"Internal" Power vs. "External" Power

This debate will probably never end … and the question will probably never be fully answered:

What exactly is the difference between the internal and external martial arts?

While I certainly can provide no definitive answer, I thought it might be helpful to share a bit of what I’ve learned in my experience with the  Chinese internal martial arts, and particularly the distinction between jìn (勁) and (力).

First of all, an important linguistic note from native Chinese speaker & master taijiquan practitioner, Zhang Yun’s article on Li & Types of Jin in Taijiquan.

“In everyday usage, both of these words mean physical force, and can be used interchangeably. Very often, people use jin to denote a very large force.

In martial art, these are technical terms with more precise definitions.  Li is simple muscular force, what we call “untrained force”, “natural force”, or “instinct force”, because no prior training is necessary before using it. Li is simple, its major attributes are quantitative: how big, and how fast.

Jin is complex, its qualities are not just quantitative but qualitative.

Li is a product of nature, jin a product of nurture.  Everyone is born with the ability to generate and use li, no one has jin until they have gone through the necessary training.”

-Zhang Yun
Jin in Taijiquan
First printed in Tai Chi magazine, April 2006

This topic-specific jargon goes further: jin can be used to mean a refined, but still “external” force, as well as to define several specific types of “internal” power (the different “jins” of taijiquan, bagua, xingyi, etc).

Before exploring the intimate & specific details of internal vs. external “types” of “power” … and their unique definitions in the context of taijiquan, a more broad overview is in order. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I thought James Shom had done a very nice job of simplifying the “internal vs. external” martial arts into this table:

Internal vs. External Martial Arts :: Helpful Introductory Overview from James Shom

Internal External
Blending with an attack Stopping an attack
Yielding Struggling
Power comes from within Power comes from outside
Relaxed Tense
Fluid Defined
Slow forms Fast kata
Finesse Power
Indirect Direct
Circular Linear
Accepting what is Fighting against it
Acknowledging the limitations of the self Denying any vulnerabilities
Winning without fighting is best Destroying your opponent

(力): Brute Muscular Strength or “Hard” “External” Power

To me, the concept of Li is characterized by an “uncarved block” natural athlete. An animalistic brute. A strong, fit, untrained individual who uses their instinctive capacity for exerting power. Li is raw muscular strength. It is also the strength of most weight training & martial arts styles. In many ways, it is the focus of the External Schools of Chinese Martial Arts (wàijiāquan or 外家拳), though at more trained & refined levels we would also say these styles possess jin as well.

In one of the greatest English language articles on the distinction between internal vs. external martial arts, Tim Cartmell distinguishes between the internal & external styles of “body unification”:

“The major difference between [the external styles] and the internal styles is that external, while generating power through the coordination of the body as a whole, lack unity of motion in the internal arts sense.

For example, many external martial arts strike using the power of the waist and upper body from the base of a stable stance, the blow would be relaxed during delivery, then tightened for an instant at impact. This type of strike is capable of generating a great amount of power, with the force being produced mainly by the waist and striking limb. This whipping of a limb and tensing at impact is referred to as “sectional power” and differs from the whole body power of internal martial arts.”

-Tim Cartmell
“Internal vs. External: What Sets Them Apart?”
First printed in Inside Kung Fu magazine, July 1992

In my experience, the use of “” power involves a lot of tensing of the muscles. It involves a lot of rapid cardiovascular activity. It causes one to fatigue quickly while releasing great power & energy over a short period of time. It is a sprint.

Karate Knockouts Video … Classic example of lì (力) external power & force.

<<< How do we know this is external power or “li” being used in this video above?

For one, you can see that neither of the fighters ever is aiming to borrow force from his opponent. Rather, he is creating his own force, via vigorous, coordinated body movements (punches & kicks) … aiming to hit his opponent.

Also, you may notice how many times one of the fighters aims to simply power through his opponent’s defenses (or use his own power to deflect incoming forces). These are all characteristics of using forceful external power (or li).

Even still, the argument is murky at best. We could find videos of taijiquan practitioners looking nearly the same, and the differences are indeed hard to clearly define. >>>

Shaolin Monk KO’s Thai Kickboxing Champion

<<< Almost all sport fights of this sort (muay thai, MMA, boxing, etc.) are almost exclusively populated by external martial arts styles … and fighters using li force. Occasionally, there are exceptions to the rule … as all martial arts eventually lead to an internal approach & many greats actually accomplish this internal transition miraculously with little to no specific guidance. >>>

Jìn (勁): Whole Body Strength or “Soft” “Internal” Power

Jin (勁) — sometimes spelled chin — means literally “Strength; Energy; or Enthusiasm.” However, in the context of the Chinese Martial Arts, the meaning is more particular. Specifically, jìn refers to the “soft,” springy, full body force common to all the Internal Martial Arts (or neijia quan), as well as the higher levels of refinement in many external styles.

In my experience, jìn is much more supple & pliable than lì. It is also much less tiring to issue (as it keeps the body in a more relaxed state throughout).

Before I go into too much depth or detail, I’d like to make an important up-front disclaimer:

{In my humble opinion …}
ALL martial arts eventually progress from a “li” style external force to a “jin” style internal energy.

This is just the nature of martial art. Even the hardest external schools like shotokan, shaolin quan, or muay thai — all characterized by hard striking and toughening / strengthening of the body — eventually lead to an internal type of relaxed, supple energy. For example:

Moriji Mochida … 10th Dan Kendo Master discussing the transition to internal power . . .

Eventually, just due to the passing of time & the results of aging, one is essentially forced to translate their lì into a more refined, internalized jìn if one wants to maintain power & agility. One of the most recognized passages of the taijiquan literary classics discusses this exact topic:

“From the sentence ‘A force of four ounces
deflects a thousand pounds’
we know that the technique
is not accomplished with strength.

The spectacle of an old person defeating a group of young people,
how can it be due to swiftness?”

-The Essence of T’ai Chi Ch’uan
Translated & Edited by Benjamin Pang Jeng Lo

So, how does this internal “jin” (or chin) work, exactly?

While a simple question on the surface, in practice it can actually be quite complex. There are many different types of “jin” in the Chinese Martial Arts, in particular those styles known as “Internal.” For instance, there is a specific, unique jin for each of taijiquan’s 13 primary postures (i.e. peng jin — ward-off energy — or lu jin — roll-back energy). There is also ting jin (listening energy), fa jin (issuing energy), dong jin (understanding / comprehending energy), and many others.

The point is: the way it works depends on the way you use it. Any type of “jin” … at its very essence … is a developed skill or pattern — a specific gong fu.

Some of the characteristics of jin that I tried to put together (not a definitive list!) are as follows. The jin (or chin) …

… is sung (or sōng {鬆} … relaxed), but not sung.
… will extend, but is not extended.
… is stored (having a surplus) by means of the curved.
… is mobilized like pulling silk from a cocoon (silk reeling energy or chán sī jìn {纏絲勁})
… is released like releasing the arrow.
… through practice, becomes one unit.
… is comprehended gradually, by familiarity with the correct touch.
… is at first like swimming in air, then like water, then pure iron.
… comes from the sinews (tendons & ligaments) and bones (white tissue), not the muscles.
… is led by the yì (意 … mind / intention), and manifested by the body.
… uses fluid dynamics.
… requires giving up oneself to follow others (sticking, following, adhering, etc).
… curves the straight, and straightens the curve.

I could probably go on for many more, and would appreciate your own experiences & suggestions in the comments area (if you have anything to add or dispute). I’ve also written a post about the whole body connection required to issue & generate jin in my article on Tensegrity & Taijiquan.

But rather than list the characteristics of internal jin power or energy … I thought I’d provide some great videos from masters (of all different styles & backgrounds) who have clearly reached an “internal” level of manifesting their intention.

Ma Yueh Liang Tai Chi Push Hands & Fa Chin (Taiji Tui Shou & Fajin)


Huang Sheng Shyan Tai Chi Push Hands Fa Chin (Huang Xingxian Taiji Fajin)

94 Year Old Bagua Master Wu Mao Demonstrates His Gong Fu ( … Still Strong).


Jigoro Kano, Founder of Judo

… Proving You Don’t Have to Be a Chinese Taoist to Master This Stuff

Morihei Ueshiba, Founder of Aikido … Japan’s Modern Internal Martial Art


Mikhail Ryabko, Founder of Russian Systema (… and former special forces?)


Conclusion :: (力) vs. Jìn (勁):: Internal vs. External ::

… The Verdict?

Even with all this speculation & discussion above … I feel that very little added clarity has been contributed.

What’s worse … there are, in fact, exceptions to everything stated above. For instance, there are distinctions between different kinds of “li” … like huó lì (活力) and sǐ lì (死力) — “alive” force and “dead” force. Also, the internal martial arts still use a form of external “li” … both issued first through the jin, or based as a response to the opponent’s input.

Additionally, any real discussion of these concepts – as concepts in the real world – is not complete without a little historical context on the neijia vs. waijia dichotomy. This is barely even taken into consideration here.

As such, I will end on an exception … proving the true complexity of this historical & practical distinction … with a quote on the use of li from the taijiquan classics:

If my opponent has li, I also have li, but my li is previous (in exact anticipation of his). If the opponent does not have li, I am also without it (li), but my mind is still previous. It is necessary to be continually mindful; to whatever part (of the body) is touched, the mind should go.

You must discover the information by non-discrimination and non-resistance. Follow this method, and in one year, or a half-year, you will instinctively find it in your body. All of this means use yi (mind), not chin (internal force). After a long time, the opponent will be controlled by me, and I will not be controlled by him.

-The Essence of T’ai Chi Ch’uan

Good luck in your practice. I hope you all find more jin & less li … and ultimately progress to using yi alone to control the opponent — effortlessly, and without force.

If this article has been helpful, or if you have further questions, remember to Leave a Reply below.

3 comments to “Internal” Power vs. “External” Power

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