Position before submission. Everyone's heard that phrase before and it's a wonderfully apt reference to the core of most grappling arts. Striking, unfortunately, lacks the same type of concise and universally understood slogan. Instead, it has tragically misunderstood cliches such as "work the jab", "move your feet" and "hands up!" Part of that may be a problem with terminology. Position before punches? That obviously just doesn't have the same poetic beauty to it. I've never been good at titles so maybe someone better at words than me can give the essence of this article a nice little catch phrase.
In grappling, everyone knows what positioning is. You have the various guards, side mount, mount, back-control, all that good stuff. They are very clear, well-defined positions containing further positions within them. It is generally well-understood who is winning and what each person wants to do from these positions. In striking, positioning is infinitely more subtle and often barely visible. Especially to those who have simply never been taught what to look for. Thus, here is a basic guide to positioning while on the feet that may enhance both your training and viewing experiences of striking sports.
Positioning Within One's Stance:
The easiest aspect of positioning to grasp initially is that relative to one's own body. Simply put, this is how you stand. There are three main factors to consider when evaluating a stance: weight distribution, elevation and foot position.
This is usually the easiest thing to see when looking at a stance. It is simply which hip carries the majority of a fighter's weight. It may be concentrated to varying degrees on the lead hip, the rear hip or centered between the two. When looking at weight distribution, it is vital to look at posture as well, since that will be the main determining factor in whether this aspect of positioning is being approached properly. Good posture means the back is straight, the shoulders are not hunched forward or shrugged in any way and all bending is done at the hips and knees.
Forward Weight Distrubution:
In the above image, you see three fighters using front foot heavy stances for three different reasons. On the left, Pettis stands with his weight loaded onto the front hip. Notice that his back is straight and there is a distinct fold in the front of his body where the leg connects to the torso. He is not bent forward at the spine and his shoulders are not hunched or curled forward. This is a correct utilization of front foot heavy weight distribution. All the way on the right, Weidman's stance is pretty similar. You can see that his head is closest to his lead foot but he is also standing with good posture. Both of these stand in contrast to Munoz, who is hunched forward and in a much worse anatomical position. While his posture isn't terrible, it also isn't ideal so he shows worse positioning than Pettis and Weidman.
As mentioned earlier, each fighter uses this weight distribution for distinct reasons, with some overlap. Pettis distributes his weight forward to facilitate the use of his explosive rear leg kicks. By keeping his rear leg light, he is able to fire it with zero warning once his feinting and pawing creates an opening. There is no preparatory motion for his kicks; they are always free to smash the opponent. Munoz stands with his weight forward to wrestle, plain and simple. He is far from a technical striker and his best chance is always to win with his brutal strikes from the ground. As a result, he positions himself so that his wrestling is always supported by his stance. Weidman also keeps his weight forward as a result of his wrestling background but he actually uses it to enhance his striking. With the weight forward, he is free to throw kicks like Pettis, which was a huge part of his victory against Munoz. His main use for this stance though is the left hook, which is made very powerful by this weight distribution and has become a dangerous weapon for him.
Put simply, the advantages of a front foot heavy stance are:
1. Wrestling. The fighter can push forward quickly and explosively off that lead leg to shoot or move forward quickly. With the weight forward, shooting is essentially as simple as bending the knees and stepping forward with significantly less movement needed than from a different stance. The fighter is also more ready to sprawl and keep the hips away from the opponent. Munoz and Weidman exemplify this.
2. Strikes from the lead hand: By loading the lead hip, one is naturally increasing the power of all strikes coming from that side. Hard lead hand strikes (in general for simplicity, this isn't always true) require the weight to be transferred from the front hip to the rear hip as they are thrown. By standing with the weight already forward, a fighter is always ready to unload powerful punches from that side, such as Weidman's left hook.
3. Kicks from the rear leg: These come much faster if the weight is already on the supporting leg. This is a huge reason why a classic "Muay Thai stance" is typically considered one where much of the weight is kept forward. This advantage is a huge part of Pettis' success as the best kicker in MMA.
4. Forward movement: It is generally easier to move forward quickly with the weight on the front foot. Think of a sprinter on the starting block. Consequently, the only fighter from the examples above who is competent at fighting when being moved backwards is Pettis, as discussed in my article analyzing him.
5. Pull back counters: the head is a very appealing target in this type of stance. As a result, it is possible to bait punches and pull the weight back as you counter, which relates to the increased power of lead hand strikes mentioned above. Thus, you move your head out of range while throwing a powerful counter that the opponent is likely leaning into.
1. Striking defense: Putting your head closer to the opponent decreases the amount of time you have to react to strikes. It also makes you more vulnerable to upwards strikes such as the now infamous front kicks and the still underutilized uppercuts, especially if your posture is not excellent. Leg kicks become harder to check and defense overall tends to become more reactive.To mitigate this weakness, fighters often rely on ducking to use their wrestling or worse, using what Connor calls a "universal defense".
2. Rear hand punches: A huge problem that fighters who stand with their weight forward tend to encounter is losing their balance and posture when trying to throw the rear hand. Since rear hand punches require the weight to transfer forward at some point during execution (though not as far as most believe), fighters who already have their weight forward tend to compensate for the lack of power in the hips by leaning forward more, bending at the spine and punching with the shoulders and upper body instead of the legs. Pettis and Weidman are actually very good at avoiding this pitfall in most cases, but Munoz got knocked out by Weidman specifically because of it.
3. Lead leg kicks: Kicks from the lead leg come much slower from this stance. Even a fast kick such as a teep requires the fighter to transfer weight to the supporting (rear) leg before throwing it. While this can be done relatively easily with a small step or even a slipping motion, it is often much easier to see when not disguised by punches. For that reason, Pettis kicks almost exclusively with whichever leg he keeps in the rear, despite the fact that he switches stances depending on the opponent and can kick with either leg.
Rear Weight Distribution
It's very difficult to find an example of a fighter in any modern combat sport who carries the weight primarily on the rear foot. It simply isn't taught in the majority of schools so it's rare to find a fighter who does it. This type of stance was much more common in boxing in the past but has fallen out of style. As a result, this section will be more theoretical in nature than the previous one. In the picture above, first look at where the head is. Notice that Louis' head is off to the side and back, not forward and on his lead foot, where it would be directly in the path of the opponent's right hand. Further, observe his excellent posture and the bend at his rear hip. This is an ideal representation of a rear-foot heavy stance.
1. Striking defense: First and foremost, this stance gives you the ability to see. With the head far away from every single weapon of the adversary and the vision unobstructed, it will be nearly impossible to throw any unseen strikes and someone attacking that stance would need to be very good at hiding their attacks in order to land cleanly. Punches have far to travel and can be slipped, parried or stepped away from more easily. Leg kicks are easier to check with the weight light on the front foot and other kicks are easier to see in time to move away from, catch or block. The lead shoulder is ready to protect the center and the hands are more free to around.
2. Rear handed punches: From this stance, any punch coming from the rear side will have tremendous power. The fighter will be able to unload incredibly hard rear punches without warning. The rear hand becomes a very serious threat that the opponent must constantly be wary of.
3. Jabs: This is an excellent stance to jab from. The weight can move forward just a little for power without the head moving significantly far forward, resulting in a safe and reasonably powerful jab. In fact, a good jab is really the key to making this weight distribution work. It both facilitates and is facilitated by a stiff and active jab. Combining the two advantages, one can conclude that this stance is ideal for using jabs to create openings while keeping the head out of danger, then unleashing powerful rear handed strikes when the timing is right.
4. Teeps: In Muay Thai, rear weight distribution is often taught as a defensive stance, mainly because it is very easy to throw a lead teep. One simply lifts the leg and thrusts forward with the hips to keep the opponent at bay. It is very fast and great for controlling distance, though not notably powerful. Other lead leg kicks are made faster as well, but I won't include that in advantages because the loss in power is often more significant than the gain in speed for round kicks.
1. Lead hand punches: Obviously, you lose some power on most lead hand punches until you can shift the weight forward to load them.
2. Wrestling: while this weight distribution is generally better for distance control, it leaves one in a very poor position if a wrestler gets too close. Leaning back with the hips forward is the exact opposite of a sprawl and makes the take down that much easier. As a result, defending take downs must be even more preemptive. It is also much more difficult to shoot from this position.
3. Kicks in general: It is more difficult to throw most kicks, especially Muay Thai style kicks, with the weight on the rear foot. Kicks from the rear leg require a transfer of weight to the supporting leg before they can be thrown and kicks from the lead leg lose power (despite gaining speed) while a switch is slightly harder to perform. The one exception to this rule is if a fighter prefers snap kicks, where speed and accuracy are more important than power. In that case, lead leg kicks may be enhanced by this stance.
4. Moving forward: It can be difficult to move forward quickly in this stance, which may be disadvantageous to some.
Centered Weight Distribution
A stance with the weight centered is somewhere between these two extremes. Many fighters gravitate towards this type of distribution or one with the weight a bit farther forward. The main advantage of a stance like this is that the weight can be transferred to gain the advantages of either distribution very quickly, so it helps with versatility. Movement can be done in every direction, strikes can be thrown from either side and while the head is lined up to be hit, it's in better position than if the weight is forward. This distribution is more popular among fighters who like to kick and ones who like to move. It is most commonly taught in karate.
Good vs Bad Weight Distribution:
As mentioned above, posture is one of the most important things to look at when deciding if a fighter has good positioning. Beyond that, however, is looking at where the weight is centered. If a fighter's weight moves too far in any direction, their balance will be compromised. Once balance is compromised, so is everything else. To tell if a fighter is losing balance with their weight distribution, an easy reference is to see if their head moves outside their feet. If a fighter ever has his head moving past his feet then his weight is in a bad place and he is unstable. It is most common for fighters to lean too far forward as they attack, especially when they naturally carry their weight forward. However, leaning too far back is equally unsafe if the opponent is still in range to land shots. Ideally, the head shouldn't ever move even over the front foot, and absolutely never past either foot. It is best to have the weight farther back the majority of the time so that the head is away from the opponent's weapons but there still are many ways to fight out of a front foot heavy stance despite the compromised defense (check out my article about Weidman for ideas on how to fight from that front foot heavy stance).
This is simply defined as one's height within the stance. In other words, how bent the knees are and how low or tall they are standing. Here's a picture that very nicely demonstrates the differences to an extreme between the two.
On the left, the fighter is showing a very low stance, probably more crouched than you're ever likely to see for more than brief moments in a fight. On the right, he demonstrates an extremely tall stance that is more likely to be actually seen in a fight. There are some important notes to make about each:
There are many advantages to being low in one's stance (Ok, not THAT low):
1. Balance: By bending the knees, one creates a more stable base to work from. This is really the essence of what it means to get low. Leverage is increased, which leads to more power being generated from the hips. This increase in balance leads to all the other advantages. Balance is arguably the most important thing to maintain at all times because it leads to everything else in fighting.
2. Punching offense and defense: With the knees slightly bent, a fighter is ready to sit down on his punches and throw with maximum leverage, the key to knockout power. Being low also gives a defensive advantage in that the opponent is more likely to hit your forehead than chin and must bend their knees as well or they will be punching downwards and sacrificing both leverage and defense.
3. Wrestling offense and defense: this should be fairly self explanatory. Getting the hips lower than the opponent's is a huge concept in wrestling, as was discussed in my article explaining principles of fighting a wrestler. Having a stance with a built in elevation (and thus leverage) advantage is extremely beneficial to wrestlers.
4. Ability to take a shot: With the increased balance of a lower stance, one is much more capable of staying conscious when hit by strikes. Essentially, bending the knees allows your whole body to resist the force instead of just your neck.
1. Kicking defense: With the knees bent, it can be slightly more difficult to check kicks. Also, the head is closer to the opponent's legs, which makes head kicks easier to land and more powerful. It is possible that front kicks will be a problem more than any other kick.
2. Energy expenditure: It takes more energy to move with the knees bent than otherwise. Similarly, it takes more energy to sit down on punches than it does to throw lighter ones from a taller stance.
Kicking offense and defense: From a tall stance, kicks can be thrown and checked very quickly and easily. They have to travel farther to reach the head and should be easier to see. This is the main advantage of a taller stance.
Balance is compromised: with the legs straight, the fighter's base is not very stable. Essentially, this leads to the loss of all the advantages of a lower stance being the disadvantages of a tall stance. The abilities to punch hard, take hard punches, shoot and defend shots are all sacrificed. Standing tall when the opponent can land punches is a very dangerous prospect and should really only be done from the outside.
Good vs Bad Elevation
There are very few fighters who stand in a full crouch or who stand completely upright. Doing either one at all times is unwise and very dangerous. The most complete strikers are able to stand tall while exchanging in kicking range and crouch slightly into a boxing or wrestling stance when the range closes and other tools need to be used. Standing too low when you can be kicked is potentially very dangerous, but not nearly as dangerous as standing too tall when you can be punched or taken down. Ideally, the knees should almost always be bent to some degree, with the amount being increased as range decreases. For more on the benefits of getting low and the dangers of standing tall, check out Connor's analysis of Gustafsson. You want to be the taller fighter in kicking range, but when it's time to get in close you want to take a lower angle to secure the leverage advantage. It should also be noted that it is a critical mistake to stand up tall on the retreat because it makes you more likely to get dropped, takes away your ability to counter-punch and keeps you on the defensive until you've run far enough away.
This category refers to the location of the feet compared to the body; including how narrow or wide a stance is AND how bladed or square it is. The width of the stance is almost always directly related to the elevation of the stance (as it gets lower, it gets wider) however. You'll never see a fighter with a wide stance and his legs straight just like you'll never see a fighter standing narrow with his knees fully bent. It's just anatomically easier to bring the feet closer together when the legs are straight and step them apart when the knees start to bend. As a result, the advantages and disadvantages of them are nearly identical to those of standing tall or standing low, with the main difference being that a wide stance is more mobile and a narrow stance is less mobile. Instead of repeating myself, I'll only talk about how bladed or square the stance is. A lot of people aren't clear on these terms, so bladed means side-on. As in the fighter's lead foot and shoulder are much closer to something standing in front of him than his rear foot and shoulder. The fighter's body will form a sharp, "bladed" angle. Think of boxers and Taekwondo fighters. Conversely, standing square means having neither foot or shoulder particularly far forward. The whole body is presented to something in front of the fighter and there is no significant angle to their body. Think of a typical Muay Thai stance.
1. Punches: A bladed stance is much more suited to attacking with the hands than a square stance. The reason for this is that you can only transfer weight to one of two places; your lead hip or your rear hip. If the opponent isn't in the direction of those weight shifts, the power you will be able to generate from them is greatly reduced. A bladed stance allows your body mechanics to work optimally for generating power with punches, especially from the rear hand.
2. Punching defense: A bladed stance allows a fighter to protect their center with their shoulder. Forcing the opponent to bypass the lead shoulder to land shots means there is natural defense built into the stance.You also have a better foundation to slip from in this stance.
3. Wrestling defense: By using a bladed stance, it is possible to force wrestlers to shoot for single legs instead of double legs. From there, it is often relatively easy for fighters to limp leg out or hop to the cage and use it for defense.This helps avoid the typical deep sprawl, which is not ideal for fighters wishing to continue striking as much as possible.
4. Teeps and side kicks: While most kicks suffer to some degree from a bladed stance, teeps and side kicks are enhanced by it. Both can be thrown much more quickly from a more bladed stance and are excellent tools for fighting at long kicking range, where a bladed stance is generally slightly less advantageous.
5. Linear movement: One can move straight in and straight back much easier in a bladed stance than in a square one, since the feet are lined up to push in those directions.
1. Kicks: It is harder to kick from a bladed stance. Lead leg kicks lose a lot of power and rear leg kicks require a bigger step and/or pivot to throw properly. The exceptions to this rule were mentioned above.
2. Lateral movement: It is more difficult to move to either side because the feet aren't in the optimal position to push in those directions. Because of this, an understanding of the subtleties of angles becomes important for lateral movement to have value.
3. Defending outside leg kicks: It is a little more likely that leg kicks will take out the balance of someone in a bladed stance because the leg is in an unfavorable position to resist force in that direction.
1. Kicks: The main advantage of a square stance is that kicks are much easier to throw with both legs, especially round kicks. As a result, a square stance is extremely common in Muay Thai and other rulesets where kicks are heavily weighted in scoring.
2. Kicking defense: It is much easier to defend round kicks from a square stance than a bladed one to all areas of the body. Checking is easier as the knees are already turned outwards and blocking can be done more easily since the elbows and forearms are more prepared to defend the areas that will be attacked.
3. Lateral movement: the feet are lined up to push left and right. This also gives an advantage in kicking defense as it is easier to side step and take the force off a kick.
1. Linear attacks: With a square stance, the body is very exposed and the lead shoulder is in no position to protect the chin. Linear attacks such as jabs, crosses, teeps and sidekicks are all significantly easier to land against this type of stance. In most striking sports, that risk is neutralized by large gloves which can be used to cover those large holes, but in MMA the openings are much easier to exploit.
2. Punching power: A square stance is not optimal for throwing hard punches. While the power of punches from the lead hand may be increased, power from the rear hand is decreased and straight punches cannot be thrown with optimal mechanics. Also, punches will naturally come wider because of their origin at the shoulders, which will be wider than someone's in a bladed stance.
3. Linear movement: With neither foot truly in front or back, it is more difficult to step in those directions.
Good vs Bad Foot Position:
Position of the feet is a very important topic. It tends to be the most static aspect of a person's stance. While elevation and weight distribution change constantly, the relative position of the feet tends to be more constant. A fighter who stands square is rarely going to step back into a more bladed stance as they enter punching range and a fighter who stands very narrow is unlikely to spread their feet out in closer range. As a result, I believe that the best foot position is somewhere between very bladed and very square. Either extreme is bad because it gives up angles and limits the fighter, so a happy medium is required. A person who likes to box more will probably stand a little more bladed and a person who prefers to kick will probably square up more. Personally, I think a slightly more bladed stance is preferable but it comes down to the individual. Foot position is mostly important relative to the opponent, which is the topic of part 2.
So the point of this article is to understand what comprises good positioning relative to your own body. In short, it involves maintaining balance and posture while moving in ways that facilitate both your attacks and your defense. The head should always be inside the feet, the back should always be straight, the knees should always be slightly bent and done more so in close range, the feet should not come too close together nor should the spread too far apart but should stay somewhere near shoulder width apart the majority of the time. It is generally most defensively sound to make sure the lead hip and shoulder are the closest things to the opponent and the first to enter range, though there are some advantages to having the weight and head farther forward provided you don't stand like that in range. As long as you are following those guidelines, you are free to make changes to your body positioning throughout a fight. Movement at the hips and knees is vital in the battle of positioning within your own stance and should be your focus when studying this topic. In part two, I will discuss angles and positioning relative to the opponent.