Imbalances in any area of your body are never fun… especially your hips!
Hips are like the centre of your universe when it comes to moving your body, and when they’re out of balance the rest of your body can suffer.
Perhaps your hips are strong and good at bearing heavy loads, but you may feel limited when it comes to moving in certain positions that require you to be more flexible, like deep squats or pancake splits.
Perhaps your hips are open and you’re quite bendy, but you don’t feel stable when you need strength and flexibility at the same time.
Physical imbalances in the hips and other areas of your body can lead to injury, joint pain, reduced physical performance, and … a lack of joy experienced through your body.
However, imbalances between strength and flexibility can be a thing of the past, once you understand movements like the horse stance.
The horse stance is a movement that has been practiced in different variations in many forms of martial arts across the world, such as in China (Shaolin Kung Fu, Wushu, Hung Gar, etc) Japan (Karate, Sumo), India (Kalaripayat).
Each art form has different ways of practicing with different techniques and intentions.
The Chinese word for horse stance is 'Ma Bu', with 'Ma' meaning horse and 'Bu' meaning stance. It can also be referred to as horse riding stance.
I dived into horse stance practice most deeply while studying the ways of Shaolin Monks.
The style I will be sharing in this post is most reminiscent of the way the Shaolin practice the stance – wide and low.
If you can imagine sitting upon an actual horse and how your hips and legs would be positioned, you begin to get a feel for what this style of horse stance involves.
Consistent horse stance training can have profound effects on:
The horse stance is challenging and takes time to develop. This is potentially why it is less and less practiced these days, as many have become too focused on quick gains.
I highly recommend you don’t fall for this trap, as the most powerful progress in my experience comes from commitment and long term, humble practice.
The horse stance is a position that has been proven over thousands of years to develop strong, flexible hips and legs, plus a focused, resilient mind.
I see the hips as the gateway to physical freedom. Hips that have a balance of strength and flexibility give a greater range of options when moving your body, whilst being more resilient to injuries.
Experiencing the benefits from horse stance practice begin at the physical level, and I’ve found over time many subtle and internal benefits can also be experienced (that I can’t fully explain with words, they must be experienced).
The effect of your horse stance training comes down to two key areas:
- Intention – why you’re doing it.
- Position – how you’re doing it.
Let’s begin with the why I recommend when walking the path of the horse stance.
In addition to the horse stance (aka Ma Bu) being an excellent tool to teach you how to get flexible hips, ankles and knees, it also develops tendon strength through the lower body like few movements can.
Holding this position isometrically (contraction without movement) for long periods increases blood flow to the tendons and ligaments of the hips, knees and ankles. This is very important as blood doesn’t flow as readily to the tendons and ligaments (compared to your muscles), thus they take longer to strengthen and recover.
Imagine your body is like a river; if the water’s not flowing in an area, you get a staleness of energy, which can cause a build up of gunk and muck. The water in this case is referring to blood flow.
When practiced diligently, with correct technique, the horse stance becomes the tap that opens the flood gates of blood flow to those often neglected tendons and ligaments.
The hip and thigh positioned trained in a deep and wide horse stance is similar to the position required for the middle splits.
Horse stance practice (along with some additional supporting movements) can help to develop a different type of split, called the isometric middle split – like Van Damme demonstrates here in his epic split commercial for Volvo trucks.
With regular practice, Ma Bu is also an excellent tool to develop high levels of lactic endurance for the lower body.
According to Wim Hoff (developer of the Wim Hoff Method), developing a 60 minute horse stance will adequately prepare your lower body endurance for the rigours of a marathon. Pretty cool huh!
Keep in mind – the depth of your stance during this type of long duration practice isn’t as low as you would use to prepare for side splits. Remember, intention and position.
These days life can get busy, balancing time for work, yourself and those you love, which is one of the reasons you may like the horse stance.
When practice progressively with a clever approach, the horse stance can save you time by helping you get flexible and strong hips simultaneously.
Ma Bu requires strength to hold the position and stop your lower body collapsing. It also requires more flexible lower body muscles. This can be referred to as an active flexibility exercise. By active I mean it involves both strength and flexibility.
Over time and with a focus on improving quality (instead of just hold time), the horse stance is a tool that will help make you both strong and flexible through the lower body.
Achieving the horse stance hold with correct technique, for periods of 2 minutes and beyond has many carry-over benefits that will help your squat, dead-lift, jumping abilities and overall lower body athleticism.
In order to hold position in Ma Bu for a prolonged period, your skeleton must be aligned as evenly as possible, and you must learn how to regulate your flow of internal energy or chi.
The more you’re out of alignment you are, the harder it is for energy to flow and the more painful the stance will be in specific areas of your body.
For example – if you slouch your back forward, your neck can become sore and tire quickly. If you lean back too much, your hips will be taking more weight than necessary and thus tire faster.
Each time you experience too much loading in a specific area, it’s your body giving you a signal to find better alignment, and allow energy to flow through that area.
The more you listen to these signals and adjust your position accordingly, the better awareness you’ll have of how your body is aligned from the inside, rather than just relying on external stimulus. I call this internal presence.
The skill of internal presence can deeply enrich the way you experience and understand your body in every moment of your life.
Beneath it all I find the horse stance is a powerful tool that teaches you the process of letting go; letting go of tension, letting go of ego, letting go of the jumble of thoughts.
In my perspective this outweighs all the points before a thousand fold.
The more we let go, the more space we can create to fully live.
Now you know some of the reasons why you should put yourself through the proverbial fires the horse stance sculpts you with. Now let’s talk about how you can begin your practice.
There’s a couple of different ways to perform the horse stance, depending on which style of martial art you observe.
For example, in styles like Wushu and Chang Quan it is common to hold the horse stance (Ma Bu) with the hip back (anterior pelvic tilt), whereas in traditional and southern styles the knees are forward and hips are tucked (posterior pelvic tilt).
Both of these variations have their benefits. With regards to hip position – I recommend to work towards developing freedom of movement in as many positions as possible.
To best do this, try both positions (hips forward tilted / tucked) and work on the most challenging first.
To begin the horse stance, it's useful to use the wall as a reference tool. This will help align your body correctly, ensure you’re not cheating, and teach you correct position for when you move away from the wall.
The wall should be used as a guide, not something you become addicted to.
Before we get into cues, it’s important to simply use these as a guide and not worship them as religion. Remember, there is no right or wrong when it comes to moving your body, there just is and is not.
These cues will help you get started, and after consistent practice you’ll more deeply understand how your individual body works in the position, beyond words.
Progress from the wall when you understand the feeling of the position.
Once you move beyond the wall, explore gradually widening and deepening your stance, to build a basic foundation.
Here’s a test I recommend you do to determine your readiness to widen your stance.
Here’s some general progression guidelines:
Step 1: 3 Step Horse Stance
Step 2: 5 Step Horse Stance
Step 3: 7 Step Horse Stance
I consider a basic horse stance foundation to be when you can balance two circular objects (I use two Hacky Sacks in the video) on your thighs and perform a 10-15 deep breath hold, at a 3 step width. I prefer to count breaths instead of time, as it brings the focus within instead on the external.
Bringing your focus inwards provides some deeper experiences that can often be missed if you’re fixated on a timer.
Today we covered the what’s and why’s about horse stance training.
Begin your horse stance at the wall, then progress your stance width using the test in the video.
Remember the importance of understanding intention and position in your horse stance practice.
Practice, practice, practice the horse stance and in time you’ll understand how to get flexible hips. You’ll also open up many movement possibilities, like the middle splits and more. In time you’ll experience a lower body that feels free to do more of what you choose, without limits.
The question is: "What would you do if you had a lower body like this?"
Your potential resides in your practice.
In the Embodied Flexibility program (included in Physical Freedom Academy) you'll learn a step-by-step approach to improve your flexibility for a deeper Horse Stance, better martial arts and movement abilities.
To ensure this is the right next step for you, the first step we'd recommend is to assess where your body's currently at and identify your highest areas of need to focus on.
You can do that with our Physical Freedom Challenge.