– Ian Sinclair
When torrential water tosses boulders, it is because of its momentum. When the strike of a hawk breaks the body of its prey, it is because of speed. – Sunzi “The Art of War”
Traditional Internal styles like tai chi and traditional external styles have much more in common than many people think. Advanced practitioners of either style will often see eye to eye and use similar language, but from the point of view of the beginner and the outsider, they might not appear to be anything alike.
We should recognized that the so called external styles train internal power, too. This is especially true at the advanced levels. We should also recognize that many students of both internal and external schools do not develop much power of any kind. This is not the fault of the style. It is due, instead to a variety of other factors. I blame rap music.
With all the talk of “qi” and “internal energy” in tai chi books and videos, it is easy for students to get confused about the actual mechanics of internal power. Too often students are led down the garden path, believing that there is some magical electromagnetic field that they will develop simply by learning tai chi choreography and practising it in a slow and relaxed manner.
Likewise, spectators are often confused by demonstrations of tuishou (pushing hands) and empty force. Even the spectators with experience in martial arts will scoff at demonstrations where the teacher throws his or her student across the room with no discernible effort.
This is usually due to various factors including:
- the demonstrator has such high skill that the demonstration has to seem fake to the uninitiated.
- the demonstrator does not explain the true nature of the exercise
- the student is cooperating too well, either as a courtesy or because of delusion and indoctrination
The first reason is admirable, the second is understandable, but the third is shameful and all too common.
However, I am not writing this to rail against deceptive demonstrations and personality cults. I am writing this to explain why an excellent demonstration must appear fake. If tai chi applications are performed extremely well, the attacker will be defeated with ease and gentleness, and the spectator will be unable to discern the reason for the attackers dramatic and sudden trajectory.
The techniques of external martial arts are relatively dramatic, fast, and visible. The often depend on imparting as much kinetic energy as possible into a weapon (such as a fist, foot, or elbow) and directing that energy into a precise target (such as a nose, chin, rib, or kidney). To do this, they must make the weapon travel as quickly as possible. The weight of the fist (mass) times the square of the velocity gives us the measure of the kinetic energy that will impact the opponent. If the puncher is skilled and strong, they will be able to commit much of the body weight to the punch as well, but the impact depends most on the speed of the punch. The weight of the attacker is a lesser factor. The refinement of the external technique, therefore, focuses more on strengthening the muscles which apply leverage to the arm and fist, and on throwing the weapon like a bullet into the target.
The techniques of internal martial arts are often small, and even slow. The goal is to transfer as much momentum into the target as possible. Momentum is less dependent on velocity than kinetic energy is, but the result can be much more dramatic. While an external punch uses muscles and leverage to accelerate the fist, internal strikes use perfect structure and leverage to accelerate the target. Both internal and external methods attempt to maximize kinetic energy. External styles train the student to put as much kinetic energy as possible into the fist at the moment of impact, while internal styles train the student to keep the kinetic energy inside his or her own body until the moment of impact.
This is why external techniques are visible, and internal techniques are not.
When I was in high school, my physics professor refused to allow the experiment which I proposed. I was planning to demonstrate conservation of momentum by projecting a 10 kg weight at 10 metres per second and colliding it into a 0.25kg weight. You will understand the wisdom of my teacher’s decision when you do the math.
The momentum of the 10kg weight = 10kg•10m/s = 100kg•m/s
Assuming a perfectly elastic collision (in which the momentum is conserved) the resulting momentum of the 0.25kg weight would be the same. Unfortunately for me, the school, and neighbouring livestock, the 0.25kg weight couldn’t get any heavier, so it would have to go faster.
The momentum of the 0.25kg weight = 100kg•m/s = 0.25kg•400m/s
400 m/s = 1,440 km/h or approximately 895 mph
Would you have wanted to be near a half-pound weight travelling faster than a .22 bullet?
The advantage of internal power is that it can be redirected very easily. The advantage of external power is that it often works better at long range.
The problem with internal stylists is that they are often prone to training exclusively at mid-range and close-range, and therefore wouldn’t recognize an external strike if it hit them in the face.
The problem with external stylists is that they eventually get old and slow down. Slowness is not much of a problem for internal stylists who learn to recognize subtleties of intent.
Share this page