Tai Chi Long Pole – What You Need to Know

The long pole is one of four main tai chi weapons along with the broadsword, straight sword, and spear. However, the tai chi long pole needs some special consideration and explanation because it is not that well known, it is not that well understood, and there is even some confusion about whether it is even considered a tai chi weapon because many practitioners just use it as a training tool and don’t do the form.

The tai chi long pole is the longest martial arts weapon measuring 9-15 feet on average. It is made from wax wood and is uniquely thicker in diameter at one end. Long pole training exercises, popularized by Chen tai chi, use thrusting, parrying, and shaking exercises to train and build internal strength.

My own growth was accelerated early on when I began using the tai chi pole and have since seen the same progress made with many students. I want to use my time here to try to convince you to add a tai chi long pole form or tai chi pole shaking exercises to your practice because of the tremendous benefits. More than any other weapon, long pole practice can:

Austin Chen Tai Chi weapons class
  • Develop root energy
  • Train the drawing of root energy up from the ground and transmitting it
  • Teach spiraling energy
  • Produce power with a strong sense of balance
  • Teach striking without relying on external/muscular strength
  • Teach how to extend your force out and away from the body

Should you learn the tai chi long pole form and start tai chi pole training?

I have worked with many practitioners who are only interested in the open-hand forms. I totally support that decision. But know that what you are after in your personal development of your tai chi abilities are more quickly obtainable by training with a tai chi long pole.

The long pole form and pole-shaking make your open-hand from better.

I think that a lot of people avoid or don’t get around to studying the long pole because it is relatively obscure and a tad bit intimidating because of its size. Let’s start by putting these fears to rest.

The long pole is easy to learn. The tai chi long pole form is short. Pole shaking is a small number of moves that are repeated continuously.

It’s modifiable. Like lifting weights, you begin with a weight, size, and repetitions that you are comfortable with in order to perfect your form and then increase as you get stronger or better. You can begin with a spear to learn the movements and move up to a long pole. You can choke up on the end of the pole and then increase difficulty by moving your rear hand closer to the end. You can also begin with 5 repetitions and move up towards 25.

It teaches. When correct internal strength (posture alignment and use of fascia over muscle) is used, the pole shakes at the end. The greater and more correct your energy, the more it shakes, with less muscular effort. If you try to muscle it, it stays still. This is absolute, unemotional, black-and-white feedback.

It’s fun! You get to wave a huge stick around and learn about your own power. Students love the long pole and when you ask them why, they smile and most often say: “it’s fun!”

The tai chi long pole form is purposefully short and uncomplicated so we can concentrate on the details – posture, power, breathing, weight shifts, rotation, and balance. Adding pole shaking to your routine just gives you extra repetitions to improve and everything translates directly to improving your overall tai chi.

What is a Tai Chi Long Pole? (dà gan – 大桿)

The long pole is over 9 feet long, made of white wax wood, and is sanded down but is still left slightly rough and unfinished. The tip is much thinner than the hilt which can be as wide as 2-3 inches. This is very unusual for most martial arts long weapons because the long pole is left looking like a tree limb rather than a curtain rod. Sometimes it is called the tai chi staff but staffs are almost always hard wood, finished or lacquered, shorter, and evenly think the entire length. The weight is substantial for a weapon too, usually around five pounds.

As much as I love the open-hand form tai chi form, it’s often hard to get feedback.

How’s your posture? Are you balanced? Are you using muscular strength? How are your transferring your weight?

Using the long pole requires connection throughout the entire body and maintenance of great posture or it is difficult to move the pole in circles or extend it away from your body. You also can’t rely on muscular strength or the movements will be quickly exhausting. Each move of the form is powered up from the ground developing ground strength. And, proper twisting of the torso is necessary to make the pole shake.

Hopefully you can see why this makes it such a great training implement. The weight and length require great focus on posture, breathing, and movement. It is evident in new students as their open-hand form visually improves after starting pole shaking or long pole form training.

Is the Long Pole a Tai Chi Weapon?

vintage long pole image

The long pole is often referred to as a training implement rather than a weapon which causes some confusion and debate as to whether it is a weapon at all. There are a few reasons for this confusion. The long pole form is less common and is only more popular with Chen-style and Xinyi practitioners. Some styles don’t train the form at all but use the long pole for heavy weapons training exercises.

However, this debate is really unfortunate because tai chi long pole training is quite advanced. It is the only weapon that has primary movement drills called “pole shaking” that you practice to improve your long pole form. Yes, you can break any weapon form down into a single movement that you repeat, but the long poll has a separate specific sequence that is often practiced for months before the form work even begins.

What is tai chi pole training or pole shaking?

Pole shaking or pole training is a series of movements that teaches a practitioner to bring energy up from the ground and transfer it out to the end of the pole and/or back down through one or both legs.

  • It is a great teacher of posture because without a correct spine and pushing up from the ground, lifting the pole for several repetitions is difficult.
  • It is a great teacher of balance because if you are off-balance and issue power into the pole you fall out of your stance.
  • It is a superb teacher of reverse breathing as raising and dropping the pole to cause the characteristic “shaking” requires diaphragmatic breathing as you exhale and let the belly relax as you issue.

Standing Pole-Shaking Exercises – 4 directions in a sequence

Tips to Improve Pole Shaking

Pole shaking is too difficult to explain in words and is better through video or in-person learning. However, here are some tips to get the most out of your training.

  • Work up to both the full use of the pole and full number of repetitions. I did pole-shaking with a spear when I began. The thinner wax wood spear with the weight on the end makes the shaking easier to understand and master before moving on to the long pole. When I learned, I actually did pole shaking for about 10 months before learning the form. Now when I teach, I will often give a student a spear instead of a long pole, including the beefy guys who are using too much muscle.
  • Choke up on the pole. Eventually your rear hand is about one fist from the end of the pole. Feel free to move it in by about a foot to a foot and a half. This makes the pole shorter, the grip smaller, and removes the strain on your wrist when extending the pole away from the body.
  • Reduce the repetitions. Eventually, you will be able to do 20 repetitions of the 4-5 main exercises (circle and down, down, up and back, stab forward, cross the brow). Start with 5 of each and work your way up. I know this sounds like a lot but you can do over a 100 reps in just a few minutes.
  • Use the whole body. If you are using just the arms, just your muscles, not the legs, or not both legs, YOUR POLE WON’T SHAKE!! This is infuriating but you need to go super slow, super light, and incorporate the whole body to get the pole tip to move. When the pole shakes, you can be sure that you have good posture, breathing, and tai chi movement.

How We Buy Tai Chi Long Poles and What You Should Look Out For

We buy all of our poles from one particular place because they have routinely sent us great equipment. Before buying, there are some things you need to know about shipping and there are some specific questions you should ask. See our suggestions here and learn how to get a great pole shipped to you.

Scott Prath

Scott has been practicing and teaching tai chi and qigong since 2000. He is a lead instructor for the Austin Chen Tai Chi Association. His interest in the internal martial arts began after traveling in India and Nepal, and he has since traveled to China to train. Scott has published over 100 articles on tai chi with a focus on research showing the benefits of practicing.

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