How to train like a Shaolin Monk
I was at the back of a group of demure, shaven-headed Chinese students in silk kung fu outfits as we walked single-file onto the veranda. You’d be forgiven for thinking we were North of the Great Wall, but this was a back garden in Catford – a bizarre setting for the rigours of Shaolin training.
The goal was to go beyond the four decades of chop-socky cinema and gain some insight into the monks’ training methods. Their lifestyle is one of harsh extremes, and I wanted to try and glean principles that the even the most staunchly traditional gym-goer could incorporate into their regime.
I was expecting shrines and incense, but walking through their Catford lodgings the first monk I saw was in t-shirt and jeans, playing on his iPhone. I was introduced to my teacher, or sifu, for the afternoon, a monk of about 25 named Sheuyi (pronounced ‘shwey’). And then I was at the back of the line, thrown into the deep (squat) end.
What followed was the most intense leg-day workout of my life. The warm-up consisted of relay races using only broad-jumps and an awkward, crouching crab-run that set my calves alight. Then came the press-ups. “Finally,” I thought, “something I can do.” Incorrect. These were to be performed with just two fingers and a thumb, the trick being not just to work your chest but also to harden your digits for potential two-finger-handstands down the line. Wishful thinking for a two-hour morning session; after ten reps I had to shift on to my palms. My fingers felt like they were going to snap under the strain.
(Related: How to burn belly fat with martial arts training)
Next came the kung fu stances, a deep squat position held for minutes at a time. After the first thirty seconds Sheuyi raised my body an inch, throwing the load onto my quads and glutes. My backside was nine inches from the floor, my thighs quaking. A few minutes was enough to trump any weighted squat I’ve ever attempted.
After my two hours were over, I sat down to watch a short demonstration from the younger students. The smallest boy folded his arms and dived onto his forehead. Before you could say “concussion” he’d performed a handspring (headspring?) over onto his feet, then back onto his forehead, and back onto his feet. Somehow, this apparently scrawny kid was generating incredible speed and power. Every male gymnast I’d seen capable of anything remotely similar was packed with muscle.
“How old is he?” I asked Sheuyi’s translator.
It’s all in the mind
What makes the monks an absolute thrill to watch is their apparent total disregard for their own safety. But, it turns out, with the right training, slinging your forehead on the floor really isn’t that dangerous.
“At the very beginning you put your head on the ground like this,” – Sheuyi mimed a headstand, using his hands as supports – “for ten minutes, and then half an hour, then an hour, and so on, so you build up the strength for that physical situation." Sheuyi dismissed weight training entirely, asking why I would need to push weights if I couldn’t lift my body with my hands. A good point, and there’s scientific back up to the sentiment. A study in theJournal of Strength and Conditioning Researchcompared traditional resistance training (weights) to plyometric training and calisthenics, with both sets showing identical gains in exercises such as back-squats and deads. The monks don’t need weights and cable machines. As Sheuyi scoffs, “our whole body is the machine.”
(Related: How to get better muscle definition without using weights)
But how do they fuel such intense workouts without building unnecessary bulk? The Shaolin diet consists ofmantau, a Chinese steamed wheat bread, copious vegetables and the occasional bit of fish. A nutritional regimen at odds with Western science, which requires bucket loads of protein for developing muscle. The wheatgerm that makes upmantauis rich in octacosanol, an alcohol that improves flow of oxygen to your muscles, and vitamin E that guards against muscle soreness. It’s food that builds an athlete who can train all day and minimise muscle exhaustion. Octacosonal is available as a supplement, but you’ll want to stock up on Weetabix to keep you live and kicking.
The monks train seven days a week from half-past five AM until six PM, stopping for lunch. Outside of Team GB, few of us will ever see that kind of rigorous training schedule, but there’s plenty of benefits to burning fat before breakfast. When I asked about rest days and recovery, Sheuyi shrugged and said they get a thirty-minute nap after lunch to store energy for the afternoon. Again, the learned journals back up the ancient wisdom.The Journal of Sleep Researchhas compiled a series of studies on napping in adults, with thirty minutes of mid-shift snoring improving reaction times, alertness and accuracy in test scores. Snoozing tiger, hidden benefits.
I left the Catford house feeling thoroughly emasculated by some very small children, but grateful to Sheuyi. There’s definitely a place for the Shaolin mindset - functional bodyweight training and sheer dedication - in every man’s exercise schedule. Just make sure your mind doesn’t make contact with the floor.
Video: Shaolin Monk No Excuse - Home Workout
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