Practical approaches to Chinese martial arts training

4 Aug

While there are always some variations based upon tradition, lineage or teacher, the following outline indeed has a commonality in the Chinese martial arts world. I’d argue that this commonality extends to both “northern” and “southern”, and both “external” and “internal”. As I have stated before, I am not a big fan of these attributions. They create misunderstandings and serve to divide us. At this juncture, the last thing Chinese martial arts needs is more division.

Rigorous basic training "Ge Bon Gong"

Legends tell us that the preparation of the body originally came before even technical training. While there is perhaps something romantic about this notion, the dedication and devotion that disciples of old had, as a practical matter it is unrealistic. Preparation of the body comes simultaneously with the introduction of technical material, indeed at times fundamental training COMBINES both aspects. Here, often, terminology creates artificial distinctions; whether it is called Chi Kung, Nei Kung, Lihn Gung, Pai Da Gung, etc…. foundation training all aims to

1) Strengthen the muscles and connective tissues
2) Increase flexibility
3) Teach tolerance of pain
4) Harden the tools of both attack and defense
5) Teach stability
6) Teach balance
7) Teach coordination of the body parts
8) Increase total body awareness

chyuhn choih

Technical instruction begins with stationary practice. In Chinese martial arts, we literally begin by teaching the student how to stand. Stationary technical practice gives us opportunities for stillness and stillness gives us opportunities for total body awareness. This awareness allows us to understand how the whole body works, and when then combined with the motion of technique teaches us how to coordinate and integrate our entire body. I would argue that this “internal hydraulics” is the defining characteristic of not just “internal martial arts” but all CORRECT martial arts. “Chi” is a metaphor, perhaps even an anachronistic holdover; there is no “magic” in martial arts.

inside crescent kick

Stepping, movement and the execution of technique in motion begins the real instruction in martial arts. Stillness teaches us awareness, but application is about motion. From technique in motion, from combinations that each tradition deems essential or most efficient we have developed hand sets. The practice of hand sets teaches us awareness, teaches us the seamless integration of one method into another, it teaches us even to mimic and learn new movement. But look at this outlines in its wholeness and ask what percentage hand set practice really constitutes?

book cover pic 4

It continues to amaze and confuse me that so called “Chinese martial artists” are opposed to training with equipment. Traditional Chinese martial arts have always had hanging sand bags, wall bags, post training, wooden dummies, etc. Frankly it is absurd not to take advantage of modern heavy bags, focus mitts, Muay Thai pads, etc… And for those seeking practical, applicable skill, there really is no way around such training.. and, AGAIN, it is completely traditional!


In combat training, there is no black and white, there are just many shades of gray. The set repetition of single or short sequences is essential not only to teach application but drill muscle memory. The only danger is if the training ends here. There are “training wheels”, eventually they must come off and the student must learn to ride for themselves.


Chi Sau, Tui Shou, Rou Shou, the terminology seems to divide us, but I’d argue instead that regardless of the name, in reality, the student must progress to increasingly free practices to develop functional skill. The drills may initially have a singular technical or tactical aim. They may then evolve into free practice within certain boundaries and/or restrictions. They may be bound to develop certain skills, “clinching” to develop throws and takedowns as opposed to free sparring with mostly striking. Personally, I think the more “games” you play, the more skills you develop.


Finally, you get to free sparring. As I have often said, NOTHING replicates a real life and death encounter. Nor would a responsible teacher want to expose his students so randomly to danger. We can only reasonably approach conditions of combat, but we must test skills free form and with resistance. Again, today we have the advantage a lot of our teachers in China did not, access to well developed safety equipment that allows us to spar more realistically but with greater safety. In my estimation, we shouldn’t shy away from this any more than we should shy away from indoor plumbing just because our grandmaster used and out house!


Once again, consider the place of empty hand forms practice within this larger structure. Ask if today we have placed too much emphasis on forms, and how much we’ve lost or downplayed other training methods. Then ask yourself, how different is this very traditional approach from modern combat sports training really? Have we unnecessarily divided and isolated ourselves? Is there any reason that a student, if they really did this training outline correctly, would not have functional skills?

2 Responses to “Practical approaches to Chinese martial arts training”


  1. “The people should be very ashamed” | nysanda - August 16, 2015

    […] the misapplication forms and the absence of other practical training methods. In a recent blog, “practical approaches to Chinese martial arts training” I outlined the traditional training curriculum for Chinese martial arts and noted that forms […]

  2. Practical approaches to Chinese martial arts training – Ground Dragon Martial Arts - June 14, 2020

    […] Practical approaches to Chinese martial arts training Advertisements […]

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