Adding new skills to your workout not only keeps it refreshing, but also adds a new challenge for your body and increases resistance and strength. But these skills don’t necessarily need to be from one school of fitness. An example would be to add a muscle-up, which is a calisthenic move, to your back day as an increasingly difficult warm-up routine. Another would be to add the hand-stand on shoulder day. Now these skills will take weeks to master and get right in terms of technique and form. But doing them will keep your muscle fibres constantly active and not allow them to settle into a rut; this is especially important if you have a long-term plan.
Which brings us to this month’s skill to learn: the Mabu. It is also popularly known as the horse stance and its history is quite interesting. Used in Chinese, Korean, Japanese and even Indian martial arts, the horse stance is a foundational move and each school of martial arts performs it slightly differently. However, for the sake of simplicity, there is now a standardised way of performing it. It is called a horse stance because when you’re doing it, the body assumes the position it would if it were riding a horse. Once you master it, this can become a fundamental part of your fitness journey.
“In southern Shaolin Kung fu, the most important stance is the Horse-Riding Stance. It is the most demanding exercise in all kung fu. If you can persist in training the Horse-Riding Stance, you can do anything in kung fu or in life,” writes Grandmaster Wong Kiew Kit in an article titled Fundamental Force Training published on shaolin.org. This is not an exaggeration. Fitness experts who do not have a background in martial arts are unanimous in their verdict that even two minutes of staying in the horse stance is a big achievement. Kit says that the progress must be gradual, over “months and even years”, but the resulting benefits are dramatic, and these also include achieving a mental meditative state.
In modern fitness terminology, the horse stance can be described as a wide squat with isometric hold. But there are some rules that must be followed to perfect it. There is also enough room to improvise, and there are some preparatory exercises you can do to get better at it.
The video above, posted by The Tao Way, outlines a few options of how to do the horse stance. A quick checklist of things to be mindful about: the distance between your legs, the direction in which your feet are pointing. After going through multiple videos and articles, it seems that pointing them outward or straight ahead are both fine. One of the reasons for this could be knee pain. If you are suffering from knee pain, pointing them slightly outward will be a better choice. The third, and probably the most important point, is to tuck the butt under and not point it outward when you’re in the stance. Your arms should be pointed forward as if you were hugging a tree. Over time, you can tuck them in as well, but this takes some expertise.
So what makes this stance so special? In the video above, Calisthenics coach Kyle Boggeman explains that after he regularly started doing the horse stance, he started “hitting personal records in sprinting, running, cycling, vertical jumps and noticed a huge increase in leg endurance during hikes and high-rep bodyweight leg workouts and big improvements in lower body mobility.”
Horse stance benefits have a scientific explanation. In an isometric hold, the body produces an accumulation of lactic acid which normally clears out due to blood-flow. You can observe this in any isometric hold, including something as simple as a plank. A constant contraction will result in more of this build-up, which is why it is painful. But over a period of time the body adapts to this and that is how endurance increases. It is remarkable how it works for mobility as well because your body gets used to clearing out these accumulations quicker over time. This results in more mobility. Which is why the horse stance is a building block for people who want to master the split. “It literally recalibrates your perception of what is difficult,” says Boggeman.
Wim Hof, who is also known as the Iceman for his ability to endure immense cold, in the video above, explains the science of the horse stance, in which he mentions that the exercise “increases your joie de vivre, your ikigai, and your lust for life.”
So the next time you watch a movie in which Kung Fu grandmasters are throwing punches from the horse stance position, know that they’re able to do so with immense force because it is a way of life for them. As Grandmaster Wong Kiew Kit wrote in his article: “Initially most people find practicing the Horse-Riding Stance ‘torture’, but gradually, the few who persist and succeed in overcoming the initial pain, will find subtle joys in the stance training. Most important of all you must relax — physically and mentally.”
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer