Supplemental Training for Chen Tai Chi Development

There is no question that practicing the classical forms of Chen Tai Chi will quickly build leg strength and develop improved body coordination and flexibility. Found within all the movements of the classical forms are technical applications of fighting techiques, such as bumping, striking, throwing, joint locking, sweeps, kicks and various body displacements.Obviously, we as students should improve ourselves in the performance of the basics found within the form. The basic motions may be repeated over and over again to correctly develop given skill in the delivery of the above mentioned techniques.

Doing the practice of forms solo may be the Primary method of growth and improvement. However there are additional forms of practice that can be done to improve and enhance our abilities in a true martial fashion, to make ourselves more effective in the application of our chosen martial art.

Master Yu Guo Shun teaches Chen Tai Chi in New York City. He is an unassuming figure of average height and weight; however, his students marvel at his ability to manipulate and move individuals much larger, and much heavier than himself. Master Yu demonstrates application very rapidly, quickly and efficiently. The power that emanates from his frame is very obvious and dominating. His Chen Tai Chi is the most powerful that I personally have ever seen and experienced.

Master Yu has often expressed that chi is important for application and ultimate expression of Tai Chi. He recommends standing meditation to cultivate chi. He uses a form of “tree hugging” posture that is readily seen by many teachers of Tai Chi. The difference he suggests and promotes has to do with a combination of deep breathing and contraction of the lumbar spine.

Standing meditation is a difficult and laborious process. But clearly the benefits are very worthwhile. By learning to direct our intention, combined with appopriate breath, in static standing, we can later learn to apply this to movements of the Chen Tai Chi forms to further enhance the potential of our movements and application.

As a physical therapist, it is clear to me that learning deep breathing and working our way through the form requires coordination of our torsos and hips.Core strengthening will definitely enhance our abilities to turn with ease and help us achieve lower stances with good posture. Not just core exercises, I also recommend some gentle progressive exercises to enhance the strength of the lower back and entire length of the spinal paralumbar muscles. This will ensure that our bodies are conditioned and can safely take the weight of an opponent and throw him or her strongly and without injury to oneself. The core can be improved with a combination of sit ups, crunches, and side bends. The back can be strengthened with prone hyperextension motions done gently and with very gradual progression. Dead lifts with mild to moderate weights would be beneficial. Emphasis is always upon correct form and safe training with perhaps 8-15 reps suggested.

While there certainly is no need to lift heavy weights and cultivate large muscles, very clearly improved upper back and shoulder strength will enhance all grabs and joint locks. The upper back musculature helps to stabilize the shoulders and arms with all pulling actions and prevent injury; while developing power to prevent an opponent from escape.

In Chen Tai Chi Chuan, there are many spiralling and circling motions found with the hands and wrists. Those motions are designed to allow for better entry for throws and locks, and also to assist in the development of effective hand/wrist positioning with grabs and techniques. Obviously, the stronger our grip strength with the combination of Chan Si, or spiral actions, the better and more effective our skills will be. Grip strength can be developed with the use of a wet towel. Master Yu has suggested that we roll up a towel to about the thickness/diameter of a large arm. Then we soak it in water, now practice wringing out the water in the towel. This builds up grip strength, and endurance of the hands/fingers and wrist for grabbing. An additional component of that is my own personal recommendation of the placement of some theraplast (a heavy putty used by occupational therapists in their practice to increase hand strength) into the core. By rolling out the theraplast and placing a long core of the theraplast to the towel, it enhances the feel and resistance of the moistened towel and better simulates a harder “flesh” we may encounter.

As we progress in Chen Tai Chi, we learn that it is not only the arms and hands that can spiral, but the body does so as well. We can learn to move our shoulders and chest and spine all to improve the effectiveness of given techniques and repositioning of our bodies to improve various methods of attack/counterattack.To improve rotation of those larger parts of our bodies, flexibility and agility are indicated. Perhaps not a usually considered option to most men, some classes in jazz dance or similar motions will impart an awareness of body motion and mechanic that will improve both our Chen forms AND our ability to coordinate and apply that understanding to better technique implementation.

Low and deep stances, and jumps are found in the various classical forms of Chen Tai Chi. In order to develop better ease and comfort in the deep stances, I recommend isometric practice of the stances. Hold a deep stance, lower, and maintain good form while breahing for a progression of time. Initially, you may try for 30 seconds, then progress in 30 or 45 second increments of time. As you develop strength your overall form of the stances and postures will improve. Once you can sustain different positions for several minutes, try to go lower still keeping appropriate form and alignment of the knee/hip/ankle joints. Do this very gradually and only 1-2 x a week to avoid overuse and repetitive stress injuries.

Many people know to stretch and loosen up prior to training in class. It is a good idea to devote several sessions per week to enhance leg and lower extremitity flexibility. There are quite a number of different types of kicks found in Chen Tai Chi. By having loose and healthy range of motion of the legs, hips, ankles and feet, we are better able to move quickly and easily through the demands of the forms.

Agility training in the form of rope jumping, side to side shuffling drills, or braiding patterns will be very useful in developing ease of motion and confidence in application of the leg twisting and body lowering preceding side to side motions or kicks of the Classical forms of Chen Tai Chi.

It is understood that in today’s very busy world, time may be critical and difficult to find to try to do all these different things, in addition to just making it to class. While I personally practice everyday, I understand it is difficult for most people to do that. Without hesitation, though, I do believe we can all find several minutes a day to do some bit of the training outlined above. A few minutes here of gentle stretching, a few minutes there of gentle isometrics, will pay dividends in the long run. We aren’t looking for quick fixes or rapid changes. Rather the methods mentioned above are meant to help us improve over a period of several weeks to several months. If you are as passionate as I am about Chen Tai Chi I promise you increased ability and enhanced success with some of the methods mentioned in this article.

Jeff Chung is a long time martial artist, living in NYC. He is an instructor in the art of Kali and knifetraining. He is also a dedicated student of Master Yu Guo Shun, in Chen Style Tai Chi Chuan.He is a registered physical therapist in the state of New York with over 25 years of experience, and has worked with professional athletes and dancers.
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