Training Smarter, Not Harder

Unabridged and expanded article originally published as Train Smart: A Taoist Prescription For Middle-Aged Martial Artists Who Refuse to Quit Kicking and Punching in Black Belt magazine, August 2002.
    .. after I left Japan I studied Shorin-ryu karate for two years in Naha, Okinawa. I kept up my studies for a while and I am now a 4th Dan black belt. I stopped practicing [Shorin-ryu karate] now because it is too hard on my body.
Sam Tendencia
Filipino Martial Culture
September 1997

    Hard styles [such as goju or shotokan karate] can be practiced up to age 40 or 50, after which the soft styles are more productive.

Ron Van Clief
Black Belt magazine
August 1999

    Do some kung fu styles have an expiration date that brands them as being unsuitable for study after a certain age? In short, the answer is yes.

Jon Funk
Black Belt magazine
August 1999

Letter 'D' 24 pturing our walk down the martial path we will all find ourselves moving through periods where we can no longer rely on what worked for us before. That head-high kick simply gets harder and harder to deliver effectively. The power in that once-awesome reverse punch seems to slip, regardless of how much time we invest in practice. Decreases in physical agility, whether through injury or the inevitable aging process will, as a matter of necessity, force us to adjust and alter our training, study, and practice. How does the lifelong martial artist deal with this?

Faced with reduced, diminished or decreasing physical agility (speed, power, strength, and so on), many cease to train altogether.1 Others seek out alternative methods of training.2 Please note that I say "alternative" here with absolutely no hint of settling for second best (although many — myself included — enter this phase in their journey with just that feeling). The fact is that these alternatives often prove themselves far superior to the methods we practiced before. This is because the methods we followed in our early days were, relatively speaking, simpler and easier to assimilate — which is precisely why they are taught first).

Lacking a depth of experience that comes only with time, beginning practitioners are capable of digesting only small amounts of all that the martial arts offer (and believe me, they offer far more than most of us realize). Still, even at that early level, we enjoy what we learn, develop skill in it, and perfect that skill to the best of our abilities. However, because everyone else in our peer group is practicing and playing (or competing) with basically the same tools, there is little incentive to try anything else. Enter injury and aging.
From Lemons To Lemonade

  Although viewed as rusty, jagged edges of the same cursed double-edged sword, injuries and aging are really our allies, not our enemies. I admit it, I hate those nagging injuries that keep me from reaching higher levels of physical skill as much as the next person (and I have had my share of them). I feel the same about aging, and I still fight it tooth and nail (I am definitely not aging gracefully), but I am, at least, at this point in my martial art training, beginning to taste and appreciate lemonade.

What do I mean? Well, there's an expression that goes something like this: "When you're stuck with lemons, you can either put on a sour face, or you can make lemonade."

Here then, are our lemons: 1) If you train seriously, injuries are inescapable. 2) If you breathe, aging is inevitable. Since no one likes a sourpuss (hopefully you don't like yourself when you wear one), then you might as well try to make lemonade from your lemons. Let's look at one very old Chinese martial art recipe for lemonade.
Chinese Lemonade: The Traditional Taoist Recipe
Although there are literally hundreds of Chinese martial art systems and styles, all of them spring from one of two traditions: Buddhist (more widely recognized as Shaolin) and Taoist. Of the two, the Shaolin family tree has, shall we say, the larger number of distinguishable branches, variants, systems or styles. Divided many times (northern and southern, grappling and striking, and so on), Shaolin arts have numerous recognizable names, including Praying Mantis, White Crane, Hung Gar, Wing Chun, etc. Taoist martial arts, on the other hand, number only three: Xing-yi, Ba-gua, and Taijiquan.
Among traditional Taoist martial art practitioners there are those who hold that the best course of study for self-defense is to begin with Xing-yi, intern in Ba-gua, and finally graduate with an advanced degree in Taijiquan. Not everyone subscribes to this style- or art-switching progression, believing that each art has all the necessary elements and that most people end up sticking with their discipline rather than switching with age. But even among those who invest themselves in only one of these arts, there often exists a similar, albeit less obvious, progression within that art.

The late Jou Tsung Hwa, a respected and renowned taiji master, believed that taiji is, itself, divided into at least three phases.3 He believed that the three major taiji systems, Chen, Yang, and Wu, are actually best taught in a progression because they build on and complement one another.4 As he saw it, Chen style (the oldest known taiji system and one that bears marked similarities to xing-yi) should be learned first, since it is half yang and half yin (half hard, half soft). Chen should be followed with Yang style (the most popular form and the one that most folks recognize as taiji) which is 75-percent soft. Finally, one should take up Wu style, which is considered the most internal of the three with the smallest, most subtle movements of the major taiji systems. Similar progressions are likely found in many arts (not just Taoist martial arts).

The progression (from xing-yi to ba-gua to taiji) runs counter to common Western experience where taiji (by itself) is most often pursued strictly for its health benefits rather than its martial potential. Unfortunately, this leads to some erroneous conclusions about the effectiveness of taiji as a means of self-defense. That aside, there remains something notable about this Taoist progression: it closely parallels and complements the practitioner as he grows, ages, and, simultaneously, matures his practice of the arts.

Before we explore this martial progression, allow me this brief disclaimer. I am not expert in these Taoist arts. My opinions are broad, general, and based largely on personal observation, available literature, and personal martial art study and experience. That said, let's begin with a short description of each of art, highlighting some of their general characteristics.

The most linear of the three arts, xing-yi frequently has the practitioner advancing in a straight line, turning, and advancing again. Strength is opposed mainly by strength, and this style's rapid-fire punches remind us of modern wing chun. Granted, this is the grossest generalization. There is much that we can say to mitigate and expand on some of these impressions, but these are accurate as far as they go and, as such, they are useful for this discussion. Xing-yi, then, is rigorous, conditioning, strengthening, and especially effective when one has the speed and strength of youth.

Technically more precise, sophisticated,and smoother than xing-yi, ba-gua requires — no demands — less effort and strength of the practitioner to be effective. (My apologies in advance to any xing-yi players whom my words may offend; 'tis not my intention to do so. Many xing-yi practitioners invest their lives in their art and are as formidable in their skill as they are polished in their movement.) Where xing-yi is more linear in approach, ba-gua is circular. Xing-yi and ba-gua are extremely effective fighting arts in and of themselves, and many practitioners spend their entire lives studying and refining their skills in just one of them. However, it is when one works through xing-yi and progresses well into ba-gua, that his combat effectiveness soars. Howard Reid and Michael Croucher, in The Way of the Warrior, quote Master Hung I-hsiang as he describes ba-gua:

    In ba-gua, the emphasis is on tricks and subtle evasive action. Unlike xing-yi, it does not require one to face the opponent directly. In xing-yi, 1,000 kilos of strength is met with 1,000 kilos. In ba-gua, one tries to move in circles to avoid direct confrontation, thereby permitting one to deflect and overturn 1,000 kilos of strength with only 100 grams. Xing-yi is direct and linear, ba-gua is indirect and circular. Tai-chi works in all directions. (Reid & Croucher, 101)

Taiji represents the crème de la crème of the Taoist martial arts. As the last step in a progressive training program, it demands still less effort and strength on the part of the practitioner, for the physical conditioning and toughening of xing-yi has paved the way for the technical excellence developed in ba-gua which, itself, now yields to a complete blending with your opponent so perfect that his energy and effort only serve his own self-destructive tendencies, practically causing him to injure himself. (I like to say that taiji meets 1,000 kilos of strength with just 10 grammes.)

Natural Progression
Armed with a general understanding of xing-yi, ba-gua, and taiji, we can now draw a parallel between this traditional Taoist progression and lifelong martial art training and study. Besides providing an effective method of self-defense for the practitioner, xing-yi serves to condition, toughen, and prepare the younger student (younger meaning less than middle age). With youthful vigor and strength, the xing-yi player is more than capable of fighting fire with fire — facing force with force. But as the practitioner enters middle age, old injuries take their toll, and, frankly, strength begins to wane. This is true for every martial artist, no matter what his art of choice. No amount of additional or rigorous training can overcome the injury-imposed limitations or halt the relentless decline. What were once punishing blows and blocks now become painful, even harmful, to the practitioner. Techniques that were possible before injury touched your neck, back, or knees are now impractical (if not impossible). Recovery times lengthen dramatically, and decreased stamina makes prolonged conflict even less desirable. This stage is the first point of discouragement, and many martial artists simply acquiesce here and cease training altogether. However, this is really unnecessary, and Taoist arts show us how we can adjust.

Moving into ba-gua, the seasoned xing-yi player learns new methods that enhance his technical skill, allowing him to overcome an adversary using sophisticated, largely circular movements, in place of raw natural speed and strength. This progression can be applied to whatever martial art one may study. Challenged once more — and this is extremely important — the martial artist finds that there is still more to learn (humans, for the most part, love learning). Equally important, the need for self-defense is still satisfied (there is no settling for second best here). Now, however, the training (and fighting) progresses without the collateral damage to yourself. All of this is unthinkable, if not impossible, for the younger practitioner, for he has neither developed sufficiently in the basics, nor does he possess the necessary wisdom of years to see the need to try something else. The likes of Billy Blanks
and his Tae Bo cardio
fitness program —
strong and in great
shape almost despite
their years — will likely
not pursue different
avenues until pain
overrules any gain
received from their
current training methods.

The likes of Billy Blanks and his Tae Bo cardio fitness program — strong and in great shape almost despite their years — will likely not pursue different avenues until pain overrules any gain received from their current training methods. But even the seasoned practitioner cannot remain forever in this "middle-age" category, for time marches on. This brings the Taoist practitioner to taijiquan — the grand ultimate fist.

In advanced years (those beyond middle age), even hard-style practitioners find their arts' focus and training methods "softening." Whether by conscious decision or subconscious evolution, eventually the practitioner's body resists repeated "hard" training. For example, those who have witnessed the development of tang soo do from its early years to the present day tell us that the material and methods that were part of the founder's curriculum have changed with every decade of his life, softening considerably in later years. In this vein, taiji offers the grand, ultimate destination in the Taoist progression for the senior, experienced practitioner. Although less virile in appearance, the taiji master whose training has spanned xing-yi, ba-gua, and taijiquan will seldom be challenged successfully. He remains a formidable player, largely because his skill is based on a natural progression and on the years of experience that such a progression demands.

Lifelong Study
Even if you do not study Taoist martial arts (and most who study martial arts for self-defense in the United States do not), such a progression is still possible. You see, the specific arts we study are much less important than their training philosophy, methods, and principles of combat. You can substitute any number of hard style arts for xing-yi, for instance. Likewise, there are many arts from China and Southeast Asia that can stand in quite nicely for ba-gua. What is important here is our willingness to embrace the changes forced on us by injury and aging, not merely accept their consequences. If that means switching arts to learn new principles, then do it (moving from xing-yi to ba-gua is no less significant a change). As an example, I have a good friend, Chip Van Wert, who trained in Wado-ryu karate, holds a black belt in aikido, and now studies Chen-style taiji.

I said at the start that seeking "alternative" methods of training is not settling for second best, and that injury and aging need not be our enemies and can actually be our allies. I mean that. Believe it or not, at 60+, my technique is much, much more effective now than it was when I was younger and physically stronger. Obviously, 40-plus years of dedicated training has a lot to do with this, but, more importantly, my physical strength no longer hampers my ability to relax through my movement — and relaxation is the key that unlocks speed and power. Despite not being as strong as I was decades ago, I am, nevertheless, significantly faster. I hit harder than ever, but without the effort AND without the damage to myself. I would never have realized such a level of improvement had my body remained whole and my strength as it was 30 years ago. The transition I experienced was also possible because the arts I study are completely amenable to "softer" execution of their movements and techniques. In fact, beyond beginner level, every technique and principle of movement in the arts I study actually improves in efficiency when executed with less strength. And therein lies a problem. How do you train to use "less strength" in an endeavor that may someday be needed to save your life? Less strength and relaxed execution seem counterintuitive when when you're learning potentially life-saving skills.

Good News In Black Envelopes
There is no easy answer to the question "How do you train to use 'less strength' in an endeavor that may someday be needed to save your life?" (but then, nothing that is worth anything is ever easy). I guess the best advise is to keep reminding yourself, "Train smarter, not harder." Listen to your body. As martial artists, we're supposed to be in tune with our bodies. OK then, listen. When you find that meeting 1,000 pounds of force with 1,000 pounds begins getting harder and harder and the effort to do so greater and greater, then step back and reevaluate your training. If your art's answer is to train still harder, then seriously consider looking elsewhere. I have many tae kwon do friends, for example, who, after decades in that art, now augment their training with taiji (not just for health, mind you, although their taiji training is clearly beneficial there, but for continued growth and improvement in their martial skills).
  Black Envelopes
For some of us, our own discipline and determination prevent our looking elsewhere. We try harder (not smarter) until something breaks. Only then do we look elsewhere. I know. (Been there; done that.) A bad back and subsequent operation, for example, forced me to lower my kicking (Why else would I? I was a good kicker). But instead of settling for less, I found that kicking low (for example, kicking the legs) was not only a much more effective method defense in a fight, but much more challenging to learn to do correctly and effectively than I'd previously thought. Moreover, as arthritis made punching "hard" targets more painful, my recognition of the greater vulnerability of other targets, such as joints and limbs, soared. Likewise, my appreciation for my other weapons (knees, elbows, and open hands) grew significantly. Today, my impact, speed, and precision (accurately striking the target) is much, much better than it ever was when I was younger — and I gained all of that without sacrificing any ability to defend myself.

Fortunately (or unfortunately), the nature of this article requires a perspective that only age and experience bring. Whether you see the necessary perspective as fortunate or unfortunate may foretell how you, as a martial artist, will continue to grow in the arts as your injury toll and chronological age increase and your physical abilities register a corresponding decrease. Even if you are still young and vigorous, this article applies to you, for it is a harbinger of things to come. Heed it, and your knowledge, skill, and pleasure in the arts will continue for many, many years. Skip it, and enjoy to the fullest the few youthful years you have left, for they will be brief.


  1. Obviously, there are some injuries that are so serious as to render further martial art training and study completely impractical. [Return to reference point]
  2. Of those pursuing alternative training methods, the most successful are those whose motivation for training and study is either self-defense or cultural pursuit (martial ways). Obviously, self-defense is a much stronger motivator than training for sport. Martial arts also offer many more venues than do sport. Likewise, martial ways offer a great number of venues for continued study, although without the self-defense focus. [Return to reference point]
  3. Master Jou's opinion was shared in a conversation with Mr. Glenn Smits, a tae kwon do 7th degree black belt and one of Master Jou's taiji students. [Return to reference point]
  4. There are those who hold that hold that taiji consists of four or even five major styles. Chronologically listed from oldest to youngest they are: Chen style, developed in the 1670s by Chen Wangting; Yang style, created by Yang Luchan (1799-1872); Wu style created by Wu Yuxiang (1812-1880); Hoa style — Wu style as passed from Wu Yuxiang to and developed by Hoa Weizheng (1849-1920); and Sun style (the youngest of the major styles created by Sun Lu-tang (1861-1932). Inside Kung-Fu, Dr. Paul Lam, September 1999, p104, 106. [Return to reference point]
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Last update:  Aug. 6, 2016
by Bob Orlando
Web Site of Bob Orlando: Instructor in Kuntao-Silat (Chinese kuntao and Dutch-Indonesian pukulan pentjak silat), author of two popular martial art books: "Indonesian Fighting Fundamentals" and "Martial Arts America: A Western Approach to Eastern Arts"; and producer of four martial art videos: Fighting Arts of Indonesia, Reflex Action, Fighting Footwork of Kuntao and Silat, Fighting Forms of Kuntao-Silat. Offering practical martial arts instruction to adults living in and throughout the Denver metropolitan area including, Lakewood, Littleton, Morrison, and Golden Colorado.