In June 2013, someone on the G+ Martial Artist forum noted that he was doing “tree toughening” exercises and asked for our opinions on the exercise. Here was my response:
Are you swinging your arms, legs into the tree and striking your body against a tree? Provided you follow the correct method and gradual progression, you’ll eventually develop what kung fu people call Iron Arm, Iron Leg, Iron Vest, Iron Head, and so forth, depending on the conditioning you do.
May I ask why you are practicing toughening exercises? Do you happen to live in a dangerous neighborhood where you are expecting to be attacked by fists, knives, or guns? I mostly ask because there is a high percentage of folks who knock their arms and bodies against trees but the chance for them to test their protective or toughening skill is very low unless they live in dangerous areas or purposefully seek out fights. Furthermore, a high percentage of folks who practice hard conditioning often develop tough calluses which dampen their body’s normal sensitivity as well as give themselves internal injuries from sustained hitting. Generally, it’s considered better to not get hit at all, especially since speed, grace, and agility are more easily applicable to both fighting as well as day-to-day activities, whereas the ability to sustain a powerful blow is generally only useful in specific careers, such as professional fighting or perhaps being a stuntsman or construction worker.
Some folks I used to know that practiced karate would often strike their fists and feet against a “makiwara,” that is, a pole or plank that was wrapped in tough and rough rope. These people developed extremely large calluses along their knuckles that made their hands pretty tough, but their knuckles were so swollen that their hands could not do much fine manipulation beyond writing. Playing fine music or drawing a lovely portrait was entirely beyond them. The infamous picture of karate master Sensei Don Buck’s hand may be seen on the internet if you Google his name. I can’t imagine why anyone would want a fist that looks like that.
The old-old-school generations of karate masters in Okinawa were infamous for striking their bare hands against rocks. Their knuckle bones were broken and refused so many times that their hands resembled bricks or maces more than anything that belonged at the end of a human’s arm.
All that said, what follows is a brief chat about toughening, also called protective or defensive arts in kung fu.
In “protective arts,” some of the more famous and spectacular in kung fu are Iron Vest and Golden Bell. Someone who has either of these arts can easily sustain hits from ordinary people without pain or injury. I’ve seen one of my seniors lift his arms and allowed tae kwon do black-belts to deliver full power kicks to his body, to no effect. I’ve struck people with an Iron Vest or a Golden Bell before; it was like hitting a solid wall, and my strike did nothing to them. A Taijqiuan master I met who had Iron Vest actually grabbed my arms when I came in for a double palm strike to his chest and bounced me off of his belly, sending me stumbling back about five feet and almost into the wall of his training hall. It is significant to note that everyone I have met and sparred with that had an Iron Vest or Golden Bell did not have heavy bruising or calluses in any parts of their body; they looked like perfectly ordinary, though quite healthy and fit, human beings.
Some past masters were known for having an Iron Vest or Golden Bell, or if not known for that art by name, they were recorded as having manifested the effects of Iron Vest or Golden Bell (being unharmed by an injury). Grandmaster Lam Sai Wing (who spread the art of Hung Gar kung fu so many hundreds, if not thousands of students, and was the student of the famous master Wong Fei Hung, the “Tiger after the Ten Tigers of Canton”) once fought a duel against a Northern Shaolin master who used double flying kicks on him. Lam Sai Wing was recorded as being struck twice in the body by this Northern Shaolin master, but was unharmed. Lam Sai Wing used a technique called “Wave Breaking Hands” to strike at the Northern Shaolin master’s legs and bounce him many feet away, fracturing the flying master’s legs. Lam Sai Wing was not known for specially having practiced Golden Bell methods, but developed a Golden Bell-like effect from practicing Iron Wire, the most well-known force training set in Hung Gar kung fu. Lam Sai Wing was photographed many times in his later life and he does not have huge, malformed fists or swollen arms. In fact, he looks rather healthy! You may see a photograph of Lam Sai Wing demonstrating a pattern from the Iron Wire set here (third photograph on this page).
It goes without saying that just smashing your body against a tree, pole, sand-bag, etc. should be supervised by someone who has accomplished a high standard in conditioning exercises. Furthermore, to preserve your sensitivity and “wash away” any injuries you may unwittingly sustain, proper remedial therapy is essential. In most kung fu schools, this means applying some sort of medication (often called “dit dat jow” in Cantonese, that is, “fall and hit wine” or just “kung fu medicine”). Some sensitivity exercises are things like moving tiny objects such as hairs or grains of sand with fine finger movements to make sure that you are not just turning your body into a club. You do not want a hand, arm, foot, or body that may serve as a weapon, but is severely unhealthy or unable to perform its ordinary functions.
I personally do not practice toughening or conditioning exercises (e.g. the specific exercises called for to develop an Iron Vest or Golden Bell), but I’ve noticed that my stance training alone (called “zhan zhuang” in kung fu terminology) has made my entire body noticeably tougher and more resistant to accidental strikes in sparring. Certainly, practicing the specific Iron Vest or Golden Bell exercises (which should be taught and directly supervised by a competent instructor or master who has achieved a high standard in the art) would lead to a better result more quickly.
Last October, I wrote a short blog-post about the external conditioning popular in various styles of kung fu, for those who are curious. Note the disclaimer at the top.
For those who are interested in seeing some kung fu external conditioning such as Iron Rings and Wooden Man training, you can watch the following video, Kung Fu: the Hard Way, part of a BBC documentary series on the martial arts of various countries which aired in the 80’s. The first part of the video focuses on a Hung Gar school in Hong Kong. At about ten minutes in, you can see students in the training hall practicing with iron rings on their forearms and students practicing on the wooden man in the corner. What isn’t seen (though it is common in traditional kung fu schools) is the master or his medical apprentices applying aforementioned medicinal wine onto the students’ forearms to help heal injuries and to enhance the results of their training.
Also not explicitly shown in the video are the basic foundation-laying exercises that students would practice for many months, even years, before they were allowed to practice special conditioning. In my grandmaster’s time (he’s 70 now), students were often practicing the Horse Riding Stance (or variants such as Golden Bridge or Carrying Water) as their main force training well into their fifth year before they began practicing specialized skills. This was to make sure they had a very good general foundation that could take them virtually anywhere in kung fu.
This is an interesting note that crops up again and again in kung fu training. Often, the more spectacular and well-known training (e.g. punching a bag full of iron shot to develop an Iron Fist, ripping the bark off of trees develop Eagle Claw strength, or jabbing the fingertips against stones to develop One Finger Gold) come after a long time is spent on basic skills such as stances, flexibility, footwork, and basic sparring skills such as timing, spacing, and the ability to flow with an opponent. Furthermore, the long time spent practicing the basics would make sure the student is healthy and fit enough to pursue the specialized training without injuring themselves. The average person straight off the streets who tries punching a bag full of iron shot is not going to be as well prepared as someone with the body and mental focus who has been practicing the horse riding stance every day for five years.
All in all, specialized training arts, including learning sets such as Tiger-Crane or Shaolin Five Animals, or practicing special force such as Iron Vest, Golden Bell, and Iron Palm, are meant to enhance a student’s performance and skills after the basics were well established.