I’ll just come out and say it: Internal strength is real.
Of course, it looks nothing like what’s in the picture above! Come on now, people! Life isn’t a video game!
My mission is to help bring Qigong and Tai Chi into the 21st century. This includes helping people to separate fact from fantasy.
When it comes to fantasy, there’s nothing like the topic of internal strength (nèi jìn, 內勁) to stir people’s imagination.
In an earlier article, I introduced the concept of internal strength. If you haven’t read that article, then I recommend that you do.
But relax — you can read this one first.
The Importance of Direct Experience
In this article, I’m going to stick to things that I have personally experienced. I’ve heard stories that are far more fantastic than anything I’ll discuss in this article.
Although those stories come from people that I trust, I’d like to leave them out of the discussion simply because they are not first-hand accounts.
I’ve been cultivating internal strength for over 2 decades. My own experiences give us plenty to talk about without needing to delve into the realm of hearsay.
As we move into the 21st century, I think it would be wise for us to stick to things that we have seen or experience personally.
This doesn’t mean that you should only believe in things you’ve seen or felt. For example, I personally believe that some feats are possible even though I haven’t witnessed them (yet!).
This is the delicate balance of being a healthy skeptic. Investigate things, but remain open minded.
So let’s get started. Here are some of the things that I’ve personally experienced.
Experience #1: Vibrating Arms and Fingers
When I practice a Kung Fu form (especially Tai Chi forms), my arms and fingers start to vibrate. The same thing happens when I practice martial qigong exercises like One Finger Zen.
I’ll be the first to admit that the phenomenon is a bit odd. It looks as if I’m tensing my arms so hard that they are shaking.
But I’m not tensing. The vibration definitely doesn’t come from isometrics. My arms remain soft when this happens.
How to NOT Develop Internal Strength
In my Karate days, I learned a famous exercise called Sanchin Kata. I learned different variations from several different teachers.
In all cases, I was taught to tense the arms until they started vibrating. I was also taught to use a specific kind of forceful breathing. Here’s an example by a famous Grandmaster of the style of Karate that I practiced:
It’s not politically correct for me to say this, but I honestly believe that this kind of training is incorrect — assuming that the goal is to develop internal strength.
Why is it incorrect? Because it breaks all of the principles of internal training! Tense muscles and forceful breathing are NOT the way to internal strength.
Before I go on, let me be absolutely clear that one can be powerful without internal strength. There are plenty of tough Karateka who have done tons of external training and are incredibly strong and powerful.
I wouldn’t want to fight them. (But if I had to fight them, I’d be glad to have internal strength on my side. And perhaps also a sword.)
From China to Okinawa
For years, I’ve thought about how Sanchin Kata probably developed. Here’s my theory.
The ancient Okinawan Karate masters originally learned their skills in China. But there was a language barrier as well as a culture barrier between China and Okinawa (an island close to China that now belongs to Japan).
The Chinese masters, while demonstrating their Kung Fu skills, probably demonstrated the vibration of internal strength that I described above. And the Okinawan Karate masters, trying to be good students, simply copied the vibration. Because of the language and cultural barriers, the Chinese masters didn’t correct this mistake.
It’s also possible that the Chinese masters were doing it wrong. Perhaps they had already been doing it wrongly for many years. We’ll never know.
Either way, the problem is the same. If you try to force the vibration, you’ll never develop internal strength. Not ever. Not in 10 years. Not in 100 years.
If you tense the muscles and force the breathing, you block the flow of Qi, and thus block the development of internal strength. You can be powerful, but that power won’t come from internal strength.
What good is this vibration? Well, I believe it plays a part in Experience #2.
Experience #2: Hitting Like a Heavyweight
I’m not a big guy. I’m not even a medium guy.
If you’ve ever wondered who buys clothing in “small”, that’s me. I’m 5’7″ on a very good day, and I currently weigh about 145 pounds. (Fun fact: Al Pacino is almost exactly the same size as me.)
In boxing, I would be in the welterweight class. Nevertheless, I hit surprisingly hard.
As a sparring partner once put it, “You hit like a heavyweight!”
I know I hit hard — harder than most people my size. I’m just not sure how I do it!
The Physics of Punching
Here’s my theory on why I’m able to hit so hard. First, let’s analyze why a heavyweight boxer hits so hard.
If I remember my physics formulas correctly, Force = Mass x Acceleration (F=MA).
In other words, heavyweight boxers have more forceful punches because there is more mass (M) behind the punch.
But that’s only part of the story. How much mass is delivered via a punch also depends on how connected that punching arm is to the body, and also the ground.
By “connected” I mean this: If you don’t have your weight behind your punch, then you’re only punching with the mass of your arm instead of the mass of your body.
But punching is not efficient. All punches have “leaks” where power is lost.
For example, the fist itself compresses on impact, dissipating some of the power. Similarly, if the puncher’s body “gives” a bit during the punch, more power will be lost.
The Relaxed Punch
Those of us with internal strength are still bound by the same laws of physics, but our power generation is nonetheless different. Whereas boxing uses tension to create force, I use relaxation.
A boxer can only relax so much during a punch or else he (or she) will lose that connection that I talked about earlier. In other words, they need to tense their muscles enough that they are still punching with their entire body, and not just their arm.
But with arts like Tai Chi, we learn to connect the arm without tension. We connect the arm to the waist, and then to the legs and the ground — all of this using Qi (or energy). Actually, it’s the other way around — the power comes from the ground, through the waist (or the hips) and then out the arms. But you get the idea.
The type of body connection or integration that Tai Chi practitioners can get is downright foreign to those who are used to arts like boxing. We achieve the same effect of connecting the arm to the body as boxers, but without the tension.
Because we don’t use tension, we’re also able to punch faster. In the physics equation above, don’t forget about the acceleration part. It’s the combination of BOTH mass and speed that creates force.
In other words, I hit so hard because I’m more connected, and because I’m using my speed and my mass more efficiently.
Experience #3: The Bottom Brick
When I first heard one of my teachers talking about breaking the bottom brick, I thought he was joking. It sounded like something out of a Van Damme movie.
But he was dead serious.
As is my way — I decided to test it out. I placed a brick on top of two other bricks, the way I would normally place them if I were going to break a brick (which I had already done in my Karate days). Then I placed another brick on top of the first brick.
So there were 2 bricks back-to-back, with no space between them.
Then I hit the top brick, trying to break the bottom one.
How To Break Your Hand With A Brick
I almost broke my hand. For those who have tried to break bricks, you know that, if you do it wrong, it hurts like hell.
This hurt worse than that.
Being genetically predisposed to high levels of stubbornness, I did the most natural thing I could think of: I tried again with my other hand.
I walked away with two bruised hands, a bruised ego, and a fascination with the challenge of breaking the bottom brick.
For about a year, I kept trying on and off. I never succeeded. I broke the top brick a few times. And one time, I broke both bricks.
But the bottom brick eluded me.
The Art of Cosmos Palm
Around the same time, I started practicing an art called Cosmos Palm.
If you’ve heard of Iron Palm (where you condition the hand by striking it into bags filled with beans, then rocks, and finally iron shot) then think of Cosmos Palm as the internal version. There’s no external conditioning, but the end result is a powerful palm. (The method involves a lot of time practicing a Qigong exercise called Pushing Mountains, see picture below.)
So one day, after doing my Cosmos Palm training, I tried to break the bottom brick. Honestly, I expected the usual hand-numbing experience.
But this time, something else happened. The bottom brick broke!
I thought it was a fluke, or a bad brick. So I tried again. I messed something up, and hurt my hand again. But then, because I’m stubborn, I tried my left. Success again!
Here’s a video of me breaking the bottom brick in Malaysia circa 2008:
Note that my classmates, who weren’t able to break the bottom brick, still showed decent breaks nonetheless, especially since none of them do any external conditioning.
So How Does It Work?
My best guess is that this has to do with the level of connection that I talked about in Experience #2. My palm is more connected to my body via the Qi. But’s more than this.
The Qi also seems to protect my hand, and make it more resilient. It’s not the same as Iron Palm, but there’s definitely a hardening effect.
How does it work? I honestly don’t know.
But I know that our hands aren’t as solid as we would like to believe. Our hands are made of protons, neutrons, and electrons, spinning and vibrating. And those are made of quarks.
What gives things solidity is, in the end, just energy.
If you have comments or theories to add to my own, then please do so in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you! From the heart, Sifu Anthony