Board breaking is a long-standing staple of martial arts demonstration. It’s a flashy and dramatic manifestation of focus and precision which gets audience adrenaline pumping. Breaking a single board is not necessarily the most difficult thing, five year olds are fully capable of it, but it is by no means a guaranteed result either. If the focus and precision are not on point the board will not break with results which are both audible and painful.
The key to actually breaking a board is to make sure you are striking it properly, with the correct part of your body in terms of angle and surface, and with the force not only directed at the center of the board but most importantly through it. That is the most crucial part, and the core reason behind the use of board breaking as a training tool. You have to focus past the board, your target needs to be beyond the obstacle.
If you focus on the obstacle that is where your energy will stop and you will impact the obstacle but likely not move or overcome it.
As an example if you are going to punch through a board you need to be facing it properly, to strike it with a firm but not overly clenched fist impacting with the first two knuckles only, and to aim at least an inch or two the other side of the board. If your aim is true, your hand properly aligned, and your focus beyond the target the board will break. If not, your knuckles will bounce off the wood making a wooden ringing sound and sending all that energy back into your hand and arm. To say nothing of the bruising or scraping of the skin which might also occur.
Skilled demonstrators will often break multiple boards in a single onslaught. Either several boards stacked together or multiple boards arranged in a mini obstacle course which they fly through striking as quickly and with as many different limbs as they can. Some practitioners can leap ridiculous heights and strike with incredible accuracy, you see them in videos with board holders sitting atop each other’s shoulders or holding light-pole looking board holding poles aloft.
There are also those who break through somewhat horrifyingly solid targets, such as kicking through the handles of three or four baseball bats clamped together in a floor vice, but that is a whole other crazy breed of animal.
The key point, there is a specific skill and focus one needs to successfully board break. If any one of the items on the checklist is not completely on point things can end up going pear shaped and painful.
It is also important to note there are requirements for the wood as well. Boards for breaking are no more than an inch thick, cut along the grain of the wood, nice and dry, and cut of light wood such as Pine or Paulownia. Since the goal is targeted focus not brute strength denser woods are not ideal and if the wood is too thick, cut against the grain, or damp the results are not likely to be….favorable.
A prime example of this occurred during a Grand Opening demonstration for one of my Sensei’s new dojos.
As usual when opening a new location we did our best to drum up a bit of publicity. We reached out the local papers, radio stations, and TV affiliates. As this was our fourth dojo in the area we managed to generate a fair bit of buzz and had several different press outlets in attendance as well even a few members of local government. Knowing it was going to be a bigger shindig we reached out to all the martial artists who had trained with us to help bulk up the demonstration.
As board breaking was always a crowd-pleaser one of the senior instructors decided to make sure we had nice fresh high quality boards for the demo. Acting with the best of intentions he measured out and planed almost a dozen breaking boards from a freshly felled pine tree. Freshly felled. Freshly. And in all the excitement forgot to bring them in to dry next to his fireplace.
One of our young buck instructors was first up to start the breaking, an athletic and somewhat ‘alpha’ martial artist in his mid-twenties. The board holders, still dripping with sweat from the sparring demonstration, set him up for an easy single board straight punch to warm up before moving on to more challenging breaks. He rooted his stance, took a couple slow targeting reaches, drew a deep breath, let out a strong “Kiai!”, and struck.
The board did not break. Nor did it make the typical slightly hollow wooden ringing noise, vibrating as it bounced the energy of his strike back at him. This board made a much more horrific, muted, soggy sounding ‘thud!’.
There were about a dozen of us all in full uniform standing at attention in line with our arms folded behind our backs looking stern and samurai-like for the audience and cameras. You could see our eyes twitch, our jaws clench, our throats constrict, even a few of us look a bit green. That was a bad sound and we all knew it. We also knew he wasn’t the type to give up.
He took another deep breath, squared his shoulders, made another couple targeting reaches, then fired again. “Kiai!!”……’thud’.
Our communal twitching became more noticeable, several of us even grunted in sympathetic pain, all while trying to maintain our stoic image for the sake of appearances.
He took three more tries at it before Sensei Hans finally stepped in to stop him. About a third of us had completely given up trying to hide our cringing and as our thwarted friend grimaced down at his own fist we could see the blood where he had split the skin on a couple of his knuckles.
Sensei trying to lighten the mood held the board in one hand and took a stab at it with his other hand creating another sodden ‘thud’. Shaking the sting out of his hand he gave the board a more scrutinizing look running his hand over the surface of it then rubbing his fingers together.
“Sempai Ron, these are still damp! Ya tryin’ to kill somebody?” he groaned shooting an exasperated glare over at our intrepid board provider.
Poor Ron shrugged apologetically as Sensei tossed the board aside, cleared his throat, and announced we were going to skip board breaking section.
It wasn’t until after the demonstration was finished, everyone had left, and we were all sharing shudders and laughs over the abandoned pile of boards that we realized he had also cut them against the grain.