Breaking – Spirit Made Steel Martial Arts

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The Basics of Board Breaking

Last week I  talked about why some schools break a lot of boards, why some schools don’t break boards at all, and why we’re somewhere in between. This week I’d like to talk a bit about breaking itself. There are a lot of myths out there about breaking. Many of them are perpetuated by martial artists – sometimes nefariously, but most of the time out of ignorance.

While you can theoretically pick up anything you’d like for a breaking demonstration (it doesn’t even have to be wood!) most schools use small variations on the same basic concept. Schools that do serious breaking mostly use some variation of a 12 inch by 12 inch white pine board, around one inch thick. That’s an approximation because most martial artists will just go to the hardware store and by standard lumber (it’s what I do). Standard lumber doesn’t come in perfect one inch increments because it shrinks after it’s cut.

What I usually do is buy a long 12×1 board, in whatever length is most economical on the day I’m at the store. Then I’ll get them to cut it into 12 inch sections. However, a 12×1 board is usually actually 11.75 inches by 0.75 inches, or very close to that. Also, having it cut into 12 inch lengths usually means that the last one is closer to 11 inches.

I buy white pine. As I mentioned last week, some schools use even softer wood such as balsa (thankfully this isn’t very common these days, as it’s too easy to have it embarrassingly pointed out during a demo). Don’t buy hardwood like oak, cherry or ash. It’ll break your hands. Just as importantly, do not buy pressure treated lumber (more on that in a minute).

A standard 12 by 12 white pine board takes about 1100 newtons (roughly 250lbs) of force to break. Because wood is a natural material, that varies a bit from board to board. A rule of thumb generally taught to martial artists is that breaking one board is equivalent to break one rib. This is, sadly, one of those incorrect myths taught to most martial artists by their instructors and never questioned. Safety studies done by the Society of Automotive Engineers show that it takes about 400lbs of force to break a rib. That varies a bit depending upon which rib (the smaller ones at the bottom of the rib cage break easier than the thicker ones at the top of the rib cage). 250lbs might crack one, but it’s unlikely to break one.

250lbs isn’t that bad. The average adult male in the US ways just shy of 200lbs. It doesn’t take super great technique to come up with another 50lbs of force – but it does take good technique to properly protect your hands, feet, or whatever else you might be hitting with. That’s why I don’t have brand new students doing board breaks, whatever marketing advantages might come from it. I don’t allow students to do breaks until I’m comfortable that their form is sufficient to prevent injuries.

For simple breaks the board is placed or held between two supports. The first break I have most students do is with a downward hammer blow, so the board is usually placed on two cinder blocks. The blocks are situated in such a way as to hold the board steady but with the maximum distance between the two blocks. For breaks that use techniques such as a punch or a kick the board is usually held by one or two people, but in a similar manner. The arms are posted strong on either side of the board, with the minimal amount of hand coverage necessary for grip. Either way, this represents the “width” of the board.

The wider the board is the easier it is to break. If you’ve ever snapped a stick over your knee in the woods then you’ve likely discovered this for yourself. Going wider than 12″ results in boards that are ridiculously easy to break. Going less than 12″ wide can result in boards that are very difficult to break.

The last dimension is the height of the board. For adults, I use standard 12″ height boards. For children we go smaller – 10″ or 8″. Some schools go as low as 6″ or even 4″ boards. My personal opinion is that if the child is young enough to need a board that small he probably shouldn’t be breaking anyway because his bones are still in development. Even with the older children, I do less breaking than I do with adults – and I don’t do all that much with adults.

One final trick that some schools play is to bake their boards or bricks before they break them. Yes, bake in the oven like a cake. Baking the wood or brick removes moisture which makes it much easier to break. This trick is done with bricks far more often than with wood. From a distance you can’t tell that the brick has been baked – unless you see a giant puff of powder when it’s broken.

On the flip side, never break a board or a brick that is wet! That reinforces the material and will very likely break your hand or foot – especially if it’s a brick! Get breaking materials that have been kept dry and be sure to keep them dry before your breaking session! For the same reason, avoid pressure treated lumber and get only the untreated variety. The chemicals they treat it with will retain a lot of fluids (not water but chemicals) in the wood and make it much harder to break. I once witnessed a belt test where the student had been assigned to purchase his own boards and he absolutely could not break the board. The instructor later pointed out that it was pressure treated, and that was why.

Above all, if you’re going to do any breaking have somebody around who knows what they’re doing – and even then, be careful. It can be fun. It can bee a good way to prove to yourself, and others, that you’re capable of generating a lot of power in your blows. But if you’re not careful it can be a short road to a serious injury.

Breaking Boards

Some karate dojos break an awful lot of boards (and bricks and other things). Others don’t do any at all. At Madison Martial Arts Academy we fall somewhere in between. We do break boards… and sometimes other things. But we don’t do it very often.

Before I explain why we do it the way we do it, let me first describe what some other schools do. Realize that I am not describing or criticizing any one particular school. However, everything I’m about to describe is something that I have seen happen at other schools.

Some schools do a lot of breaking. A lot. Every time they do a demo, nearly every student is breaking something. Test time comes, and if you don’t break your board you don’t pass your test. Often they even have brand new students breaking boards.

There are often two extremes working here. Both are cheating the student and both – in their own way – are actually dangerous. On one extreme, you have a class full of students breaking “wood” that is little more than paper. Either it’s extremely soft wood such as balsa or, more commonly, it’s just cut extremely thin – sometimes as little as a quarter inch thick. Or, alternatively, instead of cutting it extremely thin, it’s cut very narrow – 6 inches wide or less – and very long – 16 inches or more (in another post I’ll describe how board sizing and choices effect breaking).


Some schools even take this so far as to turn it into a marketing gimmick – and I use the term deliberately, because it’s a gimmick. It works like this: the instructor shows up in front of a group of the uninitiated, sometimes with a few of his students in tow. He gives a great speech about the transformative power of the martial arts, and about how great an instructor he is. Then he invites some or all of the audience to come up on stage. Lo and behold, you too can break a board! Should you find yourself watching one of these shows, keep an eye on the boards. Though I haven’t witnessed one in person, I’ve seen video of such a demo where the balsa wood boards literally flutter away in the wind after a break. More commonly, though, they’re just cut thin.

At the other extreme you have instructors who are pushing students – and sometimes the audience (see above) to do breaks that they really shouldn’t be doing. With correct training and form, breaking a single board of “standard” breaking size poses little danger. But the honest truth is that incorrect form can break your hand instead. Done correctly, it takes about 275lbs of force to break a standard breaking board. It only takes about 315lbs of force to break a finger (and the bones inside your hand are basically the same as finger bones). That’s only about a 10% margin of error. Get your technique wrong or your aim off and you can do a lot of damage to your hands.

The first extreme is just as dangerous, although less obviously so and less immediately. Students leave with an excess of confidence feeling that they have more abilities than they actually do. When confronted with a real self defense situation, they find that they’re far less effective than they believed themselves to be.

On the other end of the spectrum there are dojos that never break anything at all. Although less dangerous, I also believe that these schools are missing out on something. Done correctly, breaking does give you a sense of what it feels like to hit something sturdy, how much force you actually need to get through it, and what it feels like to feel something strong break under your power. Shadow boxing, hitting hand targets or punching bags, or even light contact sparring really can’t provide that.

Even so, breaking boards is of limited value to real self defense. Not no value – just don’t expect too much out of it. As the popular snark goes, boards don’t hit back. The conventional martial arts wisdom is that breaking one standard board is about the same as breaking one rib (which is really not quite true – a rib is closer to 1.5 boards) – but breaking a board really doesn’t have the same feel as breaking a bone and isn’t quite the same thing. However, since we can’t just go around cracking people’s ribs at random for training purposes, it does provide some value to feel it.

Also, there are a surprising number of martial arts instructors out there (including some otherwise very good ones) who really don’t know what they’re doing when it comes to breaking. At all. I know several personal stories of students who have injured themselves trying to perform breaks that their instructors should never have allowed them to attempt.

Your bones have a certain hardness to them. The object your breaking has a certain hardness to it. If the object you’re “breaking” is harder than the bones you’re striking it with, the bones will give before the target does. It’s as simple as that. Small children in particular should not be performing heavy breaks on hard targets, as their bones are still forming and the impact can literally stunt their growth. Light targets that are sized for children can be fine, though.

In our school, we do only light amounts of breaking. We require our adult students to begin breaking at the blue belt level (roughly 1 year into their training). At this point their form is typically good enough to minimize the chances of injury. Even so, we only break occasionally (small amounts every few months) as a small part of a comprehensive training program. There’s not really a whole lot of point in breaking more often than that.

With children, we wait a little bit longer before breaking – generally one more belt level (about 4-5 more months). We use boards that are sized for children and require a bit less force to break – but not too much less force. We still want them to have to work for it, but we recognize that children’s bodies are simply not the same as adult bodies.

With the preschool aged children we don’t do breaks at all. Some of them have the strength to break through some decent sized boards, but their bones aren’t developed enough for it to be a good idea. We could, of course, cut boards that would be safe for them to break. But there wouldn’t be a lot of point to it. Instead, we focus on teaching them solid technique so that they’ll be ready to perform the breaks – and everything else we do – safely when they’re older.