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In previous articles, we talked about the science of Iron Hand and Muay Thai shin conditioning. Now, we return to the Shaolin school for Shaolin Iron Shirt (otherwise known as Iron Vest or Iron Jacket).

There is a reason this article is last in the body hardening series, and it is because Shaolin Iron Shirt takes a lot more time, persistence, and effort than even the formidable skills of hardening the hands or shins.

shaolin iron shirt training
For Iron Shirt, you must train the inside of your body as well as the outside, because there are a lot of organs to protect.
By William Creswell from Seattle, Washington, USA [Public domain or CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Think about it: the torso is much larger than any other body part, it contains all of the internal organs, and the amount of skin you need to harden covers a much larger area.

Shaolin Iron Shirt

shaolin iron shirt training
mararie, Flickr CC License. https://www.flickr.com/photos/mararie/5108073122

Iron Fist and Muay Thai shin conditioning focus on hardening bone, but Shaolin Iron shirt focuses on increasing the resistance of body tissues. Because of this, the body needs to be trained from the inside as well as outside.

Some guides you may find online focus only on the outside, saying you should let someone hit you with bags filled with harder and harder substances until you can withstand the hardest of blows. But other masters say you should not even attempt to train Iron shirt until you have mastered the basics of Shaolin training (the basic forms and all the stances) and can run ten kilometers right before an intense hour of training. The key to Iron shirt really relies on inner strength.

Shaolin Iron shirt has been less widely known ever since guns became the weapon of choice, because withstanding physical blows became less relevant. Despite legends about Iron shirt masters who have impenetrable skin, there is no way to stop a bullet with your body.

Internal Training in Shaolin Iron Shirt

shaolin iron shirt training
Brno, Czech Republic -April 11,2016: Show The Mystical Powers of The Shaolin Monks of China on April 11 ,2016 in City Hall Vodova in Brno in Czech Republic

Today’s martial arts are often for competition or for show, where martial artists need to withstand heavy blows much less often. Still, there are some masters who have kept the art of Iron shirt alive.

It is said that Shaolin Iron shirt works by strengthening Qi (sometimes spelled Chi), the energy that some people believe flows in and around the body. Any area a vest covers is the area that is trained to focus Qi – the chest, stomach, shoulders, and back. For those that don’t believe in Qi, the scientific principles of gradually strengthening bones and tissues in these areas through exercise and repetitive training still apply.

For internal training, there are several stances and postures to practice and hold for a certain period of time, followed by moving sets which increase core strength. There are too many of these to go over in this short article, so if you are interested, you can find a manual on the topic or a master to guide you. As always, it is not recommended to attempt these things without expert guidance because you may injure yourself.

You need to practice these postures and sets for up to 90 minutes a day for 3 years. And remember that this is just the internal part of Shaolin Iron shirt!

Breathing Exercises in Shaolin Iron Shirt

shaolin iron shirt training
Unrecognizable young girl doing lotus yoga pose on the floor

There are also a series of breathing exercises involved in internal training. Again, there is a wealth of information to know about the several possible breathing exercises. But at the very least you need to start by mastering abdominal breathing.

Abdominal breathing, which is widely used even outside of Kung Fu, has several benefits and essentially means breathing with your abdomen instead of your chest. To start, you need to simply be conscious of your breathing. Lie down and place one hand on your stomach and one on your chest. Now, breathe in and make sure your stomach rises up and not your chest. When you exhale, tighten the stomach muscles and breathe out using your stomach. This is a small start, but it is the first step to Iron shirt breathing exercises.

If you practice Iron shirt correctly, your body will be able to withstand stabs and cuts by knives and swords. You may have also seen demonstrations where Iron shirt masters can withstand massive slabs of stone laid on their chests. It probably goes without saying that if you want to be anywhere near this level, you need to move on to external conditioning in addition to the internal exercises above.

External Practice in Shaolin Iron Shirt

shaolin iron shirt training
Brno, Czech Republic -April 11,2016: Show The Mystical Powers of The Shaolin Monks of China on April 11 ,2016 in City Hall Vodova in Brno in Czech Republic

The principal of the external practice is similar to Iron Fist – the body is hit with increasingly harder materials. Various sources say you should begin with a sack filled with mung beans and hit the body repetitively until you can withstand it without pain. Then move on to a sack filled with gravel, and then iron balls. In other variations, you would have someone hit you repeatedly with bamboo and then move to iron rods.

Once again, this should take months or years to work your way up to. And it isn’t just about hitting one part of your body over and over. Any spot where you don’t focus, like your shoulders, back, or chest, will be a weak spot.

Iron Shirt also focuses on the skin, and this means working up a resistance to surface pain. Some masters who practice Iron Vest recommend using a brush made of stiff bamboo bristles to start. Massaging the skin with this brush will increase your skin’s tolerance to pain as well as blood flow to the surface, which can help with healing. After this, some people move to a brush made of small iron rods.

shaolin iron shirt training
Brno, Czech Republic -April 11,2016: Show The Mystical Powers of The Shaolin Monks of China on April 11 ,2016 in City Hall Vodova in Brno in Czech Republic

Dit Da Jow, or a specially developed liniment, is useful for Iron Vest as it is with any other body hardening practice. You can use it to help with healing. And as always you should let your body fully heal before continuing training or you could injure yourself.

As you can see, Iron Shirt is quite an intense and hardcore practice. It takes years to develop and hours of effort every single day. If you want to try, I recommend you to seek out someone who knows what they are doing. So you won’t waste your time and dedication.

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