Secrets of Shaolin Training – Legendary Training

By on March 20, 2019

Part of the mission statement of the Bioneer, has always been to seek out unusual training methods and examples of exceptional human performance. With that in mind, it is impossible to ignore Shaolin Kung Fu.

Shaolin Training Secrets

In fact, I don’t understand why more athletes aren’t turning to these guys for inspiration. These are real life superheroes: capable of feats such as throwing needles through glass at a distance, performing two finger handstands, and springing off of their heads.

And these aren’t one off flukes: they use repeatable, testable techniques to get there. Imagine if we combined just some of these concepts with our regular training!

Shaolin training reality

Is Shaolin Kung Fu Relevant Today?

I shouldn’t continue before addressing the elephant in the room: there are those out there who question the relevance of Shaolin kung fu. Citing its poor showing in competitive tournaments like MMA, they suggest that Shaolin kung fu is more a performance art than anything else – or at least that any true ‘martial monks’ are long since gone.

Shaolin kung fu is not a form of self-defence first and foremost

But this is to miss the point. Shaolin kung fu is not a form of self-defence first and foremost. Primarily, it is a means to an end and a form of moving meditation.

The story goes that Bodhidharma found that the monks had become incredibly weak from their prolonged meditation – that they were falling asleep and struggling to stay focussed. He rightly observed that the body and mind are interdependent and that they couldn’t achieve mental and spiritual excellence by neglecting their bodies.

Shaolin meditation

Thus, he introduced the 18 Lohan Hands and Sinew Metamorphosis to strengthen the body externally and internally. These became kung fu and chi kung respectively, and together with meditation, these are described as the ‘3 living treasures’ of Shaolin.

It’s not just about kicking the snot out of people then, but rather achieving peak health and performance in pursuit of self-actualization.

And the fact remains the techniques allow these guys to take blows to any part of the body without flinching, or to perform hand stands on two fingers. That has undoubted combat application.

Does this mean that Shaolin training is superior to MMA? That this is some mysterious ultimate technique that creates super warriors? Does it mean that a monk could beat an MMA fighter?

Shaolin demonstration

Not at all. In fact, we have seen that this is not the case, and very few monks would claim any different. In fact, master Wong Kiew Kit openly admits that without actual fighting experience, technique alone is not enough. And most monks are not really psychologically cut out for MMA. The notable exception to this rule is Yi Long, who is ‘self-trained’ in Shaolin Kung Fu, so we really should take his performance with a grain of salt.

But that is not to say that the technique has no value. Merely that it hasn’t been applied in that way for thousands of years, or by the right person.

And as a supplement to other types of training, it might just be an invaluable tool for us. What if Connor McGregor learned Iron Shirt?

Not only that, but as a means to develop incredible flexibility, bodyweight strength, and body toughness… it could supplement any strength and fitness regime. Hence this video!

Childish Movement, Speed, and Lightness

Childish movements Shaolin

One thing we might want to borrow from Shaolin monks for instance, is their incredible flexibility which allows them to hold incredibly deep stances, kick extremely high, and in some cases perform almost superhuman-looking feats of contortion.

They train this with a series of movements across 18 styles called ‘tong zi gong’ (tóngzigōng). This is very similar in many ways to yoga, and claims to increase ‘body intelligence’. It literally translates to ‘boy power’, but that’s a little weird sounding, so it is more often referred to as ‘kung fu of the child’. The insinuation here being that the forms can help to restore the effortless and flexible movement of a child.

Shaolin monks believe that flexibility is crucial for fast and elegant movements. Indeed, increasing flexibility can improve strength and speed by reducing the amount of resistance applied by antagonistic muscle tendon units.

I’ve been looking for a good flexibility routine to follow lately, but I’m having a hard time coming across a beginner-friendly tongzi form. If I find one, I’ll be sure to share.

Tong Zi

Tong Zi also includes numerous moves for training lightness and agility

Likewise, Shaolin monks train for speed, endurance, and lightness. Speed training is accomplished at least partly through rote learning – repeating the same moves over and over. They will simultaneously practice maintaining proper breathing. The aim is to perform fast movements without increasing breathing rate. The argument here is that speed without endurance is useless.

As for lightness – what we would likely refer to as agility – the monks use a training method called ‘Plum Flower Formation’. Here, they draw five circles a foot in diameter in the shape of a plum flower. They then move between their different stances and directions while keeping their feet at all times within the circles.

Eventually, those circles will progress to inverted bowls, and eventually to poles around 7 foot high. While getting poles like these installed in your home would represent a significant investment, there I little to stop you from doing the same training with bowls!

Shaolin headspring

Likewise, they also use a similar technique called ‘through the woods’ where they attempt to move between the poles quickly without touching them. You could easily accomplish something similar with hanging rope for instance.

Iron Palm

But perhaps the best-known skill of the Shaolin monks is the ability to harden nearly any part of the body. They can repel attacks with their iron shirt, smash through bricks with their cosmos palm and more.

Partly, this is accomplished through rigorous training and progressive overload. Techniques such as hitting the hands against sand and ice will toughen the knuckles and hands – this is Iron Palm training.

If you want to follow suit, you can buy a sand bag to hang on your wall (as I did) and integrate this into your incidental training. That said, a big book will do for most people to start.

Iron Shin

There are countless variations of this concept. The iron arm for instance and iron kick can be achieved by rolling bamboo on the forearms and shins respectively. There’s even iron head!

My Granddad actually used to encourage me to roll rattan and bamboo sticks up and down my shins in just this way, so it’s something I’m familiar with! As I’ve mentioned on the channel before, we had an awesome anime-style relationships.

This works because the bones are plastic just like the muscles and the brain. Check out my video/post on bone strengthening for more, but suffice to say that a process called bone reabsorption and reversal allow bones to come back stronger after minor damage. By rolling bamboo, you provide just enough damage to the bones to trigger growth, without causing serious harm.

Iron Palm Shaolin

Shaolin monks then use a concoction called ‘Soothing Muscle and Livening Blood Concoction for Washing’, or more popularly: ‘dit da jow’, applied to the area to encourage healing and speed progress.

One recipe for this can be found in The Complete Book of Shaolin:

  • 12 grams shen jing cao
  • 12 grams hai tong bi
  • 12 grams zuo qin yuan
  • 12 grams da du ho
  • 12 grams shan gou teng
  • 12 grams chuan hong hua
  • 8 grams da dang gui
  • 8 grams ru xiang
  • 8 grams mo yao

I literally don’t know what any of those things are, but there you go!

Cosmos Palm

Shaolin Exhibition

But that is not the real ‘secret’ to this technique. Rather, that comes from the chi kung, which involves building ‘internal strength’ through the use of correct breathing, slow meditative movement, and visualization.

Shaolin classifies ‘force’ into three categories: hard, soft, and combined.

Cosmos palm allows them to target the brick at the bottom of a pile while leaving all the rest in-tact

Iron palm is a hard technique, and is considered useful but not overly valuable. According to author and grandmaster Wong Kiew Kit, training in this method is tiring and encourages an aggressive mindset not agreeable to the Shaolin philosophy. Once again, this demonstrates that fighting is not the primary focus of Shaolin kung fu.

Soft techniques are those accomplished through speed and technique. This soft force is attained through rote practice of the same movements, combined with relaxation and flexibility.

But the third kind of combined force is what gives rise to the most truly spectacular moves: the cosmos palm and the

Whereas iron palm practitioners can smash through a pile of bricks with their bare hands – impressive no doubt – cosmos palm allows them to target the brick at the bottom of a pile while leaving all the rest in-tact.

Cosmos Hand

A cheap version of iron shirt can be obtained through the use of body conditioning, but when combined with chi kung and a technique called ‘small universe’ and meditation, it becomes more potent.

Chi kung for the uninitiated is essentially a form of moving meditation that involves holding poses or moving slowly between them. Key to this though, is the visualization.

Qi Gong

I actually trained in Yang style Tai Chi for a year, and chi kung was a large part of that. After each session we would ‘stand like a tree’ for a good ten minutes at a time. The tongue would settle on the roof of the mouth, and we would use abdominal breathing. Our legs would shake, and we’d be told to visualize energy moving around our body – through our feet and from our ‘dantian’ in the center of our bodies.

And this is where things once again become controversial. Because what you’re actually supposed to be doing during this training is channelling ‘chi’ around your body to clear your meridians. And die-hard practitioners even believe this technique can be used to cure illness.

So what is chi? Among martial artists there are two schools of thought. Those who believe that chi is a magical ‘force’ like substance that can be harnessed and controlled. There was even once an underground community on the web of people who practiced ‘radical chi’ believing that it could be used to shoot fireballs, Dragon Ball Z style.

But other teachers have attempted to distance themselves from the esoteric and will make statements like:

“There is no secret, it just means kinetic energy!”

While the latter option might be more agreeable with modern science, it is disingenuous to the original source material. Chi Kung practitioners traditionally believe that this is a powerful and somewhat mystical force that behaves differently to anything known by modern science.

And many of the moves, even in ‘harder’ style martial arts, are still routed in this tradition. And this is how the Shaolin teach many of their feats. In order to learn the cosmos palm for instance, it is recommended that you spend at least a year first holding the pushing mountain pose while visualizing actual mountains being push and pulled away, and balls of energy collecting in the hands.

So what, do we just write this all off as hokum?

The problem with this is that the things that these monks can do really do appear superhuman. For all the arrogant posturing of those who dismiss the abilities of these guys, I’d like to see anyone perform a handstand on two fingers. Does this have martial application? Perhaps it’s not enough to win a fight, but absolutely.

(As demonstrated by the diamond finger strike.)

Understanding Chi

I actually have my own theory as to what is going on here. It is my belief that qi control is really just increasing the mind-muscle connection to untold degrees, using visualization in order to take conscious control of muscle that we can’t normally utilize.

It is my belief that qi control is really just increasing the mind-muscle connection

Visualizing Chi energy might simply be a useful way of overcoming mental blocks, of directing attention, and of understanding the body enough to control it.

Consider the practice of focussing on the dantian. This is said to be where we store the most chi and by focussing on that area, we can potentially move with more power and greater balance.

To this end, Shaolin monks are taught to ‘move from their centers’, being mindful of their dantian at all times.

How might we interpret this in Western terms?

Fascia

Well, as it happens, the dantian is located ten centimeters below the navel, which is precisely where our center of gravity is. And this is no coincidence.

Find a training partner and ask them to try and push you over. As they do, focus on your head. Make a note of how successful they are.

Now repeat the exercise but this time, try focussing on your center of gravity. You’ll find that this seemingly innocuous change makes you instantly more stable and more difficult to push over. This is a common martial arts demonstration, but it’s something you can use even when lifting weights. So what has happened?

Well, by ‘bringing your chi to your center’, you’re actually just subtly altering your focus and attention and thus becoming more attuned to your center of gravity. And as an added bonus, practicing this works as a form of meditation by forcing you to control your attention.

This explanation can actually describe many of the phenomena we witness across martial arts. The ‘kiai’ or ‘spirit shout’ for instance is intended to help deliver more intent and energy into a punch. And we know there is some truth here – seeing as studies show that yelling can increase average strength by as much as 31% through the release of adrenaline (study).

Shaolin

So when you visualize channelling energy into your hands, you may in fact be guiding your attention that way in order to exert more force and power. Old-time strongman Maxick believed that he was able to gain superior control over individual muscles to the point where it gave him immense power. When trying to bench press, one thing you might do in order to smash a PB is to imagine that you’re trying to launch the barbell up through the ceiling. Simply visualizing this changes your intent and thereby helps you exert more force.

Likewise, when performing a squat, simply focussing more on the glutes can help to engage them more fully and thereby improve technique and power.

Perhaps something similar is going on here?

Indeed, glute dominance is something that is achieved from the hours of horse stance practiced by the monks!

How might concentration help to develop strength in areas as diverse as the head, neck, and fingers?

Shaolin Finger Stand

One possibility is that it gives us some control over the fascia – the thin connective tissue covering the entire body as a kind of ‘film wrap’. This substance has been shown to contain its own smooth muscle cells, which may contribute to fascial contractility (study).

In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that the ‘meridians’ conceptualized in traditional Chinese medicine may actually align with the locations of the fascial network and its (study).

Obviously this all needs further investigation and we certainly should not jump to any conclusions. Neither do we necessarily have to accept ideas wholesale if some show to have a useful basis. I personally have a hard time swallowing the use of chi in healing others. BUT it is certainly possible that through visualization, Shaolin monks could gain greater control over their fascia – which might explain some of their incredible feats.

Wim Hof managed to take conscious control over his autonomic nervous system after all, so who knows what else is possible. It’s certainly an interesting idea to consider.

Conclusions

Whatever else you think, there are certainly some very interesting and useful training methods we can borrow from Shaolin monks. And they should certainly be praised for their incredible determination and commitment.

The monks train vigorously throughout the day: some reports state three hours in the morning and two in the afternoon, six days a week. If anyone trained that much, they’d be capable of some pretty immense stuff.

Shaolin training running up steps

One method they use to keep their energy up is to take a short 30 minute power nap between these sessions. Power napping is something I intend to cover in future, but suffice to say that the research does show that a short nap is enough to heighten reflexes, energy, focus, and more. One Men’s Health writer also believes that the diet high in mantau wheatgerm provides useful vitamin E and octacosonal for better recovery (study).

Shaolin monks will hold positions for minutes on end in eye-watering feats of endurance, they will turn simple exercises like climbing stairs into gruelling cardio workouts, and they will avoid distracting thoughts for hours while seeking a zen state of calm.

However they have managed it, Shaolin monks have taken incredible control over their minds and bodies through sheer determination.

And there are many more fascinating training methods and feats used at the Shaolin temple, from Bo Ding Gong (pulling nails out of a plank of wood), to shaking down trees (bao shu gong), to performing headsprings (jie di gong). I’ll definitely return to this topic in future, so stay tuned to the Bioneer!

 

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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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