How the internal arts work: Part 1

Introduction: demystifying the internal arts

I was prompted to write this (long overdue) article because I’m aware of the scarcity (if not almost complete absence) of decent material analysing the internal arts of China, namely ie. taijiquan (t’ai chi ch’uan), baguazhang (pa kua chang) and xingyiquan (hsing i quan).

What analysis exists is invariably couched in esoteric language (qi/chi, jins, meridians, etc.) that is at once inaccessible and unhelpful (except, perhaps, to those knowledgeable in traditional Chinese medicine theory, for whom it might have some contextual significance). Such accounts avoid almost entirely any Western scientific deconstruction of the mechanics of these arts.

It’s not small wonder then that the internal arts are virtually ignored by so many pragmatic martial artists today. Such analysis can only serve to feed misimpressions of the internal arts as either delusional or “old people’s dancing”.

Yet my own experience in the internal arts over the last 22 years has revealed them to be sophisticated fighting systems. Readers might recall that in my article “Advanced techniques” I ventured to say the internal arts were “advanced”. By this I meant “movement that is harder to learn” or “learning that relies on what has already been learned”.

And they are “advanced” within this meaning of the term. In my experience, the internal arts are manifestly harder to learn correctly than “external” arts such as shaolin, karate, taekwondo, etc. Because they rely so heavily on correctness and exactness of technique in generating and applying force to a target, you need to have their movements more or less perfect in order for them to be useful. What this means, in practice, is that if you want to learn to fight quickly, you shouldn’t bother with the internal arts.

On the other hand, if –
  1. you already have a solid base in external fighting forms and you’ve reached a point of diminishing returns in your training, whether through technical dead-ends, age, or other physical limiting factors (see my article “Attack, attack, attack”); or
  2. perhaps you don’t particularly care about fighting and just train for health, well-being or just to develop a skill in an art (ie. “gong fu”),
then internal arts practice might be for you.

What the internal arts are not

There are many who share my view that the internal arts are “advanced”. However I’m fairly certain that the majority of these people have a completely different idea of what constitutes “advanced”.

In particular, I am referring to the fact that the internal arts have long been associated with almost mystical powers. Even today there are many practitioners (of the kind my friend Martin Watts describes as “infernal internals”) who adhere to the belief that the function of the internal arts are essentially supernatural – that they defy the known laws of physics. I discuss some of the laughable examples of these schools in my article “Understanding the internal arts”, but here is yet another:

A laughable example of “mystical” internal arts. Compare this video to real push hands in the video below.

The video starts off promisingly enough: some not-too-bad push hands, some fairly compliant, but not objectionable aikido-esque locks and projections. But then it morphs into the stuff of comedy and delusion. If any “power” is being demonstrated here, it is the power of the “sifu’s” auto-suggestion and mentalism. If any “energies”1 are being expended, then it is by the students in their ridiculous leaps and hops. It is clear to me that none of the energy driving those leaps and hops originates from the “sifu”.2

I can’t see that anyone interested in pragmatic civilian defence, law enforcement, military hand-to-hand combat or ring fighting would be remotely interested in the fraudulent farce that comprises “the wondrous world of chi power”. Nor would anyone seeking "gong fu" (the acquisition, through effort and perseverance, of real skill in an art or discipline) want any part of it. I know that if this was my introduction to the internal arts, I would not want a bar of them.

Thankfully I did not come to the internal arts by way of such blatant nonsense. My introduction to the martial arts in general was in a “hard knocks” school of karate way back in 1981. My subsequent introduction to the internal arts was in 1990 via the same karate instructor who in turn trained with another “hard knocks” school, in this case that of Hong Yi Xiang in Taipei, Taiwan (a predominantly internal arts school which spawned many top-ranked full-contact san shou fighters in its day).3 In commencing internal arts training, my whole focus was on developing a more sophisticated, practical set of skills to advance my existing skills – not on mystical powers or “old people’s dancing”.

Internal arts sensitivity: one of the mainstays of subtle internal arts skill that is hard to explain, yet relies on simple physics and many, many hours of dedicated practice in formal, traditional training platforms like push hands.

In short I had some idea of the advanced body mechanics that the internal arts taught, and I wanted to learn them. I knew from way back when that those mechanics could be, and often were, couched in terms used in traditional Chinese medicine (qi/chi, meridians etc.). That this has never been necessary in martial arts has only become clearer to me as the years have progressed. So here is my attempt to couch those mechanics in terms of simple scientific terms.

It’s about physics, stupid!

I noted in my article “Hitting harder: physics made easy” that martial arts is largely about transferring momentum. Forget the word “power”, which I think is the most overused and misunderstood term in martial arts today. Ultimately it comes down to force applied to your target. And that force is equal to your transferred momentum (impulse) over time (ie. applied force = transferred momentum (impulse) / time).

Different martial arts stress slightly different body mechanics to achieve the objective of transferring momentum within in their preferred tactics.

In my recent article “Internal arts fact and fallacy: double weighting” I briefly touched on some of the body mechanics that are unique to the internal arts. What these arts stress, above all else, is efficiency and economy in transferring momentum. Put another way, the internal arts are about reducing the gap between the force you expend and the force you apply. In so doing, they aim to permit even a fairly small and weak person “hit hard” because more of his or her body mass is being applied to the blow in an efficient and economic manner.

How do they do this? The answer lies largely in a principle I call “preservation of momentum” which forms the foundation of all internal arts methodology.

Preservation of momentum: the main principle behind the internal arts

Each of the internal arts prefers a separate, unique method to “preserve momentum” – ie. keep it flowing.4,9 Why? Very simply, the flow of your momentum is what helps you utilise your whole body mass (and not just the mass of your limb or other body part) in effecting both attack and defence. In so doing you maximise the result of the equation p = mv (ie. your applied momentum = mass x velocity). This in turn maximises the result of the equation f = i/t (ie. your applied force = transferred momentum (impulse) / time).

At first glance you might think this is easy to keep your momentum flowing. And indeed it is easy – when you are mid-movement. In that case, all you have to do is “not stop”! However the real challenge to “preserving momentum” comes at the end of movement, ie the point of:
  1. furthest extension/expansion; and
  2. furthest retraction/contraction.
How should one ensure that momentum is maintained in those circumstances – or at least, maintained in a way that is going to work for you and not against you?

I discuss the concept of "preservation of momentum" in the context of an experimental kata (kenkyugata) fusing external and internal arts methods.

The problem with over-commitment

It is at the points of furthest extension and retraction that you are –
  1. most vulnerable to attack; and
  2. weakest – ie. least able to “hit hard”.
Why? Because your momentum has just reached the end of its movement; in order to keep moving you either “restart” moving in the same direction you were previously moving or you reverse direction. Either way, you face a “standing start”.6, 7

The most obvious example I can give of this dilemma is where you are at your point of fullest extension with a punch. Imagine for a moment that you’ve thrown a massive cross and you’ve missed. You are now over-committed/extended. To abruptly stop your momentum will simply leave you flat-footed, waiting to be hit. So you need to continue your momentum.

Natural stepping: a less than desirable default response to over-committment

To continue your momentum in the conventional/untrained way you need to take a step with your back leg.

For example, in the adjacent picture of Frazier and Ali, you'll note Frazier's back leg is off the heel; his momentum is falling forward and he is being forced to take a step forward (ie. his back foot will step up and perhaps overtake his front - called in Japanese "ayumi ashi").

There are those who would say: "So what? What's wrong with just continuing forward with a natural step?"

Physical unpreparedness

Well, for a start, stepping forward might be the very last thing you want to do when your own attack has just missed: Your opponent (having ducked/weaved/deflected etc. your attack) might be coming out of his or her evasive/deflecting movement while you are still in the process of missing and over-committing. In this case, you'll be physically unprepared for what comes next. Your opponent might be fairly sure that your momentum will continue forward, meaning he/she might be prepared (to some extent) for what comes next. [Given the commitment of your blow, the continuation of your forward momentum using natural stepping is somewhat predictable, if only because you will do it to avoid overbalancing.]

Conversely you will be doing exactly nothing about trying to address what happens next, other than trying to redirect your missed momentum towards wherever your opponent has moved, using a natural step. This can be problematic, as we'll soon see.

Mental unpreparedness

If you've ever gone to grab a milk carton assuming it to be full, you'll know too well the surprise (as you lift it sky-high!) of finding it to be empty. In fighting that sort of surprise can be deadly. Having your punch miss its target is bad enough. Having to make another step forward simply because your last technique failed is a recipe for yet another (unpleasant) surprise.

If (as in the above picture of Ali and in the adjacent photo) your opponent has done no more than evade without setting up a counter, you might well continue your forward momentum into a step and another punch (aiming for wherever your opponent has moved). But if your opponent is well set-up as a consequence of evading your first blow, then you'll simply be walking into his or her counter.

The problem of "dead time" in natural stepping

Not only are you "walking blind" by taking an unplanned natural step forward, you also face the twin evil of "dead time". What do I mean by this?

With every ayumi ashi / natural step (ie. a step where your back foot pushes off, draws level with, then eventually passes your front foot), there will be a "dead" period, where you fail to exert any real forward momentum with your body. This "dead time" occurs from the time you lift your back heel until your back foot draws level with your front.

Only once your back foot passes your front (ie. the mid-line of your body) does your bodyweight start to fall forward into your opponent. Until then you are "positioning yourself".

Now contrast the natural step with the "drop step" - ie. a lunge. This is where you simply lift the extend the front leg and drag the back leg up. You'll notice that the moment you lift your front leg, your bodyweight is falling forward; your momentum is being applied immediately and there is no "dead time".

The "drop step" is something I'll discuss in greater detail later, especially in Part 4 of this article which will relate to xingyiquan. Suffice it to say at this point that the natural step is not ideal for martial purposes. Generally the internal arts will avoid natural stepping unless you are already in motion (eg. after starting with a "drop step") and fully in control. Examples where you might use natural stepping include chasing or fleeing - ie. covering larger ground.

However in a melee exchange, a step executed simply because you have reached maximum extension and have "run out of options" means that you are being forced to go through some "dead time".

[For a more detailed account of this issue, see my article: "Dead time": pitfall of natural stepping.]

Over-commitment and "pressing your attack" are two different things

It is important to remember in all this is that pressing an attack (keeping your momentum going towards your attacker) is fine, even if it involves natural stepping. Every martial art teaches you to press your attack when you can and the internal arts are no exception. Once you are "on a roll" there is no point "backing off" (unless moral and legal restraints require it).

But from my preceding discussion it should be clear that not every situation will suit "pressing an attack". Clearly, if your opponent has evaded/deflected your attacks in a way that sets them up for an effective counter, you must address this intelligently and decisively.

As I've discussed previously, the very essence of martial arts mastery lies not in forever refining your ability to land blows, but rather your ability to deal with the situation where your blows fail. The former is a necessary ("external") foundation for good fighting skill. The latter is the apex of such skill.

A good tennis player knows how to hit a solid baseline topspin. But an excellent tennis player knows how to return one - to recover from a dangerous position and set up his or her own. Martial arts is no different. Being a "good attacker" is only sufficient if you are fighting objects that don't "fight back" - see my article “Boards don’t hit back” Part 1 and Part 2.

The internal arts recognise this. As a consequence they devote substantial time to inculcating situational reflexes for ensuring that your momentum continues to work to your advantage even as your techniques fail (which they inevitably will at some point against a skilled opponent).

Examples of the pitfalls of over-commitment and the lack of effective tactics to avoid it

It should come as no surprise that experienced fighters prefer not to use natural stepping in fighting. When they do, it is usually when they are "on a roll" - chasing their opponent or pressing an attack. [The other option is when they are fleeing!]

But sometimes fighters will take a natural step after they miss a punch while over-committing. In that case, the step is usually necessary to avoid overbalancing and falling forward. If they are forced to take such a step, and if their opponent has set him/herself up well for a counter in the meantime, the results can be disastrous.

Consider the video footage below of an exchange between Lyoto Machida (who I have chosen for his traditional - at times almost "internal" - approach) and Thiago Silva. You'll notice that at the 0:11 mark Silva throws a left cross that is evaded by Machida. Machida has set up a counter with his own right which is chambered high next to his head.

While Silva knows he has missed, you'll see from the adjacent images that he continues his forward momentum. In fact his back leg is still stepping up even as Machida lands his second counter. You can tell Silva's rear leg movement during the step up by reference to the conveniently located line on the canvas floor. The whole of the time during which that step-up is being taken is "dead time". And in the face of a strong counter like Machida's, this "dead time" is something no one can afford.

In effect, Silva has walked into both of Machida's counters - all because of a catastrophic mistake in relation to over-commitment and stepping. Note the video below (set to start at the right point):

Some of Lyoto Machida's fight highlights. I've included this footage because there are some good examples of over-commitment and the resulting consequences.

Others who over-commit and miss try to stop and/or back-pedal, meaning that they get caught flat-footed. This is not nearly as bad as walking into a counter, but it's still not a good tactic.

One of the better responses you'll see along this line is Rashad Evans' against Machida also shown in the above video (from 2:04 onwards):

Evans doesn't make the mistake of continuing his momentum. Rather he attempts to retreat, covering against Machida's most powerful, predictable counter attack - a right cross (chambered, once again, high on Machida's right) - as he does so.

But Machida sees this and counters not with his chambered right, but with his left, avoiding Evans' raised guard on the left.

Machida then follows with a right, and in fact a couple more punches, many of which land.

While Evans' reaction is much better than Silva's, his central problem remains that he is over-committed with no real situational reflex for converting his miss into something more productive.8

What distinguishes Machida (and makes some aspects of his fighting "internal-like") is that his tactics focus on sophisticated, conservative civilian defence-style strategies (for which has been criticized for not providing "satisfying" fights). He is regarded as a "counter-puncher".

Machida's fighting style (which seems to "confound" many) is bascially this: his defence sets him up, while his attack includes situational reflexes for dealing with withdrawal should the attack fail. Avoiding over-commitment is necessarily part of this style. Does it work all the time? No. But he shows that (contrary to what many people have argued) it can and does work - even if it requires some very advanced timing and even if it was never intended for the ring environment (but rather, for civilian defence where the goals are fundamentally different).

So at least one competitive MMA fighter adopts a strategy that is, in part, congruent with internal arts tactics. The majority of other fighters and external traditional martial artists do not seem to pay any specific attention to the issue of over-commitment - certainly not in the formal technical and pedagogic sense seen in the internal arts. [In the next Parts you will see that as part of their philosophy of "preservation of momentum" the internal arts focus squarely on inculcating situational reflexes to both avoid your own over-commitment and exploit any over-commitment by your opponent.]

Contrasting standard “external” approaches

The standard “external” approaches to addressing the dilemmas of over-commitment and "dead time" are as follows:
  1. “One needs to train to be faster, stronger and fitter.”

    This is a laudable sentiment. But it can only get you so far before age conspires to start limiting your ability. You can’t keep improving simple speed and strength forever. Moreover, there will always be someone bigger, stronger, faster and younger than you. While physical conditioning is vital to any fighter’s preparation, it cannot help level the playing field against an opponent who has a much greater physical advantage (particularly if that opponent is also into physical conditioning!). Put simply, size matters.

    Instead, I think it is self-evident that the only way a smaller, weaker person can hope to address this disadvantage is through the acquisition of more advanced timing and skill (while simultaneously doing what he or she can to improve physical strength and conditioning).
  2. “One needs to spar harder and more often so as to learn through experience (ie. trial and error) to avoid being in this situation in the first place.”

    Again, sparring is vital to a martial artists training. But, as I’ve argued previously, the “trial and error” method is hardly scientific. It tests your skill rather than develops it. Rather you need to start looking at intelligent strategies for converting your “failed” movement into something productive.

    As Daoist and neo-Confucian-based9 disciplines, the internal arts are, by contrast aimed squarely at understanding and harnessing the process of change (ie. how one particular situation morphs or converts into another).
Accordingly, the principles of body mechanics underpinning the internal arts arise from a deeper understanding of this process of change, both philosophically and physically. And it is to those principles that I shall now turn.

Internal arts and preservation of momentum

I’ve previously summarised the principal methods by which the internal arts “preserve momentum” as follows:
  1. taijiquan uses “continuing momentum” – converting your expanded movement into a retraction, or converting your retracted movement into an expansion, much like a trampoline uses its spring;
  2. baguazhang uses “spiralling momentum” – redirecting your expanded or contracted movement into a spiral or coil;
  3. xingyiquan uses “falling momentum” – using gravity to refuel your expanded or retracted movement.
I discuss these methods in the video below.

A video in which I discuss how the various internal arts “preserve” the flow of your momentum, ensuring that you use it productively and bring your whole body into play in each movement.

Each of the internal arts has its particular preference for momentum preservation, although to a greater or lesser extent each also uses the methods of the others. I'll examine each of them in turn in succeeding Parts to this article.

These Parts will go into specific detail about exactly how the various internal arts go about inculcating appropriate situational reflexes for avoiding over-commitment while ensuring that your momentum continues to work to your advantage - even as and when your techniques are evaded/thwarted.

It is these pragmatic specifics that are all-too-often obscured by layers of jargon and supernatural mystique. My goal in the succeeding Parts to this article will be to strip away that mystique and explain the various related and overlapping internal arts training and technical methodologies (at least, as far I understand them!) in a manner that is as clear, thorough and scientific as I can manage.

Next: Part 2 - Taijiquan


1. When someone uses the plural “energies” you can usually tell straight away that they know absolutely nothing about what energy actually is.

2. Nothing is more amusing to me than where the overacting (whether conscious or not) in this video becomes obvious. My favourite part is where the “sifu” pushes a chain of people. At about 1:43 you’ll notice the last person flings himself away prematurely while the two people in the chain before him are still in place! Wondrous chi power indeed! It seems to have passed right through 2 people to get to him!

3. My instructor, Bob Davies, studied under Hong Yi Xiang. Hong was the founder of the Tang Shou Dao fighting stable. This stable produced fighters like Luo De Xiu. Hong was a student of Chen Pan Ling – my present teacher’s father.

4. See also my article “The importance of flow”.

5. An effective, intelligent martial arts programme cannot focus simply on hitting things - see my article “Boards don’t hit back” Part 1 and Part 2.

6. People might argue with my assertion that you face a "standing start" when you've reached your point of maximum extension. They might say that this isn't true if you're in the process of stepping. However this ignores the issue of "dead time" in natural stepping - note my comments under the relevant heading above.

7. It’s a bit like bouncing on a trampoline: at the highest point and lowest point your body briefly comes to a stop. When you are “stopped” you have to accelerate back to full speed in order to generate any momentum (and hence any force) behind a blow. And, from a defence perspective, you also become a “sitting duck” target; your opponent might already moving at speed, while you are stationary. This means you have to “find time” to accelerate out of the way.

The difference, however, between a trampoline and reaching the end of your extension or retraction in a martial context is that with the trampoline you have an automatic impetus to reverse direction: At the top of your jump, gravity will pull you down. At the bottom, the elastic surface of the trampoline will start to propel you up. In the case of an extension or retraction (eg. a committed punch) there is no such “automatic” impetus. This is something the internal arts specifically seek to overcome with an appropriately grooved situational reflex – see under the heading “Taijiquan’s preferred approach: continuing momentum”.

8. Other examples of over-commitment abound in the video of Machida's fight highlights. They include the following against Couture:
  • Couture is caught flat-footed at around 0.59. Being a highly experienced, master MMA fighter, Couture can tell he is going to miss mid-punch, so he starts to withdraw it. However his body is so committed he still gets caught flat-footed.
  • At 1:10 or so; Couture is once more clearly aware that his punch is going to miss, so he pulls it. Again, his bigger problem is that while he's able to stop his punch, his body is over-committed. In this instance, as with Silva in the example I gave earlier, he is so over-committed that his back leg continues to step up (to avoid an overbalance). Not only does this incur considerable "dead time", it directly leads to him walking into Machida's punch (and a few more that follow).
9. See my article“The internal arts and Daoism”.

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic