Thursday, December 1, 2011

Taking a Stance. Or not.

“Sink down”
“Knees over toes”
“One strike, one kill”

These are only a few of the things that have been drilled into me over the years when it comes to stances and stance work. 

I’ve been told stances should be the core of your martial repertoire, that it is the source of all your power.  It’s the foundation the house is built upon, that sort of thing.

Eventually, I programmed myself to always use deep, powerful stances.  This led to me having powerful technique.  There was no denying that.

Over time, I realized that while my technique was powerful, I only really got one shot at it.  I was sacrificing a great deal of mobility in the process.  If my first technique missed or didn’t work out as planned, I was very limited in my follow up.  I was essentially stuck in the deep stance and didn’t have a lot of options left. 

One of my theories on combat is that your first attempt at a technique probably isn’t going to work out as planned in a real confrontation (and sometimes your second, or even you third…). 

You must adapt, adjust and go with the flow.  For me, deep stances were hampering my ability to do so.  I had to ‘come back up’ to move on to my next technique.  Equally challenging was getting out of the way of incoming attacks with a moving opponent. 

I study an in close combat style of Jiu Jitsu, and most fights occur in this range.  Deep stances were creating distance between my body and my attackers.  This had the effect of actually hampering my ability to apply many non-striking techniques (joint locks, breaks, take downs, etc.).  They were also negating the advantage that my height gave me in certain situations.

In my opinion, the measure of how effective a martial art will be for real world application and survival is in its ability to create options.  The more you have, the higher the likelihood of emerging victorious, or at least in one piece.  I am willing to sacrifice a bit of power for a few more options and/or escape routes.

I have not abandoned stance work, of course.  Having a balanced stance is necessary for leverage, generating explosive force and for simply moving around and getting out of the way.  After all, Kuzushi (balance breaking), is a central component in most martial arts.  It most certainly is in Jiu Jitsu.

I now believe high stances are the most effective for most situations in real combat.  A proper high stance gives you decent power, good balance, speed, and high mobility.  It makes you more adaptable and gives you more options. 

There are still times where a deep powerful stance is beneficial, and some situations and techniques warrant their use, but in general, I opt for the flexibility of the higher stance. 

The mobility that a higher stance gives you reduces your need to meet force with force, something that has become more important the longer I have studied martial arts.  It is easier and safer to use your opponents speed and momentum against them, which is a central concept in the so called “gentle” arts.

Along this line of thought, it’s better to be like water than to meet force with force.  Water moves around, under or even over an obstacle, instead of meeting it head on.

The same applies to the example of the willow tree and the mighty oak.  In a violent storm, the rigid limbs of the mighty oak are often snapped and broken, unwilling to yield to the power of the elements.  The willow, however, yields, adjusts and moves, and by doing so, remains unscathed.

There are trade offs and advantages to both high and low stances.  It is about finding the balance of what works best for you and what provides the greatest chance of success in surviving a violent encounter.

Food for thought.


  1. good post. i, too, have come to see benefits in a higher stance, and in most cases power can be generated still (a high sanchin can still anchor you well). however, i find most katas are still rigid when it comes to stance work, and it often conflicts my thoughts on the matter.

  2. Very thoughtful and insightful post. Stance work is obviously very important in karate kihon training, you learn a lot about good foot and body positioning,balance, weight transference and economy of foot movement. However, even Funakoshi said that deep stances were for beginners and that advanced karateka learnt to adopt higher more natural stances, so I think your insights are correct.

  3. jc,

    Kata is an area for conflict for me as well. I see the benefits somewhat but struggle with learning something I have very little confidence in. Interestingly, see Sue's comment.


    Thanks for commenting. As I mentioned to jc, I see some benefits in kata work, but it's nice to learn about Funakoshi's comments on the subject. I suspect in some systems, some of the subtlety or deep understanding may have been lost.

  4. Nice post!

    I agree...options are the key.

    Kata and stance training are a big part of Okinawa Kenpo Karate. My instructor would explain that we train the range of stances so we had the ability to work everything in between. Learning weight distribution, shifting and balance would be a benefit in a confrontation.

    During the two years when I took Tai Chi, the stances were upright and the movement yielding. Initially, I struggled with this concept but eventually recognized the value in both approaches.

  5. Michele,

    It must have been interesting shifting your focus for the time you took Tai Chi. I similarly struggled with opposing concepts when I first starting cross training in Kali and Escrima, which are far more offensive than defensive.

    Eventually I came to realize the value in both approaches as well. I did need to figure out what I was most comfortable with, regardless of style. This way, I'm not training in a manner that conflicts with my beliefs on combat effectiveness. I did find I needed to explore each approach with an open mind before I either adopted something new or threw it away.