Stretching is what you do when your muscles have tightened up, right? Yes, ordinary stretching is going to lengthen and change the structure of muscle, which is helpful after you’ve been pumping heavy weights. However, Taiji is an atypical workout. It doesn’t fatigue muscle much in comparison and you need far less recovery time. In fact, you may finish so relaxed after your initial experience with Taiji, that in deepening your practice you may want to include dynamic stretching (or dynamic elongation) periodically throughout your movement. Paradoxically this causes your muscles to contract and that’s a good thing for developing effortless power! Concepts of dynamic stretching, introduced below, will help you translate Silk-Reeling (stored energy from rotation) to Fajin (linear quick release).
Research indicates repeated dynamic stretching can substantially increase power. Dynamic stretching is now so well known for increasing performance power that it’s become the gold standard for athletes in their warm-ups. Research further indicates it’s a better immediate precursor to high demand movement than all of the following: rest, prolonged stretching and ballistic stretching (Jaggers et al. 2008).
Benefits of dynamic elongation include increases in muscle tone, protection from injury, and remarkable increases in your functional power and ability to perform useful work. By improving your efficiency, you are able to perform activities longer, reduce your risk for falls and enjoy a higher quality of life.
What exactly is dynamic stretching? Muscle is brought to its comfortable available length and then stretched a little bit near the end range, but this little bit of stretching is done relatively quickly, without stopping to hold the stretch. This triggers a reflex contraction. The more a muscle is stretched in this way; the greater the contraction. Repeated training with the right amount of force leads to increased tolerance (a very helpful outcome for both safety and power).
What causes the reflex contraction? Muscle spindles, specialized fibers parallel to and embedded in your muscles, are the essential structure to understand. The main part of the spindle is wider in the middle (where a sensory neuron wraps around a springy central shaft) and pointier at the ends (where motor neurons attach to contractile tissue). The sensory neuron senses change in the length of the muscle and more importantly, the rate-of-change of the elongation and sends the information to the spine. There, a motor neuron synapses and orders immediate contraction of the same muscle spindle and adjacent muscle fibers. The motor neuron splits so that at the same time the signal to contract is sent to the stretched muscle, a signal to relax is sent to the antagonist muscle. Fast reflex action occurs without the delay of routing signals through your brain, effectively protecting your body from perceived imminent injury (Physiopedia 2019).
I was introduced to the deeper practices of Taiji through my studies with Master Yang and got curious about his experience with injury prevention, applications and Fajin. Yang’s research has documented Taiji increasing force control, a neurological function (Yang 2018). My impetus for this article came from my physical therapy assistant (PTA) education over the past couple years. A PTA uses repeated dynamic elongation in proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) and gets increases in muscular strength and endurance, improvements in coordination and range of motion, and decreases in fatigue (O’Sullivan and Schmitz 2016). Future research might quantify exactly how much the stretch reflex multiplies Taiji quick release.
Fajin is one-pointed force over a very short amount of time. Yet overall Taiji movement is complex: three dimensional and spiral. A master can effortlessly call forth and monitor a wide variety of speeds and dynamic reversals in posture and force output while the body is balanced over a rapidly shifting base of support over long periods of time.
How does dynamic elongation apply to Fajin? Quick release in one direction is momentarily preceded by quick stretch in the opposite direction; yin before yang. Extremely powerful action can be facilitated through the conscious layering of one after another stretch reflex, from the core to periphery (Martin and Kessler 2016).
In China the word “Kung Fu” is defined as any skill or art achieved through hard work and disciplined practice. The late Bruce Lee achieved a high level of Kung Fu as did the late Grandmaster Feng Zhiqiang, Master Yang Yang’s teacher. Through sensitive yin touch, these masters could patiently search and find a cavity or weak point in a partner in the course of sparring or Push Hands. While maintaining contact with the cavity, without warning and without withdrawing the hand, they could use the “one-inch punch” to strike the cavity with amazing yang impulse, sending an unexpected shock wave deep into the body. This they could do blindfolded!
Stanford neuroscientist Jessica Rose explains Bruce Lee’s famous one-inch punch as an evolved central nervous system (CNS) in harmony with the primal peripheral nervous system (PNS): "muscle fibers do not dictate coordination, and coordination and timing are essential factors behind movements like this one-inch punch. Because the punch happens over such a short amount of time, Lee has to synchronize each segment of the jab—his twisting hip, extending knees, and thrusting shoulder, elbow, and wrist—with incredible accuracy. Furthermore, each joint in Lee's body has a single moment of peak acceleration, and to get maximum juice out of the move, Lee must layer his movements so that each period of peak acceleration follows the last one instantly” (Herkewitz 2014).
To review key concepts: ordinary stretching is good after weight training has fatigued your muscles but repeated dynamic stretching during your Taiji practice increases tolerance to load, gives you better elastic recoil and has many more comprehensive benefits including increases to muscle tone, protection from injury, and increases to both endurance and power. Practice dynamic stretching carefully as too much speed and intensity, “ballistic stretching,” can cause injuries.
Be safe, get feedback from a traditional Evidence-based Taiji and Qigong teacher, and make a little progress every day.
- Herkewitz W. The Science of the One-Inch Punch, Popular Mechanics, 2014, May 21.
- Jaggers J., Swank A., Frost K., Lee C. The Acute Effects of Dynamic and Ballistic Stretching on Vertical Jump Height, Force, and Power. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2008, November, p. 1844.
- Martin S., Kessler M. Neurologic Interventions for Physical Therapy, Elsevier Publishing, 2016, St. Louis, MO, p 21.
- O’Sullivan B., and Schmitz J. Improving Functional Outcomes in Physical Rehabilitation, F. A. Davis Company, 2016, Philadelphia, PA, p 39.
- Yang, Y. http://centerfortaiji.com/research 2018
About the Author
Greg DiLisio, EBQT, met Master Yang in 1993 at the Chang San Feng Festival in Warwick NY and as with most of us, immediately knew he’d met his future teacher. Some 15 years later, with Yang living in NYC, he recommended him to both Canyon Ranch and Kripalu Center and has assisted him closely at the latter in the decade since. Greg has been to 8 camps at Blowing Rock, coming to know and love the greater Center for Taiji Studies community. He has 34 years of Taiji, and practices the 48, Cannon-Fist and Saber. He has introduced many thousands of students to yoga, qigong and the outdoors at Kripalu Center and Canyon Ranch in the USA, and internationally. Greg lived in Zurich Switzerland from 2009-2010 and Findhorn Scotland from 1988-1989. His first career was in geology and oceanography, but he’s been an acupuncturist and practitioner of Chinese Herbal Medicine since 1997.