenuous physical exercise, why these exercise?  Why wouldn’t doing a hundred burpees do the same thing?  What about running 5 miles with a rucksack, like they do in the army?  And yes, it’s completely true that forms use stances, but saying so doesn’t answer why.

I myself have gotten these same answers from some people I’ve trained with, and I was never satisfied with these replies.  It took me a while – by way of a number of excellent instructors and a lot of studying, pondering, and experimenting – but here’s my take on why we train stances, why we need to train stances, and why training stances is NOT something that goes away with the advent of modern sports science and martial sports.

I would describe my findings in this way:

  1. stances are natural and everywhere
  2. stances are all about structures – to develop balance and power.
  3. stances are either transitionary or punctuations
  4. stance training is like a manual, stance usage is like driving.

First of all, we need to understand that stances are NOT unique to the martial arts.  Boxers have stances.  Baseball players have stances.  So do cops when they are arresting you, farmers when they’re bailing hay, and cooks when they’re chopping celery.  A stance is simply a positioning and posturing of your body that is the most optimal in terms of biomechanical effectiveness and efficiency in order to do some kind of action.  Sometimes they’re explicitly taught – consider the Weaver stance that some shooters teach you to shoot a pistol for maximum balance, accuracy and safety.  Others are never explicitly taught, but the human body – and by extension you – simply figures it out because that’s the best way to do something.  Try pushing a car in neutral and nearly anyone who does this will adopt a very similar looking body position.  Even something as non-martial and totally everyday like picking up a baby and vacuuming your living room will have some optimal way that’ll make that action easy to execute and put less strain on your body, take the least of amount of energy to perform, and give you the best control over your actions.  So there is nothing special to the idea of training stances.  What is different is that martial arts systems the world over have figured out a small number of body positions that occur again and again when executing fighting movements and distilled them down to a small set of templates.  The reason we train the stances is that when you perform a martial movement or execute a martial technique, your body will inevitably make use of certain biomechanical leverages that work the best when your body is positioned in a certain way.  Given that there are a zillion positions and angles and combinations of techniques you can execute, it doesn’t make sense to practice each and every one individually.  However, if you can train your body to “lock into” certain positions automatically, and align your structure in such a way as maximize your power and mechanical efficiency, then whatever technique you execute that’s appropriate for that posture should turn out successfully.

Second, stances are ultimately about structure.  Many people think that stance training is about the legs, but it’s really about the entire body.  If you consider the first points – that it’s a natural aspect of human motion – then it makes sense that all of this is true because of the way different stances make use of the entire body.  Take a look at the different stances that exists in different systems.  Heck, look even in the ways the stances are used in the myriad of positions and movements in a single style.  Combine the shape the upper body takes and how that connects with the shape the lower body takes, and then consider what the movement is for and how the forces and loads involved in that technique would distribute themselves.  A person with an engineering or physics background would be able to tell you that the forces and loads have to balance out somehow.  Whether you’re punching, throwing, pushing, pulling – the action and reaction forces have to somehow balance out between you and the opponent such that you remain standing and the other person receives the brunt of the energy that you’re generating.  Like a cannon with a solid base, or a bulldozer with strong wide tracks, you need to have a strong base to be able to generate a lot of power and direct the energy outward without toppling over yourself.  The stronger your stances, the better your chance that you’ll be able to execute a technique without the force of that technique rebounding and injuring yourself.

A corollary to the idea of structure and balance is that stances will allow you to develop power.  The human body is the strongest when it uses all the muscles and skeletal structure behind a motion.  And how do we normally move our entire body?  With our legs.  We’re bipedal creatures living in a gravity well, so we’ve evolved the means to move our entire body by using our legs.  If we can therefore coordinate this motion with the other muscular parts of our body, and link up our disparate bodily components in such a way as to absorb and distribute forces in an efficient way, then you have now learned to maximize your body’s power output.  The first and last steps in this is by using your stances.  As the next section will show, the best way to effect this power is by moving through stances and ending with stances.

By the way, I’ll come back to this idea of structure and balance and linkage in a future post.  I’m not giving this topic it’s justice in this post because frankly, it’s a massive topic in and of itself.  It’s the thing martial artists spend years training and studying and it’s the “secret” to all the magic and mystery that you’ve heard masters are purported to be able to do.  Not that I know how to do all those cool things – but once you understand the concept behind it, you’ll be blown away by how simple and world shatteringly deep it is.  I was.

OK, third, stances exist only in two forms – either as transitory positions you move through, or a punctuation mark that you end or complete some movement with.  Many a times questions have come up from practitioners where they ask “we do and practice these stances in class, but in sparring or a real fight, I never see these things.”  I’ll address this more fully in the next section, but first you gotta understand that you never really fight from a stance.  You fight through a stance.  Even the famous boxing fighting stance – roughly 70/30% weight distribution back to front, body angled slightly at about 45%, hands up and in front, elbows down, heads slightly tipped down and chin tucked – if you ever watch a real boxing match, nobody actually maintains this stance for more than 5 seconds.  Once the combatants start to move, this position is something they try to get to during neutral moments, but while things are moving, they transit through this position while they step, or while they dodge a hit, or while they scamper.  They move through this position, locking into it for a split second before launching their own attack, or moving into them for a split second to prime themselves to maneuver to another position or location.  Consider the right cross.  it may not look like the typical martial arts bow and arrow stance, but if you use a high speed camera and examine the movement frame by frame, you will find one frame , most likely at or about when the punch makes contact with the opponent’s face, that the boxer will have a body posture similar to a traditional bow stance.  Again, the stance and positioning is a natural facet of human motion.  What about the punctuations?  Well, it’s a punctuation if that was your knockout blow.  But if you have to continue to move because the fight ain’t over, well then clearly you’re moving through stances again.

Finally, stance training is like a driving manual, and stance usage is like driving on the highway.  Actually, I think of this analogy to apply to forms and kata training as well (topic for a future post).  The idea is this:  the stances and postures and forms give you a template of what the action should look like.  You can’t really train for all possible scenarios or positions of a real fight.  What you do train are a general set of movements that are relatively universal, so that your body is already trained to move effectively when your mind adapts to different situations.  The textbook versions of the stances are what they tell you in the driving manual – keep 3 car lengths between you and the car in front of you while driving.  But in reality, we’ve all tailgated and driven close enough to read the bumper stickers – that’s real fighting.  You’ll adapt and adjust when the rubber really meets the road.  But when you’re learning to drive, you always learn by the book.  Same things goes for martial arts training.


Filed under: Some Fundamentals...The BodyTraining the Mind and Body

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