The Evolution of the Side Stance for MMA

Dec 2, 2022MMA

The side stance, also known as the horse stance or twisted stance, has long been a source of controversy and even ridicule among martial artists. While some practitioners and styles continue to swear by its effectiveness and integrate it into training, others have dismissed it as an antiquated and clumsy posture unsuitable for real fighting application.

This distinctive stance, with both feet parallel and hip-width or wider apart facing the same direction, has been entrenched in the practice of traditional martial arts like karate, kung fu, and taekwondo for centuries. Practitioners moving meditatively through deep side stances while executing blocking and striking techniques has become iconic.

However, the side stance has drawn criticism from martial artists favoring more contemporary, fighting-oriented styles. With the feet rigidly aligned and planted widely apart, mobility is restricted. The stance also leaves the groin exposed and makes it more difficult to check low kicks.

Yet despite its apparent limitations, the side stance persists in the techniques and training of some competitive fighters to this day, particularly those with backgrounds in traditional martial arts. This presents an intriguing question – does the side stance still have merit as a fighting posture, and if so, how has it evolved to remain viable in combat sports?

Origins and Traditional Applications

Side stances and their training originated from traditional martial arts practiced either for self-defence or performance. Having a wide, low base provided stability and balance for remaining rooted to the ground, while aligning the feet perpendicular allowed for lateral movement and evasion side-to-side.

Deep side stances were also utilized in training for strength and endurance. Holding deep stances like the horse stance for extended periods was thought to build leg strength and stability. The wide base and alignment of the stance forced the adductor muscles of the inner thighs to work hard stabilizing the legs.

Many traditional styles stayed true to these roots and continued practicing deep side stances through the 20th century. Shotokan karate brought side stances to Japan from Okinawa, with some speculating its founder Gichin Funakoshi adopted even deeper stances than typical to showcase his control and precision.

Weaknesses as a Fighting Stance

While traditional martial arts valued the side stance for control, strength and evasion, it became clear it had vulnerabilities for real fighting and competition.

Wider stances limit mobility, making it difficult to move quickly or switch directions. They also expose the groin and make checking kicks challenging. With both feet facing sideways, reactively lifting the leg is slower due to the added rotation required.

The lead leg is also more vulnerable to low kick attacks, as it cannot be turned inward to block without altering the stance. And while power can still be generated, the stance is not ideal for rear hand punches or round kicks.

Side Stance Advantages

Though the deep side stance had disadvantages as a fighting posture, it still offered some unique benefits:

  • Forward-back and lateral movement can be very quick and evasive from a sideways posture. Shuffling to angle off strikes can be easier than pivoting in a square stance.
  • Turning the body perpendicular maximizes reach and length for techniques like the jab, side kick and hook kick.
  • The lead leg is more dexterous for creative kicks like spinning hook kicks or ax kicks. The upper body rotation facilitates these techniques.
  • Power can still be generated effectively for lead hand and leg strikes due to the stance alignment.
  • Circling side-to-side allows skilled evasion against aggressive forward pressure.

Adapting the Stance for Competition

As traditional martial arts evolved for competition and MMA, the impracticalities of the deep side stance became more evident. But rather than abandoning it completely, some fighters began adapting it to maximize its strengths while minimizing its weaknesses.

Wider, rigid stances gave way to more moderate foot positioning, often just outside shoulder width, with greater emphasis on mobility and flexibility to react. The lead leg was kept active, frequently lifting up to side kick or checking incoming kicks.

Practitioners also began mixing fluidly between the side stance and more square fighting postures mid-combination, capitalizing on the unique attacks possible from each position. The unpredictability of stance switching added an extra dimension to their games.

Side stance was treated situationally – for example, as a long range posture to set up kicks, or as a specialty when opponents were cornered. It was also sometimes applied only for the lead side to simplify footwork and muscle memory.

Case Studies in Side Stance Application

One fighter who exemplifies the adapted side stance is Raymond Daniels, a pioneer of “point” fighting who transitioned successfully to kickboxing. Daniels fights out of a side stance variant, letting him unleash his flashy kicks. His lead leg dexterity and evasions frustrate opponents.

But Daniels has shown vulnerabilities as well, as pressure boxers have been able to corner him and negate his preferred range. His side stance specialty hasn’t always translated seamlessly to small rings.

In MMA, Stephen Thompson has demonstrated perhaps the most effective adaptation of the side stance. Also from a point fighting background, Thompson channels his karate style into a potent blend of kicks, distance management and smooth stance transitions.

Thompson darts in and out of the side stance masterfully, mixing up his attacks. When pressed, he circles away to regain his range. He also neutralizes the side stance weaknesses well – staying light on his lead leg, and training extensively in pocket boxing.

Lyoto Machida also utilizes the side stance effectively at range in MMA. His elusive footwork and explosive lead leg kicks shine from this posture.

Drilling the Side Stance in Training

For fighters interested in integrating the side stance into their repertoire, here are some training tips:

  • Drill lead leg dexterity. Lift the lead leg chambered to reactively side kick, check kicks, and attack with diverse kicking angles.
  • Practice lateral movement and angles. Shuffle and circle smoothly out of danger, while angling lead hand and leg attacks in.
  • Switch fluidly between side and square stances mid-combination. This adds an element of surprise.
  • Spar at long range from the stance to get timing and distancing down. But also train in the pocket!
  • Only adopt the stance when at range. Don’t over-rely on it.
  • Drill rear hand strikes and round kicks to diversify options from this posture as well.
  • Above all, don’t become rigid! Maintain flexibility and mobility in the stance.

The Ongoing Controversy and Debate

The side stance remains controversial in martial arts, with plenty of conflicting perspectives on its merits. Some consider it outdated and limited, while others believe it has unique benefits that justify situational use when applied intelligently.

The issue often boils down to context – whether the practitioner is focused on classical technique, performance and demonstration, or fighting application against resistance. There are also style versus style biases at play.

The debate is likely to continue, but the adaptations made by competitive fighters at least demonstrate the side stance still has a place in the 21st century martial artist’s toolbox if utilized strategically rather than dogmatically. It can expand offensive options and versatility when tactics are trained thoughtfully.

The Evolution of the Side Stance for MMA

At Apex MMA in Brookvale, we encourage our students to experiment with diverse stances and techniques from martial arts across the world. The side stance and the kicking skills it facilitates are just one example of the eclectic curriculum our classes offer. With free trial classes, come experience the journey of expanding your capabilities!

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Team Apex MMA Martial Arts Coach
Apex MMA is a specialist mixed martial arts gym focusing on Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Led by an experienced team of instructors, Apex MMA offers comprehensive training programs for students of all ages and skill levels. With Apex MMA's systematic teaching methods, passion for martial arts, and strong community relationships, you will gain the tools to succeed in the gym and beyond.
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