BJJ / Grappling & Karate Stances: Cross Benefits

Karate is a great martial art of Okinawan heritage that spread throughout the world thanks to two main events: Japan inviting the Okinawans to Tokyo to demonstrate and teach their native martial art and the presence of United States Military forces on bases on Okinawa. These events shaped what was originally a very individualised and effective method of self defence and protection into the multitude of things that today fall under the umbrella term of karate.

One of the most visually captivating, and often misunderstood, features of karate is its stances. The simplest way to define a stance is simply as a way to stand, i.e. a pattern of distributing your body weight over your feet* and when put like that we immediately see a relevance to any system of fighting or indeed interaction.

The way we stand (or relate the ground) affects at least three attributes often used in grappling, BJJ or any martial art:

1. Stability/balance
2. Weight projection and
3. Mobility.

While these are easily demonstrable when two grapplers are working for the takedown (mobility to avoid the shoot and stability to negate the throw, with weight projection underlying both and fuelling attacks and counter attacks) they are just as important when moving on the ground. Ever rolled with a small BJJ player who felt like they weighed a ton or who found their feet no matter which way you swept them?

The stance training of Karate, or more importantly the training of transitions between stances, does exactly that. The stances of Karate can be broadly classified along the following spectrum of width/depth vs height:

As I mentioned, the best value** is gained in laying a foundation thru training transition between the stances:

1. Going from a low and wide stance to a shallower one will help your body learn to handle momentum in evasion
2. Moving in the opposite direction (from a more mobile, shallow stance to a more stable stance) will teach you how to kill inertia and stop momentum.
3. Moving between shallow stances teaches relaxation in shuffeling footwork
4. Moving between deep and stable stances teaches directional projection of your weight

Add some funkadelic Ninja training to your BJJ with Karate stances. They’re deadly!

*some stances involve more (or less) parts of your body touching the ground

**this is the basic intro to weight projection. There are, naturally, more advanced methods that involve unstable base training, elastic cords, partner drills and more


Liam "The Part Time Grappler" Wandi

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slideyfoot said...

As ever, I disagree. ;p

Karate stances are an impractical and inefficient method of achieving the kind of weight distribution you're talking about. I used to hear a similar argument from my old kung fu instructor, about how outdated stances would help build leg strength.

Yes, they would help do that, but they wouldn't do it efficiently. If I wanted to build leg strength, I would be much better served heading to the gym and pressing some weights with my legs. Or indeed going to a muay thai gym and getting some sport specific strength training, with optimum training methods instead of historical re-enactment.

Similarly, if I want to develop good weight distribution, then I'm much better served doing specific sparring from side control etc. If I want to develop a good level change when shooting in for a takedown, I should go train wrestling.

To get optimum training, go to the people who use it most effectively and efficiently. I.e., boxing for punching, wrestling/judo for takedowns, BJJ for groundwork. I'd only go to karate if I wanted kata, or I had an interest in Japanese culture and history (unless it was something like kyokushinkai, which has proven itself as being useful in K-1 etc).

Having said all that, I have to admit I did recently find myself thinking back to my old kung fu stances. We were doing a drill for passing the guard, and the motion and stance was exactly the same as something I did back in Zhuan Shu Kuan. Still, didn't make my guard passing any better. ;D

I'd be interested in hearing Will Wayland's thoughts on this, as he's got the academic background to discuss it: I'll link it to him, if he hasn't read it already.

The Part Time Grappler said...

Disagree away my friend :)

When I was shown how important the level change is before shooting for a takedown, I immediately thought of the first move of the first kata I ws ever taught (kihon kata). The footwork used to set up most judo throws can be found in the pinan katas. Even pummeling for the underhooks can be seen in the 3rd pinan and bassai kata (but let's stick to stances).

As for building strength, I'm not too convinced either, which is why I didn't bring it up. I have, however, been seeing more and more kinesiology experts talk about the importance of preparaing the muscles before teaching them (i.e. do a movement against moderate resistance to "wake-up" the maind-muscle connection before applying the real deal) so I suppose you could say that there is some truth in that but I don't know enough to argue for or against it.

You would benefit more from doing specific weight distribution drills from side control. You would, but you are a purple belt. Stances and transitions are the first thing taught in Karate. I know from teaching experience that when someone walk in thru most martial arts (BJJ included) academies' doors for the first time, odds are:

1. they don't know their right from left (or are at least hesitant)
2. have no idea what the phrase "shift your weight" actually means or how do it
3. have a weird coctail of tonus in their muscles (tense too many muscles/too hard or not at all / at all the wrong times!)

I remember clearly walking into Karate and feeling exactly the same awkwardness. I was overweight, stiff, uncoordinated (but with dashing looks!) and thanks to Sensei Siamak's patience, I learnt how to make a forward stance, a back stance and how to walk between them. A couple of months later, I could do it all without "rising" and "falling" in my movement. We focused a lot on learning to move the body correctly and safely.

Fast forward a few years down the line when I did my first BJJ lesson. When I was told to shift my weight, I had some idea of what the instructor meant and when I was told to push from the balls of my feet, I knew that feeling.

I have never been naturally athletic and I feel the base Karate gave me has been invaluable in allowing me to not get injured (at least not too badly) and how to coordinate movement to project my weight ...etc along the BJJ path.

But all that aside, I must highlight something: I was very lucky in my (accidental) choice of Karate club, style and sensei. As I said in the first paragraph, Karate is a biiig umbrella term that can mean anything really! In this country (UK) the big styles are the ones with the most Japanese influence (Shotoka, Wado and Shito/shukukai) and the way things are taught is slightly different from the old school Okinawan styles. There is much literature on the difference between the two and I'm not going to talk too much about it but to summarise what's relevant here: Okinawan teachers taught a lot more 1-2-1 style than japanese dojos which had a more uniform militaristic flavour to them. Not a case of better or worse, just different strokes for different folks. People like I me when I started benefit more from teh hands on approach of Okinawan style teaching.

If you want to pursue karate to learn about kata and Japanese culture then you'd have been very disappointed if you had shown up at my old karate club in Gothenburg :)

I strongly believe that the way (structure, methodology, approach) I was taught Karate allowed an uncoordinate ogre like me to learn more about my body and how it functions, which in turn made learning BJJ a lot more enjoyable.

I intend on doing more posts on how BJJ is taught at different gyms / academies. I've seen some very different methods and styles of teaching and they don't all suit uncoordinated ogres :). There's ALOT of SINK OR SWIM in BJJ out there and it scares me.

slideyfoot said...

Hmm. Yeah, I can see the point about transitioning from a 'traditional martial art' (for want of a better term, as BJJ is arguably just as if not more traditional than many TMAs ;p) to BJJ. Roy Dean is the best source for that, IMO.

Anonymous said...

usually liam is right in his musings on combat sports and coaching but id have to agree with slidey,this is way off the mark.This isnt a personal opinion,ive 2 degrees in exercise science,1 in sports rehab and 26 years in combat sports ,15 in grappling.Karate stances are a very ineffective way of teaching anybody anything to do with practical footwork or weight distribution in grappling/wrestling,you just need sports specific drilling,then live drilling then sparring.Im surprised anyone from an SBG background wouldnt see that immmediately.

The Part Time Grappler said...

Haha thank you very much for the kind words Anonymous. I'm glad you feel that way about my musings in general.

I feel that Stance work is a great way to introduce the concept of body weight awareness and the concept of body weight shifting and distribution. This is my own personal experience. Nevertheless, you have a far more extensive background (both within the field of sports science and combat sports) and I would be thrilled if you could write an article (or two) for the part time grappler blog. It is something I've always been interested in and to have someone with your credentials break it down would be a fantastic opportunity! If you are interested, please shoot me a line (hit the envelope on the right).

One of the best things I learnt at SBG is "don't take my word for it, try it and see for yourself" and my musings are all from direct experience.

As an aside, I've noticed that using these drills (stances and stance work) works best with kinesthetic learnes. Usually with that style of beginners, I could talk and show until I'm blue in the face but once they get to experience what I mean I can more easily take that feeling and use it in other drills.