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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.

Heath White
Heath White's picture

OK,  here are some pictures:

Funakoshi 1926:

Motobu 1932:

Push press (left image):

Kettlebell push press (left image):

Wastelander makes a good point that Itosu used Naihanchi for conditioning.  I think the story is that before Itosu accepted Chibana as a student, Chibana had to do Naihanchi 200x/day for 6 months.  I think that would give you some serious quads and obliques, and both effects would be magnified if you employ stance tension to lock down the legs.

Incidentally,  I have found that the "screwing" motion solves a lot of the joint pain problems.  (I take this to be what Funakoshi is getting at with the  "pull the heels in" instruction.)  In fact I had given up doing squats, but when I added the "screwing" torsion to my form, knee pain went away. 

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Heath White wrote:
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.)

I think we have to be careful when we compare disparate disciplines. Lifting a weight overhead will require a given alignment and coordinated action to ensure stability and facilitate maximum upward lift. Striking is very different. We are not seeking to lift a weight upward but develop ballistic force to an enemy in front of us. It does not follow what is good for one outcome will be good for another. Any form of static tension applied to the floor demands we too are static. That’s fine for weight lifting, but disastrous for combat.

Karateka tend to think of their “stances” as being static and I think that’s a mistake (more HERE). Instead, stances should be thought of a “snapshots of movement”. I think this is beautifully summed in Nakasone’s line in Karate-Do Taikan, “Karate has many stances; it also has none.” It we freezeframe any given position, then we have lots of “stances”; but when we flow through these positions (as we should) then we have no stances. That applies to Naihanchi-Dachi too.

In a given moment of time, we drive from the floor with the legs, engage the hips, rotate using the core and transfer energy into the strike. We then don’t hold the stance. We may isolate the “snapshot” in some aspects of training, but we don’t isolate or hold it in application. Instead we flow though the position. This is reflected in Funakoshi’s 17th Precept: “Beginners use stances. Advanced students use natural postures.” He’s not saying we abandon stances, but instead that the stances form part of the natural movement.

Forces exist as we are moving. When we run, we push into the floor, the floor pushes back (Newton’s Third Law of Motion), and, because we are far smaller than the floor, we move forward as a result. Naihanchi-Dachi is a good position to learn to “screw into the floor” in order to produce dynamic upper body rotation and the powerful strikes that result. Just like the forces in the legs when we run, the forces present in the stance are not “held in tension” but “released in motion”.

The idea of maintaining a static posture by having the muscles work against one another is antithetical to power generation, combative goals, and it does not fit with the wider guidance given on stances by the past masters.

I’m firmly of the view that seeing Naihanchi-Dachi (or any other stance for that matter) as being static is a mistake. I also believe talk of tension in the legs while static is a secondary mistake flowing on from the aforementioned initial one. The forces that are supposed to be enacted in a moment through the stance are mistakenly viewed as being applied within a fixed and static position.

The forces are certainly there. Not in a static stance, but in a dynamic motion. I don’t think we should be creating competing forces in order to remain static (i.e. “tension”). I can’t think of any reason why we’d want to do that. It would kill power generation, see us unable to move, and would inefficiently have muscles working against one another as opposed to with one another.

Forces are efficiently facilitated by driving through given body potions (the stances) that exist fleetingly in the everchanging and fluid world of combat. I don’t think we should ever be seeking to maintain any form of tension against ourselves in held positions.  

All the best,


PASmith's picture

I think we have to be careful when we compare disparate disciplines. Lifting a weight overhead will require a given alignment and coordinated action to ensure stability and facilitate maximum upward lift. Striking is very different. We are not seeking to lift a weight upward but develop ballistic force to an enemy in front of us. It does not follow what is good for one outcome will be good for another.

There was a cringe-inducing Cross-fit video doing the rounds recently where the instructor was equating cross-fit movements to self defence movements (IIRC overhead press being like throwing a palm strike) and therefore the cross-fitters were already partly trained to defend themselves. Completely buying into the by-product myth and missing exactly what you've written above.

Heath White
Heath White's picture

I completely agree that a maximally stable stance, screwed into the floor, is not a position you want to fight from, and not the ideal position from which to generate striking power.  I think anyone who had done even a little sparring would agree.

At the same time, Funakoshi’s description of horse stance is clearly not a description of a light, springy, fighting stance.  So either (a) Funakoshi was an ignoramus, or (b) he was trying to achieve something else.  I am coming around to the “something else” interpretation, where the something else is conditioning.  Some points of evidence:

*  Other styles use forms and stances for conditioning.  Wastelander mentioned Sanchin.  Chinese traditional martial arts are well-known for asking students to stand in deep horse stance for lengthy periods.  These are not fighting stances, even momentarily.  (I guess you might wind up in anything momentarily.  But you would not typically wind up in Sanchin-dachi or a deep horse stance.)

* The anecdote about Chibana’s training under Itosu suggests that Naihanchi was at least partly viewed as a conditioning form.  I can’t imagine any other reason for a kid to do it 200x/day for months.

* Funakoshi has his own anecdote about horse stance.  In Karate-do: My Way of Life, he relates a story about how we stood on the roof of his house in horse stance during a typhoon, holding a tatami mat as a sail.  (He refers to this anecdote in Karate-do Kyohan.  Note: not recommended for students.)  He was not trying to develop dynamic striking power, but maximum stability in a static position.  You would absolutely have to use tension in the stance to hold such a position.

Now, you might think this kind of training is low-value in today’s world: maybe we have better ways to develop leg strength.  You might even think it is counterproductive: maybe it teaches you bad habits for fighting.  I would entertain views about either of those things, but my initial question was what was Funakoshi up to.  I think I have a better idea of the answer now, though I remain open to suggestions.



AllyWhytock's picture

Hi All,

Interesting and a serendipitous subject for me. Reading Joe Swift's "Itosu Anko:Saviour of a Cultural Heritage" p149 points the reader to this gentleman.

Tatsuo Shimabuku progenitor of Isshin-ryū demonstrating Naihanchi (Tekki). 


His practice illustrates being light, relaxed and stepping by using the core to lift  with the result of gravity to move. I call this "light, short & fast" - with light movement, with short duration muscle contraction to generate a fast release.

Shimabuku was influenced by Motobu Choki, whom we know enjoyed a good encounter and was critical of Itosu's Naihanchi see "Watashi no Karate-jutsu" compilation translated by Patrick McCarthy. Motobu's Naifanchi-dachi (from Matsumura) had pelvis open, knees pushing outward over the toes.

Below is Gichin Funakoshi illustrating  a purposeful lift, transit & heavy step demonstrating the modern Itosu derived Tekki Shodan with heels outward, strength from outside, focused on the centre. I call this "heavy, long & slow" - with a lift & drop as if the leg is heavy, with a long duration muscle contraction to generate a slow release.  It may look strong but it contradicts the martial need to be "not caught on the spot".


Motobu questioned Matsumura and Sakuma about this, with the former saying "I think the practicality of Itosu's method is precarious and someone using it could be easily defeated". 

I find this interesting because even then there was much discussion about form, function, practicality and body mechanics. 

Even more interesting my boxing coach tells this old Shotokan Karate Ka to stop being heavy on one foot and to move light with fast reloading. :)

Kindest Regards,


chrishanson68's picture

Hi all, hope this message finds you and your families well :-)

Here are some responses to the original posted questions.

1) Does anyone else practice Naihanchi with inside tension in the stance? 

Yes and No:

I practise the stance with as much tension as I need for the job I am using it for (some examples below):

If I'm throwing - quads are loaded for sure, and toes are engaged and gripped, but the focus is on basing out strong keeping balanced when opponents balance is broken for the throw

If i'm breaking balance or intercepting - I might use the toes in grip to hook an ankle or bump with my knee as an imact tool; here tension is used on muscles near knee cap to keep stable for collision to upset and buckle the joint I am attacking

If I'm redirecting or relocating someones position to set up for something (a strike or throw) - the planted leg will bear most of the load, on upper quad

2) Is that the right way to do it? 

It depends

As stated above, it depends on usage, stances, are "transitional":

Stances to throw opponent 

Stances to unbalance opponent

Stances to move - 360 degrees across the floor

Stances as "spears" - A spear pierces through things, when you stratigically use stances for this purpose, you automatically make the modifications and accomodations in your movement to achieve this.  I've used horse stances and other stances to drive through, strike with all parts of my leg, throw, trap, and strike.  

3) What about non-Naihanchi horse stances?  What are your thoughts on this? 

Stances and/or any Karate technique for that matter, tend to be over-legitimized by sourcing "this master" and "that master" to find credibility on what we do and such...to me this is irrelevant

If you look at any combat sports player (boxer, savateur, thai fighter, san shou stylist, wrestler, bjjer, sambo-ist etc) or anyone for that matter who utilize stance, they do so from a very reactive and dynamic environment (singing to the choir here to anyone who trains "alive"; my apoligies in over stating the obvious ;-)); stances are utilized fluidly to move, enter, change direction, throw, stop and go etc....

The way I see it is like this.(DISCLAIMER ***and I mean this in the MOST RESPECTFUL WAY- text can often lead to emotional misunderstandings)...the Karate Masters are dead, yes they have transcripts, some footage, have downloaded their kata to us.....BUT....at the end of the day, what we have now is our own innovations, creativity and testing to develop applications.  There is no point in focusing too much on what the masters did, try to read and infer between the lines and make conclusions....because, unless I knew the masters, or knew someone who knew them.....I don't know what they were thinking....It's like trying to figure out why an author said what they said in a novel. 

Summary thoughts:

Tension in stances depend on what they are used for

Stances are taught statically to teach transitions; stances are transitions representing many uses

Stances can be used to throw, unbalance, strike, immobilize, re-locate, retreat, intercept etc.

Understanding Martial history, terminologies, culture, what the masters said and did etc., helps formulate context, however, we'd never truely know

I say, take your stance or any kihon waza or kata set and treat it as a tool box ---> pick up the tool, and take it for a test drive under all kinds of road conditions.....add, change, delete to the tool and the use of the tool.....get used to the words "it depends" because, really, there is no absolute answer to anything with stance or any technique for that matter....it really all depends on the situation

Cross train, build bridges with others, collaborate, embrace differences in style, and celebrate similarities....in the end, we are all one big biomechanical martial arts family bound by similar human scientific principles of physics

Thanks everyone for reading,  all the best to you and your families! :-)

AndreaO's picture

I like to look at Karate also for teaching about body mechanics. Many people have rather flat feet and their ankles often collapse inwards, that does lead to compensation patterns through the whole body, which can result to tensions, suboptimal power transmission and higher risk for wear and tear.

Horsestance, thinking of how you actually sit on a horse would be not so deep/low. When you think of having just slightly the weight shifted forward and allowing your heels to relax in a rotation inward, while this will also relax your knee towards outside and opening the hip. This lifts the inside of the foot, creating a sort of bean shape in the foot (foot is not flat). This also stabilases the ankle, preventing colapse just by setting the bones in place, so less muscle tension is needed. No twisting force in the knee, if the hip is able to relax.

Btw. Relaxation would also help on lifting, which was proven in a recent study, but the belief that tensions and bracing are needed is the norm.  Of course there needs to be the thought of stability, this is tricky to explain. I like to teach the concept using the unbendable arm, as sometimes practiced in Aikido.