The iron head exercise (铁头功)

(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.

iron slab

One of the traditional demonstrations of iron head involves breaking an iron slab on the head. When one achieves this level of skill with proper training, it is said the head is as hard as iron, hence the name “iron head”.

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.


The head is a vulnerable target because moving the head necessitates the person who’s head is moved to move his spine along. Thus moving someone’s head is an easy way to unbalance a person. On top of that of course there is the danger of damage that any impact, like a fist strike, an elbow, a knee butt, a kick, or falling on one’s head can have on the brain.

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.)


iron head

Although not always present in all practitioners of iron head, here we can see calluses on top of the head of 73 year old master Zhou (in october 2014 in his native city Chongqing) on those areas of his head he has trained most.


  • (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.

john evans

In the UK, one man has taken balancing things on the head to the extreme, and has such strong neck muscles and a skull that he can balance a Volkswagen Mini on his head. His name is John Evans.

dingtou 定头

Headstand training has been traditionally part of iron head training with as aim to strengthen the neck muscles, and increase spinal bone density, as well as improve blood flow to the head. This is done before and after other exercises aimed at hardening the skull.

iron head2

On the LEFT: NOT a scene from Shaolin soccer. RIGHT: At 73 years of age, master Zhou can still practice this exercise on hard stone, without any cushioning and without the support of hands. TOP MIDDLE: while the iron head headstand exercise is normally done on soft padding, grass, or at least with some sort of cushioning to spread the pressure of the body weight across a larger surface of the skull, at least one man does the opposite.  On this picture of 2012, we see the 57 year old master 徐天成 able to carry the entire weight of his body on a surface of his head the size of a flattened nail for 40 seconds.

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!

iron head1

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)



rina takeda

For the record: it are not just men who can be hard-headed. Featured here is the Japanese Rina Takeda at age 22 in 2014.







4 thoughts on “The iron head exercise (铁头功)

  1. Pingback: 72 mysterious chi kung skills of the martial arts masters | braineggs

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  3. Pingback: The iron crotch exercise (铁裆功) | braineggs

  4. Pingback: 10 Fascinating Practices of the Shaolin – My Rejected Articles

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