Internal Strength: What It Is (and Isn’t)

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“So it’s like having super powers?” the student asked innocently.

Her comment caught me off guard.  I was speaking to a Tai Chi class about the concept of internal strength (nèi jìn, 內勁).  As usual, I was having trouble describing it.  Although I’m known for having internal strength, I’m not known for my ability to explain it.

“Super powers?” I said.   “Well, I never thought about it like that before.  But yeah, I guess that’s what the legends sound like.”

In the world of martial arts, there are countless legends about past masters and their feats of internal strength.  These legends run from the believable (poking a hole through a wall with just a finger), to the eyebrow-raising (killing a horse with a gentle pat on the back), to the hard-to-swallow (striking someone from 30 feet using only Qi).  There are endless debates about internal strength.  Some people believe in it, some people don’t, and some are on the fence.

If you’ve been following my blog for any length of time, then you know that I’m passionate about bringing Qigong and Tai Chi into the 21st century.  So if we’re going to be cultivating internal strength in the 21st century, then we need to know what it is we’re cultivating, and why.

What It Sounds Like

Let’s start with terminology.  The Chinese term nei jin is pronounced as follows: 

  • “nay” (as in naysayers)
  • “gin” (as in the alcohol)

Sometimes you’ll see it spelled and pronounced “nei jing” rather than “nei jin”.  To me, this just confuses the matter.  The Nei Jing is a classic Chinese medicine text that forms the basis of acupuncture.  It’s a great book, but it’s not what we’re talking about here.

The modern spelling for 勁, as I understand it, should be “jin” not “jing”.  Nevertheless, many people still use the spelling “jing”, correct or not.

What It Means

The translation can also get confusing.  Typically, you’ll see the term nei jin translated as one of the following:

  • internal power
  • internal force
  • internal strength

I think all three of these are reasonable translations.  Honestly, it’s really difficult to translate the concept.  None of these translations fully captures the meaning of nei jin, and each one also brings several other connotations.  So each translation has its advantages and disadvantages.

Many teachers use the term internal force.  I myself used this term for years.  But recently, I decided to use the term internal strength instead. Here’s why.

You can’t force internal force.  It’s not brute force (otherwise we would call it exactly that).  It’s something much softer and more subtle. The concept of nei jin is intimately tied to the concept of sōng (鬆), which means “be loose and soft”.  So the word “force” can be problematic in English.

Don’t Use the Force, Luke

There’s also the Star Wars issue. When I use the term “internal force” in class, I see a lot of eyebrows being raised.  Look, I love Star Wars too.  But as a professional in the field of mind-body medicine, I can assure you that the word “force” is not helping to legitimize these arts.

The word “strength” also has problems, but I think it is less problematic.  It can have a physical connotation, but when we put “internal” in front of it, then that makes it clear that we’re talking about something different than normal strength.

I also like the word “strength” because it has positive connotations.  You want to be physically, mentally, and emotionally strong, right?  I certainly do.

So that’s why I use the term internal strength rather than internal force.

What It Isn’t

Now let’s talk about what internal strength isn’t. This will help us to narrow down the definition.  It will also give me time to stall since I’m so bad at defining it.

1.  It isn’t mystical or magical.  It’s not a super power, despite my earlier joke.  Now don’t get me wrong — some feats of internal strength sound downright amazing, but I still believe that they can be explained by natural laws.

2.  It isn’t easy. The problem is that developing internal strength requires years of highly specific training.  In fact, many masters think it takes 30 years to be able to manifest internal strength.  That’s a long time!

3.  It isn’t common.  Masters in the East typically don’t display their internal strength publicly.  Even disciples might have to wait years for a demonstration.  In my experience, most (but not all) of the displays of internal strength that you see on YouTube are just tricks.   Real displays are incredibly uncommon.

4.  It isn’t dependent on age, gender, or size.  And this part is pretty awesome, if you ask me.  One of the most powerful masters in the history of China was an elderly nun named Ng Mui.  Men twice her size and half her age were scared of her. And rightly so.  By all accounts, she was a powerhouse.

5.  It isn’t a myth.  I empathize with martial artists who have given up on the concept of internal strength.  After all, it’s so hard to find.  But just because something is hard to find doesn’t mean it’s fake.  There are plenty of bogus masters out there, and lots of terrible information on the internet.  But internal strength is real.  (See below for more on that.)

What It Is

So what is it?  Here’s where I start to stumble with words.  I’ll let you read what some other masters say about internal strength:

Master Waysun Liao describes it as follows:

a high-frequency vibration controlled by the mind and integrated by mind/body coordination into an ultra-fast wave-like unit.

Hm.  Because I have internal strength, I understand what he’s talking about.  I think.  Do you?  (Seriously.  I’m curious to hear your feedback below.)

Master Bruce Kumar Frantzis describes it as follows:

…a specific form of chi that integrates all the various energies of the body into one unified chi that can manifest physical power.

How do I define it? Here’s my best shot.  Let me know if it make sense to you.

Internal strength is a different way of utilizing power in the human body.  After years of practicing specialized exercises, the entire body becomes supercharged with qi (energy).  As a result, regardless of their age, size, or gender, the person can manifest uncommon levels of power in ways that look deceptively subtle and soft.  This power can manifest as a punch, a kick, a jump, or a push.  It can also manifest as mental, emotional, or even spiritual fortitude.

How It Works

You can always count on me to be honest with you when I don’t know the answer to something.  And in this case, I honestly don’t know how internal strength works.  I have a few theories, but no conclusions yet.  If you have any theories, please add them below in the comments.

Strength itself is not fully understood in the world of science.  For example, the world record for a dead lift is under 800lbs.  And yet, all over the world there are stories of people lifting (and holding) over 1000lbs in order to rescue a child.  This is a well-documented phenomenon called hysterical strength.

If you’re thinking adrenaline, you’re only partially right.  Yes, hysterical strength involves adrenaline, but that doesn’t fully explain the phenomenon.  Adrenaline helps, but not that much.  And there’s plenty of adrenaline flowing when you’re trying to set an Olympic record.

Modern theories about strength  talk a lot about the fascia.  Some scientists think that the fascia acts like a pulley in the body. Some modern theories even suggest that everything we think we know about muscles is wrong, and that fascia is the real source of strength in the human body.  (Fascia is the connecting tissue that runs in huge sheaths throughout the body, wrapping the muscles and the organs.)

Until science figures out what strength is all about, I don’t think we’re going to fully understand internal strength.  I certainly think it’s possible that internal strength does something to enhance the functioning of the fascia.  How that works, I’m not sure.  But it’s a plausible explanation

Luckily, we don’t need to know how it works to know that it works.  If you’ve read this far, then here’s a treat for you.  This  video shows me, along with a bunch of my colleagues, breaking bricks using internal strength.

The goal was to break only the bottom of 2 bricks, but as you’ll see, even when my colleagues “missed”, they still did some impressive breaks. We may not be like the masters of old, but clearly there’s something uncommon going on in this video.  Give us another 20 years of training, and it will be interesting to see what we can do!

If the subject of internal strength interests you, then I’ll write another article.  I can give examples of internal strength — some that I’ve experienced, and some that I’ve only heard of.   I can talk about the training methods.  I can also talk about some of the mental, emotional, and spiritual manifestations of internal strength (a subject that I personally am interested in.)

So what say ye, dear readers?  Shall we talk more about internal strength in the near future?

Mindfully yours,
Sifu Anthony

I’m Anthony Korahais, and I used qigong to heal from clinical depression, low back pain, anxiety, and chronic fatigue. I’ve already taught thousands of people from all over the world to use qigong for their own stubborn health issues. I teach online courses, and also lead in-person retreats and workshops.

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32 Responses to Internal Strength: What It Is (and Isn’t)

  1. Andrea Harkins March 27, 2014 at 12:19 pm #

    Great blog! And, yes, I would love to hear more about internal strength. Thank you!

  2. stephen potter March 27, 2014 at 12:49 pm #

    more on this please,especialy the mental,emotional,spiritual aspects

  3. Bill Putman March 27, 2014 at 12:51 pm #

    Excellent article. Yes, I’d like to read about and discuss this subject going forward.

  4. Chow March 27, 2014 at 1:41 pm #

    Great stuff as usual.

    For a long time I thought that Internal Force (the term used in Sigung’s school) was a translation of the chinese term “Nei Gung”, which has slightly different connotations from “nei jin”, I think.
    On the other hand, Sigung also frequently mentions that Internal Strength manifests itself in a variety of ways. But I think about tales where masters in old age may not be very adept day to day activities, but may still be very very good at their kung fu (like sticky hands for example).

    I’m curious about two topics concerning internal force.
    The first topic: I’ve heard people talk about internal force that manifests more “physically”—breaking the bottom brick would be an example. There are other aspects of internal force that manifest “internally”, where the force is experienced by the person on the receiving end as something akin to an electric shock. I’d love to hear your perspective on the variety of manifestations of internal strength and its application—especially vis a vis your evolving martial arts practice.
    The second topic: the development of internal strength from “purely physical” exercises, or cases where internal strength is “unintentionally cultivated” and develops in the absence of exercises that overtly cultivate it. For example, I’m thinking of masters such as Mas Oyama who possessed incredible force. No doubt he had tremendous physical conditioning, but did some of that sublimate into internal strength? Another example is Ku Yu Cheung, whose famous iron palm picture inspired many a kung fu geek such as myself.

    Regarding some of the descriptions of internal force like Master Waysun Liao’s, I find the wording way too involved. I think there are two complementary trends in describing internal strength: those that obfuscate by using esoteric sciency terms, and those that obfuscate by using esoteric mystically terms. I like Sigung’s descriptions, as well as Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming’s because they are relatively straightforward.

    • Sifu Anthony Korahais March 27, 2014 at 2:14 pm #

      What is Dr. Yang’s description? I don’t think I’ve read it.

      I’ve met people who have personally experienced that “electric shock” that you describe. But I’ve never felt it myself. I’d like to. I’m not sure what’s going with that kind of thing, but we’re bio-electric beings, so it seems plausible. I think that, with the right training, I could probably do something like that pretty easily. But I don’t know that secret (yet!).

      I don’t think that we could call the Iron Palm of Ku Yu Cheung (Gu Ru Zhang) purely external. That doesn’t feel right to me. And my experience with Iron Palm tells me that it can easily turn internal after years of training. What’s “external” about it is the training method. But there’s no doubt that this cultivates Qi.

      • Chow March 27, 2014 at 4:14 pm #

        Now that I think about it, I think his description might have been more “physiology” based—describing fajin as using your whole body as a whip that snaps at the point of contact. I seem to remember him weaving a discussion of qi into it, but now I’m doubting my memory.

        What about Bruce Lee’s inch force? I would think that his training, despite having had some wing chun sprinkled in, was mostly external. Yet, the inch force seems like it could have been transformed from external training.

  5. Chow March 27, 2014 at 1:41 pm #

    Sorry for the wall of text. Too much Kombucha in the AM, I tell ya.

  6. Matt Fenton March 27, 2014 at 1:52 pm #

    I’d love to hear your thoughts and experience regarding internal and external strength – how do they complement each other? how do they work against each other? In your opinion, is there a perfect ratio of balance between the two?

    I’m also curious if you think the more extreme stories/feats/skills of internal strength put a positive or negative spin on Chi Kung and internal arts. On one hand, it would seem they can be inspirational and speak to the high potential of such arts. On the other, they can appear to be fairy-tales, and could contribute to the negative “faith healer” view of such arts. Thoughts?

    • Sifu Anthony Korahais March 27, 2014 at 2:09 pm #

      I think external strength is important. Your idea of a perfect ratio is interesting. I never thought about it that way. I’m not sure I can answer it though because I’m not sure how you would measure it, other than in terms of time spent on each.

      Personally, I spend far more time cultivating internal strength than external. But I still do more external training than many internal practitioners. I do a series of power lifting (dead lifts, squats, and military presses) once a week. I also do push ups, chin ups, and sprinting. I feel that all of these are holistic, and develop full-body strength.

      Regarding the extreme stories — yes, I think that they can sometimes make it harder to legitimize the internal arts. But I also think that you’re right that the stories can be inspiring. For example, the Qingong master that Sigung Ho learned from. Could he really jump onto a 10 foot wall and land on one leg? None of us were there to see it, so we’ll never know. But I like to believe that such things are possible. After all, it was once “impossible” to run a 4-minute miles — until someone did it.

      • Matt Fenton March 27, 2014 at 3:35 pm #

        Thanks for the reply!

        With regards to an optimal ratio, I am certainly healthier, happier, stronger, and more spiritual since beginning Chi Kung and internal martial arts. Before learning from Sifu, I was an avid gym go-er and weight lifter. After learning from Sifu, I decided to give up that rigorous training and focus on Chi Kung. What I lost in fitness, I gained in overall health, and my strength wasn’t effected all that much. But I was also working a pretty physical construction job.

        In the last two years, my job has transitioned into a more sedentary office job. This past winter has been really bad, and obviously too sedentary. Not only has it affected my fitness, health, and happiness, but the extreme lack of external exercise/work is also seeming to affect my Chi Kung in a negative way (causing a low desire/urge to practice).

        So, I’ve experienced how internal practice benefits the external, and how too little external can be a detriment to the internal. This is why I’ve been thinking that there must be an ideal ratio of external and internal. Though, like you said, it might be tough to measure and nail down.

  7. Cassie March 27, 2014 at 2:42 pm #

    I found this very interesting as well as helpful. And would love to see (or read) more on this subject!

  8. Quinn Hale March 27, 2014 at 11:04 pm #

    Sifu, great writing as usual. I’d like to add my own experiences to this discussion.

    I have had many encounters with internal strength over the last 5 years. My current teacher treats these moments as so matter of fact that it becomes difficult for me at times to discuss it with others.

    My first month of training with Liang, Guang he demonstrated a particular Lung Ying punch called “Chung Choi”(please excuse my poor romanization). He stopped his fist just shy of my nose and the room started spinning. Right before I fell over he grabbed me and shoved his thumbnail into my upper lip resulting in the immediate normalization of reality. He did this to me several more times over the next year but expected me to fix the spinning on my own. His explanation was simply, “internal power”.

    It confused me for quite a while when he would yell at me, “No Power! Do again. Fang Song, FANG SONG!” So I would punch harder and he would shake his head and throw me in the corner to practice for the next 90 minutes alone.

    Once during a rare story telling mood he explained to me how he was able to see inside his brain during small circulation. It got me thinking differently about what internal strength really was.

    I’ve felt the electrical charge a bunch of times and can energize my palms and in between my eyes very quickly but an important moment for me came late last year.

    I asked my teacher about feeling other people’s qi. He began rotating his arms in a circular motion and told me to do the same. He then started walking backwards saying, “I feel your Qi, I feel your Qi over here too, and I still feel your Qi”. He described being connected and that distance was of no concern because of this. He told me to feel his Qi with my palms in the same manner but to close my eyes. As my hands waved around in front of me I could feel a, “speed bump” kind of sensation when passing over him from a distance. I verified this over and over for nearly 5 minutes by opening my eyes after homing in on the feeling and sure enough he would be standing there. I also asked him how he was able to move around the room so quickly and remain silent. He just smiled and told me to show him my Tai Chi 48.

    It seems to me that the modern concept of quantum physics comes closest to legitimizing internal strength. Interestingly enough it’s our ability to reason that prevents us from achieving the unbelievable.

    What I know for sure is that before I walked into your class for the first time the idea of hope and believing in great things had been buried deep in my depression, and darkness was all that I knew. Trusting in my personal experiences has enabled me to do and feel things that I never was able to before. It seems as though internal strength is a pretty good measuring stick for quality of life.

    I would love to read more about this from you Sifu. As a side note, Dr. Yang is also a very good writer. I’ve enjoyed and own a couple of his books.

  9. Shannon G March 28, 2014 at 3:45 am #

    So fun to watch!

    My dad shared with me the proverb that *anyone* can break seven bricks, but it takes a master to break *just* the third one. It’s a proverb.

    Disintegrating just the second brick applies regardless. I’m just saying, Oh! you’re wearing armor?! Then this *probably* won’t hurt a bit…

    Earlier tonight, I was explaining that the ridiculous simplicity of how qi gong is a martial art is misunderstanding how years of practice of loose, smooth, relaxed flow can simply be, well, sped up. and applied with alacrity!

    It is a joy to watch your ‘flowing zen’ at work, Sifu Anthony!

  10. David March 28, 2014 at 8:25 am #

    I think this is a very interesting topic and would like to hear more about it. In response to your questions, the descriptions made very little sense to me.

  11. Charles N March 28, 2014 at 11:31 am #

    the water with
    no sun glint – beside
    forgotten temples

  12. Jacek Kaleta March 28, 2014 at 11:53 am #

    Thank you Anthony Sipak for another informative post.

    And definitely yes, I would be interested in reading more about Internal Strength.

    I’m not a martial artist, so I’m particularly interested to find out more the mental, emotional, and spiritual manifestations of internal strength.

    With best wishes

  13. Sebastien March 28, 2014 at 12:28 pm #

    I’m definitely very interested in that. Especially on how to train this strength. While I’ve been doing different martial arts for more than 10 years, I feel like internal strength is more important. It seems to be part of the will, of the focus, and simply the energy flowing through the body and mind.
    Thanks or the article. I’m eager to learn more. 🙂

  14. Del Rodriguez March 29, 2014 at 1:14 pm #

    Another great article, Sipak. Please follow this up with another one discussing this more in depth with training methods. I, for one, never tire of researching this subject!

  15. Jeff Morgan April 6, 2014 at 2:50 pm #

    Great write up Sifu! I think you do a brilliant job trying to define something that not only eludes people conceptually but physically as well. My current working interpretation of internal strength is a type of exceptional coordination that takes years of diligent practice to manifest. Anyways, can’t wait to here more of your thoughts on the matter.

  16. Malini April 22, 2014 at 1:57 pm #

    Situ, I have greatly appreciated your inputs and this one is no exception. I practice internal and external strength qigong and I feel the qi somehow achieves a subtle and quietly powerful balance by itself if I surrender to it. I can feel a kind of disharmony when I expect an achievement of a level. As I do healing work, bowing my head to qi keeps me very peaceful happy and strong. Please do tell me more of your wisdom. I am 78 by the way. Regards,

  17. Cleat C Roberts April 23, 2014 at 8:07 am #

    I once played push hands with a fella who I wasn’t able to even budge. He would stand there and I would just push and push on him. He said it had to do with his Chi and his horse stance.

    I also played push hands once with a Tai Chi teacher and his arms felt as heavy as cinder blocks. But, he could move them as fast as he could.

    So that’s what I think of when I think of Chi manifest.

  18. sue Harvey April 27, 2014 at 9:27 am #

    A for sure yes!! I have been Tai Chi playing for only a year & a half now, and want to further my studies. Thank you Sifu for your insights as always! !!

  19. Maru June 12, 2014 at 11:25 am #

    Thank you very much for the article. Build more Internal strenght is one of the main aims of my practice this days. So i would love to read more about it. Specially of course, how can i train better in order to achieve my goal.

    Thank’s again for sharing!!

  20. Terence June 15, 2014 at 6:59 am #

    I’ve read before of this killing a horse with a pat on the back. Anyone who’d abuse an animal, or kill it to demonstrate ‘strength’, is clearly lacking in basic compassion and has an abusive, imbalanced nature. Nothing strong about it.

    • Sifu Anthony Korahais June 16, 2014 at 11:21 am #

      Hi Terence.

      I understand where you’re coming from regarding the story about the horse. I felt the same way when I first heard it. But I think we have to be careful about making sweeping moral judgments like that.

      Gu Ru Zhang (the master who killed the horse) lived in a different culture, in a very different time. Honor was much more important then. Killing a horse to defend the honor of the Chinese people might not seem righteous today, but I’m pretty sure that he saw it that way.

      By the way, the horse itself was being used to hurt and maim humans. As I understand the story, a Russian man was parading the horse around China while calling the Chinese people weak and sickly. “You can’t even beat up my horse,” he would say (or something similar). Several Chinese people challenged him (and the horse), but lost.

      Gu Ru Zhang eventually stopped the man, and the horse, with his famous “tap”.

  21. tagore June 5, 2015 at 3:13 am #

    One needs a right master(guru or sifu) to be initiated, otherwise they can’t achieve these powers.

  22. Tom Judge May 7, 2016 at 8:47 am #

    Thank you Sifu, my thoughts on internal strength go back to a young age when my Father told me most men have only learned to use less than 10% of the mental power our creator gave all of us. I look forward with great anticipation to all your wisdom.
    Tom J.

  23. Stan May 17, 2017 at 9:44 pm #

    Years ago I studied Kateda. The focus there was on central power, or the ability to focus your energy and harden for striking or being struck.

    My feeling is that Qi, our life energy is the charger that Ignited and works in conjunction with the other systems. Perhaps it adds charge or additional power to the cells being used. Just a random thought. Would love a discussion on this whole subject.

  24. Ray MorneauRay Morneau June 23, 2017 at 7:08 pm #

    I’m just a newbie here trying to soak up as much understanding as I can from your immense knowledge which you are sharing in such well-crafted articles – I know I’ve got so much to learn in the next 30-50 years – I’m interested in how all these mind-boggling facets of Qi fit together. Thank you for sharing your wisdom, Sifu!!! Namaste!

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