(NOTE: This post is about one of the 72 special skills of martial artists. The iron head exercise is one of the 36 hard qigong [硬氣功] external strengthening exercises [外壮功])
Among martial artists it is well known that to control your opponent, you should take control of his head, either literally or psychologically, or both.
On the flipside, that means it is extremely important to train oneself in order to withstand attacks to one’s own head. To better resist physical attacks to the head, one can practice the “iron head” exercise.
Striking the head can result in concussion, meaning that the brain is shaken due to rotational forces and collides with the skull. Cerebrospinal fluid acts like a buffer, and the brain’s arterioles regulate their own diameter to control cerebral blood flow: with a severe enough impact, these protective mechanisms pre- and post impact, may NOT be sufficiently protective and the brain can suffer mild to severe trauma, with in extreme cases leading to fatalities.
Apart from (1) hardening the skull and (2) strengthening neck muscles , iron head practice may perhaps help in the capacity to adjust (3) cerebrospinal fluid and (4) cerebral blood flow. The former two mechanisms are definitely involved in iron head practice, while the latter two are speculative.
Regardless of it’s mechanisms, in the following video, we see very clearly how iron head training helps withstand blows to the head:
A side effect of iron head training is that the head of course can also be more efficiently used as a weapon. Headbutts are common in many martial arts, from the artful capoeira (in which it is called “cabeçada”) to street fighting in the UK (where it is called “the glasgow kiss”). The head butt has even been used in European football by the temperamental French Zidane against Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup. However, Chinese iron head training brings the attacking power of the head butt to a whole different level, where the head can break long iron slabs as seen in the picture above, as well as thicker stone slabs the size of a grave stone!
Iron head training consists of two important components, namely:
- (1) strengthening the skull’s bone structure to build its resistance against impact, relying on Wolff’s law. (Wolff’s law states that bone structure and strength will adapt to the loads under which it is frequently placed.)
- (2) strengthening the neck muscles and build up spinal bone density (to prevent whiplash due to forceful impact or sudden motion)
Carrying loads on the head is quite common across cultures, as with the right training it allows to carry loads up to 20% of one’s own body weight without extra energy expenditure. However, it still requires training, and that is why the practice is also adopted by iron head practitioners such as master Zhou.
While in yoga the head stand posture is called sirsasana (“head posture”), the Chinese label it 头锥山 (head drilling the mountain). This fancy name brings us to our next iron head skill: drilling the head. Literally!
No, this is NOT the Chinese version of ritual suicide. In recent years, iron head practitioners have performed these extreme demonstrations of their skill applying an electric drill, drilling for up to 10 seconds against the temple with at most skin wounds. The temple is a very weak spot of the head that can normally be struck to induce a knock out, and of which few people know it can be trained to withstand impact, let alone withstand a drill. (On the right 赵锐 from Mianzhu city in Sichuan)