One of the reasons I was attracted to T’ai-Chi was that it seemed to promise a way to be able to defend myself but not have to depend on strength. But as the years and decades passed, it became more and more clear that strength was not only necessary but an essential part of the art. I’m not talking brute force here, but strength: having strong coordinated muscles.
I used to believe in weak old men defeating young warriors by communing with some deeper level of "energy", or at least I thought it might be true. But it's hard to ignore the fact that while a weaker person sometimes "wins" a given moment, sometimes a given fight, in every martial art, all around the world, in any realm where there is any kind of realistic and consistent pressure testing, the top fighters across the board are physically strong people. There is no world champion in anything who is not a much stronger than the average human being.
I like martial training games, but I don’t really train for combat, I mostly train for everyday life. And I’ll tell ya, strong muscles, as well as aligned bones and ability to coordinate agile physical responses to change are really nice, especially as I get older.
Over and above my regular T’ai-Chi training, I’ve been working specifically on building strength for the past few years. I’ve been going very slowly and carefully, because I have had a tendency to injure my tendons and ligaments whenever I overdo things. I have had a few injuries doing this, but they’ve been relatively minor and each one taught me something about alignment, flow, and connection.
I wanted to see if I liked working with kettlebells so I found an instructional video and worked through the exercises with an 8 pound plastic kettlebell that I found at the Goodwill. And I worked with that light weight kettlebell for quite some weeks making sure my form was pretty solid, before I decided to buy some heavier ones.
I’m not saying my posture is perfect with the kettlebells, it’s not, but it’s good enough to avoid injury. My next step was to get a couple of metal kettlebells. The Russian guy in the video said that men usually start with the 35 lb. ones and women usually start with the 26.5 lb ones. I figured he was talking about Russian women, so I opted to be conservative and got the 26.5 Lb. ones. And I haven’t regretted it. 26.5 was plenty. I worked with them for about a year or so before I stepped up and got a 35 Lb. bell which is where I’ll most likely stay. Strength isn’t the only thing I’m building. But at least for now the two 26.5 Lb. bells for some of the exercises and one 35 Lb. bell for others is feeling right.
I worked out with 5 pound hand weights for a long time before stepping up to 8 pound weights. I’m pretty sure I’ll step up to 10’s at some point but for now I have my hands full with the 8’s.
When I restarted working on pull-ups after an elbow injury set me back a bit, I started super simple, just hanging and lifting my head up over my shoulders, little mini-pull-ups. I would do 10 a few times a day…after several weeks I upped it to 20 and one day, I just had the feeling I could do a relatively strain free complete pull-up and I did. Then I started doing one, a few times a day. And I’ve slowly upped it to where I can do 6 and I can do that maybe twice a day…or maybe once and then a couple of sets of 3 spaced throughout the day.
I did the same thing with pushups. I don’t do them fast to bust out the numbers. I do several sets of ten complete pushups daily with good form, connection to breath, and going at a moderate speed.
So for me, taking it slowly and easily with a lot of attention to form and breath and balance has really been working well. I also put extra attention on making sure I’m not getting tighter or more rigid as I get stronger. I work a lot on flow and softness and looseness to balance and include any newfound strength I’m building. I’ve also added a 20 minute or so mostly uphill bike ride to my routine of teaching T’ai-Chi in the park. I do it 3-5 times a week on my way home. This has coincided with changing some of my eating habits. I’ve cut way back on grains, cheese, fried foods and sweets and started eating a lot more vegetables. As a consequence of working out more, biking more, building strength and eating better, I’ve lost about 15 pounds. When I first started to build more muscle, I started getting bigger. My shirts started to feel tight. But then I started to get leaner and I ended up smaller but stronger.
I can’t think of any aspect of my T’ai-Chi that isn’t better because of the strength I’m developing. I’m faster, stronger, softer, more mobile, more responsive, more relaxed, more agile, my wind is better, my balance is better. Developing strength and then taking that strength into relaxed, balanced, natural movement has been a real pleasure. When doing pushing hands I so feel that in some ways I’m easier to push than I used to be. Those extra 15 pounds to settle into my belly and legs used to make me harder to push since those were 15 educated and settled pounds that would probably feel more like 40 to my partner. I like the challenge of working on making up for those pounds with better technique, increased strength when the time is right to use it, and better mobility and responsiveness.
I used to think strength was the enemy. Not anymore. Brute strength, thoughtlessly applied, that’s what I try to avoid. Tightness, rigidity, lack of mobility, those are the things I work against. But developing strength, at least the way I’m doing it, has been nothing but helpful to me.