Internal/external ratio

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Chinese martial arts

In traditional Chinese martial arts the student commences training with a significant amount of hard training methods. These are similar to what is practiced in most other martial arts.
The aim is to gain a foundation level of fitness; stamina, core strength, endurance, flexibility and cardiovascular fitness.


A new student spends most of their time doing external training approaches. The practice is crude, difficult and demanding. But it is not forceful or damaging.
This kind of training may be deemed 'external' because it is simplistic. It trains the body to become familiar with new patterns and habits of usage.

Lower grades

The lower kung fu grades are not advanced. How could they be? They are introductory. The student is training 'externally' because they lack the physical skill to be internal.
Internal takes time. It requires years of careful work.


A lower grade tai chi student lacks the physical ability to perform technically sophisticated internal movements. They don't know much of the overall syllabus.
Possessing only a severely limited repertoire of skills: a few qigong exercises, some form and partner work... they must work with what they have. And this is primarily external.


Since novice students lack in-depth awareness, coordination, balance, poise, they cannot reasonable train anything subtle. The 'internal' aspects of tai chi are merely conceptual to the student.
They are nowhere near ready to embrace the internal


Most beginners experience difficulty with the very notion of 'internal' use of strength. They resist, look for shortcuts or simply continue to use brute force. The answer lies with the mind.
You will be hampered by force as long as you perceive it to be of value to you. Changing this belief will involve changing your mind.


For quite a long time, a tai chi student must focus purely upon external matters. Appearance, accuracy, alignment, structure. Their training is mainly external
Even internal-seeming methods such as qigong and form are hopelessly tense and forceful. But this is OK. The instructor expects nothing more.

Kung Yi-tsu was famous for his strength.
King Hsuan of Chou went to call on him with full ceremony,
but when he got there, he found that Kung was a weakling.
The king asked, "How strong are you?"
Kung replied, "I can break the waist of a spring insect,
I can bear the wing of an autumn cicada."
The king flushed and said,
"I'm strong enough to tear apart rhinoceros hide and drag nine oxen by the tail
- yet I still lament my weakness.
How can it be that you are so famous for strength?"
Kung replied, "My fame is not for having such strength,
it is for being able to use such strength."

(Zen story/David Schiller)

Fitness first

Martial arts require students to get fit. Usually much, much fitter than the student is expecting. The training may seem challenging at first
Once the student has become significantly stronger, it will no longer be so difficult.

An easy option?

Tai chi is typically regarded as being an easy option; a poor man's martial art. Ideal for slackers and talkers.
This is frequently the case; with many exponents woefully out of shape and no match for more earnest martial artists

Fighting is fighting

It does not matter which martial art you study; you are still engaged in combat. Tai chi students fantasise that qi is going to bridge the fitness gap and mysteriously defeat the opponent.
This is childish and naive. A punch is a punch, a throw is a throw, an armlock an armlock. There is a high risk of being hurt.

No one starts internally

Every student starts externally. How long you remain external depends entirely upon how heavily you invest in the basics. Many people imagine themselves far more skilled than they really are.
This is a road to nowhere.


The exercises that I teach in this book are qigong, but to balance our body we need to practice cardiovascular and strength training as well.

(Yan Lei)


Students must commit to a regime of strength-building exercise: qigong, leg stretches, psoas exercises...
An increased degree of strength is necessary if the student expects to eventually be capable of employing the art in combat. Tai chi will only work if you have both external and internal strength.
And if you can use the art in a unified manner.

Square on the inside, round on the outside

You need to be externally and internally strong, and that requires hard work. In actual combat application, the external strength is subsumed within the internal principles of usage.
But this takes time to happen. It requires high repetition and mindful practice.

Partner work

The student must connect the separate body parts together and start using the body and mind as one unit. This is the real start of your internal strength training.
Instead of forcing, exerting, sweating, you learn to be sensitive, relaxed and aware.

No shortcuts

The training doesn't get easier. You get stronger. But only if you practice.

External concerns

Trying to be too clever, fancy or ambitious - without the external strength to support the body - is a recipe for injury. We are muscle and bone.
The joints need to be supported, the core strong, the muscles toned and responsive, the cardiopulmonary system healthy and robust.
These are all 'external' concerns - and will always remain relevant - no matter how highly skilled you eventually become.

Harmony between the internal and external parts.

(Yang Cheng Fu)

Page created 3 May 1995
Last updated
8 April 1999