I know, I know, that sounds silly since most Tai Chi classes are aimed towards your grandmother not fighters. Tai Chi first began as a potent martial art but 90% of Tai Chi practitioners today couldn't punch their way out of a wet paper bag. So what is missing that originally made Tai Chi a brutal combat art?
Well, it's not relaxation because that's all the most Tai Chi people talk about these days and they don't have the skills that the older generation had and it's also not moving slow because that has become almost a competition between modern Tai Chi people of who can move the slowest and the slowest movers aren't turning into the best fighters.
So what is it and how can you bring it into your training?
The answer is the complete opposite of what people naturally think of when they think about striking harder. It has nothing to do with adding more flex to your muscles but instead, it's about coiling the body like a spring and relying on your connective tissues like the fascia, tendons, ligaments and aponeuroses to store energy by wrapping and twisting them and allowing them to snap back with a massive amount of force.
This sounds strange to a lot of people but if we start looking into the function of these connective tissues, we see they possess very interesting qualities. When 'aponeuroses' is looked up in Wikipedia, this is what we see under their function "Like tendons, aponeuroses attached to pennate muscles can be stretched by the forces of muscular contraction, absorbing energy like a spring and returning it when they recoil to unloaded conditions". The tendon systems are very similar, for a really fascinating read click here.
The article I referenced there also mentions how tendons can grow or atrophy depending on usage. In the so-called 'Internal' martial arts, there is a massive emphasis on stretching and twisting the connective tissues (by stretching I don't mean to the extent that damage is caused but stretching in the same way yoga or other movement arts would). Just like bones and muscles, the connective tissues can and will develop rather quickly, some estimates placing the remodeling stage at 10-12 weeks.
The image to the right is an example of great posture for stretching and developing connective tissue and comes from a sister art to Tai Chi, a style called Xingyi. Notice how the head is lifted, the back is straight and the shoulders down and forward. This type of posture is excellent for stretching all the tissues of the back and developing them.
When we start to understand what is being developed and how the mechanics work, we start to get a very clear picture of exactly WHY the postures are explained the way they are. Flattening the lower back makes perfect sense when we see that the aponeuroses in the lower back engages in the posture and transmits the force from the lower body to the upper very efficiently, similar to how a transmission works in a car, sending power from the engine to the wheels.
With this understanding, it's very easy to see how to start working with this concept. You start by relaxing, twisting and stretching until your body feels like a giant rubber band stretched to it's limits then allow the soft tissues to unwind with their natural explosive snapping power. The easiest example is to reach your right hand across to the left side, sink into the left hip and stretch and twist without losing your structure. Then once you get the feeling of a giant rubber band stretching across your back, from left hip to right hand, release the stretch and you will whip out of that position and unwind very quickly and with power. You will be amazed how little effort is required to create a large amount of force and the more you train this way, the faster and more explosive you will become without having to rely on large muscle groups to power your movements.
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