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Nearly all martial arts have some form of supplemental strength and conditioning exercises. Karate has hojo undo, boxing has road work, Brazilian jiu-jitsu has ginastica natural. These can be more separate from the art, as with barbell training in judo, or more integrated, such as sumo's shiko.

What kind of strength and conditioning work is used in tai chi?

For instance, how are stance work, forms, and other methods arranged for maximum benefit to tai chi skill? What attributes are worked on, other than the presupposed technical skill?

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6 Answers 6

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David Gaffney (co-author of the excellent Chen Style Taijiquan) has an article on chen tai chi strength training (PDF) that mentions methods such as stone lifting, pole shaking, the taiji bang (short stick), taiji ball (akin to a medicine ball), and training with intentionally heavy weapons.

While it may come as a surprise to many, strength training is not a new phenomenon in Taijiquan. In the past, it represented one aspect of an all-encompassing training process. In Chenjiagou, within the garden where 14th Generation Chen clan member Chen Changxin is said to have taught Yang Luchan, founder of Yang style Taijiquan, can still be found an eighty kilogram stone weight that they are said to have regularly trained with. Traditional strength training methods such as pole shaking and practicing with heavy weapons continue to be used up until today.

...

Lifting heavy stones is done as a means to training the waist and lower body. Chen Ziquiang explains "the strength training method is highly specialized. You are not training to develop 'stupid strength' (brute or localised strength). This is training strength in the waist. Your hand strength is like the hook you use when you are towing a car. You have to remember that your hand is the hook. Your strength is coming from the waist and how you push into the ground, combining the strength of the car and the rope. The hook is only the implement that connects the two. So when you lift the big rock, it is the strength of the legs and waist...".

There's a documentary I saw a few years back (but can't find online) showing Chen villagers training by tilting large heavy urns 45 degrees and spinning them, akin to how some judoka work out with an anchored belt as well as the techniques in David's article.

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Could you excerpt (or would you mind if I excerpted) some of the relevant sections? We want to avoid losing info due to link rot. –  Dave Liepmann Mar 5 '13 at 19:47
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Why don't we both do so then take turns editing? My time's a little precarious as I'm on-call this week. As long as we credit David and point to the origin to help increase awareness of his books. –  Wudang Mar 5 '13 at 19:52
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I made a first pass for excerpts. That's a great article--an excellent overview. Thanks for sharing. –  Dave Liepmann Mar 6 '13 at 15:34

Because the motions are performed slowly, tai chi ends up being its own conditioning exercise.

Holding stances increases overall stamina as well as helping find root.

That said, at one point I'd taken to doing stressed forms, where I'd wear a weight belt, arm and/or wrist weights, used leg bands, etc. depending on what I was trying to work on.

Other than that, qi gong, silk reeling, and similar things are the typical answers.

Silk-reeling is a neigong (內功 - "internal skill") exercise mimicking the movements of reeling silk from silk worms; the movements are long, exaggerated, smooth, and slow (like they'd need to be to avoid damaging silk). These movements are common in Chen and Wu taijiquan.

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Could you go into some detail on silk reeling? –  Dave Liepmann May 18 '12 at 15:27
    
@DaveLiepmann Not too much--I've only done a few seminars and no real practice as such. There are some videos online; the ehow ones shows a number of different aspects. –  Dave Newton May 18 '12 at 15:32
    
@DaveLiepmann Silk-Reeling is a neigong (內功 – internal skill) exercise mimicking the movements of reeling silk from silk worms; the movements are long, exaggerated, smooth, and slow (like they'd need to be to avoid damaging silk). These movements are common in Chen and Wu taijiquan. Hope that helps. –  stslavik May 18 '12 at 17:12

Tai chi is about integration of the whole body and developing structure - ideally using every muscle in every move. Any strengthening "gym" type work will basically be about isolation of muscle groups, which kind of defeats the point unless you are addressing a specific weakness. In tai chi you should "throw away your hard strength". Doing specific strengthening work would seem to me to be building hard strength, and hence is the wrong approach.

To develop structural awareness and "appropriate" body strength, you should concentrate on the fundamentals. Build up the amount of time you spend doing the standing wu-chi posture. For variation you can hold specific postures from the form. Over time you can lower your stances which will require more strength. Silk reeling is a core fundamental training that you should focus on, again building up time and deep stances.

If you really feel you need to improve strength (rather than focusing on relaxation and loosness which is the most important thing), you can occasionally attach weight belts or wrist/ankle weight braclets and then do the standing, foundation and form.

In summary - more time on standing and foundations - don't waste your time being a "form collector".

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I follow your point about focusing on whole-body integration and structure, but feel compelled to point out that there are a great many strength exercises which are in no way muscle-group-isolation. Overhead squats, Turkish get-ups, deadlifts, snatches, and many gymnastic strength movements are all commonly understood to be "whole body power" or "whole body structure" exercises. –  Dave Liepmann May 18 '12 at 16:52
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"Any strengthening "gym" type work will basically be about isolation of muscle groups" Uhm..."functional training" and related regimes are not at all like that. –  dmckee May 18 '12 at 17:12
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Even traditional gyms are moving towards more "functional training" in their personal training and group classes. But the idea that soft-art practitioners never did any hard-style physical training I think is a bit off, particularly if you've read accounts of some schools having some people training specifically for combat. –  Dave Newton May 18 '12 at 17:51
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The point being that if you want to be able to carry a big weight while running, you should carry a big weight while running. Performing deadlifts is not equivalent to holding the posture in your legs necessary to perform silk reeling, but simply the act of silk reeling will give you the required capability. –  stslavik May 18 '12 at 18:38
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I am happy to be educated about functional training, however that is not really the point. Tai chi (almost by definition) is the application of structure over strength. Learning structure is extremely challenging and in the early years hindered by being overly strong. Put flippantly, the more muscles you have, the more work you will have to do to relax them! Hence to answer the original Q - Basically none, and deliberately so because learning structure is what you should focus on. By the time you have learnt structure the 1000s of training hours you put in will give you the required strength. –  Spiralwise May 21 '12 at 15:28

"Not tai chi"

Many tai chi teachers espouse physical development through means other than tai chi, and reserve tai chi for the refinement of skill. Similar to pre-war Aikido (wherein students were required to have significant expertise in other arts such as karate, judo or jiujitsu), tai chi strength and conditioning is often mixed with other styles of internal and external Chinese martial arts. Practice of the arts was traditionally porous, with students training xingyi, bagua, tai chi, and other arts either successively or simultaneously.

For instance, Hung I-Hsiang trained multiple arts:

[His] internal arts training program included xingyiquan, baguazhang and Wu (Hao)-style taijiquan, Shaolin kung fu and qigong.... Hung believed that, in practicing the xingyiquan five elements as an introduction to the internal martial arts, the student can clearly understand the way the body should be trained to move in the internal styles. If the student starts out in taijiquan it is very difficult to develop and understand internal power.

In this way, much tai chi strength training is borrowed or classified more generally. For instance, Hung's students practiced fuhugong (crouching tiger exercises). Other forms of stance work were common in Chinese martial arts, but were not specific to tai chi. However, tai chi practitioners could often be assumed to use them.

That being said, there are a few practices that we can pin on tai chi, either because they are integrated with the art directly by some teachers, or because some teachers consider the exercises to be central to developing the physical strength and power necessary for executing proper tai chi form and technique.

Stone Locks

stone lock training

According to tai chi teacher Cheng Tsang Lu via Jacob Fitisemanu's article in Kung Fu magazine, tai chi strength exercises include the Chinese stone lock, which "has been part of traditional kung fu regimens since at least the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD)".

The traditional stone lock workout consists of swinging and lifting routines performed in sets of several repetitions (from 5-50, depending on ability) after which the lock is transferred (often by spinning or flipping the lock in midair) to the alternate hand.

The basic lock maneuvers for building strength consist of swinging and hoisting the lock while gripping the handle. Advanced exercises include manipulating the lock with one’s elbows/forearms, spinning the stone in midair, or heaving the weight while maintaining low stance postures.

The stone lock can be used in many ways. Flipping it, flinging it in a circle, and swinging it seem to be the primary themes, as seen in those shuai jiao clips. I do not see a way that this practice would not build tremendous gripping and seizing (na) strength, in addition to hip power, shoulder and back strength. The implement seems strikingly similar to the kettlebell. (One wonders if there was any cross-pollination of the practice across Asia, and may have influenced the Russians. It is clear that the stone lock piggybacked on martial arts to Okinawa, as evidenced by its prevalence in karate (PDF).)

Heavy Round Stone

Another implement common to Chinese martial arts, including tai chi, is a big ol' rock that you lift:

Occasionally seen in movies and picture books, the “big stone ball” (da shi qiu) is a rarity in contemporary training regimens. The origin of using round boulders for bodybuilding is said to have emerged during the era of Emperor Shi Huangdi—whose civilian construction workers became renowned for their muscular strength and endurance after just a few months of hauling rock. To many people, the round stone has become affiliated with Tai Chi and Chi Kung, but its benefits transcend regional or systemic boundaries. Common exercises consist of rolling the ball at torso level (like many Tai Chi postures), coordinating “walking” routines, and slowly raising and lowering the weight in front and to the sides of the body.

This is strikingly similar to the modern strongman practice of deadlifting, carrying, and shouldering Atlas stones.

Miscellaneous resistance contraptions

Some tai chi teachers, such as "Grandmaster" Tu, practice and teach a variety of strength, flexibility, and conditioning movements. Tools include homemade suspension gear, wooden spheres, logs, gripping exercises using springs, and a kind of primitive Swiss-Family-Robinson style Smith-machine (see video for examples). While this seems to work for Tu, it is necessary to point out that the explanations he gives for how these methods work sound like complete pseudoscience.

Stance Work

As Eric Sbarge explains, static stance work has been a staple of tai chi training for as long as there's been tai chi:

Ch'ang Dung Sheng, renowned as the "king of Shuai Chiao" and founder of Ch'ang Style Tai chi Ch'uan, was one master who maintained stance training was a key to his martial arts success. He won China's national kung fu tournament at the age of l7 and then remained undefeated until he passed away in 1986 at age 80. His early training included holding postures such as Leaning Forward Searching for the Sea for up to an hour at a time. This particular posture allowed him to develop such sweeping and lifting power with his legs that he could actually pull small trees and saplings out of the ground by wrapping his leg around them.

Chen village instructor and push-hands champion Chen Ziqiang agrees that low-stance work is vital:

First you need a good root. To achieve this, Chen stylists practice in low stances that build strong legs. Strong legs enable you to move faster and push harder.

As he demonstrates here:

Chen Ziqiang low stance

It is not clear whether he is referring to moving stances here.

"Unusual" bodyweight movements

In Zhao Bao Tai Ji Quan, there are sometimes feats of strength that students must accomplish before learning the form:

Twisting, Alternate Knee Drop Squats: Stand in a low 'horse' stance with the feet parallel and about shoulder width and your thighs parallel with the ground. Your arms hang at your sides and your back is straight. Twist your hips to the left and 'close' the right hip toward the left hip as you drop your right knee to touch the ground lightly (your left thigh remains parallel with the ground). As you turn left, your right shoulder also 'closes' and your right arm twists inward. Then you turn back through the center position, lifting your right knee then repeat dropping the left knee to the mat as you twist to the right. You need to stay in a full squat (thighs parallel to the ground) as you transition left to right. Work up to the minimum number of reps, 36 on each side.

[Butterfly stretch squat:] A more exotic looking basic exercise is to sit in the common 'butterfly' stretch position (bend your knees and put the soles of the feet together in front of your crotch). Then lift the body up so you are balanced on the outside edges of your feet only (soles of the feet pressed together). Then, keeping the soles of the feet pressed together, straighten your legs until your legs are straight (the soles of your feet must remain pressed together, you balance on the outside edges of the feet only. Be careful, there is a great stretch on the outside ankle). Squat up and down in this fashion, balancing on the outside edsges of the feet with the soles pressed together.

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Oh, that's interesting; I've used essentially the same stuff in Japanese training; Hojo undō. –  Dave Newton May 18 '12 at 17:48
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@DaveNewton The Okinawans stole it shamelessly. :) –  Dave Liepmann May 18 '12 at 18:12
    
Since you seem to have a personal standard you're holding others to, I ask you: are you receiving a transmission from a particular taijiquan teacher, or is all of this merely armchair answer? –  Ho-Sheng Hsiao Oct 1 '12 at 23:31
    
@Ho-ShengHsiao Nowhere have I said I study tai chi. That doesn't discount the statements I'm quoting from people who study and teach it. –  Dave Liepmann Oct 2 '12 at 1:59
    
@DaveLiepmann Right. Armchair. Noted. Thanks for clearing that up, I have been wondering about that. –  Ho-Sheng Hsiao Oct 2 '12 at 4:30

My teacher Scott M Rodell advocates weapons training in addition to zhangzhuang for general conditioning.

When using real-weight weapons like wooden (or steel) jian or long spear, they provide the additional weight for a simple yet focused workout as well as great resistance to "push against" when applying fajing.

Additionally, it is not unheard of to practice other forms of conditioning to accelerate the improvement of your overall fitness. The only thing to remember here is that these extra conditioning should not work against achieving fangsong (放松, interpreted as relaxed movement, lit. "let loose").

This is mostly the reason why it is sometimes not recommended for beginners to do weight lifting or other similar conditioning exercises as they have not yet learned to recognize the difference between using li (the external or muscular force) and jing (the internal strength).

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Good and well thought out responses. Like the key on relaxation comments. My own training includes quite a bit of slow staff movement (twirling, thrusts, defensive blocks, strikes, slashes, etc), which is great for focusing the mind and body. Combining non-weapon kicks, punches, strikes and blocks with staff movement is a great change of pace and requires much coordination.

I walk up and down hills for cardio and to add some core and leg strength, which seems to improve overall Tai Chi forms. And kicking and dribbling a soccer ball has helped build strength and stamina.

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