Free Style Tui Shou – Pushing Hands

Tai Chi Chuan is one of the main arts I practice and Tui Shou (aka Pushing Hands) is a key component of the art. Just like you do in Judo, wrestling or muay Thai, we also work on our grappling though at first glance it looks very different from those arts. There are some key principles when you do these drills and I’ll explain them in a bit but first the video:


Some thoughts on all this:

  • Like I said, I usually don’t attack all that much. I’m pretty much always the heaviest guy around so it would be way too easy for me to use my weight advantage. It’d be easy to overpower my training partners but I don’t learn anything when I do that. So instead, I try to avoid using pure physical strength and place myself in vulnerable or difficult positions. That way, I am forced to work on getting more skilled instead of powering through everything I come across.
  • This means I often practice in a way that looks a little funky but It helps me get better. For instance, at 15sec I sink into a very low stance and try to get underneath my partner’s center of gravity. As he’s smaller than me, this isn’t easy to do.  Once there, I decided to absorb everything he did and slowly worked him towards a loss of balance. The same happens at 5.00min: I could have pushed my partner off balance there but instead, I just rose up from my lower stance and used my upper body to prevent him from easily regaining his balance. This forced him to bring his arm across and then I used that against him.  Basically, I’m playing a chess game in which I try to force my opponent to waste his pieces away while keeping mine on the board; Eventually, he has nothing left and loses. I try to do the same thing here; bring him to the point where he has no other choice but to fall.
  • I’m probably the worst possible guy to show pushing hands as because of my size, it always looks like I’m using muscle. I’m not, but there’s no way for me to prove that, other than to let people push hands with me so they can feel it. So you’ll just have to take my word for it. Or come to the Open Mat sessions (where I shot this footage) a buddy and I organize twice a year and play.
  • A lot of people miss this obvious point but please remember that this is not fighting. It’s skill training. Pushing hands teaches many things: getting used to being in contact with an opponent, feeling what he’s doing when you clinch, use his movements against him, learn how to break his balance, learn how to keep your own, etc. Think of it like MMA guys practicing to get to a dominant position when they’re on the ground. The dominant position isn’t the end of the fight, but it does give you a better shot at striking, choking, joint locks, etc. The same goes for Tui Shou: the better you are at it, the better your striking, throwing and locking techniques can work.
  • The key word in the previous sentence is “can“. Just because you play Pushing Hands a lot doesn’t mean you can use those skills to fight with. It takes additional training in which you incorporate those other techniques into the framework of what you saw in the video. If you train hard and diligently, it is indeed possible to use those skill for real. However, it probably won’t look anywhere near as flashy as what you do in free-style training. Which is as it should be. On the street, results count, not looking pretty.
  • Before the tai chi purists get their chi in a twist: this is free-style training. It is not formal training. I do plenty of that as well.
  • Also, feel free to disagree with the way I practice and call it Neanderthal tai chi if you like. That’s fine by me. But if you feel I’m using “brute strength”, then it should be very easy for you to use it against me with your superior skills, shouldn’t it? :-)

I hope you all enjoyed the clip and can find some use for it in your own training.



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  1. Nice video. To make it more challenging for “heavier guys” we sometimes keep our eyes closed. It makes you concentrate on balance and keeping that relaxed structure as you become more aware of your center line (core and suspended headtop).

    I’ve noticed that if I immediately start with freestyle most of the time it starts to look like really bad greco-roman wrestling and the training is ruined. I guess the main reason is that it’s hard enough to concentrate your mind on standing still let alone pushing hands after workdays. So my question is do you prepare yourself and students beforehand to try to get relaxed and centered (balanced and concentrated)?

    • Juha, We also sometimes train with the eyes closed. The only thing I don’t like about it is the risk of accidental head-butts and elbow strikes when the tui shou speeds up. Things can go very wrong, very fast when that happens with heavyweights.

      Me and my students don’t do any special preparation before doing free style pushing hands. The only thing I avoid is doing it early on in class. I usually wait until the second half of class and people are warmed up correctly. I also avoid doing it straight away after working on applications.
      IMO and IME, if it devolves into brute strength wrestling, then one or both of the participants wants to “win” too much. As in, they don’t want to lose to the other person so they rather use brute force than be the one losing balance. We all go through that phase when we start practicing but you should grow out of it. Because it gets in the way of practicing what you should be focusing on. As a teacher, I always correct students if they use too much brute strength and explain (once again) the difference between “li” and “jin”.

      • Thanks for the good advice Wim.

        As you mentioned on your answer to Dennis competition training different and you should not do this too often. For good competition grappling i like to watch professional greco-roman and judo people since it’s difficult to find good competition videos on amateurs pushing hands. Competitions concentrating only on pushing hands are a modern invention and this did not exist in it’s current form in the old days. To my knowledge before these push hands competitions emerged it was either full contact or shuai jiao(wrestling).

        Tui shou is skill training and about testing your and your partners centre(concentration and good balance) and structure (stance and core) – which are trained in form training and neigong.

        Using trained force against brute force and listening your partners force is not easy to accomplish if you need to prove something to yourself (as a practitioner) or your students (as a teacher). Unfortunately it is too tempting to resort to brute strength and some fancy technique just to prove that you’re best in that moment.

        More important than winning (unless you’re charlie sheen) is that you concentrate on relaxing and not wanting to push(win) yourself. Just by moving around your centre line and using your – not so pliant – opponents force against him you’ll end up with better listening skills and perhaps broaden your knowledge about how these force listening skills can be applied in self defence or – if you wish – in pushing hands competitions (why not try these skills against good judo people or wrestlers who compete all the time).

  2. Shane MacLaughlin says

    Great post, Wim. Your free mat sessions look excellent and brilliant fun too, been watching a few of them now from afar. Pity Belgium is so damn far away, Just started back to regular free tui shou training myself after a couple of years away from, and I’d forgotten how much fun it can be, particularly against better opponents.

    all the best,


    • Well, Belgian is a nice place to visit over the weekend. You could arrive on Sat. morning, push hands for a few hours and then spend the rest of the weekend eating chocolate and drinking beer. Just a thought… :-)

  3. Wim – well done. Most of the guys you were pushing with were longer and taller, meaning they have reach advantage, but clearly most if not all of them were less skilled. It’s interest to compare the drills you demonstrate with the competition clips of Torben – who is built similar to you.

    I thought the line was interesting too. The one you straddle in the Moving Step Free Style practice: I hadn’t seen that before and never did get to do it yet.

    It would be great to see more examples of this stuff with various sized guys. Do you know of any cliips of Paul Mitchell, for example, a guy who I understand is among Dan’s top students and a successful competitor? It is interesting to note the differences in preferred technics (seemingly preferred anyway, I just see video clips mostly from where I sit in the US) among various sized individuals.


    • Dennis,
      The things I primarily do in the video have very little to do with what I do in pushing hands competitions. Competitions are about winning. The open mat sessions my video comes from are not at all about that, on the contrary. In the latter, I try to make it challenging for myself and give my training partners loads of opportunities to attack me. In competition, I’d be a fool to do that. Now I may be Belgian but I’m not *that* stupid. :-) When I compete, I’m a lot more offensive even though I do still prefer to counter over attacking. But I don’t give anything away for free then. I have some video clips from when I competed in the Swedish Open a long time ago. I’ll see if I can put those on line too so you can see the contrast between my strategies when training (to become more skilled) and competing (to take home a worthless, fake-gold medal… :-))

      In competition, there are a bunch of high percentage strategies most fighters use. Like Torben does in fixed step: pull straight into the void with a snap as a first move. Either the opponent is off balance and he falls or he resists and then you push him back, using his force against him. This works real well. It’s like a Jab-Cross in boxing. When you compete, you’ll find that if you do this fast enough, a lot of people can’t handle it, even if they know it’s coming. So if they can’t, why would you even try another strategy?
      I once scored a dozen points against an opponent in competition by doing the same attack over and over. I kept on waiting for him to counter or do something about it. He never did. Again, high percentage moves work well in the context of a tournament.
      That’s also why I don’t like to do too many competitions. Those high percentage moves are not the only ones you should learn and practice. IMO, you stop making progress if you compete too much and train only for that.

      My teacher taught me the pushing hands on a straight line. It’s extremely interesting and a very valuable drill for self defense.

      I don’t know Paul Mitchell at all, don’t think I’ve ever seen videos of him.

  4. Great video! I have a question though, how does grabbing work into push hands? When I’ve practiced before, it was always really annoying when a partner starts clamping on with grabs, and if you grab it can put you in a really committed yet weak position, so we just had kind of an unspoken rule of no grabbing. Do you use this in some of your throws? It seems like it can be an advantageous thing to do, but in my experience we went away from it.

    • We practice with grabbing allowed. But most people don’t use it all that much as it’s easy to get countered if you don’t grab correctly or use it too often. But I feel it’s important to incorporate it into the training as getting used to being grabbed (and doing something about it) is an important self defense skill IMO.
      There’s also the issue that if you grab and don’t do anything with it, you’re only slowing down the practice. The point is not to grab and lock up your partner, that’s easy to do. The goal is to grab and use what you’re holding on to to break your opponent’s balance. So if it turns into a contest over who has the better grip, you’re on the wrong track for making continuous progress. I’m not saying it isn’t interesting to work on that area but too much emphasis on it will degrade other skills IMO.

  5. warren stone says

    Very interesting video, thanks for sharing. I found many similarities also many differences with the way we train pushing hands. One observation was your stances are very ‘Yang’ ie long and deep, not a criticism, just interesting. Do you ever visit Oxford England, would enjoy pushing hands with you. Regards.

    • I usually take on the low stances when I want to make it physically challenging. But of course, you have to practice everything in higher stances as well.
      Sorry, I rarely go to England. You’ll have better luck dropping over to Belgium. :-)

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