Over the years I have observed different philosophies of power generation in the martial arts.  For the purposes of this blog entry, I will use the traditional Chinese martial art terms of “external” and “internal” to describe my observations. I use those terms, not because I’m an expert in Chinese martial arts (I have very little experience in CMA as a matter of fact), but because those two terms neatly capture what I have in mind.

In layman’s terms, “external martial arts” are “characterized by fast and explosive movements and a focus on physical strength and agility.”  On the other hand, “internal martial arts” “focus on the practice of such elements as awareness of the spirit, mind, qi (breath, or energy flow) and the use of relaxed leverage rather than unrefined muscular tension, tension that soft stylists call “brute force.” See Wikipedia at

As a friend of mine who practices Wing Chun said to me once “the division between external and internal is basically artificial since most martial arts incorporate both elements.”  While a style may be characterized by an initial emphasis on either external or internal, the seemingly absolute division between the two begin to blur as the practitioner gains experience. An example would be my experience in the Filipino Martial Arts. There are elements of Modern Arnis that are definitely “hard style” or “external” using “fast and explosive movements” such as a power strike. On the other hand, there is an “internal” element that incorporate “the use of relaxed leverage rather than unrefined muscular tension.”

I believe that there should be a balance between the two. Indeed the well known yin/yang symbol  perfectly captures this.

Unfortunately, beliefs about the “external” and “internal” aspects of the martial arts span the spectrum and has led to weird ideas about power generation. I have seen extreme views of “external” and “internal” practices and they are best illustrated with video clips.

An extreme example of an “external” style is in this clip, especially in the last half:

Obviously, such stiffness will not translate well into real world self defense. I’m speaking only terms of simple body mechanics. I don’t recall Michael Jordan playing basketball in such a stiff and herky jerky way. Check out the below clip and just focus on MJ’s natural fluid body movement.

On the other end of the spectrum are those with bizarre beliefs about their “internal” styles. This is often characterized by focusing exclusively on “chi” and leaving out entirely “the use of relaxed leverage rather than unrefined muscular tension.” The below clip made the rounds several years ago. This Japanese martial arts “master” believed that he could defend himself merely by projecting his energy/chi/ki at people and “throwing” them. Unfortunately, he had a rude awakening at the hands of an MMA fighter. Sadly, believe it or not, there are those who believe the same thing as this unfortunate chap.

I am not aware of any professional boxing or UFC match that was decided by a “no touch” technique. Nor am I aware of any Olympic wrestling match decided in such a manner. Why some continue to believe in this defies logic.

As a martial artist advances through their training, they will find that the distinction between “internal” and “external” begin to blur and, in fact, begin to complement each other. You will find that you can combine “fast and explosive movements” with techniques that emphasize “the use of relaxed leverage rather than unrefined muscular tension.”  Observe how relaxed Bruce Lee is until the moment of impact, whether it be a punch or a kick.

He is not either stiff as in the first videoclip of this entry, nor is he indulging in the unrealistic version of “internal” martial arts. He possessed relaxed leverage as a result of his Wing Chun background. He had a great balance of the Yin and Yang, hard and soft, strength and flexibility. My friends, he was water.

The late Professor Remy A. Presas used to say “You must go with the flow” all the time. This implied that stiffness in technique would be a liability. Indeed, against Professor Presas, it was. And like Bruce Lee, he had an exquisite balance and harmonization of the “internal” and “external” aspects in his beloved art of Modern Arnis. He could flow and counter anything you threw at him and his counter was often explosive, decisive and brutal.

This video really does not do justice to Professor’s incredible skills. But it does give a decent window into his abilities. I hope that the reader was able to detect a mixture of the hard and soft, the yin and yang in Professor’s video demonstration.

While this post has focused on the defects of the extremes, this obviously has real world consequences.  For anyone who tries to defend themselves with the kind of stiffness displayed in the first video will meet with dire consequences. And to paraphrase Mr. T,  I pity the fool who tries the extreme version of the “internal” martial arts.

All martial arts should have a balance of the “external” and “internal.” Most styles are going to emphasize one over the other at the beginning. However, as the training advances, the distinction between the two begin to blur and the martial artist should be able to effortlessly incorporate both aspects conceptually, tactically, strategically, and in practice.

Go back to the quote at the beginning of this post and ponder the nature of water. It has been observed that while water is soft and yielding to the touch, water can carve a path through solid stone over time.

More importantly, it goes to the notion of adaptability. What is more adaptable than water? I believe that if one is at either extreme end of the martial arts spectrum, adaptability becomes more much difficult. If there is a balance between both, adaptability is within your reach. And the more adaptable you are, the better your chances are of surviving an unwanted encounter.

In the end, as Bruce said, you should be water, my friend.

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