Although body mechanics and movements of external martial arts may vary greatly from style to style, the major difference between these and the internal styles is that external styles, while generating power through the coordination of the body as a whole, lack unity of motion in the internal arts sense. For example, many external martial arts strike using the power of the waist and upper body from the base of a stable stance, the blow would be relaxed during delivery, then tightened for an instant at impact This type of strike is capable of generating a great amount of power, with the force being produced mainly by the waist and striking limb. This whipping of a limb and tensing at impact is referred to as “sectional power” ju bu li) and differs from the whole body power of internal martial arts.
The sequence of training in external martial arts also differs in purpose. In the early stages of training, external martial arts place greater emphasis on increasing strength and endurance as the “raw material” to be refined later into precise technique. Whereas the goal of internal style stance training is to train the nervous system into the feeling of a unified body, the external martial artist stands to increase the strength, endurance and flexibility. As a consequence, external stance training is usually lower and wider than that of the internal. Although an oversimplification, it may be said that the internal martial artist stands to cultivate feeling, while the external martial artist stands to develop strength.
External martial artists often spend considerable time conditioning specific areas of the body, either to withstand impact or to increase sectional power. An external martial artist may especially condition the head, fists, elbows, shoulders, fingers, or emphasize a specific movement, resulting in the development of a specialized weapon. This is another example of the development of sectional power in the external martial arts. Once the martial artist has a strong foundation, form and technique training begins. Once again, the forms and techniques emphasized in external styles are designed around the sectional power developed through basic training.
Another major difference between internal and external martial arts is in the approach they take to training the mind. The internal places great emphasis on mind/body unity. The Taoists realized that a relaxed body controlled by a quiet mind produced a holistic entity, capable of fulfilling its potential. At the outset of training, the internal arts place the greatest emphasis on refining and training the nervous system to control the body. In contrast, most external styles emphasize increasing strength and endurance (external power) as the base upon which martial technique will be built. Students of the internal, through mind/body unity, seek to balance the nervous and hormonal systems, thereby producing a power from within the body (nei jing or internal power). The unified power is completely dependent upon fine neuromuscular control, which is completely mentally directed. The internal martial arts also talk at great length about practicing with a quiet mind. It is often quoted that, “There should be stillness in movement,” and internal martial artists seek to remain calm in spirit as they move. One of the primary reasons internal martial arts are good for health is that one may simultaneously exercise the body and rest the mind.
Turning to external martial arts, much less emphasis is placed on a quiet mindset. In many external styles, cultivation of a state the Chinese call the “killing air” (sha qi) is preferred. The spirit is raised and directed outwardly toward the opponent, rather than inwardly, much like athletes “psyching up” before an event. An externally observable manifestation of the different mindsets is apparent in the facial expressions of the individual practitioner: the external martial artist often shouts and grimaces fiercely, while the internal boxer looks calm and may even be faintly smiling during a fight.