The photo shows a practice tip that is on my Bagua Basic Skills DVD and in the Bagua section of my website. It shows me walking the circle with dumbbells in my hands.
One of the traditional training methods for old school Bagua students was to do this with a brick or a stone in each hand. Now, we have dumbbells, so we can use those.
This not only helps develop circle-walking, but it is a weight-training exercise to help build your arm and shoulder strength, not to mention leg strength from circle-walking with the extra weight.
A Huge Fallacy in the Internal Arts
I have heard many people in the internal arts say that weight-training is a violation of internal principles. Even doing push-ups is a violation. They believe you should only do Taijiquan, for instance, and nothing more.
If you practice an internal art like Taiji, the argument goes, it is all the fitness training that you need.
One guy who claims to be a "master" instructor of Tai Chi told me that he went to China and saw masters pulling tires full of rocks, but not with muscular force. He said they were "soft as a baby."
I expected him to sell me a time-share in Florida after that.
I think this type of belief is one of the problems in the internal arts. I am going to use the ground and peng and proper mechanics to pull a tire full of rocks, but I am also going to need some healthy muscle tissue, too.
Simply doing an act like that is the same as weight-training, isn't it?
I'll bet that the martial artists who are dragging tires filled with rocks began with tires that only had a few rocks, and kept building up more and more as they got stronger and stronger.
Weight-training, my friends. But the public doesn't see the training - only the results.
There have always been myths and superstitions in physical activities. Sports are full of superstitions.
Coaches used to tell players to avoid sex the night before a game. "It will sap your strength," they would say.
Remember that a lot of these old beliefs came from a culture that believed if a man had sex with a LOT of women every night and did not ejaculate, he could absorb the energy of the women and achieve immortality.
But if he ejaculated, his chi would be lost.
You will have to forgive me for being skeptical about this type of thing. I hope you are skeptical, too.
Besides, I couldn't do that if I tried. Nancy would really be steamed if I absorbed another woman's energy. :)
Strength Training Helps You Live Longer
It is certainly true that Taiji, Xingyi and Bagua are great physical activities. They get you moving and they have been proven in clinical trials to improve leg strength, balance, flexibility and more.
Physical exercise can also reduce blood pressure and helps prevent many diseases. The internal arts are physical activities. It is common sense that the same benefits apply, and clinical trials have confirmed it.
But according to the Harvard Medical School, strength training is crucial to maintaining a high quality of life, especially as you get older.
You will lose at least a quarter of your muscular strength between the ages of 30 and 70. You will lose half of your muscular strength by the age of 90.
I have always done cross-training. Doing Taiji, or Xingyi, or Bagua, or all three is simply not enough for overall conditioning and strength.
What Happens As We Age
Here is how it works. The less weight-training you do, the less muscle you have. As you age, your muscle mass diminishes.
The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn when you are at rest. When you burn more calories at rest, you gain less fat.
If you lose muscle mass, as we all do as we age, you burn fewer calories at rest. You get flabbier as you burn fewer calories.
It becomes a vicious cycle -- less muscle means you burn fewer calories and build more fat. You can do less and less and your strength declines.
Cross-Training is Common Sense
You can do Taiji for two hours a day and you will STILL not be in shape to play a pick-up basketball game.
You can practice forms every day and then try to go three rounds of sparring and see how far you get.
Doing any of the three internal arts is a leg workout. Zhan Zhuan (Standing Stake) is great for the legs. The thighs of the Chen family are like tree trunks. That really helps longevity.
But the upper body strength is the issue here. Doing an internal martial art does not work the upper body enough to help maintain the strength you need for a better quality of life.
Weapons Training Can Substitute
Have you ever used a combat steel straight sword or broadsword? How about a combat-strength kuandao? Have you ever used double broadswords made of combat steel?
Those are serious weapons, and they are heavy.
Doing a weapons form is a weight-training exercise if you have the right weapon.
But in the modern age, most of us practice with lighter weapons -- practice weapons -- if we practice weapon forms at all. A lot of people don't do weapons forms.
The Bottom Line - There Is Nothing Soft About the "Soft" Arts
See that photo at the top of the post? It should tell you all you need to know about strength-training and martial arts.
In the old days, if you were going to defend your village from bandits, or if you were going to be hired by another village to train their young men to fight, I will bet you a dollar to a donut that you would not be "soft as a baby."
You would be hard as a rock. And tough as nails.
And you would do everything to make your body as strong as possible.
The Chen family men were hired out as guards. When things hit the fan, I don't think they worried very much about using the proper energy with the proper amount of softness.
My common sense, and my experience defending myself, tells me that all they really thought about was breaking the opponent as quickly as possible.
That sort of fighting ability requires not only strong legs but the type of upper body strength and overall conditioning that comes from cross-training -- from running, from hard work, from chopping wood, from lifting weights, from jumping rope, from doing push-ups and chin-ups and leg lifts and crunches.
The old school internal arts masters and students in China did not have gymnasiums or weight benches or racks of dumbbells or running tracks.
They worked the fields, the chopped wood, they lifted things, they were very, very active. And they practiced their arts. These were people who were accustomed to pain, hunger and very hard work.
There was nothing soft about them. And there was nothing soft about their fighting.
When I was near death at the Cleveland Clinic in 2009, and doctors tore a pulmonary vein and pierced my heart accidentally with a wire, some top doctors told me that the only reason I survived was the physical shape I was in.
I weighed 206 before I got sick. I weighed 156 by the time I left the hospital. I lost a lot of muscle mass and have never gained it back. But I survived.
I know the value of strength training from a variety of perspectives. Do not neglect it. It may have saved my life and it can save yours.
Having strong, healthy muscles does not, in any way, prevent you from achieving the relaxed power of the internal arts. All you need are the proper body mechanics and the ability to avoid tension. You gain that skill by practicing and training your body, not by avoiding strength training.
A person with weak muscles has the same problems learning these arts as anyone. They are tense, too. They just aren't as strong.
My ideal body shape was always Bruce Lee, not Arnold Schwarzenegger. I always have weight-trained with lighter weights and did more repetitions. That way, my muscles weren't bulky, they were toned and ready for action.
So I recommend a full range of conditioning, including all types of cardio plus push-ups, crunches, chin-ups, and weight training -- not for bulk, but for toning and for health.
It is a much more balanced approach, and isn't balance what the internal arts is all about?