the original MMA
skills in multiple phases
chen style taijiquan
No fighting system can ever be complete, but Chen Taijiquan is perhaps the closest things to a complete system that has ever been developed. It is over 400 years old, yet the system includes striking, clinch fighting, take-downs and take-down defense, joint locks, and strength and conditioning. The large majority of martial arts, from both the east and the west, have focused almost entirely on either striking or grappling. And only since the 1990s and the advent of Mixed Martial Arts have people really started to 'mix' the martial arts, cross training in various disciplines to build a well rounded skill set that covers all aspects of fighting.
Thus Taijiquan can truly be called the original form of Mixed Martial Arts, having recognized the importance of different fighting distances and phases centuries ago. However, even to called it 'mixed' is not quite accurate. It is a single martial art, with the same body method used to develop both striking and grappling skill. This body method is developed and refined through the practice of a traditional syllabus.
In Chen style the focus is always on potentially fighting multiple opponents, staying standing, and on being able to finish the fight as rapidly as possible.
Chen style incorporates a full suite of strikes, including fist, open palm, wrist, elbow, forearm, shoulder etc. In fact, at a high level of skill, almost any part of the body can be used.
The system also includes kicks, which are primarily thrusting kicks to the lower half of the opponent's body.
Chen style utilises various takedown techniques, including sweeps, trips, arm drags, throws, tosses etc.
Traditionally it does not use 'sacrifice throws' for the same reason stated above. Chen style never evolved into a sport, so the aim has always been to stay standing.
The clinch is the fight phase that Chen style focuses on the most. A large number of the techniques are applied from the clinch. These include short range strikes, throws and takedowns, and joint locks, which can be performed in either a controlled or ballistic fashion, depending on the desired outcome.
strength and conditioning
The foundation training of Chen style develops significant strength, particularly in the lower body. Long hours of mid-level exertion build strength endurance, and the canon fist forms build cardiovascular endurance.
Further strength-specific training is added once the foundation of the body method has been laid. This is because in Chen style, strength is considered the easiest and quickest skill to learn, and building the muscles can get in the way of the relaxation and sensitivity that needs to be developed to gain good skill, thus to start too early hinders progress.
As described above, Taijiquan develops many of the same fundamental fighting skills as other martial arts - striking, clinching, take-downs and defence etc. However in Chen style, and internal arts more generally, the mechanics behind these skills come from the development of a quite different 'body method'.
There is more detail about the unique characteristics of the internal arts' body methods on the internal arts page. Here I will just a brief overview of some of the advantageous fighting outcomes of this type of training.
the Chen style 'engine'
One of Chen style's defining characteristics is the unique biomechanical 'engine' that it develops. It allows for release of full body power with various parts of the body, over very short distances and in almost any direction.
At the high levels of skill, it also allows for some very powerful throwing skills.
This engine also develops 'shaking' energy, where the strikes vibrate on impact, causing additional internal damage.
Something that all internal martial arts share is that the methods of training do not degrade and damage the body in the same way as for external styles, as the majority of the training is not ballistic, high impact, or against a lot of resistance.
While training against a fully resisting opponent is essential for developing real fighting skill, it makes up a much smaller portion of the training in internal styles, as the body method is learned primarily through solo and co-operative partner practice.
So while many external stylists will have often done considerable long term damage to their bodies through the process of reaching a good level of skill, this is generally not the case for Taijiquan.
Also, the likelihood of traumatic injury sustained during hard practice is largely contributed to by underlying biomechanical issues. Through the practice of Taiji, these issues are gradually lessened as ones posture is improved. See the fitness and biomechanical health page for more details.
Listening skill or 'ting jin' is the ability to feel into another person's posture and feel where the weakness or stiffness is. This can then be exploited to easily manipulate their body.
These are skills that I'm sure 'external' wrestlers and grapplers develop later in their practice. But internal arts practice these skills as a central part of the skill set, and develop them to a higher level than other systems.
The slow isometric training develops the type one muscles fibres. Explosive and heavy weapons training develops the type two muscle fibres.
When this foundation of strength is combined with whole-body coordination, as well as the skill of 'fajin' and 'ting jin' the strength is no longer 'stupid' and has become 'smart'.
The body method developed in Chen Style is extremely efficient in terms of energy usage for both grappling and striking.
When clinching, rather than meeting the opponent's strength with strength, essentially a zero sum game, the opponent is directed to exert their effort against my structure, with only enough muscular force required to maintain the integrity of the structure. This enables much of my musculature to remain relaxed and so conserve energy.
In striking, the relaxed whip like way in which the body is used, combined with optimal and coordinated muscular firing sequences with minimal superfluous muscle contractions, enables significant power to be generated without a huge amount of exertion.
While Chen style is without doubt the most complete single system I have ever come across, that is not to say it is perfect, or has nothing to learn from other systems. Here are some of the additional aspects someone could train if they wanted to complement and build on the skills learned in Taijiquan.
sparring and bag work
While Chen style traditionally includes competitive wrestling practice as part of the training, it doesn't include sparring or hitting the heavy bag.
This type of training has been incorporated into more modern internal systems such a Yi Quan. While excessive sparring is certainly not a good idea due to the obvious potential health consequences of frequent hits to the head, a limited amount of sparring may be a good thing in the modern context if someone wants to develop self defence skills.
Similarly, once good striking mechanics have been developed through the traditional practice of the form, it can also be useful to train with the heavy bag, to get used to the feeling of impacting an object.
Modern MMA has done a great job of demonstrating all the important phases of a fight, and being able to fight on the ground has been clearly established to be essential, at least within the sporting context.
As Chen style was devised for battlefield combat, and life and death confrontations, this element was not a focus for the same reason many people will not advocate ground fighting for a street fight. That being that you make yourself very vulnerable by tying yourself up with another body on the ground. That's fine if there is a rule set that the fight is one-on-one, but in live situations there is no guarantee of this. In Chen Taijiquan the objective is always to stay standing.
Still, if someone wants to fully round out their fighting skills, ground fighting would be an additional to the traditional Chen Taiji syllabus.
The Chen style training focuses primarily on clinching and upright wrestling, so footwork is somewhat lacking.
progression of training
As described above, the internal Chen style body method is different to other marital arts in training progression and skill outcome. Here is an outline of this progression as I understand it at present:
1. Train body method and whole body connection of fascial tissue
1. Develop type 1 muscles fibres through slow, isometric training
1. Loosen and relax joints and muscles for efficient energy transmission and connected movement
1. Improve postural alignment and sequential firing for efficient energy transmission
1. Refine balance and postural awareness
2. Continue further refinement of 1
2. Develop type 2 muscles fibres through power and explosiveness
2. Further develop balance and postural sensitivity through fixed pattern, co-operative pushing hands
2. Develop tendon strength through heavy weapons
3. Continue all of 1 and 2
3. Practice resistant, competitive pushing hands (and sparring)
3. Learn specific applications