Unbreakable: How Martial Artists Develop Stronger Bones

By on March 11, 2016

unbreakable

When we talk about ‘getting stronger’, we tend to be referring to muscle mass and raw lifting strength. By working hard in the gym, we subject our muscles to tiny traumas called ‘microtears’. Subsequently, if we get enough rest and enough protein, the body then repairs this damage but brings it back thicker and stronger than it was previously in a process known as hypertrophy.

But your muscles can only get you so far. Even with the strongest muscles in the world, you’re still not going to survive a big fall or a crash. In these scenarios your muscle provides some ‘shielding’ like a thin layer of armor but it’s ultimately your bones that you’re going to be relying on to keep your body structurally in-tact and your organs protected.

If you want to be truly powerful then you need to train your bones as well.

How to Train Your Bones

So… just drink lots of milk right?

Well sure, calcium will get you part of the way. But if you really want to build powerful bones then you might want to take things a step further and take a leaf out of the Muay Thai and Kickboxing books.

These fighters use repeated strikes using their forearms and shins in order to gradually harden and condition their bones. Traditionally, fighters would do this by kicking, punching and striking against trees. Today, they might use heavy bags as well as bamboo sticks. And on top of kicking and striking the surfaces, they also go on to roll bamboo sticks up and down their shins and forearms to further the effect. Give it a try and you’ll find this is surprisingly painful.

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Over time, this can actually strengthen the bones to the point where they are less likely to break and they can be used as striking implements. In fact, famous kickboxer Buakaw Por Pramuk is known for being able to kick down small trees using his shins! Other martial arts see their practitioners strengthen the blades of their hands by hitting sand and ice.

Surprised? It actually follows a very similar process to hypertrophy and muscle building.

The Science of Bone Strengthening

This practice actually works in two different ways. Firstly, striking against pads and bags will deaden the nerves in the shins. This is important because the shins are actually very sensitive.

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At the same time, rolling the bamboo rods and striking the bag can compress the bone and cause tiny micro-fractures. These are similar to the microtears in muscle building: tiny damage to the bone that the body then repairs. As this happens, a more rigid ‘honeycomb’ structure forms that with stronger bones and mineral density will increase. That honeycomb structure is important because it is what allows the bone to compress and that way ‘absorb’ impacts.

In fact, people have been known to fall out of planes and hit the ground without breaking any bones. Often this is because they were fortunate enough to land on a steep decline but it has also been attributed to them being unconscious at the time. Often the reason that our bones break is actually that we tense up and our muscle and ligaments hold them in place. This is also why babies are surprisingly resilient. Your bone may already be able to withstand more than you think. And it follows too therefore, that if you ever find yourself on an unavoidable collision, the best thing you can do is to try and pass out. I just saved your life and you are very welcome.

But strengthening that structure is only going to further your chances of not getting busted up.

Many of us assume that our bones are permanently ‘set’ and can’t be developed but actually they are constantly changing just like every other part of our body. Bone is continually absorbed and then redeposited by cells in the body known as osteoclasts and osteoblasts. These help grow, heal and maintain your bones throughout your life. This process is called ‘bone remodelling’.

Bone Remodelling

Specifically, osteoclasts remove mineralized bone, while osteoblasts formulate bone matrix and mineralize it. First osteoclasts absorb old bone for ‘recycling’ (resorption), then the mononuclear cells appear on the bone surface (reversal) and finally, the new bone is laid down by osteoblasts to meet changing mechanical needs and to repair microdamage (1). This last step is called ‘formation’.

As with other forms of growth however, this slows down as we get older and that’s one of the reasons that the elderly are more prone to fractures. Just like muscle tissue, skeletal tissue is ‘metabolically active’ and constantly being remodelled and just like muscle mass, it’s possible to ‘direct’ this remodelling the way you want it.

That you’re constantly changing is non-negotiable. But it’s up to you whether you’re getting stronger or getting weaker.

How to Train Your Bone Strength

So that’s the science and that’s what Muay Thai fighters do to increase their bone strength. Should you get on board?

Well, if you’re anything like me and you have a pathological need to become more powerful (I can relate to Vegeta) then sure, it’s worth a try! But you need to be careful about how you’re going to go about this. Because just pounding your limbs is never a good idea and is actually a one-way ticket to fracture city (disclaimer: not a real city). It’s also something that you likely don’t have lots of time for in your already packed training regime.

wolverine skeletonSo I recommend just throwing in a little light training for the bones. If you’re already kicking and punching a heavy bag, then consider throwing in a bit of light shin and forearm work there too. Because why not? If you want to take it a little further, then consider rolling sticks as well.

Of course, we can also get more scientific about this if we want to. Raising growth hormone for example is one method that is known to improve bone growth and remodelling (2). Increasing testosterone also helps to increase bone density (3). In fact, one of the medicinal uses of steroids like Anavar is to increase bone strength.

Obviously this means that exercising can help to strengthen bone mass by stimulating those anabolic hormones – particularly if you use compound movements. And actually, high impact, weight bearing exercises like squats might also strengthen your bones by further compacting them and actually causing some micro-damage. Parathyroid hormone is actually one of the key regulators of bone remodelling, so that’s a thread for your own research if you’re interested.

And of course, the right diet can make a big difference too. Vitamin D, calcium and magnesium are all particularly important for strengthening bone mass. Don’t forget that vitamin D – it helps the body to absorb calcium and also improves the production of the anabolic hormones. The best way to get vitamin D? Get outside in the sun. Potassium is also useful while some things like caffeine, smoking and alcohol can actually weaken bones.

Conclusions

So that’s the basics of what you need to know. Is it useful? That’s up to you. I’ve certainly had need for stronger bones in the past but I’m not sure whether this sort of training would have been any use. I had my cheek bone broken when I was attacked after a night out once but I’m not going to start rolling bamboo sticks down my face. In this kind of scenario, it would actually have been more useful to be able to move ‘with’ the punches to help my bone absorb the impact. As mentioned, if we relax our bodies and ‘go with the flow’ our bones can actually take a lot of punishment. That’s ‘pushing hands’ stuff and definitely an article for another time though. Also: I was as pissed as a fart.

Likewise, I also snapped my wrist after a fall from a great height. My whole hand was on backwards. But I doubt there’s much any bone strengthening could have done to prevent that. Is it now stronger? Nope, because it was reattached at the wrong angle and a fragment of bone attached to my ligament. Nice. Apparently I’m going to have arthritis when I’m 21 (I’m 28, so so far, so good).

But having legs that are like blades is certainly a cool prospect so I might start incorporating shin training into my heavy bag work. How about you guys? I’d love to hear whether you think this is a useful tool and whether you’re going to be incorporating it into your own training. Or maybe you already have? Sound off below!

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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