Shaolin Iron Body Training is possibly the hardest training in the world. A smith puts metal through the fire so he can mold it into the shape of jewelry he wants. Shaolin Iron Body Training is the fire we put our mind and body through so we can mold ourselves into the martial artist we want to be. If it’s not difficult, if it’s not challenging, there can be no transformation.
The Shaolin Temple have thirty-six internal techniques and thirty-six external techniques making a total of seventy-two different styles. When we talk about internal we don’t mean 100% internal, but a combination of internal and external with the focus more on the internal. When a student comes to me and asks to learn Iron Shirt or Iron Leg, I ask, what is your motivation?
Shaolin Iron Body Training is only for those martial artists who dedicate their life to the art. It’s boring. It’s lonely. It’s tough mentally and physically. It teaches us the limits of our mind and body and how to go beyond them. It’s potentially dangerous and if we’re not careful we can easily get injured.
I made my Iron Shirt DVD with reluctance. Disturbed by the misinformation I saw on the internet and encouraged by my faithful students who have been studying with my Shaolin DVDs for many years, most of whom I’ve never met, I decided that it was time to share my knowledge of Iron Shirt. I've been practicing it now for nearly 30 years.
But for this article I'm going to focus on Iron Leg. Iron Leg needs to have flexibility, speed, power, and it also needs to be hard as well as soft. But how can a leg be soft and hard at the same time? This paradox is at the heart of every one of the Shaolin techniques.
Bio Dynamics and Muscle Quality
A few years ago I had my muscles tested as part of an investigation by the Dana Centre in the London Science Museum. The scientists wanted to find out why my muscles could withstand heavy blows. Using a bio dynamics machine and comparing my performance with an Olympic rower, they found my muscles had more or less the same strength as the rower so it wasn’t the strength of the muscles that was helping me withstand blows.
They found my reaction time to be incredibly quick, which isn’t surprising as a martial artist’s reaction time must be far quicker than a rower. They then used a different type of machinery that prodded into my stomach. They found when I contracted my muscles, they became not just hard but “bouncy”, deflecting the power of the machine and sending it back
This is the aim of Iron Body and one of the keys as to why Shaolin masters can take such heavy blows. Our body acts as a mirror reflecting our opponent’s power back to them. Iron Shirt or Iron Leg is not just about muscle strength but the quality of the muscle and the use of Qi.
Iron Leg means when you kick, your kick is incredibly powerful, it also means that when someone kicks your leg, your leg is like a tree. Not only can you take the kick but also the kick hurts your opponent and doesn’t hurt you. How do Shaolin Monks accomplish this? Through these 6 elements of training.
If you want to develop Iron Leg, you need excellent stamina. This means you must run a lot and do lower stances and lower kicks to build up your legs. We call this static stamina. You also need to make your entire body flexible because when you kick although you're using your leg, you kick with your whole body. People believe that in order to make their leg strong they always needs to kick a bag or bamboo but this is only the external part of the technique. The most important aspect to developing Iron Leg is that we make our bone strong, not just our skin, sinew, and muscle. And in order to do this we need to be flexible.
As well as going through your regular stretching exercises you need to do the five fundamental kicks and then move on to fighting kicks ( I teach these in my Shaolin Workout DVD and book). Kick at different levels; high, middle, and low. Practice shadow kicks over and over again to make your body and leg work together.
If your leg is hard but inflexible this means that you can’t kick properly which means your leg is strong but this isn’t a good weapon because you don’t know how to use it. If your leg is very fast but it isn’t strong, this means if you kick someone and there body is stronger than your leg then you will be injured. Iron leg protects this from happening.
Iron has different qualities; some iron is easier to break than others. If it’s easy to break this means it’s on only strong on the outside but its not strong on the outside.This is why you must practice Qigong alongside body conditioning.
- Shaolin Body Conditioning Tincture
The first thing we do when we do body conditioning is warm up our body then we rub the tincture into the part of our body that we want to condition. You need to rub the tincture in hard so it really gets inside the skin. The tincture works in three ways: protects the skin, reduces the risk of injury, and strengthens the bone.
I get asked many times about the difference between my Body Conditioning Tincture and the oil that some fighters use especially Muay Thai fighters. This is oil and not a tincture and the main ingredient is camphor, which has a warming effect on the muscles, but doesn’t penetrate the bones or help to prevent injury. Another misconception is that Shaolin tincture is the same as “Dit Da Jow”. Dit Da Jow uses alcohol as the base for their medicine where as we use a very high quality vinegar. Why do we use vinegar and not alcohol? Vinegar can take the varnish off a table; it strips the medicine of all its good things and preserves it.
We use a secret blend of herbs, roots and bark which is individual and unique to each master. In the past, the monks used to lie in baths of these tinctures but today we apply this tincture to our body. After making up this tincture, the disciples then adapt it slightly and each disciple has his own recipe. Mine is made from twenty-five natural herbs, roots and barks. Some of the herbs help the blood to flow, some help to strengthen the bones, others help the muscles to relax. Just as there are varying qualities of olive oil or wine, so it’s the same with this tincture I take great care in finding the best quality herbs and then I brew my tincture for four years before filtering it. This makes it potent.
“I could never have endured this hard training without the aid of m body conditioning tincture.”
- Metal Brush
After we’ve applied the tincture we use a metal brush. The brush we use weights about 1.6 kg and has 108 metal rods. If used correctly, it will last a lifetime. Everywhere I go my brush goes with me! This is a professional brush, only to be used by highly trained martial artists, fighters, Qigong masters. It is not suitable for anyone under the age of 18, pregnant women, old people or health seekers. The Instant Health bamboo massage brush is perfect for most people and they should continue to use this rather than change to this metal brush as this brush is safe to use for all people. Alongside the metal brush we also use bags with beans inside or metal ball bearings.
- Si Bi Quan
Si Bi Quan is an excellent form to do for Iron Body. This is the form that wore away the concrete inside the Shaolin Temple. The more power you can use with this stamp the more the power of the vibration will go inside the bone which makes the bone strong and conditions the internal organs. I teach this in my Shaolin Workout book and DVD.
When we practice body conditioning, our leg gets blue and swollen. Every disciple is given a specific Qigong to practice by their master. Qigong is vital because this helps the internal organs work together. Afterwards, using the Instant Health Massage Brush, we beat our body helping the blood to flow and the Qi to circulate.
Iron leg is very hard training; it takes a lot of will power. Some people believe that all you have to do is kick hard things for about ten years and they will have an iron leg. I guarantee this will not happen. Iron Leg takes skill and a proper master to lead and teach the student. A strong training plan is needed with faith and belief that this is possible. Only when you can kick someone with power and speed, and you can stand and take the kicks of others without using any self-defence but your own Qi have you come close to mastering this technique.
For more information on training equipment including the body conditioning tincture, metal brush and bamboo brush click here. Shifu Yan Lei's next online course starts in January 2020. Click here for more details.
This article is for information only and must not be used as a substitute for being taught by a qualified master. All of the Shaolin body conditioning techniques can damage a person’s body, they can not be learnt from a book or a DVD, and they must be approached with wisdom and caution.