What are the differences between ‘internal’ and ‘external’ methods of training?

The most significant difference between internal and external training methods lies in the result that is achieved. Put in in its most simplistic form; internal methods build energy (Chi) whilst external methods build muscular strength (Li). The four principle martial arts categorised as internal are Tai Chi Chuan, Hsing Yi Chuan, Ba Gua Zhang and Yi Chuan. Martial arts categorised as external include Boxing, Kick Boxing, Karate, Ju Jitsu, Taekwondo, Judo, and any art which places physical athleticism over internal energy cultivation. A third category can be defined as internal/external which encompasses elements of both. Martial arts categorised as internal/ external would include Wing Chun, Mantis Kung Fu, Aikido, Krav Maga and Systema.

Although different styles have been placed into distinct and opposing categories it would be wrong to suggest that any are purely internal or external. No martial art or training method can be 100% internal or external; there must be a certain amount of muscular strength (Li) exerted to build Chi and there must be a certain amount of Chi present to build muscular strength. Because of this there are in fact external factors contained within internal training methods and vice versa, the amount ranging anywhere between 1% and 99%. Because all training methods incorporate both internal and external principles no one martial art can be categorised 100% as either internal or external.

Tai Chi Chuan, Hsing Yi Chuan, Ba Gua Zhang and Yi Chuan have all traditionally categorised as internal martial arts. However, all three can be practiced in external ways if their internal theories and training methods are ignored. The migration of these arts from China, coupled with Western methods of learning (expectation to achieve rapid results in a short time) have contributed towards the loss of internal principles which have formed the core of these arts for hundreds of years. It has even become common to see this loss within China itself; attributed to the rapid progress in modernisation over the last thirty years which has developed a cultural shift in consciousness and teaching methods., When internal principles are lost, so too are the attributes of Chi cultivation, mindset, intent and power; vital and necessary elements for combat. Instead emphasis is directed towards external movement which builds muscular strength. It is common to see whole Tai Chi schools who train these external methods well but have lost their internal principles and the ability to use this art as a practical fighting system. Hsing Yi has also been altered by many schools where forms have lost internal power in favour of hard physical strength. Ba Gua, when taught externally, focusses on isolated physical suppleness instead of whole body movement from centre. Yi Chuan is the least altered of these four internal styles; largely due to its obscurity in the West and its primary focus on internal training methods. However, Yi Chuan has been gaining increasing attention in recent years and due to this only time will tell if Yi Chuan also suffers the same loss of internal principles. With this in mind it is not so much the martial art which is either more internal or external but the manner in which the martial art is taught and trained. For instance, there are practitioners of Boxing, Karate and other ‘external’ styles which have developed their style through incorporating internal principles. If knowledge is gained of both internal and external principles, either can be incorporated into different training methods to produce interesting results.

It would be useful to first compare and contrast traditional internal and external training methods that achieve similar goals before analysing specific internal and external exercises in detail:



Internal: Power is created through the cultivation and expulsion of Chi, relaxation, intent, movement from centre (Dan Tien) and correct body mechanics.

External: Power is created through the contracting and expanding of the muscles to produce muscular strength along with speed for added momentum.



Internal: Speed is produced from relaxation and movement from centre. Internal speed can be slower A-B than external speed but because movements are not telegraphed they are more difficult to detect until it is too late.

External: Speed is produced from repeated training of fast A – B movement which relies on contraction and expansion of the muscles. External speed is innate and because of this most training methods only produce minimal results.



Internal: Grounding is produced from relaxing the entire body and allowing the weight to sink naturally, becoming heavy and immovable.

External: Grounding is achieved from a mixture of body weight and raw muscular strength.



Internal: Skills are trained using natural instinctive movement which resides in the here and now and are able to change and adapt instantly towards the situation as it unfolds. The mind is used to guide all movement.

External: Skills are trained using set drills and choreographed routines designed to confuse and out skill the opponent.



Internal: Strength is produced from whole body connection – the bones, tendons and postural muscle groups all working together – along with intent and the expulsion of Chi.

External: Strength is produced from body weight coupled with raw muscular strength from the contracting and expanding of the phasic muscle groups.



Internal: Endurance is maintained through relaxation and slowing the breathing and heart rate.

External: Endurance is maintained through increasing the heart rate to push the amount the body can take to greater limits.


Internal methods of training

Zhan Jong

Zhan Jong is the fundamental method of internal training which trains the whole body and mind. The contrast between this method of training and external methods is very distinct. In Zhan Jong the muscles and tissues of the body relax as opposed to external methods which develop tension. In Zhan Jong the breathing and heart rate lower to increase physical fitness as opposed to external methods which speed the breathing and heart rate to increase endurance. In Zhan Jong the mind clears all thought to be placed into a state of complete awareness and generate intent (necessary for fighting) as opposed to external methods of placing the mind into various ‘false’ states of being (psyching yourself up). Zhan Jong trains the whole body and mind as one complete entity as opposed to external methods which commonly isolate the body and mind. Zhan Jong trains stillness as opposed to external methods which work towards increasing movement.

Although Zhan Jong primarily trains internal principles, external principles are also trained alongside these. The muscles, sinews and joints of the body are given a work out and strengthened physically during Zhan Jong training. This strengthening, however, differs from external methods that build muscular strength through repeated expanding and contracting – which leads to chronic tension. Zhan Jong builds strength in the postural muscle groups which are responsible for supporting and holding the shape of the body and enables the body to move in connection to produce effortless power. External training builds strength in the phasic muscle groups which isolates body connection and leads to physical strength, not power. The postural muscles can be viewed as the core of the body’s muscle groups while the phasic muscles can be viewed as muscle groups that allow for isolated movement. Both are needed within daily movement. If you were to pick up a large and heavy object you would require strength from the whole body in a manner which was connected using the postural muscles. You would not need this skill, however, for making a cup of tea, or any task which requires more intricate and isolated movement; writing, driving, fixing things, etc.  If the postural muscles are trained and strengthened the phasic muscles can be conditioned to work harmoniously alongside them to produce both whole body connection and isolated movements when required. However, whole body connection cannot be achieved from simply training phasic muscles alone and will lead to the body and mind working as set of disjointed and isolated units instead of one connected entity.


Slow Movement Exercises

Slow movement exercises are common training methods within all internal arts to develop control over one’s movement. Internal arts train slowly so that movement at speed remains connected and effective. There is an old adage which says ‘you cannot truly move fast unless you can at first move slow’; i.e. ‘don’t run before you can walk’. The same is true for martial arts and in order to develop movement which is connected and effective at speed you must first develop these attributes when moving slowly. Moving slowly allows the mind to scan all of the subtle intricacies of the movement to ensure that the connection and timing of complex movements are executed effectively. This performs two functions. Firstly, repetition of movements and techniques and movements executed slowly leads to an internal muscle memory of the movement. After consistent practice the body will start to perform movements – where the mind was required to concentrate heavily at first – effortlessly and without much thought, freeing the mind for more mental and spiritual tasks at hand; fighting strategy, mindset and intent. Once movements can be executed well without thinking at slow speeds the speed can be increased over time to produce the same result at speed. Secondly, training slowly strengthens the body and weaknesses contained within movement. It is always more exhausting moving slowly than at speed (when first trained) because the entire postural muscle group receives a work out all at once. This strengthens this muscle group over, time becoming connected and effortless. Weak parts of the movement are also strengthened, such as the point where you lift your foot off the ground, thus balancing on one leg, or the moment where you put your foot down again. Training these weak parts of the movement slowly strengthens these weaknesses. This strengthening cannot be achieved through movement only trained at speed.

External arts rarely focus on training slow movement. Instead, external arts tend to focus much more on increasing speed instead. Whilst this can produce impressive results, the true intricacies of movement can never be explored or developed if only trained fast. Because of this, martial artists who only train at speed will never be able to realise the subtle complexities of efficient movement and will never be able to reach their full potential.


‘Entry’ Applications

Internal and external arts can apply different approaches to fighting exercises. Internal arts traditionally focus on training realistic applications and scenarios incorporating both attack and defence, training to defeat the opponent as swiftly and efficiently as possible. External arts traditionally train sparring as their principle method of fight training. Sparring may be useful for competition but is an unrealistic training method for facing a real fight. The set routines and strategies which are practiced in sparring fall apart in a real fight, which is most usually sudden, ferocious and unpredictable. The choreographed routines of external methods are designed to fit particular situations, namely a sporting competition where both opponents are evenly matched – in terms of size, weight, and generally in skills. What happens if that situation does not arise? Will you have the time to adapt and change tactics within an instance to win the fight? Chances are if you have spent all of your time training set routines you will not have the ability to adapt and improvise. Internal entry exercises are very different because they train mindset and intent in place of rehearsed routines. Mindset allows you to live in the present moment which provides the freedom to change and adapt as the situation unfolds. No two fights are ever the same and because of this an excellent sense of awareness in the present is necessary to act effectively and defeat the opponent. Intent governs this ability to act. Intent provides the decisive attitude to commit to your attack and the will defeat the opponent no matter what. Entry exercises (named this because you are gaining entry for an effective attack) are designed to develop these attributes and produce fighters who are able to adapt to and overcome changing and often adverse conditions. These real fighting skills cannot be achieved through rehearsed routines alone. This is not to say, however, that routines have no place within martial arts training. It would be unrealistic to expect beginners to jump straight into fighting exercises that are unpredictable, spontaneous and ferocious. Little would be learnt from this approach. In this respect certain routines should be trained and developed to produce the technical abilities which are necessary when encountering more realistic fighting exercises. Once these have been grasped the higher levels of developing mindset and intent can be trained under more realistic conditions.


External methods of training


Resistance Training

External arts place a great deal of emphasis on resistance training which generally includes punching bag work, pad work, resistance-based gym equipment and weight training. These training methods develop phasic muscle groups, raw physical strength and cardio-vascular fitness. Resistance training is very useful for keeping your body fit and strong and can be trained as part of any internal system alongside internal training methods. However, the main flaw of resistance training is that raw physical strength and fitness have a shelf life based on age and physical condition; they cannot be developed after a certain point without causing injury and/ or deterioration of the body. A man’s physical peak generally lasts between the ages of 25 and 35 years old. After the age of 35 the body generally slows down and cannot be dramatically improved through resistance training alone. This 10-year window is a very small window when one takes into consideration a whole lifespan and after the age of 35 it would be wise to incorporate more internal training that continues to improve the body with age. However, if you take advantage of this 10-year window to strengthen your body at its peak you can greatly improve your martial skills, adding strength and fitness to your range of assets.



Sparing is very different than entry. Entry trains fighting as realistically as possible. Strikes are thrown with the intent to stop (KO) the target and the practitioner trains to end the confrontation as quickly as possible. Entry is quick, intense and can look very messy to an untrained eye. Entry, however, is very realistic and practical. Sparing, on the other hand, is more akin to a sport or form of competition. Set routines and forms are generally practiced and there is a mentality of attack and step back, attack and step back, in a tit-for-tat cycle. Punches are usually pulled or held back and there is no real intent to end the confrontation decisively in one single attack. Sparing can look very impressive in the training room. However, few fights outside of the training room look so good or incorporate a sparing mentality. This is the decisive flaw with sparing; sparing training is rarely put to effective use in a real fighting situation. Sparing does, however, have a number of advantages; sparing trains the feeling of throwing shots and hitting a moving target. Sparing can also train the practitioner to take a shot and carry on with the fight. Sparing is also good for fitness and endurance. However, for real fight purposes sparing should be avoided in favour for entry as a more realistic and effective form of training.


To conclude, there are no definitive distinctions between internal and external martial arts or their training methods. The martial art itself cannot be classified as truly internal by itself or its heritage. It is the manner in which this martial art is taught – through a combination of training exercises, theory and philosophy – which determines whether or not it can be classed as internal or external. Hybridisation is also becoming a common occurrence amongst martial arts systems, which incorporate useful and effective practices from both the internal and external. Etheric Boxing is such a case and adopting hybridisation is a natural of increasing knowledge and moving the martial arts towards progressive heights. There is also no such thing as a purely internal or purely external training exercise as all exercises incorporate varying degrees of both elements within their practice; Li is fundamental to the development of Chi and vice versa. Instead of defining, categorising and comparing the internal and external it is much more productive to explore elements of both, learning their strengths and weaknesses, then applying this knowledge within your methods of training. This creates an environment where martial arts are able to continue to develop and move forwards and produces martial artists who possess unique skills and abilities. Adopting this method of approaching the internal and external keeps the martial arts alive.




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