External strength

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Health problems

Many modern people have unhealthy shoulders.
Frequently the shoulders are rounded forward, frozen, suffer a rotator cuff injury or shortened trapezius muscles (gym shoulders).
Sometimes one shoulder is lifted higher than the other.
Most of these problems are the outcome of lifestyle choices and bad habits.

Wrong muscle use

The muscles supporting the shoulder are not very strong when you compare them to the enormous muscles of the legs and buttocks.
Poor use of scapula and limited core strength lead to misuse of the shoulder.

Postural muscles are stronger

Often the 'postural' scapula muscles are neglected in favour of weaker 'phasic' (movement) muscles.
Postural muscles tire more slowly and can sustain power for long periods of time whereas phasic muscles are for short tasks such as brushing teeth.

Using your arm badly involves poor stabilisation of the scapula through under-activity. At the same time, there is over-activity of the upper trapezius. When lifting, the scapula fails to stay glued to the back of the chest wall. It puts the small muscles of the rotator cuff to greater effort but, by making the neck muscles contribute, it causes chronic neck strain.

(Sarah Key)


People often lift out of the glenoid socket and significantly weaken the functionality of the arm.
This is caused by over-stretching and rounding the shoulders.

Hollow chest?

Students often misunderstand 'hugging a tree' in qigong and pull their scapula strongly forwards; rounding the shoulders.
This prevents free movement of both the scapula and the shoulder joint.
It is an 'external' habit.
Martially it is foolish because the body can no longer change spontaneously and easily.

Closing the shoulders

Taking the arms far away from the body is fine when stretching.
But not when strength is required.
If the arms are fully outstretched and the fingers brought towards one another, the shoulders suffer immediate discomfort.

Be natural

Emulate walking...
Where do the arms 'naturally' hang?
This is where the shoulders are strongest.
When you have found the correct 'open' position for the shoulders, the back automatically connects and the front of the shoulders feel 'expansive'.

Kung fu styles like taijiquan have become widespread and popular. It is important for all practitioners to understand a major weakness in the transmission of all Chinese arts; a lack of basic training. In fact, a step-by-step training program, standardized terminology, clear explanations and correct interpretations are either entirely missing or woefully scarce.

(Adam Hsu)

Closing the centre

People often emulate boxers or wing chun students by 'closing' the centre.
This is incorrect in taijiquan and strains the shoulders.
The centre is deliberately 'open' - inviting/luring an attack.
To protect it, turn the waist; don't move the arm independent
ly of the torso.


The left arm protects the left side of the body and the right arm protects the right.
Don't cross the centreline.
Each movement in the Long Yang form involves turning the waist to 'cover' (protect) the centre as we move.

Move the

Taijiquan and baguazhang teach the individual to perform as many actions as possible emphasising postural muscles.
To accomplish this, the student must use the arm/shoulder less and move the lower body more by stepping.
Instead of being arm-oriented, the exponent becomes torso-oriented.

One of the most difficult skills in kung fu is the ability to change movements. This skill is a primary aspect of forms. When you are swiftly and smoothly able to change movements, your chances of defeating an opponent are greatly increased.

(Adam Hsu)

Sinking of the shoulders and elbows

Relaxed elbows enable 'sung' and 'folding' to occur readily.
The elbows cannot relax when the arms are too far away from the centre.
Dropped elbows serve to anchor the arms and protect the body from attack
They also enable the taijiquan exponent to switch range rapidly and unpredictably.

Use the mind

When the arms are less extended - they may feel weaker, looser and more fluid.
This is fine.
Power comes from concentration, composure and connection.
Instead of daydreaming, summon all of your focus and energy at the point of impact and drive it into the target using the lower body.
This need only be a brief moment but your mind is the key to success

Core strength

If your core strength training is compatible with the rest of your taijiquan syllabus then it should notably improve shoulder use.
Just avoid copying other examples of core strength practice that may advocate undue stretching (which is unsuitable for taijiquan).

Plank or not to plank?

Not everyone is comfortable doing the plank exercise(s) and doing it badly is not a good idea.
If you experience shoulder pain, it may be wise to skip it.
You can develop core strength without the plank, so we offer students the option.


Many people who have no experience with weights go the gym and execute movements that they are simply not strong enough to handle.
Or they undertake exercises that are widely regarded as being unsafe.
The shoulders tend to get damaged first.
Build up the weight over many months; don't be macho or impatient.

Higher shoulder risk

Some exercises are a higher risk for the shoulders and should be avoided if your shoulders are weak, prone to injury or if you suffer discomfort whilst performing them:

Bench press
Dumbbell press
Dumbbell/medicine ball pullovers
Seated front press
Slam ball (overhead slam)
Reverse plank
Broomstick twists

Take care with weights

Apply the '123 rule' and avoid being macho or competitive.
We're not primates; so don't think to emulate a monkey.
Look at the skeleton carefully, then the muscles and their distribution.
This should tell you how much to lift relative to each muscle group and associated joints...

In addition to clumsy shoulder hunching when lifting, almost universally there is a lack of variety in what we do. You can become tethered one way and develop a degree of forward stoop of the upper back.

(Sarah Key)

Page created 8 April 1997
Last updated 22 September 2017