3 Secrets to Improve Your Cat Stance (Neko Ashi Dachi)

Do you know the cat stance?
rika_usami_neko

The cat stance, or ‘neko ashi dachi’ in Japanese, is one of the hardest stances in Karate.

It can often feel shaky, awkward and frail.

But once you master it…

Wow!

It’s one of the most impressive things in Karate.

A solid cat stance oozes of fierce beauty and deadly grace – just like a majestic leopard, ready to pounce on its pray.

How can you achieve this?

By following a simple formula:

Angle, Align & Adjust.

Check it out…

#1: Angle – 30 Degrees Out

neko_dachi_1

Let’s start with the first fix:

What angle is your back foot pointing at?

When I teach seminars in different dojos around the world, it seems everyone does it differently. Sometimes I see 45 degrees, sometimes I see 90 degrees.

But nobody seems to know exactly.

The answer?

30 degrees.

The angle of your back foot should not exceed 30 degrees of external rotation.

Why? Because that’s how the human body works best (in this stance).

More specifically, that’s how your hip stabilizes.

You see, the hip joint is a so called ball-and-socket joint, which means that muscular tension alone is not enough to make it firm. To make your cat stance stable, you need internal rotation in your back leg. This is due to a basic biomechanical principle.

  • The more you open up your back leg, the weaker your cat stance becomes.
  • The more you close your back leg, the stronger your cat stance becomes.

Easy, right?

“But Jesse-san, if I turn my back foot in, I lose balance!”

True.

That’s why you should angle your back foot 30 degrees (instead of 15 or 20, which would improve your hip stability even more, but make your balance much worse).

30 degrees is the optimal angle to achieve hip stability and balance.

But that’s just the first piece of the puzzle.

Next, let’s align your knee…

#2: Align – Knee & Foot

neko_dachi_3

Your foot and knee go together like carrot cake and milk.

Flawlessly.

So, if your back foot is pointing in one direction but your knee is pointing in another direction, you’re headed for disaster – because that’s not how your body functions best.

The human knee is designed to go in the same direction as the foot.

This holds true for every stace, of course.

(That’s why I wrote this popular article: Warning: This #1 Karate Mistake Could Destroy Your Health Forever.)

If your knee and foot is not aligned, you might eventually experience pain.

If you then add speed, power or external load to the equation, a knee injury is destined to happen.

Don’t make that common mistake.

Strive to always align your knee with your foot.

This is especially important for women and girls, who have naturally greater joint flexibility than men. Their knees collapse to the sides more easily, which makes them more susceptible to ACL tears and joint health issues.

Always track your foot with your knee.

Finally, let’s adjust your weight…

#3: Adjust – Butt Behind Heel

neko_dachi_2

Imagine this:

Draw a vertical line from your butt to the floor.

Where did it end?

In a perfect cat stance, it should end 2 inches / 5 centimeters behind your back heel.

This means your main point of gravity, called ‘tanden’ in Japanese, is correctly aligned with your center line.

If you don’t adjust your weight to the back, you’ll have too much weight to the front.

That puts unhealthy stress on the wrong parts of your body, and might lead to dysfunctional overcompensation in your movements.

Your weight needs to be on your back leg.

However, it’s important that you achieve this the right way.

Don’t just stick your butt out. That will disrupt your structural integrity, and can lead to spinal disc herniation. (I know two people who this happened to already. Their x-rays are stuff of nightmares.)

Instead, try to maintain a straight spine and just shift your entire upper body back.

Your should feel your weight transfer to your back heel.

Now, draw a line down from your butt to the floor.

Is it 2 in / 5 cm behind your rear heel?

Then you know it’s adjusted.

_______

That’s it!

3 quick fixes to improve your cat stance.

  1. Angle your back foot 30 degrees out.
  2. Align your supporting knee and foot.
  3. Adjust your weight back, not forward.

Write this down somewhere!

There are other important details too, like ankle mobility and unilateral leg strength. But I already covered those in a recent episode of Karate Nerd Insider™, my weekly private video subscription club.

Question: What’s your biggest problem with stances in general?

Leave a comment & let me know.

Thanks!

46 Comments

  • Alex Rocha
    My biggest problem is with resistance in that stance, any tips? Gojushihodai is a nightmare for me kkk (but the most amazing kata I think)
    • Thanks for your comment Alex-san! What do you mean with "resistance", exactly? Like, from gravity? Or from physical stiffness (i.e. ankles, hips)? Cheers!
      • Alex Rocha (From Brazil, sorry my English)
        From physical stiffness, I've been training for championships and gojushihodai (for example) is the most tiring kata that I have to do. Depending on the order, I almost can't finish him. =x
  • Colin Geddings
    Dear Sensei Jesse,My biggest problem as far as stances go is sometimes when transitioning from one to another my stance ends up too wide or narrow? Please help
    • Colin-san, thanks for chiming in! It sounds like you need to work on consistency when it comes to your stances. A great way to control the width of your stances is to practice every transition slowly (slow motion), while maintaining full control of your movement. Gradually, you'll be able to increase the speed while maintaining correct start/end positions. Makes sense? Good luck!
      • Colin Geddings
        Will do! Thanks for the help/reply. I hope to train with you one day soon.Osu!
  • Great stuff! Looking forward to something similar but for kokutsu dachi :)
  • Elias
    Arrigato gozaimasu Jesse Sensei. You are a brilliant master. My question is, why is kokutsu dachi extensively used in shotokan Katas and not so in shorin ryu, shito ryu or even goju ryu; What style did Osensei Gichin Funakoshi originally do?
    • Elias-san, I'll try to keep the answer simple. From the beginning, neko ashi dachi and Shotokan's kokutsu dachi were used in the exact same way. It was basically the same stance. However, as Karate transformed from an Okinawan figting art to a Japanese form of mass calisthenics, the kokutsu dachi was made bigger and bigger. You can see this development in Funakoshi's books. He originally practiced old-school Shorin-ryu, where the modern version of kokutsu dachi is non-existent. This is why many people have difficulties with kokutsu dach, since it doesn't have the natural, practical applicability of most other stances (due to it's aforementioned history).
    • Jan Stefanovic
      Hi Elias,sorry, but gojuryu do have kokutsu dachi! You basically stand in zenkutsu dachi, turn your body the other way and... you now standing in gojuryu version of kokutsu dachi.OsssuJan
  • Alan Leslie
    I noticed you never touched on the position of the front leg. I see alot of people with the knee facing outward leaving a nice gap for a kin geri or a train to get through lol
    • Very good observation, Alan-san! Great point.
  • Chantal Denise
    It looks so easy when Rika ends up in this stance. Thanks for showing that it's not ;)Well, biggest problem in general: Staying low. I have no clue how often my very first trainer reminded me to stay in a lower stance. I didn't want to make her angry, I just wasn't physically capable to do it. My legs started burning and after some time, shaking. Now I am working on my thighs and it is getting better. However, it sucks being so tall because all the others seem like standing really low and I have to adapt to this ;)
    • Chantal-san, I'm 184 cm tall. It was never easy for me either, but if you work on hip and ankle mobility, plus leg strength, you can do it too. Show your body who the boss is!
  • RDavey
    My biggest issue with stances is tightness in my calves and excessive external rotation in my legs. I caught a case of plantar fasciitis while in the Army; I had failed the run portion of my PT test, and they kept making me take it everyday until I passed it.By the third day my knees started hurting, and from that point on the pain occurred every time I finish running. An Army doctor told me the problem was really below the knee, in my calves and ankles, and that I have to stretch my calves 6x and day from now on.As long as I stay on top of my stretching and don't overdo it on runs, I'm fine. I also have to keep a mental note to actively rotate my legs and feet inwards on all my stances, even a simple ready stance. I'm grateful that I went through that, because now I help my classmates who are aged 50+ and have PLHC and lower body joint issues. Because I go through it myself, I notice it quickly when others's stances are incorrect. It makes me a better teacher, which is the lesson I'm learning these days.
    • So true! "To teach is to learn twice..." By the way, have you thought about applying myofascial release to your calves, feet? I'm pretty sure it would help.
      • RDavey
        Oh yes, I do that before and after each workout...sorry, I forgot to mention that. I do need to upgrade to a stiffer roll, or maybe use tennis balls or something.
  • Chantal Denise I feel your pain. My legs are long in proportion to the rest of my body (finding a pair of jeans that aren't "floodwaters" is challenging). So I have to really work to get good stances. The advantage is I cover a LOT of ground very quickly in kumite :-)My problem with basic stances (not fighting stance)? I'm flippin' slow. I have a feeling it's a combination of tension and the fact that my muscles would really rather be on a comfy couch eating bon-bons (like any sensible middle-aged lady, LOL) rather than pushing hard to achieve ideal stances five or six days per week.
  • Cory
    Jesse-San, if I'm training alone, how do I know the distance between my heel and butt? Is there a better way of figuring out the correct position alone?
    • Cory - I have an idea. Use masking tape to mark two inches from the wall. Put your heel on the tape. Put your back on the wall while doing cat stance. Hope this works :-)
      • Cory
        Thank you, Joelle-San! You're a brilliant creative thinker!
        • @Jesse Enkamp and Cory - Awww, you guys are sweet, you're welcome!
  • Neville Harris
    Thanks for this article, Jesse-san. I used to be a Dan grade in American Kenpo Karate, years ago, but have been practising Shito-Ryu Shukokai for the past few years. American Kenpo has two versions of the Cat Stance: 45 degrees, or 90 degrees; I've never liked the Cat Stance because it has always felt flimsy to me. Thanks to your article, I've just noticed that I've been habitually using the 45 degree version in my Shito Ryu training; now, changing it to thirty degrees has instantly created a stronger, and more stable, stance that I am looking forward to working with!
  • Sooraj Kumar
    Dear sensei, Thank you for the article...i have been facing this problem since a very long time...could not figure out how to fix it. Really helpful it is....excited to read more of your article.
  • Akshat chaudhari
    Wow thanks for that i have my black belt exam on 29-30 april and 1 may . Thank you sensei , it is really so great of you ro share your in depth knowledge about this You answer the questions i never thought of Thank you sensei
  • Cristian
    Well, Jesse-san, my biggest problem isn't with Nekko-Ashi-Dachi, but with Hangetsu-Dachi. I never understend this stance. How can be usefull? Who practice Shotokan-ryu doesn't feel strange with this stance? Arigato.
  • Jeff Coder
    Jesse, so you have these 3 things, 30 deg angle, foot & knee alignment, heel - butt adjustment and I agree with all of that but there is a 4th element. Your torso must be leaning forward about 15 - 20 degrees. This will help to set your stance and balance.
    • Alan Leslie
      New one on me as far as I know back should be straight. Way I was taught anyway?
  • Senthilkumar Sundaram
    Thank you Jesse-Sensei for this wonderful article. On the front foot, what would you recommend as the ideal distance from the back foot please - one foot distance?Osu!
  • Andreas Kluge
    Hi Jesse-sensei! Thx for your great article!!! I'm with you as a Karate Nerd. For now my biggest problem with stances is a 180degree turn in shiko dachi, like in seienchin ...Arigato gozaimazu Andreas-san
  • Richard
    HI Jesse-san!My biggest problem with my stances – nearly all of them – is my ankle. It’s just so stiff. In my style kyokushin the primary stance for kihon, is the sanchin-dachi of course. I try to apply it, but my foot just can’t point to the right way – i have to admit, i’m a little bit knock-kneed unfortunately –, I can’t bend my knees enough the right direction, and the weight of my body loads entirely on my ankles. Because that, it hurts a lot, after a rough practice in sanchin-dachi, and I know that shouldn’t be like that. Karate is about remain healthy, but not to destroy your main joints in your legs. Same problem with my ko?kutsu- and nekoashi-dachi. I can’t low my weight enough, because my ankle and calf are just so stiff. Even if my knee point toward the direction of my foot, I just can’t bend it enough and lower my body, because my calf resist. I just start to feel that, I’m anatomically unsuitable for karate – however, I just don’t want to give up that easy.Do anyone ever face this kind of problem? What could i do, to fix this issue? If you can, help me Jesse-san, onegaishimasu.
  • sunny
    I'm not sure if this is a problem. I do believe that the direction of your knees should be the same as the direction of your toes. But when I do straddle leg stance, that's pointing your knees infront together with your toes, right? I get to experience pain after a few minutes maintaining that stance (2 to 3 minutes i guess, but it is bearable, only that I'm afraid it will cause me injury in the long run). I want to know, is it because maybe, just maybe, I have a bad knee? if so, will I ever get to achieve the perfect straddle leg stance?Thank you for this article!
  • Daniel
    Hello Jesse-San, stances can be very powerful in determining the overall performance of your kata and I personally would like to improve mine and I'm sure I speak for others aswell in saying that ,so, while I dislike asking people to do things, would you mind writing another article on how to improve another stance, preferably Shiko-Dachi, I say that because I am a Shito-Ryu practitioner, no worries, thank you
  • Kylie R
    Hi Sensei Jesse, my knee is not aligned with my back foot as my knees point inward on a 45 degree angle, making several stances painful, and sometimes impossible. Cat stance tends to hurt my hips as I also have one leg shorter than the other.Do you have any tips on how I could try and improve my cat stance, or should I continue doing it the way I have been? (it can't be that bad as I am weeks away from a brown belt)
  • Michael Loughrie
    That person has chubby legs :D
  • Karla
    My biggest problem in the back stances when testing for brown and black belt if u do not have a good stance they will kick ur froumt leg out from under you how can I improve it
  • I actually hate kokutsu dachi! I used to practice karate while in primary school, but recently returned to the lessons, after 13 years of inactivity. I now feel better than ever, but I have a general problem with lowering my stances - I simply can't bend my ankle that much!
  • Danny
    FOOT CRAMPS: Thanks Sensei for a great explanation and the AAA tip. It will greatly help me practice my stance. Can you please guide me on how to avoid foot cramps (in toes and planter fascia) while training in the dojo. I do take magnesium capsules , drink plenty of water and stretch the cramp out but it doesn't always help and hinders my training.
  • Jesse Jesse... I search for many time this secret... And you tell them all. Goodboy... :) :D
  • Daniel Boiani
    Thank you for this excellent breakdown. I think one more tip might be to avoid carrot cake, but otherwise, great tip! :)
  • Vibeke
    Great article.. I've got issues with my knees due osteoarthritis - it prevents me from getting the cat-stand - this is something I'll try to remember ?
  • Robson Freitas
    Arigato, Jesse-Sensei! My problem with stances is with my knee when i perform any hand strike. Knees does follow the hip movement, making my stance unstable and 'ugly' -- specially when i pratice Sochin. Kime is a constant problem too. When i train Kihon i don't have problems (according to my sensei), but with katas, and worse, when i gotta perform a turn with shuto uke... disaster.
  • Andy Zarins
    Thank you for demystifying nekoashi-dachi Jesse-Sensei, now I can explain the principles with more conviction! It is really cool to be part of this Karate community!! All the best - Andy
  • Akay Ph?m
    My karate teacher said neko dachi in shotokan is different from the neko dachi in shitoryu. He said the gravity of the body is mostly on the behind leg in shotokan, the gravity of the body is on between two legs in shitoryu . The shotokan neko dachi is shorter than the shitoryu neko dachi. The leg behind open to 45 degrees in shotokan, in shitoryu is 20-30 degrees. Is it true Jesse sensei ?
  • Thomas
    Hi Jesse-San, I would like to know more about Kiba dachi, it seems the dachibis designed fro ppl who have O type legs(most of Japanese). Comparing to shiko dachi, it is natural and comfortable. May I know what is your opinion?

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