Strength Training and Internal Arts
Thought I would share my response to a question this morning:
What’s your opinion about strength training with weights, or body weight while studying Bagua, Tai chi and Xinyi?
Strength training is absolutely a part of martial arts. However, it is very much a case of training smarter, not harder. Weight training and body weight training are great ways to build muscle and strength. In Chinese martial arts it would be called Ox Strength or Stupid Strength simply because it is not a coordinated strength for martial purposes at first. But having a stronger body is not a disadvantage by any means. My teacher would say “You do not have to be stronger or faster than your opponent, but it sure helps!”
The other side of the coin of course is that learning to move things like weights around purely with singular muscle groups (like in body building) is teaching you to use the body in a way that is counter productive to internal training. So, as always, it comes down to balance. Growing stronger is good if it is coupled with proper movement and principles. A stronger internal martial artist has more potential power than a weaker one but also tends to rely more on being stronger than the opponent out of force of habit. This is a tough habit to break since we do it instinctively and as internal arts teachers we are constantly trying to get students out of this habit and thus tend to tell them not to do strength training as it can reinforce those habits.
All that being stated I think that training with weight is helpful and have done it myself. But it must be done very mindfully. Either divorce the strength training from martial movements and then work heavily to integrate your strength into them slowly looking at each principle; or train the movements themselves under weight while carefully being sure to not resist the weight and instead move it with the coordination of the body as is customary in internal arts. This is very slippery slope however and if not done correctly can absolutely screw things up resulting in more bad habits than good ones.
When I began training Bagua my first teacher would use the phrase “Get under your arms” very often. I had a difficult time trying to understand this as I was still interpreting power as strength at the time and so I would raise my arms up and hope I was ‘under’ them. When I started training bagua with iron rings on I first found that my shoulders would get sore from holding up the weight. Since I would constantly get the correction to drop and relax my shoulders in classes I made the connection that the shoulders should not be what was holding up the weight of the rings in the first place. The hands start at the lower back, and that is where the first muscular contraction when lifting the arms takes place. That then cascades up the body to the shoulders and onwards. When I realized this, I was able to settle my shoulders down more and allow the weight of the rings to transfer to the lower back – finally getting me ‘under my arms’.
Training from that point on with the iron rings was worthwhile as I was able to increase strength in the muscular chain of events for my arm movements without resisting the weight of the rings. Instead moving them in the way I was taught to while they had some extra weight on them. I worked to repeat the same process through different styles and went a couple of years wearing my ‘bracelets’ a lot. Feeling the heavier engagement and building strength really helped me build power over time. But it was and is absolutely a dangerous way to train without enough observation and understanding of the principles of the movement.