Active and passive movement

When we start to learn Tai Chi, we see our teacher’s demonstration and are bewildered by the apparently complex combination of movements. So, we then try to imitate them.

Unfortunately, due to the natural human difficulty with observation and comprehension, we misunderstand and then misinterpret what we have seen. (Eyes and brain just don’t get along at times!) This results in adding in ‘phantom’ movements……performing what we think we have observed as opposed to what was actually demonstrated.

This article will deal with the difference between ‘active‘ and ‘passive‘ movements….. those which are performed consciously (active) and those which happen as a consequence of movements by other parts of the body (passive).

The first example we come across is ‘sinking’ in a standing posture when we prepare to begin Tai Chi or Qigong:

The student focuses on the most obvious movement – the teacher’s knees – and misinterprets this as ‘bending the knees’ being the technique for ‘sinking’. So, he/she actively bends the knees and this results in leaning slightly backwards with the muscles around the hip joints tightening up to maintain balance. Definitely not what’s required because postural tension has now been created instead of reduced or eliminated.

The correct technique is to focus on a different part of the body – the hips – rather than the knees. By consciously relaxing the muscles at the hip joints (active movement) and allowing gravity to do its’ thing, the knees (and ankles) will relax, as a consequence, and bend slightly (passive movement). This is exactly what happens when we start to sit down, as we do many times every day.

The next example (and harder to get the hang of) is with the legs when ‘turning’ while preparing to take a step:

The student again focuses on the most obvious movement of the teacher’s forward leg and interprets this as ‘twisting the leg’ or ‘turning the foot’ (active movement). When the student adds in this ‘phantom’ action and then transfers his/her weight into the leg, the incorrect technique results in poor alignment of the joints. It often causes ‘over-pronation’ of the foot (rolling inwards as the arch of the foot collapses). The knee then moves out of alignment with the ankle and puts stress on the medial collateral ligament at the inner side of the knee. (If repeatedly done over time, this can result in knee pain!)

The correct technique is to focus on turning the body using the hips – not turning/twisting the forward leg (‘phantom’ active movement). The rotation that occurs at the leg/foot must be passive andnot active. This is achieved by keeping the weight in the standing leg (‘full leg’), placing the heel of the forward leg/foot (‘emply leg’) on the ground without transferring any weight until the turn has been completed. As the body is turned using the hips (active movement), the ‘empty’ leg will turn on its own consequentially (passive movement).

The most common problem in Tai Chi stepping is that the student moves forward too soon, transferring some weight into the forward leg before the heel touches the ground – dropping onto the foot in exactly the same way as normal walking. This is usually caused by trying to take too large a step. As a result, with some weight in the leg that should be ‘empty’, passive movement becomes tricky because of friction created by weight in the foot. So, the student compensates by incorrectly twisting the leg to get into position, and often turning the leg/foot too far as well! What should have been a passive movement has now been incorrectly made into an active one, with the negative effects on joints described earlier. To add to this error, the student now makes another one – believing their foot is now in the ‘correct’ position, and not bothering to turn the body, so remaining faced forwards.

The next unnecessary active movement of the leg is when preparing to move into a bow stance – the most common stance in Yang-style Tai Chi. (This is very odd because it is not a ‘phantom’ movement that the student thinks they have seen the teacher perform – it certainly hasn’t been!)

In a bow stance, the front foot must point in the direction of movement – i.e. directly forwards. Frequently, students add in an extra active movement and twist the leg/foot so it points in a different direction, at an angle. The result is the same effect on alignment of joints as previously described. Not only that, but in sequences such as ‘Grasping Sparrows Tail’, the outwardly twisted front leg inhibits turning correctly when shifting weight to the back leg, creating tension at the hip/knee, and creating a strange rocking backwards and forwards motion!

When moving into a bow stance, once the forward foot is pointing in the right direction (forwards) through passive movement, NEVER add in an extra active twist of the leg. It will create problems.


  • Angle change of leg/foot passive not active
  • Passive action of leg/foot due to body/hip rotation
  • No weight transferred to leg until correct angle achieved
  • No active compensatory movement in leg

Now read associated article ‘Stepping or controlled falling?‘:

Gareth Davy  American College of Sports Medicine: Health/Fitness Specialist

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