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Heath White
Heath White's picture
Stance tension, especially in Naihanchi

I learned something recently and would like to know what others think about it.

In Karate Science by J.D. Swanson, he distinguishes “inside tension” and “outside tension” stances.  The idea is that in a stance you are not just standing there, but pushing on the floor as you stand.  Inside tension stances would be like if you are standing on slippery ice and trying to pull your feet together; outside tension would be like if you are standing on slippery ice and trying to push your feet apart.  He says that front stance and horse stance are generally outside tension stances, while back/cat stance, sanchin stance are generally inside tension stances.  I was never taught anything like this, so I found the concept interesting.

Recently I was reading the 1935 edition of  Karate-do Kyohan by Funakoshi.  He talks about horse stance in a way that sounds like *inside* tension.  “Pull your heels …  with a feeling of concentrating your strength from the outside toward the center.”  He goes on, “This is the most solid stance.” (p. 23 Neptune Publishing edition). 

I got to that part of the book because I was reading what Funakoshi had to say about Naihanchi/Tekki.  “Knowing how to stand is the life of this kata, so pay special attention to this when you exercise.”  (p.91)  I tried doing Naihanchi with inside tension in the stance, and it really does add some pop to the crossover steps and the returning-wave kicks, since both of those are outside-to-inside motions.  I will say though that the stance does not feel at all natural to me, probably because I never tried it before.

What is strange to me is that Swanson is 5th-dan Shotokan, and his advice is opposite to Funakoshi’s? (Am I completely misunderstanding here?)

So finally to my questions for others.  Does anyone else practice Naihanchi with inside tension in the stance?  Is that the right way to do it?  What about non-Naihanchi horse stances?  What are your thoughts on this?  And more basically, I am curious when others introduce the idea of tension in the stance in their curriculum. 

Thanks in advance.   

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

I can’t help but feel something may have been lost in translation there. Pulling the feet in, or pushing the legs out, against the floor needs us to be static, with the legs working against one another, which is a very bad idea both combatively and technically. I can see how the very act of assuming the stances will result in forces being applied against the floor, and from the floor into us (Newton’s third law), and that these forces may seek to bring the feet toward one another, or make them move apart, if the floor was not there to provide the equal and opposite force and friction (i.e. on a low friction surface such as ice). I think it is likely that it is the forces inherent in the stance that is being referred to; as opposed to a deliberate attempt to pull or push with the feet in a lateral direction.

Heath White wrote:
Does anyone else practice Naihanchi with inside tension in the stance?

I let the bodyweight “sit” on the stance, and this will result in forces being naturally present in the stance, but I would strongly caution against any deliberate attempt to impart otherwise absent muscular tension into the legs; I would see that as antithetical to both power generation and mobility. The quotes seem to be referring to the inherent structure and biomechanics of the stance (which are what make it so important), but I think additional, deliberate muscular tension would mess all of that up and should be avoided.

Heath White wrote:
Is that the right way to do it?

I would see deliberate muscular tension in the stance (any stance) to be very wrong. We have just enough tension in the legs to maintain the stance, and then we let it the stance do its thing.

Heath White wrote:
I am curious when others introduce the idea of tension in the stance in their curriculum.

Never :-) Well, at least not in the sense of deliberately tensing the legs and having them work against one another in a static way. That’s bad karate to my mind. The very first stance we show beginners is Naihanchi-dachi, so they immediately learn about driving from the floor and “spiralling” through the body in order to generate power. They also are taught that this can be done from almost all positions, but this stance is particularly good place to learn the concept and get an “internal feeling” for it. Students are therefore immediately introduced to the biomechanics and forces that Naihanchi-dachi can impart; but a deliberate muscular tension in the legs is never part of that.

All the best,


JD's picture

Hi heath White,

Interesting question, I've heard some instructors giving this advice of pushing in and out whilst gripping the floor with their feet, however it isn't something I've adopted and looking at it from a practical point of view I don't think I ever will. 

Iain's post pretty much answers the question, but you ask for other's opinions and so I thought I'd write my 2 pence worth. 

I can see how when you apply 'inward' pressure to the Naihanchi dachi it could aid in the speed of the leg lift when practising solo form, although when I practice any kata (especially Naihanchi) I like to keep my legs primed but relaxed in readiness for explosion. I find this to be the case for anything I do in Karate (minus a few techniques) whether it be distance kumite, close quater grappling, ground fighting or pre-emptive striking. If my muscles are tensed then they're ''already in use'' and I can't personally use them with maximum force, a bit like a spring, if the spring is stretched and already sprung, then I have to coil it back up for it to be ready to spring again, so I like to have my spring coiled in readiness i.e relaxed, shave off an unnecessary inhibition.

Also if I stay relaxed and use tension only on the end of my strikes etc... I don't exhaust as quick because my muscles aren't constantly burning up oxygen needlessly, If you've ever practised BJJ you'll know of the importance of staying relaxed for this very reason.

So conclude, for me, I like to stay relaxed but firm, I certainly wouldn't create tension by pushing in and out with my legs/feet.

Like Iain mentions, I prefer to let my weight sit on my legs. This is just my opinion and is based on what I think is pragmatic to the human physiology and general body movement.

Best regards,

JD (Not JD Swanson though :-))

Heath White
Heath White's picture

Thank you, gentlemen, for your input.  

I was never taught anything about (what I've been calling) stance tension and maybe that was for good reason.  

As I've been fooling around with it: on the positive side, you do get quicker movement doing it that way.  On the downside, I do burn energy much faster, and after a while my knees hurt (tendons I think) which is NOT good.  So maybe I will just leave this alone at least until I understand the  idea better.  

I do wonder what Funakoshi meant.  

Anf's picture

I have little to contribute on this subject, other than that it very much reminds me of something my kung fu friend once described.

Apparently they occasionally do an exercise when then stand on blocks of wood, holding a stance for several minutes at a time. The blocks of wood offer no grip on the floor, so will slide if your stance is not held. Apparently this drill is horrible, but I'm told, serves a purpose. That purpose is not to learn to stand still as such. It is to meditate on one's structure, to feel where tension is required and where relaxation is required, as well as being a plain old endurance drill. Fighting is hard work, painful, and requires pure determination. Some instructors advocate full contact sparring or full contact competition fights to prepare people for this. Others look for other means of cultivating endurance and determination.

I can't comment on the pros and cons of the drill my friend describes, but what I can say is that he seems to move more fluidly than I do when we lark on, so something in his training seems to be working well.

Heath White
Heath White's picture

That is very interesting, Anf.  On frictionless blocks of wood, horse stance would tend to push them outward.  So you would have to “Pull your heels …  with a feeling of concentrating your strength from the outside toward the center” in order to remain upright.  Food for thought. 

JD's picture


Heathwhite wrote:
after a while my knees hurt (tendons I think) which is NOT good

Yeah that's another downfall to applying tension, over-use strain developing which is really annoying! Been there! :-)  

Good luck experimenting with it though, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Best regards, 


Heath White
Heath White's picture

Hello all, I may have made some progress on this issue which is worth sharing with the community.

I have been reading Becoming a Supple Leopard by Dr. Kelly Starrett, an NYT bestseller from a few years ago and a kind of exercise science bible.  Nothing especially to do with martial arts.

One of Starrett's emphases is what martial artists would call proper structure.  Specifically, the shoulder and hip are both ball-and-socket joints with some slack in them.  When  exerting force through those joints, they need  to be stablilized, or in other words, the slack needs to be taken out of them.  This is accomplished (mostly) by external rotational force.  For example, when doing a pushup, keep your elbows in tight to your body, fingertips forward, and "screw" your hands into the  ground.  This takes up all the slack in the shoulder joint and stabilizes it.  (He does not say this, but the logic applies to punching too.)

Now about the hips and legs.  Starrett:

Universal cues for creating a stable hip position:

Screw your feet into  the ground

Spin your feet as if they are on  dinner plates

Spread the floor

Shove your knees out

Evidently this is common knowledge in, say, the Olympic weightlifting community.  This editor is defeating me right now as far as putting pictures in, but you can google "good form for push press" or "...front squat" and you will see the resulting stance.  Then if you google around for 1926 Funakoshi, or Choki Motobu, doing Naihanchi, you will see some very similar stances.  (Later stances become wider.)

The "screw your feet into the ground" makes sense of some things Funakoshi says  in his book.  "Tighten the outside of the soles with strength.  Pull your  heels...with a feeling of concentrating your strength from the outside toward the center.  Hold enough strength in the tanden."  

So I tried using this method for horse stance, and I did Naihanchi a couple of times with it.  Some observations:

If you intend to move quickly in your horse stance, like Conor MacGregor, this is a disaster. 

If you intend to relax in your horse stance, conserving your energy, it's also not that good.

If you intend to create a stable platform, it's amazing.  The big torso twists in Naihanchi are more powerful because the bottom half of your body will. not. move.

Funakoshi goes on to emphasize that this is the "most stable stance."  And done this way, he's right!  

You have to do power generation differently, and I don't feel like I've explored that enough to comment on it.  But I think the connection between Starrett's hip stabilization and Funakoshi's horse stance is for real.  Food for thought!

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Heath White wrote:
This editor is defeating me right now as far as putting pictures in …

As a security measure, no users (other than me) are allowed to upload images or documents to this website. What you can do is link to where they are located elsewhere on the web. If you click on the image icon (left) you can then enter the url of the image, alter the size and spacing, etc. When you save the post, the image will be included.

All the best,


Wastelander's picture

Stance tension is an interesting thing because, as Iain points out, it just isn't practical from an application perspective, and yet it comes up as an isolated study in certain arts, or certain kata. Sanchin, for example, explores stance tension throughout. Naihanchi, as transmitted by Itosu Anko, can have a similar quality, likely due to his training with Nagahama, who said that he taught Itosu the strength and conditioning portion of karate, and likely did some sort of Naha-Te. Indeed, if you read Chris Denwood Sensei's book on Naihanchi, he describes utilizing downward and outward pressure with the legs, which is essentially "external" tension in the stance, and this comes from a structural perspective, much like Sanchin.

Personally, I have experimented with both "internal" and "external" tension in Naihanchi-dachi, because in application you will actually tend to use a bit of both. Due to the rotational nature of Naihanchi, and the structure of the stance, you can "push" with one leg and "pull" with the other to generate power, essentially resulting in "internal" tension on one leg and "external" tension on the other. Of course, you don't just stand, stationary, with your legs locked down one way or the other in application, and when I have done it for any extended length of time, the connective tissues of my legs get quite sore, as you experienced. As a structural study from time to time, I don't think it's too much of a problem, but I wouldn't do it very often. In general, I like to have a relaxed, springy quality to the stance, which requires you to essentially just let your weight sit on the stance, as Iain and JD describe.