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How to Make a Front Stance

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The one thing so many people commented upon when I returned home from Japan was that my stances looked like they had been completely overhauled. They were deeper, though not really longer, and I looked and felt more comfortable in them. I believe this increase in stance competence mostly occurred because, as I have written before, here in the US, most basic training is in basic techniques marching up and down the floor. Very few people actually train actively in the fundamentals on a regular basis, breaking techniques down into their component motions and training those motions.

 

Oh, sure, we do that for beginners, but in Japan I found that most classes involved breaking techniques down even when the room was full of 3rd dans. The “Isolation Training” I learned from Katayama Sensei wasn’t for learning a technique. It was for practicing techniques. The more it is performed, the more technical skill develops quickly, in my opinion.

Making excellent stances is a great way to improve not just the appearance of your techniques after you finish a step, it is also a great way to improve your stepping speed and accuracy, your footwork, and to give yourself something to land on when you finish a long, lunging technique.

Stances Are Landing Gears

The most important thing to understand about stances in Karate is what they are for. What is a front stance, specifically? I believe most people have this backwards and think that the front stance is a launching posture from which strong techniques can be thrown forward. When they think of a front stance, they think of steps, reverse punches, and rotational blocks all shooting outward and whirling about them with their firmly rooted feet pushing into the floor to power their legs and hips.

I don’t view them that way except in a limited set of scenarios.

I instead view the front stance as a landing gear. The stance is the position my feet and legs take up to catch me at the end of a movement in which my center of gravity travels in any particular direction. I believe that my legs and feet are serving the same job that the tires and landing struts of an airplane serve as it is coming in for a landing.

Think about a stepping punch. Do you have to launch it from a front stance, or aren’t you able to launch it from any position? Look at the beginning of every kata. Most of them involve standing upright and then suddenly executing a technique to the left or right from that posture. The stance comes at the end of the technique, not at the beginning.

It’s a posture to catch yourself from falling after throwing your center of gravity in a direction powerfully, not the bottom half of a tank. Looking at every motion we make in sparring and in kata, I don’t see many rooted actions which take advantage of the stance as a launching posture. I see mostly stances that result from techniques that have already happened when stepping is involved.

This is an important topic, because you get better results from training if you have a goal in mind for your stance and work in support of that goal. A stance that you think is a launching pad or some sort of rooted support structure for standing your ground, something that I believe would never, ever work in an actual fight, by the way, is going to have different tensions and execution than a stance that is the posture you assume to best arrest yourself after a violent motion.

Stances are landing gears. They are the postures we take to put on the brakes.

The Qualities of the Front Stance

What shape should the front stance take if we are putting on the brakes with it?

I would love to be able to give you exact measurements and proportions for making a perfect front stance. It’s too bad that I can’t. Human bodies are very unique. As an instructor, I would have to look at your stances in particular as performed with your body, and then based on a direct visual assessment, move your feet and knees around until I liked what I saw. Then I would keep moving your feet and knees back into those positions during static stance training every time you trained with me to habituate you to making that exact stance consistently.

If there is one important point about stances, it is consistency that will make them or break them. Doing the same thing every step you take is really the ultimate skill, because the last thing you want to spend time doing is thinking about where to put your feet from one step to another. Until you can do this, you won’t have enough free brain cells to focus on the rest of the technique.

The body parts that go into a good stance are:

Stability – We want our stance to be relatively stable because the purpose of it is to stop our center of gravity from moving about until we are ready to break the stance and allow it to move. Braking ability – The stance has to bring us to a halt. Mobility – The stance must allow itself to be broken easily when we wish to move from one lunging motion to another, change directions quickly, or suddenly begin moving. If we are frozen in place, our opponent will see us coming from a mile away as we struggle to free ourselves from too rooted a position.

Hard to believe that those few requirements could result in us making something as ridiculous as the Shotokan front stance, isn’t it? But it does.

So, what is a good front stance? I cannot point you to some particular person as an example. If I were coaching you on your golf swing, I wouldn’t say, “We are going to do it like Arnold Palmer.” He has his own personal golf swing that technically is not proper form for maximum effectiveness – but he could always make it work better than most people’s. So, I’ll just give you some guidelines and reasons for each of those guidelines.

Front Stance Dimensions

Stances exist in three dimensions. Thus, your stance has length, width, and height. Most people seem to make their stances too short, too high, and too wide in the Shotokan community. If you look at Tae Kwon Do and American Freestyle (which are basically the same thing), they tend to make their stances too long, too wide, and too low. I believe there is a sweet spot for the front stance. And there is more after that.

First, the length. It depends on how long your legs are. The longer your legs, the longer the stance. Here is some bad news for everyone: there is such a thing as optimal leg length. Some people have such long legs that the stance cannot be pushed deeper without harming mobility, so these people must assume a higher stance. While it will be equally effective for our purposes, it is not as pretty because the human eye prefers certain angles to others when looking at human postures. Some people have such short legs that they cannot push their stances too deeply either, or they risk being so low that they are staring at their opponent’s knees. Thus, they too have to make a higher stance.

What is this? I’m talking about length, not height! The length of the stance determines the height.

I am 72 inches (183 cm) tall and have a 30 inch (76.2 cm) inseam. I make my front stance 49″ (125 cm) long from my rear heel to the tip of my front big toe.

What about the width? There are lots of odd rules out there for how wide a front stance “should be.” I say “should be” in quotes like that because there is no “should be” when it comes to Karate techniques. Those two words are used to enforce arbitrary rules. They are not used by people who are interested in finding out what is truly effective for themselves and others. There is no “should be.”

Some of these rules are 1.5x shoulder width, hip diameter, and other such measurements. I don’t listen to any of those rules. I make my front stance around 14″ wide as measured from the inside of my rear heel to the inside of the innermost portion of my front foot.

The dimensions of my front stance

Why do I make my front stance to these dimensions instead of longer, shorter, wider, or narrower? The constraints I listed above are the explanation. My stance is long enough to make a good finish to a nice, deep step forward. It gets me low enough to the ground that I am stable enough without sacrificing too much mobility. it is just wide enough to allow me to rotate my hips in place.

It is also narrow enough that my rear foot is behind my forward motion. If I made the stance any wider, my rear foot would be off my rear flank instead of almost directly behind me, and it would be pushing at an angle that wouldn’t help a punch or kick directly in front of me.

This stance also is a result. Remember when I wrote that stances were landing gears? I put myself in this position as a result of stepping or shifting forward. This is how I step forward. I only move the foot in a shallow inward and outward movement – focusing almost entirely on directing my foot forward without causing my rear heel to lift.

It’s stable, mobile, and flexible and gives me braking ability. This stance meets all of my requirements for a good front stance.

What can I compare it to in order to derive some possible advice for structuring yours?

It is precisely the width of my hips. I didn’t use my hips to determine the width, it just turns out that way. It is 75% the width of my shoulders. It is 3.5 times as long as it is wide. It is 4.5 times as long as my feet are long.

Like you, I have been told all sorts of arbitrary rules for constructing my front stance. “Shoulder width” is one that I have been taught before. I strongly disagree with that. With your feet that wide, it is easier to rotate your hips, but your back leg isn’t pushing forward to do the rotation, and if you try to step forward, you’ll be slowed down by using weaker, inner muscles to pull the leg inward and then push it outward again making ridiculously wide C-shaped steps.

I’ve also been told that it should be as long as double shoulder width. I think that is too short for my purposes of supporting a solidly long step forward without over-extending as if in a sparring match with the heel up.

I cannot tell you that these dimensions will work perfectly on you. But you can see the overall shape of it and resolve it down for yourself, getting an idea of how wide it can be vs. how long. And, I can only offer you my opinion as to what the right dimensions are. Truly, there is no rule, there are only preferences. This annoys people who want firm rules to follow. There aren’t any. This stance works for me, and I’ve been told it doesn’t look too bad, either.

You will have to develop your own working with the requirements you have for your stance’s performance.

Shaping up the Front Stance

The position of the feet on the floor plus a bend at the front knee is not sufficient detail to tell us how to shape our front stance above the feet. We also need to know where the plumb-line is on the floor beneath the knee, otherwise we don’t know how far to bend our knee.

I try to put my knee cap directly over my big toenail, so my shin ends up nearly straight up and down.

As seen from above, the position of my hips and front knee are related.

I’m not a big fan of putting my knee inside my front foot and collapsing my leg inward. When I do that, my hips move sidways more behind the front foot than in front of the rear foot. My goal is to keep my rear foot directly behind its own hip socket. That way, when I rotate my hips, I’m not pulling my hip from the side, but simply pushing into the floor by straightening my knee and flexing my buttock to turn the hips.

Moving the plumb line of the knee to inside the foot moves the hips
too far to the side.

A lot of people like to turn their front foot inward in a front stance. I think they do this either because they pull their knee inward and it causes the outside of their front foot to raise, or they are just doing it because someone saw someone else do it and they think “it is the proper way.”

I can’t see any advantage to it, and when I put my knee cap over my big toe nail, I find that turning in my front foot strains my ankle and takes the weight off of the sole of my foot and puts it all on the outside edge.

But I especially don’t like the lateral strain on the ankle and knee this causes from catching my body weight every time I step.

Turning the front foot inward I find to be pointless, and it contributes to putting
the hips over to the side.

If you are even thinking about this sort of thing, you are already ahead of most people. Most people never think about the shape of their legs in between the hips and the feet. They don’t worry about knee placement, they only worry about foot placement according to some rules, and they just let the rest fall into some random place.

As for the rear foot, some people get obsessed with the outside edge of the rear foot touching the floor. This really isn’t that important. It’s just nice looking more than it is functional. Keep in mind, as you step forward, after the rear foot has pushed and the hips are moving forward during the last portions of the step, the rear foot doesn’t have any energy left in it, and its contact with the floor is now irrelevant.

The only reason we keep that rear heel down is because it looks good. It doesn’t really help anything in a step. More about that in an upcoming article about stepping in a front stance.

Likewise, don’t get caught up in the angle of the rear foot. If your foot turns out to 45 degrees, that’s perfectly normal, and again, it doesn’t hurt anything. The only reason to keep it facing forward at all is so you can step quickly out of the stance and move forward without resorting to the weak muscles on the inside of the rear leg.

It has been my experience that good stances come from having to stretch certain parts of my body to accept the stance. At first, I feel off-balance, but with time practicing the stance, it settle into it. How do you do that?

Stance Strengthening and Stretching

My experience has traditionally been that of participating in classes where a lot of static stretching, involving bending over and pulling on my feet, etc, has started the class off. However, I have since learned that doing static stretching at the beginning of classes doesn’t really help me very much. I save it for the end of my practice sessions. Instead, I do dynamic stretching – leg swings – to warm up and stretch my legs before I practice. But I have one exception.

When I am going to do stance training, I always start off by assuming that stance and standing in it for at least two minutes, then switch legs, and repeat the two minute timer. During that time, I try to relax certain parts of my body and tense others. I also avoid moving my legs at all, and enjoy the fact that this exercise, more than any other, stretches out the ankles good enough for excellent stepping training.

Some people might say, “Two minutes, that’s nothing. I can stand in a front stance for an hour!” I’ve seen those stances. They don’t use anything approaching the dimensions that I provided above. A good front stance will start to burn after about a minute. After two minutes, your thigh muscles should nearly reach exhaustion, you will feel a burning sensation, and the muscle will begin to quiver as it runs out of steam to continue the action.

This sort of stance training is an isometric contraction. It shouldn’t be bad for your joints. Although I am not a doctor nor a health specialist of any kind (my background is in business management), I’ve read in a few places that doctors often treat joint strengthening with isometric exercises where the joint is stationary and the muscles and tendons have a load put on them.

Do your own reading, consult a physician and find out what works for you before you try this drill on your new, artificial knee or old sports injury, OK? Don’t blow your knee out and then write to me saying it is my fault.

Stance training is time-consuming, it burns, and it’s boring. I do this kind of thing about once a week these days, but beginners should do this kind of training during every session in order to develop excellent stances.

Summary

Stances are landing gears. The front stance catches our weight as we move forward, and it holds us up when we stand with our weight projected forward.

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