Shaolin kung fu has always been known for promoting extraordinary skills and abilities through its punishing traditional exercises. These exercises are significantly different than modern athletic training, and most martial arts outside of the Shaolin tradition have nothing in their systems like the Shaolin exercises.
Stance training is an ancient tradition of Shaolin kung fu, although modern martial artists often question its effectiveness or assert that it was only used in order to test the patience and devotion of potential students. Shaolin stance training is a test of endurance and physical conditioning. It requires the student to stand for an extended period of time in a traditional kung fu stance such as "ma bu," or to get into the stance and out of repeatedly, or to change from one traditional stance to another. Most students find stance training to be extremely challenging.
The monks at the Shaolin temple in China are required to run up and down the ancient stone stairways of the temple on all fours every morning. This is only one of many traditional strength and conditioning exercises. The monks are also expected to do more familiar exercises such as situps and knuckle pushups. In addition, they spend several hours of each day practicing the ancient sets or drill sequences of Shaolin kung fu. Although these sets contain the fighting techniques of the Shaolin arts, they also contribute to the excellent physical condition of the monks.
Shaolin monks often begin training as young children, and the Shaolin training regime can be harsh on them. One of the traditional methods of strength-training is tree hugging. Each young disciple is assigned to hug a sapling and try to rip it out of the ground. Every day the sapling gets bigger and bigger until it becomes a tree, and the child becomes stronger and stronger from his attempts to uproot it.
Flexibility is extremely important in Shaolin kung fu, because many of the advanced kung fu sets cannot be performed without it. From the beginning of training, the Shaolin system builds flexibility through the use of stretching exercises, many of which would seem extreme and even dangerous by Western standards. Students are forced into deep stances that are sometimes very painful, and the instructor uses his body weight to push the student even further into the split or stretch. These exercises are often described as being tortuous by former Shaolin students, but they are the foundation of the unusual skills displayed by the Shaolin monks.