Brief Comparison of External and Internal Martial Arts

How are external and internal martial arts defined? What are their basic differences?

Chinese martial arts are generally classified into external martial arts and internal martial arts. The most well-known Chinese external martial art is Shaolinquan, and the most well-known Chinese internal martial art is Taijiquan. There are more external martial arts than internal martial arts. Other examples of Chinese external martial arts include Praying Mantis, Hung Gar, Monkey, Tiger, Wing Chun. Besides Taijiquan, there are only two other Chinese internal martial arts: Baquaquan and Xingyiquan. Some Chinese martial arts, such as White Crane and Liuhebafa, are sometimes classified as combined external/internal martial arts. Almost all of the martial arts in the West, such as Boxing, Wrestling, Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Judo, Jujitsu, and Kickboxing, are considered to be external martial arts. Aikido is one of the few exceptions and can be considered to be an internal martial art.

External martial arts focus on external physical power, such as strength of muscles and bones. Their goals are to make the body to go faster, be stronger, and maintain the pace longer. They focus on the individual external body components, e.g., arms, legs, abdomen, chest, back. They focus more on the near-term maximum fitness of the individual body components, which could sometimes lead to excessive usage or pounding on individual body parts and result in long-term deterioration of those body parts. Internal martial arts focus on the generation and controlled circulation of Qi (some explanation of Qi is provided below). They focus on the internal bodily functions (such as the internal organs) and the body as an integrated whole. Increasing the overall health of the individual is a primary goal; internal martial arts are therefore very much related to traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture. In internal martial arts, it is critical to relax body and mind, and the mind is much more involved, including meditation.

Since we are much more familiar with external martial arts than with internal martial arts and since learning an external martial art has a lot of similarities with learning one of many commonly known sports, the rest this article will focus on internal martial arts and in particular the concept of Qi.

Since Qi is so crucial in understanding what an internal martial art is, I would like to repeat some statements I wrote in the earlier article “The Essence of Taijiquan – Part 2: Perspective from Taiji Qigong.” First, what is Qi? I don’t think that there is yet a definitive, standard, scientific answer to this question. However, just because we may not yet have a detailed scientific definition of Qi that is universally accepted by scientists, it doesn’t necessarily mean that Qi doesn’t exist. Qi is often defined as an energy, some sort of bioelectrical energy that exists in the human body (mostly inside, but also near the exterior of the body). The term “Qigong” refers to the practice that increases the Qi and its circulation within the body. To the many people in this world who practice Qigong on a regular basis, Qi is as real to them as their breath, their heartbeat, their conscious mind. They can feel the Qi in their body. They can guide the Qi to circulate to different parts of their body.

Because the benefits of Qigong from the perspective of martial applications (besides from the perspective of long-term health) are also recognized by Chinese external martial artists, most advanced Chinese external martial artists also engage in some form of Qigong training. But there are generally two major differences. One difference is that Qigong training in external martial arts is often a separate set of training from their form and fighting training, whereas Qigong training in internal martial arts is usually an integral part of their form and fighting training. Another difference is that external martial arts focus on building Qi directly in the limbs and then move the Qi from the limbs to the body. Internal martial arts focus on building Qi in the body (where the vital organs are) and then lead the Qi from the body to the limbs. In traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture, the human body has 12 major Qi channels (like rivers) through which the Qi circulates, and has eight vessels (like reservoirs) which store the Qi and also regulate the distribution and circulation of Qi in the body. The focus of external martial arts is on the Qi channels, and the focus of internal martial arts is on the Qi vessels.

Internal martial arts put great emphasis on breathing. As a matter of fact, the word “Qi” in Chinese also means air (the phrase “Qigong exercise” is often translated as “breathing and stretching exercise”). The natural breathing method that we normally use is to use the upper chest muscles to expand and contract the lungs. When we breathe in, the chest expands, and when we breathe out, the chest contracts. In martial arts, especially in internal martial arts (and also in yoga), one often uses lower abdominal breathing to replace natural breathing. With lower abdominal breathing, when we breathe in, the diaphragm is pushed down allowing more room for the lungs to expand. When we breathe out, the diaphragm is pushed up to help contract the lungs. There are two advantages to lower abdominal breathing. One is that by pushing down the diaphragm and allowing more room for the lungs to expand, we can breathe in more oxygen. The other is that with the diaphragm moving up and down during breathing, the internal organs inside our abdominal area are being massaged. Such massaging is like exercising the internal organs. When we exercise other parts of our body, like our arms and legs, we strengthen those body parts. Similarly, when we exercise our internal organs, we strengthen those internal organs. It is interesting to note that babies use the method of lower abdominal breathing. For some reason unknown to me, as they become older, they change to natural breathing. There are also different methods of lower abdominal breathing (see my earlier article “Breathing and Taijiquan” for a slightly more detailed discussion).

Even though breathing is very important in internal martial arts, in an introductory course, the instructor would often tell the students not to pay any attention to breathing while doing the forms, i.e., they should just breathe as they normally do. The reason is because beginning students already have their hands and mind full with trying to learn the forms. If they also have to integrate breathing while doing the forms, it may be just too much to learn and retain simultaneously. When I teach an introductory Taiji course, such as the “Simplified Yang Style 24 Forms,” during the first half of the course, that is exactly what I tell my students (although I still emphasize breathing while doing some of the warm-up or stretching exercises). It is only after about half way through the course that I start telling the students when to breathe in and when to breathe out as they are doing the forms, but still using the natural breathing method, and not the lower abdominal breathing method, which is reserved for subsequent courses.

Besides breathing being an important ingredient in developing Qi, the mind also plays an important role. Even though while practicing an internal martial art (for that matter, all martial arts) we should remove other matters from our mind, our mind is not empty. The mind should concentrate on what we are doing. We should use the mind to lead the form and use the mind to visualize the oxygen and Qi flowing to various parts of the body. There is a saying “the mind leads, the Qi follows, the blood follows the Qi, and the strength follows the blood.” As we become more experienced in Qigong, we begin to develop the ability to feel where Qi is being blocked in our body, or where there is too much Qi or not enough Qi, i.e., a yin-yang imbalance of Qi. We can then concentrate our training and practice to focus on that part of the body to try to remove the blockage or to eliminate the yin-yang imbalance, thus improving our health from the perspective of traditional Chinese medicine.

Qigong development is not a simple skill to learn. It takes extensive training by a qualified instructor and extensive practice. However, there are several well-known and simple Qigong exercises that one can learn and practice even in an introductory course. As a matter of fact, some subset of such Qigong exercises are often used as part of the warm-up or stretching exercises in internal martial arts courses, such as Taijiquan. Here are two common examples. One is the “Eight Silk Brocade,” a set of Qigong exercises dating back at least 2,000 years. Another is a more recently formulated set called “Eighteen Breathing and Stretching Exercises.”

There are many more and some highly complex Qigong exercises. Many of them involve some degree of meditation. Describing them is beyond the scope of this article and also beyond the expertise of this author.

The objective of internal martial arts is to strengthen the whole body from within, giving rise to better health and better martial techniques. Better martial techniques mean more powerful strikes, more capacity to withstand strikes, and more rapid reflexes and movements. Better health means better ability to maintain the skills and execution of those skills even at more senior ages, like into the 70s and 80s.

Many of us have witnessed the effectiveness of Qigong in increasing the capacity to withstand strikes when we witness in martial arts exhibitions a martial artist resisting a pointed spear pointed to a spot below his throat (the esophagus area). As a matter of fact, the martial artist not only can avoid puncture of that area of the body, but can actually bend the spear. This is accomplished by the martial artist concentrating a large amount of Qi in that part of the body.

An example of the ability to continue to execute high level martial skills at senior ages was described in B. K. Frantzis’s book The Power of Internal Martial Arts: Combat Secrets of Ba Qua, Tai Chi, and Hsing-I. He described as a nineteen-year-old karate champion who had studied various kinds of martial arts in the U.S., Japan, and Taiwan since he was a small boy, his encounter in Taiwan in the summer of 1968 with Wang Shu Jin who was a Ba Qua expert already in his 70s. He wrote “In our ensuing sparring, Wang defeated me thoroughly on every occasion, tapping me lightly at will all over my body to demonstrate his easy circumvention of my defenses. Despite my best efforts and despite Wang’s enormous girth, his ba gua chang enabled him to effortlessly evade all my blows and end up behind me at will.”

In summary, external martial arts focus on training the external parts of the body and often on the individual parts, and internal martial arts focus on training the internal parts of the body and usually the body as an integrated whole. Breathing and involvement of the mind are much more important in internal martial arts. A key ingredient of internal martial arts is the generation of Qi and controlled circulation of Qi.

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4 Responses to “Brief Comparison of External and Internal Martial Arts”

  1. Very informative and accurate. Your knowledge of the subject is profound. I much enjoyed reading it and will look to make your blog one of my favorites! I will be sure to pass it on to my friends and teachers to enjoy the read as well. Thank you! Namaste!

  2. Graeme h says:

    A really interesting article. Thank you for your time in explaining Qi more clearly.

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