You might wonder if you really need to do a warm up before practising tai chi. It’s slow and gentle and easy … there’s no great exertion needed so you’ll be fine to hop right in there, right? Wrong. If you want to quickly run through a form with minimal knee bend and short steps, then you might get away with it. But you can forget trying to balance. If you want to feel the flow and work on your form, then you absolutely need to warm up effectively.
There are different types of practise. The quick run through is really beneficial when you’re learning a form and want to remember what move comes next. You can do a quick run through any time without needing a proper warm up. But if you want to do the type of practise where you experience a state of deep flow and meditation, where you are not distracted by creaking joints, then you really should warm up first.
There are important physiological benefits to a warm up:
The heart rate increases and pumps blood around the body more quickly;
The cardiac output is increased, allowing greater blood flow to working muscles;
Blood flow is redirected to the working muscles and reduced to the organs;
The temperature of muscles and connective tissues increases, reducing viscosity;
The respiratory rate increases, allowing increased transfer of oxygen and carbon dioxide;
Muscles are more able to contract and lengthen efficiently;
Tendons and ligaments are more able to support the joints effectively;
Nerve receptors become more sensitive and prepared to work faster;
Increased ability to remove metabolic waste products like carbon dioxide and lactic acid.
There are also important benefits from a psychological perspective. Competitive athletes will benefit from gradually moving into optimal arousal levels for peak performance. They get their ‘game face’ on. For tai chi and qigong, it’s very similar although I’d use different language. The process of warming up allows you to focus on what you are doing, and gradually bring your mind into the present. You can notice what thoughts intrude, and then gently send them on their way for attention later. You gradually focus your mind on the moves, the breathing, the repetition. By the time your body is warmed up, your brain will also be in the right space so that you can enjoy your practise. The tai chi equivalent of ‘game face’ is relaxed, focussed and peaceful.
So what should a tai chi warm up look like? All of the major joints of the body should be taken through a comfortable range of movement so that as many muscle groups as possible are used and ‘woken up’. That will look different in probably every class. I have a preferred pattern or formula that I like to follow:
Quiet meditative movement focussing on the breath with gentle knee bends and gentle rotation;
More vigorous swinging of the arms and body with broader stance and deeper knee bend;
Dynamic stretches starting at the shoulders and working down the body;
Massage of front, back and sides of the knees;
More specific weight transfer targeting the hips and knees;
More specific again with weight transfer and single limb balances. This might include drills like repeated brush knees, repulse monkeys or cross kicks;
Whole body integrating move like shaking, wobbling, vibrating or jolting.
This is a general formula which I sometimes vary, but more often than not follow. Things that I avoid in a warm up are slow, static stretches, and dynamic neck movements.
Static stretches actually switch off the strength and power of a muscle. If you stretch for 30 seconds or so, it will feel great, but you won’t be able to get maximal strength or power out of that muscle afterwards. You might argue that you don’t need maximal strength or power for your tai chi practise. That may be so, but I want every bit of my strength available to me. It takes a lot of effort to build and maintain strength, so I don’t want to switch it off! If you want to work on your flexibility, then static stretches are the go, just don’t do them in your warm up, do them in your cool down.
In a warm up, do dynamic stretches where joints are actively moved through a complete range of movement with no long holding at end range. This does not need to be fast, slow is good. Many qigong sets are basically dynamic stretches – think of the Ba Duan Jin for example. All joints from the neck to the ankles are moved through a range of motion in a controlled manner. That form is great as a warm up when done at a level to suit your own level of conditioning (as in, don’t try to match the movements of the Masters on YouTube – soft tissues are liable to tear if you do). The Shibashi sets are also great warm ups.
Regarding the neck, I’d argue that you don’t really need to warm it up terribly much for tai chi. There’s no need to take it through lateral flexion or full rotation for example, as we don’t get close to those movements in the form. Many qigong forms will have hyperextension of the neck - looking upwards - and this needs to be done very carefully. I consider the neck a rather delicate area that should be treated with great respect. I occasionally do Dr Paul Lam’s neck warm ups that take the neck through retraction, flexion and rotation with accompanying hand movements. They are lovely exercises, but are fairly low down on my priority list due to not being particularly necessary and also taking up a fair amount of time. If you really want to work on the neck, then by all means do, but I don't see it as essential preparation for tai chi practise.
Speaking of time, how long should a warm up take? I think 15 minutes is just about spot on and would say ten minutes would be the absolute minimum. You need time to get through all of the joints of the body at a reasonable pace. There’s no point in absently going through the motions or rushing through without real intent to actually warm up. I’d include self massage in there as well. I love rubbing the knees in my warm ups, but if you’re going to do it, then do it properly. A five-second rub is meaningless. Really get in there, front, back and sides, feel the tissues move and stretch under your touch, get the area really warm.
As we get older we need to take a bit longer to warm up the body. If you are nursing injuries or chronic pain conditions, you’ll also need to take a bit longer. We need to warm up gradually, not in a hurry. If you have specific exercises for an injury that have been prescribed by a physiotherapist or other allied health provider, I’d suggest doing them as part of your home warm up, or doing them before you go to class. Then that injured area will be pre-warmed up and less vulnerable. You can also passively warm the area with a hot pack before you then actively warm up.
Not surprisingly, we take longer to warm up in winter. We’re coming off a colder base and it takes more time to get the blood flowing to the right areas. Wear layers and keep warm.
The upshot of an effective warm up is that your tai chi will be smoother as you effortlessly transfer your weight from one leg to the next. You will be able to balance more effectively, whether it’s during brush knees or when performing a kick. You may even be able to kick a little higher, as you’ve reduced the resistance coming from the opposite muscle through stretching. You may be able to sink a little lower, as your muscles are ready and able to work. You may be less distracted by your body, as you’ve already worked through the glitches and groans of stiff joints. All of these benefits leave you able to truly focus on your form and the intent behind the movements. You will be very much in the present and able to focus on what you are doing right here, right now.