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Shaolin Flexibility Exercises: Horse Stance Q&A for Faster Progress

Uncategorized May 27, 2015

Even though you’re standing still in the horse stance (aka. Ma Bu), it doesn’t mean it’s easy.

If you've tried it before you know there's a lot going on, and it can get confusing... Especially if you're just starting out.

I've made a ton of mistakes in my stances and Shaolin training over the years, that really slowed my progress.

The upside is - the mistakes taught me a lot!

While the mistakes were useful learning tools, part of me would have loved to have avoided them.

My intention in this article is to help you do just that, by answering some of the most common questions I get asked.

You’ll be able to implement these tips into your stance practice straight away and speed your progress to more flexible hips, strong joints, unwavering mental focus, and better internal energy flow.

Keep reading to learn how to experience all that good stuff and more...



Shaolin Flexibility Exercises: Horse Stance (Ma Bu) Questions & Answers for Faster Progress

[Read below to get answers to commonly asked questions on the horse stance.]


How do I get started with Ma Bu training?

The horse stance is one of the powerful Shaolin flexibility exercises that also develops strength, and your internal energy flows.

An important note when you’re getting started is to ensure you don’t have any big structural or energetic blocks in your body. These can manifest themselves as tightness, injury, pain or lack of heat in specific areas of your body.

Imagine for a moment, strong internal energy flow in your body is like a fast car.

It comes speeding to an intersection full of traffic (representing a blockage in your body) ... BAM!!!

Energy collides with the blockage. You get the picture, it’s not pretty.

When you accelerate the energy flowing through your body with practices like stance training, it’s important to create a clear path.



Step 1: Release the physical / mental / emotional blockages in your body.

This can be done through learning how to release habitual tension from your body.

Habitual tension obstructs the flow of fluids circulating around your body and can lead to restrictions and feeling tight and stuck in certain areas when you move.

I recommend you begin with breathing exercises.


Step 2: Use a wall to ensure your Ma Bu / Horse Stance position is well aligned.

The wall horse stance will teach you how to align your spine, hips and legs and will also help you get present with your current lower body mobility levels.


Step 3: Train your stances dynamically.

A great place to start is combining your Horse Stance (Ma Bu) with Bow Stance (Gong Bu).

  1. Hold in Ma Bu for 3-6 breaths,
  2. Then transition left to Gong Bu for 3-6 breaths,
  3. Back to Ma Bu for 3-6 breaths,
  4. Transition right to Gong Bu for another 3-6 breaths,
  5. Then bring your feet together.
  6. Rest and repeat for 5-20 mins.

This will help build a powerful lower body foundation, and is a great way to get more flexible hips and legs with all the strength you need to live well.

Practice in this way for at least 6 months and you’ll have an excellent foundation to experience the deeper benefits of longer duration horse stance training.



Why am I experiencing pain in my hips / knees / ankles?

If you experience joint-pain in your knees, hips or ankles during the horse stance, you may have a limitation in your flexibility and potentially stability / strength through somewhere in your lower body.

If you look at it from a Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective - the pain may also be a symptom of dysfunction of a specific organ system, or blockage in a meridian line.

Learning how to get flexible and strong in the following areas can help immensely:

  • Adductors (inner thighs)
  • Abductors (muscles around your butt and outer thighs).
  • Ankles in a range of different angles.



How long should I hold my horse stance for?

Once you understand how to perform the horse stance correctly, and are focused on addressing potential strength, flexibility and internal limitations - it's time to improve your hold times.

For purely physical benefits I recommend only beginning to count hold times when your thighs are parallel to the ground.

For internal force benefits, a range of different heights can be used depending on the intention.

Once you're ready, here's some general guidelines to gauge your progress:

  1. Beginner Standard: 10-20 breaths / 1-2 mins
  2. Intermediate Standard: 20-40 breaths / 3-5 mins
  3. Shaolin ‘Master' Standard: 40 breaths + / 10 mins +



What's the difference between horse stance and sumo squat?

The horse stance and sumo / wide squat are two different creatures.

When in correct position in the horse stance, the femur (thigh bone) generally won't actually be able to go past parallel to the ground due to the design of the hip.

In the wide / sumo squat, the forward tilt of the hip can allow the thighs to move below parallel.

The horse stance and sumo squat create slightly different physical adaptations, and when combined form a strong foundation for the isometric middle split and many other important physical traits.

Here’s some key differences between the two moves:
Horse Stance
  1. Hip angle: Posterior / backwards tilt or neutral.
  2. Hip position: In line with heels.
  3. Torso position: Straight up.
  4. Foot position: Parallel, spaced 3-7 steps apart.
  5. Benefits: Lower body stamina and suppleness, specific to the position. Mental discipline and internal energy flow development.
Sumo Squat
  1. Hip angle: Anterior / forwards tilt.
  2. Hip position: Behind heels.
  3. Torso position: Angled forward.
  4. Foot position: Parallel, or angled outwards slightly, spaced 3-7 steps apart.
  5. Benefits: Lower body stamina, strength and suppleness, specific to the position.



What about those stories of Shaolin masters performing horse stance up to an hour?

To best answer this question, I feel it’s important to discuss two things.

  1. Position
  2. Intention


  • In all of the ancient texts I’ve read, the position held is not as wide and deep as we’re talking about for structural benefits, so it’s possible that the stance could have been held for such long periods.


  • The intention of such long hold times is completely different to just looking for physical benefits. It's more subtle in nature and often about developing internal force, energy flow, and extreme mental resilience.

Having personally been in different forms of stances for up to 15 mins, I’ve experienced some profound phenomena, but they don’t happen all the time, and are often a result of deeply letting go and entering a meditative state.

This gave me some small insights into why those ancient masters spent lengthy periods in stances.



Will the Horse Stance help me achieve the side / middle splits?

Indeed, Ma Bu is an important part of the picture for having the required mobility for the demands of the side splits.

Practicing the horse stance will teach you a lot about how your body works from your head to your toes. This builds important awareness necessary for the performance of the side / middle splits.

A good indicator of readiness for the side splits, is an ability to balance two objects (like rocks or hacky sacks) on your thighs, whilst in a 5 step horse stance.

It's a useful skill to be able to hold this position for at least 5 mins to demonstrate readiness for safe performance of the middle splits.


How do I hold my Horse Stance longer?

Firstly, the most simple answer is… Practice daily.

There’s no substitution for consistent, humble, daily practice. The sooner you realise this, the better.

While you’re practicing, the tips below will help improve how long you can hold your stance.

[Hot Tip! Stances are easier when you’re a statue.]


1. Relax and Let Go

The meaning of this will change with consistent, daily, practice.

  1. You must learn to relax - physically and mentally.
  2. Breathe naturally and gently.
  3. Let go of tension in your body and mind.
  4. With daily practice you’ll learn to relax and this will be reflected in deeper and longer breathing.


2. Correct Your Technique

These cues will help you refine your stance. If you can’t naturally get into any of the positions listed, you may need to address your strength or flexibility.

  1. Body upright.
  2. Hips over heels.
  3. Weight centred across your whole body, so your skeleton stacks as evenly and effortlessly as possible.
  4. Mouth slightly open.
  5. Fists held firmly at waist (in the beginning).
  6. Eyes open and focused, or gently closed.
  7. Feet gently grip ground (helps activate Kidney meridian).
  8. Place your mind on your abdomen / lower Dantian (energy field) and count your breaths.


3. Gradual Progression
  1. Begin with the number of breaths you can hold for today. Let’s say, for example, it’s 10 breaths.
  2. Sit in the stance for 10 breaths for your next two practice sessions. Practice sessions should be within 24 hours of each other (at least).
  3. After practicing at least 3 sessions, increase your stance time for 1 or 2 breaths.
  4. Continue gradual progression in this manner.
  5. Practice to the burning of an incense stick and focus only on the red glow as it burns. In time you’ll find this will become like a meditation and you’re able to hold for extended periods of 10 minutes and beyond.



Is Horse Stance training the best way to get strong legs?

If muscular strength in a traditional sense, like lifting heavy weights is your intended outcome, there are many other methods that will help this goal aside from horse stance training.


Horse stance practice is a great compliment to single leg strength training (like pistol squats), Olympic and power lifting, etc. Combining these methods will help you get incredibly strong legs.

Beyond strength in your muscles, the horse stance develops some deeper qualities.

In the beginning, the horse stance is a physical practice that will improve your leg strength, but there are more subtle benefits that occur with time.

While stance training will give you incredibly strong legs and stamina, it’s not necessarily a result of 'strong muscles’ alone.

Deeper levels of strength are created in the stance from a strong internal flow of Qi / Chi, and an ability to develop torque (or spiral forces) through your whole body. This can develop internal force and an ability to direct and concentrate energy in specific areas of your body.

The essence of this is simple, but the process is far form easy, and takes years of practice... But it's well worth it, if you're looking to experience the powerful potential deep within your body and mind.



Summing Up

You’re now armed with a wealth of info all about how to get a better horse stance. One of the things I love about stance training is, it guides you down a path to get to know yourself better. 

Knowing yourself better can lead to:

  • Less physical pain
  • Creating a body that moves with a greater sense of ease
  • More confidence in all areas of your life from personal to professional
  • Living a more fulfilling life

With humble, consistent stance training you can be ready to enhance your body awareness and experience the freedom of more flexible hips, lower body strength, better energy flow and internal health, and more.

Ma Bu training is definitely not for the feint of heart, so make sure you get clear on your intentions to help you ride smoothly through any potential challenges. I've learned that learning to face challenges in your body and mind transfer into your life, improving the quality of your time on this planet.

The most important part is to practice the tips most relevant to you and then when you have questions… Ask them in the comments below. The most useful questions will be answered and added to this post.


Don't Just Settle With Information ... Create a Flexibility Practice!

There's a lot of information available online, but without implementing it into something you actually practice, it's basically useless.

You gather it, and gather it, and what do you get?

You might get smarter, but that doesn't really help you remove limitations in your body and get more flexible for moves like the horse stance.

When I began my flexibility journey, I put together some great info to form the 'perfect flexibility plan.'

You should have seen this thing... It was so complex, it could have been used by NASA.

But you know what - it was so complicated I never put it into practice.

To practice becoming more flexible you need clear, simple and actionable steps.

And that's what you'll get in the Embodied Flexibility course (included in Physical Freedom Academy).

In the Embodied Flexibility practice you’ll explore 7 big strength stretches that deeply mobilise and strengthen your whole body, so you improve a wide range of movements in less time.

The horse stance is one of these movements.

You’ll also discover a process to combine these 7 strength stretches into a flowing movement sequence. You’ve likely never stretched like this before.

Imagine doing a practice that has the grace of Yoga with the power of Martial arts.


Your Next Step

If you’re interested in deeply mobilising and strengthening your whole body, the first step we'd recommend is to assess where your body (and mind) are currently at, identify your highest needs, and see if this is the right next step for you.

You can do that with our Physical Freedom Challenge.




  • FAQ Image courtesy of [Stuart Miles] at
  • Sumo wrestler image courtesy of [vectorolie] at
  • Horse image courtesy of [vectorolie] at
  • Kung Fu statue courtesy of [Lavoview] at

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