A lot of horse-hockey


Normally I rather agree with what the contributors write over at Return of Kings. Recently, though, one article caught my attention and I couldn't help but chuckling at its advice:
There are many different ways to strengthen the mind such as traveling and seeing more of the world.  However, for the ROK readers who don’t have several thousand dollars and a few months of vacation time that is sitting around unused, there are cheaper ways.  In fact unless you are in a wheelchair you have all the tools you need to do it from right where you are sitting in front of your computer. 
Introducing the horse stance.  It is a core exercise found in many Chinese martial arts.  I am told not to give away any of the secrets of my kung fu school to the public, but I recently found out that horse stance is one of the basic stances in almost all yoga classes so apparently the secret is already out. 
To do it put your legs about one and a half to two shoulder widths apart.  Try to keep your toes pointed forward as best you can. 
Then keeping your back straight and perpendicular to the ground squat down until your thighs are parallel to the ground with your knees pointing out to the side.  Before doing it read the part below on proper form to prevent knee problems.  Hold this stance for as long as you can. 
... 
Mental Discipline 
The longer you hold the horse stance the more your legs will burn and burn.  The burn will make your mind go into overdrive to rationalize excuses for why it is OK to give up and stop the burn.  For me this generally starts after about three minutes into a five minute workout.  To block it out I might try to close my eyes and relax despite the burn.  Then I open them to see how much longer I have to endure the burn and see that only 40 seconds of burn have gone by.  My legs are already burning and it will be another minute and twenty seconds of even greater burn before the burning stops.
Now I'm entirely in favour of disciplines that strengthen both body and mind. However, there is a very good reason why I study a martial art that doesn't bother with animal forms or static stances or kata in its attempts to teach you how to be a badass: they are very nearly useless in the real world.

The horse stance is not going to improve your squat form- in fact, if you look at the way the horse stance is executed in the article, you may well end up injuring your hip flexors if you're not careful. I have actually done this- I tore up my hip flexor a long time back while learning how to do a roundhouse kick correctly, and it's never fully healed. Take it from a man who has a persistent problem with his left hip and yet still squats to at least parallel- a hip flexor injury hurts. If you are going to do the horse stance correctly, you'd better be careful about your form, because the penalty for getting it wrong is quite severe.

The article also claims that the horse stance develops incredible leg strength. And that is actually true, because it is essentially an isometric exercise, pitting opposed groups of muscles against each other. But hey, you know what else builds crazy strength in your legs? SQUATS AND DEADLIFTS. And unlike the horse stance, you can actually measure your progress by the amount of weight you can lift and move with those exercises. You tell me who is stronger- someone who can stay in a horse stance with no weight on his back for a couple of minutes, or someone who can squat 315lbs arse-to-grass and then hold the weight there for a count of 5 before powering it back up, and then do that for reps. Go ahead and check on it, I'll wait.

The claim is then made that this power and strength helps in self-defence. I can tell you from very real personal experience that trying to fight power against power is downright stupid. You simply cannot power through opponents in a real fight- you'll end up running out of gas very fast. Trust me on this- when you're in a fight, whether sparring or real street combat, your tank is tiny. People who have never sparred simply have no clue how quickly they get worn out by the sheer physicality of fighting.

Finally, the article claims that a horse stance can help build resistance against a side kick to the knee. This is true. It is also true that a fight is never static. It is fluid, dynamic, ever-changing. If you train to strengthen one particular part of your body like that, you are going to be in for an extremely rude awakening when your opponent goes for something that can't be strengthened, like your balls, your liver, or your kidneys. Getting hit in the balls is an instant incapacitation shot- doesn't matter how much you do the horse stance, you ain't gettin' up after taking a nutshot. Getting hit in the liver is almost as bad; the impact can shut down your entire nervous system, so that you end up a spasming, twitching, inarticulately weeping ball on the ground. Getting hit in the kidneys will knock the wind out of you, which means that you will quickly be out of the fight- if you can't breathe, you can't fight, end of story.

And that doesn't even count getting clocked in the throat. The absolute worst scenario (short of an actual knock-out) is when someone aims a round kick at your throat, and connects with the shin. I'm told that in muay thai matches, a successful attempt at this is generally awarded the highest points short of a full knock-out. If you've ever been kicked in the head (I have, twice), you will know why. If you haven't, you won't have the first clue what I'm talking about, but trust me on this- it hurts. Practising a horse stance will NOT prepare you for that kind of pain and shock. When you get hit like that, you have two options: take the hit and stay down, or somehow recover fast and go on the offensive. It's simple survival at that point.

Moreover, such advice completely ignores Line 1, Verse 1, Chapter 1 of the Book of Fighting: "DON'T GET HIT". If you plan on learning how to fight- and I mean really fight, on the street, in the kind of open-warfare environment that you will encounter out there- then your greatest enemies are your opponent, and the ground. As I said before, a fight is never static, it is fluid, and if you go into a fight having trained only in static fighting stances all your life, you are going to be in for one hell of a rude awakening when someone kicks your teeth into next Tuesday or dive-bombs your midsection into the pavement.

If you want to learn discipline, tolerance for pain, and mental strength, go do 20 squats at 225lbs to depth. (Yes, I can do this.) Or go spar with full contact, arms and legs, for an hour with 15-minute rounds after doing 50 pushups, and let me know if you can still hold your hands up afterwards. (Done that too.) Or let a blue belt roundhouse-kick you in the thigh five times, and tell me whether you're still standing afterwards. (Ditto.) Or deadlift 315lbs for a set of 10. (Check.)

All of these things are more useful for learning how to fight, how to tolerate pain and discomfort, and how to build strength than any static, passive stance steeped in arts that claim their origins from a time when modern weapons like close-range guns, and modern combat environments, did not exist.

You want to learn how to be strong, physically and mentally? You want to develop a real tolerance for pain? You want to build real skills in street fighting and survival? Then learn how to lift weights properly, and learn how to do a real modern martial art. It's just that simple.

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