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There is an ongoing debate in the Tai Chi world if strength training and weight lifting is bad or detrimental to Tai Chi practice or not. In fact, this discussion has been prevalent since as long as I can remember. So how is it? Is it really so? Where is the truth in this and from where does this idea originate?

This is my effort to a more nuanced discussion as I try to give establish a background to this debate as well as look at this issue from different points of views. 

I remember the first time I was in China. This was more than twenty years ago when I studied Chinese in the University and I had already studied Tai Chi for over ten years. I stayed together with some friends in a high school and studied Chinese there, it was a class for foreigners. We had Tai Chi on the schedule as well. The teacher taught the 24 form, but he also showed some of us, the young people, some hard gong practice, some drills he thought would do us good. In the group there was also a couple of older women (ok, not very old, they should have been about in their early fifties). They tried out the exercises, but the teacher said them to not do it. The issue, as he explained, is that in Chinese tradition you can develop your muscle strength up till 45 years of age. After that, you should not do it anymore, but instead do other kind of exercises. Instead of strengthening the muscles you should stretch them.

So from this particular point of view, not to do strength exercises has more to do with age than anything else. You should spend your youth by building strength, than later preserve your strength and vigor, but not with muscle building practice.  This view though says nothing about strength training being detrimental to Tai Chi practice.

This idea originates from old traditional thought. In Chinese tradition, when we are born, we are all “Original Essence”. But this essence is slowly replaced by the essence from what we eat, drink, and from the air we breath. And when we grow old, we have very little essence left. And then we die. Tai Chi Chuan is at least partly developed from old Neidan (Internal Alchemy) and today it shares the same philosophy and old view that this type of practice can help the body to store the original essence thus reward us with health and a prolonged life. Waigong, or external practice is regarded as the anti-thesis of Neigong and Neidan practice. From this position, while Tai Chi balances the Yin and Yang in the body, strength practice is all Yang and accelerates the loss of the Original Essence.

This is the philosophical view, which can also be said to have a trace of superstition and religious belief. But it’s also important to realise that a good amount of the reason for the strong belief in the health aspects of Tai Chi Chuan and other similar and older exercises, has to do with experience. If I was going to reflect over my own experience, I can tell you that all of my Tai Chi teachers are all old. Chinese or not, they all look very strong, young and healthy for their own age (except for maybe one who smoked too much, a common problem in China). The important thing here is that for many decades and as they grow old, they never did any other exercise than Tai Chi Chuan, other IMA practice and qigong. The only thing that kept them strong was internal practice, so they solely relied on this type of practice.

This can be hard to understand from a Western mind-set and experience. But in China, for many hundreds of years, hard exercise and sweating has been associated  with lower class labor. And in fact, much of what you see now called internal practice, was designed and developed, not only in Daoist temples, but also in the high society in China for middle and upper class people that thought that it was a low class thing to work out hard and sweat.

So by this, you should realise that Chinese internal practice is a Chinese cultural phenomena, with quite a complex history. But again, the most important thing here is experience. As many people have only done internal practice for at least most of their adult years, the belief has certainly not only to do with superstition. There is a good amount of personal experience, and the traditions of internal practice have been developed through the experience of many people who lived in the last one thousand years.

But still, even if the history and culture provides with a good background, it still doesn’t really answer the question about if strength training or weight lifting is detrimental to Tai Chi or not. In my now opinion, there is a problem with weight lifting, or excessive weight lifting, but does not always or automatically create problems.

In fact, there were a few old school Tai Chi practitioners who were very strong, well built and were not shy to show off their muscles. They usually worked as guards or bodyguards, thus they needed good body strength. One of those, Gu Ruzhang, was an Iron Palm expert and knew hard boxing.

Gu Ruzhang Tai Chi and Brick breaking

Gu Ruzhang studied many styles, but regarded the internal boxing arts as the highest.

He was a firm believer in the Internal Martial arts, he was disciple of Sun Lutang and also wrote a very well known Tai Chi book. It might be surprised to know that he also spoke about that Tai Chi Jin, or the strength developed in Tai Chi Chuan should be based on deep relaxation without the use of any kind of necessary muscle tension:

We constantly observe external stylists trying so hard in all their jumping and shouting. Such training only ingrains a habit of excessive effort. The art of Taiji Boxing does the opposite. To emphasize anger makes one stiff, and to emphasize effort makes one clumsy. How could we talk of nimbleness in such cases? When practicing the solo set, it should be completely natural and not have the least bit of strenuous effort.

From: The Tai Chi Manual of Gu Ruzhang

So, how come people says that there is a problem with developing external strength? The issue as I personally see it is about that you aim to develop a certain body use this art. Tai Chi Chuan uses a connected whole body power, not movement from isolated muscle groups. Tai Chi Jin, the type of strength used in Tai Chi, requires the practitioner to relax and use as little muscle tension as necessary. It takes time for everyone to learn how to not use excessive muscle tension. Practicing a lot of weight lifting does not add anything to your ability to relax. It does not teach you to transfer mass in a coordinated whole body movement. And also, strength training does not teach you to not “hold unnecessary tension” (except if you are already very weak).

Form my own experience when I was young, and from what many other with similar experience has said is that, a lot of strength training can make you more tense and hurt your sensitivity. After a few years of Tai Chi practice, I tried different hard styles. I did some external Shaolin and Sanda type of practice, which was the toughest training I had ever done. I did a lot of sparring and later I also practiced Thai Boxing for a year. I never abandoned my Tai Chi Chuan, I kept on just as much as before, but I saw the value of learning about fighting from outside the Tai Chi walls. The Thai Boxing was the last of the hard styles I tried, not only I found the training immensely boring compared to my Tai Chi Chuan, but hard styles just didn’t work for what I wanted to accomplish. I got more tense, it become more difficult to relax and I found that the different types of practice were not a good match. Here you can read more about my thoughts about combining arts and cross training: Can Tai Chi be Combined With Other Styles.

But on the other hand, and for martial arts especially, building mass can be a good thing. If you have a developed “functional muscle mass”, just as traditional boxers develop their backs and shoulders, you don’t need to really use any strength to deliver a strong punch. The movement itself together with acceleration and the weight of the shoulder area is enough. In IMA, you don’t need to develop any particular strength, but body mass might enhance the strength developed if you use it intelligently.

When you get old, maybe your internal practice might be enough to keep you strong, who knows? If not, some basic weight lifting might be important to keep you in shape and to stay healthy. Now, take this lightly as I am not an expert in any field of weight lifting or similar, but if you do strength practice or weight lifting, my own humble advice is:

1) Do not train so that your body gets stiff or harm your ability to relax.
2) Focus on building mass where you need it, or an overall mass, but don’t focus on building muscles in an isolated manner as in body building to shape muscles individually.

And if you are weak, building up strength will actually help your body to relax better. So nothing wrong with any type of strength practice if you are weak. But excessive training and weight lifting that creates stiffness might be a problem in all ages. And if you want to develop your Tai Chi Chuan, or your proficiency in other internal arts, try to get what you can from this practice first. And try to be aware about if strength practice affects your ability to relax and/or sensitivity,