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Weightlifting and Tai Chi
William C. Phillips

Building up muscle by lifting weights has been one of the continual areas of debate in Tai Chi circles. Here we look at the Tai Chi/weightlifting issue from a number of different angles.

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Joe from Long Island, NY asks:
"Sifu, I am almost 59, but am still fairly active as a construction heavy truck driver, and still enjoy lifting weights 3 times per week. Do you think that the tranquility of Tai Chi is opposed to the harshness of weightlifting? Could I do both, or must I put away the dumbbells to actively pursue Tai Chi? Thank you for your time."

Dear Joe,

This may seem on the surface to be an easy question, but it is in fact a complicated, detailed question. It brings two issues into play. To lift or not to lift, is the first. The second is what do we want our results to be from lifting.

Professor Cheng said not to lift weights. I suppose in his time there was only two ways to weight lift, 1. to lift heavy weights and do it until your arm burned with lactic acid. 2. To lift light weight many more reps until again, you burned from lactic acid. This, you will see from what follows, is detrimental to proficiency in sensitivity at push hands. It is detrimental to the practice of T'ai Chi, but we will discuss that at another time. I do not know if lifting light weights and avoiding the burn was a generally known way to practice in Professor Cheng's time. Nor do I know if he urged people who did hard manual labor to give it up for Tai Chi, but I think not. He offered Tai Chi to the world, and that included men who did hard manual labor. And in Professor Cheng's time there were a lot more men who did hard labor than today's computer and video driven service economy. So, in light of today's new understanding of the nature of weight and lifting, I am going to disagree with my teacher on this issue.

There are potentially 4 states that the muscles of your arms can be in:

1. The first is dead relaxed. If some one wants to shake you hand, it is the "dead fish" hand. You pick it up and move it, the other person does not help you at all. The hand is flaccid and does not resist, but also has no direction of its own. It appears dead relaxed. It can be taken anywhere the bones let it, as long as you, the shaker of the hand, are willing to carry the "dead" weight of the hand.

2. The second stage is just the opposite. The hand is rigid, held by muscle into one place, so that no movement is possible, unless you are much stronger than the person you are shaking hands with. Every muscle is rigid, and holds the had exactly where it was. Only by overpowering the person can you move the hand at all.

3. You can easily see that there is a third state. When you shake a "normal" hand you get pressure in between the first and second. There is tightness, but enough flexibility to move in an up and down movement with you. There is strength, but it is not locking you into one position. This is a normal hand shake that happens thousands of times a day. We all know it, even if we might have a bit of difficulty explaining it.

4. The fourth hand shake is another one that is out of the ordinary. A person touches, or grasps your hand, and you move with it lightly, never showing any strength, but always following his hand, lightly, attached. He experiences it as so light it feels as if it might not be there, but it is not an optical illusion. It is the result of small muscle firings, and much sensitivity. The nerves need to be listening to the shaker of the hand, and the muscles need to move exactly with him, not too soon or too late or with too much or too little force.

To attain this fourth way, you cannot have a dead hand, nor a lactic acid filled muscular arm. Both will fail at this for different reasons. The dead handed person, because he is too relaxed, and even if the signals can be felt, he does not have the muscle capacity, or ability to move with a partner. The "lactic acid" guy will fail because he can only feel the burn of his own muscles, and can not be light or sensitive enough to the other person. His muscles will feel dead in his arm as he tries to listen to the other person, and he will be slow to react. So he too will be offering resistance to the shake, though for very different reasons.

How do you train to this level of sensitivity? Weightlifting is necessary in our modern society for sure, or else your muscles will atrophy over time. This is not a goal that we want to have happen. In Professor Cheng's world, only the richest and most effete snob could avoid the physical stimulation of muscles that nowadays every computer nerd and obsessed video game player can easily achieve.

Since, from time to time, you must lift weights to keep muscle from degenerating, you need to lift light weights, but about 5 repetitions at a time, going for, in the traditional weight lifting world, neither bulk nor definition, but just the strength to keep the muscle well fed with blood and active.

The goal is to develop muscle that can listen and respond instantaneously, so that you can move with a person and have him barely feel you at all. And so you need to train so that you do not go to the lactic acid burn, but instead gently strengthen your muscles, so that they do not interfere with the listening process or the following process, which should lead to successful outcomes in the unbalancing and pushing processes.

In Tai Chi,
Bill

PS - I would like to add a comment sent to us after last week's QOTW on breathing through the nose went live. It is from Jim Evans, a Licensed Acupuncturist from Colorado, who wished to offer additional reasons why breathing through the nose is important. Please read his comments here.

Have a question for me? Ask it at Ask Sifu.

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William C. Phillips began his study of the martial arts in 1965. He currently holds a 7th degree black belt in Karate, and a 5th degree black belt in Ju Jitsu. He began his studies of Tai Chi in l967, studying with Prof. Cheng Man-Ch'ing from '70-'75. He became the most junior student ever to become a teacher in Cheng Man Ch'ing's New York school, the Shr Jung. Sifu Phillips became interested in the field of holistic health in the early 1970's, when a lifelong allergy problem was alleviated with Chinese herbal medicine. Since then, he has studied widely in that field as well. Sifu Phillips is available for seminars, lectures and demonstrations. He has produced two very successful Tai Chi DVDs, and is currently working on a book on Tai Chi form and a third DVD.For more information...

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