NOTE: The following article describes dangerous stunts and dangerous training practices. It should not be misconstrued as either encouraging these practices or as instruction on how to perform them.
People train for all kinds of reasons. Health, functionality or vanity are usually at the top of the list. My own training goals are a bit different. I perform strength stunts. I use this term as an umbrella under which such things as steel-bending, brick and board breaking and a myriad of other feats which can involve electricity, fire, broken glass or other variables. My training is the primary vehicle through which I prepare my body to be able to consistently do the things I ask of it. And I ask a lot.
Secondarily, my training is a means of perpetual recalibration. It is the process I use to gauge whether I feel prepared to take on each new challenge that I set for myself. This would include things like my stunt which was selected for recognition by Ripley’s Believe it or Not. This is because it takes a considerable amount of behind-the-scenes work to do what I do. To put it another way, one has to train smart to act this crazy.
A pivotal component of my training regimen is body conditioning. In this context, body conditioning refers to the process of preparing the body to withstand impact or “shock”. For me, this impact occurs one of two ways. There are tasks such as brick-breaking, where the goal is to generate maximal force with your body and then transfer that force into an object. And in this transfer of force you must also be able to withstand considerable impact to those parts of the body (such as the hands) which are transmitting that force into solid objects.
The reason for this goes back to one of the fundamental physics lessons of the martial arts; “Everything you hit, hits you back.” Here is a simple way to understand this concept… Imagine that you have picked up a baseball bat and are standing in front of a tree. Now imagine swinging your bat at that tree as hard as you can. Now imagine what that would feel like. If you were to try this experiment in real time, you would experience an immediate understanding of the reciprocal nature of force.
The other way in which body conditioning training is critical to the performance of my strength stunts has been in developing the ability to withstand extreme impact forces directed at my body. These stunts are most closely related to what the Chinese refer to as “iron body” or “iron shirt” training. Officially, iron shirt is one of the 72 arts of the Shaolin Temple and among the remaining 71 arts are additional methods for conditioning various areas and aspects of the body to withstand impact.
The most commonly practiced method for accomplishing this is not an esoteric practice but a straightforwardly physical process. It is simply the consistent application of stimulus; via weight, pressure or impact, of ever-increasing durations and intensity. There are many variations to this approach, and they are often cloaked in mysticism or obfuscation. But the only “magic” to this process is simply doing the necessary work long enough and consistently to attain the abilities you seek.
One of the lesser-known “secrets” to being able to perform feats-of-strength is that most of them involve some level of pain-management. In short, doing this sort of thing can hurt you. So, to be successful you need to “become comfortable with being uncomfortable.” And body conditioning assists with this process. It goes back to the idea of ‘calibration’. Simply put, you either know what you can do, or you just think you know. Incremental increases provide incremental improvements. And these improvements provide the necessary feedback which informs the calibration process.
There are three key aspects to the body-conditioning process. The first involves the musculature. To do things which are outside of physical norms takes a well-developed infrastructure. In my case, this requires concerted work in the areas of maximal and static strength. I train as heavy as I can as often as I can. This provides the physical base from which I can develop other necessary capabilities.
The other component of strength-training critical to body-conditioning is what I refer to as “extremity strength”. The surfaces of the hand are frequently used in striking things like bricks and boards and are focal points for significant amounts of impact force. Now consider the numerous small bones which make up the hand and the multi-directional wrist joint which joins the hand to the bones of the forearms. This is not an ideal structure to be slamming into hard objects. Since these extremities are frequently the last link in the kinetic chain when striking, it is imperative to strengthen them. This training should address what I refer to as “from the elbow on down.” This translates to strength-training which specifically targets the musculature of the forearm, wrists and hands.
The second aspect is body-conditioning is the conditioning process itself. This is accomplished with such pieces of equipment as makiwaras (a wood striking board or post; padded with canvas or rope. Iron palm bags (flat canvas bags filled with dry beans, pea gravel or steel shot). Iron hammers (actually a long piece of hardwood with a “shock-absorbing” slot cut through the center, often of oak or maple). And even medicine balls can be used. It is not the item or object that is as important as the manner in which they are employed. All of these items are used to either strike with or be struck by various parts of the body. This process of striking is intended to be performed with minimal intensity at the outset. This intensity is increased only on a gradual basis. Attempts to rush the process are counter-productive and invariably lead to injury.
As body parts become accustomed to withstanding strikes of greater intensity, it is common practice to adjust the materials used in the striking process. For example, an iron palm bag might initially be filled with mung beans. As the tissues of the hand become progressively more conditioned, these beans would be switched out for smooth pieces of gravel. The gravel in turn might ultimately be exchanged for steel shot, or even steel filings from a machine shop.
This further illustrates the importance of not allowing your enthusiasm to outpace your actual progress. You have to “earn” the right to do such things as strike a canvas bag full of rocks with your hand. Any efforts to fast-track results will merely put you on the fast-track to injury.
The third and final aspect of body-conditioning is the recovery process. Common methods of aiding recovery include massaging the targeted areas and applying liniments called dit dat jow. These liniments have long been used as a topical analgesic by the Chinese. They can be purchased commercially, but many iron-body practitioners prefer to mix their own versions using a wide variety of aromatic herbs. Other recovery methods include contrast baths, (alternating hot and cold soaks to accelerate the movement of body fluids through the targeted areas and to minimize swelling) can be an effective part of the recovery process. Grip athletes, who specialize in the cultivation of ‘extreme’ extremity strength, frequently use contrast baths for soaking the hands and wrists following their training sessions.
The performance of strength stunts requires a certain attitude, a dispassionate objectivity towards one’s own body. But they also require commitment. Commitment to a difficult and often tedious training regimen. What it takes is best summed up by this quote from this legendary performer:
“My chief task has been to conquer fear. The public sees only the thrill of the accomplished trick; they have no conception of the tortuous preliminary self-training that was necessary to conquer fear. No one except myself can appreciate how I have to work at this job every single day, never letting up for a moment….”
— Harry Houdini