Prevalent opinion among majority of “internal” martial arts followers is that no strength training is needed and they will get necessary power form “internal” sources which they “cultivate” through different kind of exercises which do not involve any hard work. Many of the teachers of these arts hold a position that strength training of any kind will actually damage “Internal” training and slow down if not completely stop students’ advancement in internal skills development. More than just have such claims, there are actually a whole bunch of pseudoscientific explanations why strength training damage and is opposed to “internal’ training.
How and why people started to believe in these claims is a matter of long social, historical, economical and psychological study and far beyond the format of one blog article. The main point is that reality of fighting and historical sources as well as a large number of teachers who still preserve traditional way of training show completely different picture. In violent times of Qing dynasty rule martial arts were in deed a tool of survival and no one cared about “internal cultivation” of anything, the only thing people were considered about was efficiency of their arts. In fact there was no such a thing as “internal” or “external” martial arts at the time, that classification came to existence in the 1920’s. No matter what style someone practiced basic requirements for successful fighting were same as today-punching power, kicking power and overall body strength to successfully execute grappling techniques must be at certain level, even more , because people at the time didn’t fight for sport but for survival.
Let’s take a look at the most famous “internal” art today, Tai Chi. Common perception of Tai Chi is that art is slow, effortless, doesn’t require any physical strength. On the other hand Tai Chi teachers spread stories how heroes of the past fought using this very art and defeated countless enemies and they manage to do that by “cultivating” (I really hate that word used in martial arts context) “internal” powers. Of course , all these stories are pure lies. Like it was said before, ‘internal” development was not part of martial arts at the time, Qigong was mixed with kung fu by the very end of Qing dynasty rule and republican period. Also, Tai Chi teachers today fail to mention how those old masters actually practiced their arts.
Chenjiagou Village, in China’s Henan province, is the place where style today known as Tai Chi was created. Many Chen family members made their living as bodyguards or merchant caravans escort. In more recent times Chen villagers protected the region from roving gangs of bandits, several major battles between Chen villagers and bandits are well documented .
Practice in Chenjiagou allows to cut through many misunderstandings about Tai Chi and to see firsthand acquiring skills process. In essence Tai Chi is a close range throwing and grappling system. While highest level of proficiency really do not use too much physical power they are extremely hard to achieve and only few lucky ones with enough of time can come that level. But achieving that level is impossible without passing all lower levels of proficiency and they all include strength. It is impossible to build real combat reflexes that respond to real attacks without using any kind of power. At the beginning it will be strength against strength technique execution, which is completely normal and this, as any other step cannot be skipped. Next level can roughly be explained as strength plus technique in execution that will ensure the victory. Over time, as reflexes become better and experience grow the amount of strength used in technique execution will decrease, but will never stop completely, not in the realistic condition of fighting (whether it is a competition match or self defense situation). In the past strength training of Tai Chi was much more rigorous than today but it is still pretty demanding.
|Tai Chi stone lifting exercise|
As in many other styles, lifting heavy stones is done as a means to training the waist and lower body. There is still 80 kg stone used by Yang Lu Chan when he was learning Tai Vhi in Chen village . Tai Chi Ball training is used to strengthen the torso, condition the muscles, and in- crease physical power. Stories are handed down of past masters training with stone balls weighing 60kg. Students in the Chenjiagou today use a basketball filled with sand to train the system’s unique rotational movement.
|Tai Chi stone ball|
Weapons training is another means of developing strength in the Chen Tai Chi curriculum. Today’s practitioners use weapons ranging from a few kilograms to more than twenty kilos.
|Training with heavy pole weapon characteristic for almost all kung fu styles , Tai Chi , Ba Gua and Xing Yi included|
Xing Yi, one of the” major three” representative of internal arts uses a lot of strength training. For beginning Xing Yi practitioners are doing lots of pushups, ab exercises, variations of squatting exercises, partner resistance work, isometrics and bag work,. If we look at many of the traditional Xing Yi neigong sets (, we will find many exercises that serve the function of strengthening the body, in addition to training other specific aspects of that particular art. Weights of different size and shape are used in this arts for various training purposes
|Wight training in Xing Yi|
Ba Gua training in Taiwan and China has a lot of conditioning and strength training. In addition to lots of pushups , sit ups and squats Ba Gua has some specific exercises and training tools for developing power. A 3m-long resistance cord is used, with the two ends fixed to something solid. The practitioner should try to move slowly with the cord resisting the arms, legs or waist. One can practice this on the spot or with moving steps. Spring cord is similar to the above exercise, with the cord attached to springs rather than a solid wall. Heavy iron ball is also used in training for developing certain physical attributes in this style
|Using iron balls in Ba Gua training|
Baji quan uses a vast array of different exercises for conditioning with emphasis on legs and core muscles. There are a lot of two man resistance drills, as well as a lot of general physical fitness exercises and weight training. Using heavy versions of traditional weapons and heavy poles is also used.
|Bjiquan , training shoulder strike on a tree|
As we can see, traditional practicing approach in “internal” styles include lots of pure “external” physical conditioning and strength training which is necessary if given art is to be used in competition or real life confrontation.