Three elements are needed to successfully, and safely, break boards in a demonstration or incapacitate an attacker in a self-defence situation – a basic understanding of the physics involved, a good striking technique that exploits that knowledge, and the confidence to execute the strike properly. A martial arts student should have a grounding in all three of these elements.
What determines whether a wooden board will break when struck? The approaching hand has a certain energy of motion when it arrives at the board. The board exerts a force back against the hand that starts to slow it down, the board bending backwards as the hand continues to move forwards. If the board can bring the hand to a stop before distorting too far, the board survives. If it can’t provide sufficient force quickly enough, and distorts past a certain limit, it will break apart and the hand continues through. The key factors are to get as much energy into the contact as possible – a combination of speed and mass – and to strike the board in the orientation that minimises the resistance force it can generate before breaking.
Achieving speed and effective mass at the striking point is all about strength, timing, and technique. A good teacher will show the student how to keep the arm loose while generating maximum speed in the hand, then strengthen the whole body’s frame at the last moment to present a larger effective mass behind the hand on impact. This timed shift from minimum mass, when accelerating the hand, to maximum mass, when striking the board, is very difficult to achieve. It needs good stance, strength, timing, and lots of coaching.
Knowledge, strength, and striking technique are hard to gain and need a commitment from both the student and teacher over time, but they’re only the tools. Breaking wooden boards, like sparring with an opponent or defending yourself in a real-life encounter, hurts. It needs courage and the will to succeed. The best teachers know how to develop this spirit in their students by giving them challenges that are achievable but push their limits each time.
Every student of the martial arts should have a working knowledge of the science behind striking and breaking. They should combine this with the strength, timing, and technique that comes from training in a good school. These two factors provide the platform that separates the martial arts student from the untrained. When the student also has the confidence and courage to deliver their strike with full power, the board breaks.
The successful break provides the clearest evidence possible of the student’s progress and the teacher’s knowledge and skill. The applause that accompanies a successful breaking demonstration is well-deserved by them both.
For a good video break down on how to actually break boards, check out this video by Alex Wong. She is very detail and does a great job at explaining the techniques. And if you like this video she also has a youtube channel. Check out sometime.