Every martial art has its own strength and unique selling point. Some call it a ‘weapon’. It’s about what physical attribute the practitioner chooses to specialize in. Examples of such attributes are: fists that are hard and can break bricks and break bones; fingers sharp enough to pierce through flesh; body movements that can mislead the opponent; fast kicks that can catch the opponent off guard at range, and the list goes on.
Some elder, more experienced Kung Fu masters have summarized that to fight effectively, a person needs to have at least one of these 3 attributes: Heavy blows, Speed or Hardness. You either hit very hard, or can hit or move very fast, or you have high resistance to strikes. It is of course better to meet 2 of these criteria, or even all of them. But a martial artist needs at least one to do well in a fight.
These 3 criteria serves as a good guide to physical effectiveness, but they are still very broad categories. For hardness, does it also include how firm the joints are and how stable the person is when faced with a heavy push? Does speed mean solely speed of strikes, or both speed of strikes and blocks, or does speed refer to the quickness of striking, blocking and footwork agility as a total sum? For the pugilistic tradition of Hung Gar Kuen, what is the preference of personal development among these 3 categories? This article will be informative to Kung Fu and martial arts enthusiasts who are interested to learn more about Hung Gar Kung Fu’s uniqueness and its outstanding attributes among other Kung Fu styles.
Many Hung Gar combat practitioners are known for their rock solid forearms. Hard and heavy forearms have the effect of hard and painful blocks. Likewise, they are also painful and difficult to block. Solid forearms gives them such an advantage in hand to hand combat. For those who have heard of the style, Hung Gar is also known for being a hard style of Kung Fu. The thing is, ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ are still very broad terms, not specific enough for people to understand the essence of Hung Gar Kung Fu.
In hard styles, there are many kinds of physical superiority and more ways to achieve them. There are many kinds of iron fist: front striking, backfist striking, bone hardening or bone banging, strong punching combined with tissue conditioning. There are also many kinds of iron body: Iron shirt with hard qigong, soft iron shirt, golden bell with hardened skin and muscle tissue, and Pai Da Gong which is simply ‘getting used to being hit’.
For the standard Hung Gar adept, the arms of steel should be quite significant. If we break down various qualities of the arms of steel, it can be purely the repetitive knocking and toughening of skin, flesh and bone; the heaviness of the arm’s force; or it can be the intensity of the power within the arm. Some experts are very well developed in all 3 areas. In fact 2 will be enough to overwhelm most people who clash hands with them.
In other areas of Gong Li (power and conditioning), Hung Gar Kung Fu also have ways of increasing strength and speed as well. Those who have been following our blog will know that we have many interesting training equipment, qigong exercises as well as strength and resistance exercises to boost performance in other areas.
Most might not be familiar, but traditionally Hung Gar practitioners do not shift their training focus to hardness conditioning before they meet the requirements for their basics, that is the Solid Stances of Steel. Some schools set the standard at a few minutes of staying still in a low stance, some schools 10 – 30 minutes of a higher stance. Some of the more serious schools require the person to be able to take leg sweeps and remain standing, or stand their ground while someone pushes them with moderate strength. Different schools may have different guidelines for assessment but they all share the same concept.
The concept is that the base has to be solid before the other features are strengthened. The desired order of development should be from bottom to top (low body stability to upper body stability), and from inside to out (core to extremities, internal power to external force). A firmly rooted base will support all upper body activities. A torso that is connected to the legs will be able to support the arms which engages in hitting or blocking.
When a person has a solid base that is firmly connected to the techniques, these techniques will contain the mass and stability of the whole body. The core support is what we want to have in our arms before we train them to be hard. By the time one has conditioned the arms to be hard, the arms will be strong as steel, heavy as gold on top of being hard.
We can observe that when a person only trained hard forearms but has not developed sending power into the arm and stabilizing it against resistance, the fighting techniques do not work because the arm is not able to neutralize force from a heavy blow, or it cannot tear through the opponent’s guard. Impact of a harder arm on any part of the opponent’s body that is softer than the arm will cause more pain and damage to the opponent. But if you can’t land a blow that will put your opponent out of action (for example a heavy punch to the face), you can’t win the fight effectively. Likewise if you got hit at where it matters despite your rockier, hardier blocks, you will lose the ability to carry on the fight.
It doesn’t even have to be striking efficiency; when you block or punch and you are being knocked back you cannot follow up with an attack. And if your opponent can easily push you back when you are charging in, you cannot land strikes or counter punches with your iron fists too. These problems are caused by floating stances that are not connected to the ground and other parts of the body.
That’s why stability and heavy force plays a huge part in letting your arms of steel win the technical battle for you. Generations of Hung Gar combatants realized this and it has since become our tradition to prioritize getting the stance strong enough before we work on the toughness of our arms.
Firm Stances is the Core Concept of Every Aspect in Hung Gar
The famous rock solid stance of Hung Gar Kung Fu serves as the framework for the iron arms, but it does not stop there. Every technique in Hung Gar involves the lower body supporting the torso while the torso supports the arms. In most cases the lower body propels the torso and arms. Every technique. From snake hands to butterfly palm and three stars hammer strikes. Every of the 12 bridge hands.
To further illustrate this in detail to those of you who are interested in this aspect, we have many other articles and videos you can enjoy browsing through. In this article we will focus on the topic of Iron Arms vs Solid Stance.
How is the heavy and rooted stances of Hung Gar expressed in combat effectiveness? Aplenty. The intrinsic resistance against wrestling, resistance against leg tripping, and not being easily pushed back by strong pushing strikes is another. While other styles have to compensate with stepping back or turning away, a Hung Gar adept can focus their mind and energy on hitting back while blocking and holding ground. As mentioned in previous articles, counterattacks makes ending fights quicker and more direct, and the stable stance tactically makes counterattacks easier and more frequent.
Backpedalling too much can be bad because you lose the momentum of the fight, for the less decisive and less conditioned combatants it can be very hard for them to turn the tide. For Hung Gar even during retreating or sidestepping, the stable stance allows quick stopping and change of direction when you want to turn back to attack. With the stable stance you retain the momentum of the fight in your control, making as little movements as possible, keeping high quality in these movements.
After hitting the opponent with the first blow we also do not want other factors to get in the way of follow-up strikes. Merely the rebounding force of the first blow can throw a loosely connected body off balance, off position. The opponent struggling and pushing or tugging with you can also get in the way of follow ups.
At times when the opponent does not give us an opening to hit them, we are not shy of tearing their guard apart and hitting their soft parts. It’s just like prying open the shell of clams or oysters and taking out the flesh. Sometimes, we hammer them to other positions to hit them. These techniques are all supported by the firmly rooted stances.
The opposite of heavy and rooted is light footed and floating stance. The disadvantage of the light footed stance is that it is very hard to hold ground and even take ground. More disadvantages lie in balance being easily lost, through the opponent sweeping your legs from your bottom, or wrestling your body till it reaches very awkward positions.
More ridiculously is that when under pressure, delivering strikes or moving around you may lose your balance if you are in a floating stance. We often see that in combat sports. No problem for them when they fall with their butts on the mat, the referee will stop the opponent and allow them time to get up. This does not happen in real fights.
Kung Fu styles have different tactics when defending. Some styles defend against strikes with their iron body. That means they ignore the strikes thrown by the opponent and just send strikes at the opponent, taking blows with their body. This means two fighters of such a style will trade body blows without considering blocking until one drops. Some styles defend against strikes with soft rolling, and some defend with evasion. Hung Gar combatants defend by engaging the opponent’s striking limb with bridge hands. Bridge hands mean the technical presentation of the hand and forearm. Although iron body training is also a part of our curriculum, we only use it as our last line of defense, favoring blocks and intercepting hands.
Isometric Strength and Joint Stability
Stationary horse stance training is the first step to isometric strength development and joint stability. It is recommended that after the stationary stance training phase the student should work on the isometric strength of every limb. Build up the muscles that support every joint.
Why is isometric strength and joint stability important?
Sports injuries are as harmful to any martial artist as injuries sustained during sparring. Depending on the cause of injury, injuries can range from sprains, tendonitis to stress fractures. The key preventive measure sports doctors recommend is to build up isometric strength and joint stability. Sports injuries can happen during training as well as during combat. During training when we exert more force on certain part of the body than it can sustain, a stress injury will occur.
Force can also be indirectly exerted on our body from impacts with the opponent.
During sparring there are also risks involved such as falling and hitting harder than your limb can take. Your opponents might also use joint locking and submission moves on your joints. While in sparring friendly opponents will take caution not to hurt you, but accidents can happen and it’s best to have a strong foundation to fall back to.
Of course, in a real fight or if someone has decided to hurt you, a joint twist can very well pop your shoulder or dislocate your elbow. This is especially true for small boned people who have thin joints and bones. We fear the most for their safety and encourage them not to rush the learning and get their joints and muscles strong enough before engaging in physical contact with another person. Of course if you are a guy pumping iron and skipping leg day, you should take caution that physical contact with another person has the risk of sending your overweight arms and torso to snap your small knees or ankles.
Hung Gar’s internal function takes on the strategy of having a strong support for a strong front. Someone who’s only been bone banging his fists will be like having a strong front without good support. His punches will be hard but not heavy. If the lack of support affects the body balance and structure, he won’t be throwing another quality punch after the first. On the contrary, someone who’ve been doing core workouts and boxing with gloves will have very good support, but a weak front. His fists and wrists may not be able to take the knock and the shock of punching without padding.
It is very tempting for the coach or the student to skip steps because of the desire to feel accomplishment in performing the well known actions of the martial art style. In fact in most if not all commercial schools students are allowed to skip these essential steps which will protect them from injuries and boost their performance.
Before advancing to the iron arms training, the pre-requisite step is strength development. Always maximal strength followed by explosive strength, also known as power. A heavy and firmly rooted stance supporting an iron fist may not be enough to drive a heavy blow that will take your opponent out of action. And people with enough exposure in sparring or fighting will know that pure bone banging is not enough to effectively deliver knockouts.
For us, we do bodyweight exercises such as push ups and pull ups. Weight training exercises are also very popular for strength conditioning. Many schools of Hung Gar and Southern styles use dumbbell punching to increase functional explosive strength.
We recommend an exercise that is very beneficial for Kung Fu, the cable woodchop. The woodchop works on torso rotation. Also known as hip to shoulder displacement, torso twisting is commonly agreed by most traditional Kung Fu styles to be a key component of strength and conditioning. This exercise is very sport specific or performance specific. A brilliant way to improvise with the cable machine will be to hook the cable onto your Da Dao or Pu Dao rings. You can also use the Hung Gar iron rings for this purpose.
Plyometric exercises will make you into a powerful fighting machine once you have attained a certain level of mastery in bodyweight exercises or weight resistance exercises. You can try explosive push ups, frog jumps or tuck jumps. You can also increase training variety by cross training in one time explosive sports, such as javelin or shot put.
Arms of Steel
We come to a very popular aspect of Hung Gar, the arms of steel. Some masters of Hung Gar can be so tough they can take on kicks with their arms without much trouble. In the event a person’s limb gets blocked by the Hung Gar master, the limb will go numb followed by lingering pain. In fact many Kung Fu practitioners of other styles particularly watch out for the Hung Gar arm of steel. It is not uncommon for Hung Gar practitioners to have arms of steel, even form practitioners also do partner drills or solo drills to strengthen their forearms.
As much as it is famous, it’s not easily understood too. Many thought it to be also bone banging. The cultures of some other styles are more towards bone banging until the hand becomes permanently swollen and deformed. Hung Gar on the other hand does not advocate pure bone banging. From what was mentioned in the previous points, it takes more than a high pain threshold to develop arms of steel, it takes enduring of muscle strain before the pain threshold comes into play. That’s why people generally feel the bone banging styles are easier to pick up.
When the Hung Gar student is properly trained in the stationary stances and body joints strengthened, he or she has to learn how to apply the right technique when impacting with the arm. The technique is about putting the arm in the correct joint angles that the arm is in a very strong state of tendon support, protecting the bones and the muscles. It is definitely not like some martial artists who intentionally bare their bones to bang them on hard objects.
The correct position is often accompanied with 1) Tendon exercises 2) Breathing methods. Such tendon exercises and breathing methods are included in the 12 bridge hands. For elementary learners who find the 12 bridge hand exercises boring, they are actually doing you great benefits. Some schools may focus more on tendon exercises, some may focus more on breathing methods. Some may completely omit one of them. For us, we see the benefits of both methods and spend equal effort on doing them.
Tendon exercises develop the tendon activation of the joints and habits of safe joint positioning preventing injuries. A very common injury is the tennis elbow which is sustained either by the arm throwing out too much force that the elbow tendons cannot hold in place. It can also be caused by the arm taking a knock in an awkward angle while the elbow is in a hyperextended position. While the elbow injury is most common, the wrist and shoulder socket also come under similar risk.
Tendon exercises will instill the right habits and physical adaptations to the practitioner, reducing these risks by a huge margin. In the case of breathing methods, the practitioner is also taught the correct joint positions while directing power through the arm. Breathing methods have the additional function of reinforcing part or whole of the arm to protect against injuries, and of course landing more powerful strikes.
There are a few ways we practice conditioning the arms. The most common way is partner drills. The most basic drill is the 3 step Da Sam Sing, which means ‘hitting three stars’ in Cantonese. Any Hung Gar student who wants to meet the style’s standard should do at least a few dozen repetitions of this exercise every lesson with classmates. The force and intensity can be varied.
The Da Sam Sing drill has other variants beside the basic 3 step drill. These variants involve footwork and blocking in other angles. In my experience, Da Sam Sing is more effective than Shuang Suo Gong (Double Locks Skill: Involves the person knocking one arm against another) because you constantly get the feel of knocking against another person. You can also benefit more from training with a more conditioned person.
Hung Gar partner drills have more than just Da Sam Sing, there are symmetrical drills with five element fist techniques, tiger claw techniques, snake hand techniques and many other bridge hand drills. Many of these involve knocking with the partner’s arm, some with more force in pressure than knocking, also contributing to the strengthening the arm. These drills can have the conditioning effect just like Da Sam Sing, and they are more technique specific, at the same time making training more fun, more dynamic.
Up one level from partner drills are sparring sets. They are choreographed forms involving two or more people. Do not belittle people who practice sparring sets. If it takes a lot of aerobic fitness to perform individual forms, it takes even more to do sparring sets. People who make action movies such as Donnie Yen and Jackie Chan are some of the fittest people alive on the planet. In traditional sparring sets hands clash with each other, and while it only partially simulates real fighting, it conditions the arms in all the ways possible.
To develop high levels of arm conditioning, Hung Gar practitioners also do solo conditioning exercises. Without equipment, you can try the Double Locks method. We prefer to use equipment; examples are the wooden pile, the rolling beam and the hard dummy. It is a common misinterpretation from people who haven’t tried wooden dummies before that training with a Wing Chun dummy is a way of developing hard forearms. The Wing Chun dummy comes with mobile joints rather than fixed joints, so you will not get much conditioning from it. Wing Chun practitioners will tell you that the dummy is not for knocking and hand conditioning.
There is a category of hard dummy meant for conditioning while practicing hand to hand techniques. Many Southern hard styles use them, including Hung Gar. These dummies are really rare, only few schools in rural Guangdong and Vietnam have them and nobody does mass production of such dummies. These dummies are really hard, made of solid hardwood and reinforced fixed joints. The material is the same kind of wood as those used to make beach houses on the water, and log cabins.
Instead of hard wooden dummies, many schools outside of Singapore practice hitting wooden piles. These are actually logs that are half buried into the ground. They are very versatile in the sense you can hit them with many kinds of techniques, including ramming it with the outside of the upper arm. Because it extends from ground up to head height, many styles, even styles in Northern China uses the wooden pile to train their kicks.
One rule stand throughout all kinds of hard hitting conditioning be it with or without equipment, you must apply Dit Da Jow (medicated wine). All Hung Gar branches acknowledge that hard conditioning with any part of the body must be accompanied with the application of Dit Da Jow. Some medicated wines are meant for relieving rheumatism and joint aches in the elderly, you will need a stronger solution to recover your body tissue from the conditioning work. Some schools may prefer using a medical soup solution in the place of medicated wine.
The Old School Method and the New Method
Whether we are talking about the solid stances, or the iron arms, there is sure to be an old school method; the nature of the training in mid 20th century and before. The old school method can produce very outstanding results with high success rate; that is if the person has enough time and willpower to do it. Otherwise, newer methods with support of sport science and shorter sessions due to good planning can also produce comparable results.
Looking at top practitioners of hard styles from the old school era, their punches are so powerful they can effectively knock other fighters out with lesser strikes thrown. There are in fact two kinds of knockout, one is the more commonly seen concussion and loss of consciousness, the other is decapitating pain and damage. In fact the old school effect is what most martial artists desire; winning the fight with lesser techniques. In this era, there are lesser and lesser people who can do this, due to martial arts becoming more and more sports orientated. The purpose of sport is entertainment and safety is a key issue. Sports fighting can be deliberately designed to prolong fights, and in most cases the fighter selection also serves this purpose.
Social economics is another reason of the decline of old school martial artists. People have to work in white collar jobs for longer hours, more people are becoming sedentary, lack of social recognition for martial artists, and the list goes on. Traditional martial art practitioners still aim to work towards the old school training, for it’s their ultimate goal.
The old school method of Hung Gar stance training involves standing in the low horse stance until the incense burns out. Some go on for up to 2 hours, though 15 minutes is already considered old school. Due to the ensuing muscle soreness, people may practice it only on alternate days or even once a week. The old school order of learning progress is such that the student is not allowed to learn any other skill before the minimum stationary stance duration is met.
Old school Hung Gar training view killer blows with more importance than iron arms. Hung Gar is developed for war and used for war. Strength was more importance than hardness. Iron arms are developed so that the fighter can seal the killer blow right after the parry or the clearing of defense. The old school Hung Gar fighter does strength training on equal ratio as hardness condition. In most cases they focus more on strength training and power development.
Strength training can be in the range of 100 pushups in one go, explosive dumbbell punching and walking in handstand. The Hung Gar fighters of the previous generation also practice their techniques with repetitions in the thousands.
With the solid stance and huge explosive power propelling the conditioned arms, they deliver knockout blows with a high success rate. Some of the old masters are still in good shape in their old age, and there are many accounts of young martial artist who challenged them being greeted with heavy pounding which is ‘out of our modern world’.
Even with a fraction of the devastating old school power, one can easily overcome most modern day martial artists who are not that well conditioned. It is not impossible to achieve that with new methods, and that still has to be done with consistency. In Singapore Kung Fu, the old school training method supported with sensible training science is what we work towards. We believe it allows us to honor our predecessors and propel us to new heights of martial fitness.