The problem with push hands

Credit: Image courtesy of

This blog post is written after reading Scott Phillips’ excellent account of his encounter of pushing hands with another notable Tai Chi blogger… Tabby Cat here.

Interesting post. It reminds me a lot of all the (sometimes depressing) Tai Chi push hands encounters I’ve had with other practitioners. I think the problem is that everybody has a different view of Push hands than everybody else, and these encounters always end up in ‘passive aggressive smiling through gritted teeth’ ideological stand-offs.

My push hands seems to be a lot freer than other people’s. I’m not a fan of this idea that ‘you lose if you move your foot’. As the author says, if your training this as a martial art that’s an absurd conclusion to come to, also moving a foot is yielding, should we not yield now in the art of yielding to force and overcoming it?

But I can also see the value of attribute training.

It comes down to push hands being a useful vehicle for a teacher to use to get across their teaching to a student, but an essentially useless vehicle to test a stranger’s skills out. Sadly it seems to be used for the later all the time!

I don’t know what the solution is. I’m trying to come up with something called GPF Push hands, which is a rule set that will allow for an actual test of skill. (Humorously known as Ground Path Free Push Hands). It’s still a work in progress and the main issue to overcome is ‘what makes this different to wrestling?’

Anyway, you can see a few of my videos of GPF Approved Basic Techniques at:

14 thoughts on “The problem with push hands

  1. I just like the valuable info you supply on your articles.

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  2. I’ve been sorely neglecting this blog and need to update it – a post on blocking would be a good idea – thanks for the idea!

    One thing that’s useful for ‘moving things to the next level’ is something called touch sparring – we do this too – it’s kind of like sparring with a push hands feel – a bit like Wing Chun’s Sticky Hands. I took a video of this last week, so could do a post on that as well… Hmmmm…. so much to do!


  3. Yes, now I see you are leaning towards the need to block or parry which is a sorely under trained skill in Tai Chi. I noticed that you have already addressed this in one of your videos, and maybe elsewhere. It is also an area I am building in my own training as well as in my push-hands club.


  4. Hi Andrew,

    I know what you mean about this ‘internal yielding’ – essentially the ability to neutralise an attack without moving your foot. I’m sure it’s a useful skill, but it can also be mental trap to fall into in training – sure it can work against a soft or medium push, but no amount of ‘internal yielding’ is going to help you when you’re being punched in the face or facing a wrestler’s shoot. Training yourself to deliberately not move to prove how great your internal yielding is in this situations is not advised for obvious reasons!

    I think your teachers words should become a couplet in typical contradictory Chinese style:

    “if you always move your foot you never develop ‘internal’ yielding,
    but if you never move your foot then you will get punched in the mouth!”



  5. It may have been mentioned here already but of course the ‘three step’ push hands practice brings retreating and advancing into the basic pattern and then dalu brings in the four corners and rotating. It would be nice to see tai chi players practice those patterns more often.

    My teacher has said fixed step is the most important but I think fixed step is not always done in one position. I think moving step push hands is not meant to make up for faults in fixed step but rather extend the length of a technique or change its angle. We can do moving step while still feeling like we are doing fixed step. And that leads me to a great comment I read by someone else here who said: “if you always move your foot you never develop ‘internal’ yielding.”


  6. Thanx for your advice, though I do not fully concur in every detail.

    About the video: Only one of the ppl I work with in any of my videos is significantly smaller than me. All the others in my videos are about my weight or heavier, though I may be slightly taller. (I’m a pretty slim guy, weighin’ in at 75 kg) But seriously: Rooting against TWO persons trying to do double leg takedown to you simultaneously, standing on one leg letting my partner grab the other while kicking and sweeping my supporting leg, Fighting off two real time attackers at the same time, avoid getting cut 87% of the time against real time knife attacks, withstanding full power ELBOW BLOWS to the solar plexus -What is it here that doesn’t translate well to video??!

    And even if it doesn’t, those experienced in internal arts will look at the body mechanics being applied, and make their judgement based on that, not on the relative size of the partner. And I don’t make these videos to show off, they primarily serve as documentation of our progress, and a tool for self evaluation. (As for the push hands vid, I chose to film with him because he’s the instructor, and presumably the best in the room, not cus of his size.)

    As for pushing and finishing: In push hands we train to instantly feel and take control of our opponent’s/partner’s body mass. So pushing hands is NOT fighting per se., Never has been! It’s a training tool. Real fighting looks very different, but the same skill is applied to deflect/intercept and control the attacker’s body the moment he makes an aggressive move. Once you got this down, FINISHING IS SO FRIGGIN EASY IT’S A JOKE. The only reason ppl struggle with finishing, is because they err at the beginning/entry (or of course if you’re up against someone stronger AND more skilled than yourself). When we spar we emphasize the fight-winning/loosing factors of closing, timing, intercepting, rooting, psychology etc. The outcome is determined the moment we make contact, or at worst within 2-5 seconds after, and we both know -always! No need to continue every time just to build our ego, and look good on video, or..? That being said, we do sometimes continue to finish when sparring (seldom in push hands), and I’m sure you can find some nice examples of that too in our video library! (Especially some of the knife material feature pins and locks, cause that’s a natural way to go when already controlling the knife arm, when fighting an unarmed attacker we prefer to knock the mofo right out -much simpler and more effective.)




  7. Ah, you see, your story is exactly right – you started with a technique based art, and then looked to Tai chi to give you the edge after you’d already learned lots of good technique. You need to have mastered form before you try to master ‘no-form’ – I see it as a progression. Unfortunately most Tai Chi people start at ‘no-form’ so they never get anywhere, Hence GPF Push Hands, which is trying to put then technique back in!

    My comments on the video are that the things you are trying to show don’t translate well to video! You seem a lot bigger than most of your opponents, so it’s hard to see if your rooting is just because you are big and strong, or some other more internal skill. I’m short, so it’s easy to find people bigger than me to demonstrate on, but I think you’ll need to find somebody taller and heavier than you if you want to demonstrate rooting – show it works against them too. You also seem to lack technique – there’s a lot of pushing people off, but no ‘finishing’. Keep pushing people off and they just come back. Please take these criticisms in a positive attempt to help you improve. I liked the fact you are ok taking blows.



  8. Yeah, I did like that last vid on peng! As I said, I do like some of what you’re showing on video. Here’s my first attempt at a home video on different aspects elastic energy and body structure, just skip to the last half for the most interesting stuff:

    I for one don’t think techniques are “bad”. You need to have some kinda technical repertoire, and especially the beginner should know at least a handful of techniques. It’s the “he does A, then I do B” -mindset that’s wrong. No matter which end you start, the goal in internal arts must be automatic, spontaneous reaction, with no thought (wuwei).

    “this is how you do things in Judo, for example, and I’d say their success rates are considerably higher at turning out people who can actually ‘use it’.”

    -Funny you should bring up Judo, since that was my first love in the martial arts, and I consider myself quite knowledgeable on the subject. While anyone who’s trained Judo for a prolonged period of time will be somewhat better equipped to handle street violence than an untrained person, all the practioneers who are actually good at judo share two traits:

    1. They all specialize in just one or two main throwing techniques, and possibly one or two supporting techniques (used in combinations to set up the main technique, or as a followup if the main technique fails), for a total of usually no more than three techniques, which they use 99,5% of the time in competition, and spend most of their time training these. (Of course they can demonstrate the other forty or sixty throws, but not apply them against a resisting opponent.) This holds true for all elite judo players I’ve met, as well as all time greats Yamashita (o-soto-gari), and Koga (Sode-tsuri-komi-goshi and morote-seoi-nage).

    2. They all do serious amounts of weight and other strength training, to power their techniques. In modern Judo it’s not enough to be technical (probably never has been), so you need excessive amounts of strength to pull your technique off against a skilled player.

    Interpret this any way you like, and take it into consideration when designing your new competition format. As I said: Whatever takes you towards your goal can be considered “right”.

    My story: I finally got to the point where my technical skill was pretty decent in both Judo and Taichi, but still I couldn’t get consistent results in randori, tuishou and sparring practice. My judo mentor told me to start lifting serious weights, which was the exact opposite of what I wanted. A short time later I started training my internal strength and fighting principles instead. -I never looked back! Brute force defeats purely technical skill most of the time, but refined force above a certain level is more powerful than brute force, and it trancends technique. Though there is of course technique, your mind is not on using technique.


  9. Hey Pete!

    GPF Push hands is definitely a work in progress. It’s meant to be a competition format, rather than a learning environment, but whose to say it won’t function as both. It’s totally technique based – the idea is that you learn how to ‘push’ it by following a syllabus of set techniques until you get to the point where you can freestyle it (at which point you are in competition mode). Hence the emphasis on techniques in my videos.

    There’s so much talk that techniques are ‘bad’ things you get trapped in in Tai Chi circles, that I wanted to come at the problem from 180 degrees – the idea being that you learn about the principles through techniques, not the other way around. I mean, this is how you do things in Judo, for example, and I’d say their success rates are considerably higher at turning out people who can actually ‘use it’.

    I’ve got more ‘free’ things on my YouTube account – some are very old now, but here’s

    Sparring with gloves and helmets:

    Soft sparring:

    Free push hands:

    And something on Peng, that might makes sense to you or might not. Let’s see!



  10. Hey Graham!

    First: I do think you’re onto something, otherwise I wouldn’t bother to offer advise.

    Second: I guess everything that takes you toward your desired goal, can be considered “right”, though some practices get you there faster.

    Third: I didn’t get what GPF pushhands really is, and what it would look like. The videos you linked to was more technique oriented, feel free to elaborate.


    P.S: I sent you a longer version of this comment, with videolinks to your ytube account.


  11. Hi Peter,

    You want to see more videos of me? Well here I am!

    Knock yourself out 🙂

    OK, this is me:

    I’ve got lots of other stuff on there. Maybe one of them will hit your ideas of what is ‘right’, or maybe not. C’est la vie.



  12. Hey folks!

    I originally posted this over at Scott’s blog. Maybe some of you will find it useful.

    After reading the entertaining exchange between Philips and Tabby, I’m not gonna take sides. Since I wasn’t there, I can’t comment on what really happened. Philips has some good points about how to play push hands, but I must admit, based on Philips’ videos (I have never seen Tabby), Tabby’s review of the meet doesn’t sound totally unlikely either. And he definitely believes in his own version of what happened himself. I’m just gonna offer my unanswered questions and some of my perspective on what push should/could be:

    -First, this idea of attribute training: Are you guys talking techniques here, or are you talking actual skills, like rooting, turning, aliveness, compressing, expanding here? There’s a big difference!

    -Tabbycat: You say the goal of fixed step PH is to make the partner move one or two feet. Well, not really. At least application wise, the goal of ALL PH is to take control of you partners’ body and mass, while staying rooted and strong and denying him to do the same to you. A slight distinction perhaps, but a very important one!

    -Generally I dislike the practice of TOTALLY fixed step PH, cause it’s unnatural, counter productive with regards to combat, and players tend to twist and bend into all possible weak positions, sacrificing all power, root and body structure, just to avoid being scored on, developing all different kinds of bad habits and problems. I see so much fixed step RUBBISH, it’s a crying shame! Better to stand still, but allow the feet to slide a little bit, and even taking a halfstep forward or back now and then. You always know when you’re being scored on anyway, and when you’re scoring -if both players have some skill and a good attitude, there’s no need for silly rules.

    -Graham: Push hands should be competitive -sort of.. Meaning, if your partner is gonna grow, and get more skilled, you have to give him very real resistance, and do your best to get him -while keeping to the movement principles as much as you can, of course. And your partner should do the same to you. If he just follows your moves, to make you look good, then he’s robbing you, and none of you will get any more skilled in Taichi. It’ll be just dancing. I see a lot of dancing in your videos. You seem mostly about movements and technical analysis. Tell me: How’s your root and your peng jin? Do you ever train against real resistance, in an un-choreographed way? Do you do zhan zhuang and chigong? These are the things that matter, not memorization of techniques and pretty choreographed drills! I might sound a lil bit negative here, but I’m only trying to help, by giving you some questions to ponder!

    -Finally, I wanna add that everyone should quit this endless jabber about ego! it’s the oldest cliche, and accusing someone of having a big ego says absolutely nothing about the person in question, it’s just a childish way to score silly points in a debate/quarrel! Ego is a very real thing, and can be a great obstacle in both taichi, and life in general. But the size of my ego, is between me and my ego, not too many others have any real first hand knowledge on the matter.

    Just my perspective.




  13. Agree – Aikido seems to always move the feet while trying to retain the connection to the centre. There’s no harm in learning to yield using both methods, it’s the rigid adherence to one method over the other that I don’t like.

    For example I’ve heard people say that if you always move your foot you never develop ‘internal’ yielding. I kind of see what they mean, but this can’t be where push hands finishes.

    Good point about not trying to win.


  14. I agree. A foot moving is perfectly acceptable – and really that is where counters start. In my style of aikido and judo we never stop moving our feet. The vast majority of the soft connection comes from a moving center.

    The best way to best out a new guy is to play to lose. Become the ultimate loser. Lose lose lose. If in the process of losing you keep finding giant holes you cannot help but fill, you have your litmus test.

    Beyond that, I believe you are going to throw tai chi out the window and then you just start wrestling as you battle to determine the greater phallus. Drawing out to much ego with a visitor or new guy tends to be lose-lose situation.

    Walk in Peace


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