Tai Chi Push Hands — 3 tips for getting better

Graham Barlow
Jan 31 · 6 min read

You can improve your push hands, and your Tai Chi, with these 3 tips for adjusting your posture.

Balance in all things.

Push hands is an exercise in which we get to test our ability to absorb force (Jin) from an opponent and project it back into them, usually with the goal of uprooting them.

Push hands shouldn’t devolve into a pushing and shoving match to see who can ‘win’. Once it turns into that then I don’t think anybody is learning anything anymore. There are far superior methods of grappling than ‘Judo without throws’ and I think you’d be better off spending your time learning those if your goal is simply to win a grappling exchange.

In push hands, we should be using jin — a refined type of force- rather than brute force. Jin differs from brute force in that it comes from the ground up. Ideally, you use your legs to generate and direct force from the ground to your fingertips. To use this refined force we have to get our body into a state where it conforms to the Tai Chi principles of good posture, so that we’re not fighting against ourselves all the time.

This type of force from the ground — jin — we’re talking about does not flow through tense muscles, which is why it’s so important to relax (sung) all the time in Tai Chi.

We need to get our body into a state where we can be as relaxed as possible, so that we can maintain our connection to the ground, but not so relaxed that our structure collapses.

In Chinese terms, you would call this a posture where your “qi is strong”. Essentially you are not tensing muscles more than they need to be to keep your structure where it needs to be.

In push hands we get to test our Tai Chi under a limited amount of pressure from another person. Faults that lie dormant in the form rise to the surface like bubbles. Of course, this optimum structure, one held with just the right amount of tension and no more, is one of the first things to go out of the window once we start push hands with another person.

In light of that, here are a few simple tricks you can learn to utilise in push hands to help you return to that narrow footpath upon which we must stay balanced. The path between too much tension and too little.

1. Try not to lean

All styles of Tai Chi are completely upright in their back stances (or they should be) but some styles of Tai Chi, like Wu style and Yang Cheng-Fu’s Yang style, opt for a slight angling forward of the torso in forward-weighted bow stances. Other styles like Sun style, Chen style and Cheng Man-Ching style generally keep more of an upright posture as often as they can, even in front-weighted stances.

Of course, even styles that maintain an upright stance have to lean forward to do throwing techniques that take the person to the ground like Needle at Sea Bottom or Punch to the Ground, for example.

It’s not the lean itself that matters.
It’s maintaining an unbroken spinal alignment that is the key issue!

All good Tai Chi stylists have one thing in common - they don’t let their heads droop, or look at the floor when they don’t need to.

The Tai Chi classics talk a lot of carrying the head as if “suspended from above”. If you let your head droop you break the spinal alignment. You are easy to off-balance in push hands because your posture is broken. But if you hinge properly from the hips then you can still keep this spinal alignment even when you bend forward.

Here’s the famous Yang style practitioner from the early part of the 20th century, Yang Cheng-Fu, doing Needle at Sea Bottom. Notice how he keeps his spine aligned and hinges from the hips:

Yang Cheng Fu, Needle at Sea Bottom.

Think of the spine as including the neck (which anatomically, it does of course). If the neck goes offline in relation to the spine then the weight of the head has to be compensated for by muscles elsewhere in the body. And this extra tensing of muscles results in a less efficient transfer of force from (or too) the ground.

Because we are quite used to this happening while standing or sitting, we don’t really notice our head being off-center so much. Switch to working on the ground, in a yoga posture for example, and you can instantly feel the difference your head position makes because you feel the weight of your head.

On a technical level, if you are using jin (force from the ground up) you should be able to let the solidity of the ground be apparent at the point of contact with the opponent. If you have to use too much muscle then your pure Jin starts to turn into a kind of ‘muscle jin’. Muscle jin, isn’t as adaptable to change as pure jin. You can’t easily change direction, for instance, because your muscles are committed to a direction. It also just doesn’t feel as it should. It might help you win a push hands competition where you just need to push somebody backward, but you’ll find it lacking when it comes to martial technique with needs to be more adaptable.

When it comes to the thorny issue of leaning, I’d recommend generally trying to stay upright in push hands. As I said before, the leans you tend to see in Tai Chi forms are more to do with the application of a particular technique. Sure, you can lean in to apply power according to a technique (just make sure you keep your spine aligned) but for the usual back and forth of push hands I’d recommend trying to keep as upright as possible. You’ll find it gives you more freedom of movement in the horizontal axis.

If you watch this clip of Wang Hai Jun doing some push hands with applications in it, you’ll notice that he’s staying upright during the push hands, but he’ll lean to apply a technique:

2. Free your shoulder

One of the benefits of using jin (force from the ground) is that you can be powerful yet relaxed at the same time.

When it comes to relaxing I don’t really care about relaxing the legs so much the key thing is making sure that all the tension of the upper body is dissolved down into the lower body.

You want to feel like your upper body is empty, while your lower body is full. “Hands like clouds, legs like mountains”, is a phrase that springs to mind.

The big stumbling block here is always the shoulder. Either we use our shoulder too much, and the movement becomes local and isolated from the rest of the body, or we don’t relax it sufficiently, and it becomes a blockage to the smooth flow of power from the ground that you’re looking for.

The next time you’re doing push hands just say to yourself “stop using the shoulder” and see what effect that has on your push hands. You could be surprised.

3. Stop using the back leg as a brace

Another trap people fall into in push hands is using the back leg like a buttress, propping them up against the ground. If you engage in the push and shove type of push hands you typically see at push hands tournaments then this is a great way to win. Unfortunately, ‘winning’ in a tournament might make you feel good, but it makes no difference if your goal is to get better at Tai Chi Chuan! Again, this leads to muscle jin, not the relaxed release of power we are looking for.

Don’t get me wrong, a little physical scrap is good for you now and again, and it’s good fun to push yourself physically. But these days I tend to let BJJ rolling get that all out of my system, so I can focus more on developing push hands skill in the right way when I’m engaged in push hands practice.

Instead of bracing with the back leg, learn to sink your weight, and eventually the incoming force from your partner into it. Sinking is the key to changing from using brute force to learning to use jin. Learn to relax the upper body completely and drop your weight into your lower body, in fact, let it rest right at the foot — the closest point of you to the ground, then use that point to power your movements.

Graham Barlow

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Posting articles about Tai Chi (Taijiquan), BJJ and martial arts training.

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