Fighting Stances: All Martial Arts Explained!

June 7, 2022

The fighting stance is the first thing that you learn in martial arts. The proper movements, strikes, footwork patterns, and defenses depend on how you stand. The fighting stance must strike a delicate balance between offense, defense, and movement.

Different martial arts have different stances based on the specifics of the rules. Then within these, there are many variations depending on the fighter’s preferred style and physique.

Despite some glaring differences, there are also many commonalities between stances. But how does competition ruleset determine fighting stance, and what do these look like for the most popular combat sports?

The Two Main Fighting Stances

Before we continue with the sport-specific stances, we need to outline the most important distinction shared between them. One side of the body is forward in all fighting stances, called the lead side, and the other is on the back, called the rear.

Most people are right-handed, so they naturally lead with the left foot and hand, while the powerful right hand and leg remain in the rear. This is called an orthodox stance. The stance is called southpaw when you reverse that and lead with the right hand. This distinction applies to all of the sports below, regardless of the other details of the stances.

Boxing Stances

We start with the oldest striking combat sport and the one with the simplest ruleset-boxing as our base. Many subtle nuances may change the stance and style of a boxer. A fighter may often use different stances and flow from one to another in a fight.

But we can separate four main types of stances in boxing. Of course, these can be either orthodox or southpaw, depending on which hand is in front.

Traditional Boxing Stance

The traditional boxing stance is used by most boxers simply because it is the most efficient one. Others may offer some unique benefits but also have drawbacks to compensate for them, while the classic stance is the most balanced.

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  • The feet should be shoulder-width apart.
  • The front foot is pointing at a 45-degree angle.
  • The knees are bent slightly.
  • The lead hand is slightly stretched forward but is at chin height
  • The rear hand stays near the chin.
  • Weight is evenly distributed between the legs and on the balls of the feet.

Hands Down Stance

Not one to teach beginners. The hands-down boxing stance is just what it sounds like. The hands stay around waist level, and the boxer relies on his reaction and anticipation to avoid incoming strikes and fire back with counters. Also, punches coming from below eye level are harder to block. The obvious drawback is that the head is wide open for attacks.

Peek A Boo

The style and stance made famous by Mike Tyson is the “peek a boo” stance. Here are the differences from the traditional stance.

  • Both hands are held glued to the face
  • Hips are almost square
  • The feet are closer together

This stance enhances the defense, as both hands are on the chin in a very tight guard. The elbows are also close to the ribs, protecting them from body shots. The drawback is that it’s harder to throw meaningful punches from this position. But with the right head and body movement, this problem is solved.

Philly Shell

The Philly shell stance, used by boxers like James Toney and Floyd Mayweather, is a stance that prioritizes defense above anything else.

  • The stance is much more bladed than usual to present a tiny target.
  • The lead hand is placed on the midsection.
  • The rear hand is touching the head.

This stance uses the lead shoulder to deflect the opponent’s powerful rear hands and the rear hand to parry the lead hand punches.

Once proficient in the shoulder roll, a boxer can effectively negate whole combinations without receiving any damage. On the other hand, the Philly shell is very lacking offensively and relies heavily on counters.

Muay Thai Stance

In Muay Thai, there are many more weapons available, so it’s only natural for the stance to change from boxing. Here are the key points in the traditional Muay Thai stance.

  • The stance is almost square; the hips are pointing forwards.
  • Hands are held very high to answer the danger of elbows and high kicks.
  • Chin is tucked
  • Front foot points straight forward to better check low and mid kicks
  • Most of the weight is on the back foot, so you can quickly pick up the lead foot to check or teep (front kick)

Muay Thai scoring favors kicking most of all, so the ability to kick and check kicks is crucial. This often creates a constant “marching” with the front foot, readying it for a swift teep or check.

In Muay Thai, you need access to all of your offensive arsenal, while at the same time, you need to be able to check kicks from both sides. So you can also use this “march” to move the weight from foot to foot. This evenly distributed weight helps maintain balance when defending.

Muay Thai has particular judging criteria, and loss of balance and backing up is not viewed favorably. So, a strike may score if it moves the defender backward or breaks his balance and posture, even if it’s blocked.

Because moving backward is viewed as losing, footwork does not play such a significant role in Thai boxing, which is reflected in the stance.

Kickboxing Stances

Kickboxing sits somewhere between boxing and Muay Thai as a sport, and this is also true for the fighting stance. There are now elbows and clinching allowed in K1-style kickboxing. Punching is very important, so the stance is more similar to boxing.

  • Feet are shoulder-width apart, with the front foot and rear heel in a line
  • The front foot is pointing forward
  • Knees are slightly bent
  • The lead hand is slightly stretched forward
  • The rear hand stays near the chin
  • Weight is evenly distributed between the legs and on the balls of the feet.

The difference between this and the traditional boxing stance is in the feet. While in boxing, the body is oriented diagonally, in kickboxing, the lead foot points forward. Hence, it is less compromised by incoming low kicks. The stance is also less deep because of the kicks.

MMA Stances

MMA is too broad of a sport to have a single standard stance. There are just too many variables and too many styles involved. So the fighting stance heavily depends on the fighter’s background and that of his opponent.

Specialists from different martial arts prefer to fight in the stance of their base martial art, albeit with some modifications. Punchers use more of a boxing stance (Nick Diaz and Peter Yan), karate guys use a wide and bladed stance (Wonderboy Thompson is a prime example of this), and Muay Thai specialists use the Thai stance (Shogun Rua).

Wrestlers prefer to fight in a lower stance so that they can explode in a takedown attempt faster. Then the stance and game plan change according to the opponent. The vast variety of styles means that you must answer each threat differently.

For example, a superior striker would want to lower his usual stance when fighting someone who wants to take the fight to the ground at all times.

And MMA fighters today are very well rounded, and no one in the higher levels depends on a single area of combat. With that, specialized fighting stances are rarer to see.

To summarise, a standard MMA stance is best for a well-rounded athlete. One to teach beginners that still have no inclinations to any particular area of MMA would be very similar to the kickboxing stance, but with a slightly lower center of weight and feet further apart to defend takedown attempts.

BJJ Stances

Grappling stances differ quite a bit from striking stances. In BJJ especially, the stance does not play such a significant role. The most used stances are generally taken from judo and wrestling. Still, BJJ competitions matches start standing, and practitioners still need to use a stance before they get rolling, so here are the main aspects of it:

  • Feet are staggered and shoulder-width apart
  • Feet are pointing point forward
  • Knees are bent heavily
  • Hands are around chest height, elbows are tucked, and the hands are protecting the collars and sleeves of the gi.

This is what a BJJ stance usually looks like, but many competitors use fluid stances and movements.

Wrestling Stances

A solid stance is the key to success in wrestling. There is no more dependable way of ending up on your back than standing upright against a decent wrestler. A ready stance is crucial in the sport where scoring points is made by taking down your opponent and trying to pin him on his back. Here is how to get into it:

  • Feet are hip distance apart, one in front of the other
  • The knees are bent almost at 90 degrees, and the waist is hinged
  • The shoulders, knees, and toes must be aligned
  • Hands are in front and bent at the elbows
  • Eyesight is oriented forward towards the opponent

One of the most critical aspects of the wrestler’s stance is the bend in the knees and hips. In wrestling, it’s usually better to be lower than your opponent, as it’s easier to shoot or grab a leg while making it harder for the adversary to do the same.


The fighting stance is crucial in martial arts because it efficiently executes movement attacks and defenses. However, they are not static positions but positions that you pass through in between movements.

They must be loose and fluid. Different martial arts have different stances based on what strikes are allowed and how competitions are scored. Explore them and find the one that works best for you in your martial art.

About the author 

Plamen Kostov

Plamen has been training for the last 14 years in karate and kickboxing, before settling in for MMA for the last 5 years. He has a few amateur kickboxing fights and currently trains with and helps a stable of professional and amateur MMA fighters.


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