Tai Chi Biomechanics

Tai Chi Biomechanics

Tai Chi Biomechanics

Tai Chi is almost always learnt by imitating the teacher with little verbal explanation. Unfortunately, this often leads to a Tai Chi which looks right from the outside but is not correct. Often teachers have very little understanding of what they are doing themselves. That is they have studied hard and can do the postures well but they have little understanding of what somebody else with less talent than themselves and a different body type needs to do to replicate the same result. The aim of Tai Chi Biomechanics is to make explicit that practical physical information which is not usually explicitly taught.

Often Tai Chi practitioners do not think at all in terms of muscles. But if they did, they might like to ask themselves, “which muscle is doing most of the work?”. Try standing in a long deep warrior position (from yoga, easy to find a picture on the internet) with the left foot forward. Ask yourself, “which muscle is working hardest?” If you wait a few minutes you will probably be aware of your left thigh working very hard. So, the left thigh muscles, the quadriceps femoris or “quads” are working hardest. This may be an OK answer for yoga but it’s not an OK answer for Tai Chi.

There is a phrase from architecture that “form follows function”. At any rate form and function are intimately related. So, if Tai Chi is to follow “naturalness” then form should mirror function. Well in any remotely normal human being, the biggest thickest muscle is the gluteus maximus, the “glutes”. Now if the “glutes” are the biggest, thickest muscle, they should be, logically, doing most of the work. Except in the example of the yoga posture above, most of the work is being done by the “quads”. Now the suggestion is that this is not the way you want to be doing your Tai Chi. You want form to match function to make your Tai Chi have the naturalness of walking. And you would prefer that when moving through Tai Chi postures when doing the Tai Chi form or in holding a Tai Chi posture you are working in a “glute” dominant way not in a “quad” dominant way. One reason you would want to do this is that the tendon at the end of the quads encloses the knee cap and one would wish to avoid as much as possible repetitively overloading the knee.

Each student of Tai Chi will have a different starting point but most will need to learn to load the gluteus maximus muscles when stepping forwards, to the front diagonal, sideways, to the rear diagonal, and backwards. Once you have learned how to load the glutes in these five steps you will be able to look again with fresh (educated) eyes at the Tai Chi form you know and understand which muscles you are working hardest. If you discover that, although looking very correct, your Tai Chi is in fact “quad dominant” you may wish to consider varying how you do the postures. After you have got the hang of loading the glutes in the five steps, then next stage would be to understand how to load the “glutes” in a single-weighted position, that is, with only foot on the ground. As ever with Tai Chi, it’s not really about dashing on to the next step but fully internalising what one has learned first. This approach can be applied to any of the different styles of Tai Chi or any of the three internal arts.

Chiropractor Andrew Hunter DC began his study of the Yang style 37-step Tai Chi short form, as designed by Cheng Man-ch’ing, in 1984. Since 1995 he has been a student of Allen Pittman (including also studying Hsing-I and Bagua). Allen Pittman is the outstanding student of Robert Smith (1926-2011). Robert Smith was chosen by Cheng Man-ch’ing (1902-1975) to co-author his 1967 textbook on Tai Chi. Later, Robert Smith went on to co-author two books with Allen Pittman, one on Hsing-I and one on Bagua.

If you would like to learn more about Tai Chi Biomechanics, contact Andrew Hunter at his London Clinics on 07855 916 602.


T’ai Chi by Cheng Man-ch’ing and Robert Smith, published in 1967 by Tuttle.

Hsing-I by Robert Smith and Allen Pittman, published in 1990 by Tuttle.

Pa-Kua (i.e. Bagua) by Robert Smith and Allen Pittman, published in 1990 by Tuttle.

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