transition to the heavy bag
Updated: Apr 26, 2021
Many (most) people don't understand the approach to learning in an 'internal' martial art. They look at form training and think it's about learning techniques, specific attacks and defenses. They then quite rightly say that you can't learn to do techniques on a resisting opponent without training with a resisting opponent. While this is certainly true, it is to miss the point of form training in Tai Chi. While the movements of the form do have many applications within them, the primary purpose of form training is not to learn specific techniques, rather it is designed to ingrain and iteratively refine a new and better way of moving, a 'body method'.
The slow, painstaking practice, with attention to minuscule details, is to gradually discover and refine the most efficient way for ones body to move. I will go into more detail as to the different aspects of the Chen Taijiquan Body Method, and the process of learning it, in other posts. In this post I want to look at the results of this training method, through the lens of transitioning to hitting a heavy bag.
I don't know how long it takes a beginner boxer to get competent and comfortable on the heavy bag. But I would imagine initially punches are very weak, without much 'whole body power'. I also think there is a big dependence on wrist wraps to support the wrist to prevent collapsing and straining the wrist when stronger punches are thrown. And also on gloves, to prevent the knuckles from breaking if the punch lands on a weak point of the hand like the knuckles of the little finger for example.
The first video is virtually my first time ever hitting a heavy bag. I have never done any boxing or kickboxing training, have never hits pads etc. Before this I'd only ever thrown punches 'into air' as part of Tai Chi form and fajin training. My body weight is 60kg, my heavy bag which is a firm rag bag, with a core of sand, weighs 35kg, so significantly over half my weight. Let's see how I got on:
I was quite pleased with this for a first attempt, my punches felt solid at the point of impact, with the weight of the bag travelling though my body down in to the floor (rooting). My arm structure was also sufficiently solid that my punches weren’t collapsing on impact at the wrist, elbow, or shoulder. But now looking back I'm amazed at how far I've come since then, with a relatively small amount of time devoted to this practice. After this I took a few months off from using the bag, and then after a couple more practice sessions of around 10 minutes each I recorded this second video and then shortly after that the third video. So at this point I've spent less than 1 hour total training with the heavy bag:
I'm no expert, but I would guess that the received wisdom in boxing and other striking arts about how punching mechanics are learned and trained, would not suggest that someone can hit the bag so forcefully and with such linear and smooth technique, with so little practice time doing just that.
Around this time I also realized I didn't really need wrist wraps, as the form and posture of my arm, the tautness in the soft tissue of my wrist joints, and how that connected with the rest of my arm and into my body (peng jin), meant that my wrists were solid on impact, and I wanted to stop using the 'crutch' of wrist wraps. I felt the same about gloves, which are used to protect the knuckles. I found that my punches were consistently landing at the strongest place, ie the first knuckles of the index and middle fingers, with a slight winding in the wrist so these are aligned with the forearm. I will discuss these aspects of the mechanical structure of the arm at the point of impact in more detail in other posts.
So at this point I stopped using wraps and gloves, and continued using only tape to protect the skin of my knuckles. This can be seen in this third video, still with a maximum of 1.5 hours total training on the heavy bag:
I found that once I stopped protecting my hands and wrists with the ‘crutches’ of wraps and gloves, I also received valuable feedback from using the bag. For example, I was finding that on my left hand, I was scraping the skin on the second knuckle of my ring finger. This showed me that I didn’t have quite enough ‘winding’ in my arm at the point of impact, so my hand wasn’t turning quite enough to impact fully with the first knuckle of the index and middle fingers.
This was information I could then take back into my form practice, to iron out this wrinkle in my left handed punch. I also think it is something it may well have taken me much longer to discover had I not been training in this way. Filming myself was also very useful, as I immediately saw I was dropping my right hand when I follow my jab with a straight!
So overall I’ve found transitioning to using the heavy bag an interesting and valuable process. I feel the speed with which I made the transition establishes clearly (at least in my mind) that the traditional method of learning the mechanics of punching in Chen Tai Chi is highly effective. I also feel once a good proficiency with Chen punching mechanics is gained through the traditional training, the heavy bag can be an invaluable tool to test and further improve those mechanics.