The Three Most Important Principles of Practicing Kung Fu

When practicing kung fu (gōng fu 功夫) there are three very important principles to remember. These principles provide the foundation for any style of kung fu and are relevant for every practitioner regardless of their ability. Do you know what these three principles are? Some of the more obvious answers might be speed, strength or power. While these are excellent answers the three principles I am referring to are the foundation of even those important aspects of kung fu. These concepts are very simple to grasp, they are the basic building blocks of many activities even in daily life, but they are difficult to do well. This is especially true when you are training. Often it is very easy to be absorbed with learning a new form (tào lù 套路) or kick (tī 踢) and making those tasks more difficult by not adhering to the three most important principles of kung fu practice.


Breathing is the single most important aspect of practicing any martial art. Having improper breath control results in wasted energy and loss of power. Proper breathing helps control the Qi (qì 氣) which brings the blood and energy to your muscles. Without proper breathing your muscles do not get the energy they need to sustain activity and your endurance and issuance of power suffer as a result. There are several types of breathing in kung fu and qi gong (qì gōng 氣功) practice, each with different goals. One of the most common methods of breathing found in kung fu training is abdominal breathing.

Abdominal Breathing

Abdominal breathing or natural breathing refers to breathing from the diaphragm. As you breath in, you contract your diaphragm drawing in air and filling the entire lung cavity. This causes the abdomen to expand rather than the chest. Exhaling, you relax your diaphragm and contract you abdomen to push the air out of your lungs. When we breath in this manner we use the full capacity of our lungs which provides more oxygen and therefore more energy to the body. This is the same manner in which singers breath. Breathing from the diaphragm allows for better breath control and makes it easier to sustain long notes and create a louder sound all without straining.

Take a moment to pay attention to your own breathing. When most people breathe their shoulders rise and fall. When you breath like this you are expanding your chest and using only the top third of your lung’s capacity. This method of breathing is very shallow. If your stomach seems to expand when you breath in and retracts when you exhale, then you are much closer to natural abdominal breathing. If you have difficulty determining if you are breathing naturally you can lie on your back and place your hands on your abdomen. As you breath in this position you will find your stomach rising and falling with your breath. This is natural breathing. If you watch closely this is how a baby naturally breathes.

Abdominal breathing allows us to consume oxygen more efficiently which help us deliver more power in our strikes, increases our endurance, increases our lung capacity and have better control of our breath. This should be one of the easiest things for us to do, we breathe every moment we are alive, however this can be one of the most difficult principles to master. When you are not focused on your breathing it is easy to revert to how you habitually breath, which is often from the chest. Do not let this discourage you though, mentally check in with your breath periodically throughout your day. If your breathing has shifted away from abdominal breathing, then gently guide it back. You can practice this every moment of every day and over time you will develop a new habit that will prevail even when you are focused on other aspects of your training. Abdominal breathing naturally leads into the second most important principle of kung fu, relaxation. You will often find that when you take a few moments to breathe in this manner that you will naturally start to relax.


Along with breathing you must relax (fàng sōng 放松). Even when issuing powerful strikes you must stay relaxed. While breathing brings energy and power to your muscles, being relaxed allows the power to flow through your muscles to deliver that power to its target. If you are not relaxed the energy from the strike can get stuck and not be fully delivered to the target. It also increases the chance of injury. When you are not relaxed you may be unaware of the tension in your muscles which can cause you to strain them as you try to deliver power. Power in kung fu is not derived from just the power of the muscles or even the body mechanics alone, but the combination of the two. Staying relaxed is the key to bringing the two together. As you practice and get tired there is a greater tendency to tense up muscles to continue to deliver strikes with the same amount of power. Be aware of this so that you can consciously stay relaxed and not injure yourself. Most forms of qigong require you to relax your muscles so that your breath can move the qi around the body without being restricted. There are even entire martial arts styles that derive their power from being fully relaxed such as Rou Quan (róu quán 柔拳) and Tai Ji Quan (tài jí quán 太极拳).

Tai Ji Quan

Tai Ji Quan is a system of martial arts that derives it’s strength from muscle efficiency. It accomplishes this by staying relaxed. Much of the early training is on awareness of the muscles and posture so that you can stay relaxed and coordinate the movements with the breathing. While it is peaceful and practiced slowly it is a very effective and powerful martial art. Practicing slowly allows you to be more aware of tension in the muscles and the movement of qi within the body. When you learn to relax and only engage the muscles necessary to complete the movement, you are able to deliver a lot of power without expending a lot of effort. When you become more accomplished you can apply these techniques at full speed and deliver a great amount of power through the relaxed body.

Staying relaxed during training can be very difficult. While practicing new techniques or developing more strength you will often go through many repetitions of an exercise. This repetition wears us down and it becomes increasingly difficult to deliver power. As you try harder and harder and in giving it your all you often have a tendency to over-exert yourself. You engage secondary layers of muscle, tense up your muscles more and often let your posture get sloppy. Though it feels like you are digging down into your reserves and giving it everything you have, you are often doing more harm than good. The tightening of muscles and incorrect posture makes it difficult for your body to be relaxed and let the power flow through the body. Like any other practice, when you become aware that you are doing this, bring yourself back to your relaxed practice. You can do this by taking a moment, taking a few deep calming breaths, letting your body relax and then return to your training.


The third most important principle of practicing kung fu is focus (jí zhōng 集中). The Shaolin monks (shàolín sēng 少林僧) believe that practicing kung fu is a sort of moving meditation (dòng chán 動禅). This means that when you are practicing, your intent and focus should be solely on your practice. This kind of focus helps develop determination and will power. It also helps you deliver strikes that deliver the appropriate amount of force. Your focus during your training will help you get the most out of your training. It helps you work through difficult training sessions when your muscles are worn and your endurance is gone. Focus is a key component to meditation whether moving or seated. In fact, meditation is simply singular focus on one thing.


Meditation plays a very important role in kung fu. Through meditation we understand our martial art. Meditation takes many forms during our martial practice. It is present in our conditioning, our forms and set practice, and our qigong practice. In it’s simplest form, it is the elimination of distractions during our practice. Everyone has their own method of staying focused. Listening to music to drown out background noise or training in solitude for example. Any method is fine and will depend largely on the person and the environment in which they practice.

Meditation in your kung fu practice will most often take place during your forms and set practice. Focusing on the proper postures and techniques will naturally keep your focus on the movements and how well you are performing them. You may even become almost lost in the movements to the point that outside stimuli do not interrupt your practice. This is the beginning of the unity of your body and mind where your awareness is focused on yourself and it is hard to tell whether the body or the mind is leading the actions.

Focus is one of the more difficult concepts to cultivate during your practice. It is easy to get distracted by any number of things. You may be disturbed by other students or the environment you are training in. You may have something else on your mind that is bothering you from earlier in the day. These distractions can cause you to lose focus which is easily noticed in your training. Sometimes you can regain that focus by taking a moment to relax the body and take deep breaths. Bring your attention and awareness to your body and your breathing. When the distractions feel farther away and you are calm, resume your training. Even while training a mistake may eat at you or make your mind wander. When you realize this, simply take a moment to calm yourself and return your focus to your body and your training.

These three aspects of training kung fu are strongly connected to one another. They each build from the preceding principle. Proper breathing can help you to stay relaxed. Being relaxed aids in staying focused. Each principle has unique benefits for your training but combined they help you to get the most out of your training. While these principles are simple to grasp they are not easy to take full advantage of without constant awareness of them. When you stray from one of the principles bring yourself back and continue, that is how you will get there a little at a time. Remember that while these principles are framed in a context of martial arts practice, they can be applied to almost any activity whether it is physical or mental in your everyday life and that each moment is an opportunity to practice them.

The secret of good kung fu is not in learning lots of kicks or forms or weapon sets. It is not in learning applications and secret techniques, but instead mastering the three principles of kung fu. If you master your breathing you will learn to develop power. If you master staying relaxed you will learn to issue power. And if you learn to stay focused you will learn how to deliver that power. Mastering these three principles will enable you to develop the speed, strength, endurance and power necessary to master any style of kung fu.

Comments  2 Comments »

  1. Selemani Mkwadada - December 29, 2014 6:14 am

    True, I saw many good fighters defeated i asked myself ”why?” but today i get a answer.

  2. irfan - September 15, 2015 1:39 am

    tank you

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