Hand and Body Conditioning (Hardening) in Martial Arts: Preparing Your Body for Combat

Most people have seen pictures or video footage of a martial artist smashing ice blocks or brick with their hands, head or feet. And most people assume that these people are super human or incredibly gifted. While it may be true most of these feats of mind over matter require a higher tolerance for pain than most of us are willing to accept, all of us have dormant potential that can be developed with dedication and hard work.

Board and brick breaking is a great introduction to the world of hand and body conditioning in the martial arts. You see, martial artists don’t simply think, “Hey, I’m going to go over there and smash that pile of bricks with my hand, it just feels right.” It takes years of conditioning the hand for that kind of punishment in order to keep the bricks from winning. And while the old adage ‘boards don’t hit back’ is still a valid critique of those who place too large an emphasis on breaking technique, the mind and body conditioning required for brick breaking is incredibly valuable for self defense training.

The first time I hit brick with my bear hand I felt a sting that one rarely feels unless they are smashing their thumb with a hammer or walking into a construction zone without a safety helmet. It hurt like a bitch, and my hand was a bloody mess. The brick won. My hand was swollen like a balloon for 4 weeks and I could do little else with it but wait for it to heal. The worst of it however was not my hand, but my ego. I felt defeated and knew if I didn’t overcome that fear of pain I’d have little chance of progressing. I waited until the swelling had gone down and smashed that brick with everything I had. It still hurt, but not nearly as much as missing the first break.

This was when I realized I had a major gap in my martial arts conditioning, and proceeded for the next three years to punch a brick wall a hundred times a day, several days a week. I am not recommending people do this, it’s a little excessive, but it does prepare the hands to deliver all that power you’ve learned to generate into a hard resilient object. And for systems that train to strike primarily with the fore fist (first two knuckles) like Taekwondo or Karate, it is essential training. It is rather easy to break a hand while punching someone in the head without proper training. The skull is one of the hardest bones in the body.

There are many systems of martial arts that don’t practice breaking techniques, but nonetheless condition other parts of the hand and body for similar purposes. Internal martial arts systems (systems that are based on internal energy work rather than external muscular force like Xing Yi Quan and Aikido) as well as external systems which focus on attacking soft parts of the body also condition the hands, though perhaps not to the same extreme. In systems like Wing Chun hands may be conditioned by striking sand bags or bags with metal ball bearings. This will be done to toughen the palms, knife edge, and all four knuckles.

Hand and body conditioning can be reduced to one simple concept, hit your body with something hard until your body becomes hard. Then find something harder to hit. Admittedly this smacks of meathead brawn over brain training but it comes with the territory. Combat places unique demands on the body and martial arts training should prepare the body and mind for all contingencies. Physical bone breaking contact is perhaps the first and foremost of these contingencies, if not an inevitability. But depending on your martial art of choice as well as your proficiency, you may need little to no hand conditioning if your system relies heavily on targeting soft vital locations on the body or high leverage grappling techniques.

Traditionally the Chinese believed that deforming the hand through conditioning was inferior to internal training through qigong, that external strength inferior to internal power. To this day one of the first things I notice on somebody is whether their hands are conditioned. It tells me immediately if they have experience fighting, board or brick breaking. If I could do it all over, I might have spent less time developing my knuckles, which indicates to anyone with knowledge that my hands are built for striking. Conditioning the palms and knife edge of the hand is just as effective and in fact probably more suitable for self defense training and striking vital targets on the neck, throat, and side of the head. A person can be very well conditioned in this way without exposing their deep knowledge of and commitment to the arts with external signs.

The Physical Benefits (or Consequences) of Body Conditioning
Hand and body conditioning have two physical consequences. The first is the deadening of the nerves in the region being conditioned. Thai Boxers kick banana trees for years until their shins are not only completely numb to the sting of impact, but also hard as a rock. The second consequence of this conditioning is the release of calcium to regions of trauma. When you hit things your bones crack. Your body reacts to this by calcifying that area and creating larger, wider, and more protrusive bone. This may result in big fat knuckles, thick shin bones, or a nice attractive knob on the forehead. Your bones will actually become bigger and stronger, building a body that will be capable of delivering and withstanding great force.

The Psychological Benefits of Body Conditioning
Training and conditioning the hand not only prepares the fist to deliver a powerful blow without breaking, it conditions the mind to accept the sting of pain that may or may not accompany, and develops the focus and commitment required to land the technique successfully. When you watch untrained fighters go at it, it is pretty common to see them swinging wildly with little regard for targeting. This is not only because they lack technical skill, but also because they can’t keep their mental composure under pressure. When you know you have a killer punch it becomes much easier to patiently wait for the right opportunity and deliver it only when it can be executed with maximum damage.

Board and brick breaking is not necessary training for all people. Many trainees have an understanding of technique follow through and body contact, either through sports or intuition that will allow them to succeed in combat. But many people seek martial arts instruction because they are insecure or timid, and with that comes hesitation and a lack of commitment in technique execution. Board breaking teaches the timid to commit to a technique and see it through without hesitation. It is this commitment to action that often makes the difference between a warrior and a victim. For those who believe martial arts training develops confidence, this is one of the reasons why.

Hand and Body Conditioning for Self Defense
It’s important to keep in mind that the scope of self defense is quite limited by comparison to traditional martial arts training. Techniques should be selected for greatest speed, leverage, and versatility, and simplicity, as well as those least likely to leave you injured in the process. For example, the average person should not be using a closed fist to strike an opponent. The hand can easily break if the structure of the strike isn’t proper at the moment of impact. The palm with very little training however can deliver incredible force without being injured. Furthermore, targets should be selected which provide maximum damage with the least effort. These are usually soft targets like the eyes, throat, neck, solar plexus, and groin, which don’t require excessive hand conditioning to strike effectively.

Regardless of your particular martial arts background, I believe there are a couple parts of the body that someone concerned with self defense should dedicate some time to conditioning. I’ll stick with the 80-20 rule here and simply focus on those that give you the most bang for buck. As such, I believe most of our self defense needs can be met by conditioning only two parts of the body. The two parts below are assuming you’ll be striking an opponent, as well as being stricken.

Hand Conditioning
There is no science to this. There are countless methods of hand conditioning out there. I highly recommend sand bags for beginners. You can lay the bag on a table or hang it like a punching bag. Hit is with the palms, knife edge, and knuckles. If the bag is lying on a table, simply let the weight of your hand carry it down. If the bag is hanging, hit with enough power to feel the impact, and little enough to be able to hit it for at least 20 repetitions of each strike. When your hands are numb, weak, or in pain, stop and wait until they’ve recovered, and then repeat.

After some time your hands will require less recovery time and daily training is quite reasonable. Once your hands have hardened, hit anything. Hit walls, fences, sign posts, and whatever else floats your boat. But pay careful attention to form, for even though your knuckles are rock hard, if the structure of your punch is lacking, the wrist and forearm can still break.

Shin Conditioning
The shins have a remarkable ability to widen and harden. They are the chosen weapon of Thai boxers and Karate stylists, and they are devastating when conditioned. The shins are a long massive all purpose tool used for hacking an opponents legs, midsection, and on occasion head. They are also the last line of defense against incoming low kicks. When fighting, you can’t drop your guard to block a low kick with your hands. You need to absorb the kick on your outer thigh or hamstring (not a great option) or you need to block the kick with your shin (assuming you aren’t agile enough to rely on footwork to move out of the line of attack). A hard shin defense will hurt the attacker more than the defender. And a hard shin will break down even a strong and muscular opponent via lower body kicking.

Shins are best conditioned by kicking broad targets like a two-by-four, thick bamboo, a bag of sand, or a hard heavy bag. You can hit your shins with sticks as well but this often results in little ridges rather than a thick wide shin. But hey, hitting is hitting and to each his own. Shin conditioning is very painful at first, but once the nerves start to give you can progress rather quickly.

Supplementary Body Conditioning (the other 20 %)
The elbows and knees are incredibly powerful and while they can be conditioned as in Thai boxing, they are ready as they are to deliver a powerful strike without threatening your composure too much. The occasional brick break is enough to leave your elbows with a healthy knot for future use. They need not be conditioned as frequently as the hands.

The feet have a large number of tiny bones in them that can break rather easily if not conditioned. If the shins are conditioned you may not need to rely on instep conditioning. But for martial arts like Taekwondo conditioning the foot for instep kicks, heel kicks, and crescent kicks allows for a full arsenal of kicking. That said, people wear shoes all day, and that little bit of fabric and rubber adds a lot of protection to the foot, allowing for harder impact without bear foot conditioning.

The forearms are excellent blocking tools and reign free in hard Japanese, Korean, and Thai systems, but are really unnecessary unless fighting a superb kicker. Most punching can be blocked with soft blocking techniques found in boxing and Wing Chun, which cause little to no damage to the blocker if done correctly. It is however quite difficult to deal with a strong kicker without the use of forearm blocks. The primary blocking surface is the outer forearm. The inner and outer forearm can also be used to attack large targets on an opponent, like the side of the neck, the head, groin, or sciatic nerve.

The forehead and top of the head is one of the best striking tools on the body. The skull is hard and thick and capable of delivering great force. Head butting is essential self defense, but unless you’re fighting on a weekly basis, I don’t believe the head needs to be conditioned to deliver a head but. If unconditioned it will hurt to deliver, but if your technique is ok it should do a lot more damage to your opponent. Conditioning the head on the other hand will result in a bulging knot on the forehead capable of instant knockout power. It will not however improve your chances with the ladies.

The solar plexus is the point at your center of mass located below the pecs and above the abs. When this point is hit with even a light blow it can instantly take your breath away. It is a point of real weakness on the body and once hit will take the fight right out of you. The solar plexus can be conditioned through a combination of abdominal training via sit-ups, crunches, leg raises, etc, and actually getting hit there. Unfortunately it is a very tough part of the body to harden through muscular development alone, and can be considerably toughened by taking hits. Find a friend you can trust and exchange light strikes at first. With time you might work up to full power strikes. Exhale every time you receive a strike to the midsection and keep the abs tight.

Unnecessary Body Conditioning and Those Who Have Lost the Way
You don’t have to practice martial arts for long before hearing stories of those who train to receive full power blows to the throat, groin and lower back without injury. Some of these practices are still alive in the training of Shaolin qigong and a new system called Combat Ki. They focus the body’s internal energy to various points on the body to make them hard, numb, or impenetrable. And as inviting as this training may be, something about it has always given me the creeps.

The bottom line is it seems like martial arts training gone wild. I see the value of body conditioning, as well as internal energy development, but some parts of the body seem to me to be inherently weak. If it requires a certain state of mind in order to sustain a blow to the throat without injury, then what happens when you’re walking home from the grocery store and get jumped before you’ve had time to direct your energy to the point being attacked? It seems to me that the body’s capacity to protect itself with evasive maneuvering, blocking, and counterstriking is vastly superior to the body’s capacity to take repeated shots to vital targets.

I once had a martial arts instructor who was fanatical about body conditioning, and he insisted his wife train to withstand a full side kick to the lower abdomen. I remember always wondering, “Why doesn’t he teach her to step out of the way or block? What happens if someone kicks her a little higher or a little lower, in the lower back, or more than once?” The bottom line is there is always somebody stronger. So it makes more sense to me to strengthen those parts of the body that have the greatest proclivity for hardening, and then to use those strong tools to protect the weak areas of the body.

Additionally, I have never had a strong urge to condition my fingertips and toes for purposes of striking. People train for years to break boards or rip coke cans apart with their fingers, but it seems to me that if this was a viable technique in a self defense situation, than there is probably something stronger and easier to execute. Finger spears in general are meant for the eyes, throat, or solar plexus, not the sternum. And conditioning the toes does little for those who wear shoes, which is all of us, all of the time. You may have a great gun, but if you can’t take the safety off, does it really make sense carrying it?

A Word to the Wise
Don’t try this at home without doing more research. Find a good instructor or read up on the hand conditioning methods in Karate and Iron Palm Kung Fu. Those two methods will cover the meat of hand conditioning technique. Karate conditioning comes from a philosophy of tension on impact and physical muscular force, and Iron Palm comes from a philosophy of relaxed striking while utilizing internal energy. These methods are vastly different but can complement each other in training. But it’s like anything else; the person that shows up each day and is willing to give it his all is going to succeed in the long run. There are no secrets to this game. It’s a hard and painful path, but one that greatly enhances martial skill in the long run.

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