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I hear it commonly said that internal arts such as tai chi require a significant amount of time to become proficient. If undertaking the study of tai chi, without necessarily having prior experience in another style, how long should it take to have a basic degree of competence?

As a metric, "basic competence" means having significantly improved fighting skills compared to when you started. We are looking for the time it takes to reasonably be expected to successfully apply techniques learned in class on an untrained but motivated opponent in a real situation.

  • Unless you do sport competition, how are you going to rate with any form of statistical significance the criterion of "successfully apply techniques learned in class on an untrained but motivated opponent in a real situation"? – Sardathrion - against SE abuse May 17 '12 at 8:47
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    Whats so bad about this question? Why the down votes? (I'm just wondering, not trying to sound annoyed.) – Russell May 17 '12 at 10:09
  • @Sardathrion "I can easily handle newcomers during the push hands and san shou portions of class." Or, just a guess is fine. A certain amount of conjecture is understood to be necessary, as are outliers (e.g. it might take a frail elderly man 2X time to get good, instead of X). – Dave Liepmann May 17 '12 at 12:43
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    @DaveLiepmann I think it's more likely (a) an objection to the word "should", and (b) there's no reasonable way to answer the question because it depends on an arbitrary number of factors. – Dave Newton May 30 '12 at 13:51
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    @DaveLiepmann (a) Equally poor, (b) not really--we're not able to answer those types of questions in a general way, if we're being honest. It depends on the student, the teacher, the school, the classes, the time, the focus, etc. – Dave Newton May 30 '12 at 14:02
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9 to 12 months. Just a guideline. I say this time frame because, simply from experience, thats about how long - after regular and quality training - before a student starts to see some of their training take hold as instinct.

But the question itself is fairly unsophisticated, and isnt answerable in a way that'd be relevant to any given individual. Its too specific to the individual and situation. Is the student athletic? coordinated? Mentally prepared to defend themselves? They can train for 20 years, but if they still overthink when attacked, then they're not getting anything out of it. What about the instructor? Is the instructor teaching in a way that allows the student to apply the techniques so they could be used in self defense? If not, then they may never acheive any sort of 'fighting competency'.

Internal martial arts do tend to take longer simply because most people arent used to moving like that. Punching, kicking - easier to understand because people are familiar with it. So most people tend to start off from square one when learning an 'internal' art. This is why I usually recommend at least a year of a external/hard art first, to get the body first used to learning how to move before attempting the more subtle movements of internal arts.

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  • Nice answer, especially the points about unknowable specifics. – Dave Liepmann May 18 '12 at 16:21
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A few months to a year

To achieve mastery in taiji it takes a lifetime, like in any art, martial or otherwise. But to achieve fighting proficiency should take less than a year.

Similar to any other hard-sparring martial art, it should only take a few months to a year to attain a basic level of skill in internal martial arts such as tai chi. This is what tai chi teachers who train people to fight say. I will show some examples.

Tim Cartmell

Tim Cartmell, lineage holder in multiple Chinese martial arts in addition to many more accomplishments, talks about his views on the subject in this interview:

Karl-Heinz: Many IMA teachers in the west say that you have to train minimum 10 years to use the IMAs, especially Taiji for fighting / self-defence. In my opinion, this makes no sense. What do you think about this?

Tim: If you have a good teacher of the IMA and practice hard, you should begin to develop real fighting/self defense abilities within several months of training. Teachers that tell their students it takes 10 years to learn how to fight with any martial art either don’t know how to fight themselves, or don’t know how to teach. Learning to fight is the same as learning any other physical skill. If you went to a swimming instructor who told you it would take 10 years of training before you could jump in the pool, would you sign up for lessons?

Mike Patterson

Mike Patterson is an accomplished trainer and competitor in full-contact Chinese martial arts, and incidentally the long-time coach of kettlebell guru Steve Cotter. He agrees with Tim, putting the time necessary closer to a year:

Karl-Heinz: How long do you think an average student of internal arts needs to train until he is able to defend himself or to fight in the ring? Do you think it needs longer than in the so called external arts?

Mike Patterson: It depends on the focus of training. I have been successful training people with no experience within a year to be competent ring fighters.

I should add the disclaimer that if it takes longer, it could be either that one is not training hard enough, or one's school isn't oriented towards fighting skills. For instance, without unscripted tuishou and sanshou, including wrestling and getting hit, the learning curve for martial skill will be a horizontal line.

Shen Yi Valencia

The student in this YouTube video from Shen Yi Valencia has six months of training in Chen taiji, and is shown winning 3rd place in the 60-65kg division at the National Open kuoshu tournament in Madrid in September 2013. He is still a beginner, and may not yet have mastered taiji, but he has certainly gained a significant amount of usable fighting ability in those six months.

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    I'm not impressed with the swimming analogy; tai chi combat seems a bit more subtle than not drowning. – Dave Newton May 18 '12 at 15:20
  • @DaveNewton Well, I suggest taking that up with the tai chi coaches who use that analogy. The guy is a CMA lineage holder and multiple-time champion in competitions of the gentle art. – Dave Liepmann Oct 1 '12 at 19:05
  • none of which means he would win an analogy competition. – Dave Newton Oct 1 '12 at 19:52
  • @DaveNewton He's making the point that taiji is a physical skill. Like any physical skill, it should be practiced in a manner as close as possible to its application. – Dave Liepmann Oct 1 '12 at 19:57
  • Yep. And I don't like the analogy. I hope that will be okay. – Dave Newton Oct 1 '12 at 20:55
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It depends on many factors. Tim Cartmell comes from one point of view (am referring answer given by Dave Liepmann), and from that point of view he is absolutely correct.

I can imagine a Tai Chi teacher who'd teach you to fight with Tai Chi and you'd get proficient, certainly.

There are many variables to take into account. I am here making the assumption that you are training three times a week for an hour each time, at least.

Are you and your teacher disregarding every other aspect of TaiChi to focus only on the fighting aspect? If so, like Tim Cartmell, I'll certainly say you'll be fine in a few months. And by 'fine', I mean you will end up with bruises and maybe a bloody nose, but you'll have won the fight.

Of course, when you look at it that way, any and all martial arts can get you there within a few months if you discard everything else - the best evidence of that is found within MMA / Krav Maga schools where everything but the fighting is discarded, and these people become relatively adept fairly quickly.

It is after all a very simple equation: time + effort = result. If you put in the time, you practice hard, and you practice correctly, you will develop skills.

Now, can you become proficient at fighting in a few months and still get ALL THE OTHER BENEFITS of TaiChi? I don't think so. You will get some improvements if you have a good teacher, regarding your posture and ability to connect your body, but you will most likely not get all the health, mental and emotional improvements that TaiChi practice can bring you (if you want them - triple your practice time).

I will leave you with a blog post named how to calculate your tai chi skill. I'm sure you'll have fun with it. :)

[Edit - I found a very interesting article that talks about five levels of skills in Daiji. It has nothing to do with 'fighting' but fighting proficiency is certainly acquired along the way, as a byproduct. I hope you enjoy it.]

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  • I appreciate this answer, but the blog post (which proposes an...interesting mathematical theory about quantifying the attainment of skill) seems to contradict your penultimate paragraph: "Any amount of tai chi will give you health benefits...[but] on the health path you are not learning a martial art any more, and so you should not expect to ever gain any meaningful self defence skills or the really deep physiological, structural and awareness changes that transform your body." – Dave Liepmann May 17 '12 at 16:13
  • I thought people might enjoy the 'mathematical theory'. I couldn't keep a straight face. I don't think this contradicts the penultimate paragraph: I said "you will most likely not get ALL the health [...] improvements". "The health path" is what some modified forms of TaiChi teach, completely foregoing all martial endeavors. – Anon May 17 '12 at 19:49
  • I couldn't keep a straight face either. If only training were so straightforward. :) – Dave Liepmann May 17 '12 at 19:50
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Ben Lo, senior student of Yang Chengfu and senior classmate of Professor Zheng Manqing, prefers the cop-out:

Ben said that if you are working correctly, combative skill will evolve naturally. It's just like walking - if you set out in the correct direction, and keep walking, then no matter when, even if you didn't want to reach the destination that lies in that particular direction, you'll definitely get there no matter what. So don't worry about it, but keep trying to correct your practice.

From a compilation by Scott Meredith (PDF).

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  • This is an excellent answer. Cheng Man-ch'ing was great partly b/c he was sick, and tai chi helped restore him to health and made him strong. He was potentially the first true master to say, essentially, "If I can do this, anyone can do this. And everyone should do this. And even as little as 15 minutes per day is sufficient." – DukeZhou Nov 19 at 18:52
  • But readers should also recognize that Yang Chengfu accepted Cheng as a disciple, which was a rare thing indeed. – DukeZhou Nov 19 at 18:59
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It all depends on several aspects.

  • Are you practicing a martial aspect of the taijiquan
  • Does your teacher/school teach the martial aspect of the taijiquan
  • How much do you practice and what is the main focus of your practice
  • Who you practice with
  • What else do you do to advance your skill

This is necessarily not a full list, but the main things should be there.

Let me elaborate on these points and then I'll give you an answer.

Are you practicing a martial aspect of the taijiquan

This is a legitimate question as the martial practice of taijiquan is rare. So much so that even some practicioners of taijiquan who confided themselves fairly advanced adepts of the art do not even concisder taijiquan a martial art.

Studying taijiquan as a martial art means that one must always see and practice taijiquan as martial art. Just as the Yang Chenfu once said - you can have enormous civil benefits from practicing taijiquan but you must first understand/achieve the martial aspects of it to get the civil benefits.

Without practicing the martial aspects of taijiquan you can't even start getting the martial proficiency.

Does your teacher/school teach the martial aspect of the taijiquan

Basically the same as previous point, but the onus here is on the teacher. If the teacher does not teach the martial art you really can't learn to fight. What does it mean to teach a martial art is an entirely another topic.

Enough to say that a good teacher can mean a world of difference in the speed of learning. One can try and achieve the same by self-learning but a good teacher can direct your focus and increase your skill level at a dramatical pace.

How much do you practice and what is the main focus of your practice

It does not really matter what martial art do you practice and who is you teacher, if you only practice that one Thursday night after work every two weeks. Practice is the only thing that can get you from no skill to perfection - and all the points in between...

What do you practice is also important. If all you do is form and choreographed application drills, you are not going to be any better in a real fight in a year or even ten years than you were when you started.

You have to practice actual uncooperative and physical fighting to hone the skills you learn from form and tuishou and basic exercises or drills. In addition to adding additional context to your drills and improving your form, it allows to season your skills and overcome your fears as no other practice can.

Who you practice with

You can't get a decent martial skill just by practicing alone. You need the feedback of your classmates just as much as from your teacher. If your practice partners do not want to spar, neither can you. Simple as that.

What else do you do to advance your skill

Let's just agree wit this - unless you are a prodigy, born to the fate of becoming the best fighter on this side of the galaxy, you will have to work for this. No matter how bright you are if you only put in the absolute minimum required from you in the class, you are always destined to be an average. And an average in the fight is just ... adequate at the best. Even less when it comes to taijiquan. Taijiquan (even more so than other internal martial arts) seems at times counterintuitive. You have to let go of your tensions and relax into tha now. It can be hard if you are only learning the basics, but it is essential if you are learning taijiquan.

So how long should it take to gain fighting proficiency in tai chi

If you are properly focusing on the martial training and if you have a good teacher also proficient in the martial aspect of taijiquan. If you have a motivated class full of eager classmates who all share your desire to learn the full taijiquan system instead only bits and pieces and are ready to be engaged in all aspects of the practice. And if you include sparring in your curriculum, I'd say it should not take more than month or two to become adequate fighter.

It does not mean you'll win every match or even most of the matches. Also what you are doing is not necessarily using all the base principles of taijiquan. It simply means you will be able to hold your own in the fight and give as well as receive.

To become a proficient taijiquan fighter will definitely take more time. By proficient taijiquan fighter I mean that in addition to holding your own in a fight you also understand and are able to utilize taijiquan principles and body mechanics. This will certainly take years and can be a lifelong pursuit of perfection.

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If you study at a school that does both "free fighting" (san shou) and "push hands" (tui shou), and you practice the form 60-90 minutes a day, and you go to class two to three times per week, it should take approximately 5 years to be able to fight at a medium level for self defense.

At the school where I study they say that if you want to develop the ability to fight, you need to do both push hands and free fighting practice, AND that the form should be done 30 minutes a day for health, 2 hours per day for self-defense, and, like for any competitive athlete, 5-6 hours a day if you want to seriously enter free fighting/kick boxing type competitions against professionals.

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In reply to the answer "A few months to a year"

My name is Johan Duquet and I am the teacher/trainer of the Shen Yi School in Valencia.

I teach Chen style Taiji Quan as taught to me by Fu NengBin and some Gao Bagua and XingYi as I learned from Luo DeXiu. I (among other things) try to teach/test the skills from these arts within the format of Sanda as seen in the video of my student.

I do believe that training with the objective of learning how to fight one can achieve this relatively fast. To learn the complete art with all it's subtleties and all aspects takes a lot longer.

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    Hi Johan, and welcome to the site. Please take a look at the about page and the help section to get a better understanding of how this site works. Posts here are expected to follow the Q&A model rather than a traditional web forum. – Matt Chan Nov 27 '13 at 2:26
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  • 10,000+ hours for basic competency

This you can accomplish with ~3 hours of training daily for about ten years. Here I'm talking about internal technique, as opposed to being able to do forms well and properly, or beat non-masters at push hands via brute strength.

(Even the push hands competitors aren't quite yet doing it internally b/c they're just too young—it's grappling using Tai Chi movements as opposed to Tai Chi technique.)

This is why traditional Chinese schools start with external arts, to provide something serviceable in addition to the baseline strength required to practice internal.

You can teach internal forms to kids, but there's really no point until at least the late teens.

Most practitioners are unable to even relax enough until the body starts to decline in the mid-30's, such that brute force is increasingly less effective. (My sense is that true masters, even in external styles such as Karate, naturally become "internal" after a sufficient number of years.)

Lifting weights is not generally recommended, although old school training involves brutal "basic training" (calisthenics), and can involve extensive isometrics, heavy stone balls and heavy weapons.

"10,000" is about where you can start to so some stuff using real technique, but any believing they can "guarantee everything 100%" is fooling themselves. It typically requires training with a high level master to understand this, i.e. someone who can "set the student straight", because serious students are strong, fast, and know a lot of applications.

My teacher's generic answer for how many repetitions were necessary to master a single given technique was "a thousand thousand times" and this was to be taken literally.

  • 30,000+ hours for a basic level of mastery

My teacher did this in the first ten years, "ten years, ten hours of day". This is literal, because it's all they ever did from early childhood, although training in the internal arts only began in the late teens.

This was the interior of China, where there was no television, limited access to electricity, and very little else to do except hard labor. The teaching involved living with the master of a top lineage. This was ~4 hours in the morning, ~4 hours in the early evening, including teaching "outdoor students", and private "midnight practice" with the master every night.

My teacher didn't even have hobbies until later in life, and still trained 4-5 hours per day, with the rest of the time teaching private lessons, and pretty much only thought of that. (I had the privilege of meeting Jimmy Pedro, and it was refreshing to meet a martial artist who had never even heard of my teacher. Pedro explained it "I only know Judo" i.e. "I only think about Judo. I only care about Judo." Malcolm Gladwell has written about Wayne Gretzky being similar.) I suspect that first ten years for my own teacher included many days closer to 12 hours.

(It took me 30 years to get close to that number of hours, and I still don't call myself a master, because I'm comparing myself to the best of the best of the old school. I had a career outside of martial arts, so I trained ~4 hours per night when not traveling, plus short morning practice, with up to ten hours and teaching on weekends. When traveling I'd utilize empty hotel conference and ballrooms, around hotel pools late at night, and sometimes in parks, or, when not available, in the hotel room itself, tailoring practice to available space.)

  • 60,000+ hours for a high level of mastery

That covers the 30's and 40's for an old-school, full-time practitioner, such that, by 50, one who has devoted their entire life to it is usually at their peak in the middle of life.

Over 50, it is recommended to pull back on intensive fa jin, extreme backbends, and holding extreme balance positions, or risk suffering the late life complications not uncommon for athletes at the highest level who sacrifice their bodies for their sports.

This is a good video of what a high-level, old school master is capable of in old age. He was trained by his father, who was extraordinarily strict. Take special note of some of the leg techniques, balance, footwork and focusing, and compare it to videos of most masters much younger.

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  • Interesting: "Lifting weights is not recommended" yet "heavy stone balls and heavy weapons" are OK. I guess if it's old-timey then it doesn't count as a weight? – Dave Liepmann Nov 19 at 8:39
  • @DaveLiepmann I tried to be reticent about that, because I recognize that weight lifting is an important part of your practice. I have a formidable tai chi brother who can bench extraordinary amounts, but it does make it harder for him to attain the necessary level of relaxation. (Possibly I should say it's not recommend for most. But also don't forget that part of allowed Cheng Man-ch'ing to reach such a high level in a relatively short time is specifically because he was weak with tuberculosis. If your weight practice is done in the spirit of the old masters, it's probably fine. – DukeZhou Nov 19 at 19:04
  • @DaveLiepmann amended to say "lifting weights is not generally recommend", so that it allows for the exception cases. – DukeZhou Nov 19 at 19:13
  • @DaveLiepmann Think about Fu Zhensong using a giant stone ball (that you could sure lift, but I can't, favoring much lighter ones;) He used that to walk the pakua circle for hours—the use was only partly for strength—"root" was the ultimate intent, and this is likely what allowed him to match Yang Chengfu. – DukeZhou Nov 19 at 19:39

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