Qigong, pronounced ‘chee-gung’, is an ancient form of Chinese health-care. It involves the art and science of using breathing techniques in combination with gentle movement and meditation to strengthen, cleanse, and circulate the life energy (qi). Although the documented history of qigong goes back 2,500 years, Chinese archeologists and historians have found evidence of qigong exercises dating 5,000 years old. Yes, one of the oldest exercise routines. The “gong” means cultivation or mastery, qigong is therefore sometimes translated to vital energy cultivation or mastery of your energy.
I was compelled to learn more after listening to Chris Holder, Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Cal Poly in California talk about qigong and the potential benefits to strength training. For the record, Chris Holder holds a doctorate in Medical Qigong (DMQ-China). He also works with athletes from the NFL, MLB, and NBA. Chris speaks of a study in which he co-authored, showing athletes who participated in a 6-week qigong practice (15 minutes a day) along with weight lifting achieved greater strength gains, around 20% compared to the control group, who were also lifting. As an avid lifter and having a fascination with eastern health practices, I needed to know more. I outline below the methods and results from one of the most considerate studies for lifters wanting to utilize qigong for strength gains. Even if you’re not a lifter, incorporating some sort of qigong practice into your daily routine could reap massive benefits.
The study at Cal poly illuminated incredible Results: The Qigong groups average strength values were higher versus the control for bench press (+ 52%; P= 0.00), deadlift (+15%; P= 0.09), front squat (+28%; P= 0.004), and vertical jump (+52%, P= 0.223) . This involved a total of 73 collegiate athletes ages 18-22. Of this 47M and 26F volunteered to participate in the Qigong exercise group. Strength gains were measured through 3-rep-max tests. The Qigong exercise group performed the Qigong exercises 5 days a week, 15 minutes each day. This study is a groundbreaking measurement of the impact Qigong has on has on strength training.
“Results from our strength tests generally support both the first and second hypotheses that the Qigong exercises will have a significant impact on strength gains and the ability to mentally recover from strenuous exercise as well as that the women’s soccer, women’s volleyball, and football athletes in the Qigong intervention group will perform better on the physical tests than the control group”.
The study also took a look at the well being of the participants. And, as you might have guessed the participants in the Qigong group responded significantly with overall higher levels of well-being. “Participants received the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Well-Being questionnaire (Tennant et al., 2007) pre and post intervention and weekly to track change in mental state (see Appendix A). Well-being questionnaires were administered on Thursday preceding max testing and every Friday during the intervention prior to each team’s dedicated lifting time.”
Although the study illustrates the movements used by the qigong group, it’s important to remember not to enter into your qigong practice with any sort of preconceived notions. Furthermore, according to Daniel Reid, author of The Complete Book of Chinese Health & Healing, correct breathing is the most important aspect of qigong practice. One major difference between the way adults ordinarily breathes and breathing during the practice of qigong is using the diaphragm and abdomen as breathing pumps. The emphasis here is on deep abdominal breathing. Here are the exact exercises the participants in this study used to achieve significant strength gains and improved well being.
This is the initial exercise. This is the first of the major purgation exercises for the Qigong set. The practitioner reaches down between their feet and traces their hands up their midline, clearing any turbid or stagnant Qi from the yin channels. The same process was done for the yang channels of the exterior the body.
Second of the major purgation exercises. The practitioner uses a rotational motion to literally squeeze turbid Qi from the system. He/she visualizes dark Qi from the entire body being rung out and exiting the palms. The counter swing goes rhythmically from left to right until the desired number of repetitions is complete or the practitioner feels as if they are finished.
The third of the major purgation exercises. The practitioner bounces on their heels, keeping the body relaxed and imagining the outer shell of their person fracturing like breaking glass. Once the “appropriate level of cracking” has taken place, the practitioner raises high up on his/her toes and then drop to his/her heels with a degree of force, breaking the fractured glass away. The process repeats until the desired number of reps is complete or the practitioner feels finished.
This exercise is the fourth major purgation exercise. Starting at the wrists and hands, the practitioner begins to shake, moving up to the elbows and shoulders and then dropping down through the entire body, shaking off anything that isn’t of service to them. The exercise is complete when the desired number of repetitions is complete or the practitioner feels as if he/she is finished.
This is a bridging exercise from the purgation to tonification exercises. The practitioner reaches forward, rounding his/her back, down and between the legs lengthening the channels of the back. This exercise is intended to dilate the posterior channels for the tonification work that is coming.
*While I could not find a video on this exercise, it can be done with movements similar to swinging a kettlebell, except keeping the legs straight and reaching downward with the upper body.
This exercise is first of the major tonifying sets. Swaying is used to introduce clean Qi to replace what was purged during the purgation sets. The intention of the practitioner is to see the Qi from the six directions (above, below, left, right, top and bottom) tonifying the lower dantian. The lower dantian is the home of a person’s life force and the cultivation of this area pertains to one’s physicality, sexuality, and digestive health.
The next five exercises focus on tonifying the 5 yin organs of the body (lungs, kidneys, liver, heart, spleen).
Connecting the index finger to the thumb, the practitioner imagines breathing in heavenly energy on the inhale and exhaling lung Qi that is turbid or dark. The palms start down with each inhale, move apart and then roll under and back together for the exhale. Nine repetitions were performed.
With one hand placed on the opposite kidney, the practitioner bends down and imagines reaching into a dark pond and scooping up water. As he/she stands, that water will run down the arm, across the shoulders to the opposite arm, running down into the hand and eventually into the kidneys, tonifying and nurturing. Nine repetitions per side were performed.
With the hands moving back and forth, the practitioner imagines reaching for the heavens and grabbing emerald green Qi and placing it into the liver. The arms move in an arching motion, rotating and delivering the green Qi to the liver. Nine repetitions were performed.
Imagining holding a ruby red ball of Qi, the practitioner moves from left to right extending the channels of both the heart and pericardium. As that ball moves past the chest, he or she sees the red Qi of the ball nourishing and tonifying the heart. Nine repetitions were performed to each side.
With the index fingers and thumbs connected making a diamond, the practitioner reaches up to the sun, allowing the golden Qi of the sun to run down his/her arms nourishing and tonifying the spleen. Nine repetitions to both sides were performed
At the conclusion of the Daoist Five Yin Organ exercises, the practitioner gathers the overflowing “extra” energy from the organ exercises by taking five small sniffs to equal one complete breath. The posture was performed by rolling the hands under and then tucking as if to compress the excess Qi into the lower dantian for integration. Five repetitions were performed.
This is the first regulation exercise in the set. This exercise is intended to facilitate full body integration of the newly tonified Qi throughout the entire body, harmonizing the system. The hands squeeze down low as if pressing two balls together, then trace an outline of a long beard, spread apart and then press the balls together at shoulder level, roll the hands back and push as if moving a heavy boulder, then finishing with the hands slowly settling down to waist level.
The last of the regulation set. Imagining a tennis ball sized ball of Qi hovering in front of the face, the practitioners moved the ball with their intention down their front up and under their perineum, up the back and back over the head like the moon orbits the earth. The hands delicately mimic the motion of the orbit in front of the lower dantian to further the depth of intention.
If you can get over the esoteric stereotypes of doing qigong, then including any if not all of these exercises into your daily routine may have massive benefits for strength and well-being. These athletes only spent 15 minutes a day completing all of them. While most people spend 16-18 hours awake every day, after initially learning these qigong exercises, spending 15 minutes equates to only 1/68th the amount of time in your day. Talk about a tremendous benefit to cost ratio.
Reid, D. (1994). The Complete Book of Chinese Health and Healing.
White, Christopher. “THE IMPACT OF SELF-PRACTICE QIGONG ON STRENGTH GAINS AND WELL-BEING DURING OFF-SEASON TRAINING FOR FALL SPORT ATHLETES.” June 2015, digitalcommons.calpoly.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2599&context=theses.