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What is the difference between External martial arts and Internal martial arts?

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9 Answers 9

up vote 16 down vote accepted

This is not the best answer, though it is an answer.

"Internal" and "External" can be traced through Sun Lu Tang's writings on the "Neijia". Being of the Chinese literati, he used the words 內 (internal) vs. 外 (external) because it has double meanings. Besides the connotations of "esoteric" and "exoteric", those words were widely used to describe "domestic" and "foreign." Some martial arts express Taoist (that is, "domestic") philosophical principles. Some martial arts express Buddhist principles. Since Shaolin, like Buddhism, came from India, this makes Shaolin and Shaolin-derived arts as "foreign" arts.

When you dig deeper into the histories, it gets murkier. But in general, the Chinese are proud of being Chinese and like to point out things that originate from the Chinese as evidence of a superior civilization.

When American practitioners came back from China and Taiwan, the connotations of "domestic" and "foreign" got lost in the translation. The connotation of "esoteric" and "exoteric" got exaggerated out of proportion. And now the Internet has amplified this confusion.

I'd spend less time worrying about exact definitions of "internal" vs. "external" and more time in practicing the art. "External" arts will eventually take you through the "internal", and "internal" arts will eventually express through the "external." Don't cheat yourself.

Update 2014/02/19: To clarify the controversy, I'm well aware that the sense of "internal" vs. "external" in use, particularly in America, refers to some notion that external arts tend to use brute physical strength, and internal arts use whole body motion or perhaps refined with qi (氣). There is further, an argument that English is a living language, and should reflect the actual usage. That is a fair point. However, in this case, the popular usage of "external" vs. "internal" is a misconception -- a distortion that happened when it was taken out of context of the original culture and further distorted for marketing purposes.

For example, Shaolin (少林) is considered many by Western practitioners as an "external" art in the sense that it seems to use a lot of brute physical motions. This is a misconception. There is quite a bit of whole body motion training, ground path, and qi development. In other words, if you used "internal" vs. "external" to designate power generation in a lineage, this distinction is fuzzy. It is fuzzy because that distinction only appears in the minds of people who are marketing their art, either as teachers trying to attract students, or students trying to posture.

As another example, from what I've seen with Systema practitioners, their body movements and power generation expresses many of the principles found in what Western practitioners would call "internal". My encounter with Systema is fairly shallow, but I have never heard a Systema practitioner talk a big deal out of "internal" vs. "external" or posture about it. These folks train hard.

Further, if you investigate the origins even further, you'll find that what we now considered "internal" as far as the woo goes, that is, the neigong (內功) was traditionally taught as separate practices. It was not unknown for say, a Xingyi (形意) or a Shaolin practitioner to learn neigong from a different lineage. Neigong as a practice has never been restricted to a martial art, and so there are no martial art for which there is an inherent practice of neigong. It was only when the literati like Sun Lu-tang practiced it, they also did what they did best as one of the educated elites: documented, categorized and talked about it, and perhaps befuddled it.

So the neigong, what could arguably distinguish "internal" from "external" was never a distinguishing factor of a particular lineage. It was a distinguishing factor of the individual practitioner.

In other words: there is no such thing as an "internal art" or an "external art". However, there are individual practitioners who might express an art "internally" or "externally". If we want to use the Western sense of "internal" vs. "external", then use it distinguish the skill attainment of a practitioner rather than the art itself.

If you want to use it to distinguish lineages, the original distinction is a lot more useful ... if you are Chinese or Taiwanese and want to be proud of your homegrown Taoist lineage, defend the honor of your civilization, and all that crap.

Update 2014-04-10: I've seen some new things. I don't have anything coherent to share yet. I would have preferred to delete this answer outright but StackExchange will not allow me to delete accepted answer. Instead, I've made edits to say that this is an answer, not a bad story to tell about on this subject, and not the final word on the subject. I'm tempted to just erase the text, but people can check revision edits so there is no point.

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This is a highly controversial position, but quite a fun one to consider! –  Trevoke Feb 6 '12 at 4:06
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It's not controversial - it's actually well documented that the above answer is the origin of the terms. Does it reflect current meaning? Maybe not. –  William Mioch Feb 6 '12 at 13:04
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My word, is it truly well-documented? I've only ever heard that from @Ho-ShengHsiao's teacher! Do you have an example of document that goes in that direction? –  Trevoke Feb 6 '12 at 18:46
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Hi Trevoke - see the first paragraph under history for a start: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neijia –  William Mioch Feb 7 '12 at 3:35
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The trouble is the wikipedia article also draws on Sun Lu Tang as a source. Read Douglas Wile's books –  Wudang Mar 4 '13 at 19:17

External martial arts focus on concussive impacts. These impacts cause damage by hitting with more force. Training focuses on developing strength, speed and specific techniques.

Internal martial arts focus on using the leverage of the relaxed body to control an opponent. Training focuses on internalising (making second nature) a holistic set of attributes including correct posture, control over the tension-relaxation of muscles and correct positioning of the limbs and body without focusing on specific techniques.

I believe that internal-external is a spectrum, rather than absolutes.

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I'd be curious to know the reason of the down votes. –  tacone Feb 1 '12 at 23:42
    
ouch, me too - anyone of the down voters prepared to comment? –  William Mioch Feb 1 '12 at 23:50
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Yea I'd agree, answer is pretty good in my opinion. I'd also completely agree with the spectrum comment. –  Swift Feb 1 '12 at 23:58
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I didn't downvote. However, there are "external" arts that "focus on using the leverage of the relaxed body to control an opponent." In other words, this does not describe the difference very well. –  Ho-Sheng Hsiao Feb 6 '12 at 2:34
    
I didn't downvote but agree with Ho-Sheng. CF Judo versus Xing Yi or I-Chuan –  Wudang Feb 21 '13 at 15:41

An external martial art is one in which the emphasis is on physical application of force (whether your own or the opponents force redirected) to cause damage to your opponent. This is the case whether you are relaxed (re-directed force or joint locks etc.) or applying force directly via the application of brute strength.

An internal martial art is one in which the emphasis is on application of chi energy in order to disable the opponent. Once again, this is regardless of whether you are relaxed or applying what looks to be a strong, physical movement.

Internal martial arts stress the training of chi via exercises like Chi Gong and External martial arts stress the training of physical/muscular strength. This generalisation is true particularly at beginner levels. Later on both schools of thought tend to come back closer to the centre more often than not.

Added info:

The above info is the classical definition of an Internal or External martial art.

There are also hard and soft styles. For example an external martial style can use redirection and deflection instead of applying direct opposing force, without it being thought of as internal. Similarly an internal style can apply what appears to be direct application of force to combat an attack, once again without being thought of as external.

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is one in which the emphasis is on application of chi energy - more specifically, the internal arts concentrate on utilising or manipulating the eight internal meridians. External arts also use chi although it isn't as commonly taught. –  slugster Feb 1 '12 at 9:46
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@CuinnWylie - Arguable, but even if you reject the notion of Qi/Chi/Ki (as I do... Filthy stuff. Never touch it. :D), the fundamental difference boils down to the method of generating power. The external see the body as the sum of its parts, cultivating the individual components into weapons through training such as iron palm. The internal generate power from the center of balance (dan tien), making use of the rotation and explosive energy of the body as a whole. Chi is often used as an explanation in external as well as internal arts. –  stslavik Feb 1 '12 at 23:34
    
@stslavik - I think that there is some confusion between Internal/External and Soft/Hard. Both internal and external martial arts can be soft or hard. The classical definition of external and internal is in my answer above (whether you reject or accept the notion of chi). –  Cuinn Wylie Feb 2 '12 at 0:26
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@CuinnWylie: No, there's no confusion, at least not on my end, though I can understand why you might think so. I'm trimming away the mysticism with an explanation of the core focus of internal styles. Another term used is "relaxed tension" (RMA). This differentiates from "soft" concepts like "aiki", "blending", "nagare", etc... In other words, I'm agreeing with you, without agreeing to the concept of chi, which is why I posted as a comment (which should strengthen your answer) rather than an answer (which would potentially detract from the strength of both our arguments). –  stslavik Feb 2 '12 at 5:08
    
@stslavik - Makes sense, thanks for clarifying. :-) –  Cuinn Wylie Feb 2 '12 at 23:32

The distinction between Internal and External martial arts I believe is primary around kung fu and other Chinese martial arts and was a way to categorize the distinct styles of kung fu that existed.

An internal kung fu is one with progressive and slow forms that allow for almost a moving meditation. They are much more of a finesse art. Your focusing more on your soul, mind and chi to control and opponent and not relying brute strength or force. Using principals of rotation, deflection and evasion to overcome an opponent, making them beat themselves. A good example of an internal kung fu would be Tai Chi.

An external kung fu is more of an outward showing of force and aggression, can be characterized by sharp, fast and succinct motions. Moving with deliberate motions and with purpose. In an external style you will have direct attacks, your will beat your opponent with your force and will oppose your will on theirs. An example of an external style would be Wing Chun.

I think the distinction is pretty blurry, and possibly moot, now a days. A lot of martial arts have elements that one could categorize as either internal or external.

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Tai Chi is the only one I know of that is slow - Hsing I Chuan and Bagua Zhang are not usually done slowly. Hsing I in particular is quite fast! –  William Mioch Feb 1 '12 at 23:52
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@WilliamMioch I've practiced xingyiquan and baguazhang both slow and fast. Slow practice is not exclusive to taijiquan, or even Chinese arts. So slow vs. fast is not a good description for internal vs. external. –  Ho-Sheng Hsiao Feb 6 '12 at 2:40
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Also taijiquan can be fast. I know both the Wu Jin Chuan and Chen family have fast sets. –  Wudang Mar 4 '13 at 19:21
    
@Wudang - I've trained Beijing competition style (which is basically Wu style with some Chen mixed in), and that can be very fast. –  Crouching Kitten Aug 30 '13 at 14:06

External and internal martial arts are the same thing, but they start from a different place. All martial arts follow different paths up the same mountain, but the end result is the same. Because a teacher can't take you all the way up the mountain does not mean the style is incomplete.

The limited point of view is this:

  • An external martial art will teach you to punch and kick.

  • An internal martial art will teach you self-discipline, meditation and how to throw fireballs (Sorry - I couldn't help it).

In truth, here is what is most likely accurate:

  • An internal martial art starts by turning the focus inward, letting the student become more aware of his body and mind, then building on these foundations to create complex movements and use that sensitivity to drive the applications.
  • An external martial art starts by bigger movements - like steps, blocks, kicks. It focuses on the outside first, and then eventually turns inwards to do what the internal martial arts start with.

It is the same mountain. Just a different path.

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External MA is about explosive power. Think of a sprinter. Boom! He goes OUT from the gate. Internal is about implosive power. Think of a figure skater. Watch as she brings herself IN towards her core in order to spin faster.

http://www.expertboxing.com/boxing-techniques/punch-techniques/power-punching-secrets-part-2-implosive-punching

may help clarify

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Can you summarize the content from the link or quote relevant parts from it and use the link as a source? This will help prevent link rot in cases where the link will disappear or if its content changes. –  Matt Chan Dec 18 '12 at 4:44
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-1: Aikido is generally seen as an internal martial art but has plenty of "explosive" moves. –  Sardathrion Dec 18 '12 at 7:58
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Interesting set of analogies, and a different perspective on the question, but I'm not sure that I agree with you. I'm not sure that this matches my experience in either Aikido or Taichi. And as @MattChan suggests, a summary of the boxing clip would have helped. –  Mark C. Wallace Dec 18 '12 at 13:10
    
+1: Winding-in is an essential part of silk reeling, which (see Sigman 2012a, from my answer) might be said to characterise the distinctive power of the internal martial arts. –  Crouching Kitten Aug 30 '13 at 14:12
    
@Sardathrion Could you give an example of an explosive aikido move? –  Dave Liepmann Jan 13 at 13:40

Try reading Doug Wile's 3 tai chi books "Tai chi touchstones", "Lost tai chi classics from the late ch'ing dynasty" and "Tai Chi Ancestors", all available from Amazon. Wile traces the first use of "internal" to (From the Lost Classics book)

Huang Tsung-hsi's (1610-95) "Wang Cheng-nang mu-chih ming" (Epitaph for Wang Cheng-nan) and his son Pai-chia's "Nei-chia ch'uan-fa" (Methods of the internal school of pugilism) which describes a strategy of "stillness overcoming movement" and "reversing the principles of Shaolin".

You may also find this blog post by Mike Sigman of interest where he covers a lot of ground in relation to internal arts.

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The Neijia mailing list, which was the vehicle created by Mike Sigman in the late 1990s to promote serious development of the internal martial arts, defined the internal martial arts to be those that respected the six harmonies (Sigman 2012a, 2012b).

The list followed the classical definition of the six harmonies due to (Dai Longbang 1750), a master of Xingyi:

External Harmonies

  1. The hands harmonize with the feets.
  2. The hips harmonize with the shoulders.
  3. The elbows harmonize with the knees.

Internal Harmonies

  1. The heart harmonizes with the intention.
  2. The intention harmonizes with the Chi.
  3. The Chi harmonizes with the movement.

When internal and external harmonies unite you have the six directions. When the six harmonies are perfectioned you obtain the six ferocities.

(Dai Longbang 1750) The Six Harmonies Fists, verse translation from http://www.centrosanti.com.ar/articulos/ver/the-6-harmonies

(Sigman 2012a) Silk Reeling, aka Six Harmonies Movement

(Sigman 2012b) "Internal" and Bragging Rights Perhaps a bit deeper than that?

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Mike has created a 6H group on facebook. There's also a Greenoch Ninjas group for old (way way old) rec.m-a posters. –  Wudang Sep 2 '13 at 15:50

External: the force is generated by local muscle.

Internal: the force is generated by the whole body, in which your waist and hips are the key part you need to coordinate well.

Any martial arts that can effectively use your whole body to generate the power of punching, grasping, etc., can be considered as an internal martial arts, or at least shares the same base of internal martial arts.

For high level practitioners, internal martial arts means you can not only generate power with your whole body, but also can change the direction, the amplitude, the position quickly and easily, up, down, in, out, left, right, front, back, clockwise, counter-clockwise, etc. Once you know how to do that, how to apply that to different scenarios, you know Yin-Yang, or in Tai-chi, you know how "jin" works

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sigh, i will shut up then.'cus no one her really understands internal kungfu –  shelper Dec 12 '13 at 17:17
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I'm not the down voter, but I would suggest that the definition of 'internal' that you've given is not correct. For example I've always been taught that internal arts concentrate on power generation from and energy delivery to the internal energy meridians, whereas the external arts focused on delivering energy (force/pain) to the external parts of the body - but both internal and external could still utilise components of the other. –  slugster Dec 12 '13 at 23:03
    
to be frank, you"'ve always been taught" by some one who doesnt understand chinese martial arts. Let me show you videos of my Shifu, you can watch at video.sina.com.cn/search/… –  shelper Dec 13 '13 at 0:55

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