Wiggling the Waist

Liàn quán bù huó yāo, zhōngjiù yì bù gāo.

Liàn quán bù huó yāo, zhōngjiù yì bù gāo.

One who practices boxing without being able to wiggle the waist freely will never reach a high level of skill.

More waist motion!  How many times did I hear that when I first started learning kung fu from my teacher, Paul Sun?  Once we start learning our body structure at rest, we start learning to generate force through motion.  To do that we have to balance the forces in our body, up/down, side/side, front/back.  All of these directions (and the variations between and combinations of them) are governed by waist motion.  Another way of saying this is that it’s the waist motion that balances the yin and the yang in our movements.

Without learning to first move the waist in a strong, responsive and flexible way, your strikes will remain isolated.  They will only be generated by the local muscles involved.  So your punches (for example) will be generated by just the arm and shoulder shoulder muscles, instead of being powered by the whole body.  You’ve trained hard to first create a strong frame and then strong and smart leg muscles.  But without the waist coordinating the drive from the legs down into the ground and simultaneously up into the torso and out to the arms, all that leg training will be in vain.  Let the power go to your waist, not to waste (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

One way to train the waist is through individual movement drills and through forms practice.  We’re all conditioned to be aware of the yin and the yang in our movements as we practice forms under the watchful eye of our teachers.  But in addition to forms and movement practice, traditional Chinese martial arts has a slew of specific waist-training exercises to allow you to wiggle your waist with authority and purpose.

Some people choose not to practice the waist-training exercises because they do not seem to have direct application to combat, or because they are not found in the forms.  But these supplemental waist wiggling exercises are one of the keys to good kung fu.  Twisting your waist and having it move your arms, your legs, or the end of a spear (for three examples) makes your waist more supple, stronger, and “smarter”.  By smarter I mean that we often under-utilize this part of our bodies in everyday life.  But when we expand the habitual range and types of movement we do with the waist, it becomes capable of more (we can wiggle freely).  We learn to really govern our movement through the waist.  We balance out our yin and our yang movements.  And we learn to hit with the coordinated power of our whole bodies, rooted to the earth.

Some people ask why certain styles or masters do not show as heavy an emphasis on waist movement as others.  Is waist movement style-specific, then?  Is is merely aesthetic?  Does it have application to only certain types of techniques?

Movement through the waist is a hallmark of traditional Chinese martial arts, and one might even make the argument that it is the fundamental to optimal human movement.  It is not style or movement specific, though the particular manifestation of waist movement can be both.  It can also vary somewhat within styles, depending on the person doing the movement.

As we experiment in powering and coordinating our movements through the waist, we refine our techniques.  At a high level, the actual waist movement can become very small, very subtle. But the essential function of coordinating the movement and lines of force is still present.  At this level the movement is said to become “hidden”.  But without long periods of training the full capacity of the waist with – at times – exaggerated movement, the “hidden” force is unattainable.

So look at the exercises in your training regimen, look at your forms, and individual movement drills, and purposefully wiggle your waist!

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2 Responses to Wiggling the Waist

  1. Loukaei says:

    Nice post. Can you provide some examples or descriptions of the waist training exercises you mention?


    • Andrew Shinn says:

      Thanks for the comment!

      Every style has slightly different requirements for waist usage – I’m not sure about your reference point. Chen taijiquan, for example usually begins with chansijing exercises. Like a lot of styles, they use both large and small movements to train. usually, large movements are taught first, and then the student compresses his frame into smaller movements. At some point, the obviousness of the waist movement decreases, and it looks like the practitioner isn’t doing spiral movement. Here’s a little clip of Chen Xiaowang practicing a movement that starts with both hands and legs driven by the waist and then just the hands driven by the same waist movement:

      Now in terms of Northern Praying Mantis, we work gou, lou cai as a basic training pattern. If you’re familiar with this movement, it can be practiced as a very large frame movement with leg work accompanying each hand movement. It can also be practiced standing still in a “natural stance”, just letting the waist drive the arms and the rooting of the stance. This move is a basic hook with the back of the hand/forearm, followed by a press with the other hand, and then a strike with the first hand. It’s really common in Mantis forms, and some other northern forms as well. So we teach the large frame movement with stepping as a line drill, and then also practice the exact same hand motion with small waist spirals, generating the same feeling and connection as the large frame.

      I should really do quick video clips of these ideas, but I wanted to respond promptly, so hopefully my descriptions offer you a hook to hang these ideas on for now.

      Another extremely simple exercise involves throwing a cross punch while in a bow stance, then pivoting 180 degrees to throw the same punch with the other side in the other lead bow. Taken literally, this would imply that you are fighting two people on either side of you. This would be idiotic from a combat perspective, but is a great way to train the power and coordination of the legs, waist and arms into strikes by focusing on the large frame.

      Please feel free to ask any follow-up questions!


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