According to T’ai Chi fans, T'ai Chi Ch’uan practice improves muscular strength, endurance, flexibility and cardiovascular fitness. But so does almost every other form of exercise. So what exactly is different about T'ai Chi? There are five important ways T'ai Chi is unique and beneficial.
T’ai Chi Develops Synergist Strength
While almost every workout promotes muscular strength, T'ai Chi practice specifically strengthens and develops the smaller "synergist" muscles. T'ai Chi practice also works the larger "prime mover" muscles but not to the same degree that other workouts do nor to the same degree that T'ai Chi works the smaller muscles. Here is the significance of this: on the one hand, T'ai Chi practitioners seem to get immensely strong legs without looking bulky or hyper oned. This is because synergist muscles are generally smaller and deeper than the large prime movers like the quadriceps and hamstrings. By contrast, most conventional workouts (i.e., weight lifting) work those larger muscles located right under the skin and therefore cause the hypertrophy that is so noticeable. Yet, although most conventional exercise strengthens large prime movers, it is the synergist muscles that are most often injured in both sports and household accidents. In other words, there may be more functional benefits (strength-wise) in T'ai Chi than in other conventional workouts.
T’ai Chi Enhances Balance and Coordination
One of the most highly touted benefits of T'ai Chi is improved balance and coordination. In fact, in 1995, the American Medical Association officially endorsed T'ai Chi as a recommended exercise for the elderly. Studies show that learning T'ai Chi reduced falling (the number one cause of serious morbidity among older Americans) by nearly 50 percent. Part of this benefit may be due to the phenomenon I just described - stronger synergists, the muscles which contribute to fine (versus gross) motor control. But it may also be due to the therapeutic effect T'ai Chi practice has on inner ear function. In T'ai Chi, the eyes are constantly following the movements of the hands as they circle and spiral, push, pull, grab and punch. This slow, controlled eye-to-hand coordination is actually a more advanced version of the techniques used to treat people with inner ear disorder, a common pathology that causes loss of balance, headaches and mood swings, among other things.
T’ai Chi Improves Aerobic Conditioning
T'ai Chi is an excellent cardiovascular workout. This is a claim that T'ai Chi practitioners have made for years but about which most fitness professionals were skeptical. Nevertheless, a variety of studies have showed that T'ai Chi improves circulation. For example, Johns Hopkins University published a study in 1995 that showed T'ai Chi was equally effective at lowering trait blood pressure as conventional aerobic exercise. But here's the significance: suppose your doctor recommends you exercise to lower your blood pressure. If you pursue conventional aerobics, then every workout raises heart rate and blood pressure temporarily. That's the nature of most workouts. But every T'ai Chi workout immediately slows down heart rate and lowers blood pressure. T'ai Chi practice, therefore, may be a safer, more functional approach.
Other researchers corroborate the Johns Hopkins study. An article published in the January/February 2007 edition of the Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing suggests that T’ai Chi practice – particularly the routines that take 25 minutes or more to perform – significantly improve cardiovascular function.
T’ai Chi Ch’uan is Easy to Modify for Special Populations
As a teacher, one of the characteristics of which I have always been most fond is that T'ai Chi is a great exercise for special populations and first time exercisers. The reason is the intensity of T'ai Chi is very easy to monitor and modify. Many people find it difficult to participate in conventional fitness environments because they have injuries, infirmities or are of an age where modified movements, intensity or pacing is necessary. And even in classes taught by teacher with the best of intentions, it is very difficult to modify a workout. It's hard, for example, for a teacher to keep an eye on everyone during a fast paced class of 20 or more. And it's even harder for an average student to slow down or modify his own activity when everyone else in class seems to be working harder or faster.
T'ai Chi, on the other hand, has a tempo, a calmness and a central theme of "attention" that not only promotes but rewards modification of posture and intensity. The upshot here is that T'ai Chi is a workout that simultaneously can produce a "training effect," prompting increased growth and strength, but it is also easy on the body. Thus, there are no contraindications and no side effects inherent in T'ai Chi practice.
T’ai Chi Teaches Kinesthetic Awareness
One of the most important functions we can perform is to help our student and clients gain greater kinesthetic awareness. Those workouts that develop greater muscular strength, flexibility or cardiovascular fitness without concurrently increasing one's awareness of body structure, movement, feeling, internal signals and “self” are as dangerous as workouts that indiscriminately use unsupported or contraindicated exercises. Workouts without a kinesthetic learning component promote dissociation. Dissociated body awareness accounts for a high percentage of sports-related injuries and may contribute to the conditions of chronic pain. Built into the very core of T'ai Chi practice is a component of kinesthetic awareness improvement.
How Personal Trainers Can Use T’ai Chi Ch’uan
Remember that I said that one of the great features of T’ai Chi Ch’uan is that it’s so easy to modify the intensity – just change the amount that you’re bending your knees, or how slow you are moving. In traditional T’ai Chi training, we talk about three levels of practice: High (straighter knees, easy practice, relaxed motion); Medium (knees bent 30 to 40 degrees, more moderate practice, fairly slow motions); and Low (knees bent anywhere from 45 to 90 degreed, very intense practice, very slow yet continuous motion). For the sake of this article, let’s just call these three levels Light Intensity, Moderate Intensity and High Intensity. Personal trainers who want to invest in learning T’ai Chi will find some great opportunities for working with both existing and potential clients in each of these intensity ranges.
Although at this level one doesn’t need to go super slow or bend the knees too deeply, personal trainers can still use “light” T’ai Chi for the slow moving parts of a conventional workout such as warm ups and cool downs. The motions of T’ai Chi Ch’uan will take the head, arms, torso, hips and legs through a wide variety of movement patterns and ranges of motion. You don’t even need to follow the classical routines of T’ai Chi for this. You can select a particular move or series of moves and just repeat those several times to get the warm up effect or to take the body into slower rhythms for the cool down effect.
This style of T’ai Chi practice creates a second opportunity for personal trainers: working with the elderly or the chronically de-conditioned, particularly those who suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia or lupus. One of the unfortunate symptoms of these diseases is that even light exercise can be extremely painful. At the same time, without physical activity, these conditions will only worsen as the body’s fitness level and inner defenses weaken. But T’ai Chi movements can be an alternative form of physical activity that is very gentle. I have received dozens of emails from people with CFS and fibromyalgia telling me that T’ai Chi was the only form of exercise they could handle without pain. You can keep your clients at the light intensity level or take them to more moderate intensity levels on good days of no pain or when their conditions begin to improve.
Although we call this level moderate intensity, the knees can still be relatively straight if needed. Every intensity level is actually a range of degrees knee flexion, rather than one fixed depth. This level of intensity is very good for balance and coordination training. Try this drill: bend your knees to 45 degrees and walk forward slowly, about half the length of a basketball court. Move very slowly, at the pace of at least five full seconds from heel strike to heel strike. Don’t allow yourself to move the back foot until it is completely weightless (no toe flicks!). Finally, and most importantly, do not allow any rise and fall of the hips as you walk. Maintain a perfectly consistent degree of knee bend. At the end of your series of forward steps, reverse direction and repeat the drill going backwards.
This drill is known as the simple T’ai Chi walk, and is the first basic drill in classical T’ai Chi training. Try it for yourself and you’ll see why T’ai Chi will help develop balance and coordination – as well as terrific leg strength. T’ai Chi Ch’uan is designed to develop whole body synergy, and personal trainers who are already using Pilates and yoga may want to add moderate intensity T’ai Chi Ch’uan as a progression from isolated muscle action to integrated muscle action. This progression may be familiar to personal trainers who are working with rehab clients. Remember, at the moderate T’ai Chi level, you can still start off relatively light and gradually add intensity.
For the personal trainer with a little bit more experience in T’ai Chi Ch’uan, there are some really fun opportunities at the high intensity level! Although T’ai Chi Ch’uan can look soft and easy (and can be practiced that way as we’ve seen), I’ve had athletes and body builders cry real tears just from trying the simple T’ai Chi walking drill. Think of high intensity T’ai Chi as a kind of “super slow” training – emphasizing exaggerated concentric and eccentric contraction cycles.
Personal trainers may want to use high intensity T’ai Chi training in a variety of situations – when training outdoors, for example, when resistance equipment isn’t available or when a client has reached a plateau in leg strength development and needs a shock to the system. My favorite reason for using high intensity T’ai Chi with my personal training clients is simply to keep them from getting bored and cocky! Throw in some high intensity T’ai Chi stance training every so often. It’ll simultaneously humble and inspire even your strongest athletes.
A Final Caution: Watch Your Alignment
It’s very important that personal trainers remember to monitor their clients’ alignment when using T’ai Chi Ch’uan. As we sink from higher stances to lower (straighter knees to more flexion), the angle of the shins should still not allow the knees to extend over the toes nor result in an increased lordotic curve. Watch out for uncontrolled adduction of the knees or weight shifting – and of course, the abs should be “turned on” (though not like a Pilates contraction).
Bear in mind that teaching a person to move with good body alignment and synergy is one of the primary intentions of T’ai Chi Ch’uan – and is one of its greatest benefits. If personal trainers are working with the elderly, the de-conditioned or those with arthritis or who are in rehab, they must remember that those conditions are often caused (and always exacerbated) by malalignment.
So here’s your rule of thumb for personal trainers: never let your clients sink lower than they can go and still maintain perfect alignment and mechanics. That’s your ideal T’ai Chi level.