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?

  • Not tai chi, but TCMA in general: stone locks, polearms, gymnastic battle ax swinging, enormous muskets, and punching things: chinesemartialstudies.com/2014/03/10/… Jun 19, 2015 at 8:08
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    qi gong exercises. isometrics, rolldowns, carry tiger, spiral left and right, and standing like a post. Lots and lots of standing like a post. Never enough standing like a post.
    – MCW
    Jan 21, 2017 at 22:13

10 Answers 10


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.

  • 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. Mar 5, 2013 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, 2013 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. Mar 6, 2013 at 15:34

"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

Tim Cartmell relates the following:

I teach Zhao Bao Tai Ji Quan. Actually, I have only had one student in the seven years I have been back teaching in the States that has actually learned the entire form, it has proven too physically difficult for the rest of the students that have tried to learn it. There is a basic set of conditioning exercises that students learn at first, my teacher's standard was 36 repetitions of each exercise before learning the form.

These feats of strength that students must accomplish before learning the form include:

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.

  • Oh, that's interesting; I've used essentially the same stuff in Japanese training; Hojo undō. May 18, 2012 at 17:48
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    @DaveNewton The Okinawans stole it shamelessly. :) May 18, 2012 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? Oct 1, 2012 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. Oct 2, 2012 at 1:59
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    @DaveLiepmann Right. Armchair. Noted. Thanks for clearing that up, I have been wondering about that. Oct 2, 2012 at 4:30

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.

  • Could you go into some detail on silk reeling? May 18, 2012 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. May 18, 2012 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, 2012 at 17:12

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).


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".

  • 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. May 18, 2012 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. May 18, 2012 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. May 18, 2012 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, 2012 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, 2012 at 15:28

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.


Holding stances and then applying isometrics while in the various stances seems to serve some strength conditioning purpose and also tai chi practiced in deep water with a belt that floates you in an upright position / water offers some resistance however allows the fluid motion of tai chi and chi gong to be maintained/ also it is fun in the deep water. I have been practicing for 5 years and realize daily how little I know and how much there is to this wonderful art/ forever learning and trying


I guess it depends on the style. And many practitioners certainly do whatever complimentary conditioning/strengthening suits them.

In my style, the Wudang (Practical) TCC we have a few conditioning/strengthening exercises and they are considered quite important, even - for those preparing for full-contact competitions - being the corner stone.

One is the striking drill called Running Thunder Hand (demonstration). There are multiple variations but the conditioning one is a quick series of jabs and crosses. It is recommended to do 150 (somebody says 180) strikes/min (i.e. 75 per hand) for 5-20 minutes and possibly with weights. D. Docherty writes about his preparation for full-contact fighting: "Each day I'd 3,000 Running Thunder Hand punches with a 1.8kg (4lb) weight in either hand. I'd also do around thousand punches on the heavy bag and the same on a focus mitt."

We also practice hand stands and rolls (e.g. 80/2 min).

And I believe that weapons training can be also very good fitness training, as Roland suggests. It is performed with a heavy object and, especially some weapons, quite vigorously.


For me, using heavier equipment can develop correct body movement. I have used heavy hand weights for boxing, not to build muscle, but to ensure all movement begins with the feet, engaging the hips and then arms and fists. The same can be said for moving heavy objects, not to build muscle, but to define technique. Achieve more while doing less, for me is a great fighting mantra. I would also suggest if you never really practice throwing sparring partners, getting used to dealing with real punches or kicks, then you will never be able to express whichever fighting style you proport to be experienced in.

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    Welcome to the site. I am afraid this has nothing to do specifically with Tai Chi which is what the question is asking. Could you re-focus your answer on your Tai Chi experience? Jun 4, 2018 at 12:12
  • I'm a long time Tai Chi practitioner and have used heavy objects and weapons in this manner, for similar purposes. Where many practitioner eschew heavy weapons, partially for high likelihood of joint damage, I've found that, when using the internal principles, where movement comes from the waist, joint damage does not occur. So a good general answer, even if not specific to tai chi. Also worth noting that my teacher would do double handed jian single handed by employing internal principles to control the longer, heavier weapon lightly.
    – DukeZhou
    Oct 27, 2020 at 1:02
  • At a beginning level, isometrics, such as holding stances, are critical for building basic strength and allowing relaxation in those stances when practicing forms.

At a higher level, this becomes less necessary as the practitioner is getting the same benefits in practicing forms and movements with a high degree of relaxation. However, it can still be rewarding and fun to hold stances as low and relaxed as possible until you feel what I like to call "that golden burn". But it's critical to be relaxed or you'll damage your knees and have persistent issues.

Chen style is particularly good in focusing on lower stances and more strenuous practice, although any style can be practiced in this manner. (Typically, stances get higher as one ages due to both knee problems and reduced need for low stances when real technique starts to kick in. Higher stances have the benefit of lighter footwork and better mobility. Once an opponent is uprooted, very little focus is required to push them with surprising force.)

  • Traditional Tai Chi teachers typically teach external styles to younger students in conjunction with, or prior to internal styles, specifically to strengthen the body and reinforce precision in movement.

One has to be careful here in that external arts can harm the bodies of older practitioners. I still do certain external styles, such as jian, for the richness of the techniques, but started practicing them "old man style" after 40, more internally than externally.

  • Waist turning is potentially the most critical strengthening practice for Tai Chi because all movement and focusing comes from the waist.

This is essentially "embracing the ball" while going through all of the stances and circling as far back and as far forward as possible, dependent on age and fitness. This should also be practiced in one legged-stances, and in my school the teacher did 5x the number of turns in one-legged stances. Certain styles of Bagua also have waist turning exercises. Can be done with stone balls or weights, although be careful as it's easy to injure the back if not relaxed or if you push too far, too fast.

  • Weapons practice is useful in developing upper body strength

Traditional schools will typically teach all 4 major weapons (sword, cutlass, staff, spear) as well as various other weapons. Typically the weapons are very light, but I've personally had good results with heavy weapons, including iron pipe for staff, but one needs to be quite careful not to injure oneself. (Most practitioner I talk to eschew heavy weapons for the toll they take on joints, but, using the waist to generate movements, I've never had any problems.

  • Walking the circle and stance work with stone balls

This is very old-school. (Walking the circle refers to Bagua practice of circling with the waist twisted toward the opponent.)

  • A few pushups

Never a bad thing, but always be aware that the more brute strength one has, the more difficult to stay relaxed and be internal. (There are some theories that Tai Chi utilizes tendon and connective tissue to generate power more than muscles.) I typically do pushups slowly with fists on pavement or hard floor, to gently harden without joint damage. Also rewarding to do fingertip, but I personally disagree with the hyperextened manner this is usually practiced. (I've found having the fingers curved inward, in the manner of a "dragon holding a ball" to be much more difficult, without the joint stress of hyperextension.)

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