We have all heard it before, "a strong foundation is important", that's obvious in building a house, or in the leaning tower of Pisa. Without a proper foundation the building can sink and become unlevel, a small deviation in the base can amplify into larger problems at the top of the building.
A poor foundation and unstable soil allowed the tower of Pisa to deviate, and would have collapsed if not for delays in completion, which allowed the soil to settle somewhat. Even after restoration, the top of the tower leans about 13 feet from where it was intended to be.
We can compensate for a poor foundation, as we see the tower still stands. But will the tower of Pisa ever reach the heights of a skyscraper? Surely not, much planning and calculation goes into creating high level buildings. Without the strong foundation, the potential is stunted. The same applies to our fighting stance.
A solid foundation is essential to provide balance and mobility. This is very simple, but that does not mean it is simplistic.
We will examine the extremes of balance and mobility to find the best combination of the two. Go ahead and stand up.
Put your feet together, touching toes and heels. From here try stepping with the right foot forward, then return to the feet together position, then step the right foot back, return, right foot out to the side, return. If you experiment, you will see you can step with either foot in pretty much any direction quite easily.
Now bring your feet back together, and see if you can stop a friend from pushing you off balance; They won't even have to try hard, they could push you over with just 2 fingers. If you don't have a friend around, try leaning over to one side while keeping your feet together, you'll find you have to catch yourself to keep from falling without having to lean too much. We can see that this foot position is quite mobile, but it lacks balance.
The other extreme is to make your feet extremely wide. We can move into a deep horse stance, which is named thus because it resembles the bowed legs of a person riding a horse.
Your knees are bent, and your weight is centered. In a position like this you are quite balanced, your center of gravity is low. Now move your feet as far apart as you can reach, a little further apart, a little further, now try taking a step. We can see that this extreme gives us balance, but we are quite immobile.
We want the best of both worlds, mobility and balance. We don't want to trip over ourselves, we don't want to throw ourselves off balance when we fight, and we don't want to just stand there while our opponent destroys us.
The stance we are looking for is similar to a boxer's stance, we find it in a variety of martial arts styles, our 'fighting stance'. The fighting stance should be tailored to the individual, and not the other way around. We are all different and have different bodies, and I will help each of you find the correct depth and width for your fighting stance.
One of the most essential pieces of foundation is to have our knees slightly bent. This is true of any stance or position. Some stances or positions utilize more bend, but all stances require some bend to the knees for proper balance. Bending the knees drops our height slightly, centering our weight. This also puts us slightly on the balls of our feet. Bending the knees and moving on the balls of the feet allows us to remain balanced without rolling onto the heels or sides of the foot. Being flat footed makes it easy to roll onto our heels or sides of the foot, which destroys our balance.
You don't need to exaggerate by lifting the heels high off the ground, you just bend your knees slightly and your weight shifts naturally to the balls of the feet. As one of my boxing coaches used to say "I should be able to fit a mouse turd under your heel, no more".
Moving up the body, our hips should be just slightly forward, and centered left-to-right. If your ass is sticking out it throws off body alignment. imagine if the Pisa tower was moved on top of a 7-11. Throwing alignment off whether at the hips or feet still destroys balance. We want our shoulders to remain over our hips. We do not need to lean back or lean forward past our center. Imagine a rod that goes through your head, straight down through your spine and down into the ground. You want your body to remain on this rod; It can rotate on the rod, but it should not lean off the rod. Examine yourself in a mirror. Line yourself up on the rod, then lean your shoulders in different directions so you can see what it looks like when you're off that center.
When I see people that lean forward to reach for shots, or lean back to avoid shots, they are almost always flat footed. Here is where we see the effect of poor foundation. If you were on the balls of your feet, knees bent, you would be able to move around. If you take a step you won't have to lean. There is no reason to sacrifice posture and balance when a good foundation is utilized.
Finding Your Proper Stance
Imagine, find, or create a cross section of 2 lines as illustrated in diagram A below. This is basically a plus sign. You can make this with masking tape on carpet, chalk on a sidewalk, or finding intersecting lines in pavement.
Now, put both of your feet together on the line as in diagram D
From here you can move forward on the line, backward, or from side to side. These are the four basic directions you can move, and are also for angles of attack (a person swinging down from above, from left to right, and vice-versa).
To expand on this slightly, there are also four other angles you can move on, which are also four more angles of attack. Here we have a plus sign (diagram B) turned on it's side, a times sign in mathematics.
The angles of the multiplication symbol are 45 degree angles. Moving on these lines moves you off center and fading or closing, there are many reasons why you would move in either direction. It is not the intent of this article to cover these directions in depth, but to introduce the possibility of moving. In fact, there are really 360 angles, as there are 360 degrees on a circle, which would be used for very slight specific variations. This moves beyond the basics and would be better discussed in a different article.
Combining the plus and times symbols (diagram C) we have the basic 8 directions of movement and angles of attack.
Before we go exploring the directions too far, let's get you your stance.
We are assuming a left foot forward stance in the pictures, but the instructions will allow you to line up either foot forward.
Now, turn the foot you intend to lead with so that the heel is still on the horizontal line, and now the big toe is on the vertical line. This basically puts the foot on a 45 degree angle, just like the multiplication symbol.
Place the rear foot below the horizontal line, and line it up so the toe of the rear foot is on the horizontal line, and the heel is on the vertical line.
We align on this 45 degree angle to cut off the line to our groin and our center line, which also points in the same 45 degree angle. Your belly button and toes should all point in the same direction.
We call this "toe heel alignment" in diagram E.
This gives us the proper width of our stance. If we move the feet further apart from each other our stance is too wide and square. If we move the feet closer together (crossing the line, instead of straddling either side of the line) we are crossing ourselves.
To find the proper depth of our stance, we turn the back hip, knee, and toes forward. We then lower ourselves so that the rear knee is on the ground, and the rear heel is up, toes and ball of the foot on the ground. From here, line up your knee so that it is on the horizontal line, as shown in Diagram F. This lines up the front of your rear knee with the heel of the front foot.
This gives you the proper depth for your stance. I may not have the same stance depth as you, because people's legs are different lengths. But if you line up your knee and heel, you will have the proper depth for your stance.
Now, without moving either foot, rise off your knee and turn your hips and rear foot so that they are again facing the 45 degree angle, like in Diagram G. You know have your toe heel alignment for proper width, and your knee heel alignment for proper depth.
Now all you need to do is look forward facing the vertical line, and bring your hands up. Imagine your opponent is directly in front of you. Your head is facing him as are your hands, but your feet and body (hips and shoulders, and belly button) are facing off angle at the 45 degree [Editors Note: I recommend pointing your lead toe at your target rather than off at an angle. Makes it easier to move and generate power]. This presents a profile to your opponent, making it harder to hit you, and also turns your center line away from him, protecting it.
Remember, your knees should be slightly bent, and you should be on the balls of your feet. Your heels still touch the ground, or hover just barely above it, but your weight is focused on the balls of your feet.
Practicing Stance Self Correction
It is much easier to replace a behavior, than to remove a behavior. This applies to all self correction. When you catch yourself fighting without bending your knees, don't say to yourself "don't fight flat footed!", say to yourself "bend your knees instead".
You will also want to practice correcting your stance and posture. Check after winning or losing a fight to see if you are in a good position, that you are centered and knees are slightly bent. Practice with a friend 1 on 1 and have a person watch each of you, when they see your posture is off they should call you on it. You and your opponent check your own postures and make any corrections. With practice you will begin to feel when you are off posture, and can correct this during a fight. You should also practice moving and keeping correct posture and balance.
Finally, there is no point to stances and foundation if we never learn to move in them, or learn how to use them; Here I will cover some basic movements to help you get started.
To bring your rear hand into range, and utilize rotational power, drive your rear hip, knee and foot forward (like we did to check our knee heel alignment, before putting our knee on the ground). Do not have any weapons in hand when beginning this. We are setting our correct foundation.
You will turn your rear hip forward only so far that your hips will be square on the horizontal line. If you don't turn your rear hip forward enough you will not get full use of the mechanics. If you over rotate your hip forward too far it will be wasted movement and could upset your balance and mobility. We want an economy of motion. We don't need to over rotate.
Once you drive your hip forward and rotate to the point your hips are even on the horizontal line, rotate your rear hip (and knee and foot) back so that you are again in your proper stance. Check to make sure you are still in toe heel alignment. If you rotate on the ball of your foot when you drive your hip forward, and rotate on the ball of the foot when you return you should be in proper alignment. With practice your body will feel when it is in proper depth and width of the stance. You will feel how far you need to rotate forward and back.
Once you have practiced this, you can begin throwing shots as outlined in Clalibus's Body Mechanics video. You will notice that with your hip rotating forward, the rear hand also moves forward slightly. When your hips are square your rear hand is now even with your lead hand and can reach the same distance. This is a basic movement that we use when fighting sword and shield with the shield leg forward, either to tilt the shield back slightly to cover the shield shoulder, or to swing with the sword, or in combination.
This motion can also be used when fighting shield and sword with the sword leg forward for a variety of options, I encourage you to explore and make discoveries for yourself.
We can move the forward leg to the back, lining up the heels on the same heel line, like our feet when we first began, toes and heels lined up.
Then move the (formerly) rear foot forward. Practice this on your own to ensure you move into the proper toe heel and knee heel alignment. move front to rear and then check your stance, make any corrections, then move front to rear again, check your stance dimension, make any corrections. This has moved you from leg one forward to leg two forward, back to leg one forward.
You can also move rear to front. Move your rear foot to the same toe line as the front, then step the (formerly) lead foot back to the rear, check your stance.
You can also switch stance by lifting the legs off the ground and rotating the hips so that the rear leg becomes the front leg, and vice versa. This hop switch does not mean you jump up in the air, your head should not move up or down in height. You simply lift your feet off the ground by bending your knees more and pulling your legs up while rotating your hips to swap position.
Now we have three ways to switch stance. front to rear, rear to front, and a hop switch.
Movement In Stance
Now we need to move in our stance, I will provide some maneuvers for our fighting stance, these are certainly not all the ways to move.
Step drag. We can move by taking a step forward with the lead leg, and then dragging the ball of the rear foot lightly. How far do we step? How far do we drag? We step as far as we need to while maintaining balance, and we drag as far as we stepped. There is a tendency in almost everyone to drag farther or not as far as we stepped. Practice this on your own to train yourself to drag the same distance as your step. You can take multiple steps. You can step forward and drag the rear leg. You can step backward with the rear leg and then drag the front leg to the rear. Now we are moving forward and back on the vertical line. We can also move side to side. To move left, step left and drag the right foot to the left. To step right, step to the right with the right foot and drag the left. There is an appropriate place to step in any angle, which you must practice and discover. Generally, you want to move off the line or angle of attack, however this is not a fixed rule when we consider or engage other factors, like blocks and guards. If someone extends a thrust at you from center, where might be the safest place to step? If we step directly backwards, we may move out of range of the stab, or, we may move directly into the range the opponent anticipated us to move to, they may have been planning on us stepping back! If we step directly to the side on the horizon line we may avoid the stab, but we may also open ourselves for other attacks.
We can also step on the 45 degree angles, remember the multiplication symbol? If we step back and to the side, we move off the center line, but we also move away from the opponent, in some cases moving this way may move us out of range to return fire. We can also move off center and toward the opponent on the 45 degree angle. This may move us too close to the opponent. There is no right answer for all situations, we have these different angles to move and we need to practice every one of them, because opponents throw different things. If the people we fought only threw a straight stab at us, extending only 3 feet forward, we would only need one way to move to not get stabbed. We have a variety of situations we face, we need a variety of ways to move. Just as we need a variety of shots and blocks.
We can also step through, which is a stance switch and a foot maneuver. To go forward, take the rear foot, and slide it up to the front foot and continue to slide it forward until you are in the opposite stance. Now slide that same foot back to the point it is even with the opposite foot, and then continue to pull it all the way back to the original stance. Check your stance, make sure you are aligned. You can step through forward or backward. You could step through to the right or left, if you do you will notice that you have now turned your back towards the way you were originally facing. You can also step through at angles by stepping through to a point that is at an angle once you have moved the foot to the other foot. You could move the rear foot up to the front, then step forward and to the side at a 45 degree angle with that rear foot. You could slide the front foot back to the rear foot, and then continue through to a 45 degree angle back and away.
You can also combine foot movements and break them down or change them. You could move the rear foot up to the front, then step back and to the side with the rear foot. You could move the rear foot up to the front, then step the front foot straight out to the side. By keeping your knees slightly bent and keeping your body centered on the rod, you can move in any direction, change direction, stop movement, and break up rhythm. Once you master the basics the advanced movements can be explored, but if you never train yourself to keep your knees bent/flexed, to maintain the proper depth and width, and to keep the body in properly aligned posture - if you never develop a good foundation, you will never reach the skyscraper heights.