A common tai chi pedagogy is to progress from forms to push hands (tui shou) to free sparring (san shou). As Ayron Howey says:

[You] cannot simply practice Tai Chi forms without other training in push-hands and other physical applications and call yourself a martial artist.


At first students work basic patterns, then patterns with moving steps coordinated in different directions, patterns at differing heights (high, middle, low and combinations) and then finally different styles of "freestyle" push hands, which lead into sparring that combines closing and distancing strategies with long, medium and short range techniques.

(from Wikipedia's Pushing Hands article)

Most Yang taiji systems will have you do push hands for quite a while before you do sanshou.

(from the YMAA forums)

Assuming that tai chi is a fighting art, and assuming that one is primarily training tai chi in order to gain martial skill, and assuming that one is studying at a school that believes similarly and is primarily teaching martial applications by fighting...

What are the primary considerations as one progresses from the grappling-only practice of push-hands into the striking-and-grappling practice of free sparring?

The principles of the art should of course remain constant, but what common pitfalls should be avoided? What modifications to technique are helpful as one makes this transition to include punching and kicking?

  • A similar progression from fixed-step tuishou to sanshou as similar to free fighting as possible is shown in this Yiquan video. This Bullshido thread has other videos and discusses the reasoning and history behind the rulesets. Aug 7, 2013 at 16:22

9 Answers 9


I would argue that there is no such progression.

While push-hands may look like a "slowed down" version of sanshou, it is an entirely different exercise on its own.

The only way to progress to sanshou is to start doing it.


To elaborate, the practice of sanshou (or free form sparring if you like) is an integral (albeit rarely practiced) part of taijiquan as a martial system. It is ultimately, what all the other practices of the system are designed to support.

In order to progress to sanshou, the practitioner should have at least passing understanding of the core principles of taijiquan and have some experience in applying those principles. This is actually where push-hands comes into play.

You use push-hands practice, to teach how to apply core principles of taijiquan in a mildly uncooperative confrontational setting. It is not a hard prerequisite to sanshou however.

Below is my take on the progression to practicing sanshou.

Step 1: Single person drills

To start with sanshou, in addition to working on push-hands you should probably work on your fa jing (or releasing energy/power). In particular, learning to deliver your punches and kicks, first one at a time then in rapid successions - starting from a static stance and then adding stepping to the mix.

When feeling reasonably comfortable, try adding few more tricks to the game - first try adding some peng and lu for blocks and deflections and then slowly increase your arsenal.

Take care however not to get too fancy and complex. There is time and place for all the neat applications from the form, but this in not it. Most of the stuff you see in the form is rather advanced in the terms of practical applicability and usually works best if the relative difference in skills is heavily skewed in your favor.

At first I would not recommend to start off with hitting punching bags or dummies - learn to release fajing without using "external" (or muscular) force first and then use punching bags only for checking and improving the structural soundness of your punches and kicks. However, I've found that punching bags are useful for improving your punches, as they offer much needed focusing target and allow you to test the your fajing without fear of hurting anyone.

Step 2: Two person drills

You might want to start working on these at about the same time as you work on your single person drills. Maybe altering between two.

I would recommend starting out with relatively structured and well defined sets and slowly progressing to more free-form variants as your skill and confidence improves.

Probably the simplest thing to start with would be to try and apply lu and peng against a punch. Lu (or rollback) works the best against relatively straight punches and peng would work the best against hooks from outside.

Start out with one and first just learn the body mechanics of these techniques by starting out with low energy punches from one side, increasing the energy and speed of the punches as you progress.

Keep in mind that you are practicing taijiquan, not brawling, so work hard on applying proper body mechanics and core principles.

Remember the classics [1]:

The jing [intrinsic strength] should be
rooted in the feet,
generated from the legs,
controlled by the waist, and
manifested through the fingers.

That means you should diligently work on using your entire body instead of only hands to deflect or block, which is the most common mistake.

As you get hand on the lu and peng, the one who feeds should start varying the right and left punches more often and varying the speed and adding occasional feigns to the mix, to make it more interesting and keep the duifang alert.

Also - at some point you should add stepping. First simple forward and backward half-stepping and then more complex sideways, diagonal and snake-stepping. The main thing is - you should keep your drills alive.

One good exercise at this point is a variant of "willow bends", where you essentially just let your duifang attack you with various punches and your only concern should be to avoid those punches (and/or kicks) by turning your waist and using stepping - keeping yourself "just in range".

Use your imagination, but keep it real. The one that feeds, needs to feed punches and kicks, not caricatures of punches and kicks. They need not be delivered with full force, but they have to target the specific points on duifang. If duifang fails to void or block, they must hit the target.

Step 3: Freeplay

While at some point the drill may look a lot like freeplay, the important distinction here is that in drills usually there is an asymmetry of initiative, that is designed into the drill.

The most important thing in freeplay (ie sanshou) is that both of the duifangs have equal freedom of initiative.

You may intentionally limit various aspects of freeplay for the purposes of training. Usually it means limiting the "energy level" or intensity of the play, but sometimes you may also agree to exclude some techniques or distances to make it easier to concentrate on specific areas of your skill set - for example only limiting yourself to punches so that you would not have to think of dealing with feet while you are still struggling to handling the punches. Or disallowing take-downs if the conditions in the practice area make it either dangerous or impractical.

Start out with low intensity (10% is good) and work yourself up as you progress.

  • 2
    Excellent answer. This description of the relationship between the two practices, and the progression from general taiji practice to sanshou, is exactly what I was looking for. Jun 6, 2012 at 13:27
  • 1
    I'm finding "free play" is increasingly rare, but was gratified to learn that Master Zhou Xuan Yun (周玄云), now in New England, is teaching the old way, which includes free sparring, at least among his top students.
    – DukeZhou
    Dec 2, 2020 at 0:06

1. Static Push Hands

The purpose is to teach you to let go with your hips and your back, to allow flow, yielding and redirecting of energy properly. In addition, of course, you are learning to apply every other Tai Chi concept. I've found that Roberto Sharpe's videos on Youtube are amazingly detailed. He explains things very well, and most importantly, he will frequently stop mid-motion in push hands to explain and to leave the student figure out the next thing they should do, which is extremely instructional. Here is an 8-minute video during which he says, most interestingly, "It's not a technique, it's an understanding". If you are very impatient, go straight to 7:40 and just watch the last minute.

2. Push Hands with stepping

Now you are learning to direct your energy and your intent, still applying every taichi principle and the lessons from static push hands.

3. Patterns

From there, all the high/mid/low patterns get applied, and while studying and practicing them, you apply every taichi principle and the lessons from static push hands and push hands with stepping.

4. Sparring

But Trevoke, I hear you say, you can't spar at push hands speed, that's just dumb! Ah-ha, I tell you, and what exactly do you think push hands is? When you get to freestyle full-speed sparring, all the lessons from all the above elements still get applied. Nothing gets changed. If you have to change it to spar with it, either your understanding is poor or the principle is poor.

Well, sparring is nothing if not a two-person cooperative exercise in, among other lessons, speed, distancing and rhythm. That's exactly what push hands is.

  • Could you provide some detail on step 3, high/low patterns? May 17, 2012 at 3:21
  • @DaveLiepmann Unfortunately, I cannot, lacking knowledge in this particular area. Since TaiChi has strikes that are high, middle and low, including kicks, I would expect these patterns to include the various strikes and each of the 'eight energies' of taichi, in various combinations. I did not add anything about it because this is all just conjecture for me right now.
    – Anon
    May 17, 2012 at 13:23
  • 1
    Commplex patterns can include partner exercises like "split vertical circle" and one with a more complex chinese name that I can't recall, but essentially trades the active role in ward off/rollback/press/push. Good answer @trevoke
    – MCW
    Oct 5, 2012 at 19:19
  • Good answer about about distance and rhythm. (It's been suggested to me that martial arts is all "timing and distance".) As I get older, I do more tai chi super slow, especially since now without a teacher, to make sure I'm not getting sloppy, and doing every technique of every movement. But, while I can take 30 minutes to do Combined 67, I also practice as "exhibition speed" (~6 minutes), and combat speed (~3 minutes, doing every part of every movement clearly and with intent.)
    – DukeZhou
    Dec 2, 2020 at 0:24
  • My teacher was also famous for making tai chi and tai chi sword interesting & engaging to watch, by varying pace, instead of aggressively boring the audience by using a single pace throughout! (Fencing requires quick, light footwork! The way tai chi sword is usually practiced has limited value for this reason:)
    – DukeZhou
    Dec 2, 2020 at 0:26

This won't be a popular answer.

The goal of taijiquan (太極拳) push-hands isn't to push the other guy off-center. That's a side-effect of the real training.

The goal of taijiquan push-hands is maintaining no-mind even through disruption by outside agency. You are training for:

This is actually quite difficult (yet stupid-easy once you know the "trick"). One usually works up to this training, first by no-self during standing (zhang zhuang, 站樁), then no-self during walking (forms). It's assumed you know the body methods (shen fa, 身法) well enough that techniques will flow out naturally during push-hands. By this point, staying centered in no-self, no-mind is the most significant challenge. You learn to lose a lot.

Just as practicing no-mind during standing and walking prepare you for practicing no-mind during push-hands, the push-hands practice prepare you for practicing no-mind during sparring.

  • 1
    I agree with @DaveLiepmann. Sparring training's primary goal could be stated exactly as you stated for push-hands: to "maintain no-mind even through disruption by outside agency". May 16, 2012 at 20:10
  • 2
    Having done mostly external styles I have rarely achieved no-mind in sparring...but ah!...when it happens it is a beautiful thing. I have got to back into regular workouts soon. May 16, 2012 at 21:10
  • 1
    @DaveLiepmann Like I said in the first sentence of my answer, "This won't be a popular answer." May 16, 2012 at 21:21
  • 2
    @Ho-ShengHsiao If those sparring are trying to win, then they aren't sparring properly. That is totally missing the purpose of sparring. May 16, 2012 at 22:17
  • 3
    @sidran32 I don't like describing ladders of attainment. "No technique" is the minimum required to practice "no mind", otherwise you would just be flailing. The "no mind" I am talking about is more of investigating this bit.ly/hardcore-dharma-three-characteristics during push-hands. May 17, 2012 at 0:05

Refer to the Tai Chi Classics, the modern oral tradition is 'all over the shop'.

There are the Original 13 Postures:

 Ward Off, Rollback, Press, Push, 
 Pull, Split, Elbow, Shoulder, 
 Advance, Retreat, Look-left, Look-right, and Central Equilibrium.

These are the three two-person exercises:

 Push Hands, Dalu, and SanShou.

Push Hands uses: Ward Off, Rollback, Press, and Push.

Dalu uses: Pull, Split, Elbow, and Shoulder.

SanShou uses: Advance, Retreat, Look-left, Look-right, and Central Equilibrium.

Most folks skip Dalu and never study the cross substantiality of SanShou's five steps. But you need as much Dalu practice as you do Push Hands training. Why? because Dalu is where you see your first real force coming at you. In Push Hands your attachment must be at 4 ounces because your goal is to learn to 'listen' and 'hear' changes in pressure above, or below, 4 ounces so you can Ti Fang.

In Dalu this restriction is removed for the attacks. You and your partner go back and forth playing attacker and defender. When defending, you simply step out of the way of the attack and reconnect with 4 ounces. If their attack is real and they land on nothing, and if their momentum pulls them them ever-so-slightly off balance, and if your four-ounce touch can detect their change in pressure of them leaning on you, or retreating from you, you can Ti Fang.

Split, Shoulder and Pull are all attacks that will increase in intensity until they are done at full force. The response to them is always to step, causing have the other's force to fall into emptiness. If they are off balance and they change the pressure that you attached to them with——then join, and discharge.

Regarding San Shou, the instructions are in the Song of Hitting Hands. "Let him attack with great force, draw-in and touch, using four ounces to deflect 1000 lbs. Attract into emptiness, join and discharge." Start slowly with the attacks and increase the sincerity of the attacks until your 'partner' becomes your 'opponent'. You should do as much San Shou as you do Dalu.

So, the progression from Push Hands to Free Fighting is to follow Tai Chi's 13 Posture curriculum: Push Hands, Dalu, San Shou.

For further reading, Chapter 11 & Section 2


Hello Taijiquan advocates,

I enjoyed reading some of the responses especially the detailed one by "anon".

I just wanted to mention that after Push Hands level there is a 2 man fist form called Taiji Sanshou 88. This gives the practitioners an idea of footwork, techniques & close distance in a continuous flowing manner. The speed for Taiji Sanshou 88 is moderately slow initially as you learn it, but can be sped up to close to a controlled fighting speed. I learned this Taiji Sanshou 88 from my teacher Ching "Andrew" Li. He also helped to analyze each technique if you have questions on different situations or intent. Each partner does 88 techniques & when you memorize your side then learn the other partner's side! This fist form can be practiced without a partner also. After this training you can try controlled free sparring & training with apparatus. You can search on youtube or see the reference below. The article mentions that Tian Zhaolin learned the Taiji Sanshou 88 from Grandmaster Yang Jianhou

Reference: "A Brief Introduction to Yang Family 88 Taiji San-shou", by Yao Guoqin translated & edited by Key Sun, Ph.D & Leroy Clark,Tai Chi Magazine Vol 27,No.6 Dec.2003


Karel Koskuba, tai chi instructor and co-author of "Tai Chi for Every Body", describes the taiji syllabus as follows, leading to free sparring at the summit:

  1. Taijiquan forms practice
  2. Fa Li (Release of Power) learning how to 'release' power by using phasic muscles supported by postural muscles (learning how to produce Jin by combining Qi with physical strength)
  3. Tui Shou (Pushing Hands) at first fa-jin is omitted; later fa-jin is also used.
  4. Weapons training
  5. Shi Sheng (Testing of Voice) learning to augment power and integrate the center of the body in a more natural way using breathing musculature.
  6. Ji Ji Fa (Combat Practice) fixed and free sparring drills and sparring.

This puts weapons training and shi sheng, with which I am not familiar, as stepping stones from tuishou to sanshou.


What has worked for me:

Find sparring partners you trust

Which means they have the necessary control not to damage you, and understand that free sparring is an exercise to validate techniques, such that, when an opponent yields (here used in the sense of acknowledging they have been bested in that round), the partner doesn't continue to apply force.

Choosing a poor partner can be dangerous, b/c many, when frustrated, will "go for broke" to try to score "points", which crosses the line into a real fight. Particularly dangerous because going for broke, throwing haymakers and such, implies giving up control of the strike.

Control is especially important b/c tai chi, pakua and hsing yi rely heavily on breaks (including the neck & collarbone), potentially fatal strikes (heavy emphasis on the throat), striking into organs (including eyes and ears), striking the joints, and foot stomps.

  • You needs to be able to "show" these techniques without applying them.

(A simple example is a kick to the groin while your opponent's arms are occupied. Should only be the lightest of taps to let them know they left themselves open. This is still consistent with real world usage b/c groin kicks are not generally finishing moves, but setups for something more definitive. In some styles, for instance when "step back and repulse monkey" starts with a kick, these groin strikes become reflexive, and it takes control to do them gently:)

(A personal example is I was taught snake hsing yi in detail b/c I had to teach it to kids. The only technique I use in free sparring is circle in with the fingers, palm downward, to strike the throat, where the focus only comes after contact. I love it b/c I have yet to meet anyone who can keep me from doing that, but you clearly can't apply that strike in free sparring. So what I do instead is put the fingers on the sternum (not solar plexus) and use it to uproot and pushback larger, even much heavier opponents. Knowing that I can do that validates that I can use the throat strike if I ever had to.)

Mats can be used for tai chi & hsing yi free sparring, but not pakua which requires spinning. So you may find you need to spar on dirt, pavement, or flagstone, where taking care not to harm your partner, or be harmed, is critical.

(Sparring on a hard surfaces has a way of clarifying the mind.)

Free sparring can be essential b/c you need to get used to being rushed, being boxed, being kicked at, and ideally you want to validate your techniques against the widest range of styles and systems, not just Chinese systems.

"Two person sets" are not sufficient to prepare for the range of striking techniques one can face in the real world.

This is different from practicing tai chi for health, with some self defense benefits, which benefits accrue over decades. (For instance, the old lady who makes the purse snatcher fall down, without really knowing what she did, except to practice tai chi every day:)

I come from a fighting lineage which my teacher moved away from, preferring health and performing art, but had still learned free sparring as an important part of their training. (Thus, I had to go outside the school for free sparring, which had many benefits.) When my teacher initially began teaching in the US in the 1970s, challengers would regularly come to the school to "test them", and not by pushing hands, so they had to be able to back up their status as a master.

(Luckily, many in the first generation of students had boxing and karate backgrounds, such that they began to be able to take the challenger outside of the school and "set them straight" within a couple years. But these students' involvement in street fighting to test the hsing yi was a factor in moving away from teaching fighting, and instead focusing purely on internal technique. The rationale is that, in a fight, you just react, such that free sparring is not essential.)


Breaking up the form

According to Li Zheng, Fu Nei Pai Yang style tai chi, uses a 30-posture taiji sanshou set to bridge forms practice and free-sparring:

Many teachers split up the movements of the form in order to make it easier to teach. This is a teaching method which can make things easier for students, but actually applying these ‘split out’ components of the form in combat is very difficult, which is why our system has these 30 individual ‘moves’. In the old days, they used to be called dan cao shou. There are three variations to each move, and each move has a 4-sentence mnemonic to help students remember the move’s purpose and requirements. These sanshou moves are a bridge from taiji forms practice into combat.

These individual moves are used for drilling and even partner work:

Each ‘combo’ is a unit that can be practiced by itself. The...moves can also be combined at will.

This reinforces the use of forms as a mnemonic for straightforward, concrete combinations or counters.

More vigorous push-hands

Tim Cartmell, lineage holder in multiple Chinese martial arts and accomplished competitor, explains that his teachers used an intermediate step between semi-scripted or gentle tuishou and totally-free sanshou:

Both of my primary Yang style teachers advocated sparring. There were two basic formats. One method was a free method of "push hands" sparring that started at contact and allowed pushes, pulls, sweeps, throws and takedowns and chin na techniques. The other method was regular "sparring," starting from a distance with all of the above techniques allowed including blows (we kept head contact light).

My belief is it is virtually impossible to learn how to apply your techniques for real without non-cooperative sparring (no matter what style you practice).

This can also be seen as a more continuous gradient between a pure grappling drill and freeform combat, per this exponent of the art:

Taiji tui shou becomes taiji san shou by way of incorporating more and more techniques and footwork into tui shou until one is simply sparring using the body mechanics and techniques of taiji.

Elsewhere, he adds this warning:

The main difference — and, in my opinion, stumbling block to transferring skills — between tui shou and san shou is bridging. Taiji fighters...tend to go through a small crisis when they move from drills that start in contact to ones in which they must establish contact.


I made a diagram to represent Taiji Push Hands (gong fu) in the general continuum of sports fighting and street defense. In summary, Tai Chi is a small fraction in the continuum of self-defense, as is sparring itself.


I welcome your comments and feedback

  • Please include enough context in your answer that it does not require the external resource.
    – mattm
    Apr 2, 2022 at 21:59
  • Updated and done
    – Marz
    Apr 4, 2022 at 1:28
  • This does not properly answer the question. Did you mean to summarize that there is no link here to progress since Tai Chi is just part of self defense? Apr 5, 2022 at 16:40
  • The diagram tries to answer this question by broadening the picture to the macro view of survival, and fighting sports within that context, push hands, sparring within that. Sparring by itself is incoherent. Push hands is a form of sparring, and there are many points of progression on a so called continuum of survival.
    – Marz
    May 25, 2022 at 21:33

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