Body hardening is like buying volcano insurance–if it turns out you need it, you’ve already lost
Still on the tail end of sickness, this seems like an apt topic. Like many kung fu enthusiasts, in my youth I explored ways to mimic what we saw on film and those secretive masters behind their red doors (one more downside of not growing up in a metropolis if you don’t know what I’m talking about). This included seeking knowledge of iron palm and other body hardening exercises. Secret ointments and mysterious progressions to cultivate qi and apply it.
On the flip side if you encountered it from karate, external smashing of planks, bricks, cars, and what-have-you, it was doubtless effective but seemed a little scary.
If either method appeals to you from the perspective of cultural absorption, such as wanting to know all aspects of the art you love, or from health & curiosity, particularly of the internal side, I wouldn’t pooh-pooh it, because those pursuits may have other benefits to you. By the way, even arts who advocate body hardening often admonish you to stop as you enter your 40s.
However, if you’re doing it to be a better fighter (whatever the application) you may want to rethink your strategy. Make no mistake: someone who is extraordinarily tough and strong will have an advantage in any sort of combat. But like all things in life, it becomes a calculation of diminishing returns vs better alternatives.
If you’re a pro fighter that relies on toughness, I suppose there’s a case to be made that it will help you hurt, intimidate, and grind out opponents. Your body’s on track to be destroyed by 45 anyway, may as well go all in. Wouldn’t be my call, but at least I can get behind the logic.
You should note that Muay Thai fighters, arguably one of the most punishing sports, don’t do any dedicated body hardening. They just hit stuff. And anyone who ever kicked a banana tree (which is pliant, unlike what our friend below is showing) did so because they didn’t have better options such as a heavy bag. If you’re engaging in a sport tougher than that, you may need to look at what in your life makes you want to do it. Strength training, impact training, sparring, and healthy diet should get you all the toughness you need.
Time to paraphrase Guro Rick Faye, who crystallized the argument for me:
You can risk breaking your wrist the one time you have to fight in self defense (so let’s say a 10% chance of breaking something in an encounter with a 0.01% chance likely to happen = 0.001%), OR you can condition yourself into a 100% chance of arthritis.
People tend to develop long-term health issues related to this, and the argument goes, “If you’re part of the 5% who naturally can do this or are lucky, you’re training correctly. Everyone else, you must have done something wrong.”
By the way, I mean dedicated body hardening, hitting something or getting hit to develop toughness, not what develops naturally through impact training. Impact training gives you contextual reps, which is what really makes you effective. I’ve found I need to dial back impact conditioning on the heavy bag just to spare my joints, so I don’t really see what hitting something harder out of context could possibly net me.
There may be some sport-specific exercises that gradually build a useful toughness or strength, such as knuckle push ups or grip-strengthening exercises. They may be useful if trained smart, but this (below) I find more a psychological stand in for people who need a sense of power or toughness. You’re better off stepping into the cage, which is almost never my advice, telling you where I put body hardening on the scale of crazy.
So let’s look at some of the less valid reasons people do iron palm and body hardening:
- Spar harder without equipment. So you want to pursue an unsafe training method to do more of an unsafe training method?
- Hurt people who hit you or with your blocks. Who do you want to hurt, your training partners? Why are you fighting? If it’s for real, why aren’t you using a knife or gun?
- Hit through barriers. So, rather than working on accuracy and tactical awareness, you want to make sure if he slams a door into your punch you go through it?
- Hit people harder ‘in the street’. There’s definitely an advantage to being hard, fast, and powerful. But let’s look at this rationally:
- A minor altercation and your wrestling/jujitsu sucks (i.e. you’re going to have to strike if things get physical) Better to deescalate, talk your way out of it or get help. Running away is also on the table. But do you really want to apply that extra power/toughness to escalate consequences? By the way what does that well you about how useful grappling is to keep situations from exploding?
- A major fight where you don’t perceive your life threatened. Flee, give up, get a bouncer or a cop. This should happen a maximum of one time in your life if you live in the West or you’re living incorrectly. If you break your hand, so be it. See Rick Faye’s gamble above.
- Major threat. You need a weapon and you need to flee.
- Confidence. I actually have the least beef with this. I personally don’t think it’s necessary, but if that’s the only way you get there, as long as you’re reasonable, so be it. Better than the paranoia of the above.
- To fight someone else who has the secret shield (see ‘Treasure of Bruce Le‘). Why are you fighting them? Your teachers are likely related. (Got that one from Dan Inosanto)
Look, I get it. When I was younger I was fascinated by it too. Maybe in class, especially with the hard styles, you feel inadequate compared to those who have dedicated themselves to body hardening or have built toughness over the years. Worse, the pain from working with them makes it not fun or worse, makes you want to quit, so you choose the lesser of two evils to stay in the game. I just want to remind that it IS just a game. Hit in context: it really should be enough for most people, goals, and training.