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Cross-training is fine. It works the body out in all sorts of different ways. Despite media information to the contrary, taijiquan is not the perfect exercise. Cross-training is essential but it must be done properly.
What can I cross-train?
Anything you like. It's up to you, after all.
There are 3 areas of fitness:
In order to exercise the body
properly, you need to gain aptitude in all 3 areas.
So, people's shoulders being
up like this (lifted) it doesn't just affect their shoulders. It pushes
their neck vertebrae out - which is why they get sore necks. It actually
makes their chest lift a lot. It puts pressure on your heart. It does a
whole lot of things that are not good for you.
A balanced approach?
Many people can lift heavy weights but they are not flexible/breathing hard after mild cardio. Often, injuries arise and bodies are pushed too hard.
This is not good enough for a comprehensive training approach.
A fitness regime must not take into account agility, mobility, relaxed spontaneous movement, balance, ambidextrous body use, joint health, coordination, emotional wellbeing or psychological flexibility.
Learn how to exercise
Instead of simply relying upon your instructor to make you fit, make an effort yourself. Take what you learn in taijiquan class as a starting point. Progress from there.
Make a commitment to get continually stronger, faster, more flexible, healthier. Research exercise methods and be open to any new approach that does not interfere with your taijiquan.
Jack of all trades?
Personal trainers encourage people to improve their fitness. This is good. Just be wary of studying too many things simultaneously.
Superficial knowledge will never lead to sincere, high-level physical abilities. Look deeper. Focus. Also, time is a factor... Just how much spare time do you really have?
Professional swimmers don't have
perfect bodies because they train extensively. Rather, they are good
swimmers because of their physiques. Similarly, female models advertise
cosmetics and thus, female consumers believe that these products make you
beautiful. But it is not the cosmetics that make these women model-like.
Quite simply, the models are born attractive and only for this reason are
they candidates for cosmetic advertising. As with the swimmers' bodies,
beauty is a factor for selection and not the result.
Common exercise methods
Most exercise methods have pros and cons. Often the problem lies not with the exercise itself but with how people perform it.
The drawbacks of exercise
Not all forms of exercise are necessarily good for you. For example, running may improve cardiovascular health but is also very hard on the joints.
Lifting heavy weights can cause significant tension to accumulate and - if the muscles are large enough - adversely affect the skeleton. Most forms of exercise have pros and cons; especially sport.
Most runners run with extremely bad posture:
• Elbows are stiff and locked (often raised)
• The body is leaning forwards or stooping; either at the neck or collapsing at the bottom of the rib cage
• Shoulders are lifted; often one higher than the other
• Considerable tension in the upper body
• Frozen sacroiliac; immobile
• Knees twisted (the foot flicks out sideways)
• Weight is bearing heavily down into the knees
• The skeleton is not moving freely, naturally or comfortably
This would be bad posture for any form of exercise. It causes serious fatigue and adverse wear and tear on the body. The tension in the body uses energy and tires you out.
Many runners have careworn faces with deep lines caused by emotional stress. They don't look happy when running. They look deeply upset.
Their approach to running is causing them to suffer. Over-training, pushing the body and pursuing unnecessary goals is harmful and leads to pain and injury. There are many other ways to get fit.
The philosophy of
between-reps breaks consists of doing everything you can to avoid fatigue
instead of seeking it out as you would in body building. Striving for
failure is more appropriate for those working on muscle mass than for those
wanting to increase strength or power.
Programs for fighters should consist mostly of compound exercises. These allow for intense work on a maximum number of muscles in a minimum time.
The difference between experienced fighters and beginners is the speed of muscle relaxation, which is 8 times faster in champion fighters. For an inexperienced fighter, the speed of muscle relaxation is too slow for the leg or the fist to gain enough speed when striking a blow. Keeping the antagonistic muscles contracted automatically slows down the movement.
Gym work typically shortens muscles and promotes patterns of tension and fixity in the body.
Tai chi does the opposite: it allows muscles to lengthen, releases tensions and encourages good skeletal use.
The muscle work that takes place in taijiquan is principally geared towards whole-body movement and training the body to rely more upon postural muscles.
The fitness benefits of taijiquan are quickly undermined by body building/gym work performed with exertion and forcing.
Drop handled bicycle
The human skeleton is aligned to resist the downward pull of gravity. The shoulders are positioned above the hips. On a drop handled bicycle, this is not the case at all.
The body is held in a slanting posture. The arms are stretched and the shoulders are positioned in front of the hips rather than above.
In order to see the road ahead, the cyclist must lift their head and compress the back of the neck.
Although road bikes are very popular and certainly offer a cardiovascular workout, this causes notable muscular tension.
The majority of mountain bikes sold in the UK appear to be used on the road rather than off road. People seem unaware of the fact that the gears are not suited to road use.
They pedal frantically and go no faster.
Have you ever seen a Dutch bicycle? They encourage an upright posture, no strain on the arms or shoulders, and use gravity more effectively than UK bicycles do.
Find out for yourself...
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 bony structure.
It is the over developed musculature that actually torque's the bones and
discourages them from bearing additional weight. The body attempts to
compensate and problems arise.
Running does not necessarily in and of itself improve posture that is already poor and constricted. It often exaggerates problems due to the substitution of inappropriate muscles. The repetitive inappropriate development of the musculature (as in body building or weight lifting) often leads to diminished sensitivity. Stress occurs in the knees and lower back, encouraging injury.
Swimming is an activity that can either create structural problems or release them depending upon the way it is taught and practiced. Professional swimmers are known to develop shoulder tendonitis and kyphosis. Overriding head/neck righting reflexes (as occurs when the head is repeatedly turned but the body does not follow) eventually result in overdeveloping shoulder muscles, pinching nerves and distorting the rib cage.
Various sport activities emphasize strength, endurance and speed. Development of muscle control rather than skeletal balance takes precedence. Gaining speed at the expense of mounting tension, is too often the goal.
Your body, your choice
Beginners can exercise however they choose to. The problem lies with sabotaging their taijiquan.
There is no point in paying for lessons and then undermining the training with bad habits acquired elsewhere.
Running, lifting weights, drop handle cycling and working out at the gym may hinder progress in taijiquan - unless they are practiced mindfully and without exertion.
It is common for people to see taijiquan as just being another night school class, 'alternate therapy', another martial art or perhaps even dance.
Tai chi is far more than this. It is not an alternative to yoga, karate, Zumba or line dancing.
If you were to study Pilates for decades it is unlikely that the system would fundamentally change your temperament, world view, relationship with others and provide a viable system of combat.
Pilates may improve your quality of life, fitness and posture. But that is all.
Tai chi begins where the other exercise systems finish. The physical work is just the start of your training; most of the real work is psychological.
Learning the system may completely change the way in which you live and to regard it as purely exercise is to see only what you want to see.
The training is also concerned with re-energising the body.
More than exercise
For many people, their fitness regime does not take into account 'motor learning'. Motor learning is about the process of using the body, rather than simply exercising the body.
Agility, mobility, relaxed spontaneous movement, balance, structure, alignment, biomechanics, efficiency, ambidextrous body use, joint health, coordination, skill, emotional wellbeing or psychological flexibility.
Tai chi combines exercise with motor learning.
Wear & tear
Suppose you buy a car in 2010 and use it very rarely. In 2016 you decide to sell the car and take it to a dealership.
The mileage is unusually low for a car of its age. Yet the car is still 6 years old chronologically.
In terms of wear and tear the car is 6 months old. Tai chi is about spending your energy frugally. That way, as you get older, your wear and tear is unusually low for a person of your age.
Tai chi training is like saving £1 a day. It does not sound like much but in a year you have £365. In three years you have saved over £1000. What if you saved £5 a day?
How do I get good at taijiquan?
Practice taijiquan. If you want to become adept at cutting down trees, chop down trees. If you want to be good at the piano, practice on a piano.
Doing something else will not help your taijiquan. Skill at taijiquan only comes from training taijiquan:
When you do taijiquan, you shouldn't sweat.
Sweating is a sign that energy is being dissipated.
It comes from tension and it's as if you are depleting your bank account.
Doing taijiquan, you want to accumulate energy, not spend it.
So, if you sweat, you should stop and rest.
(Cheng Man Ching)
23 September 1995
Last updated 29 April 2021