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Training vs Application in Internal Martial Arts by Tom Bisio

Over the years I have found one of the things that confuses Xing Yi and Ba Gua students is the difference between training and application.  Training does not at first seem to relate to fighting, and the internal forms are often difficult for students to interpret. Because training does not look like fighting, it is easy to lose confidence in internal arts training methods and be drawn to arts whose training methods seem to have a more direct relationship to combat. It is admittedly sometimes hard to reconcile the training methods with the larger than life stories of famous past masters.

Let’s look at some examples of the seeming disconnect between training and application, form and function in internal martial arts.

Ba Gua Zhang Mud Stepping

In Ba Gua Zhang the Mud-Wading Step (Mud Stepping) has been criticized as being unnatural and therefore not usable, particularly in uneven terrain. Lifting the foot with the sole flat to the floor, and setting it down with the center of the ball of the foot landing just before the heel of the foot touches down, seems different than normal walking, so many practitioners discard this very important training method without fully exploring it or understanding its purpose. No Ba Gua master would argue that one executes perfect mud steps in combat. In fighting, one steps as needed without thinking about it. So why the mud step?

                         Mud Stepping

Training the mud step not only improves normal walking by reducing a heavy heel strike, it also makes one light on one’s feet and reduces the tendency to over-commit when taking a step. Mud stepping creates a more controlled, powerful step that is driven by the Kua and the Yao. As one’s training progresses, it begins to feel as if your legs are directly connected to your chest and arms, and thus each step creates a whole-body power dynamic. Further, the muscles of the legs gradually relax and become loose and elastic because of the springlike compression and release that are part and parcel of mud stepping. Over time, all of these qualities automatically and unconsciously bleed into every step you take, in every situation.

Another important aspect of the mud wading step is its relationship to kicking. Because mud stepping creates a stable step – in which the legs lift without the shoulders and head moving – it develops the ability to deliver hidden kicks. Mud stepping also improves the power of short range kicks by teaching the leg muscles to relax, so that the foot is thrown outward like a brick on the end of a rope.

As for the criticism that the mud step cannot be used on even ground or rough terrain, actually the opposite is true. Because you learn to lift the leg from inside of the body using the interior muscles of the entire torso, one is better able to adapt to uneven ground when the feet lift and are set down precisely. Better footwork keeps fighters from lunging forward, or from using shuffling, dragging steps. In fact, using the normal heel-toe step can be a liability on very uneven or slippery ground, whereas a centered mud step provides more control. Ba Gua Zhang students are often amazed to discover how mud stepping makes it easier to negotiate New York City’s icy sidewalks in winter.

Body Posture and Guard Positions

Master Li Gui Chang – San Ti Shi

In many Ba Gua and Xing Yi training postures the arms are extended. For example, in Xing Yi Quan’s San Ti Shi standing training, the arms appear to be in an overextended guard position, with one hand low by the abdomen and the other at face level. This position does not immediately seem useful for fighting. In fighting, this “posture” might at times need to shrink inward, to resemble a Thai Boxer’s fighting posture. So why not simply stand in a Thai Boxing fighting posture?  The purpose of standing in San Ti is not to develop an on guard position, but to connect the legs to the extended arms, so that the legs and waist hold the arms up, not the shoulder and arm muscles. This posture also helps Qi both to gather in Dantian and to spread out though the body. An extended arm position allows Qi to flow outward to the finger tips, through relaxed, open muscles and channels, something that does not happen as easily in a tighter guard posture. Over time, San Ti Shi develops a united, structural platform, in which the arms are connected to the power of the waist and legs, while simultaneously exhibiting a relaxed and elastic strength that can be employed in the wide range of striking, locking and throwing techniques used in Xing Yi.

One of my Xing Yi students who is also a boxing trainer feels that San Ti Shi and Pi Quan (Splitting Fist) develop proper structure for the jab. Hence, he teaches his fighters a few of these Xing Yi basics to help develop, structure, balance and power.

On the other side of the coin, San Ti Shi can easily be transformed into an on-guard fighting stance. San Ti Shi, as demonstrated by Master Li Gui Chang in the picture above, is not dissimilar to a Thai Boxing stance. The weight is balanced so one can easily move in any direction, and if one simply shortens the stance, raises up the arms and drops the elbows, one is quickly in an on-guard position, with the elbows protecting the ribs and the hands up to protect the face.

Aspects of San Ti Shi, Pi Quan, and internal martial arts in general became part of some Karate systems like Kyokushin. A little known aspect of Kyokushin’s history is the story of Kenichi Sawai and the art of Taikiken, noteworthy for their influence on generations of Karate fighters. Taikiken was founded by Kenichi Sawai (1903 – 1988) after losing a match to the great Chinese boxer, Wang Xiang Zhai – the founder of Yi Quan (an internal art synthesized and distilled from Xing Yi, Ba Gua and Tai Ji Quan). Impressed by the technique of Wang Xiangzhai, Kenichi Sawai learned Yi Quan and created Taikiken, an offshoot of Yi Quan. Among Sawai’s most famous students was his long time friend, Mas Oyama. Their friendship goes back to their University Judo days, and footage of them sparring can be found on the internet. Mas Oyama, in turn, incorporated aspects of Taikiken into Kyokushin Karate. Through Taikiken training, which puts great emphasis on standing (Zhan Zhuan), many great Kyokushin fighters, such as Haijime Kazumi, incorporated internal art principles into their fighting styles with great success. Kazumi is recognized as one of Kyokushin Karate’s most successful full-contact fighters. Films of Kazumi’s training and teaching clearly show the very large influence of the internal arts on his expression of Karate.

Other Training Methods in Martial Arts

On the other side of the coin, most martial arts have training methods that do not directly relate to fighting. We rarely question a boxer hitting a speed bag or skipping rope, yet neither of these activities have a direct relationship to actual boxing. Boxers don’t punch the way they hit the speed bag, nor does their fighting footwork really resemble skipping rope. Instead, hitting the speed bag and skipping rope are developmental training exercises that inculcate qualities that relate to boxing. The speed bag trains rhythm and makes you keep your arms up so you don’t drop your guard in a match because your arms are tired. Jumping rope develops agility, timing and the quality of being light on your feet. In the Filipino Arts I sometimes watched people hit a static stack of tires as “power training.” While this kind of power training does get you used to hitting something and is very satisfying mentally, it actually can also develop the dangerous habit of standing still and hitting a non-moving target, something you will not encounter when fighting an opponent. A moving tire spinning and twisting on a rope is a more useful training “partner.”

We don’t question why in Karate punches are chambered at the hip in kata and solo practice, even though in sparring Karate fighters start with their hands up and often do not chamber their punches. It is understood that long chambered punches are a way to develop proper mechanics and the power of the hara or Dantian. It is understood that this seeming long punch can also be delivered in close.

Similarly, breaking boards and bricks has little relation to actual fighting – something Bruce Lee pointed out with his famous statement that “boards don’t hit back.” However, Karate breaking training does develop power, follow-through force, and confidence, while teaching you to hit with the correct part of the hand or fist, and to form that hand or fist into a correct shape. Breaking skills give you immediate feedback on whether or not you have done these things correctly.

Many weight training and resistance exercises don’t have a direct relationship to self-defense, but they do develop body strength that indirectly contributes to being able to perform movements with strength and power. Hence  in “external” martial arts these exercises are considered to be important and they make sense in relation to training methods of the arts that employ them. In “internal” martial arts these type of resistance exercises are considered to be less important than static standing exercises, circle walking or deep breathing exercises, all of which engage the fascial system of the body in a fashion that develops a spring-like elastic power. These “internal” exercises also do not have an obvious direct relationship to self-defense, but they are essential to the body development necessary to efficiently apply internal martial techniques.


It is sometimes hard to see how Chinese weapons, many of which seem outdated and arcane, have any relationship to modern self-defense, unlike Filipino or Indonesian systems that specialize in stick and knife techniques. However, if we look at weapons as a kind of active resistance training and proprioceptive training that develops certain body capabilities and strengths, then training with traditional Chinese weapons begins to make more sense.

Yin Yang Rooster Claw Knife

I remember dutifully practicing the Rooster knife forms in Ba Gua, wondering how this crazy weapon with points and hooks everywhere could possibly be much use. However, after a while I noticed that to avoid stabbing or hooking myself, I had to hold these fairly heavy weapons away from the body in the guard positions and in chopping and piercing movements. This required learning to use my legs, back and torso to keep the knives in proper position, instead of relying on external arm and shoulder strength. Doing so gave me more functional strength with my arms in an extended position. I then noticed that my hands felt heavier to my training partners when we practiced two-person drills. I further noticed that the hooks on the knife made my forearms and wrists feel like they had hooks, so that when my arm contacted an opponent’s arm I could “hook” and control their arm using the bones of my wrist and forearm.

Similarly, practicing with a broadsword leads you to discover ways to use your hands like swords or knives. I remember completely misunderstanding the purpose of spear training in Xing Yi Quan (and therefore not practicing it much), until Master Li Gui Chang explained that one of the purposes of spear training is to “borrow” the elastic power from the flexible shaft of the spear in order to make your own body elastic and flexible in attacking and defensing movements.

Body Image

Another problem that some students have with internal arts is that they don’t make you look athletic or muscular. In fact the relaxation one learns and cultivates in internal arts often leads to a somewhat more rounded belly and loose, relaxed muscles. It takes time to understand that one can generate power without big muscles. This means you won’t look “buff” or have the washboard stomach that is a constant on the covers of fitness magazines. Changing your self-image,  how you look on the outside  (externally) may require a letting go, an investment in loss. This is often difficult, particularly in Western culture, which prizes a muscular, athletic look, but it can also be transformative. You are cultivating something inside that may not be visible outside. And this interior cultivation has value in self-defense (and in many other parts of one’s life), even if that value is not immediately obvious.


A last example is forms. A “form” is a series of connected movements that teach body principles, power dynamics, continuity of movements and body fluidity. Although forms are sometimes disparaged as being impractical and unrealistic, critics of form often forget that a jab is a “form”, a jab-cross-hook is a “form”,  and a sequence of strikes in Filipino martial arts is also a form, as is any movement or set of movements that is practiced with repetition. to inculcate body principles and practical skills.

There are good forms and bad forms. Lets talk about “good forms” that impart martial wisdom and practicality. Forms are a very important part of learning self-defense for a number of reasons:

  1. Forms provides a structure for solo practice
  2. Forms teach many specific self-defense applications
  3. Forms contain many hidden techniques
  4. Forms are a means of developing power dynamics and correct martial timing and distancing
  5. Forms teach continuity in movement – how to blend one movement another
  6. Forms provide a platform for discovery and growth

Although forms illustrate techniques, the movements in forms are not really “moves” in the sense of techniques, but possibilities of movement. There is the obvious action, and underneath that action are many hidden actions that reveal themselves over time and practice. Additionally, forms teach you that the transitions between actions are as important as the actions themselves – how you turn; how you shift weight as you go from one action to another; how the end point of one movement is also the beginning of the next, etc.

Forms are also compendiums of martial applications passed down by experienced fighters. In this sense, each form is a “book” of techniques and changes that are both specific and non-specific. For example, a particular move in a form might clearly be a lock against someone grabbing your jacket, but it might also be a defense against a tackle, or a movement where the opponent’s head is pulled into an elbow strike.

Forms also show sequences of movement that contain responses to the opponent’s most probable countermoves. The form can help you to understand principles of counter and re-counter, and how to adjust body position and footwork in response to the opponent’s movements and changes.

             Mandarin Duck Knives

Recently I was teaching the Ba Gua Mandarin Duck Knife form, which I learned from Master Gao Ji Wu. I remember learning this form and wondering at the time about the practicality of the movements, which, in comparison with the Filipino arts I had learned in the past, seemed overly stylized. However as I began to work with the form against the Chinese Jian (Straight Sword), I realized that if I did not do the movements exactly like the form, with the knives held in the exact angles dictated by the form, I was invariably”cut” by the sword. When I did the movements properly I could intercept and trap the very fast moving and deceptive sword. In other words, the form transmitted something very critical to combat that very quickly becomes reflexive and automatic with practice

On the negative side, one has to be careful with forms. Practicing them blindly and mindlessly without testing and analyzing them will get you into trouble and lead you to think that you can that you can run set sequences in a uncontrolled self-defense situation. Forms can make one complacent if one is not honest with oneself about what will work and what will not. Although forms contain practical moves from past masters, not every movement in the form will be practical for you. You may not have the physical capabilities and life experience of the master or masters who created the form. Some of the moves will be comfortable and useful for you and some will not. Which moves these are will change over time, but it is important not to take each move as gospel. It is also important to research how other styles and teachers use the same movements in different ways.

As I mentioned above, forms often contain responses to the opponent’s most probable countermoves. However in reality opponents do not always respond “logically”and predictably; they may do something unexpected. So one must not become too attached to these seemingly logical sequences. A very good example of this are Ba Gua Zhang’s 64 Linear Forms, arranged in eight sets of eight linked movements. Although each set of eight movements is set up as a series of moves and countermoves against an opponent, in reality this rarely works because an opponent will not respond perfectly, ie setting up the next move in the sequence. This appearance of logical continuity is instructive, but it can be dangerous to take it as gospel. One must learn the sequence with a partner in order to understand the principles of counter and re-counter, and then let go of it. In the end, one must practice the 64 Forms out of order, in single movements and in pairs, with short steps, with running steps, with fixed steps and free steps, advancing and retreating etc.

In the beginning one must practice a new form at least a few hundred times, exactly as it was presented and taught to you. Once you are comfortable with the form, in addition to practicing the form from start to finish, start to pull it apart and play with it so that you “own” the movements. Some examples of how to play with a form are:

  • Practice one movement repeatedly in different directions and changing sides.
  • Experiment with different transitions between moves.
  • Practice the movements in the form out of order, mixing them freely – be creative.
  • Practice a short sequence of movements from a form as an unbroken sequence against an opponent. This sequence often deals with possible counter-moves the opponent may make. Then look at the individual movements in that sequence, and see how they might work independent of the sequence.
  • Change the footwork that goes with the movements. For example, stepping back instead of forward, turning more when facing a new direction, or adding more steps.
  • When doing the form, try covering a larger area  by taking longer steps and more steps. Then see if you can do the form in very small space with minimal stepping.
  • Envision different kinds of attacks and how you might use the movements contained in the form to defend and counter.
  • Mix the movements of one form with movements from another form that have related or similar movements.
  • Work out techniques you find in the form with a partner to assess their practicality. This leads you to discover different usages.

When you train this way, the moves simply “come out” and appear as needed in the moment. Often you only realize what move came out after the fact when you reflect back on what happened. Training forms this way is what makes forms living things that evolve, rather than dead artifacts from the past. Training forms with flexibility and change is what makes practice fun, and engages the mind, body and spirit. The form very quickly becomes part of you. The form also provides a structured exercise that trains balance, coordination, and focused intention in addition to martial skills.

In summary, my experience is that practicing internal martial arts requires faith in the training process and a letting go of previous conceptions to embrace another way of thinking about power, strength and athleticism. There is no denying that doing so is difficult, but it is also rewarding.

I hope this article helps gives you confidence in the arts you are learning and the training methods you are practicing.