It isn’t true that tai chi doesn’t devolop the muscles, but it does develop them differently than other types of athletic activity. The main difference is in the distinction between holistic and reductionistic muscular development.
With reductionistic muscular development, the body is seen to move as a collection of individual parts, much like a wooden puppet, and the main emphasis is on increasing muscle size and mass. The aim is to be able to generate twice the force to produce twice the effect, which makes gains achieved in this way additive, rather than multiplicative. The individual muscles are strengthened separately, creating the possibility for some muscles to become over- or under-developed relative to others. When done by itself this mode of training tends to diminish the body’s flexibility and range of motion. It also tends to reinforce inefficient movement patterns, as the aim is to move in ways that generate maximum resistance in order to induce maximum strengthening. For this reason it has inherent limitations built in, and also tends to induce excessive strain, wear, and tear on the body, which leads to greatly diminishing returns with age. In addition, it has the effect of increasing resting metabolism and caloric needs, which has the advantage of weight control but also speeds up the aging process. From a martial perspective, reductionistic muscular development relies on size and strength, which makes it work well versus smaller, weaker opponents but poorly versus larger, stronger opponents, making it no more effective as a martial art than raw instinct.
With holistic muscular development, the entire body is seen to move as a unit, not rigidly but fluidly, and the main emphasis is on improving economy of motion. The more effectively it is implemented, the more effortless it feels. The reasoning is that if you can achieve the same effect with half the force, then you can achieve twice the effect with the same force. This makes gains achieved in this way multiplicative, rather than additive. The goal is to use the whole body harmoniously in each movement, which results in the whole body being strengthened proportionally, and prevents some parts becoming over- or under-developed relative to others. Holistic muscular development also takes advantage of the natural elasticity of muscles and preserves the body’s range of motion. In addition, it reinforces habits of efficient body mechanics, because you are seeking to move in ways that you feel the least amount of resistance, rather than the intentionally inefficient mechanics used to strengthen the muscles in a reductionistic way. Furthermore, there is no theoretical limit to how much the body can be developed in this way. It inherently minimizes strain, wear, and tear on the body, and is a pursuit in which a person can continually progress throughout their lifetime. It has the additional advantage of reducing resting metabolism, which contributes to longevity. From a martial perspective holistic muscular development relies on economy rather than exertion, which makes it equally effective against all opponents regardless of their size or strength.
If you’d like to learn how to develop your whole body, including your muscles, holistically, come train with us!