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7 Principles For Great Footwork - Re-Thinking Stances & Movement - Alternative Method To Get Correct Stances Included

I have being working on comping up with a list of principles for footwork and how we might adapt it to our karate.

This is a work in progress but the list might be of interest.   Any feedback welcome.

This would probably be better suited to a video but I  am a bit limited on where I can film it at the moment.  I have tried to include some examples of people using these principles so we can create more interesting / complex movements out of the basics.

Understand How To Transfer Your Weight.

Transferring your weight is pretty simple.   You just straighten one leg and bend the other.  We can use this transfer forward and backwards or side to side. 

If we do this we quickly realise that our karate stances are in essence weight transfers.  The zenkutsu datchi being a fairly obvious example of one leg being locked straight and the other bent – transferring the weight forward.

If we are in a short stance and keep the motion going we get a cat stance and a reverse cat stance.   In an extended stance we end up with zenkutsu dachi going forward and kokutsu dachi going backwards.   The stances in karate should therefore be understood as simply weight transfers.

Stances are not static, they are the weight transfer, they are the movement.   When you get this you whole viewpoint on stances becomes far more dynamic.

We can create our rhythm using the bending and locking of the knees.   We are not using the foot to create this rhythm as it causes to bounce and lose contact with the ground.  (combine with gate cycle)

There are in fact two ways to move your body about.   You either transfer your weight (as above) or you create movement using your body and swing your body weight like a pendulum.

When you travel on your toes (breaking gate cycle) or bounce you are in effect swinging your body weight and using momentum to move.   This can work but it takes more effort and you have to physically stop the momentum and the shift of your centre of gravity.   So it is less efficient.

Understanding the two different ways to move the body is important because different foot movements and steps will only work with the corresponding body movement method.

Keep In The Gate Cycle

The gate cycle is your heel strike, mid stance and toe push off going forward.   And the reverse going backwards, toe push off, mid stance and then heel.

This matters because every time you break the gate cycle your centre of gravity moves outside the line of your body.  If you stay in the gate cycle your centre of gravity will be with in your body with in the line of your shoulders and hips.

When your centre of gravity is outside the line of your body you are unstable.  This means you can not strike as powerfully and you create recovery time as your body regains its balance, this makes your movement slower

Understand The Correct Dimensions Of Your Stance – GORT Assessment Method (remove muscle memory)

We need to be able to get to our target strike it and get out again.   Correct stance length is vital for this.  It is the basics of a step and slide which we see in most martial arts.

Firstly we need to understand there are two different stance lengths.   A short stance and a long extended stance.

We can utilise the two stances together to create our maximum step forward and back.  Understanding this precisely is really important as sticking to it avoids either under stepping and losing reach or overstriding which destabilises us which slows us down.

This short stance is the position where if we were to get any narrower or shorter we would start to lose some stability and strength.    The long stance is the position from which, were to get any longer or wider we would lose strength and stability.

Once we know these two points we can step, transitioning  between these two stances creating movement well remaining structurally strong.  Knowing that if we go beyond the dimensions of these stances we must lose stability and therefore speed and power.  In other words if we know exactly what our two stance lengths are we can achieve our maximum step forward with out a loss of stability.

So to we need to find the strongest structural points for our body.  I have taken a technique from modern podiatric medicine to help us do this.  Specifically the GORT assessment.

What we are not going to do, which is what most people do, is use a rule of thumb.  Like one shoulder width wide two shoulder widths long.  This approach doesn’t work for everybody, it doesn’t work for me, because our bodies are all uniquely different.  Be it genetics or functional difference in muscle strengths and weaknesses.

Individual difference mean that general rules don’t work for a lot of people.   In fact the only way to work out what is right for your body is to take the measurements from your body not other peoples.


To do this we simply get rid of our bodies muscle memory.  This way your body will default to its naturally strongest position.  

Doing this is very easy we just march up and down on the spot.  To get rid of the muscle memory we ideally do this for 5 minutes for the best reading but for a minimum of 3 minutes if we are short of time.   Once you get to the end your time you simply stop.  This gives us our natural base of gate – the width of our stance.  You might want to have some chalk or tape handy to mark this on the floor, in a class you can make this part of the warm up and use peoples shoes.   Obviously have them with in easy reach before you start you can’t move your feet and then come back and measure them.

You should be in bare feet when doing this exercise.  When marching up and down it is important you don’t look at your feet or do anything weird like skip or move about the room.  Also try and avoid doing anything weird well stopping as this as it will throw off the result.   If you find you have done something odd just start again. Stop when it is comfortable not dead on the end of the allotted time.

Now we want to repeat the process to find the length of our short stance.   Get rid of the muscle memory by marching up and down for 5 minutes.   This time at the end just take a step forward. This gives us the length of stance, which we combine with the width we have already calculated to give us our ideal short stance.  Unless your muscles are perfectly balanced, which will make you a bit of a rarity,  you optimal stance length will be slightly different on each side, so you need to repeat the process for the other leg.  

To work this out our long stance we get rid of our muscle memory again, marching up and down for 5 minutes.   This time we are going to take step backwards at the end.  To get our long stance we add the length of the step backwards to the step forward.  This gives us our maximum stance extension well remaining fully stable.  Make sure you add a left foot measurement to a right foot measurement, not two lefts or two rights.  If we just we add the two measurements together the stance will be over-long because we have measured one of our feet twice.   So we need to deduct the length of lead foot from the measurement.  The easiest way to do this is to measure the step back from the heel of the front foot to the heel of the back foot to get the step without the foot length (this will mean that you have already removed the extra foot length from your measurements).

We then need to know the maximum distance we can step sideways with out losing stability.   For this we just double the measurement of the natural base of gate.  The width of our stance which we have already taken.  In karate this will give us our kiba dachi or shiko dachi width.  For the shiko dachi the width measurement will go to the centre point of the foot not the end of the toes.

There are some common indicators that someone's stance dimensions need correcting:

• When your stance is the correct length your hips will naturally sit directly under your shoulders.   If you find your hips are sticking out behind your body and you are artificially having to push your hips in or tuck your tail bone then the dimensions of your stance are wrong. 

• If your big toe lifts up when you move then your pushing your weigh to the outside edge of your foot before moving.   This means the dimensions of your stance are incorrect.  You can test this by putting your hands on the floor in press up position and then putting your weight on your little fingers – your index fingers will lift up.   The same thing is happening with your feet.   

• In extreme cases your knee will cave inwards this is your weight shifting to the outside edge of your foot and then overcompensating by going the other way.   This is how you get a ACL injury, as you put strain on this part of the body, it comes from incorrect, usually overly long and wide stance dimensions.  

•  If you find yourself doing any of these things check the dimensions of your stance.  It will improve your stability, speed and stop the wear and tear on your body.   Try to avoid doing what many people do which is to cover up the symptoms of an incorrect stance by adjusting their hips by forcing their leg to stay straight when they move.  The underlying problem is still there you are just hiding it.

The major down side of this method is the time it takes.   So there is a quick but much less accurate method.   Get someone to stand with their feet together and give them a push.  Don’t warn them you are going to push them.  As long as they are not expecting it they will naturally step to their natural short fighting stance position.  Assuming you don’t propel them across the room or anything crazy.

Maintain Contact With The Ground

Your foot should be as close to the ground as possible at all times. This means the foot should be flat to the ground.

Do not excessively raise your heels as this wastes time dropping the heel back down for your heel strike.

The heel will naturally lift in some movements for instance to facilitate the full rotation of the back hip.

This does not mean be immobile.

Engage Your Core

Core engagement is one of the forgotten elements of footwork.   But engaging your core as you move allows you to move much more effectively.   The movement that is created in the hip being far more efficiently transferred to the point to movement when the core is engaged.

Core engagement means engaging all the muscles around your pelvic girdle.  It is not just your six pack. The lower back and glutes are particularly important.  

Engaging your mid and upper back let you move the body as a single unit making movement and evasive head movement much easier to execute.

Your glutes are made up of 3 muscles.  You can only engage one of them when your foot is off the floor.   So you may wish to pre-engage the glute (to then allow full core engagement) on some movements where the foot or heel leaves the floor.

Use Both Forefoot and Heel Pivots

The sequence for a pivot is hip – core – heel/or forefoot

A heel pivot allows to rotate more rapidly than a forefoot pivot because it has a shorter leaver. 

You can only heel pivot when your centre of gravity is with in the line of your body.  In other words when you are balanced with the centre of gravity with in your hips and shoulders.  

You can forefoot pivot when your centre of gravity is outside the line of your body.   This makes it easier to do in some circumstances.  But when you forefoot pivot you in effect throw your centre of gravity away from your body this can limit your options.  Every time you centre of gravity goes outside your body you create recovery time before you can execute the next movement or strike.

The rules all change when you are in contact with another person eg grappling or throwing when it may be advantageous to throw your body weight and centre of gravity outside your body.

Your Hip Rotates The Leg.  The Foot Or Knee Do Not Rotate The Leg

You always want to use your hip to rotate your leg.  Using your foot or knee to create leg rotation is inefficient and creates wear and tear on your body.

Your hip is a ball joint.  It is designed for rotating.   Your foot and knee are hinge joints.  The are designed to open and closed they are not designed for rotation.   Yes you can get a bit of rotation on them created by other parts of the body but it is not what they are for.  

You want to use the part of the body that is designed for rotation, the hip to rotate.

We should take a moment to establish exactly where our hip is.   Lots of people wiggle the top of their pelvic bone about and think incorrectly that they are using their hip.  Take your fingers and find the slight indentation in side of your leg.   You should be able to feel the point the femur the big bone in your leg fits into your pelvis.   You should be able to feel it moving about.   This point is your hip.  Make sure hip movement be it striking or moving about is driven from this exact point.

When you use the hip to rotate on turns you will find the leg naturally locks, this tells you are using the correct part of the body.  Flicking the hip on a locked straight leg is more effective than a flicking bent leg.

Using the hip to move the leg applies to all footwork movement.   Do not use the feet to power leg movement.   When you start moving from the hip your whole movement will improve.   This is very important and when you move about if everything comes from the hips you will immediately be more mobile.

It is therefore important to recover the hip when striking.   You may for instance throw it forward during a strike but you can not effectively move your leg to a new position until you with draw it and bring it back to a neutral position.

Other Random Thoughts

We can create our rhythm using the bending and locking of the knees.   We are not using the foot to create this rhythm as it causes to bounce and lose contact with the ground.  (combine with gate cycle)

Movement that hides the actual movement.   Movements like bouncing serve no functional purpose.   But can be used tactically to hide your actual intentions from your opponents.

Applying These Principles Two Examples

Here are some examples of great footwork which applies these principles.


Here is a video showing the moves from Lomenchenko – I do not agree with all the commentary.


We see Lomachenko go round the outside of opponents.   He does this we a step forward and then a weight transfer (essentially stepping forward into zenkutsu datchi.  He disguses this with a jab and he brings the back foot up to the short stance.   He then throws his other hand as a distraction well stepping his front foot into a zenkutsu datchi (weight transfer with back leg straight front leg bent.   This step lands on the outside of the opponents foot.  He lands on his heel (gate cycle).  He keeps the weight on the heel (not going through the rest of the gate cycle) but his foot is flat to the floor so this is not immediately obvious.   He then heel piviots.   Using the sequence hip – core – heel.   He can only do this because his weight is transferred forward.  This lets him fly round the out side of his opponent.  As his centre of gravity is within the line of his body he is able to strike instantly.

He was unable to do it effectively Lopez because Lopez kept moving into this spaces stopping the weight transfer and so stopping the pivot.   Removing one of Lomenchenkos signature moves.

We also see these principles when he does the “Matrix” round opponents.   This is essentially a V-Step.   The difference between the way he does it and everybody else is that he transfers his weight across to one leg before he moves the body.   Simply straightening the outside leg and bending the other.   As his weight is already shifted he can simply flick his feet under himself at lightning speed as he is not moving his weight well moving the feet.

Dominick Cruz

We can see these principles applied when Dominick Cruz back peddles and then pivots.   This can be seen on this video at 11.18.   I don’t fully agree with the explanation provided in the video.


What we see here is Cruz transferring his weigh backwards with each step and landing his foot in the gate cycle.   He simply transfers his weight to the back leg and then the back heel.   He then just does a heel pivot. To move his body out the way.

Now if he just heel pivoted he would stay in the line of his attacker.  So what he actually does is heel pivot to create the rotation.   He then continues through the gate cycle of his foot going forward and doing a toe push off on the foot.   This creates the height and movement well the heel creates the rotation.

We see a similar foot movement on Connor McGregors Spinning side kick.   He steps his foot on the outside allowing him to extend his stance and weight transfer forward.   He then uses the heel to pivot.  He next uses the toe push off to create the jump.   The movement must be done in this sequence.   It has to be a heel pivot otherwise the centre of gravity would go outside the body and pull him off balance as he rotated.


We frequently see Cruz do what would usually be regarded as excessive head movement to get out the way of strikes.  Normally this would get you hit by the next strike because you have left yourself no where to go.  Why does he get away with it?  The answer is simply he transfers his weight onto the lead leg before doing the head movement.   He can therefore heel pivot out of the way and has a choice of which direction to go.  He has created two exit options with his feet before doing the head movement so can get away with overcommitting on the head movement.


This is all a working theory and I am still changing it so any feedback welcome.  I have tried to give some examples to make it clear how the basic principles of our karate stances can be used in far more dynamic and interesting ways than normal.   The reason we can do this is that the stances our grounded (when done correctly) in the basic mechanics of how the body moved.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Hi Andrew,

That’s an in-depth and thought-provoking post! Thanks for adding it!

Karateka are often prone to think of stances as being fixed / static, but as you point out they are in truth supposed to be applied in dynamic ways i.e. they are positions we move too and though. They therefore need to be practiced in a dynamic way.

As always, everything is always situation dependent. Karateka are also often prone to applying universal rules to stances i.e. the heel should ALWAYS be flat, the back leg should NEVER be straight, higher stances are BETTER than low stances, etc.

Heel down / flat foot is needed for stability (which is why judoka emphasise that), but engaging the ankle by having the heel up can improve mobility (which is why boxers rise the back heel in their “fighting stance” … as do kendoka too for that matter).

A straight back leg (if held) means you can’t push forward with that leg, but is useful for remaining grounded if pushed from the front.

A high stance tends to afford greater mobility and a higher potential for dynamic motion. However, a lower stance gives greater stability.

The stances always need to be what is optimum in the moment.

Andrew Sheldon-Thomson wrote:
The reason we can do this is that the stances our grounded (when done correctly) in the basic mechanics of how the body moved.

100%. The stances are not the objective. Effective movement is the objective. The stances are the “alphabet” of movement, but they are not free flowing and effective “communication”.

Peter Consterdine uses this analogy a lot. It’s important we master our “ABCs”, but we need to move onto produce works of literature … and, to quote Peter, most martial artists never get beyond, “The cat sat on the mat” :-)

Thanks for the post Andrew!

All the best,