Improve Your Cat Stance: The (Almost) Painless Guide to a World-Class Nekoashi-Dachi

Guys, I have a confession to make:

I love getting feedback.

And since I recently got some inspiring feedback from a national team member of a certain country about how they use my article on how to improve your shiko dachi in their training camps, I got the idea to do a similar post about nekoashi-dachi (neko-dachi) this time around.

Also known as the “cat stance”.

Tominaga Suenori sensei, 8th dan Shotokan Karate, sure knows his nekoashi-dachi.

(“Neko” literally means “cat” in Japanese. “Ashi” means “foot/leg”).

Probably as underestimated as it is misunderstood, a picture-perfect nekoashi-dachi is akin to architecture in my eyes: the ultimate combination of art and engineering. It is high tech and low tech at the very same time; utilitarian and beautiful in the very same moment.

That’s why the nekoashi-dachi is perhaps the hardest of all stances to truly master.

Both theoretically and physically

However, as with all traditional Karate stances out there, the true mastery of nekoashi-dachi lies not so much in visual minutiae (like the fact that the back foot should be rotated 30 degrees outward according to the JKF [Japan Karate-do Federation]), but more in the internal machinery of the “stance”.

To put it briefly; it’s all about your center of gravity.

More specifically, your control over it.

Contrary to popular belief, the real value of nekoashi-dachi lies in its preceeding and subsequent transition – not its static execution or posing (with the notable exception of styles such as Goju-kai and Kojo-ryu, where it’s used as a ‘kamae‘).

Unfortunately, this knowledge isn’t as common as one could wish, which has led to the widespread misconception that the cat stance is “impractical” or “unrealistic” and “would never work in a real fight, dude”.

Oh…

Really?

To poke a hole in that myth, just take a quick look at this snapshot from a recent UFC (Mixed Martial Arts) event that my friend captured. Check out the “cat-stance”!

(Cat vs. crane?)

The real action in nekoashi-dachi happens when you shift your bodyweight (center of gravity) from your natural 50/50 weight distribution (or whatever position you happen to find yourself in) to the 90/10 (back leg/front leg) distribution of the nekoashi-dachi.

With this in mind then, it becomes quite easy to see how the cat stance is actually meant to be practically applied: Quick body shifts from attacks, drops for balance displacement, cutting the angle for defense/offense and much more.

The cat stance probably has as many uses as it has details.

So, now that we’ve got that out of the way; how do we improve the actual stance then? Sure, we know what/how/why it is meant to be used, but still… we want to make it look nice too, right?

Hell yeah we do!

Not only because the ugliest thing in the world has to be a bad nekoashi-dachi, but more importantly because in nine times out of ten the quality of your stance will be based more on how it looks rather than how it actually works (i.e.: being judged at gradings, demos, tournaments etc.).

And although the age-old debate whether “form follows function” or “function follows form” is certainly warranted when it comes to stances (and bunkai too), ultimately we must make function and form merge together into one.

So let’s make that nekoashi-dachi pop!

In my opinion, there are basically only three easy steps you need to follow to get a world-class cat stance in no time:

1. Copy this.

World champion of kata, Rika Usami, is a textbook example:

2. Don’t copy this:

While no disrespect is intended to any of these handsome gentlemen below, their nekoashi-dachi is too off-balanced; and therefore simply too impractical. That’s just not how we roll.

3. Done. Eat some organic chocolate and watch re-runs of Seinfeld. You’re awesome.

You now have a better understanding – and execution – of the cat stance than 98% of Karate practitioners in the world.

Believe me.

(4. What? Got issues? All right, let’s go on then.)

So, you’ve got a problem.

I totally understand.

Believe it or not, some people just can’t do a picture-perfect cat stance no matter how hard they try.

  • Sure, they know what it should look like…
  • …and they even know how it works
  • (and they might even know how to do it!)

…but they still CAN’T actually do it!

If this is the case with you, or if you just wish to have an even better nekoashi-dachi, I can think of two major things that may be impeding your cat stance progress:

– Problem #1: You have bad sight.

Solution: Revisit the 1500+ words I just wrote on the theory and application of the cat stance (remember to look at the images too), and this time make sure you actually have your reading glasses on.

– Problem #2: Your calves are tight.

Solution: If you have tight calf muscles, you are in for a bit of stretching my friend. (This is where the “almost painless” part comes into play in this article’s headline.)

In my experience, short calf muscles are the #1 reason for most people’s trouble with nekoashi-dachi, excluding misunderstood technical details (alignment of hips, knees, feet and back.)

So let’s talk about tight calves, shall we?

Great.

Most people who spend any time wearing shoes with heels (even slightly pronounced ones) probably have tight calves. Why? Because when your heel is elevated, whether it’s because you’ve raised up on your toes or you’re wearing a shoe with heels, your ankle is in a constant state of plantarflexion (moving toward an angle greater than 90 degrees).

When your ankle is in plantarflexion, your calf is contracted and “shortened” – which isn’t optimal. In fact, even if you’re just walking around in some good ol’ tennis shoes with just a half inch or two of heel, your calves are going to languish in mild contraction and end up in a semi-permanent tightened position over time.

(This is just one of the many reason for why I’ve been using barefoot shoes for years.)

Why is this a problem, you ask?

Well, if you have tight calves you probably recognize the following scenario: When you try to sink down on your back leg for the nekoashi-dachi, you can’t get very far down. So, you’ll naturally shift enough body weight forward to maintain your balance over your feet, but this requires ample amounts of ankle dorsiflexion (angle less than 90 degrees) of the back foot instead.

If your calves are too tight, you won’t be able to dorsiflex your ankle though, and your knees won’t be able to travel forward enough to shift a sufficient amount of bodyweight forward to maintain balance (you shouldn’t try to anyway, because the purpose of the nekoashi-dachi is to have the weight back!). So, in the end, tight calves force you to have a crappy nekoashi-dachi in more ways than one.

A good nekoashi-dachi is a all about finding that sweet spot between balance and counter-balance – eventually making it your second nature.

(Except if you have tight calves – then you’ll just have bad balance, because of all the compensating you’re forced to do.)

So, what’s the remedy?

Well…

  • Reduce the time you spend in passive ankle plantarflexion (are you sitting with your heels elevated right now?).
  • Start wearing minimalist shoes with a zero-drop heel. Or just go barefoot more often.
  • When you sit down, try to keep your feet flat on the floor. Too often we point our toes to the ground and elevate our heels.
  • Exercise your calves and ankles. Here’s a helpful video. Here’s another.
  • Mobilize/stretch your calves and ankles. This is a great stretch clip (skip to 3:00). Here’s a quick article describing it.

Personally, I just recommend you squat as much as possible. Like, tons. And do ’em Zercher style (note the “shoes”!).

People who start working on their calves, combining stretching (static and dynamic) with strength training and mobility exercises, start noticing the effects pretty quickly. So I advice you to try it out as soon as you find time.

Your nekoashi-dachi will thank you, and your sensei too.

Anyways, with that being said, I think it’s about time to wrap this ‘troubleshooting’ section up and finally end this article.

Hopefully I have helped you a little bit further on the path to conquering the elusive yet mysteriously powerful cat stance, omnipresent in nearly all styles of Karate for a very good reason: It’s simply an awesome stance.

So make it pop, my friend!

Because a bad nekoashi-dachi might just be the ugliest thing in the world.

Right after a McDojo sign… 😉

10 Comments

  • Hello Jesse. Regarding your recent article on the neko ashi dachi, I thought I would inform you of the following. Keep in mind that, as far as I know, this is not a recent development, but goes back to Shimabuku. In Isshinryu karate, we do the stance quite differently and, in my opinion, effectively. What we do for ALL of our stances is keep our weight distributed 50/50 between the two legs. What makes it a neko ashi dachi is simply the L formation of the feet and the slight raising of the front heel. This change gives the stance entirely different bunkai, and it works marvelously for Jiu-Jitsu. I recommend you try and see the strength of this stance. If you get in a cat stance, with the heel of the back foot lined up with the entirety of the front foot, lift your front heel, keep your knees bent and your hips forward ( as in most other stances,) have someone push you or pull you from straight in front of the you. The stance is quite strong. Neko ashi dachi, if done this way, is also an excellent stance for performing kote hanari, kote mawashi, and other standard jiu-jitsu techniques that I think you (or your readers) would be familiar with (possibly known as sankyu or nikyu, I think.) One advantage of doing the stance this way is that you are always balanced because you are keeping your weight evenly distributed. Your body is still slightly turned, so the stance can be used somewhat for evasion. If you do any Jiu-Jitsu, then you following also works amazingly. First you will need to be in the following stance: (quick note- I could not find a stance in any other martial art that translates to what we call a Seisan stance, though I'm sure it exists. It is basically a Sanchin dachi with the feet pointing straight forward.) Seisan dachi. If you are in a seisan and pivot the rear leg 90 degrees and lift the heel a bit, you will be in what we call a neko ashi dachi. You knees will still be bent, your hips still forward, but your strength will now be shifted to another direction (partially.) Now, if you do this while maintaining a wrist lock or armbar, this can be translated as a break or throw very naturally and easily. If you pivot in such a manner and, simultaneously, bring both your hands to your left side, this seemlessly becomes a wrist break. Before Isshinryu, I used the neko ashi dachi the way everyone else does (with the weight more on the back leg) and doing it this way gives it a whole new series of applications and, even if you don't necessarily agree with it, I believe you are one of the few people open minded enough to explore the value in it.
    • Also, please realize that I am trying to share a different view, and I am not saying the other way is, in any way, incorrect.
      • Odie
        bro I believe it depends on the style how they standardize their own neko ashi dachi... sad to say but thats the inevitable truth... Your style have your way in how to function your nekeashi dachi. I think what jesse-san is explaining is on how to improve the common neko ashi dachi visually and without hurting oneself...
  • Boban Alempijevic
    Jesse-San, you are my hero!I have been having problems with to tight calves .... well as along as I can remember. Time to start stretching and working those calves :D
  • Odie
    Jesse-san thanks for the article! I hope you could've add some information about the nekoashi dachi from other styles: Shito, Shotokan, Wado, Goju, Shorin, Shorinji, Kyudokan, etc... cause I think they have their own way on how to show their neko ashi dachi and I think they have different weight distribution... Right now Im practicing the the 90/10 weight distribution and the 45 degrees foot pointing outward and heel 1 inch above the ground... Hope you could answer little All me... hehehe.; Ossu!
  • elC
    about the pics in "2. don't do it like this": look at some of their knees! that even hurts by only looking at it!and about the practicality: many Muay Thai guys stand in a stance close to cat stance, ready to whip out that front leg any time!
  • Randy
    A word on calf stretching- contrary to old-school practice and popular belief, static stretching of the calves before training is counter productive. In effect, you "turn down" the nervous system's ability to recruit the muscles (gastroc and soleus), making it harder to stabilize, which reduces reactivity and exposes the knee to instability. Go with dynamic stretches pre-training, static stretches post-training. And avoid hanging stretches- i.e., the runner's curb or stair stretch. Look up a wall stretch for the gastrocnemius as well as the soleus- in many cases, people stretch the heck out of the gastroc, but see no improvement due to the soleus remaining hypertonic and short. The other major fixer- self myofascial release/ aka foam rolling. Roll slowly from the Achille's tendon to just below the knee, noting tender points. Then revisit those points with 30 seconds of sustained pressure. so pre-training: dynamic stretches for the gastroc and soleus, with foam rolling. Post-training: static stretches for the gastroc and soleus, with foam rolling. If mobility is still hindered after a few weeks of daily work, your hamstrings may be contributing, and SMR with a tennis ball at the distal heads of the hamstrings, or deep-frission type massage may do the trick. If you have sustained multiple untreated ankle sprains, this is a likely culprit for your ankle mobility issues.
  • Randy
    A word on tight calves from a trainer/kinesiolgist- tight calves are usually secondary to tight hip flexors, and the guilty culprit is often that the soleus muscle (the deeper layer of the calf) is hypertonic, or short and tight. Try these techniques: 1- the "couch stretch" for the hip flexors, hold for at least 30 seconds. And learn how to use your abs to control your lower back position (hint- they pull your ribs down as you "stretch" your lumbar spine to true neutral). Lay on the floor face down, and imagine your ribcage and pelvis as a mouth, now take a bite out of the floor. Or, do a plank, pull your ribs to your belt, and- this is key to not doing the crappy plank that's near-universal- try to bring your elbows and knees together, *without* moving your back or hips. That's what true abdominal stabilization feels like. Don't forget it. 2- Self myofascial release, or SMR/foam rolling with a roller, and with a lacrosse ball. Work from the Achille's tendon up to the back of the knee. Do this before stretching. 3- Now stretch it. Put the ball of your foot against the wall. Stand with tall posture (see note about the ribs down cue). Now lean in, trying to move your knee and chest towards the wall at the same time. Hold for at least 30 seconds. And lastly, learn to squat with this newfound ankle mobility by lifting your your toes off of the ground, trying to drive your heels into the floor, while keeping the whole foot in contact with the floor. It takes some work- but the work is where the benefit is. Enjoy.
  • Jason
    Tight Calves have been the bane of my existence for a LONG TIME. No wonder that stance is so difficult for me!
  • Karin
    Thank you Jesse my calves are tight will work on the stretching techniques. Thank you for all your tips Panda from South Africa

Leave a comment