The Role of Physical Conditioning in Taiji

… I next started training Taijiquan. The Taiji folks leave me scratching my head the most on the subject of conditioning. They seem to be the most set against physical conditioning, out side of doing their basics, and forms.

via Conditioning and Resistance Training | Murphy Martial Arts

The above snippet caught my attention and made me think about my own training. Mike Murphy goes into more details on the reasoning and some potential pitfalls for weight lifting and/or resistance training, see the above link for more.

Like Mike, and everyone else in the world, I am getting older.  As I get older, I think more and more about my overall health and well-being.

Muscle reaches its maximum size by about the age of 25 in most people. There is then about a 10% decrease between the age of 25 and 45 with a 45% shrinkage over the next 30 years. But why does so much muscle tissue disappear, and why does the degeneration accelerate after the age of 50?

— Source: The loss of muscle mass and bone density with age – and how to stop it!

The general recommendation is for people to engage in both aerobic and resistance type training. In regards to taiji, I do not see any issues with doing ANY type of aerobic training, whether it be running, biking or swimming. My Cardio of choice was swimming, but I am thinking about getting a stationary bicycle for the basement.

As for resistance training, I have also heard stories that taiji people should not lift weights.  However, at the same time, I have read about taiji masters practicing with heavy poles and engaging in low stances. Is this not resistance training?

I would say the answer is yes, however I think of it more as functional training.  I have noticed a shift in the fitness world from straight weight lifting to functional exercises.  When I was at the gym, I saw a guy practicing baseball style swings using weights attached to a pulley as resistance.  Likewise, I have seen people practicing taiji circle exercises using surgical tubes affixed to a post.  In theses examples, some resistance is used to train a particular physical function, whether it be swinging a baseball bat or performing a taiji circle.

Personally, I believe in functional training.  I consider push-ups and sit-ups and most bodyweight exercises to fall into this functional category.  Exercises that offer a combined strength, balance and coordination training are all good in my book.  In fact, Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga fits the bill quite nicely and is something I definitely want to incorporate more into my daily routine.  Let us all try and achieve a simple goal of being able to do 100 Push-Ups, that should fall within reason, right?

… Additionally, I would consider the ability to personally maintain a healthy body weight, an excellent state of overall physical fitness, and the ability to apply the Form Postures to self-defense as a soft style internal kung-fu art. In the end, whatever is expressed outwardly….our personal demonstration…is a reflection of what we think and feel inwardly. [via]

What are your own thoughts on the role of physical conditioning in taiji? Is it “all in the form” or is there more to it?

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taiji, meditation and health
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21 Responses to The Role of Physical Conditioning in Taiji

  1. jussumdood says:

    Murphy's observation regarding Chen villagers being farmers is right on the money- when I first started training IMA, I worked at a tree nursery, ball&burlap in the fields as well up in the mountains digging wild trees- talk about whole body exercise- and I could kick some ass. Nowadays I teach at a community college, and no amount of forms and Zhan Zhaung training seems to get me where I need to be in terms of power for real life encounters. Kettlebells seem to come the closest to replicating the results of heavy manual labor.

  2. Shang Lee says:

    I've debated this with myself before. For now, I'm inclined to focus on internal relax-ness. I would love to be able to do flexibility exercises e.g. split, high kicks and strength exercises, but the mind-set required to achieve those seems counter-productive to learning tai ji. For now, i've kept those flexible / strength training aside. I still run, do yoga, swim, play basketball, play badminton etc. I find Tai Ji helps in increasing the efficiency of those activities due to the increase sensitivity. If i have to divide my time, i still choose Tai Ji for now. There's only so much time, and there's only one me. I can't be good in all those things, so I focus on the one I really want to be good at, and do the others for fun. Of course, Tai Ji is fun too. 🙂

  3. wujimon says:

    Shang, by running, yoga, swimming, basketball and badminton, you're all goodin my book bro! I just wished I did all the activities you do on a regularbasis. I think if people maintain good physical health, then it's all goodand everything else is just icing on the cake.For me, I used to think all that I need is taiji …

  4. Varun Pratap says:

    I think the biggest mistake taiji people make is to remove the Martial aspect of taiji. The old masters of taiji trained their taiji like their life depended on it and it did. Not counting the fact often most of them worked as farmers or had some kind of heavy duty jobs. As far as taiji doesn't need resistance training is just an excuse for being too lazy.If it's only about health, then why do taiji? why not anything else like yoga, pilates?

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  6. Shang Lee says:

    I don't do the others on a regular basis… 😉 Tai Ji is great for legs, not so much for anything above the waist, muscle wise… but why would you need so much muscle?

  7. wujimon says:

    Hi Shang. For some, taiji may be the *only* form of physical activity, therefore could be lacking in areas of trying to develop general physical health and well-being. Hence basic calisthenics. Again, if someone is active, then all this is moot 😉

  8. wujimon says:

    Great point, Varum, about not removing the martial aspects of the art! Even better point about if only interested in health, there are other exercises better suited!

  9. Guest says:

    The practice of internal movement in Tai Chi form essentially is the practice of fa jin in a slow and methodical way, without the issuance of power. then you can play the form instinctively without thinking, then you can do fa jin instinctively.If you try to do fa jin some form of internal discipline (neigong), then you will push with your arm strength and acquire a bad habit for the use of the arm…then a vicious circle as it makes the learning of internal discipline more difficult. The matter of more “external” strength as not being a part of that equation, stands to reason.

  10. gregorylent says:

    100 pushups? never in my life could i do more than 35 .. but i can sit in meditation for a few hours .. that seems enough for me

  11. Jim R. says:

    Unless, there is some caveat which mandates (wink, wink) Tai Chi is really only “internal” in the mental realm, eg. “He does his Tai Chi with an inward looking demeanor”, then “internal” means the “physical” internal discipline.It is not possible to do an internal movement and an external one at the same time, an external can precede or follow an internal but they cannot coexist in the same space and time. Also, when one's internal discipline permeates the body, it becomes next to impossible to even raise one's arm to scratch an itch with engaging the musculature of the core. Rhetorically speaking, what does one do with “arm strength” if it cannot be used in the same space and time as “internal”? For example, if I push against a wall using my arms, I will push myself away. However, (internally) using the core to engage the abdomen and back muscles as I push and relaxing the arms, I feel a tremendous surge going into the wall. There is nothing that super arm strength can add to the internal aspect, in fact it works against it if I strain at the arms. Of course if one does not subscribe to a physical internal discipline, then the point is moot.

  12. Rick T says:

    Tiaji is not the form… if one chooses to develop the connection and internal movement correctly… both physical conditioning and health can be by-products… the deeper issues is understanding… what correct movement is… anyone who has gotten a good adjustment form a highly skilled teacher can tell you that it can be a pretty good workout… even something as simple as standing practice can be a pretty good workout… just my thoughts.

  13. wujimon says:

    I agree that simple standing practice can physically challenging. In fact, I am still sore from our little bit of standing done over the weekend! In fact, brings back vivid feelings of The Burn!

  14. wujimon says:

    Hi Jim. The wall push you describe sounds like the exact same thing we were doing at the Chen Zhonghua workshop in March 2009! Master Chen called it Static Power Training. Here is a picture of us doing it against a wall: static power training flickr photo

  15. Jim R. says:

    It is indeed “not the form” for a vast number of students in Taiji. This is why Yang Wabiu (disciple of Wu Chien Chuan) was unhappy with the fecklessness of so many Taiji students when he first came to the U.S. from Hong Kong. Or, why Sonia Young (Yang Wabiu's daughter) asked Eddie Wu (gatekeeper of Wu Jianquan Style) why she saw the lack of attention paid to the form at the Hong Kong Wu Style Studio. You are right “it is not the form”…

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  17. Dave Chesser says:

    “It is not possible to do an internal movement and an external one at the same time, an external can precede or follow an internal but they cannot coexist in the same space and time. Also, when one's internal discipline permeates the body, it becomes next to impossible to even raise one's arm to scratch an itch with engaging the musculature of the core.”Part of the problem is that these two sentences are at odds with each other. If you're engaging the core musculature, then how is that not “external”? If engaging the core is part of the definition of “internal” then so-called external training has a lot in common with it.”Rhetorically speaking, what does one do with 'arm strength' if it cannot be used in the same space and time as 'internal'?This shows another aspect of the same problem — physical conditioning is always assumed to be isolated muscle strength via arms, chest, etc. The fact that no sport and few good exercise programs operate that way never seems to make it's way into the conversation. So we're arguing against a straw man here.Engaging the core is at the…well….core of what functional training and even weightlifting is all about. You couldn't do a power clean or any other Olympic lift without it. Unfortunately the conversation will never get off this merry-go-round until we get more IMA guys to actually train in so-called external methods so they can see the connections.

  18. Jim R. says:

    Dave, take a look at the “mouseovers” at http://www.classicaltaichi.com. I see what you are saying and certainly agree that “power cleans” need the core. I refer to the mobilization of the extremities via the core and very sophisticated/complex movements as a result of that mobilization. Of course, most who see the movements at the website dismiss them immediately because they are small and unassuming. The most often taken alternative is to opt for a Tai Chi that is flashier.. Additionally, the movements are dismissed because people do not believe it is possible to move in this way. What would be the harm in …say…trying the movements at http://www.youtube.com/parea10 for say a month or so. A kind of experiment, to test the veracity of what I say before dismissing me.One can literally mobilize the extremities to make movements that are extremely sophisticated. As I said, it is not possible to make an internal and an external movement at the same time…we are just not talking about the same “internal”.

  19. Dave Chesser says:

    Yes, i've seen the mouseovers. Nice website BTW. I like what you guys are doing but again that style of movement isn't unknown in the realm of fitness. Scott Sonnon would be the best example:

    If you watch that clip, you'll see he's using the dantian/core to drive the kettlebell. At 0:53 he even mentions loading the tissues spirally in a contra lateral pattern as you would for taichi's brush knee. This is fairly par for the course in kettlebell work, for example.So again, we aren't talking about using isolated strength as most IMA guys assume. Much of this stuff is more sophisticated than people allow. Not saying this is all that internal movement entails, but it's a key piece of the puzzle.

  20. Jim R. says:

    Since this discussion has managed to stay civil, I'll guess we'll just have to say we will continue to disagree without being disagreeable. Good luck.

  21. ChenKD says:

    What Chesser is saying is spot on. Any distinction between internal and external martial arts has been vague and confusing.
    They are just different explanations (and mental preperations) of the same thing.
    Bruce Lee couldn’t have put it better when he said, “you want to know what internal and external power is? Not two…”

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