Today, I was honored to be invited to observe and support a Dan Shimsa (Black Belt Test) with many candidates at various levels.
I was inspired by the high level of skill, the high number of female candidates, and a  scientific publication that was timely shared. But first, let me start with some context...
[Edit] After initially publishing this post, I participated in more discussions and received other observations. I hope the additional commentaries help in this exploration.
Are low stances beneficial?
Warning: This may get debatable. But I promise I have a point.
I'm just as guilty of once providing instruction / coaching to make sure that the front knee is bent (preferably close to 90 degrees) in front stance (chungul jaseh). My original reasons behind this recommendation included:
Some may argue that there's no other purpose because using exercises throughout the full range of motion is a functional strength and conditioning principle.
But that's just it...What is the function that you are looking to achieve?
Are you reaching down to the floor to perform an action?
Are you bracing yourself for a moment of impact?
Can you safely do both functions without loss of efficiency?
Fact: Activities of Daily Living Mostly Use "Normal" Range of Motion
There are so many publications, textbooks, and presentations on the idea of the "Length-Tension" or "Force-Length" curve of the skeletal muscle. Regardless of whichever one resonates more with you, the following concepts are always true:
So if the purpose of using low stances is to strengthen and condition, one is not making changes to this "Length-Tension" or "Force-Length" curve because you're still operating inside the "Normal Range of Motion" +/- 10 or 15 degrees.
Sure, an argument can be made that you can change the regression line of the curve and improve your contractile properties within this "Normal Range" +/- 10 or 15 degrees. But are you actually making any improvements to improve the slope of that regression line at the opposite ends of the curve? Meaning, as you dynamically enter the end ranges of the muscle either at the shortened or lengthened positions, are you able to maintain the same amount of tension as when measured within the "Normal Range"?
So what is your purpose for maintaining low stances?
Are you reaching the floor to perform a function and moving at the same constant rate of tension/contraction up and down? Are you completing the function faster?
If not, then what cheats are you doing to make it look and feel "efficient"?
If you need to cheat, then is the low stance "truly functional"?
Are we coaching for unique anatomies?
The example that inspired me to think about anatomical differences came from the Shimsa I observed. While there were some low front stances, there were also wide front stances seen.
But herein lies the elephant in the room: There are more practitioners with male-expressed anatomies than female-expressed anatomies.
Yes, I'm being very respectful here in my terminologies, as biologically, there are practitioners who genetically do not express the binary genders (male vs. female).
On average, female-expressed anatomies have wider hips than male-expressed ones. And yes, we all know this.
But it's very difficult for the student to natively understand this when in a room with other students. When learning something, the first step taken is to copy or mimic the instructor.
And if one closely observes, the feet of male practitioners in front stance are positioned wider than their hips.
This creates a fallacy in logic for the female practitioner: my hips are wider, and therefore, my stance can go wider.
Our hips ARE, in fact, lying to us now, aren't we? :-P
So at today's Shimsa, I had the opportunity to directly address a female student. I saw her struggle with this visual concept and so I explained it in terms of "feeling her weight and gravity under her hips" rather than looking at the positions of her feet to her hips. Once she correctly feels this "center", then she can adjust how her toes point toward a central point ahead of her.
My other proposal: Get assessed to determine the hips' capacity for active abduction without compensation.
The feet should not be placed wider than this measured angle for a front stance.
For horse stance, it may depend on the intent of the technique. Are you pushing / resisting forces in the frontal plane vs. sagittal plane? Where is it best to position the feet in terms of this hip active abduction angle for the intent desired?
Using hip CARs as an assessment tool.
What does this look like for the martial artist?
There's not a lot of modern sports medicine / exercise scientific studies on martial artists. It could very well be that I don't have the proper access or search engine skills to locate them, but I haven't seen one that shows something as close to this.
I've highlighted what I consider to be interesting points from the abstract.
And these are the statistics as it relates to ACL injuries:
In many FRA® (assessments) I conducted with martial artists, most martial artists (male and female) did not even reach the mean hip internal rotation angle of 33 degrees as proposed from the soccer profile study above.
[Edit] Based on a chiropractor's observation, the discrepancy in a soccer player's range of motion between dominant and stance leg is due to more use of hip internal rotation by the stance leg. We would think that in martial arts, our practice of both the dominant and non-dominant side would lead to a higher average of hip internal rotation angle on both sides. But that is just not the case.
Here's mine taken at least 2 to 3 years after ACL reconstruction. It's been four years since my surgery, and I'm actively practicing and training.
Hip Internal Rotation
Hip External Rotation
The nature of my ACL tear is not because I have too much flexibility for Hip Internal Rotation, but rather a mix of contributing factors that include poor active Tibial External Rotation in comparison to Hip Internal Rotation.
How do I know this? Because I do #CARsEveryDamnDay, and one of those CAR routines include Tibial External Rotation.
This is where joint independence becomes a pre-requisite before joint interdependence.
[Edit] I'm providing a link to a Taiji Classics principle, The Six Harmonies.
[Edit] In the absence of a controlled study, we can only make correlations. The chiropractic observations against the soccer player profile study suggest that the use of stances are primarily intended for the execution of an action or function. The recreation of stances in exercises do not guarantee an improvement to neuromuscular properties to achieve or maintain a measurable range of motion due to overuse injuries.
So the next time you're practicing or coaching stances, ask yourself how "functional" your practice is. What is the intent of this technique? And is my body naturally expressing this intent?
P.S. My apologies for the blurry photos. I didn't have the original videos to capture screenshots.
Read up on my latest thoughts, and learn more about upcoming or past events.