Internal Martial Arts and Physical Conditioning

Many internal arts practitioners do not engage in any additional physical training, instead relying on their form practice and qigong sets for their fitness needs. Yet, I will argue in this article that most qigong sets or practices are not up to maintaining our fitness in this modern world of extreme sedentary lifestyle, bad diet, rampant obesity and environmental problems. In addition to this, I believe a minimal level of basic physical, muscular strength is needed in the practice of any martial arts. I will try to show that strength was always a prized quality in martial artists even in old times, and that it was generally thought better to refine this strength than to work from scratch. I believe most internal martial artists need to also take up some sort of basic physical conditiong training to complement their arts, as well as to attain a better level of fitness and optimal health.
For some reason, to most practicioners of the internal styles and especially of Taiji, strength training or physical conditioning sound like dirty words, and there is tremendous resistance to engage in any kind of exercise beyond practicing the qigong sets of one’s style, or the forms that constitute it. And yet, this attitude flies in the face of most of what we know from the great masters of the past, who were all generally very fit, and frequently engaged in what can only be defined as very “intense” or “hard” type of training, even in the case of the so-called soft arts. In the modern day practice of the internal arts, it seems as if fitness is something that is in opposition to the art.

But if we review some of the teachings of the arts, we find that physical fitness was very much an important part of training, and considered to be a good thing in itself, one that would enhance martial arts training. It is said that Yang Lu Chan’s sons fled their father’s house, so intense was the training that they couldn’t stand it! That Sun Lu Tang was made to run after his teacher’s horse to make himself more fit and capable of enduring the training! This is hardly the hippie, soft kind of Taiji we are used to nowadays… It’s true that probably the very hard training, that develops big, bulky muscles, may not be the best for a martial artist, but there definitely is a place for conditioning and strength training in the internal arts, and even if you are practicing the softest of soft Taijis, you can benefit from training that will strengthen your body and make it more flexible.

Let’s first look at the martial arts themselves: in each of the internal arts there will be sets of exercises that will serve the function of strengthening the body and making it capable of using the techniques of that particular style. Frequently called just “qigong sets” they can, and should be, called “neigong sets”. Qigong means “energy training”, whereas “neigong” means “internal training” (strength and ability being implied in the internal). Probably Xingyi has maintained this aspect of training better and more alive than either Taiji or Bagua, although this is largely a matter of teacher and lineage—or how much it has been watered down. Shaolin arts frequently emphasize strength and hard training to a greater extent than the internal arts—which probably explains why there are fewer practicioners of Shaolin than of Taiji…

The famous sifu Wan  Lai Sheng exercising.

The famous sifu Wan Lai Sheng exercising.

If we look at many of the traditional Xingyi Neigong sets (or Shaolin for that matter), we will find many exercises that serve the function of strengthening the body, in addition to training other specific aspects of that particular art. In the Xingyi set I practise, for instance, an exercise will have you standing in a horse stance, and rotate your torso completely to the left, at the same time as you extend your right palm, fingers forward, to the extreme upper rear left side, and your right palm heel to the extreme lower right rear side. You rotate and inhale, compressing all your insides, pulling your pelvis up (and stretching your neck up and chin in), and you actually take this move as far as you can. Another move, very common in many systems, has the practicioner squatting, extending his arms down towards the ground, rotating the hands and forearms in both directions, and then lifting up imagining that he is pulling a heavy weight (in some variants, you extend your arms up to the sky before coming up, and come up imagining you are pushing a weight up).

Both of these exercises are excellent examples of exercises that will really strengthen a person. But they frequently don’t! The reason for this is simple: 1) the practitioner doesn’t do the set every day as its meant to be done (he prefers doing the forms or whatever) and 2) doesn’t do enough repetitions of key movements. There is a big difference between health maintenance and developing functional fitness and strength. When my teacher taught me this set of 12 Xing Yi exercises he told me to practice every day, and to do 10-15 repetitions of each exercise. This was already great, and the set really had a strong impact in my life and health. But much later he told me that actually doing 12 to 15 reps was a bare minimum, and that for martial purposes you had to up the reps to a minimum of 36 or more! Again, this shows that martial effectiveness is really linked also to a reasonably high level of fitness.

If we review another popular set of Xingyi nowadays, we will find much the same thing. In Xingyi Nei Gong, the set that has been popularized in the book organized by Dan Miller and Tim Cartmell, and created by the famous Wang Ji Wu (or rather systematized, as many of these exercises were common Xingyi exercises before), we find a number of exercises that will serve the purpose of developing a reasonably high level of fitness and strength if they are done sufficient number of times. There are squatting exercises, exercises that explore the full range of movement of the major muscles groups of the torso, exercises that will tremendously enhance the resistance of the muscles in the arms and shoulders area, and so on. Even chinese push ups (sometimes called cat push ups) are included!

In Xingyi Nei Gong there is a significant passage in one of the prefaces by one of Wang Ji Wu’s disciples: he basically says that being strong and leading a life of hard labour is no guaranty of being actually healthy or strong for the martial arts, and that the practice of the neigong set will serve that purpose, as it will refine that original strength and hit many more subtle parts of the body (in “Physical labor is not a Substitute for Systematic Physical Exercise” by Wang Lian Yi, pg 92 of Xing Yi Nei Gong: Xing Yi Health Maintenance and Internal Strength Development”—also if you read the description of the exercises, you will see those that may be practiced more times for increased strength and fitness as signaled by words like “one may increase the number of reps as one is able” or “start by doing sixteen reps, increasing as one’s physical condition improves”, whereas some exercises clearly do not call for more, being described by “gradually increase until you can do sixteen reps” or “do twice on each side then move on”—the strengthening exercises are clearly marked out).

But there is one significant factor that may be reducing the effectiveness of these traditional exercise sets: they didn’t have to contend with modern life. Mostly, these sets served the purpose of refining strength, rather than creating it. It was frequently assumed that the practitioner had already developed a minimum fitness and strength level, either through the practice of other more vigorous and hard martial arts, or through hard labour. In fact, not even high class labour was as soft as we find nowadays. Back in the days, everybody would walk everywhere, probably a few miles a day, and they would ride horses and have to engage in many other activities where we use a machine or whatever. Modern practitioners of the internal arts will, more frequently than not, be people who sit for 8-10 hours a day, either at a computer desk, or at a phone or shop counter, or home seeing TV (or martial arts videos!). I don’t think it is easy for anyone in western society to grasp the extent to which our life has become sedentary – and it’s even harder for americans: my experience in Southern California was actually traumatizing, because not only would people take their cars for a 4 block distance, but frequently there really was no other choice, since no sidewalks connected those same blocks (I am from Portugal, and where I am from the opposite is probably true, there wouldn’t really be a way to drive through those same 4 blocks!).

One of the big secrets of the internal arts, as implied earlier in this text, is simply this: do the neigong sets every day, and slowly increase the number of repetitions on some of the more ciritical exercises, until you are doing way more than the minimum number which is generally the number initially indicated by the teacher. But in my opinion, a big problem remains. The nei gong sets designed for the martial arts may not be able to cope with modern life; they probably assume that the practitioner is going to be minimally fit and strong, and they may not be up to counterbalancing modern diet and totally non-sedentary lifestyle which is starting earlier and earlier in childhood. This is not to say that they will not serve the purpose of maintaining health, they will do that, but they may not be able to serve the purpose of developing “internal strength” or whatever you may want to call it. For that, I truly believe that you need a little more, you need to get a little more athletic. Or else, you need to radically revise your practice of the basics of your art. Think about this: Dan Docherty (a rather famous if controversial Taiji teacher in the UK) states that practicing the Taiji Neigong he learned at its highest level might conceivably take the practicioner as much as seven hours to complete from beginning to end, every day… At this level, it is obvious you hardly need any extra training! What I mean by this is we shouldn’t take the practices of the professionals as an example, as their schedules and training methods may be beyond reach of practitioners who train as a hobby and for development of health and stress management.

So, if the practice of neigong or qigong is not enough, what should a practicioner who wants to attain not only functional health, but also a moderate amount of strength and fitness, attempt to do? Well, the answer is actually “Not that much”. This is because the areas of fitness respond very rapidly to even a light to moderate amount of training. In fact. this is one of the main reasons everyone should add some sort of strengthening program and cardiovascular training: the investment you need to see dramatic results is not very big. Much of the results and improvements are attained fairly fast and beyond that you hit the zone of diminishing results, which is fine for professional athletes, but which you can safely avoid. It doesn’t mean it won’t feel like work, because if you haven’t trained strength or cardio for a long time, even a fairly intense schedule of xingyi or bagua training is not going to prepare you (I speak from my own painful personal experience!). But the results in terms of fitness and health will be so dramatic that there really is no excuse for not investing the extra little time. This may be as little as three 20 minutes sessions every week.

Rather than tell you what you should practice, I will simply lay out what I believe are some of the conditions for training if you are a practitioner of internal arts. You should find for yourself some routine that will enhance and condition your body, after talking to a physician about your condition, and after reading on physiology and sports science (which really has some interesting things to say and has developed a lot in the last ten or so years). There are a few rules you should adhere to.

Do an exercise, don’t make your body make the exercise.
You should strive to maintain a state of mind that is total, in the sense that you don’t perpetuate the normal division between mind and body, common in westerners. Avoid thoughts like “I have to push my body or my arms to do just one more rep” and go rather for “I have to be able to do one more”. Treat your body as a fully fledged constituent of what makes you a complete person, not as a separate something which you force to do things (this is easier said than done, obviously).

Avoid the “Giving it your all” mentality.
Internal arts are about moderation, about gradual but assimilated progress. Internal experts believe that permanently training at 100% of your total capacity (or even 120% as some sporstmen do…) is prejudicial. Find your maximum effort and practice at 70 or 80% of that level. Gradually increase the level. Make space for a once in a certain time practice session where you will go 100%, say one in ten sessions or something like that. Add a rep every once in awhile, but get used to working at a level you find comfortable. If you can do 10 push ups maximum before having to quit, start at 7 or 8, and do these well for a couple of weeks, before adding one rep.

Avoid the “Going against” mentality.
In the internal arts, you strive to avoid meeting an opponent’s force head on. You attempt to exercise intelligent or skillful strength, rather than brute force. It follows you shouldn’t get used to treating your exercise sessions as moments when you are clashing brutally against that exercise or against some heavy weight. Don’t think you’re fighting that 100 pounds weight when training, rather think that it is cooperating with you in an important endeavor. Obviously, training at 80% of your capacity (see above) will go a long way towards achieving this goal.

Train the whole body rather than isolated muscles.
This is a basic advice, which is not written in stone. It’s generally more functional to develop core muscles and overall strength, rather than very specialized muscle groups. But everything has its place if used intelligently. Strengthening your forearms, especially if they are weak to begin with, is probably OK for some martial arts. Training the hands and wrists if you do a lot of qinna is also good, or doing some arm training when you finally take up training in that large saber form of bagua! Just don’t make it a habit to think of your body as a set of separate “things”.

Barring these observations, and the need to some little research, everything goes as long as it serves the basic purpose of developing and conditioning your body, and making you stronger. In general, a balance of cardiovascular exercises (ie, light and very safe jogging, or long walks at a brisk pace interspersed with short but intense sprinting moments) with strength developing ones (ie, weight lifting or a good program of calisthenics and body weight training) is best and will complement each other. I will talk a little about my own experience, since I ended up going in slightly different directions. I will nonetheless say that a friend of mine, and gong fu brother, went the perfect classic way and had tremendous results. He took up basic and not too intense weight lifting at a gym, twice a week for 30 to 40 minutes, and went jogging twice a week for 30 minutes, as well as biking on week ends. He lost 8 kgs over a period of about ten months, and really gained muscular mass – and strength (boy, do I take a beating from him!).

I decided taking on some additional physical training because I was slacking off in my martial arts training, even though I always practiced my Xing Yi Nei Gong set. I was in my late-thirties, I wasn’t running into any health problems, in fact was quite healthy, but simply started feeling out of shape. out of breath, legs hurting a little more and so on. Unfortunately, weight training wasn’t really an option for me – the simple sight of a weight machine sends me into terminal yawning! The truth is, exercise bores me to death. I belong to the group of people for whom exercise is something really wonderful, and I could watch it all day… So I needed to find a kind of exercise that stimulated me and interested me enough that I was going to keep up with it, but that didn’t take me too much time. I tried a lot of things: various body weight conditioning programs, some Pilates based training, some light weight training at home, power Yoga and so on. In the end, and after much trying and refining combinations of exercises, I have setteled into a mix of body weight training exercises, fast squats and Yoga sun salutations (there are many progressively more difficult sets), and traditional shaolin based stance training (done as a form). This takes me anywhere between 12-15 minutes to 40 minutes. I do the 15 minutes version almost every day, and the 40 minutes version once or twice a week. I complement this with two long walks / jogs (a combination of both) that last an hour, every week.

The results of this program over the last two years have been nothing short of spectacular from a health point of view. I have lost weight, gained endurance, lowered breathing rythms, etc… But at the same time, the results in terms of martial arts performance were equally great. The quality and beauty of the forms improved dramatically as the legs became stronger and I could adopt lower stances (my teacher was also happy, as he seems to have learned precious few portuguese in addition to “Lower! Lower! Again! Again!”). The weapons sets were also much benefited, as was Bagua.

I am not trying to tell you what to practice. I simply would love to see more internal practitioners emphasize fitness and functional strength as an important component of health maintenance. Even your practice of qigong sets will benefit from this – and your health and strength will then benefit a lot more from qigong practice than if you didn’t have this extra strength and fitness level to begin with. I encourage you to find some activity that you enjoy and do it to complement and enhance your martial arts training. The simple truth is that two to three weekly sessions will have a tremendous impact on your life in as little as three or four months, and that few things have such a good return on investment than pplain physical conditioning of the kind I have described. So, if you get so much for so little (comparatively speaking) why not simply do it? Today is as good a day as any!


José de Freitas was born in 1964. He has been training in the martial arts since 1983. After about ten years of Karate, he switched to the chinese martial arts, especially the “internal styles”, and never looked back! Even though he has learned Yang style Taiji and a handful of Bagua and other arts forms, he thinks of himself mostly as a Xingyi practitioner.

One Response to “Internal Martial Arts and Physical Conditioning”

  1. Yaphett Pruitt says:

    even with not reading the entire article through I fully agree with the point of developing the fitness and external strength of internal gongfu practitioners(as well as Mr. de Freitas’ feeling of not wanting to do exercise but needing the fitness development) I now have this sort of practice as an alternative and will be looking toward a copy of Xing Yi Nei Gong for myself. Great stuff, thanks

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