Shaolin monks can perform seemingly impossible feats of mental and physical prowess. They poke holes into trees with their fingers, they bang their bare heads against stone walls and knock their heads together to harden their skulls. They knife-scrape their stomachs to strengthen their core area. They break sticks, bricks, or iron and steel bars atop their heads. Deep in meditation, they balance their entire body weight on their heads or index fingers for long periods of time.
Since everything they do seems painless and effortless, their remarkable acts are frequently labeled and dismissed as stunts, fabrications, special effects, hoaxes.
It goes without saying, the years of hard work, patience, dedication, and perseverance going into strengthening their bodies and honing their Qi energy aren’t immediately apparent.
The book "Training Methods of 72 Arts of Shaolin" by Jin Jing Zhong sheds some light on the little-known aspects of traditional Shaolin combat training methods.
1. Finger punching
From a young age, Shaolin students start poking trees and wood planks to strengthen their fingers. As their training progresses, they start practicing hard strikes. Every finger on both hands must be trained to produce large bursts of strength. Upon mastery, the fingers will be strengthened enough to take on more difficult techniques, such as the Diamond Finger (the one-finger handstand).
Below, an ancient tree within the Shaolin Monastery in China used by Shaolin monks to practice finger punching.
2. Pulling out nails (Bo Ding Gong)
To further strengthen their fingers and develop the locking force of their thumbs, index fingers, and middle fingers, students start by driving 108 nails into a wood plank and practicing pulling them out with all three fingers. When this becomes easy, they practice removing the nails with their thumbs, ring fingers, and pinky fingers. As the training progresses, the nails are driven deeper into the wood. After completing the first stage on the way to mastership, nails are sprinkled with water and left to rust. An advanced student may pull out 1,000 rusted nails in the last stage of the training. A master in this technique would be able to remove rusted nails with two fingers, or perhaps even just one. In combat, this exercise allows Shaolin warriors to perform effective locks with three fingers on the opponent’s vulnerable spots.
3. Striking with foot (Zu She Gong)
Young Shaolin students are required to kick small rocks with their bare feet on their daily morning and evening strolls. As muscles strengthen, students increase the force of their strikes and gradually start kicking larger stones. Guided by the Shaolin principle ‘from the simple to the complicated’, students continue their training by striking boulders and kicking large stones to a distance. In fights, this technique allows Shaolin warriors to tip and throw their opponent with a single hardened kick aimed at the lower part of the body. According to Shaolin texts, one can throw an opponent as far as the stones one trains with.
4. Ringing round a tree or Maitreya (Bao Shu Gong or Millie Gong)
This exercise trains the arms, chest, and stomach muscles and develops what Shaolins call ‘the flows of the inner force’. Shaolin students select a tree, wrap their arms around it, squeeze it tightly, and try to pull it out. They repeat the exercise several times a day, every day. After the first year of training, the first results start to show. Once the arms, chest, and stomach muscles strengthen, the force increases and students are able to shake the trunk until some leaves begin to fall. Shaolin students must practice this daily exercise intensively throughout their lives and apply constant force to loosen the roots. Upon mastery, students have the force to uproot fully grown trees and lift their entire weight rounding it with both arms. In combat, Shaolin warriors clasping their opponents with both arms can inflict heavy (and even fatal) injuries.
5. Iron Head (Tie Tou Gong)
Shaolin students wrap their heads with layers of a soft fabric (usually silk) and start hitting it against a wall a few times a day, every day. It is done gently, at first, to avoid brain injury. The purpose of the exercise is to harden the top of the head, the forehead, and the back of the head, and strengthen the skin, muscles, and bones. The practice also develops a student’s internal force and Qi. As the training progresses, the force and number of blows are gradually increased. After the first year, three layers of fabric come off every 100 days. Students enter their second stage of training once they have completely taken off all layers. They then begin to bang their bare heads against stone walls and branch out their practice by sleeping in headstand positions, knocking their skulls together, and trying to crumple stone slabs. Over the years, the bones in the skull are reshaped under the pressure. Similar exercises are used to strengthen the temples, eyes, nose, and mouth, until the entire head becomes as hard as a stone. The internal aspect of these exercises is crucial: without a strong Qi to round off the external force, the overall results are disappointing. The Iron Head method is used in Shaolin fights to knock down an opponent. Performing Shaolin acrobats often show off their Iron Head mastery by breaking sticks, bricks, or iron and steel bars atop their heads. In an extraordinary example, Shaolin Kung Fu Master Zhao Rui managed to run an electric drill to the side of his head for 10 seconds without even breaking the skin.
6. One finger of Chan meditation (Yi Zhi Chan Gong)
Master Xi Hei Zi of Southern Shaolin school studied this Shaolin training and meditation method intensively for 40 years. When Xi Hei Zi first started training, he hung a weight from a tree he often passed during his walks. Each time he passed the tree, he poked his index finger into the weight from a distance. His fingertip barely touched the weight’s surface. At first, the weight would remain stock-still. After constant training and meditation, the weight started to swing. Over the years, Xi Hei Zi discovered he was able to make the weight swing without touching it at all, just by thrusting his index finger towards it, deep in meditation. He then started practicing the ‘One finger of Chan meditation’ technique by meditating and striking lamps from a 3.3 meters / almost 11 feet distance. Due to his motion through the air, the flame would sway. As his training progressed, he managed to extinguish the flame from a distance and decided to make the exercise even more difficult. He placed paper shades around the lamp. His index finger would pierce the paper and put out the flame from a distance. After another 10 years of training, he replaced the paper shades with glass ones and carried on until he was able to extinguish the flame without breaking the glass and well after that. Upon mastery, Master Xi Hei Zi visited all the Shaolin monasteries in the northern and southern provinces and no man was able to overcome him. If this technique is mastered, it is believed it can inflict serious injuries to an opponent’s internal organs, cause vascular spasms, and block blood circulation, without leaving any visible wounds.
7. Twin lock (Shuang Suo Gong)
The ‘Twin lock’ exercise strengthens the muscles, bones, tendons, and ligaments in the forearms. Shaolin Kung Fu students keep their forearms in a tight lock and knock their fists, fingers, wrists, and fingers together until they no longer feel pain. Training continues until a hollow thump is heard when forearms are knocked against each other. In combat, a Shaolin warrior can efficiently block the opponent’s blow with both arms locked together and use the ‘Twin lock’ technique to disarm the enemy with bare hands and even break his arm.
8. Iron shirt (Tie Bu Shan Gong)
Shaolin Kung Fu students sleep on hard beds, wrap a few layers of soft fabric around their chest, stomach, and back, and massage the wrapped areas vigorously. They hang a horizontal bar outside, dig a shallow pit under it, and fill it with fine sand. They train every day for three years by hanging on their arms on the horizontal bar and falling down to the pit on all parts of their bodies. When they’re ready, they remove the soft fabric layers and start hitting the entire body with a wooden hammer, at first, then with an iron one. They mobilize their Qi inner energy to direct strength to the spot being hit. ‘Iron shirt’ masters are able to defend themselves against heavy blows with solid and even sharp objects.
9. Iron bull (Tie Niu Gong)
Shaolin Kung Fu students start by scraping their stomachs every day with their fingers and palms, at first, and then with blades. After the skin has hardened, they continue knife-scraping and deliver hard blows to their core area. When they no longer feel pain, wooden and iron hammers are used. An advanced Shaolin student would stand still while fellow students deliver blows to his stomach with iron hammers. As training progresses, students move forward to what is known as the ‘knocking a bell’ technique: students are hit with log battering-rams weighing hundreds of kilograms/pounds. Masters of the ‘Iron bull’ technique are believed to be able to withstand strikes, cuts, and even stabs to the stomach without breaking their skin.
10. Skill of light body (Jin Shen Shu)
Shaolin writings mention monks of 100 jins (50 kg or 110 lb) weightlessly resting on branches like butterflies or bees. A giant clay bowl is filled with water and a student walks on the bowl’s rim carrying a heavy backpack filled with iron. The student would do that every day, for hours. Once every month, water is removed from the bowl and more iron is added to the backpack. The student must continue his training without falling or tipping the bowl until the bowl is completely empty. The process is then repeated and the massive clay bowl is replaced with a large wicker basket filled with iron chips. Advanced students are expected to be able to walk across grass without crumpling it. Using this technique, in 2014 a monk managed to run atop a lake for over 385 feet or 118 meters.
11. Monk pillar skill
This technique improves leg and core strength along with body balance. Monks stand on two pillars – one foot on each pillar, then sit in a squatting position with a sharp bamboo stick under them. They hold bowls filled with water, one in each hand and one atop their heads. As training progresses, the water bowls are replaced with oil lamps. Masters of this skill can remain in full balance and completely motionless for at least two hours at a time.
12. Diamond finger or Buddha’s finger (Ya Zhi Jin Gang Fa)
The ‘Diamond finger’ method belongs to the hard qigong and is aimed at strengthening the index fingers. Pulling out rusted nails, punching trees until you can make a hole in the bark with one blow, and striking stones until you’re able to make them crumple are included in the training routine. In combat, a master of the ‘Diamond finger’ skill can knock a hole in the opponent’s chest with a finger and injure his internal organs.
Late Shaolin monk Hai Deng demonstrated his ‘Diamond finger’ skill by performing a seemingly impossible feat: a one-finger handstand. Stories about his Buddha’s finger had already circled the world, but many believed they were fabrications. As a young man, the monk traveled to Chicago where he performed the ‘Diamond finger’ headstand - deep in meditation, his entire body weight atop his index finger. Over 50 years later, when he was 90 years old, venerable monk Hai Deng demonstrated the one-finger headstand once more, this time on camera.
While two-finger headstands are quite common among Shaolin students, a one-finger headstand is somewhat of a rare bird. One student made headlines in 2015 for managing to balance himself into a full inversion atop a single index finger.
Authentic Shaolin Heritage: Training methods of 72 arts of Shaolin (2007), written by Jin Jing Zhong