Saturday, 10 November 2018

Toughening the shins and forearms

Some of the benefits of martial arts training remain hidden until that moment when something unexpected happens and you find yourself handling it much better than how you used to in the distant past.

One such benefit revealed itself to me when my shin bumped against a chair in the dark one night and the chair said "ow!". Okay! Okay! :D The chair did not say anything. It just moved a bit, but I was fine. This- however- did not come cheap and there is no shortcut to it, I am afraid. If you are considering starting with this type of training when you are 40 I'd say you will find yourself disappointed.

The conditioning of my shins was an investment I have started making back in my early 20's and the actual toughness, which amongst others include the ability to kick a broomstick in two, only showed up during my mid 30's.

That's not all, though. Who's ever blocked a mae geri (front kick) with gedan barai (lower parry) during Karate class and had your training partner hopping around on one leg?

By now you probably know that Kung Fu and Karate are just about my favourite martial arts in existence, although I have a huge love for grappling arts like Aikido, Taijiquan (you knew it is mainly grappling, right?) and Jujutsu.

In striking arts like Karate, though, the first thing many of us realise when we start sparring is that our bodies weren't made for the abuse dealt by fighting.   Sure- that is what we get reminded of in the dojo on a regular basis. Some of you who just learn moves off the internet and avoid contact situations until you are in an actual fight learn this kind of thing first hand when you actually have to fight.

We as humans tend to shield ourselves with our forearms when we know blows are coming. Us trained humans use these limbs to deflect or redirect blows directed at us. Still- these limbs can get injured and even worse- fractured...

Chinese masters will tell you the importance of including lots of fish in your diet for strong bones. You can take that to heart. I am glad not to be lactose intolerant and make sure to get in enough milk as well, because let's face it- the exercises that I am about to discuss here don't strengthen your bones, they actually damage them. The strengthening comes from the time you use to let these bones rest and recover. Your body then replaces the broken bone tissue with stronger tissue that will be able to take the strain. Still- it needs materials, like calcium and phosphorus with which to make that tissue, so your diet is really important.

Apart from the diet, your Sifu would most likely prescribe something like this as well.

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Liniments like these are by no means a magic potion that knits bones together faster, but rather a blend of herbs that help blood circulation in injured areas and ease pain. I will admit, however, that it does help making the discoloration disappear faster.

Many people don't even bother to use these liniments, though, and I am sure in most cases people don't even know about them or- even IF they know, they are not able to find them.

Now- the first exercise for toughening forearms so that they can block a fair amount of punches to keep you in the game is simple.

It is something we call ...


I am not kidding here. Thing is- in martial arts like Karate you find that the senior students have really tough forearms. Well... what do you expect to happen with years of blocking people's blows, having your blows blocked and let's not mention those ippon kumite sessions in the senior classes...

Still- if you want to focus on that particular body part and rather do an exercise that does just that-

here you go...

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Chinese Kungfu students know this as 3 Star Blocking. The concept is as simple as it is effective. Partners pair up and hit their forearms against one another using the blocks Karate people are used to doing in their katas.

Teachers advise that the point of impact should be that bony part of the forearm right at the point where the muscle starts. I have often seen and heard people saying that you have to block with the muscular part of the forearm. I say- sure- it probably hurts you the least that way, but I can tell you somebody is less eager to hit you again when his arm got a decent knock from a piece of hardened bone...

This exercise is really worth it. 

But okay- some of us train alone.

No problem...

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I love this exercise. The pole, stick or iron bar could be one of a number of things we find in the yard or at the gym. Those bar bells at the gym? Remove the weights and you got something to use. Okay- some of the toughest among us can keep the weights on, but you have to be able to shoot it up into the air...

This exercise- which I really have no name for- is done by laying the bar across both forearms and then using a slight bend of the arms and a twitch to launch the bar into the air. You then catch it with the forearms and let it roll back to the elbows where it can get shot back up again to repeat the sequence. Not only does it help develop strong bones in the forearms, but it also helps develop that fast twitch action which we use in our punches.

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If you are fortunate enough to have a wooden dummy like this you have absolutely no problem working those wrists...

Now- let's talk about the shins...

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I guess that Jean Claude Van Damme has made sure that many of us will never forget this kind of thing...

If you want to kick trees, though- you do it at your own risk.

If you have not noticed yet- your shin has a fleshy side and a bony side. You will need to toughen both, but I'd say the bony side needs it more, because that is the part that hurts the most when it gets hit.

I have taken the approach of killing two birds with one stone by using my knife hand to hit the fleshy part while hitting the bony part with my knuckles. That is me, though...

If you want to use something other than your bare hands you can use this...

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No, Bam Bam! You don't whack your legs with the rolling pins! You roll the pin over your shins. Glass soda bottles also work really well.

Also- if the bodybuilding guys at your gym are not busy with it- you can borrow this again...

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I can't really say how long it will take you to see results, but in my case it took about a decade. The thing is- people have different strengths, weaknesses, talents and body types.

Still- martial arts training is never a waste of time!

Join me next week when I talk about body conditioning with a most expected and essential mention of the famed Iron Shirt technique of Shaolin Kung Fu!

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Conditioning the fingers

Hi, everyone!

I am back and ready to give you my latest blog post.

We are still on conditioning and this is the last part of the hands that I am going to discuss, namely the fingers.

Kung fu seems to take unarmed fighting really really far in that its techniques do not only include punching, striking, kicking and throwing, but also grabbing and tearing.

Techniques like Tiger Claw and Eagle Claw are known to rip chunks of flesh from an opponent. In less extreme cases a limb gets rendered useless due to the damage it does to muscles.

What Kung Fu and Karate have in common where fingers are concerned is that both these martial arts have in their arsenals techniques that involve striking or thrusting with the fingers.

This is just about the point where I sometimes think that these martial arts may be taking things too far. One would think that having fists, palms and elbows to strike with would be enough, but fingers...?

Nonetheless- the striking of vital points on the body with a part of the body smaller than the fist makes a lot of sense to students of Kyusho and Snake Fist Kung Fu. The fingers as they naturally are, however, do not make really good weapons, so a fair amount of conditioning is needed.

Here are some of the exercises that I have identified as excellent ways to strengthen the fingers:

1. Thrusting into sand

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This is still a trusted and safe way to strengthen the fingers for strikes and thrusts. A bowl or bucket of dry sand is the only equipment you need. You can thrust your spear hand/ snake fist into the sand or just claw into it by digging the fingers into the sand with the eagle claw. After a year of doing this you are likely to be able to strike an opponent's solar plexus quite hard with the fingertips with a reasonable result. I know of people who could even bruise ribs with fingers conditioned with this exercise.

2. Catching a concrete/ cinder block:

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I particularly love this exercise. Not only does it help you develop a really strong grip, but it also helps making your hand nimbler and trains the catch/ grab reflex that one uses in defense (blocking, trapping and immobilizing) and attacks (eagle claw grabs to targets like the throat).

3. Taming the Tiger

Honestly I do not do so well on this exercise. This is finger push-ups that are done on all 5 fingertips of each hand pushing into the ground in the Tiger Claw form. What I don't like about it is that the fingers, especially the thumb, tend to bend under your weight, causing you to press down with the flat parts of the finger joints instead of the fingertips. I personally prefer to lean against a wall supported by my fingers. It still puts a strain on the fingers, but does not bend the joints as badly.

4. The jar gripping exercise

In traditional Okinawan Karate as well as its predecessor Toudi we find the weight training tools known as mi-ichi or strength stones. In Shaolin we find ceramic jars with a similar shape. What both these training tools have is a shape that allows for one to pick them up by the top with the fingers. Once picked up the hands are then rotated by the wrist joint to swing the jars in circles.

While this exercise develops strong fingers as well as wrists I have found that the strengthened bones also make for a harder fist.

5. Sand bags

These bags need not be very big. In fact- I have only seen small ones like the ones in these photos below being used.

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Striking these bags with the fingertips may not feel like a big deal at the beginning, but will start showing results after a year.

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I have taken to hitting a normal heavy bag with a snake fist as seen in Shaolin Kung Fu and a Spear Hand like the one used in Shotokan's Heian Nidan and Heian Sandan.

Strong fingers are not a requirement in most of the modern martial arts styles that get taught these days. If you feel like developing this skill in any event- you really do not need to rush it. Or rather-
You SHOULD NOT rush it. Rather start out too lightly and gradually work your way up to harder training. The thing is- regular practice that is kept up over a long period of time will always give much better results than training that gets interrupted by fractures that need to recover.

With that having been said I wish you all a good week and good training!

Saturday, 20 October 2018

Conditioning the Palms

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One of the first differences between Kung Fu forms and those of Karate that I have noticed when I got into Kung Fu was the use of the palm.

In Karate we have a descending hammer fist strike, an inward knife hand, knife hand thrust and a straight punch and of course a palm thrust or teisho tsuki.

Go through the Kung Fu styles derived from Shaolin and Wudang and you find that they have a straight forward palm strike, a downward palm strike and an inward palm strike.

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I guess the palm of the hand is about as central in Kung Fu, especially Wudang Kungfu, as the fist is in Karate.

Interesting to note- while the traditional fighting styles of the Ryukyu are known to have the te (hand)- suffix Chinese martial arts can be found to have the suffix quan(fist) or zhang(palm).

The most well-known palm style is Baguazhang (Eight Trigram Palm) of Wudang.

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Yes, Naruto fans- such a style really exists....

Also- while in Karate we have known tameshiwari (breaking) demonstrations using the knife hand, fist, foot, elbow, forearm and thrusting palm, Kungfu is known to have its Iron Palm breaking demonstrations which do not necessarily use the palm in a thrust, but rather with a slap or strike.

 This difference is key if you want to know how to condition the palms.

Sure- you can use the Red Sand method that I am not going to discuss in detail here. (Simple reason is I don't use it and the means with which to practice it, which would be a large wok-like container filled with iron filings over a fire to heat the filing to the red colour, are not readily available to us all.) 

A nice way to start is with this exercise called "Lohan Kicking Oranges". Your legs get a good stretch from this one while your palms gt kicked with the shins.

In Karate we have forms that contain a roundhouse elbow strike into the palm. Doing this movement repeatedly ought to have the same effect. In Wudang Taiji forms we see the palms getting hit with the back of the fist or the bottom thereof. I do a lot thereof after my punching bag workouts.

Fortunately the palms are quite tough, so not so much caution is needed when moving on to harder objects like tree trunks or wooden poles as you would with a closed fist.

For this reason self defense teachers often recommend that one attacks the face or head with the palm rather than the fist.

Training the palms can also have an internal aspect to it. If anyone is interested in learning about it they can ask me in the comment section of anyplace where they see this post.

It is not uncommon to find Chinese martial artists completely devoted to palm techniques almost to the conclusion of everything else. The reason for this is that the palms are the first place through which students of these arts learn to channel force.

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Related image

This is where the inspiration for the ki blasts seen in anime comes from as well.

Still- it is good to know what kind of force you are training for. Slapping the surface of water for prolonged periods of time will develop a toughness in the skin and flesh of the palm and would help to develop a slap or strike that can unleash a lot of explosive power.

Thrusting blows against a tree trunk not only gives one the ability to send someone flying back with a single push, but also toughens the bones of the forearms. This eventually makes these bones less susceptible to fracturing if you fall.

That brings us to the end of today's post.

I just remembered that I have to tell you in advance that next week will not have a post. I will be away for the weekend to celebrate the wedding of my younger brother. :D

The weekend thereafter, though, will have my post on conditioning fingers.

Saturday, 13 October 2018

Conditioning the fists


Thanks to the good response last week's post had I am happy to give you the follow-up on that.

Since I got a suggestion to start with hands I decided to break that up into three parts, being one for knuckles, one for the other parts of the hand that we use to strike and then lastly, developing the type of grip that is an attack in itself.

Those of you who do boxing most likely know that the reason boxers wear gloves have nothing to do with hurting the other guy less. I mean come on! Get serious! Why would a sport where you can win by knocking the other guy out care at all about making punches less painful...? :D

The reason why boxers wear gloves is that a person's skull is actually very hard and can actually break the bones of the hand when you hit it with your fist.

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Besides that, fighters in the China and Okinawa of old knew very well what the value was of having one's bones harder than those of your adversary. Sure- a punch in the chest can wind a guy, but what if it can separate the sternum from the ribs and disable him right away... That would be like being... I don't know... a living weapon, right?

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On the more compassionate side of things, a warrior monk would use the ability to disable an adversary with one punch to end the fight before it escalates to the point where someone might or have to get killed. I mean- you can get the picture...

Guy attacks monk, monk punches the guy once to make him fall down on his back- probably too winded to get up right away. Monk says "Buddha bless you" and walks away...

Guy still lives and has gained the knowledge that it is a bad idea to mess with monks.

Whatever your reason for wanting an Iron Fist- you have to understand that it does not come overnight. To be frank- I can dent oil drums and break ceramic tiles now, but still can't break bricks- and I have been at this for 16 years now...

I have taken a look at the methods used by Karate and Kung Fu and have come up with these guidelines that can be applied to more than one style, type of equipment and environment.

1. Toughening the skin and the bones:

Weird as this may sound, Kung Fu seems to be more concerned with hardening the bones than the skin on the knuckles while Karate is famous for its knuckle callouses.

Which of the two you are training for really depends on how you apply contact to the knuckles.

Guitar players do not normally have deadly spear hand fingers, but we know that the findertips on their non-dominant hands have really thick layers of hard skin. These fingertips are the ones pushing the guitar's strings tightly against the fret board for long periods of time on end.

Similarly, push ups on the knuckles do not produce any impact or shock for the bones to absorb, but they do tell the skin on the knuckles that it is going to need to get thicker to keep protecting the bone underneath.

Any kind of impact should start out with padding. In Karate we have the makiwara. I have found that a normal punching bag actually works really well. I am especially fond of a heavy bag.

2. Gradual progression:

Shaolin's Iron fist has these steps:

1. Knuckle push-ups

2. The telephone book/ several layers of cloth/ paper against a wall (yes- the telephone book is quite a modern addition to an age old training method.)

3. Sand bag.

4. Bag filled with iron ball bearings (about the size of buck shot pellets. Come on!- Otherwise you might as well go punch a kettle bell!)

5. Trees, wooden posts and whatever else you feel you can take.

Now- different people have different rates of healing, so an exact time period for each step can't really be set for everybody. To be safe, however, I'd say that a year of continuous training at each step ought to do before progressing to the next.

3. Don't start with putting your body behind the punch.

This is a huge mistake when it comes to conditioning. Sure- it is good technique for kata and fighting to put the hip into it and to drive the fist right through the target. I can guarantee you, however, that if it comes down between you and that tree trunk about which one is going to break it will not be the tree trunk.

Still- introducing a fair amount of impact to the fist over time will build up to the point where a couple of hard objects can be hit at full power without injury. One needs to have patience, though.

4. Take time for the bone to heal.

I give my hands a space of 6 days in between to heal. The process of hardening bone acutally involves making small cracks in the bones (yes- that is what happens when you punch stuff!) and then letting those cracks seal up again with stronger bone tissue. Chinese ointments or medicinal wine that get applied through the skin after submerging the hands in warm water serve to help the body's natural healing process. If you do not have these things submerging the hands in warm water still help a lot and open hand qigong movements help prevent arthritis from setting in at a later stage.

Believe me- that shaking in your fingers after a session on the makiwara or wooden dummy is a sign of nerve damage.

Relax, though- keeping the hands and fingers loose and flexible with massage, stretching and whatever other means will ensure that your hands remain good for more things than just hitting.

I know we don't all have wooden dummies or punching bags, but these guidelines can be applied to whatever you may have on hand where you are.

Now that today's post is done with I also would like to thank Martial Arts Forums for having been the primary forum on which my blog posts got shared. I don't really know when this shutdown is coming, but when it does I will still be going strong under my Facebook and Twitter accounts. Something tells me the Wenhsiuquan Facebook page is long overdue anyway...

Dan Djurdevic, Jackie Bradbury, Randy Brown, Silatku Keluarga Hasdi, Colman Fink and Sensei Ando- I know where to find you out here on the internet. :) I really hope to hear more from all of you.

Until next week- Keep on training!

Sunday, 7 October 2018

Conditioning in unarmed martial arts and why we do it

It is not very rare these days to see someone posting on social media about the evils of just easily giving belt ranks after short amounts of training and in spite of many of us saying that one is to reach the next rank through enough time in training to show that the necessary skills have been developed- we will continue to see this happen.

Me? To be frank- I have given up on belt ranks long ago. One of the main reasons for the way I feel about it lies here with conditioning.

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Some martial arts schools in this day and age don't even bother with it. In schools such as this a belt rank system is used in which requirements for passing the beginner and intermediate grades (kyu grades in Karate, but the concept exists in Taekwondo and other martial arts as well.) are a list of katas to know, a list of basic combinations of techniques to memorise and perform and maybe prearranged and maybe also free sparring.

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Well- if you think that mastery of a martial art is just a matter of acquiring knowledge and being able to use it then you ought to be alright with seeing 7 year old black belts.

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While technical knowledge is important, one thing that can never be faked, awarded by anyone else or taken away is how strong your body and mind is at this given moment.

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The ability to break objects with your fists, to take heavy blows without injury or even just to fight with ease is not something that you can just learn in a couple of days, regardless of how intelligent you may be.

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These abilities are the result of years of dedicated training which is done on a regular basis. The evidence thereof lasts and can be seen.

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The reasons why any conditioning of hands, fists or other parts of the body, or even the mind, should be part of any martial arts school's training regimen vary from tradition to tradition.

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If your style's underlying philosophy holds that your style is meant mainly for actual fighting then the reason for conditioning is obvious enough.

If your style is meant for spiritual development- then it may at first glance not make sense to go hit things with your fists, but this explanation may help you see it otherwise.

In the Songshan Mountains in Northern China is a temple that Kung Fu fans know all too well. The monks there, in true dedicated Buddhist fashion have spent their days meditating and praying. This takes its toll on the body and the mind.

Now- the founder of Ch'an/ Zen Buddhism- Bodhidarma/ Ta Mo/ Daruma (depends on which sources you consult) understood that body and mind were interdependent and that the strength of the one contributed to the strength of the other.

The solution he had to the problem most likely had its roots in Yoga. What we are certain of, however, is that the exercises that Bodhidharma taught the monks of Shaolin were the forerunner of Qigong as we know it these days.

A religion like Buddhism requires mastery over the mind and body. A soul untrained in spiritual disciplines like Qigong chooses to avoid pain and discomfort and remains fearful and weak.

By subjecting their bodies to the conditioning exercises for which the Shaolin Monks have become legendary, however, did not only their bodies grow strong enough to perform amazing physical feats, but did they also develop strong indomitable spirits that cannot be corrupted by the trappings of the physical world. 

Looking at it either way- martial arts need conditioning as much as ramen needs water.

The one important thing to remember when doing any kind of body conditioning is that a hard punch to the chest may shatter your ribs now, but a softer punch, taken regularly while increasing the power thereof over months will lead to ribs and muscle that are the body's own armour.

I know I did not explain any specific conditioning exercises in this post.

The fact is there are so many that I dod not know which one to pick.

You are welcome to suggest some for me in the comments, though, and I shall write about them.

Saturday, 29 September 2018

Has it already been that long?

Hi, everyone.

This week I have turned 40.

This means that it would now be 25 years that I have been training, meditating and learning while I have been working, meeting people, saying goodbye to people, getting sick, getting well again, making money, losing money and living life in all other respects that may come to mind.  

I have, of course, also been writing this blog....

I have taken a quick pause from typing this post to check my archive. The first post in this blog came out on 21 April 2011.

Since then a lot has changed.

I realise by now that there are a lot of people my age who say that they USED to study some martial art or the other when they were kids or perhaps when they were just "younger". There were enough times when I seriously thought about taking that very route.

Still- I haven't...

That in itself ought to tell you that I am not like any other person of my age, my race, my gender or whatever group you'd try to lump me in with. I am most likely also not like any martial artist that you may know.

I used to wonder why people stopped doing martial arts, why some were never interested in learning martial arts and why some people that do study martial arts don't see things my way.

By now I know enough to understand that whatever the reason is for all of the above- I shall keep training as long as this body is able to do so and that this body has its best chance at being able to do so if I do keep training.

So- prepare yourselves- If I do get to be a 100 you can be sure that I will still wake up every morning to train before I do anything else for the day. :D

Stay well, everyone! Keep on training! 

Saturday, 22 September 2018

A Shaolin Set and Flow Drill

I loved learning Kung Fu.

Having learnt Karate and Japanese martial arts before I got into Kung Fu I was very interested in seeing what made Kung Fu different from them.

My chance came in 2002.

While some may feel that it takes long enough to learn one style well enough to be able to fight with it  I was interested in knowing what approach the Chinese had to fighting and training.

Well- apart from the Qigong and Force Training exercises I found these two training tools to be a very good way to see what basics Shaolin Kung Fu had.

In Wong Kiew Kit's book on Shaolin Kung Fu you get introduced to some basic Shaolin techniques and given the tools with which to develop them for efficient use in combat.

The first training tool is very familiar to a lot of us.

A set, known in Chinese as taolu is quite familiar with students of Karate and Taekwondo as well. In Karate these sets are called kata. In Taekwondo it is known as poomse. 

The techniques in this basic form do not look anything as spectacular as the movements we see in modern Wushu forms. You have to start somewhere, though, right?

The transitions between stances and the crouching and rising movements make this form an excellent way to prepare your body for further training and to get comfortable with all the movements that you will need to perform.

Now here is something that I have noticed some talk about in Filipino Martial Arts and also in some of Iain Abernethy's Karate videos.

A Flow Drill!

While we have chi sao in Wing Chun and the flow drills of Karate and FMA this Shaolin flow drill is the only one that I have seen where body position and height gets changed.

This feels really uncomfortable at first, but once you become comfortable with it you find yourself able to drop out of the opponent's line of sight and to sidestep attacks with great ease later on.

I honestly do not know how to maintain this skill, once it has been acquired, without regular practice.

This flow drill also gave me a really good idea about how Chinese kungfu films are choreographed.

I am well aware that a lot of modern styles prefer to use only free sparring and not bother with something such as this. I think these two training methods are an excellent way to get beginners into the style and introduce the techniques of that style in a more practical way than just hitting empty air or a punching bag.

What do you think?

That's all for today. Train well and have a good week!