Internal work/whole body strength

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Conventional use of strength

Most people use a localised set of muscles to perform a physical task (for example: the arms). The muscles are put under duress for the duration of the activity.
This method is successful yet causes side effects, such as:

  1. The inability to relax the muscles after the task has been completed

  2. Muscle tension in associated muscle groups; such as neck, back, shoulders...

  3. Soreness in the joints, particularly knees and elbows

  4. Headache

Most people fail to relax the muscles after the task is done; the muscles remain shortened and contracted. This distorts the body and causes health problems.

Body building and weight lifting are fashionable activities today. The emphasis is upon developing external muscles which creates an armouring effect that can eventually distort the bone structure. It is the over-developed musculature that actually torques the bones and discourages them from bearing additional weight. The body attempts to compensate and problems arise.

(Liz Koch)

Whole-body strength

Instead of just using the arms for a given task, the internal martial arts seek to use all of the body's muscles at the same time. This has the effect of distributing the work across the entire body.
larger muscles of the torso and legs do most of the work, rather than the arms. Each muscle has significantly less work to do and is thereby less tired and more capable of lasting strength.

Unbroken strength

With practice, an internal martial arts person can use less and less effort for each task. This means that the muscles are less tired and do not hold residual tension.
Over time, the tendons, ligaments, fascia and muscles become united. There is no longer a need to exert for a given task. Whole-body strength is now present continuously.  


Whole-body strength is called neigong or 'internal work'. Another spelling commonly used: nei kung. Neigong may be referred to as internal strength/power or intrinsic strength.

The centre

Neigong movement is initiated by the centre (not by the hips) and entails moving every part of the body as one fluid unit.
Ultimately, the joints will do far less work - reducing wear & tear - and the soft tissue (muscles, tendons, ligaments, fascia) do more. The muscles remain relaxed (not tensed) at all times.


Neigong is concerned with removing internal obstacles and encouraging the body to move as one unit. It involves an advanced understanding of subtle body mechanics and a high degree of awareness.
We re-grow our bodies in order to move smoothly. It might be said that neigong enables the transmission of energy by returning the body to a softer, pliable, child-like condition.

Reeling silk

Tai chi
movement is similar to how an amoeba moves. For one part of an amoeba to move, all parts must move. Every single movement is a whole-body movement.
This is exactly how we move in tai chi. Consider how a caterpillar moves or how a snake undulates. Look at the body mechanics involved.

Tai chiís neigong is like a spring; the hard in the soft, the needle in the cotton.
It is relaxed and not a matter of muscular effort.
Nor is preparation needed.
When you want it, it is there.
This comes only after hard and diligent training

(Cheng Man Ching)


Page created 3 March 1994
Last updated 16 June 2023