Some of the most visually spectacular arts of kung fu involve people breaking things that seem pretty sturdy like bricks or poles. “Surely there’s some secret magical training involved!” I used to think, before I learnt better. The training principles are actually quite easy, it’s a matter of dedicating oneself to the correct training for years under a competent master (yes, I said years, and yes, I said you needed a competent master).
In addition to being able to hit things very hard, having powerful arms is just plain useful both in kung fu and in daily life. Let me tell you, trying to open the guard of someone who has powerful arms (through internal or external training) is rather difficult; in my case, I actually bounced off of the arm of someone who practices the Iron Wire set and nearly fell to the floor from only trying to move his arm out of the way! In daily life, there’s always something that needs lifting; a small child, a purring cat, your groceries, a bag full of swag, what have you. What I’m getting at is that strong arms are useful.
Here’s where I put the Disclaimer: The information provided below is strictly for educational purposes (and to get a good chuckle out of them). I will not be held responsible if you, or anyone you know, is irresponsible and foolish enough to do this stuff on your own. You have been warned.
Most of this information comes from my grandmaster’s website, but I thought it’d be nice to put most of it in one place.
The art of “Iron Arm” is a particularly famous one in Southern Shaolin styles, in particular Hoong Ka (aka Hung Gar) and Choi Li Fatt. There are many ways to attain it. One of the ways is the art of “Rolling Bamboo.” The practitioner sits in his Horse-Riding stance in front of a table and rolls the entire length of his arm along a bamboo pole on the table. He may do one arm at a time and then both arms at a time. He does this hundreds or thousands of times everyday. Eventually, he may also switch to supporting the bamboo rod on the underside of the table with his arms and continuing to roll the bamboo. When his arms are powerful enough to easily break the bamboo (and possibly even the table), he switches to a more solid roller (such as a stronger wood, or even stone) and table. One past practitioner was said to be able to break even stone rollers, stone tables, and bandit’s weapons with his Iron Arms.
Perhaps before Lam Sai Wing (a famous Southern Shaolin master who studied under the even more famous Chinese hero Wong Fei Hoong) was trusted enough to learn the Iron Wire set for internal force, he practiced the following interesting method to strengthen his “bridges” (kung fu parlance for arms) and stances. He basically sat in his Horse-Riding stance, put his arms in a loop of thick rope, and then separated his arms outwards in a pattern called “Wave Breaking Hands.” He did this for hours at a time, and because he developed so much force, he was even able to use it in disadvantageous situations such as attacking the legs of Northern Shaolin master who used double flying kicks on him. He fractured both of the Northern Shaolin master’s legs, which pretty much won the duel. I experimented with this force training method for a short time, though I used my belt rather than a thick rope because I could easily just wear my belt when I wasn’t used it for training. Perhaps because of my lack of skill, I found it difficult to relax while using this force training method, so I stopped.
A particularly funny training method I learnt about recently from Sigung’s website is called “Carrying a Pig.” The practitioner gets himself two piglets and carries them around, one in each arm, for a half hour to an hour each day. He feeds the piglets quite well, which grow very quickly. However, because he trains each day with the growing pigs, the gradual increase of weight isn’t too noticeable. Sigung admits it wasn’t a very popular training method back in the day.
Another part of training the Iron Arm is called “Grinding Arms.” The practitioner sits at the Horse-Riding stance in front of a table or sharp corner and grinds the exterior part of his forearm up against the edge, then turns his arm so that the palm faces inwards, and then grinds the “bottom” of his forearm down along the edge. One of Sigung’s old classmates practiced this force training exercise so often that he rubbed the wooden posts supporting the ceiling completely smooth. Grinding Arms is often complemented with “Striking Poles,” where the practitioner swings his whole arm and strikes various parts of his arm against a wooden pole to develop speed and force. I experimented with these two exercises for a time, but dropped off, as I felt Golden Bridge to be more effective in attaining force, among other benefits. “Striking Poles” is seen in many external force training methods, such as “Iron Leg” and some lineages’ versions of “No Shadow Kicks.”
Yet another exercise used to attain the art of “Iron Arm” is “Taming the Tiger.” Simply put, it is performing push-ups. The minimum attainment is to perform thirty picture-perfect push-ups of various sorts, such as with the elbows close to the body and pointed skyward or the elbows out to either side. I don’t do this at all because now I practice internal force training, which I feel is far more effective. The external training of “Tiger Claw” eventually has the practitioner perform “Taming the Tiger” using the fingertips for support rather than the palms.
Another exercise is the “Art of Thirty Punches.” In the former, the practitioner sits in his Horse-Riding stance and punches into the air thirty times for one set (and may repeat for many sets). After several months of this, the practitioner punches with weights held in his hands (such as the classical “stone locks,” kettlebells, or dumb-bells). The practitioner, if he so chooses, may move on to also develop the art of “Iron Fist” by striking a hanging sandbag with his fist (increasing the amount of sand in the bag gradually) and then replace the sand with iron shot. I used to practice Thirty Punches quite often, and used to practice kung fu sets while holding dumb-bells and wrist-weights, but I found it inconvenient to have to keep remembering to bring the training tools around.
The art of “Iron Palm” is a famous Shaolin art whereby with a seemingly gentle tap of the palm, bricks and bones are broken. The Northern Shaolin master Ku Ru Zhang was photographed smashing a pile of bricks (with no spacers) with his palm, and also killed a wild horse with one blow that ruptured the animal’s internal organs. “Iron Palm” is usually attained by striking a sandbag systematically with the palm while sitting at the Horse-Riding stance. In Sitaigung Ho Fatt Nam’s lineage, the method is as follows: strike with the entire palm of one hand sixty times, and then the other palm sixty times; then chop the bag sixty times with one hand, and then the other hand; finally, strike with the base (also called the “stamp”) of the palm sixty times with one hand, and then the other hand. Other lineages may eventually replace the sand with pebbles and eventually drive the palm into granules and iron shot. Yet other lineages simply strike the palms into a large vat of water.
Naturally, all of these exercises must be complemented with exercises and regimens needed to preserve the natural functioning of the body. You don’t want to have inflexible clubs or dead-weight arms or other body-parts! In the old days, no one could call himself a true kung fu master without knowing something of traumatology, first-aid, herbalism, and the complementary exercises to preserve sensitivity and function.
Whew! There are a lot of force training methods in kung fu that revolve around hitting things. I’m quite happy to not be hitting hard things very often.