Iron Palm & Advanced Hand Systems-

Martial Arts Myth and Fact

Robert Barton 

                We have all heard them whispered and bragged about in the martial arts community. What are these mysterious secret hand systems? The terms ‘Iron Palm’ and ‘Death Touch’ and even ‘Poison Hand’ do actually come from Chinese martial tradition but they have been so loosely applied to a wide variety of martial methods that these terms are generally used interchangeably in the martial arts world of today. Each term does have a specific denotation or precise meaning. Unfortunately the connotation applied to these terms can be almost anything and so when the term is used it has no specific meaning. So let’s take a look at these terms and at the types of systems that they represent.

            Iron Palm: A simple basic system of physical hand conditioning producing real physical effects. This practice gives the person the ability to deliver heavy physical blows to an opponent while sustaining a minimum of damage to the hand. This art is based on the simple biological action of the body reacting to physical stress. The hands of the practitioner are placed under physical stress through regular controlled impact with pads or substances of slowly increasing density. As with any regular athletic practice the body responds by strengthening the tissues being stressed. The bones of the hands, wrists and forearms increase in density, the skin of the hands toughens and the tendons and ligaments become thicker and stronger. The goal of this approach is to strengthen the hands without disfigurement so the systems of hand conditioning which generate large calluses on the knuckles and disfigure the hands would not fall into this category. There is a famous story told about the Abbot of Shaolin once dropping a heavy stone onto his hands in order to break the bones so that they would heal back stronger and become more effective as a weapon. It is unlikely that this story is true since that would be a stupid approach to attempting to increase the effectiveness of the hand as a weapon. 

            Many martial arts use this method of training and the practitioner of this method is capable of delivering heavy blows. This method of delivering heavy blows with strengthened hands can be applied to linear and circular movement systems, it can also be applied to hard and soft methods of energy delivery but it is always strictly external and physical in energy production. This method is not internal, though it is often the first step to the development of other methods including internal methods. This method does not create a new accupoint in the center of the palm which allows chi to penetrate from the palm into the target. The hand can be shaped in a way that focuses the physical energy into a more concentrated shape which has very good penetration but again that is strictly physical and based on an understanding of hydrodynamics which is the science of how energy moves through matter, especially liquids and is far more akin to how armour piercing explosive charges are shaped than to anything mystical. 

            Herbal preparations are often applied to the hands as a regular part of training. These preparations often range from containing a few simple herbs to a formula requiring well over a hundred ingredients and requiring months to prepare. These preparations do have some specific beneficial effects to the practitioner. The most immediate effect of these preparations is astringent and so they reduce the size of the capillaries in the skin, which reduces surface blood flow and diminishes the bruising associated with the trauma of impact both the alcohol and vinegar based formulae do this. These preparations usually contain herbal chemicals which eventually reverse the astringent effect felt when first applied, and some time after the immediate effect the capillaries are slowly dilated to actually begin to bring more blood to the area to facilitate rapid healing. The next effect is that of chemicals similar to aspirin and which help to inhibit inflammation in the hands and wrist. Many of the herbs are tannin producing or containing and these formulas are usually loaded with tannins which may reduce the elasticity of the skin and toughen the skin but will definitely start to tan the coloring of the hands.  These herbs also have specific effects within Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). It should be noted here that there are numerous schools which use vinegar based formulae. The vinegar like alcohol and in some rare formulae water is used as a solvent to help the herbal chemical absorb into the body. Some of the schools have a misguided belief that the vinegar makes the bones rubbery and soft and less likely to break by leaching the minerals from the bones. First, the vinegar does nothing to leech the minerals from the bones and has no effect in this regard, even though it can be shown to the student that soaking a chicken bone in vinegar has an effect this effect does not take place in the living body since the vinegar directly contacts the skin and in relatively minuscule amounts. Secondly, as any physician will tell you, when minerals are leeched from living bone it becomes brittle and not rubbery, weaker and not stronger. The only difference in vinegar based formulae as opposed to the more common alcohol based and the rare water based formulae is that they smell significantly worse and the people who use them often can't seem to wash the smell off.

            The physical effects of this training are obtainable with or without the use of herbal formulas. It is believed by many that the herbal formulae are necessary for this type of training but this is not the case. The physical adaptations that the body makes during this type of conditioning are completely natural and require no outside help from medicines in order to take place. The herbal formulas may help to reduce possible long-term negative effects of the training and may facilitate the process in a healthier manner but are not required. A slow steady progression through the training stages is safe and healthy and the most that herbal formulae can do is enable one to go a bit faster. But care must be taken that this does not lead to over training and more is not better. More is often the road to joint pain and tendinitis. To be properly effective without problems the initial stages of this training should take three years in order to have a slow, natural progression which allows the body to develop in the healthiest manner.

            Far more important to this sort of training than the use of herbal formulae is good nutrition. A well balanced diet providing minerals and proteins for building muscle and bone is very important because this helps to facilitate the process by which the body seeks to strengthen and reinforce itself. It is commonly believed that because some monks are vegetarians and eat a rice based diet the training should include a vegetarian and rice based diet in order to be successful. This is not a logical conclusion, medical fact says that when the body is trying to build new tissue or strengthen tissue the body is best fueled by a complete and balanced diet with lots of variety. It is also commonly believed that since monks are celibate and that monks do iron palm, celibacy is required during this training. That is simply flawed logic and there is no cause and effect relationship here. The nature of historical ‘celibacy’ in many Buddhist monasteries is misunderstood by most people and it is not always the same as the ‘celibacy’ of western monks. One of the most effective iron palm practitioners that I have ever known was not celibate nor was he a vegetarian or mystic, he was a career Army helicopter pilot. This training is best facilitated by going slowly while maintaining a healthy balanced diet and getting enough sleep.

These effects are seen in martial artists of many systems. In fact there are versions of this conditioning method found in Chinese, Japanese and Korean arts. The traditional Pugilists of Western Europe also trained in methods that produced these effects though there seems to have been less use of herbal formulas in the versions of the training found in Europe, though the use of medicinal techniques in Europe is historically present but in an occasional form. Since it is a natural effect anyone who is stressing the hands regularly with strikes and blows is going to automatically have this physical conditioning response be that person practicing kung fu, karate, African arts, pugilism or a Maori warrior.

            It is interesting to note that the history of this particular approach is mostly documented within Buddhist schools of martial philosophy and this method is in wide use among martial arts systems linked to Shaolin and other Buddhist martial schools. Taoist and European martial schools recognized these effects but tended to treat them as natural results of training and did not often teach them as specific methods to be trained separately, though there are exceptions to this genrality. Historically this method has been considered the gate to other methods that require different and often what are considered to be more advanced knowledge and skill sets.

            Another method and one that is usually considered to be second and so taught after iron palm training is black tiger hand. Again we are dealing with a purely physical set of effects and actually they are a continuation of the effects of iron palm. In black tiger hand and related methods the student strikes blows into lose beans sand or small gravel. Small beans such as mung beans are in my experience the most effective and healthiest medium giving the desired effect without undesired damage that gravel or sand can give.  One can also use a thick dense sponge which can be as satisfactory beans.

            Black tiger hand is used to condition fingers and for strikes such as leopard and the various fingertip type claw strikes found in many forms. Each strike is thrown into the beans ten times per session. The hand and arm is relaxed and just held in position lightly or with a relaxed feeling. Again we are looking for a long term effect which builds with time.

            Willow leaf palm is considered to be more advanced than iron palm and is not a conditioning method. Willow leaf palm is also called splashing hands. It is a method of energy delivery in which the hand throws a fast whipping strike which seems to bounce from the target because it is pulled away right after contact. This bouncing or splashing motion is the key to how this hand use system functions. These strikes are intended and believe to cause more damage to the target and to specifically focus on soft tissue damage rather than bone damage. The energy is considered to not be stopped by bone. This is considered a soft type of blow and does not work with bone on bone and specifically targets the body and soft tissues. It is believed by many that this striking method enhances internal effects and results in a more penetrating damage.  But this is still a physical effect. A cute story is told that the name splashing hand comes from the conditioning method which involves pouring large amounts of water over the hands or sticking them under a waterfall. It is a cute story and absolutely ridiculous but I am certain that it has led to dedicated students standing by waterfalls and I hope that at some point those students smarten up and find a real martial arts school.

            Related to splashing hands is ch’i kuan ta also known as vibrating palm and it is a method whereby the person seeks to attack internal organs while minimizing the external signs. It sounds mystical but it really isn’t and it relies on soft types of blows thrown to soft areas. The effect here is physical and is similar to the effect which causes internal damage in a traffic accident or which causes a boxer to get a concussion from a hook shot which doesn’t leave a mark. Understanding hydrodynamics is more important to this ability than mysticism. The basic principle can be understood in this way: Imagine that you have a stick that it exactly five pounds in weight and you swing that stick at a target at a specific speed. Now take a rolled up towel and hold it by the corners so that it is the exact length as the stick and dip it into water so that it is exactly five pounds in weight then swing it into the target at exactly the same speed. The energy hitting the target from both of these being the same weight and speed will be the same. What differs is the pressure or pounds per square inch and the resulting shock wave from the impact. If they hit bone the stick will break it and the bone will absorb and dissipate that energy but bone can't effectively manage the shock wave from the softer material of the wet towel.  The skull for instance is very good at stopping the harder stick but the energy from the softer rolled up towel will have a broader area of contact, same energy but lower less concentrated pounds per square inch. The towel could actually translate into a knock out or higher chances of brain damage because less of the energy is turned into trauma to the bone. Willow leaf, splashing and vibrating palms all make use of this principle and this is in essence the difference between hard and soft blows. Also to be considered here is the hardness or softness of the target and were the stick or the towel used against the abdomen there would be little difference in the effect because there is no bone to absorb the energy from the stick. This is a very rough description of the very physical realities of what is going on here. The basic difference could be described as the difference between dropping a water bed mattress on a person as opposed to dropping a concrete slab, they will both kill you but the concrete slab is going to leave more marks and be way more messy.

            Sealing the breath or Bih chi is a very specific application of force. We see the term sealing the breath and assume that there is some great mystical skill here. Actually the person is being hit in a way that sends the diaphragm into a spasm. It is also called knocking the breath out of someone and every boxer, fighter, wrestler and football player has experienced it. It is incapacitating for a short time and almost every martial arts teacher can do it most just don’t know the Chinese name for it and when they hear the Chinese name they assume that it must be more involved than this.

            Poison hand or Tu wu shou was literally that. A contact poison is put in the hands and a person is hit with it and the skin absorbs the toxins and they die. That is the theory at least. There are stories told of how people would build up immunity slowly to the poison and then they would start to apply the poison to their hands and it would come out in their perspiration so that anyone they hit would absorb the poison. Frankly the medical fantasy here is amazing. The only true method for this that I have encountered involves rubbing the hands with a layer of thick crease which forms a barrier. Then a poison that is not fat soluble is placed on the palm and cannot penetrate the grease. The palm is used to hit a person and the poison is absorbed into the skin. The hands are washed to remove the poison and the grease. Most of the things that people think can be used as a poison for this will cause skin irritation and sometimes some nausea. It is extremely difficult to prepare a poison that works on contact and many pharmacists couldn’t do it. It doesn’t rate as a martial art so much as it rates a method for attempting murder. I see no value it keeping this method alive and never discuss what plants were or may have been used to create the poisons.

            Vital Points or Tien Hsueh uses physical attacks to vital or weak points (shen ching ta) in a physical manner. These points are easily identified and are nerves, arteries, joints and general sensitive areas. This art is purely physical and it is not a method for conditioning the hands. It simply applies the hand conditioning of the earlier methods to selecting and attacking easily damaged targets.

            Vein shutting (duan mei) is another simply physical approach and is a type of vital points attack that focuses on the circulatory system by trying to damage veins and arteries.  You could kill someone trying this and they could bleed out slowly and internally. Luckily it isn’t easy to do but I wonder why you would try since a moment of self defense doesn't lead to a need to rupture and artery or vein intentionally to stop and immediate threat. Honesty if you need to disable an attacker use a hook from catch as catch can wrestling.

            Chin na is for seizing and controlling an opponent and uses lots of grabs and joint manipulations.  Tsouh guh is a subset of this and when the term is seen it refers to using the techniques to dislocate and break joints and bones. Jua jin is another subset of this area and is designed specifically to tear and rip muscle tissues which results ion long term damage and a slow recovery. If you really want to specialize in this sort of thing I recommend the more intense grappling arts of Europe, Catch as Catch Can and Penkration are old system that are excellent at this and have combined into a modern version based on Catch as Catch Can and commonly known as Catch Wrestling.  

            Dragons breath strikes and (ching lo) attacks are involved in methods which seek to use minimal physical contact and specifically target acupuncture points. These methods require an extensive knowledge of accupoints and Tradition Chinese Medical theory. One must understand meridians and points along with timing. It amounts to using a highly developed therapeutic system of medicine as a weapon. Some people believe that it works while others do not. But the same can be said of acupuncture.  I do not engage in debates about it because we will each only be able to believe what we see. I do teach the theory and traditional application.

            I hope that this has cleared up some of what is fantasy and what is fact and history. It should be noted that many of these methods are contained within many styles. I teach many of these while others I find despicable.                

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