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All Qi and no Li: why strength training is still important for Chinese (even internal) martial arts

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

Chinese martial arts have a pretty poor standing in the martial arts community at the moment. Arts such as Tai Chi and Wing Chun are practised by a significant number of people in China and the West who are severely out of shape, non-athletic and unhealthy.

Staying at a healthy body composition, maintaining a decent level of muscular strength, aerobic and anaerobic capacity are challenging in today's stressful modern world. I know this as I personally have struggled with my weight and my activity levels. Working at a desk, sitting in front of a computer all day for long hours is stressful and damaging to the body. It ups cortisol which causes all sorts of changes in your behaviour and metabolism, you are hungry, grumpy and lethargic and you do not sleep or eat well. We all know that this happens and much of the wonderful healing properties of internal martial arts practice is that they put the body into the rest state; boots up the parasympathetic nervous system, gives you a big dose of feel good serotonin and lowers cortisol.

This is all great news and the reason why we feel good, sleep better and generally feel more energised and alive when we train arts like Tai Chi. But, we have to remember that stress we are supposed to be recovering from is not generally the stress of hard physical or manual work like it was when these arts were created. We are recovering from phantom physical stress; inactivity and screen time. Even after one or two hours of light internal training, we might well spend all day sitting down.

These internal arts were created by men (and women sometimes) who led tough physical lives by modern standards. They often also trained in and knew external arts before they took up internal arts. Lets look at an example:

Yang Lu Chan and the Yang Family

The legendary founder of Yang style Tai Chi was not a scholar, poet or artist as some might think today. He grew up as a poor farming/worker class from Hebei Province was and studied Changquan (a northern longfist style like Shaolin boxing) in his youth. He worked as household servant in the Chen village. He had a full and busy schedule of demanding physical work, without weekends off. Chinese people at that time did not have weekends, it was work work work all day all week all year with a handful of days off for festivals a year (if you have ever worked in China, or have a Chinese partner you know this attitude survives today!). After all of his daily physical labour he would watch the more affluent Chen family practice and would then practice in secret a few hours a day cutting into his sleep time. After impressing his Chen masters so much he was freed and took on the difficult and dangerous work of being a bodyguard. Something similar to a close protection officer today, and again not a desk job. He rose up in the world of close protection by the route of challenge matches and recommendations. Again, not exactly the image of the gentle tai chi master we see today. Until finally in 1850, Yang landed the dream job at the time, he was hired by the Imperial Family to teach Taijiquan to them and several of their elite Manchurian Imperial Guard Brigade units in Beijing's Forbidden City. Here he trained military personnel and his sons so strictly that many quit and many left with broken bones as well as other serious injuries. This was not an overweight, sedentary, un-athletic or non violent man.

Lessons to learn?

Yang LuChuan was the founder of the most widely practised form of tai chi today. And we know the following:

1) He was already proficient in an external style as boy

2) He worked hard physical jobs all his life

3) He took part in lethal challenge matches to test his skill

4) He trained military personnel and his own sons with extreme rigour and discipline

So we have a problem, we mostly lead sedentary lives and might only practice an internal art. We have all the Yin parts of our training; a well developed educated mind and soft internal training. But, we have no real Yang components; no real stress for our body to grow and recover from.

An easy solution: Strength training

We could take up an external martial art, we could practice our internal arts for long hours each day or get a job working in manual labour but chances are we don't have the time or inclination to do this. Instead a few (1-3) bursts of moderate to high intensity resistance training per week will go a long way to balancing out our training. This will not take much time, increase our strength, improve body composition and athletic performance and give our bodies the natural wear and tear that the internal arts were designed to help us recover from.

This doesn't have to be with western weights (although I think that the barbell has many distinct advantages). It could be with callisthenics (even an internal arts designed program), Russian ballistic style training with a kettlebell, hard qi gong, functional training (grab a heavy sandbag and lug that around your garden for 10 minutes) or any other strength training modality that interests you.

Your tai chi practice will thank you for it I promise!

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