Quality versus Quantity

by Mat Beausoleil on 2012/02/09

Quality and quantity are two issues that come up a lot during training and seem to be the cause of some debate amongst practitioners. Generally most people have strong opinions about these two ideals and normally have specific training habits which clearly show which catergory they fall into. Some believe and train with the mindset that quantity is the most influencial factor when trying to make progress in their practice. These students believe that high repetitions and numbers are the key to Taijiquan. There are also the students who believe that quality is the major contributing factor to speedy progress. These students usually train slowly and focus most of their attention on the finer details. These types of people also seem to be the deep thinkers who revere the theory and intellectual aspects of practice. Even though most people never stop to think and observe themselves in this respect, I think most of us would be able to place ourselves in either one of these two catergories.

I have personally experimented with both types of training and have observed many interesting factors that come into play with each of them. Although most people would argue that one is better than the other, I strongly believe that they both have positive and negative aspects which affect training and progress in different ways. I have concluded that the best training system is the one that does not exclude either quality or quantity but includes and incorporates them both. I feel that with a deep understanding of the meaning of quality and quantity and how they apply to training, these ideas and specific training methods can be used together to form a very profficient and effective training regime which ensures steady and speedy progress in all areas of training. In my opinion, quality and quantity go hand in hand as they are simply opposite sides of the same coin. In effect, you cannot have one without the other, much like Yin and Yang.

I think the reason quantity is seen as such an important factor during practice is due to the common belief that the more often you do something, the better you become at it. Although at first glance this statement might seem to be true, in my opinion there are also other important factors that must come into play in order for this to become reality. I strongly believe that in order to become better at something, one must not only do high repetitions, but more importantly be conscious while doing so. Simply going through the motions thousands of times during practice might produce some desired results, but more often than not, these results are superficial and this kind of mindless training is nothing more than a waste of precious energy and time. Even though high numbers of repetitions are extremely important, especially when trying to recondition the body at the early stages of one’s practice, care and attention should always be present. When one adopts the belief that quantity is superior to quality, students naturally seem to fall into the trap of focusing mainly on speed and numbers. If left unchecked, the mind quickly becomes more focused on numbers than on the the actual training and the progress being made. Such things as paying attention to detail and conscious learning unfortunately often become too time consuming and tiring for these students.

Quality is also normally viewed as a very important factor when practicing Taijiquan. I believe this is true to a certain degree. To practice something with the aim of getting better requires some attention to detail. However, I believe that quality is often confused with perfection. Many students who view quality as the most important factor seem to become obsessed with details and theory which are normally not relevant to their level of practice and usually spend most of their time training their minds and not their bodies. Being a bit of a perfectionist myself, I have observed how the mind easily gets addicted to the need to fully grasp every bit of information and perform every action perfectly. Although theory and attention to detail definitely have their place in practice, a practitioner should realize that Taijiquan is a physical activity and that intellectual understanding is a miniscule part of the big picture. After all, knowing all the theory and being able to recite all the principles of the art means nothing if you are not able to apply them in practice.

The number of repetitions one is able to achieve at any given time is also dependent on many variables which normally fluctuate daily. Energy levels, recovery time, mood and state of mind are all factors that change according to the external circumstances and greatly affect the practitioner’s ability to perform. Trying to reach high targets which were previously set can often be exhausting to both mind and body if the conditions are not right. Trying to force yourself to do something which you do not feel like doing is in my opinion, counter productive and harmful to long term progress and overall motivation.

The level of intensity one uses during training can also greatly affect the number of repetitions one is able to perform. People who train very lightly are able to perform many more repetitions than the ones who train hard and intensely. I feel that intense training shows that a student is working at a certain level where conscious effort and concentration are present. Quite often practitioners seem to mindlessly flay their arms around with very little effort in order to be able to complete higher numbers of repetitions. In the long run however, these types of students are the ones that get bored with practice and make very minimal progress.

There should always some purpose to everything you do in training. To do something with no aim in mind is a waste of time. Therefore a student should always understand the reasons he is performing certain actions in certain ways. This helps the mind build a clear picture of its intended goal which enables it to clearly direct its attention to specific areas in need of special attention. When one becomes self-aware during training through being conscious of every aspect of practice, a more interactive approach can be taken towards making progress.

At a certain point one should develop a training system which aims incorporates every aspect of the art in which learning happens automatically and naturally without effort. In this way the mind is always focused and aware of what areas of training need to be worked on and it is therefore constantly observing and evaluating every aspect of training. At this point, the art and the principles of Taijiquan themselves become the teacher and progress made in training becomes limitless.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

cshum00 February 9, 2012 at 6:12 am

Nice article. I absolutely agree with you. A proper combination of both is usually best.

Quality requires a certain amount of quantity. Therefore, quantity polishes quantity.
Quantity alone is not very effective. Therefore, quality enhances the value of quantity.


Carlos Hanson February 9, 2012 at 6:55 am

I bounce back an forth between these two all the time. I am working on a quantity goal for the year, but trying not to lose quality. There are definitely times where I have not felt like doing a Yilu, but have chosen to do a quick, small focused version just to add another number. I am also one of those thinkers who wants to do everything correct, so it is hard to make myself do one for the sake of quantity. However, I can see that my mind or my body is not always completely available to work any more intensely than just going through the motions.

At the same time, I know that as I practice and learn, I cannot focus on every aspect of the practice at the same time. Quality is always a subset of perfection. Thus I can apply quality in any form by adding at least one small thing to focus on. Yesterday, I did one repetition on the way back to my desk just for the sake of a number. It was fast, loose, and high, but I tried to keep my vertical line and not bob up and down. Loose arms and fast movement helped me observe my center rotation. Not a lot of effort, but enough to add just a little something of quality to my quantity.

As it is now, I’ve spent too much time here and should be outside practicing. But as valuable as practice is, sometimes you need to finish your tea, rest and evaluate your practice.


pingwei February 9, 2012 at 8:09 am

It all depends on people and different stages of training (in my opinion and teaching experience). For beginners, quantity matters in order to go through the motion (yilu) without hesitation and body restrictions (meaning what’s the next move they always wondered). At this stage, they kind of understand the principle and theories, but not. At this stage, the “quality” part of the practice is to get low and to achieve fluency. Through repetition, their body starts to change to respond to the structure of practical method, meaning why the elbows should come in and the hands should go out. This is the sign of progress. At this stage, the teacher can encourage and set the goal of training based on quality. Work on details, maintain the training intensity, and connect the transitions without loosing the energy level, etc.
I often do very slowly to pay attention to the connections. If I do fast, I’m not at the level to execute all the requirements of yilu yet. I think I have paid much more attention on quality (after initial stage of quantity). Now, I need to increase the quantity again on the higher level of quality.


Alex February 9, 2012 at 12:02 pm

Nice write up!

Good discussion. I think The beginning stage is a bit funny because a person overcome the initial hill of getting the general ‘big’ movements into muscle memory before working on smaller details. Once details are being worked on, there seems to be a back and forth process of quality training, then quantity training to further refine what was worked on in quality training.

In my experience, quality training, uses the mind to guide the body to do the correct movements from clumsy to looking fairly proficient. But, at some point, the mind is still ‘too’ involved in the micromanaging process, and if the move is done too quickly, it all falls apart. I think this is where quantity training can help, and allow the mind to take a step back, so the muscle memory can be further refined by shear repetitions. In the end, the mind needs to be able to sense and use what the body does, but not needlessly focus on the details so it can focus on other things like angle and timing in applications. No doubt though, the learning process of anything and the mastery of anything is an interesting phenomenon.


bruce.schaub February 9, 2012 at 1:10 pm

I am a fan of the technique, speed, power method…. start slow working on technique (which warms up the body stretching it out and brings in mental focus) then gradually add some speed, then power. Adding them in this way tests your technical proficiency, and helps to feel the dynamics of the movements in a very different way. One interesting related topic Master Chen brought up in a recent video was the need to do the form dynamically to maintain elasticity of the tendons. He held up a rubber cord and stretched it out and said basically…”if i hold this in a stretched position too long it will lose its elasticity”, which it absolutely would. He then showed a very explosive first thirteen and said it’s important to do both, fast and slow, (even if the fast is not perfect) for this reason…


Cat Haynes February 9, 2012 at 6:41 pm

I’m a beginner, starting to learn the second section of yilu. Sometimes I take a single movement that’s giving me trouble, and practice that 100 times in a row. The idea is to practice them all correctly, but it gets interesting when my mind starts to wander, which is sometime after the halfway mark. Sometimes the movements drift further away from the ideal, but occasionally they stumble towards it when the mind disengages. There’s generally something to be learned if I can catch that moment.


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