9 Essential Fighting Stances For Martial Arts Mastery

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Each martial arts style offers something unique in their attacks, defensive methods, and stances.

Mostly they intend to create a strong base from which to defend, attack, or counter. But interestingly, each martial art can have a very different perspective on what works.

In this article, I’ll give you the details about the most common fighting stances you’ll see in the most popular martial arts so you can understand the differences.

Lead foot stances

Orthodox stance and southpaw stance side by side

The first thing to cover is that each martial artists stance will lead with one foot further forward than the other.

This is usually referred to as orthodox or southpaw—terms that largely come from boxing.

Orthodox means having your left foot forward and is commonly used by right-handed fighters, since it allows for their powerful hand to be at the rear and offers the best loading up for power.

Southpaw means having your right foot forward and is sometimes considered as the stance for left-handed fighters.

Graphic explaining orthodox vs southpaw foot stance

But it’s also used a ton by right-handed southpaws who have a unique stance that’s difficult to deal with.

On the opposite, it’s also possible to have a left-handed fighter in an Orthodox stance though very rare.

Both these unorthodox stances for fighting can be very challenging to deal with.

Most fight practice and sparring trains your brain to expect the power behind the rear hand rather than the lead hand and that can be a costly mistake.

I know from my own experience that when I was faced with a right-handed southpaw for the first time in sparring, everything I thought I knew about fighting went out the window!

1. Boxing stances

Let’s look at the most common and well-known stance type which is in boxing.

While generally the boxing stance is considered either orthodox or southpaw (as explained above) there are still different fighting stances within them.

Each will have their own strengths and weaknesses. Some are more defensive in style and others more aggressive.

Let’s take a look at them and find some prime examples.

Conventional

Boxers in the ring at 2018 youth olympics
Marcus Cyron, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Boxing has a simple conventional style and stance which is to have the lead foot forward with the opposite foot at the rear and the hands in a matching position.

But the hands are also usually held up close to the head, often touching glove to cheek on each side with elbows tucked into the ribs.

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As boxing is largely about precision, being highly defensive is the more common and conventional stance.

The tightness of the hands and arms in a defensive position change between fighters based on their preferences.

A fighters’ lead hand is used for the jab, lead hook, parrying and managing distance—it’s the measuring tool to setup the rear hand.

Their rear hand is mostly used for a straight cross or a shot to the body to deal most of the damage.

Hands-down

The hands-down freestyle boxing stance appears as low defensively and high on the offense.

In this stance, the boxer’s hands are extremely loose and often held down at the hips.

They engage in the fight by mostly trying to use footwork, agility and prediction to avoid getting hit and countering the opponent when they are vulnerable.

It takes an extreme level of skill and confidence to pull it off reliably and shouldn’t be used by the inexperienced fighter.

The good thing about this style is that it makes it very difficult for your opponent to observe your hands.

Your opponent won’t be able to easily see your hands or react to them as they are sitting at only the periphery of vision making it more difficult to react.

It allows you to easily catch them off guard from a unique striking angle and generally makes them more defensive. They need more buffer space to get a better view.

Former professional British boxer, Prince Naseem Hamed, had one of the most egregious versions of the hands-down style where he would mock opponents during the fight.

Prince Naseem Hamed
Mandy Coombes, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

He had 31 knockouts and only ever lost once, often exhausting his opponents by dancing around and catching them off-guard.

Peek-A-Boo

Mike Tyson posing at the boxing hall of fame
Steve Lott, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the most exciting boxing styles to cover is the Peek-A-Boo which was infamously popularized by Mike Tyson—one of the greatest boxers of all time.

Whether standing orthodox or southpaw, Peek-A-Boo involves holding a high and tight guard with both hands to protect from attacks and using the hips to swing side-to-side to avoid punches while swiftly advancing

Interestingly, Tyson was a left-handed orthodox fighter with his heavy left-hook positioned forward.

Peek-a-boo boxing style frame by frame
K931, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It suits a boxer that may not have the height advantage as the swaying back-and-forth is used to duck under defensive jabs and hooks to get on the inside.

When done well, its advantages are that it’s both defensive and aggressive simultaneously.

It focuses on dodging defensive attacks from the opponent, while closing the distance between you very fast and catching them off-guard—so there is a countering nature to it.

When your opponent throws a defensive jab or hook to try and keep you away, you’ve ducked under it while they are now open with a stray arm away from their defense.

This creates that peak opportunity for a lead hook or rear cross to knock them down.

But the style also benefits traditional countering with a focus on making the opponent miss a shot and punishing them for it.

Mike Tyson was the very best at dealing that punishment!

Philly shell

Philly shell fighting stance explained

Another boxing style popularized by a boxing legend is the Philly shell.

This style mostly changes from a conventional stance by having the lead hand down and wrapped across your stomach rather than protecting your chin on the same side.

It’s usually regarded as the most prolific counterattack style.

It’s a style that allows for a more restful guard, putting the responsibility of engaging onto your opponent while the Philly shell uses parrying and defensive slips, ducks and footwork to manoeuvre out of dangerous shots.

Occasionally, the lead hand will be used to outstretch and poke at the opponent to encourage them to engage and open themselves up for countering.

The Philly shell style has even been adapted and used successfully in MMA.

Floyd Mayweather uses a slightly modified version of this, named the Mayweather shell.

Floyd Mayweather using the philly shell in boxing ring
ian mcwilliams, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In Mayweather’s version, he uses his leading shoulder as a deflection and parrying tool when strikes come direct to his face.

Body shots are largely defended by both arms when they are crossed over his torso.

He evades a lead hook by predicting it and ducking (bending fully at the hips) into the direction of the hook before it gets close to him.

2. Kung Fu stance

Kung Fu martial artist performing the horse stance
Moniboop moniboop, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Kung Fu shares a fighting stance that is common with many other Asian martial arts, like Wushu, and Sumo, which has a foundational stance called the horse stance. (or Ma Bu in Chinese)

It involves a wide-footed (wider than shoulders) stance and bending at the knees, close to visually sitting.

There are many other stances involved in Kung Fu, such as:

  • Gong Bu
  • Xu Bu—”Empty step”
  • Pu Bu—”Lowered step”
  • Xie Bu
  • Duli Bu
  • Bin Bu

And variations of them. But for now, let’s focus on the most common Ma Bu, the horse stance.

The martial arts stance of many old Chinese styles use the horse variation like Chaquan, Mizongquan, Hung Gar and several more.

It’s a stance that is also found in Japan (“kiba-dachi”) and Korea (“annun seogi”).

The Horse stance keeps you balanced, grounded, and powerful.

It’s great for strength, flexibility, and stability.

Practicing this stance can offer many physical benefits, but particularly enables you to develop your root connection to the ground for stability.

3. Karate stance

Karate martial artist performing the front stance zenkutsu dachi
User:Evdcoldeportes, CC BY-SA 2.5 CO, via Wikimedia Commons

Karate is a martial art that has a foundational stance called the front stance or zenkutsu dachi. This is the basis for many strikes inside the art.

It’s close to an extended lunge with 70% of your weight distributed to your front leg allowing for speed and aggressive forward movements.

This is what allows it to be a strong stance for advancing and attacking and a basis for Karate punches.

There are many other stances inside Karate, such as:

  • Shiko dachi—”sumo” or “straddle” stance, similarities to the horse stance
  • Neko ashi dachi—”cat sweep stance”
  • Musubi dachi—”formal attention stance”
  • Heisoku dachi—”closed foot stance”
  • Kokotsu dachi—”back stance”
  • Bensoku dachi—”cross-over stance”
  • Heiko dachi—”parallel stance”

And there are many more than this including variations between offensive attacks.

But the front stance is what Karate is most known for and what you’re likely to see using in combat.

4. Taekwondo stance

Two Taekwondo fighter stances in competition
Asiati70, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Taekwondo stance (for fighting) is quite unique in that it is almost a completely side-on stance that prioritizes speed—sometimes called the rear foot stance.

There are several foundational stances in Taekwondo, but I’ll focus on the one mainly used for competitive fighting.

Hands are often hanging down or with the rear hand raised up to the body mostly for generating torque, the stance has almost no defense other than reactivity and counterattacks.

Taekwondo competitors are trained to bounce on their feet non-stop to be able to either throw a kick at lightning speed or counter one coming towards them.

They are masters of the head kick which their style focuses on.

Developing the strength and flexibility in their glutes, hips and legs is a key part of training giving them incredible reach and power from their kicks.

Their bouncing nature helps them to explode in a single pulse that could even be jumping attacks, catching the opponent off-guard.

5. Muay Thai stance

Fighter in a Muay Thai stance
Максим Воронов, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Muay Thai stance is common to Muay Thai training and competition itself, but also used more widely in kickboxing and mixed martial arts due to its dominant fighting style.

It’s oftern referred to as the art of eight limbs, combining strikes from elbows, hands, knees and feet.

The stance itself needs the fighter to be stood tall with 60-70% of the weight on the rear leg while the front foot taps the floor.

Arms are held at a high guard usually with gloves touching the temple to protect from head kicks.

It’s a very front-facing stance, feet about shoulder-width, with a perfectly tuned package for offense and defense from all angles.

Compare it to boxing which has a side-on stance and wider legs at the base.

It’s an incredibly effective stance for a well-trained fighter as it utilizes devastating leg kicks, body kicks, and head kicks to inflict torture on the opponent.

But it’s also a martial art that programs instincts, prediction and awareness to high level.

Since the attacks inside of Muay Thai can be so dangerous, avoiding them or parrying them with lightning reflexes becomes vital.

In my own Muay Thai sparring, I’ve felt the discomfort of taking too many leg kicks to one thigh and not being able to walk properly the next day.

That’s how effective I know it can be and why I’ve spent a majority of my own training in this style.

6. Kickboxing stance

There are many similarities between Muay Thai and kickboxing, as they both typically include similar rulesets at competition level.

In K1 kickboxing rules, you can use punches, kicks, and knees—but not elbows. With the competitve style being similar, the stances also share similarities.

But the kickboxing stance is closer to a combination of a Muay Thai stance and a boxing stance—that it’s taller but with a slightly more side-on stance and sometimes lower hand position.

The knees may be bent slightly more with the weight distributed more evenly than with a Muay Thai stance.

Where Muay Thai has a heavy focus on striking with kicks, kickboxing can be a little more even between using the fists and feet for attacks making positioning and movement more important.

This martial artist stance prioritizes speed and aggression over defense and aims to land more blows than the opponent or to knock them out completely.

7. Wrestling stance

Two wrestlers in wrestling stance locking arms
Casualmaster, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The wrestling stance is designed to be preemptive of only grappling.

Wrestlers bend at the hips and reach with their head, usually having their hands tucked into their body and hands wide open like a starfish.

This kind of position wouldn’t be seen in any striking martial art, because your chin is open for a swift knockout.

But this works for wrestling tournaments because it’s intended to limit your opponent from getting a hold of your wrists or arms too easily as it allows them to start looking for takedowns from the torso.

The head being forward also benefits from adding extra distance between your legs and the opponent, as the single-leg or double-leg takedowns are extremely effective at getting a hold of the opponent and lifting them up to throw onto their back.

8. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu stance

BJJ students in stance grabbing each others Gi
Marinha do Brasil, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The starting position stance of a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner is similar to wrestling but may be a bit more relaxed and less bent over.

Jiu-Jitsu is usually about getting a hold of a sleeve or collar of the opponent’s Gi and using it to wrap around them by “pulling guard.”

With the Gi variant, BJJ isn’t so defensive about letting the opponent get a grab on you since it’s very difficult to stop it and there are always methods to engage, defend and counter with any situation.

That’s why Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is so effective—there’s a solution to every problem.

When competing under No-Gi (not wearing the Gi) then the style can become a little more similar to wrestling where it’s useful to be more defensive with your arms or legs to stop your opponent getting an easy grab to work with.

BJJ will almost always move swiftly onto the ground where there isn’t any “stances” left to utilize, but there are positions, such as:

  • Guard—Half or full and closed or open
  • Side control
  • Knee on belly
  • Mount
  • Rear mount—controlling the back
  • Turtle

A few details about the most common positions…

BJJ student using closed guard
MartialArtsNomad.com, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The closed guard involves being laid on your back with your opponent wrapped between your legs. This is considered the full guard as your legs are one of your most powerful defenses.

If the opponent was to be able to step over one of your legs, then that would be the half guard.

9. MMA stance

Two MMA fighters competing using MMA stances at Combate 2
Nestor22ns, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Coming in last is the MMA stance. And it’s at the end for a reason: mixed martial arts uses all martial art forms to produce the best fighting style for a real fighting situation.

The MMA stance is stood taller than you would usually find in boxing, but not always as straight as in Muay Thai.

Feet are usually placed shoulder-width or slightly wider. Weight is distributed more evenly. Both may have to change rapidly as the fight evolves.

At one moment, a fighter could stand feet closer together and taller with more weight on the rear leg to be able to lift the front leg to block or “check” leg kicks.

MMA fighter kicking opponent to the body
Maza Fight Gallery, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

And, in another, their feet may need to be wider and weight distributed evenly to be able to “dig in” to an oncoming takedown attempt and not easily be pushed off-balance.

This stance needs to be able to do many things at once:

  • Protect the head, body and legs
  • React to strikes to the head, body or legs
  • Defend grappling takedown attempts

Doing all of these at once is… almost impossible. But the MMA stance attempts to give the fighter a chance to do all with enough developed twitch reaction skill.

An MMA fighter will try to learn the stances and techniques in all of the major martial arts that are used in cage fighting, which is boxing, Muay Thai or kickboxing, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and wrestling.

With that knowledge in their back pocket they can adapt to switch stances on the fly and defend or attack appropriately to the needs of the situation—making it the best fighting stance in my opinion.

A fighter’s style can change from their personal preferences and background in martial arts, some are more boxing style where others are more wrestling style—you can often see this in their fighting stance.

It’s useful to any aspiring martial artist to at least be aware of ALL these major stances and styles of fighting so you know what to expect if you ever find yourself in a real fight or mixed martial arts competition.

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