Updated: Oct 12
One of the most common mistakes that beginners and even some advanced people make is to bring their elbows too far back. In this post we will look at why you should not bring your elbows past the side of your body, and how to correct it.
I’m sure you have seen people do their “Opening Posture” where they raise their arms and then bring their elbows behind the side of their body as they move their arms down. Or, you may have seen some people do a “Push Posture” by pulling their elbows past the side of their body before they go forward to push.
Now you may think, “What’s the big deal? So what if the elbows go a little behind the body? That’s how the posture is done!“
No, that is not the right way to do movements in taiji, and I’ll demonstrate to you why in a minute. Keep in mind that it is not about your style, or my style, or any style. This is about the principles of taiji and how taiji is done correctly based on those principles.
This is why the Elbow Should Not Go Behind the Body
When your elbow moves past your midline, it is as if you are disconnecting your arm from your body. When it does that, your arm can only use the shoulder muscles to exert any force; the rest of your body is not being used.
To feel the disconnect when the elbow is too far back, try this simple move. Move your arms back so that your elbows go past your back. If I put my arms on your biceps or wrists to stop you from going forward, it will be very difficult for you to move forward. You will have to struggle and use muscular force because all you’re using are your arms and some of your shoulder muscles to try to move me. When your elbows go past a certain point past your side, your arms are lose their connection to your body so that you can not use your legs and trunk for power. Taiji is effective because you create power from your entire body, but if you cut your arms off from your body, you cannot get that power into your arms. To correct the situation, move your elbows forward from your midline, and now feel how your body gets involved in pushing back.
When your arm is up and you’re doing “Fair Lady” or “White Crane” but your elbow is behind your midline it is very easy to stop your arm from coming down because, again, when the elbow is too far back, it loses the connection to the body and it is relying on the shoulder muscles to make the move.
Chest In – Back Out & Eggs Under Your Armpit
When you bring your elbow back too far you are going against one of taiji’s primary axiom: “Chest in, Back out”. You may have seen this with slightly different wording, but the meaning is that your chest sinks in and your back rounds. Another way to describe it is by saying the shoulder blades move apart to create a rounded back, while at the same time your chest sinks inward and creates a hollowness around the sternum. The opposite of “Chest in-Back out” is a soldier standing at attention where the chest is puffed out.
Most players have been told to keep an egg under each armpit. It sounds silly, but it is a way of getting beginning students to expand their back and hollow their chest. As silly as it sounds, if you do not have an egg under your armpit, your arms fall to your side, and when they do, your chest stick out a bit. With your arms at your sides and someone holding your wrists, you are not be able to move without a struggle. But, when your arms are away from your body because you have “Chest in-Back out”, your arms connect to your back, and to your legs, so that you have the power of your entire body. When you have “Chest in-Back out” you have “peng jin” which is the heart of every posture and what gives taiji it’s unique characteristic.
So what does “Chest in-Back out” have to do with the elbows being too far back. Imagine the human body as having a seam that runs along the side of the body like the seam in your jeans or your shirt. Bringing the elbows behind this line pushes your chest forward and your shoulder blades scrunch toward each other. This is the exact opposite of “Chest in-Back out” and it destroys any peng-jin that you want to have in your postures.
Try this simple movement: Bring your elbow to your side, just slightly in front of your body. Slowly move your elbow back to the midline and past it. At some point you will begin to feel your shoulder blade moving towards your spine. You may have to repeat this a few times to clearly feel the shoulder blade move. When you feel the shoulder blade start to move inwards, it tells you that you have moved your elbow too far back. Once your scapulae start moving inward, toward each other, you no longer have “Chest in-Back out”, and you have lost the connection between your ming-men and your arms, and your arms have lost their taiji power.
Every taiji style, whether it’s Yang, or Chen, or Wu, or Wu Ji Jing Gong follow the same classical sayings because they work. Hollowing the chest and rounding the back works. Not hollowing the chest and rounding the back does not. It’s as simple as that. So, you need to be sure you understand and feel how the “Chest in-Back” out works to create a correct taiji posture, and what happens when you don’t have it.
To understand the effectiveness of “Chest in-Back out” try this simple experiment. Put your arms in front of you as if doing an opening posture. Have someone push on your arms. First do it with your chest slightly forward and your back in, and then reverse it, and do it with your chest in and back rounded. Do it slowly and repeatedly until you can clearly feel the difference. Which was more powerful? Which required you to use muscular force? Which one felt like the energy was going into your opponent, and which felt like it was going back to you?
Raise your arm up as in Fair Lady with the elbow at or behind the midline. Feel your chest and your back. Is your chest sticking out? Is your shoulder blade moving inwards, toward the other shoulder blade? Can you move your arm if someone is stopping you? Now Move the elbow forward and feel your chest and back. Feel your power.
As you can see. When your elbow moves past your midline, you are disconnecting your arm from your body. When your elbow exceeds your midline, your arm loses its power and can only use the shoulder muscles to exert any force; the rest of your body is not being used. Obviously, “Chest in-Back out” is important. The position of the elbow is directly related and critical to effectively using the chest and back.
The position of your elbows is critical for doing your postures correctly, and for generating power in your taiji. I urge you to go back to your form and try to find each of the places where you may be bringing your elbows back too far. This is a good way to correct any flaws in your posture and to start to take your tai chi to a higher level.
Written By: Joseph Eber