Home > Concepts & Principles > How to distinguish an Internal system from an External system for beginners

How to distinguish an Internal system from an External system for beginners

July 22, 2011

Today Martial Arts are classified as either an Internal or External system. Many people think of the three sisters (Xingyi, Bagua, Taiji) as the only internal systems. This is not the case, they are just the most commonly known today. My goal here is to give you some insights into the differences that may help you find the right approach for you. Both External and Internal approaches can be very effective when you learn a valid system under a qualified teacher. Here are some differences to help you distinguish between the two approaches when observing or choosing a specific system.


There is a wide variety of external systems and they have a wide variety of approaches. In external systems you see much less time devoted to learning basic stances and fundamentals. You don’t see the emphasis on relaxation. You do see more emphasis on developing physical strength, endurance, and flexibility in the early stages. Straight line force tends to be used for blocking and striking, though large circular force is sometimes used. Very little time if any is spent on developing feeling to interpret attacks. Attack and defense rely on quick reflexes. This means you reach your peak quickly and at a young age. Often force is used against force. Lots of one step and two step sparring is a regular part of training. Techniques rely on external strength, though later internal power may be emphasized. They may practice Chi Kung exercises to develop this power. They often isolate body parts like arms or legs to strike, using muscles inefficiently. For example they might develop a solid stance but, only use the waist and the arm to generate force for a strike.  They may only use the arm by itself to generate a strike. The force produced is very rigid, and can be likened to hitting something with a hammer.


Focus is much more on structure, balance, relaxation, and proper alignment. Internal systems focus more on training the nervous system to move your body in an integrated/unified method. Small subtle circular movements are used. Sensitivity, relaxation, sticking, and following the opponents power are emphasized. By doing this it is possible to continue to develop skills well into old age. The opponents force is used against them. They tend to use longer two man fighting forms, and sensitivity drills to develop flow and fighting skills. Development of internal power is a primary goal. Chi Kung/Nei Kung is practiced for health as well as power. Taoist breathing and meditation techniques along with Traditional Chinese Medical theory are used to develop power, and fighting movements. Integrated body movement is used to generate power. You will often hear that an internal stylist hits with his feet. Power comes from the ground through your root (normally your foot), and is directed by the waist. With the whole body integrated the power generation resembles putting a chisel on what you want to hit, then striking the chisel with a hammer.

Things to keep in mind:

One thing to keep in mind is that you must keep in accordance with the correct principles of any system to be truly practicing that system.  It is possible to practice an external system with internal principles, and an internal system with external principles. After all when you first learn any form as a beginner it is purely external movement. Once you have the form you can begin working on the principles of the system.

While I believe it is possible for someone to have learned an external system, then later learned an internal system, I don’t believe you can maintain a high level of skill in both approaches. Learning an internal art may help augment your external martial arts but, you will not be able to develop high levels of skill in an internal martial art while training in an external style. The approaches are contradictory. Eventually you must choose one or the other approach to advance to the higher levels.

If you go to a school that primarily focuses on external systems like a karate school and they teach Taiji, you need to watch to see if they are teaching taiji in accordance to taiji principles. The school may have different teachers for the different systems, but may have one teacher teaching all the systems at the school. If their taiji looks like a karate guy doing a taiji form, it isn’t taiji, regardless of what form they are mimicking. You would be wasting your time learning taiji from them, though their karate may be very good.

You may also run into an Internal school where they teach an external style either as a gateway system, or for children. It is normally a system that the teacher learned prior to studying internal martial arts. While I have seen many people start out training external systems, and later move to internal systems, I’ve never seen someone go the other way. While the teacher may explain the system in the context of an external art to his students, if you watch him actually move you’ll most likely see the same internal principles now in the external system that are in his internal system. What you need to be aware of is that the teacher doesn’t practice this system any more then he has to to teach students, because it can interfere with the development of his internal martial arts.

This is not to imply that one approach or the other is better. They are both great choices, you need to pick the one that best fits you. The approach that is best for you today may not be the best approach for you in the future.

Mike Murphy


Categories: Concepts & Principles
  1. July 25, 2011 at 5:20 pm

    This sounds like what I had learned, hard and soft, as. Hard being external, Soft being internal.

    • mwmurphy59
      July 25, 2011 at 5:40 pm

      Good. I think that most people with much exposure, or training in the martial arts would agree with this as a basic description of the differences. When someone has never trained before, the concept of internal and external can be a little confusing. Hopefully a little understanding can help them choose the best system for them.

  2. July 25, 2011 at 5:57 pm

    I have never studied internal YET, however I am very interested in learning and leaving the hard. It was a great place to start but I feel maybe too commercialized at this point putting schools in the position to concentrate on areas with little merit and leave out some extremely important fundamentals. This was a great article as all have been.

    • mwmurphy59
      July 25, 2011 at 6:43 pm

      Thanks for saying so. I took my first classes in Tai Kwon Do in 1971. I spent the next 20 years focused on the external arts. I trained everything I could with anyone I could during that time. In 1991 I was living in my Kempo school, when I first started to train internal systems seriously for my own development. For 5 years I tried to train both equally. It helped my external arts, but I was making very limited progress on the internal. I had to stop training external arts on a regular basis to make real progress on the internal. After 20 years of training external arts I felt I had peaked. After 20 years of internal arts now, I’m still peeling back the layers of the onion, and expect to continue to learn and hopefully getting better for the rest of my life.

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