“Inside-Tension” vs. “Outside-Tension” Stances

“Inside-Tension” vs. “Outside-Tension” Stances


Traditional view:
In most traditional Shotokan dojo (as well as in those of many other Karate styles), instructors can be heard sometimes explaining the difference(s) between “inside-tension stances” and “outside-tension stances.” Most of us have heard these terms many times if we have practiced more than a couple years. Many of us now realize which are considered “inside-tension stances” and which are considered “outside-tension stances.” But how many of us actually understand what the differences really are?

What do “outside tension” and “inside tension” mean? Well, it seems logical enough to imagine that “outside tension stances” involve a stance in which there is more muscular tension on the outsides of the legs, relatively speaking, whereas “inside tension stances” involve more muscular tension on the insides of the legs. This makes some sense. All stances obviously involve tensions on both the insides and the outsides of the legs. But considering the relationship between the two, particularly which set of muscles is dominant, does have some value. Also, some people look at the positions of the knees and the strains put on them as a determining factor when describing a stance as “inside-” or “outside-tension” (knees pressed out for outside-tension and in for inside tension). These, as I understand it, are the two “traditional” views on the terminology and there is (at least as of Oct 2000) no real consensus on which are the real defining characteristics.

Let’s think about some examples:
So let us consider the most commonly practiced basic Shotokan stances; zenkutsudachi (front stance), kokutsudachi (back stance) and kibadachi (side stance). These three are almost universally given as representatives of “outside tension stances” in traditional Shotokan dojo in North America (In 8 years training in Tokyo, I never heard any reference to “outside-” or “inside-tension stances”). Do you think there is more tension on the outsides of the legs than the insides while performing these three stances? Perhaps there is. But how does this compare to, say, walking?

The inside/outside ratio of leg tensions involved in walking, I think most would agree, should probably be referred to as “natural tension,” if anything. There may be some natural dominance of the outer leg muscles during the walking motion (I am also posing this question to biomechanics scholars and will update this article after I get a definitive answer). How do the muscular tensions of the legs compare in zenkutsudachi stepping and static positions to that of walking? I do not think they are really all that much different, at least when keeping the hips straight (shomen), if the stance is properly configured.

So let us examine zenkutsudachi a little closer. There are actually three distinct types of zenkutsudachi, depending on the position (amount of rotation) of the hips: shomen, hanmi and gyaku-hanmi. With the hips straight to the front (shomen), the outsides of the legs don’t seem to have any greater tension, percentage-wise, than while walking naturally. With the hips open (hanmi, as is done with most front-arm blocks), there may be more outside tension. With the hips turned the opposite direction (gyaku-hanmi, as performed with some back-arm blocks), inside tension is greater, percentage-wise, when compared to natural walking.

So what is the verdict on front stance? I think it is fair to say that it ranges from slightly outside- to inside-tension, often being a “natural stance,” much like walking.
Back stance and side stance are much like the hanmi position of front stance, and probably involve some limited extra outside tension of the leg muscles. But is it fair to call these “outside-tension stances?”

When considering the positions of the knees (how far outward they are pushed), it seems that the front- & back-stances do not involve pushing the knees past the point of natural alignment (see March article for more on alignment). Side-stance may involve just a slight outward push on the knees past this natural point. To rotate the knees to the point where they face a different direction than the foot (toes) of that leg is improper form and bad for your joints. In proper stances, this should not occur.

My View:
Basically, I think calling most so-called “outside-tension stances” by that term is misleading. “Inside-tension stances” clearly involve a less natural muscular tension arrangement. But not all those stances that are not called “inside-tension stances” really involve what I would call “outside tension.” It seems to me that only a couple of rarely-practiced Shotokan stances even come close to being as extremely “outside” as the “inside-tension stances” are “inside.”

Let’s examine “inside-tension” stances a little closer…

Back to the subject of alignment:
Understanding alignment is very important to both realize the effectiveness of a technique through proper channeling of power & coordinated, efficient movements, as well as to minimize damage to your own body while training. (Please see March ’98 article for more on alignment.) The alignment of the legs in all basic stances should involve the knee pointing the same direction as the toes of that leg’s foot. Improper alignment can not only cause power to be improperly channeled (resulting in a weak technique). It can also cause damage to the practitioner, especially if the same error is repeated many times over the course of many years.

A common problem I have noticed is that, hearing that they need to “squeeze their legs together” for inside-tension stances, many students put unnecessary torque on their knees while assuming a very uncomfortable-looking stance. While “inside tension stances” may be unnatural, they should not be so unnatural as to cause pain in the knee joints. As I often remind students, muscular pain means you are working out (=good) while pain in the joints usually means that there is a problem with the way the technique is being done (=bad). The knees in “inside-tension stances” are often pushed towards each other as far as the practitioner can manage. But the knee and toes of each leg should still be pointing in the same direction.

Another way to look at it:
Instead of just squeezing the knees together, try to take some of this pressure in the hips. Actually try to rotate your entire leg inward, instead of just the lower half. This should take some of the excess torque off your knee. If you have seen the way ballet performers often stand with their legs turned outward (the entire leg, starting at the hip), then you should be able to understand what I mean.  (This positioning of the hip/leg in ballet is actually refered to as “turnout.”)  Having the ability to control your hip flexibility in this manner should aide you well, especially when trying to perform inside-tension stances. As always, the knee and toes should remain facing the same direction while in static stances and while moving; “inside-tension” stance training is no exception.

How about stepping?:
When stepping, there are changes between outside and inside tensions as the legs are brought closer together, then spread apart as the step is completed. Therefore, all stances are really inside and outside-tension stances when put into motion. The initial phase of the step involves pressing off the moving foot. That can be seen as outside tension (more so in some stances than others). As the foot breaks from its initial position, the pulling from the support leg takes a more important role. This is inside tension. As the moving foot passes the support leg, outside tension again increases in relative terms. After another combination of inside- and outside-tensions, the step is complete. Not so clear anymore what is an “outside-tension stance” and what is an “inside-tension stance,” is it?

Don’t get too caught up in the terminology as a perfect definition of what your body should be doing during training. Stances must always have both inside- and outside-tensions in both static positions and while moving. And often those stances described as “outside tension stances” do not involve a particularly high ratio of outside-to-inside tension. I advocate discarding this unrealistic ‘traditional’ terminology, to concentrate more on the tensions of the individual muscle groups (such as the knee region and the hip region) involved during each specific movement.

Copyright © 2022, Jon Keeling (originally published January 1999)