Training Secrets of Iron Palm
By Michel Czehatowski, L.Ac.
Almost every martial artist has heard of Iron Palm. The idea that we can toughen our hands to the point of delivering bone crushing blows appeals to our sense of being the ultimately deadly warrior. Unfortunately the majority of martial artists will never have the opportunity to train under an Iron Palm Master - but you can still learn enough of the basic principles to safely condition and toughen your hands to prevent injuries during sparring, competition, or a self-defense situation. Anyone who has hurt their hand knows that injured fingers or hands slow down training and can be a major setback if the injury is serious enough. It is not uncommon to injure hands, fingers, or knuckles at some point while training or sparring. Hand injuries not only prevent you from being able punch effectively but can also impact grappling, hand trapping, and other skills until it heals. Having tougher hands may prevent injuries which also means you can train harder or more frequently. So the question is "How is it done?"
Learning Iron Palm takes dedication and a teacher with the know how to develop seriously tough hands. Improper training can damage the bones, ligaments, and cartilage of the hands. It doesn't make sense to damage your hands in the conditioning process. You need your hands in good shape for your job and when you get older you want to maintain the dexterity and flexibility of your fingers. Even Shaolin monks didn't turn their hands into stiff, unbending clubs from their training. They toughened them to the point where they could rip bark off of trees yet maintained the flexibility so that they could practice other cultural arts such as calligraphy.
Secrets of Iron Palm
There are many different exercises to condition and toughen your hands based on the system of martial arts you are learning. But no matter what the method, preventing any permanent damage to your hands or fingers is of utmost importance. The first secret to preventing damage involves carefully using Chinese herbs to help repair any damage to the hands and prevent the injuries from developing into more serious problems in the future.
Countless herbal formulas have been developed over time by different masters or their physicians for use in the martial arts. And just as martial artists like to argue about which style is superior to another the same is true of Iron Palm formulas. There's always someone who claims that they have "the best formula" or "a long lost secret formula" handed down over hundreds of years. These formulas usually are said to have miraculous properties. While there is probably some element of truth to this type of claim, once you start examining different formulas you realize that almost all Iron Palm formulas center around certain herbs that have common healing properties.
The primary herbs used come from three different herb groups: The Anti-rheumatic herbs, Herbs that Stop Bleeding, and Blood Circulating Herbs. All these herbs have been studied for thousands of years by Chinese herbalists. Their properties and indications have been thoroughly documented and the dosages well-established.
The Anti-Rheumatic herbs are known to release painful blockages or obstructions from the muscles, sinews, joints, and bones and activate the acupuncture channels. From the viewpoint of modern medicine, these herbs have pain relieving (analgesic), antiinflammatory, and circulation-promoting activities. Examples of herbs in this category are Angelica pubescens (Chinese: Du huo); Gentianae Macrophyllae (Chinese: Qin Jiao); and Clemetidis Chinensis (Chinese: Wei ling xian). The second important group of herbs are the Herbs that Stop Bleeding. Probably the single most important herb in this group is Pseudoginseng, which is known in Chinese as San Qi (三七) or Tian Qi (田七). This herb not only stops bleeding but reduces swelling and alleviates pain. It is the herb of choice for traumatic injuries and would almost always be one of the core herbs of an Iron Palm formula. Another herb that may be used is Cattail pollen (Botanical name: Pollen Typhae; Chinese: Pu huang). This herb stops bleeding and is also used for traumatic injuries. It also promotes the circulation of blood. The third group of herbs used are Herbs that Invigorate the Blood. The key herbs used in this group are frankincense (Botanical name: Olibanum; Chinese: Ru xiang); Myrrha (Chinese: Mo yao); and Dragon's Blood (Botanical Name: Sanguis Draconis; Chinese: Xue jie). These three herbs often form the heart of the Iron Hand formula and are crucial ingredients.
The Iron Hand formula is usually made of some combination of these main herbs along with varying amounts of other herbs with similar properties that may or may not be crucial. Once the herbs are measured out and mixed they are soaked in wine for a minimum of three months but preferably longer. Alcohol acts as a solvent for the medicinal components of the herbs. It also prevents spoiling. Chinese "wine" by the way, is usually a very high proof alcohol. Wines as we know them are a much lower proof alcohol. The soaking herbs are frequently shaken or agitated several times a week. The resultant formula is commonly known as "Dit da jow" or "hit wine."
How the herbs are used is very important. When training, it is important to apply the Dit da jow liberally and rub it vigorously into yours hands - both before and after practice so that the medicinal components of the formula penetrate the skin. The main purpose for using a Dit da jow is to increase the circulation of blood to prevent bruising and stop bleeding. When you are training in Iron Palm you are breaking down the structure of the hand a little at a time and allowing it to rebuild stronger. The bones thicken, muscles get tougher and calluses are developed. The Dit da jow allows the body to speed up the healing process of your sore hands. If you condition your hands without using a Dit da jow you risk future problems when you are much older because the stagnated blood or damaged tissues are not allowed to heal properly.
Dit da jows aren't only for Iron Palm. Use them whenever you have bruises strains or sprains. You'll find that you will heal much faster than usual. You can make your own Dit da jow if you have a recipe and you don't mind taking the time for it to soak. A good mail order source for bulk Chinese herbs is East Earth Trade Winds (1-800-258-6878 or www.eastearthtrade.com). They have a large selection of Chinese herbs in stock and can special order almost anything they don't have for you. They also have some excellent commercially made Dit da jow's that work really well. A highly recommended product is Iron Hand Liniment® which is one of the best commercially available products. Alternate choices that work well include Zheng Gu Shui, or Five Photo's Brand First Aid Antiseptic (Dit da jow). Both of these products are helpful.
Here are some basic conditioning exercises that you will find useful to toughen your hands. Remember to use the Dit da jow before and after conditioning your hands. The most fundamental exercise for toughening the knuckles, fingers and strengthening the wrists is knuckle and fingertip pushups. This exercise is common to virtually every martial art and should be done on a hard floor - either wood or concrete. If you are on carpet bring some bricks or pieces of wood to place your hands on. It may feel better to do this exercise on carpet or a softer material but you are wasting your time and will get inferior results. Do your pushups in sets of 10, 15 or 20. Alternate between knuckles and fingers tips. When you are done always stretch your fingers and rapidly grab at the air to stretch out your hands. The second exercise is to slap your hand on wood but you have to work your way up to doing this. Start by using a layer of two telephone books over a wooden board. If you have a yard and can find yourself a six foot section of telephone pole and then bury it in your yard so that about three feet of it protrudes above the ground. You can set your phone books on this. Then start slapping your hand, easy at first, on the phone books. Alternate slapping the palm and the back of your hand. Do this for about five minutes every day. Don't try to hurry the process and don't hurt yourself. The idea is to work gradually,over a period of months, so that the hand toughens up. You'll also be building thicker bones by doing this. As you progress and your hand gets tougher gradually decrease the padding until you get to the point where you are using several layers of cardboard as a pad. Eventually you'll work your way down to one layer of cardboard and then at the final stage you'll be slapping your hand on the wood.
The last exercise is with a partner. It's an easy exercise but will separate those who take this training seriously from those who don't. Have your partner hold your feet and walk you on your fists, that is, your knuckles - just like the wheelbarrow exercise. A smooth concrete floor, like in a garage, is a good place to start. As you get tougher progress to a coarser concrete, such as a driveway or sidewalk. This exercise is a little tortuous at first but it will, along with the other exercises, toughen your hands. Do it two to three times a week. More techniques used in Iron Palm can be learned from an experienced teacher. However, if you take the information outlined here you will find your knuckles and hands becoming noticeably tougher in a few months.
A last bit of advice: Having tough hands is only small part of a martial artists training. Iron Palms by themselves won't win a fight. You must have the delivery system (i.e., technique and skill) that takes them to their target. So make sure your training is well rounded and work on all your skills.
Postscript: If you are seriously interested in Iron Palm I recommend you try these products:
1). Iron Hand Liniment
2). A DIY (Do It Yourself) premeasured herb mixture: Dit Da Jow Herb Mixture
3). A Dit Da Jow formula we can make for you
Author: Michel Czehatowski, L.Ac. is a licensed acupuncturist and practitioner of Chinese herbal medicine. He has a life long interest in martial arts and Chinese culture. He has trained in Pai Lum Kung Fu, Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan, and Modern Arnis.