This article was contributed by David Liang, MD. You can follow him at @fightingdoc.
Don’t look now, but traditional East Asian martial arts have been making somewhat of a comeback over the past several years.
After a span of dominance in combat sports by prototypical MMA styles such as striker-grapplers (Muay Thai & Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu) and wrestler-boxers (Wrestling & Boxing) in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), we have witnessed the rise of more unorthodox fighters who had good success implementing aspects of martial arts such as Karate (Kyoji Horiguchi, Lyoto Machida, Stephen Thompson), Taekwondo (Conor McGregor, Anthony Pettis, Edson Barboza), and even Kung Fu (Zhang Weili, Li Jingliang, Song Yadong, Zabit Magomedsharipov, Tony Ferguson).
In this spirit, we will be discussing why it can be beneficial to incorporate an age-old exercise into your modern combat sports conditioning training: The Horse Stance (and as an extension, all Kung Fu stance training in general).
Horse Stance (馬步/马步, or 騎馬立ち, or 주춤 서기) is a pillar of many traditional martial arts (TMA) training regimens.
The concept seems simple. You step your feet out a bit more than shoulder-width apart. Then you lower yourself downward until your thighs are parallel to the ground and your knees are flexed 90 degrees. Keep your torso straight and up, looking straight in front of you. You can hold your arms statically by your sides, or you can throw alternating straight punches. All while remembering to control your breathing. You then proceed to hold this position for as long as your instructor tells you (or when you fall over in pain, whichever comes first).
So what is going on when you perform this exercise?
The horse stance is an isometric exercise, meaning it generates static contractions of the muscles involved without changing their lengths or the angles of the joints they cross.
Because there is less potential for shearing forces across joints, there is a lower risk for soft tissue injury when compared with the dynamic isotonic exercises (where muscles shorten and lengthen) used in most combat sports training regimens.
Isometric holds can also increase the stiffness of your tendons. The significance of tendon stiffness in athletic performance remains a subject of debate. But it is thought that stiffer tendons may help prevent injury, reduce energy costs of movement, and make it easier to transfer elastic energy from muscles to joints (think of a thick, stiff rubber band vs a flimsy, thin one).
With the horse stance, you get the benefit of working both strength/stability AND flexibility. Your glutes will be firing hard to resist further hip flexion, preventing you from collapsing to the floor in a sweaty heap, and will work with other muscles in the vicinity to rotate your hips outwards. Your quadriceps will be firing hard to resist further flexion of your knees, also preventing you from collapsing in a sweaty heap.