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Prenatal Strength

By Yeung Yun-choi Guangzhou China 2003



Taijiquan conventionally spoke of using a different kind of force, which is not brute force or postnatal strength.  It is simply to move in a way that is

¡°naturally extended and relaxed¡±, which is contrary to the shortening of muscle fibres. The opposite to postnatal strength is prenatal strength, which is innate, as newborn still preserve some of these characteristics such as abdominal breathing, movements generated by the torso, softness, fearlessness and immunity.  Postnatal strength is learnt, as the shortening of muscles is he result of fear and confusions created by gravity as babies grown older.

Prenatal strength is a physiological phenomenon as well as a psychological one, as we need to relax as well as to extend our muscles to produce this kind of strength. The relationship between relaxation and extension is simple but phenomenal. Extension helps us to relax, and the more we relax the more we can extend our muscles for strength.


It is a common mistake to differentiate prenatal and postnatal strengths as internal and external. It is very often that people refer to martial arts

originated from Wudang Mountain as internal and from Shaolin Temple as external. Sun Lu-tang argued that there was no difference in an article published in the 18th Anniversary Bulletin of the Jiang Su Sheng Guo Shu Guan (Jiangsu Province Gymnasium of National Arts), reprinted in the Collection of Sun Lu-tang¡¯s Martial Arts, edited by Sun Jian-yun (2001). But his argument was within the framework of prenatal strength. According to Sun Lu-tang the difference was the method of training, starting from external to internal, or internal to external. In other words, Xingyiquan begins with the stretching of

the limbs while Taijiquan and Baguaquan begin with the stretching of the torso.

At the end of the day, they will be the same. There are internal and external in prenatal strength, and there are internal and external in postnatal strength. Therefore, the terms internal and external mean differently in different context. The other terms such as soft, hard, open, close, light and heavy might also mean differently in different context. Yin Yang or the binary number system does not have negative number.


The Yin Yang principle is making good sense in terms of prenatal strength; Yang is extension or movement, and Yin is the absence of Yang. When there is movement there is separation or open, and in the absence of movement there is a return to the original static state or close. There is no brute force or postnatal strength involved.


In theory, the concept of naturally extended and relaxed is simple but leads to many difficult techniques and know-how.  Furthermore, it is very difficult to verify the various claims and practises of Taijiquan. Some of the claims of Taijiquan can be verified and identified by practice, internal consistency, and consistency with the current findings of sciences. But some techniques suggested are not practicable because of their obscurity in nature. Some techniques might be foreign to Taijiquan such as concentric contraction of certain part of the body while the emphasis is on relaxation and elongation.

Some techniques suggested are not proper, such as contracting the bowel like the suppression of defecation and urination, breathing technique that applies pressure on the bladder and prostate gland for man or sudden concentric contraction of muscles when muscles are fully loaded and lengthened, and withholding of breath.


The Taoist origin of Taijiquan linked to some very difficult philosophical concepts of prenatal spirit or energy, and some very sophisticated prenatal breathing techniques in Taoist Qigong.  The traditional Taoist ideas had a notion of conservation for longer living, and the Taoist type of Qigong focused on the reduction of heart rate, breathing very slowly, and less active. This is very different to the statement of Sun Lu-tang in the development of a reverse process to generate prenatal strength from certain postnatal activities by holy men in the past.


Basically Taijiquan is a stretching exercise. The importance of stretching is emphasised in every sport, and as warm up exercises before any physical training. Stretching in Taijiquan is not as simple as in other sports because the movements of martial arts are much more complex. Stretching is also the source of power for self-defence, which differentiated Taijiquan from other martial arts that do not train in the prenatal context.


The movements of stretching are referred to as eccentric contraction or

lengthening of muscle fibres in sport science. Muscles are often active while they are lengthening. Examples of these are walking, when the quadriceps (knee extensors) are active just after heel strike while the knee flexes, or setting

an object down gently (the arm flexors must be active to control the fall of the object). Research findings since the 70's have shown that eccentric contractions are physiologically common, and muscle injury and soreness are selectively associated with eccentric contraction. Most muscle injuries are result in sudden jerking or shortening of muscle fibres when these fibres are in full tension or extended fully, because muscle strengthening is greatest using exercises that involve eccentric contractions. Considerable damage can be done by contraction when muscles fibres are extended fully with two extreme forces in opposite directions.  This does not occur with concentric contraction or shortening of muscle fibres. The problem is that muscle fibres are not consistent in terms of lengthening and shortening in any particular movement.

That is some are lengthen and some are shorten in a movement; running downhill and bending over to lift a heavy weight are typical examples of over stretching certain muscle fibres. And it is most likely resulted in injuries when trying to contract muscles to act as a break or reinforcement to these activities.

These injuries are known to be Delay Onset Muscle Soreness, which will occur one or two days later after injuries. This is a real worry for coaches and athletes because such soreness can onset anytime after an injury, and very often not knowing when the injury has occurred. For the sedentary, lower back pain is also commonly seen that onset some days¡¯ later after a session of hard work or play.


From a literature review on the science of Taijiquan, the result is rather

disappointing because there is no significant study that demonstrated Taijiquan is any different or better than other light aerobic exercises. However, there are significant studies associated with concentric contracting exercise, eccentric contracting exercises are more powerful, preserve better with age, less stress on the heart, does not consume calcium, and good for the immune system. It seems that the fundamental principle of stretching in Taijiquan has overlooked by scientists in their experiments. Therefore, hopefully there will be experiments focus on Taijiquan as an eccentric exercise. There are many difficulties in conduction a proper experiment in Taijiquan because there are too many variables. There are many movements and variations in Taijiquan, and it is not valid to assume that all these movements will contribute to a single variable called Taijiquan. The correctness of any movement in Taijiquan is open to dispute. The individual differences of the subjects and their ability to learn and practice these movements correctly are very complex to control and to verify for statistical analysis.


The best way to practice Taijiquan is to be sensitive to the tension generated in the body. When one is stretching both arms away form the body than there will be tensions in both shoulders and across the back, and any deviation will result in loosing this sensation. The tensions in the legs are generated by the weight of the body, and pushing with the leg or legs will result in the loss of this sensation. The stretching of the spine might be the most difficult but most fundamental in Taijiquan, the sinking of body weight on the legs and stretching the head erect will produce tensions on the torso and particularly on the abdomen. It is not so difficult to feel these tensions in static postures, but can be difficult when moving from one posture to another to stretch different muscle groups alternatively.


It is simple to said that ¡°know your Yin Yang while practising Taijiquan¡±, but it is very difficult to differentiate when there are so many pairs of Yin Yang in our body even in a single movement. Some muscles were stretched passively that can be easily mistaken as concentric contraction of muscles, as in fact it is just gravitation. It is quite a task to workout, which is stretched passively, which is stretched actively, which is not stretched in any way, and which is not relaxed and still using concentric contraction. ¡°Use you mind and not brute force¡± is impossible without knowing all the different functions of our body. The use of the mind to direct is a principle used in

Qigong, to direct the Qi or energy in a path denoted by various acupunctural points. The same principle should be used to direct the muscular system. It might be difficult in the beginning with the different movements and co-ordinations but practice will perfect them.


Taijiquan can be difficult for some people because it does require the change of the habits of everyday activities. It is also sceptical whether it is possible to do everything eccentrically, as functional anatomy tells us that most movements are a co-ordination of eccentric and concentric contraction of muscles. In a way it is possible by altering the mechanic of the body, and making use of the arc movements of the body rather than straight pushing actions. One interpretation of ¡°seeking straight in curves¡± would be combining circular movements to form a straight path. One example of this would be the shifting of body weight from one leg to the other; the straight pushing action of one leg to push the weight of the body to the other leg can be replace by the rotation of the hip joints activated by a different group of muscles. This is easy in a standing posture but in a semi-squat posture can be quite difficult. It is not very common to make use of the shock absorption eccentric contraction system in the lower extremity muscle groups unless you are a dancer for example. The eccentric contraction of the quadriceps and

Gastro-soleus muscles groups can effectively dissipate the weight of the body even the force of impact following a jump from a height. There are a number of alternatives and a number of techniques that can maintain the height of the semi-squatting posture, shifting the body weight and get up to a higher stance.

The discussion of these techniques can be quite lengthy, which will not

elaborate in here except to use as examples.


Taijiquan made use of the large muscles groups of our body such as thigh, abdomen, back and shoulder. Stretching slowly will avoided the problem of Delay

Onset Muscle Soreness, but most people will have this problem when learning to shift the body weight between their legs. It is most probable that they did not relax and sink their body weight on the legs and stretch the thighs to absorb these forces. Instead, they shorten their muscles or keep pushing them-selves upward to maintain a certain height. And this will increase the tension on the already stretched thigh muscles, which will damage the muscle fibres eventually.


This article discussed Taijiquan as an eccentric exercise for the generation of prenatal strength rather than what is prenatal strength. This is because of the obscurity in the sciences of birth and the prenatal state of human being. The postnatal state of human being is affected by fear and gravity, and the theories and practices of Taijiquan seen to have effective methods to deal with them and enhance performances. The theories and practices of eccentric contraction of muscles seen to make good sense in the context of Taijiquan, and sciences are providing positive evidences on the benefits of eccentric contraction. We are not sure what prenatal strength is but we certainly have witnessed the exploration of innate power in Taijiquan with the intensions to encounter illnesses, to develop stronger and healthier individuals, and enhance the development of self-defence.