Untapped Strength Part 2: Shaolin and Old-Time Strongmen

By on August 20, 2018

In this two-part series, I’m taking a look at some of the ‘untapped’ strength training methods that we overlook. In part one, we explored training techniques from gymnastics, as well as CrossFit, and elsewhere. In this post, I’m taking a look at the world of old-time strongmen, Shaolin martial arts, and more. Let’s see what secrets they hold that we can bring to the gym!


There’s another reason you might burn out during a run of pull ups though too: breathing.

If you find yourself holding your breath while training, then this is going to instantly limit how long you can do that exercise for. And meanwhile, breathing correctly during a lift can help you to exert more power and force (we see this in martial arts, where the ‘spirit shout’ is used when delivering a blow in order to startle the oponent and exert more force and more connection with the muscle). Similarly, when lifting weights we should also breathe outward during exertion (normally the concentric phase of the movement) and inwards when we are more relaxed (usually the eccentric phase). During running or other forms of cardio, this should form a kind of rhythm.

Likewise though, breathing can also be used as a powerful tool for increasing strength and stability. For instance, inhalation prior to a big lift is called ‘bracing’ and at its most advanced involves the ‘valsalva manoeuvre’ – breathing outward forcefully without letting air escape. This helps to brace the torso and make it all the more rigid – and when combined with the hollow body described in the last post, it results in even greater rigidity and power.

Ab vacuum, belly breathing, transverse abdominis

Correct belly breathing involves the transverse abdominis – the muscles you use in an ab vacuum

Meanwhile though, learning to ‘belly breathe’ during your waking life can aid with recovery. This means bringing in more oxygen by relaxing the abdominal cavity and diaphragm to fill the lungs to their fullest capacity. And I’ve already covered the benefits of nasal breathing versus mouth breathing in my post on energy.

And yes, I’ll be getting to the Wim Hof method and other forms of breathing as tools for controlling the central nervous system in future.

Foot Mobility

Foot strength is another area of our strength that we often completely overlook. Our feet aren’t just neglected, they’re actively neutered by our shoes.

The role of our feet from an evolutionary perspective is to ground us, to give us a stable footing (literally) on the ground, and to help us to move in a more explosive and powerful fashion. As any good martial artist knows, power in our punches is generated first at the feet. The same goes for practically every other movement – equal and opposite force and all that.

At the same time, our feet are able to contort and bend to match the shape of the ground underneath. This allows us to avoid twisting an ankle or falling over when running and climbing. It greatly enhances our balance and our agility. Not only that, but the foot is supposed to provide us with more neurological input about the ground underneath us – thereby allowing us to moderate our force and angle to better accommodate our position. Your feet account for 25% of the bones in your body. They obviously do something pretty darn important, and yet most of us can barely move them.

With your feet locked in shoes, you lose all of their functionality and dexterity

With your feet locked in shoes, you lose all of their functionality and dexterity – your muscle become atrophied. Not only that, but this will cause tightness and ineffectiveness in your fascia, which as I explored recently can cause tightness and inefficiency throughout your entire body. Slight changes to your biomechanics may actually prevent you from utilizing your leg muscles as you should be, and your glutes in particular.

This is a singular connective tissue that surrounds all our muscles and joints, and which has contractile and elastic properties of its own. It’s why simply rolling out your foot can improve your range of motion significantly.

Fascia feet

There’s a fantastic article on all this over at Breaking Muscle. And this is something I’m definitely going to be returning to in the near future.

For now, what can you do to start regaining some foot strength and dexterity? Some options include:

  • Rolling your feet out using a golf ball
  • Barefoot running, or running with ‘minimal shoes’ such as the Five Finger shoes from Vibram – be careful with this though and work up to it gently (that goes for everything I’ve discussed in this list)
  • Weight training in barefoot. Preferably in your garden or otherwise outdoors. There are also other potential benefits to this, which I will be analysing and discussing in upcoming videos.
  • YouTube commenter Seth Dossett put me onto Chong Xie’s SecretofAthleticism’s channel, who explains the power of the ‘hyperarch mechanism’ – strengthening the arc of the foot and engaging the glutes. One movement you can use to build this is the ‘hyperarch hop’ – which involves locking the feet into a position with the heel off the ground and then bouncing to and fro.


I’ve touched on fascia recently and described it as a little-understood and highly complex system. The fascia has its own smooth muscle cells and its own mechanoreceptors, meaning that it can help to improve our proprioception, stability, and strength. It has even been suggested that the fascia may provide a potentially verifiable basis for techniques like acupuncture and reflexology, explaining how changes to the extracellular matrix could result in body-wide health and performance changes. It also explains why training the feet again helps to improve bio-mechanics and power generation throughout the body.

Here we start to see a potential explanation for the impressive feats demonstrated by Shaolin monks. Not only do they spend a lot of time consciously ‘directing’ energy to specific parts of their body to harden them and create body-wide rigidity, but they also directly incorporate foot training and fascial release by standing and balancing on poles while practicing horse-stance. Chong Xie suggests that this helps to strengthen the arc and ensures that the movement will build glute-dominance rather than quad-dominance. Many of their stances likewise require standing on the balls and utilizing the glutes to balance. All this may work to help them use their bodies in a more cohesive manner and generate far more power.

Xi Xingsong demonstrating incredible full-body mastery. He may be one of only two pepole on the planet to be able to perform this stunt...

Oh, and it’s no coincidence that gymnasts generally train barefoot too…

Train your fascia by using larger ranges of motion during exercise and a wider range of more unpredictable movements. Use fascial release, focussing on relaxing the muscle and addressing areas of tension. Think of the body as a single, cohesive unit, and concentrate on the precise role of each part of your body as you train.

Note: The similarities between traditional martial arts training and fascia/full body control are more than superificial. Check out my post on Chi Control to see how all this might be explained very neatly…

Neck Training

While we’re at it, another type of training seen commonly in Shaolin Kung Fu, is neck training. Shaolin Monks love flipping around on their heads, which looks impressive but also helps to strengthen yet another potential ‘weak link’ in the chain. For taking blows, preventing injury and ensuring rigid power throughout the body, this is a useful consideration. I’ll be looking into it in more detail shortly.

Overcoming Isometrics

Finally, another of my favourite topics on this channel: overcoming isometrics.

Overcoming isometrics are exercises that involve pushing or pulling against an immovable force. That means exerting 100% of your strength with no movement, at a range of positions, or potentially trying to crush, rip, or bend static objects.

The big benefit of this is that it helps to strengthen the neural connection with the muscles that you’re trying to engage. In other words, you learn to recruit more muscle fiber by constantly trying to recruit more muscle fiber: Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands. This in turn allows you to tap into more of your existent strength, and also to enhance your overall mind-muscle connection.

Much of what I have covered here involves mind-muscle connection in fact. Becoming more consciously aware of smaller muscle groups, and using the body more as a single mechanism that can be soft and fluid or rigid and powerful.

I’ve made plenty of content on overcoming isometrics which you can check out, but for now here’s a new tip to consider: try crushing an iron bar, pulling apart a rope, or otherwise engaging in some form of overcoming isometric exercise.

Exert yourself fully at 100% capacity for a about 5 seconds. You will find at this point that you are losing strength and beginning to fail. Now though, try to give it a final burst of additional speed and strength. What you’ll find is that you actually had a fair bit of extra power in the tank. The only thing missing was that extra neural drive: that extra concentration.

Bruce Lee also used overcoming isometrics

This is also why we see something called the ‘bilateral deficit’ – the fact that we’re able to produce more power from a single leg when using it alone, than we can when using it in conjunction with our other leg. During a leg press for instance, you can probably produce over 50% of your 1RM with a single leg, simply because you are now focussing all our attention on generating force in that limb.

It’s in the mind, and this – like so much else – can be trained.


Of course, there are lots more ‘little known’ aspects of training that I haven’t covered here and many more ways in which modern training programs fall short. At the end of the day, most of us now spend 90% of our time sitting and then attempt to cram all of our physical training into a few hours a week, in a very flat and sterile gym. Compare this with the way we would have been constantly moving in the wild and it’s clear why it falls short.

Perhaps we can go beyond nature

There are areas of our performance that of course have been neglected as a result, and thus we end up with big ‘gaps’ in our physical performance. We even have powerful athletes with zero straight arm or strength, and crippled feet.

So how do we fix this? How do we bring these forgotten aspects back into our training?

Often, we can find the answers by looking backwards, or by looking at practices and arts that have yielded awesome results that once defied explanation. Now we are beginning to recognize the science and biomechanics behind these training methods though, we can start to utilize them in a more efficient, targeted, and evidence-based manner. We can now focus on specific parts of our bodies – our muscles, ligaments, neural networks – that have been overlooked: turn our weaknesses into strengths.

Training beyond nature

With the right knowledge and the right will, perhaps we can go beyond nature.

I leave you with this…

Beardyman is a beatboxer capable of making incredible sounds with his voice. This is possible because he has trained to develop the true power of his voice. Did you know that in order to speak, while exhaling, we utilize muscles in our chest with the same kind of dexterity that we might traditionally associate with our hands? Did you know that the human voice is actually the most complex sound in nature as a result of this?

When you actually train that tool, it’s capable of incredible things. Most of us then are using a fraction of our potential when it comes to the human voice. And the same is clearly true for our physical and mental performance.

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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