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?
My neighbor Earl is one of my best friends. He is also 96 years old. A couple of weeks ago, I realized that he could benefit from the practice of Zhan Zhuang -- "Standing Stake" or "Standing Pole."
If you do Zhan Zhuang as part of your practice (I call it "Standing Stake"), you can teach it to elderly people in your life.
We moved into our current home almost four years ago and Earl, who was 92 at the time, walked across the street to introduce himself to us. His mind was sharp and he had a great sense of humor. His wife had died two years before. He fought in the Philippines during World War II, came home with PTSD, but got help and lived a happy and successful life. His three sons all live within a mile.
During the first year we lived here, I was friendly with Earl and would sometimes cross the street when he was outside to talk to him.
But during the last three years, Earl and I have developed a close friendship. My home office looks out toward his house. We sit out during warm weather and my dog Minnie and I visit all the time. When I have health setbacks, he calls to see if I'm okay, and I keep my eye out for him. We have each others backs.
Earl and I go out for lunch sometimes, and he always tells me how glad he is that I am his neighbor. I told him recently that he has become one of my best friends in the Quad Cities. He replied, "We have a good thing going."
I've never had a "bromance" before, but I think I have one now.
My home office looks out at Earl's house across the street. He says sometimes, he looks over at our house and wonders what I'm doing. I told him I do the same. Instead of looking at him as the old man across the street, I connected with him, and discovered a friendship that has added tremendously to my life.
During the past year, I've seen Earl get weaker, and I have been worried. He fell a couple of times, really banged himself up, and now he walks with a cane, and sometimes uses a walker in his house. This is a man who was using a push mower on his yard a year ago.
So a couple of weeks ago, I taught him how to do "Standing Stake." It's an important tai chi exercise that is used for meditation, but also for strength-building, especially in the legs. When you first do it, you can feel wobbly after just a minute or two. The idea is to add a little time each day.
Yesterday, Minnie and I visited Earl and he said he had been doing Standing Stake every day. He stands next to the walker and does it while watching TV. He has worked up to 15 minutes, and he says he feels stronger and is now walking around the house without his cane. He thanked me for showing it to him.
During the past nine years, I have been in the hospital a few times. The hospital drains the strength out of your body. When I was able, I got out of the bed and did Zhan Zhuang in the room to help build leg strength. It really works, and it even works for people who are unable to do strenuous cardio exercise.
If you know someone who is aging and getting weaker in the legs, through age or illness I believe Zhan Zhuang can help keep their legs strong.
Who knows, next I might teach him some Silk-Reeling exercises. Most of those are the same as taiji without the space requirements.
The Importance of Fascia in Martial Arts Movement: The Internal Fighting Arts Podcast Interview with Dr. Ginevra Liptan
In the past few years, as medical science has taken a closer look at part of the body that doctors typically ignored for centuries, a picture is beginning to emerge.
Fascia is a web of connective tissue that is made of collagen, elastin, and other tissues and cells that lies under the skin and runs from our heads to our feet. It forms a continuous network that covers and connects organs, muscles, even nerves.
Fascia allows us to move as a single unit -- a crucial aspect of tai chi, xingyi and bagua.
It turns out that tai chi and bagua in particular are outstanding activities for stretching the fascia and keeping it healthy.
During the past year, I have read some things by internal arts and qigong teachers that make it sound as if they knew about fascia all along. Well, they didn't. So I searched for someone at a level of medical education above a physical therapist, massage therapist or TCM provider -- someone who could tell me about fascia from a medical perspective.
After months of searching, I found Dr. Ginevra Liptan, a medical doctor who is board certified in internal medicine and also practices a holistic approach to health that combines Western medical science with "alternative" therapies. She founded the Frida Center for Fibromyalgia, and as she has battled fibromyalgia herself, and researched treatments for her patients that involve the fascia, she has become well-versed on the topic.
Dr. Liptan is my guest in the final Internal Fighting Arts podcast for 2017. You can listen online or download the file here:
During the interview, she talks about a video called "Strolling Under the Skin." Here is a link for that video:
Also, at the end of the interview, we talk briefly about "cupping," as it was done in the last Olympic games (remember Michael Phelps and his big red dots?). Here is a link to a presentation on fascia -- if you go to exactly one hour in, the discussion of cupping and fascia begins.
The research I have done for this interview, and the interview itself, has made me look at parts of my practices and workouts in a new way, especially certain movements and moving qigong exercises, and how effective they are for maintaining healthy fascia.
Tai chi has shown to be effective in maintaining flexibility, balance, coordination, among other benefits. It turns out that fascia and tai chi work together in excellent ways.
Seven years ago today, I had just commemorated Halloween in a drug-induced stupor, in the ICU at Cleveland Clinic, with a breathing tube down my throat and another tube coming out of a hole in my chest. I had to take strong sedatives, because of my gag reflex. I choked and gagged on the breathing tube, so the only way I could handle it was to be doped up.
My condition made the horror movies showing at Halloween on the Chiller network even more bizarre. There was one movie, playing once a day, that I have not been able to find in the years since this happened in 2009. Nancy says I was hallucinating, but it's remarkable how much I remember of this terrible time, despite the sedation I was under.
I went into the hospital on Oct. 22 for what I thought was a one-hour procedure to try to find out why I had been coughing up blood for about 8 months. But when doctors discovered my left pulmonary veins had closed up, causing my terrible breathing difficulties that year, they tried to stent one of the closed veins, tore it, and pierced my heart with the wire.
The cardiologist came out to see Nancy in the waiting room and said, "There is nothing more I can do for your husband."
That isn't the way it was supposed to go. Cleveland Clinic sent a team of doctors into the operating room and they worked to save my life.
Remaining Centered in the Midst of Crisis
So, as I was drowning in blood that kept building in my lungs for the next several days, Nancy and my daughters, and some friends and sisters, were distraught, thinking that I was about to die. They maintained a cheerful attitude around me, but they would go out into the hallway as I was coughing up jet streams of blood, and they would break down in tears.
Meanwhile, I was in bed trying to wrap my mind around it all, remaining determined to push through it, and keeping my mind on my goal of competing in a martial arts tournament that was coming up in five or six months.
I also put part of my mind on my Dan T'ien and continued to center myself through the procedures, the uncertainty over whether I would live or not, whether I would see my grandchildren grow up, see my daughters develop in their lives and careers, continue to laugh and love with Nancy, and whether I would ever practice kung-fu again.
I did not worry about any of that. I used my internal arts and qigong training and I calmed myself. I needed to be ready for that tournament in late March.
"It is what it is," I reminded myself. Just relax, don't fight it, and heal. If I died, I would be the last to know, so it was not something I worried about. And I never once, not for a moment, considered changing my religious views (I am not a believer in invisible beings and was very comfortable with that, thank you very much).
Misguided Ideas about Chi
When I first got sick earlier in the year, the side effect of a medical procedure, I weighed 206 pounds. When I finally hobbled out of Cleveland Clinic late in the first week of Nov. 2009, I weighed 156 pounds and could hardly walk, I had lost so much muscle and so much strength.
Occasionally, I will get an email from someone who tells me that obviously, I was doing Xingyi or Taiji wrong, or I wouldn't have been sick. Obviously, they say, I didn't cultivate enough chi.
I try not to insult their intelligence, although they deserve it, and remind them that perhaps I am alive because I had cultivated strong chi.
That thought usually doesn't occur to them. I wonder what they will think when they grow older and come down with a serious condition or illness. Will they blame a lack of chi cultivation? I don't think so.
As October turned to November in 2009, one doctor after another would come into my room and tell me that I would not be alive if I had not been in the excellent physical shape I was in when I arrived.
By the time I left to make the long drive back to the Quad Cities (against doctor's advice but I wanted to go home), when I arrived home my ankles were swollen. I could hardly walk to the bathroom. I could not walk down to my basement office to work on my website. It was a very long recovery.
Bad News on the Road to Recovery
In the years since, as I have struggled through a loss of muscular strength and a serious diminishing of my breathing capacity, I still have to remain centered and work hard to wrap my head around the fact that I am not as young and strong as I used to be. As a teacher, I can still try to improve, but I can't go toe-to-toe with younger, heavier students and spar or get thrown like I used to. It is occasionally frustrating. I am wrapping my head around the concept of being more of a coach than a fighter.
For a couple of years, the impact of all this left me in heart failure, with a weakening heart that was at 25% of pumping capacity. My cardiologist told me that I could "drop dead at any moment with no warning."
That sort of news will play with your head, no matter how centered you are.
I went to the Mayo Clinic in 2010 for a second opinion. Two doctors told me that my heart would fail within three to five years.
It is now six years later, and thanks to various factors, including medication, my heart is beating normally most of the time, and my EKGs always look normal. I continue to practice, train with my students, and try to improve my internal arts skills.
Iron Wrapped in Cotton
One of my Facebook friends said I should write about how the internal arts and qigong helped me get through all this.
I think the greatest benefit I have obtained from my practice is better physical conditioning and an ability to ride the ups and downs of life. The mental workout you get from doing these arts and from practicing qigong can help you to remain calm in a crisis. Physically, I believe in cross-training, both cardio and weight-training.
The "internal strength" that I teach includes body mechanics that make your internal arts stronger, giving you the "iron wrapped in cotton" that good internal movement is known to possess. You appear relaxed and smooth, but underneath, there is a powerful martial art that can break an opponent.
But those are the physical benefits. There are mental benefits as well.
You cultivate self-discipline when you work to improve at an art over decades, setting small goals and achieving them one by one.
You cultivate an innate calmness when a crisis happens -- the ability to center yourself and remain focused on the problem at hand. You cultivate an ability to ride the crests and troughs of life without being capsized. This happens when qigong becomes more than just exercises you do. It happens when qigong becomes a way of life.
This is the type of internal strength that is even more valuable than the physical strength that comes from good body mechanics. Your mind, your attitude, your ability to maintain humor during the occasional loss or tragedy -- this is the "iron wrapped in cotton" that I have found to be the greatest benefit after 43 years of martial arts practice.
I have not needed to use my self-defense skills since I began studying martial arts, and I may never need to use them, but every day, every single day, I use the internal strength skills that I have gained from my training.
Perhaps I'm wrong.
One of my best experiences was with a personal trainer -- James -- in Tampa. He made me realize through plyometrics and other exercises that developed explosive strength -- you don't need much beyond your body weight and some simple tools. It doesn't take a gym membership.
Now, the American College of Sports Medicine's Health & Fitness Journal says you can get a complete workout using only body weight, a chair and a wall. The workout includes a wall sit, push-ups, crunches, squats, lunges, triceps dip, planks, and more.
Take a look at this article. It makes sense. One thing is missing -- the chinup. So perhaps I would add a lucky 13th exercise to this list.