Understanding muscles

classes     taijiquan     self defence     qigong     tai chi for health     about us     reviews     a-z

New starters

New starters are taught how to move their body in a very 'li' way - large, obvious, crude movements of the joints. This is necessary.
Fine motor skills are lacking so the hips are emphasised and leg strength is cultivated.


Li refers to the use of bones + muscles; usually muscle tension. It applies to the reliance upon force rather than a springy, pliable frame.
e.g. scapula pulled too far forward, elbows locked, knees straightened or bent deeply, pelvis forced under, stretching beyond 70%...

From hard to soft

Short-term, training that emphasises large hip and waist action is valuable since it teaches the student to think more about the lower body and the larger muscle groups.
Long-term, it isn't good because the skeleton is being over-used. The soft tissue needs to do more and the joints less.

A beginner forever?

The real problem with being a long-term beginner is that everything is performed in a crude way and is not strictly speaking taijiquan or even 'internal'.
This issue cannot be resolved by the instructor because it is the student themselves who determines what is appropriate.
If a student hasn't passed the beginners syllabus then they are exactly where they belong and sadly this means they remain external.

Unnatural naturalness

Taijiquan requires the student to use their muscles in an unfamiliar, non-habitual manner. At first, this is very difficult. With practice, it becomes easier.
Eventually, you forget that it is even taking place.


Not many taijiquan students attain 'internal strength'. They know the concepts, the words and the ideas.
But when pressure tested, the result is always the same: they resort to conventional muscle use and that is not taijiquan. How come? A lack of investment in the training.


There are 3 main concerns:

  1. Relaxation

  2. Workload

  3. Lengthening

Although there are many other factors relevant to taijiquan muscle use, these 3 should take precedence initially.


Most people have chronically tense muscles. This is often the consequence of over-working: the task has ended, but the muscle is still working.
Another cause can be weakness in the muscles. The outcome of laziness. But these are purely physical factors.


The source of tension is usually not the muscle itself. It is the mind. Many people have severely addled thoughts and awry emotions.
They never become calm and composed, yet expect their body to magically conform to a standard their mind ignores.


Forcing a local muscle (or muscle group) to do all the work is simply not as efficient as sharing the workload across the entire body.
Localised muscle usage leads to fatigue, strain and the risk of joint injury. Long after the task is over, the muscles are sore, tired and potentially damaged. The muscles compensate by shortening
Shortened muscles affect skeletal alignment, causing 'kyphosis' and other problems.


Good use of balance, central equilibrium and alignment enables the body to be employed with a reduced degree of muscle work. This is one meaning of 'li'. Qigong and form train this in solo practice.
The muscles are better tied into the back; which echoes how we started life in the womb.


When a joint remains open wider than 90, its use is more economical. Locked or sagging joints are weak and useless; they force the muscles to take up the slack.
Over-stretching is bad for functional usage e.g. weight bearing. Collapsing is similarly bad. e.g. an unskilled student needs to open their elbow joints way more than


Opening a joint appropriately engages the kwa - tendons and ligaments - to support the muscle. This further reduces the need to use the joint in a gross way.
Instead of going to the extremes of movement, each joint does less work.


Typically when a student adopts a habitual arm position in taijiquan, the elbows are not 'engaged'. The joint needs to be opened slightly.
This must be accomplished without affecting the position of the shoulder joint; which must remain passive and seated in the socket rather than pulled forward.

Dynamic tension

By opening the joints in the body, the entire framework of muscles is engaged. This encourages 'dynamic tension' - a process involving no tensing-up whatsoever. Bow tension is cultivated.


The entire frame must be subtly lengthened without extreme stretching. Moderation is the key. No more than 70%.
Keep this in mind when walking too; striding diminishes balance, reduces nimbleness and stability. Striding can put strain on the knees and spine.


Exaggeration will reduce sensitivity and cause tension once more (see above).
It is very common to see taijiquan practitioners adopt an extremely hyperbolic framework even after decades of training: a vestigial 'external' habit that denies them the internal.
Remember - each muscle must be gently drawn into a longer condition - without being aggressively pulled.


If you work muscles the wrong way or too hard, they do not strengthen and lengthen. They do the opposite: they contract and shorten.
e.g. if you shorten the muscles of the lower torso they will effectively pull the rib cage forward and down; creating a hunched appearance


Connection can be sensed and it can be proven.
If your hands are too close to the body, the feet feel heavy and sunk. By contrast, when the arms are connected, the feet feel springy and nimble rather than heavy and dull.
Remember - sinking is a jing; and jing are 'energetic'.


With connection, movements can be performed by using the back rather than the local limbs.
When pressure tested, the arms contain a springy dynamic tension without the need to perform any additional action.
This will eventually lead to peng

Going further?

Until connection is established and the muscle usage clarified, the student need not think about sung, martial jing, reeling silk or complex use of the body. For now, 'square on the inside' is the priority.
Get the hang of this. Until you do, your taijiquan may look internal but is still fuelled by the wrong means. Therefore, it is not taijiquan and the applications will not work

school database

Page created 15 March 1998
Last updated 29 April 2021