In the book American Shaolin: Flying Kicks, Buddhist Monks, and the Legend of Iron Crotch: An Odyssey in the New China, the author describes his exposure to, and training in, some of the so-called "iron techniques" of martial arts. The techniques, according to the author, involve subjecting specific areas of the body to repeated and consistent abuse, while treating them with "medicinal herbal mixtures". The result is that the area of the body can supposedly sustain tremendous stresses, and becomes much more durable and resilient than untrained body parts.

The author trained in "iron forearm", because he feared the disfigurement of joints, and general swelling, that apparently accompanied training in some of the other variants. At one point I believe he mentioned that you could easily spot practitioners of "iron fist" because one of their hands would be significantly larger than the other, and marred by swollen and grotesque fingers resulting from them being repeatedly broken and reset during the course of training.

Other styles include "iron stomach", "iron skull", "iron legs" and even "iron penis". "Iron stomach" demonstrations frequently involve placing the point of a sharp spear against the abdomen, and leaning into it until the spear bends almost in half, without piercing the skin.

These styles also have a history of appearing in various martial arts entertainment movies.

Have their been any studies comparing the reputed strength and durability of limbs trained with these techniques versus the limbs of athletes employing more traditional training and conditioning practices?

Is the reputed resistance to piercing and cutting attributed to skin subject to this training significantly different than the properties of "untrained skin"?

Edit:Here is a video of Shaolin Monks demonstrating one of the more extreme versions of the technique. Is this merely a trick exploiting the natural elasticity of human skin (which is often underestimated), or is this really the result of special conditioning to toughen the skin far beyond norm?

Here is another demonstration that shows spears supporting a man's weight, with a demonstration of the supposed "iron crotch" (although the video looks like the stick may actually miss the monk's testicles, there are numerous references to demonstrations that were too graphic to be easily faked in the book mentioned earlier).

Here is a monk putting the point of a spear against his throat and pushing a van with the haft of the spear.

Here is a demonstration where blunt force is applied to the stomach with no apparent effect.

  • 3
    As it stands this question seems to vague. What's your standard for "super-human"? – Christian Jul 8 '11 at 15:06
  • @Christian "Have their been any studies comparing the reputed strength and durability of limbs trained with these techniques versus the limbs of athletes employing more traditional training and conditioning practices?" and "Is the reputed resistance to piercing and cutting attributed to skin subject to this training significantly different than the properties of 'untrained skin'?" – Beofett Jul 8 '11 at 15:07
  • "Reputed strength"? vague. If I cut skin repeatedly scar tissue will develop. Scar tissue is significantly different then "normal" tissue. – Christian Jul 8 '11 at 15:12
  • @Christian Nothing I have seen indicates that the skin for "iron skin" training is cut as part of the training process. However, would it be clearer if I dropped the part referring to "iron skin" and kept the scope of the question restricted to reputed limb durability and resilience (e.g. can a fist trained with this technique survive a higher-impact blow without broken bones than the fist of, say, a bare-knuckle boxer?)? – Beofett Jul 8 '11 at 15:18
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    I would think that any level a human could get to would not be 'super-human', but just 'human', by definition. Granted, it may be the extreme upper limit, but still within the realm of human. – fred Jul 8 '11 at 20:31
up vote 8 down vote accepted

Can martial artists strengthen limbs, appendages, and other parts of their bodies to “super-human” degrees?

It depends how you define 'super-human'. If you mean 'abnormal' or 'super-normal', then yes.

It is well-known that 'high impact' exercises increase, for example, bone density: which makes the bones stronger i.e. less prone to fracture.

Examples of 'high impact' training for a martial artist include and kicking things (e.g, hitting 'punching bags').


Another reference ... National Geographic video - "hard body training" - illustrates "Wolff's law" and its implication for striking in martial art.


Edit: someone should add a reference to 'load bearing' exercise.

  • 4
    I don't really think a Google search link counts as a reference. – MrHen Jul 9 '11 at 2:08
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    @MrHen - How about a National Geographic video? – ChrisW Jul 9 '11 at 2:42
  • Yes, much better ;) – MrHen Jul 9 '11 at 4:48
  • One of the Discovery channels had a show about this a few years ago. There were a number of different techniques used to get "super human" strength. For instance, repeatedly punching a hard object, like a concrete block, caused stress fractures in the hand bones, which then healed with additional bone mass. Medical professionals were consulted in the program, and there were X-ray comparisons of trained vs. untrained hands. – oosterwal Jul 12 '11 at 3:41

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