Before I starting training, the first image that came to mind when someone mentioned the word “Karate” was that of a black belt demonstrating their striking prowess by karate chopping through a stack of wooden boards. This image was perhaps reinforced by the iconic film, ‘Enter the Dragon’.
However, when I actually started training, I realised the reality was very different to this. After spending several years practicing Shotokan (or traditional) Karate, not a single board had been broken.
Typically a training session in the dojo would involve performing kata (set sequences of movement) and kumite (sparring), although this was always non-contact.
This form of training is perhaps good for the average office worker who practices Karate. Full contact Karate could result in injury, not to mention black eyes, and bloody noses: not a good look for individuals who have to go to work the next day.
I always thought the non-contact form of training lacked something and that there had to be a middle ground between the non-contact practice I had experienced and the violent, full body contact at the other end of the extreme.
I believe this middle ground is the development and application of karate breaking techniques. I’ve spent many hours looking into this topic and whilst by no means an expert, I wanted to share what I’ve learned.
Why learn karate board breaking techniques
As I trained, I noticed my Karate striking techniques improved. By that I mean they looked more like the text book movements that my Sensei was demonstrating. They became quick, sharp and crisp. To the casual observer, it looked like I was becoming proficient in my chosen art.
However, something troubled me: were they effective? Sure they looked good but would they work if I ever had to use them. I had no way of knowing. I had never actually hit anything with any force.
Unfortunately, that’s the reality for most Karate practitioners (or karateka). They have no idea whether the techniques they are learning are effective.
If you’re serious about your Karate training, you must practice striking solid objects. It’s only in this way that you will see if you are generating the necessary power in your techniques, as well as see if you’re accurately striking at the point you’re aiming for.
You will also soon find out whether your body is properly aligned when you strike: hitting a board with your wrist slightly misaligned will result in discomfort. It’s for this reason that you should always build up gently when practicing this form of training. Any form of pain is an instant feedback signal that your technique is incorrect.
Breaking techniques also conditions the parts of the body involved in striking. Hands and fists become less sensitive to any pain that results from hitting a solid object, bones become stronger and calluses form which to help act as shock absorbers.
The practice of breaking also shows whether you’re exercising correct kime – the moment where you tense your entire muscular system the instant before impact. This is vital not only to generate the required force to break the object but it acts to help keep the joints fixed in position at the moment of impact, thereby reducing the likelihood of injury.
The three principles of breaking
Correct breaking involves three inter-related components: speed, power and penetration
When breaking a single board, sufficient speed is required so that the area struck accelerates quicker than the sides of the board. This causes the fibers on the back of the board to split which leads the entire board to snap. If the board is struck too slowly, the entire board will move as one collective whole and it will not break.
When a karateka breaks a stack of concrete slabs, they are relying on power. The more weight they can apply downwards, the more blocks that can be broken.
Practitioners often jump upwards prior to the strike, ending in a crouching position as they attempt to generate as much power as possible.
Breaking multiple horizontal boards separated by spacers, involves maintaining both speed and power until the force penetrates to the last board. This is perhaps one of the most challenging breaks to master.
Striking areas used in breaking
Karate uses mutiple areas of the body as striking weapons.
These are some of the most commonly used:
- Palm heel
- Back fist
- Ridge hand
- Knife hand
- Elbow (not the bone)
- Ball of foot
How to start breaking
Conditioning the striking area
The area that is to be used for striking needs to be conditioned so that it can withstand the physical demands of breaking solid objects.
One of the most effective tools to help enable this is the makiwara (I’ve described this tool here). Many hundreds of strikes will be required in order for the chosen striking area to become conditioned but in time calluses will form and the bones and ligaments will become accustomed to hitting something solid.
It’s worth selecting one region of the body to focus on at a time and this is normally the fist or knife strike. As you gain experience, you’ll want to progress so that all the striking regions used in karate are fully conditioned.
It’s also worth pointing out that at first you’ll want to progress slowly, gradually building up the force used on the makawi. To do otherwise runs the risk of injury.
Development of speed
As I’ve previously outlined, speed is one of the key components of successful breaking. The striking fist or foot needs to move at sufficient velocity in order to break the target object.
A useful tool to help achieve this is the humble candle. As an example, let’s apply this tool to the reverse punch (gyaku-tsuki)
Position a candle so that it is the height of your fist had you just thrown this punch; you’ll need some sort of platform to rest it on.
Now light the candle and position your body so that the flame is two inches from your fist at its final position when you perform this technique.
You’re now ready to commence your speed training.
Retract your fist so that it’s in the correct starting position and throw the punch, aiming at the flame.
If you move your fist quickly enough, it will push the air in front of it with sufficient force to extinguish the flame.
It’s important to remember to relax your body when executing the technique. If there is tension in the muscular system it will only slow the movement down. There should only be tension at the moment just before the target point is “struck”. At this point, the entire body should tense (this is known as “kime”).
At first, this will seem extremely difficult to do but in time you will be able to extinguish the flame every time you perform the technique. Once you’ve achieved this level, you can place a second lit candle directly behind the first and attempt to put out both flames with the same technique. A third candle can then be added once sufficient proficiency has been gained.
It’s important to develop both sides of the body when practicing this technique. This means that you shouldn’t just work on your dominant side. It will take significantly longer to develop the same speed on your weaker side: it won’t be as co-ordinated and the muscles initially won’t be able to deliver the required speed. However, with practice, both sides of the body can be equally as effective.
Once the selected striking area has been suitably conditioned and the technique can be deployed with sufficient speed, you can then progress to using actual breaking techniques.
The first type of breaking to master is the single board break.
Selecting wood to break
Only certain types of wood are suitable for karate breaking techniques.
Soft woods should be used where the grain is as wide as possible. Clear pine shelving wood is particularly suitable.
Each board should be ¾ inch thick and be cut to 10 inches wide by 12 inches long.
When cutting the wood, the grain should be at right angles to the cut of the wood. This allows the board to bend more readily which makes the breaking technique easier.
A 6 ft length can therefore be cut into seven 10 inch board with only a 2 inch waste.
The wood should only be cut, at most, one or two days before the you want to use them for breaking. Any longer, and you run the risk of them drying out and cracking.
You should also try to use use boards without knots, which can prevent the wood from splitting.
Now that you have selected the wood, you’re now ready to attempt your first board break.
The Knife Hand Board Break
This is the iconic karate chop that I described at the beginning.
You’ll need to find two blocks on which to rest the wooden board. These are typically made of concrete and should be stable when put upright. They should be suitably long so that the board comes to about knee height when place on top of the blocks.
The board should be placed between these two blocks so that there is less than an inch overlap on each side of the board.
A folded towel should be placed over the central area of the board to help prevent any damage to the hand.
Assume a wide stance in front of the board and the striking hand is raised above the head. You’re now ready to break your first board.
Whilst it’s not my intention to teach an individual how to perform a knife hand strike (only an experienced karateka should attempt breaking techniques), I think it’s worth emphasising a few key points.
- The knuckle bone of the little finger should not make any contact when breaking; it’s very delicate and prone to fracturing.
- The thumb should be tightly curled into the palm and the remaining fingers slightly bent. This results in tension in the entire hand, particularly in the striking area.
- The elbow should remain bent on impact, this lessens its effect on the joint.
- The strike should travel in an imaginary line in front of the body.
- As you strike the board, lower your stance to pull your hand through the board.
Once you’ve mastered this technique with one board on both sides of the body, you can increase it’s difficulty by adding a second board. It’s important, however, that you don’t rush your progression. It’s easy to become over confident and end up injuring yourself.
Once you’ve mastered three boards on this technique, it’s then time to learn some other breaking techniques. I’ve included a great book with a multitude of breaks here.
I really believe that breaking techniques are a crucial component of, not only karate, but all martial arts. They not only condition the body into a highly tuned weapon but also allow you to measure and test just how effective your techniques are.