Learn Tai Chi for Martial Arts: Tips for Fighting and Self Defense

If you want to learn tai chi for martial arts, you're in the minority of tai chi practitioners. Most are drawn to tai chi by the health gains and don't practice the fighting applications.

As the skilled tai chi practitioner Chang I Chung once said, “Everyone wants to be healthy but only some want to know how to fight”.

bruce fa jin
If you’re interested in the martial aspects and are learning from a good tai chi chuan teacher, you’ll automatically reap health and energetic benefits in addition to fighting skills—a nice package deal. But, practitioners focusing on health and relaxation won’t necessarily become better fighters.

As a martial artist, you can expect longer and more intense practice sessions than for fitness alone. You’ll probably want to hone your skills with both empty-handed sets as well as those with traditional weapons, such as the sword, pole, and spear. To be effective in tai chi as a martial art, you’ll need to develop a range of skills, including working with energy and knowing the applications of the various movements. An effective strategy for learning the martial aspects of tai chi involves these mastering 7 distinct skill sets:

1. Qi energy warm-ups. These open and prepare your body for the internal energy work in tai chi. Several are described in the section.

2. Solo forms. These help you to move in a relaxed, coordinated way—with a lot of power. You’ll also learn the specific applications in each movement, such as punches, joint locks, and nerve strikes. The solo forms will build your internal qi power, so you’ll have that extra bit of juice when attacking. You’ll also be able to use this energy to better withstand attacks.

3. Practicing the tai chi applications with a cooperative partner. At first, techniques are trained only at slow speed and minimal power and intent. As you learn to remain relaxed, you’ll be better able to execute the applications without resorting to brute force.

tai chi push hands bruce
4. Push hands. This is a two person drill where you’ll maintain constant contact with your partner’s arms. Read more about the specifics of this type of exercise in .

Through these drills, you’ll learn to listen to your partner’s energy and will be better able to apply the internal power skills you’ve developed in your solo practice.

5. Sparring games. You’ll practice sparring in choreographed sets, using different attack-defend scenarios. At first, only close-in fighting will be used. With practice, the distance will increase outward, to arms length and then further away.

In the beginning, you’ll know the speed and power of the attacks. Later, you’ll be exposed to more powerful and faster attacks.

Through these exercises, you’ll be exposed to varied footwork and you’ll learn to better assess incoming attacks.

6. Transition between Push Hands and Fighting. Just as in Push Hands, you’ll maintain physical contact with your opponent. But, now you’ll be free to hit, push, kick, and throw your opponent—all with the internal skills you’ve been developing.

7. Unrehearsed sparring. You’ll practice the full range of tai chi techniques and applications in known and unknown situations.

As you can see from the above, practicing tai chi as a martial art is not a light undertaking. Those practicing tai chi for health will concentrate on qi gong warm-ups and the empty-handed solo tai chi form. Some may practice push hands, although many will not even be exposed to these drills.

Serious practitioners of tai chi as a martial art will need to develop proficiency in each of the 7 areas listed above. This learning strategy will help you to more quickly master the art of tai chi for fighting.

It’s not enough to simply hone your solo practice or push hands skills. Take advantage of opportunities to safely practice and to spar with a range of different partners—with varying degrees of skill, strength, and size—and your proficiency in tai chi as a martial artist will grow.

Next: Read about how to practice and to learn tai chi for seniors.