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If you were to perform every tai chi action to 100% of your physical limit - in terms of stretch and endurance - you would be working at maximum capacity.
The 100% capacity approach is the 'no pain, no gain' attitude to exercise. It opens you up for strain and injury because you are fully committed at all times.
We recommend following the 70% rule.
What is a 100% stretch?
Try this: stand facing a wall. Step back about 4 feet. Really stretch out as far as you can in order to touch the wall. Involve your shoulder joint too.
Feel how every joint is pulled? Fingers? Elbow? Shoulder? Feel the strain in your back, your joints and your neck? This is your maximum reach.
What is a 70% stretch?
Find your 100% stretch, then simply return the shoulders to a position where there is no strain whatsoever. Making sure that the elbows are heavy, slightly bent (and not raised), round the arms slightly. This is 70%.
Find out for yourself
If you move a limb away from your centre, the support decreases the further away it goes. Experiment with your arms and legs - stretch them away in various directions...
In each instance there should be distinct boundary points where a tangible strain occurs and increases as you stretch. You may not notice this initially; finding 70% takes patience and sensitivity.
Test your 70% stretch
Proof is essential. Given how much lousy tai chi there is in the world nowadays, be cautious what you believe. Test the teaching out for yourself.
Ways to test
There are various ways in which you can test your 70% stretch. Here are 4 basic examples:
Method #1: Repulsion
Have your arms extended to 3 different distances: 100%, 'normal' and then 70%. Ask somebody to firmly (but slowly) push your arms/hands.
At 100% your balance will be taken; unless you tense-up (which is not tai chi). At 50% your arms will crumple/collapse or tense-up. At 70%, your partner will be repulsed without any action required by you.
Method #2: Weapons
Wield a stick. There are different ways to explore 70%. Try rotating the weapon at 3 distances: 100%, 'normal' and then 70%. Which is easier? Is the weapon lighter or heavier?
Which distance encourages better wrist flexibility?
Method #3: Connection
Now have somebody push down the length of the weapon and see which distance has strength but also 'give'.
Method #4: Impact
Finally, try hitting another weapon or target at the 3 distances and determine which distance offer the most powerful strike: taking into account the 'effort/reward ratio'.
Tense or flaccid?
Students often tend to over-exaggerate stretching or don't actually stretch at all. Over-stretching makes the framework rigid and external. The student often braces; which is incorrect.
Flaccidity is equally bad because the arms are certainly not connected to be rest of the body. A 70% stretch enables the exponent to make a small movement to greater effect.
A lack of stretching is usually down to laziness. Remaining within your comfort zone is normal. However, it significantly reduces the effectiveness of the tai chi.
Your arms will not be 'connected' to your back; preventing lower body strength from manifesting. Both the shoulder and elbow joints will be over-used in lieu of the torso.
The 70% rule
Most people exceed their natural range of safe movement frequently throughout the day without realising it. The 70% rule encourages them to be aware of their natural range.
In combat, over-commitment is a serious flaw because you have little room for failure. Holding 30% in reserve is a useful safety precaution.
He lives long who enjoys life
and who bears no jealousy of others;
whose heart harbours no malice or anger;
who sings a lot and cries a little;
who rises and retires with the sun;
who likes to work and knows how to rest.
21 May 1996
Last updated 07 January 2020