Many who have never broken a board or who have and misunderstood the practice make assumptions about the purpose behind it for those who benefit from it. Students are helped in many ways using this training and testing practice.
Breaking and board in Karate or TaeKwonDo helps the student focus aim while using full speed, set their goal for the strike behind the target, and toughen the bones in appendages. There are many more benefits and none of them have to do with power. Precision of technique is key in board breaking.
Breaking boards has nothing to do with fighting off a thug on the street. The same thing can be said about uchi komi (throw setup repetitions) in Judo, grip play in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, or heavybag work in boxing or Muay Thai. It is a practice that conditions the body and mind for developing self defense skills.
It is a tool. Many like to set up a straw man argument (wrong and flawed motivations ascribed to a viewpoint to easily knock down) so that they can seem knowledgeable about the martial arts. Let’s deal with it more honestly here.
Table of Contents
#1 Precision Focus
This is one of the prime functions of board breaking in Kung Fu, Karate, and TaeKwonDo. The exact placement of a strike is not something you are going to naturally be able to do. It is something you have to develop.
I have heard over confident and under trained guys say before, “Sure you can hit a piece of wood. Boards don’t hit back.”
I always respond with, “You are absolutely right. For older students, that is what sparring is for. Boards are a training method to get students ready for sparring.”
The point is not to develop tracking on a moving target. That is an advanced technique done much later. In the beginning and intermediate stages placement of strikes is done on stationary targets. This is the same as Thai kicking pads and heavy bags in boxing.
What board breaking is used for is the student up to intermediate level for their aim and precision in striking. Sure, higher ranking martial artists will use this training method to extreme measures for demonstrations. They are just using acrobatics or many boards to up the difficulty.
These domonstration settings are for other purposes, but that doesn’t change the usefulness of breaking boards to develop precise striking technique in lower level students.
I don’t use it myself for training now. I loved it as a kid, and so do many of my students. Adults that are not particularly athletic see it as a challenge as well and can test their focused aim using it until they are ready to move on to other methods.
The martial arts is a journey. Some start much later in life and with much less physical and mental preparedness than others. Aim may come natural to some and more difficult for others. Just because one person may be to the point of tracking moving targets to develop their timing and aim, doesn’t mean that children and some adults should.
Besides, some people love stacking on the layers of boards and challenging themselves. Training for the next armed home invasion gets old quick. Pushing the limits of some training methods can be a great motivator to get back in and develop that low kick to take down combo.
#2 Optimal Momentum
So, to those who have never broken boards before, I am going to give you the secret. You ready? Don’t aim at the board.
Yeah, I know, sounds like Mr. Myagi stuff. Man I loved that movie in the 80s.
What I mean by that is to use the momentum that your strike generates when it is at its peak momentum. This is not going to be when the technique is fully extended. This is going to be about 75% of the way through the strike.
How does someone know if they are doing this? Simple. Aim past the target you intend on hitting. In this case, aim past the board.
Some of the hardest hits I have ever taken were from the ones that went through me instead of hit me. I was left trying to get the license number of the truck that just ran over me.
In movies you will see fully extended, very pretty form. Just remember that those are choreographed dances. They are meant to look pretty. I have worked on several movie sets and helped with the choreography. They will tell you up front, what works doesn’t look good on camera. They aren’t in the business of what works, they are in the business of what looks good.
Take a look at some of the footage from Youtube and notice the more acrobatic displays. They are fully extended on one or two small boards. This is so that it looks good, shows off the acrobatics, and demonstrates precision.
Now look at the breaking competitions. They are thicker boards and these guys are testing themselves. It is not about how it looks. They usually won’t be doing fully extended motions at the point of contact on the first board. They won’t if they don’t want to get chuckles from the crowd when they only break one or two of the boards.
The extension, to get the full use of the momentum of the strike should be past the target you are trying to break. That will develop into the momentum that can stop attackers as you move on to moving target practice.
#3 Strike Speed Development
Unless you are stacking 5 or more boards up and testing your courage, mental fortitude, and determination, speed is going to be a major factor in your board breaking efforts. For children this is especially true.
Many a small child has hit their small board over and over with enough force to break it, but too slow to do more than move the holders hands back. The speed at which strikes are thrown in the martial sports or self defense must be high.
Breaking boards for the beginner to intermediate student helps develop this on a static target in order to prepare for using these strikes in a more dynamic environment. Speed here is key.
There is also a more advanced version of breaking a board that requires an abundance of speed. It is aptly named a ‘speed break’. The board is held with only two fingers. There is no resistance pushing back against the strike that the student throws.
This is what many of the high flying TaeKwonDo demonstrations display. Their acrobatic movements create enough speed to be able to break the board before it is knocked from the holders grasp.
If you were to have someone hold a board with only two fingers and you try to muscle through it, you are just going to send it flying, unbroken across the room. Speed is needed to break it when there is no resistance behind it.
This is also helps a tremendous amount when someone is bracing the board as they hold it. It combines speed, focus, and force to do quite a bit of damage.
This is how board breaking teaches in a fun way to develop the skills in lower level students that they can use later. Can it be done other ways? Absolutely, and it is developed in other ways. But smashing stuff is fun.
#4 Proper Form Mechanics With Impact
It will take good form to overcome the adrenaline rush caused by a self defense situation. When you see footage of yourself, you often are surprised that you aren’t coming across with feature length film quality, perfect technique.
You must practice to make your technique perfect when you are fresh, put yourself in situations that cause nerves to interfere with your muscle memory and thinking, and do this often. In this way, you can have more of a chance at pulling off your techniques in the adrenal state.
Proper mechanics apply in all forms of the martial arts. Judo, Kung Fu, Kendo, and Kali all are based on precise movements to be useful. We need all forms of resistance and ‘out of our comfort zones’ circumstances to help us develop.
Board breaking forces us to execute a technique with the added pressure of looking foolish or injuring ourselves on the board through halfhearted attempts. This is even more useful with crowds watching, or with a new belt level on the line. It has its faults, but it does point us in this direction.
There is also the added incentive when breaking boards to not cause yourself any undue pain. If proper form is followed, the break should be fairly unnoticeable. Yet, if it is not followed, there may not be a lasting injury most of the time, but your body will let you know it didn’t like your bad form.
Hitting with the right part of the hand, forearm, foot, or leg can be done on heavy bags or other pads, but you won’t get that immediate pain feedback you do from boards. It is not the only way to develop proper form, but it is a good way.
#5 Increased Courage When Striking
Pain is a great motivator. If you are halfway trying to put speed and strength behind a strike, whether with your leg or arm, one of two things will happen.
- It will look and feel embarrassingly weak and ineffective
- It will cause pain because the body is not in the proper position to deal with the impact
One thing that board breaking does for the student is teach them to be prepared before they attempt a strike. This doesn’t mean that they are training to pause and prepare in a sport or self defense situation. They are learning what it looks and feels like to get to and remain it that state.
There is a great need to put ourselves in the adrenal state and train to still be able to function. No matter how much training of this type we do, it will not completely free us from the debilitating effects of fear. What we can do is bring ourselves along, not to seek out dangerous situations, but simulate them as best we can in order to train our minds and bodies to react.
The only thing to fear is not fear itself. Sometimes it is a guy in a mask with a big knife. But controlling fear may mean the ability to get you and your family away or not. Some beginning steps to this control can be developed during testings and demonstrations breaking boards in front of crowds.
You should see the faces on these Little Ninjas just after they break a board. They are scared of failing and or hurting themselves. When they do it and they didn’t die… they are ecstatic, braggadocios, and relieved.
Sometimes parents tell me that the kids sleep with their boards and new belts. It takes some time before they get used to the idea that they are capable and move on to other goals.
This same feeling of accomplishment can happen for adults as well the first few times they break a board. This lends to the development of courage. They realize that sometimes the mountain is only in their mind and not actually standing in their way.
#6 Mental Toughness
This one is great for new students, whether adults or kids. Now, adults find out quickly that they are more capable than they imagined. Kids will take a bit longer at times. While in this state of self doubt, a strength of spirit is needed to get through the trials that life throws at us.
Through board breaking, kids put themselves in positions outside of their comfort zone. If given a big enough board and hard enough technique to use, adults can feel the same thing. Then they have to push through.
The benefits of this in life, not just in self defense, are obvious. Pushing to finish a higher degree, even though you have ‘senioritis’. That takes mental fortitude. Pushing to start that side or main business you have always talked about takes even more of that elusive toughness.
I am not saying board breaking prepares you to start a fortune 500 company. I am saying that for those in the beginning stages of the martial arts and especially children can use the toughness that breaking a piece of wood with your bare hands or feet brings.
This can give them the push needed for them to develop a life of strong will and determination. That is a rare commodity in today’s world. It sometimes takes these ancient, bare footed, strange practices to bring it out in us. Yeah, and there is screaming involved. Just weired.
I have heard kids say, “I can do it like I broke that board last time.” A little spark is all that is needed to start a flame. For some this simple teachable moment can do just that.
#7 Increased Bone Density
Though some consider bone density increase claims of martial arts impact conditioning to be controversial, the science behind it if addressed leaves little doubt that this is the case. Through board breaking and other deliberate impact conditioning methods, bone density measurably increases.
In a study published in the journal Biology of Sport, researchers found that martial arts training during growth stages in high school aged girls in Korea significantly improved bone health in all weight categories studied. The bones when put under stress would correct for the load and increase in strength capacity.
In another study done by researchers at the Faculty of Sports Studies, Masaryk University, Brno, Czech Republic, martial arts bone strengthening techniques showed a measurable increase in the density of bone mineral in hands. These techniques are traditionally done for the sole purpose of strengthening the bones of the hands and arms.
The general consensus is that tiny fractures are caused in our bones during any sort of directed impact. These fractures heal back with more material and stronger than before. This is the effect that both of these studies were measuring.
This same thing can be attained in small measure from board breaking, and much larger amounts through specific training methods designed to aid board breaking and self defense techniques.
In the sport of Muay Thai Kickboxing, competitors regularly subject their shins to torturous practices to achieve this same effect with larger and more rapid results. Without this training, many of the leg kicks and leg checking techniques would not be possible to perform.
Though board breaking will do this sort of thing, it will definitely do it in smaller and less immediately apparent ways. These Thai professional fighters must do this for the grueling beating their shins take in a training session, much less a competition.
This advanced level is not needed for the average Karate, Kung Fu, or TaeKwonDo practitioner. Board breaking can begin the process. How far the student wants to take it in the future is up to them.
#8 Goal Setting and Fulfillment
Goal setting is a huge part of anyone’s life, from childhood to old age. It takes on many forms. It deals us devastating blows as well as elated states of success. To set a goal and reach it is a unique feeling.
Board breaking, especially the first time for adults and many times for kids is just that. It is a goal, an obstacle to overcome. Once it is conquered, the student walks away with a bit more confidence in their ability to reach and master the next.
Board breaking is harder for some than others. For those that find it less challenging it will give some benefit in the area of reaching goals, but for those who struggle a bit with it, it can be an invaluable resource. A good instructor will use it as one of his tools to help students develop the habit of goal setting.
For children, breaking the board can end up being the highlight of any demonstration opportunity, tournament experience, or testing day victory. Yes, they love getting a trophy, applause, and new belts, but along the way if they get to smash a board or two, that is the icing on the cake.
I can’t tell you the times I have had to remind a growling little boy that walks up, “Don’t scream ‘Hulk Smash’. Scream A-sah!”
Reaching goals is great training and a tremendous benefit that we can give our kids through the martial arts. Board breaking isn’t the only or even the best way to do this. Again, it is simply a good tool to use. And children love it.
The next time you have the opportunity to see some kids breaking boards, especially the little ones. Make sure to keep an eye on their faces just after they destroy that evil board. Those expressions are the best part.
#9 Conquering Performance Anxiety
Public speaking is one of the top problem areas for many people. There are books written about it, seminars that cover it, and college classes designed to improve it. For some, it is simply the crowd that is the problem.
Failure is not something that is addressed well in our society. The main way we learn is to fail, reassess and start again. In our schools, our kids are penalized for every failure. In our media and entertainment, failure is ridiculed and the images of it spread faster than rumors.
When breaking boards, you are inherently setting up a situation where failure is a real possibility. By setting up holders, taking a stance, and screaming you are proclaiming that you will succeed. If you don’t, it is obvious for all to see.
This creates a sense of stress. For some it is more acute than others.
Demonstrations with board breaking in front of crowds of people definitely heightens the tension. It puts students in the adrenal state and then has them perform with uncertainty of a positive outcome.
This happens with testings that include board breaking as well. This hurdle standing in the way of achieving the next belt rank and the crowds usually there to watch bring similar results.
Breaking boards in your back yard with your friends is a low risk, low reward scenario. If you fail, it becomes a joke and there is really not much risk. It could be a fun thing, but it is not what the drill is designed for.
The point of breaking boards in front of others that you may not know is to bring the student to that adrenal state and have them perform. Martial sports do this as well, but many see the tool that the sport is as the end goal. That becomes a problem.
Breaking boards is one of the tools in the toolbox of an instructor to help students overcome nerves and control their minds. There are others, but smashing those boards does its job.
#10 It’s Just Fun To Break Stuff
One thing that all humans share is the love for the exciting and unexpected. This creates intrigue and anticipation. We consider this fun.
Another thing that many people share is the cathartic experience brought on by smashing and breaking things. How many of us long for the days when we could slam down the receiver to a phone. Today with our $1000 cell phones, this is not an option.
The feeling of breaking boards is similar in some ways to slamming down the old phone receivers. Kids love the idea. They are told incessantly to ‘be easy’ and ‘don’t break that’. But that is exactly what they want to do.
If you have ever heard of the broken window theory you will notice the same thing. People get a sense of elation sometimes at breaking stuff.
The theory goes like this. If there is an abandoned or at least empty building and none of the windows are broken, people passing by it do not think that it is okay to break the windows.
Yet, if one is obviously broken, it won’t be long before people have smashed nearly all of them. They believe it is acceptable in some way and their desire to smash comes out.
It is fun to break boards. How much more will a student want to engage in a drill if that drill is enjoyable? This is the theory behind several teaching methods used in many elementary schools for children. They learn better sometimes through play.
Learning to claim many of the benefits above will many times come faster and be more helpful if the method used to attain them is enjoyable.
The Board Breaking Takeaway…
There are those that criticize the use of board breaking in the martial arts. They tend to want to decry the practicality of it. They claim that a non moving target being struck with ample time to prepare is not realistic.
Agreed. That is if realistic self defense scenario training and tracking movement is what you are doing it for. But who in the world is breaking boards with that in mind?
These people are missing the point all together. If we are to follow that line of reasoning here are some of other popular MMA, Muay Thai, Karate, Kung Fu, Judo, etc. drills that would need to be abandoned.
For realism’s sake there could be no heavy bag training, the bag doesn’t hit back or move, and it is padded. We couldn’t kick training pads or focus mits for the exact same reason. We wouldn’t practice falls without being thrown by an opponent because it doesn’t actually simulate anything in self defense or sport that ever happens.
Board breaking is an exercise meant to bring along those that do it in various ways. It prepares them for other parts of the martial arts. Not all people start at the same place or level. For this reason, there are literally thousands of things instructors can use to help people move forward.
Board breaking is a fun and effective way to do just that.