When thinking of Shaolin monks, feelings of peace and serenity often come to mind. What people rarely think of, however, is the rather extreme martial arts conditioning these monks have gone through since childhood. Shaolin body conditioning is notorious not only for its visceral shock value, but also for its effectiveness in strengthening muscles and vital tissue as a defense against impact.
Hands and Arms
Shaolin kung fu is a style predominantly built around striking, especially with the hands and elbows. Some of the training methods utilized by the Shaolin to condition their natural weapons include hard conditioning through striking objects such as makawara boards and heavy bags. The focus on this form of conditioning should be on repetition over force. When first starting out, you should punch with moderate force until your hands are sore, but not badly damaged. One of the most effective fist and palm-strengthening exercises involves striking sand. Sand forms a hard, yet pliable surface that will condition your hands without running the risk of breaking them.
As any experienced martial artist will tell you, the core is your source of power. Shaolin monks will tell you this not only applies to spiritual practices, but also to physical movements. The core can also be a vulnerable target area during combat, however, and since it protects an assortment of vital organs, conditioning is of the utmost importance. One of the best ways to condition the core -- other than traditional crunches and abdominal workouts -- is to have a partner stand over you and press a weighted medicine ball down onto your stomach as you come up in a crunch and flex. Repeating this exercise and varying the intensity depending on your conditioning level will get your core used to meeting resistance and will condition you to flex your core when impact is imminent.
Static exercises are important for the body, but you only truly put your training to the test through dynamic situations. Sparring with an uncooperative training partner with padded equipment is a great way to dish out and absorb blows. Taking moderate blows to the head, core and legs, and blocking blows with your forearms, is the best way to find out whether or not your body conditioning work is actually paying off. This will also condition you to flex your core and prepare for impact before it arrives, further shoring up your body's physical defenses.
Shaolin body conditioning is for serious practitioners of the martial arts and should not be performed by those looking for a cheat to get tough quick. Body conditioning requires time, dedication and a somewhat high pain tolerance, which can be trained. Start off with light to medium contact during body conditioning exercises and only ramp up the intensity when you feel your body is ready to take the abuse.
Steven Kelliher is an experienced sports writer, technical writer, proofreader and editor based out of the Greater Boston Area. His main area of expertise is in combat sports, as he is a lifelong competitor and active voice in the industry. His interviews with some of the sport's biggest names have appeared on large industry sites such as ESPN.com, as well as his own personal blog.