Tong Bei Studies

The Biomechanics of Ma Tong Bei: Dan Pi Shou 單劈手

In preparation for Ma Yue’s visit here in a couple of weeks, I will be posting some discussions related to Ma Shi Tongbei and related topics. We still have room so anyone that wants to come for the rare opportunity, please let me know.

Ma Yue with Russian Students in “gun bei”滾背


Ma Shi Tongbei is a unique and recognizable art. It has an amazingly rounded training regimen, and attitude of innovation as well as tradition, and unique style of movement. Ma Tongbei is an expansive system that transcends style and moves into the realm of physical culture for those who practice it. As such there are some specific characteristics that define the practice. While there are many folk and traditional examples or movements and theory, the quality of movement, the biomechanics of the style are the powerhouse that make Tongbei what it is. 

With the enormous number of sets and exercises contained in the system, it can be difficult to untangle this many disparate examples. But, the system contains one basic exercise that is not only ubiquitous, it can been argued that it sets the physical criteria for the rest of the system. This exercise is called, “Dan Pi Shou”單劈手, or the “single chopping hand”. 

Dan Pi Shou 單劈手- The Workhorse of Tongbei 

The exercise its self is relatively simple. It does however contain a number biomechanical features that make it challenging and valuable to practitioners for their entire career. It attends to the upper body, lower body, relaxation, power generation, range of motion, and overall conditioning. 

It also brings the body through the paces of the Ma style, encompassing several general concepts that should follow a practitioner through their entire career. Many of these concepts are shared with the martial arts of China and other parts of the world. Although, the periodization, organization, and presentation of the material is extremely unique to the Ma Tongbei art. It is not an exaggeration to say that Dan Pi Shou is the foundation to everything that comes after, and is therefore, a uniquely important drill for a tongbei student. 

Tun吞 and Tuo唾

The concept of Yin and yang and the relationship of opposites is a common, almost ubiquitous, component of Chinese martial art. In Tongbei there are many instances where these relationships are played out. One of the most useful and characteristic relation ship is between Tun (to swallow, absorb, or engulf) and Tuo (to spit, expel, or cast away). 

Good examples of what this is referring to is the movement of the shoulder girdle, spine, and hips and the interaction between these anatomical features. 

Tun is the act of drawing in your body. This can mean hollowing the chest, flexing the hip or any movement that contains or comes in toward the centerline of the body. A perfect example of tun is use is a boxer’s ready position. Head tucked slightly, elbows in, fists up, shoulder blades abducted. This is an action that is taken by the entire body not simply one of its pieces. The shoulder blades splay apart, the thoracic spine curves slightly, and the hips sink into their stance. 

Tuo is the opposite. Any time we extend, expand, or reach out we are doing Tuo. Here, this deals with the straightening of the body and it’s limbs. The straightening of the back, the extension of the hips, and the throwing of limbs all invoke the idea of expelling. Scapular retraction (bringing the shoulder blades back and to each other) is here associated with Tuo because o what it does to the zone it is found in. By retracting the scapula, the chest appears to stick out and the back arches. This is more or less an optical illusion as the actual movement of the spine is minimal.

This opening and closing of the body is actually tied to the fundamental way human beings move. 

The Exercise

Master Ma Yue performing Dan Pi Shou.

Dan Pi Shou is a very interesting exercise from a kinesthetic point of view. The main performance of the exercise is done in a horse stance (ma bu) and bow stance (gong bu). As the student moves, the stance shifts back and forth from gong bu on each side transitioning through ma bu. The main action is with the arms a long, extended chopping motion is done to both sides with out stopping. The finishing position for each chop is with the arms cross and the rear (non active) hand is brought to guard the face. 

The sequence begins with the partitioner standing in ready position feet together, arms at the sides. After the opening movement, take a step to the right while the arms rise up laterally. The body turns to the right and the action “gun bei”滾背 or “roll the back” is performed. The end position for gun bei is a low squat, the majority of the weight on the right foot, and the left arm trailing behind. The torso turns to the extreme right, hence turning the back, on the imaginary opponent.

From this position a step with the left foot back will bring one into a front stance or gong bu. The left arm begins its rotation from the shoulder in this position. With the large step the body moves over to the left side as both arms rotate from the shoulders with elbows straight. The right arms chops down past the turning left hand to end in the covered position. 

The Mechanics

So what does this exercise teach that is so indicative of Tongbei? It would take quite some time to discover every benefit that this training can have, but there are some very important qualities that can be discussed and explored. From there it is an easy matter of finding the application for this type of movement training. Such a simple exercise, when done properly, can have enormous benefits in fitness, power, strength, and protection against injury. 

Range of Motion

The natural range of motion for the shoulder

Range of motion (ROM) is an important factor in athletic performance. The range of motion of any joint will be governed by several different reflexes and senses. Of particular concern for martial artists is the shoulder and hip areas. ROM in the shoulder consists of a great number of articulations. From flexion and extension to rotation, supination, pronation, abduction and retraction, the shoulder is one of the most mobile joints in the body. This comes with a trade off of being very unstable. It takes a good deal of effort to stabilize the shoulder in any one position, let alone through its full ROM at speed. 

The motions of Dan Pi shou, do exactly that. By relaxing the arms and shoulders, and using the waist and body to turn and “flip” back and forth, the arms will fly out straight. This causes the joint to distract from the body slightly in turn causing the rotator cuff to engage and hold the arm in place. As the arm goes through the arc of motion (extension/flexion), it rotates around its center axis (pronation/supination) in order to keep the ulnar side (pinky) of the hand moving forward.As the arms cross at the end of the moment, the shoulder blades distract and spread out, “swallowing the chest”. It is important not to bend the spine as much as spread the shoulder blades. This will keep good spinal alignment and dynamics through the entire exercise. 

The shifting back and forth from Horse stance (馬步 ma bu) to Bow Stance (弓步 gong bu) together with the turning of the hips moves them through many ranges of motion for the hip. Inward and outward rotation happens as one shifts from side to side, while turning the upper body. The pelvis turns and faces one direction then the other. The straightening of the back leg while going in to gong bu creates a the platform that powerful techniques utilize. 

Core stability and coordination

Core stability is something that is very wide spread in the fitness world. There seems to be no end of “core” exercises that are claiming to reveal hidden potential. But what is the core and how is it that important? When we are taking about the core we are speaking of the musculature that is in charge of stabilizing and controlling the spine and, by extension, forces and movement related by the upper body for performance. These include the abdominal muscles, spinal extensors, intercostal muscles in the rib cage, the pelvic floor muscles and the muscles of the hip. They are mostly used in stabilizing the lower back (lumbar vertebrae) but the proper use of the core allows for free movement in the upper body. This is usually under appreciated as “moving from the waist” or using “full body power. 

Muscles of the “core”.

The core as it stabilizes reduces its movement. This is why sit-ups and crunches do very little for your core function and rather just make your rectus abdomens hurt. The core must be able to not only hold and stabilize the back but also help transfer force and power from the legs to the upper body. It does this by full contraction of the entire muscle group in an isometric (not moving) contraction. The trick is, as we pointed out before, the more stabile it is, the less mobile. So, the core will engage and disengage depending on what s needed. IT will relax when the spine need to move and contact when it need to transmit power. The trick is going from one to the other. 

Dan Pi Shou trains this with and extreme range of movement with the arms being powered but he legs and body. Turning the body and shifting the weight engages the core in a rhythm of tension and relaxation. The swinging of the arms also has the effect of requiring the core muscles to hold the spine stable while rotating in order to produce speed and power. The rapid turning and force production gives the body lots of kinetic feedback that is palpable through the entire body. One should be aware of the legs bending and straightening to move the upper body, the torso issuing most of the effort through the turns and stops, and focus on not moving the arms to complete the exercise. Keeping movement in the body, as if you are swinging your arms after sleeping on them all night. The limbs should be relaxed band naturally straighten when the exercise is performed. 

Deceleration and eccentric loads

When most people sit down and examine their exercise regimen, they tend to focus on the production of power, speed, and accuracy. But, there is an often over looked competent of power training. This is deceleration or “eccentric” training. Quite simply it is the act of slowing down, stopping , and stabilizing different limbs and movements. 

Eccentric training gets its name from eccentric contraction of muscle. There are three types of contraction; concentric (where the force of the muscle is greater than the resistance), eccentric (where the force produced by the muscle is less than the resistance), and isometric (where the force of the muscle is equal to the resistance). Concentric contraction is associated with the shortening of the muscle and force production. Isometric is related to stabilization, and eccentric is concerning declaration. 

In Dan Pi Shou, the direction to relax the arms and use the turning on the trunk to move them creates a lot of speed in the extremities. If one is doing the exercise correctly, the turn should cause the arms to straighten as they are pulled with the centrifugal force produced by the turn. This pull on the arms stimulates the rotator cuff muscles to engage. It is the contraction against the lengthening that produces the tension need to control the movement in the limbs. 

What ever is in motion needs to be stopped, and the arms here go from almost completely relaxed to being very stable and stationary. This is accomplished primarily by the “tun” movement in the shoulder blades. As one begins the movement to the other side, the torso turns sharply and the arms are flung out at the shoulder. As this happens, the shoulder blades go from spread apart to retracted toward the spine. If the movement is kept in the torso and body, keeping the shoulder relaxed and freely moving, the force pulling the arm out format’s socket, triggers an eccentric contraction in the arm and rotator cuff. The muscle lengthen yet hold a bit of a contraction to prevent injury and over extension. 

In athletic training eccentric training is an often over looked and under appreciated method. It is however shown to be of paramount importance in dynamic sports training like for fighting or combat sports. The bodies ability to stop or slow moment is directly related to its sense of control. If one does not train the eccentric phase of the muscle enough, the entire system will down regulate the force produced to avoid injuring tissues. Eccentric training indirectly increase power output by refining and improving the stopping mechanisms used. The better one can stop, the more power, speed, and force they can put into their movements. Dan Pi Shou contains very sophisticated eccentric movements. These moments relate directly to martial application in a variety contexts. 

Fundamental movement patterns

How does one exercise accomplish all this with a simple movement? The answer is contained in the way the man being learns and process movement, called “kinesthetic sense” in modern sport medicine. Our nervous system works on a system of patterns. Certain patterns we inherit from the virtue of being human. These patterns in our motor system are the ones that are responsible for us learning to roll over, sit up, and eventually walk on two legs as an infant. They are often called “fundamental moment patterns” and they are simple biomechanical and neurological things that are found in all of us. 

Everything that we do is based on only a few of these patterns. They can be trained and improved and they can be ignored and fall into disuse.  They are like blue prints of movement and instructions for how the body is to accomplish certain tasks. Some basic examples of these patterns are squatting, lifting, pushing and pulling. These are the most basic four, and some can argue that these are the origin of all human movement. Simply put they are very important and their health and correctness has high impacts on the entire body and how it moves. From these four movement patterns we get all our more complicated ones like throwing, climbing, crawling, walking, etc. And from there we specialize these patterns to serve specific purposes like sports, martial arts, dance, and other physical disciplines. 

DanPi Shou is the catalog of fundamental movement patterns for Ma Shi Tongbei. From the lower body shifts and turns, to the upper body rotations and complicated shoulder training. The movement being properly coordinated brilliantly uses the kinetic chain (body) in almost every conceivable way needed for the practice of Tongbei and, by extension, martial arts in general. 


My teacher Ma Yue, is fond of saying “Quality! Quality!” when teaching or trying to push you along. This statement may not mean much to beginners, but as a long time teacher and student myself, it resonates at a foundational level for me now. The “quality” we are after is that intangible set of criteria, movements, strategies, and tactics we find that makes a martial art what it is. The differences we see between arts is often illusory. They are all more simllar to each other than different. But what differences we do see, are these biomechanical and performance based points that each art develops in their own way.

Dan Pi Shou is the engine of quality for Tongbei. The body mechanics and habits that are built in the exercise follow the student through all of their learning. The exercise can be done with technique in mind, being perfect and clean. Or can be done at high speed and power for the physical benefit. The applications are varied and plentiful. It is a core piece of the Ma Shi Tongbei curriculum and can benefit people of all styles.

There are few exercises that can yield so many benefits simultaneously. Dan Pi Shou is invaluable of that reason alone. But its place in one of the most sophisticated systems of martial art in the world give it a pedigree that is rare.

Suggested reading

This topic is very expansive. The issue of biomechanics and movement is a very complicated one that researchers spread years simply trying to study their own narrow field. For lay person it can be daunting, especially since so much of the information out there is out dated or simply ill researched and wrong. So for those that are interested in exploring the science of movement a bit more, the following resources are invaluable:

Kinetic anatomy is a perfect anatomy book for the martial artist or teacher. The information is all laid out in an intuitive way based on how the body works together. Discussions on movement issues are through out the book and it is one of the best resources I have found.
Gray Cook is one of the leading figures in the training and performance areas. He is the co founder of the Functional Movement System, a method of training and assessment for athletes that has been used in professional sports, rehabilitation, and other areas of athletic activity.
Stuart McGill is the foremost authority on the human spine and its performance. This book is a great introduction to his research and his ideas. I am heavily influenced by Dr. McGill and have had the privilege of studying with him multiple times.

These are a good place to start in my opinion for anyone that wants to add some human movement science to their study and practice. For those of you more adept at this type of material, below are some scholarly articles detailing some of the issues covered in this piece.

Eccentric training:

Concentric and eccentric isokinetic resistance training similarly increases muscular strength, fat-free soft tissue mass, and specific bone mineral measurements in young women.

Muscular adaptation and strength during the early phase of eccentric training: influence of the training frequency.

Core Training

The role of core training in athletic performance, injury prevention, and injury treatment

Core training: Evidence translating to better performance and injury prevention

Fundamental Movement Patterns

 Functional movement screening: the use of fundamental movements as an assessment of function‐part 1

Functional movement screening: the use of fundamental movements as an assessment of function‐part 2

Shoulder Range of Motion

Thoracic position effect on shoulder range of motion, strength, and three-dimensional scapular kinematics

Goniometric assessment of shoulder range of motion: comparison of testing in supine and sitting positions

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