Breaking (martial arts)

Breaking is a martial arts technique that is used in competition, demonstration and testing. Breaking is an action where a martial artist uses a striking surface to break one or more objects using the skills honed in their art form. The striking surface is usually a hand or a foot, but may also be a fingertip, toe, head, elbow, knuckle, or knee. The most common object is a piece of wood or brick, though it is also common to break cinder blocks, glass, or even a piece of metal such as steel bars. Glass is usually discouraged, since its shards may cause injury when broken.

Breaking can often be seen in karate, taekwondo and pencak silat. Spetsnaz are also known for board and brick breaking, but not all styles of martial arts place equal emphasis on it or use it. In styles where striking and kicking are less important and there is an emphasis on grappling or weaponry, breaking is less prominent. Traditional Japanese martial art schools place little, if any, emphasis on board-breaking, although the art of breaking objects was known as tameshiwari, while the similar practice of Tameshigiri or 'test cutting' is used in sword arts.


Competitive breaking can be based on artistic impression, number of items broken in a given amount of time, number of items broken with a single strike, or time to break a number of items. There are several certified breaking categories in various journals of world records such as the Guinness Book. In a demonstration, a martial artist exhibits his or her skill by executing an impromptu or choreographed sequence of breaks for an audience. Martial arts schools sometimes demonstrate challenging breaks in order to gain publicity and inspire enrollment or attendance.

During promotion testing, many styles of martial arts require that students demonstrate their skills by executing breaks; the difficulty of a required break depends on the rank for which the student is testing. Failure to execute a required break is often sufficient grounds for failure of a promotion test.


Wooden boards are the most common breaking item in most martial arts, Individual boards used may range from nominal sizes as small as 6″×12″×1″ (152×305×25 mm) to as large as 12″×12″×1″ (305×305×25 mm; a board with a nominal thickness of 1″ has an actual thickness of ¾″ or 19 mm). The typical adult testing board is approximately 10″×12″×1″ (254×305×25 mm).[1]

The grain of the board must be cut so as to be parallel with the striking hand.

Children may use narrower and thinner boards, with 4- and 5-year-olds sometimes breaking boards as small as 4″×12″×½″ (102×305×13 mm), and there are also plastic boards made of different composites which can vary the difficulty level involved in breaking.


In general, breaking is used both as a method of measuring force of strikes for martial artists, as there was no other way to do this and only recently have devices such as accelerometers been used in martial arts, and as a measurement of mental fortitude, the ability of the mind and body to overcome.

Generally, a martial artist engaged in breaking will practice by repeatedly hitting hard surfaces. Masutatsu Oyama, a famous breaker who was known for breaking the horns off bulls,[2] would use trees. In karate, a device called a makiwara is used; this device has found more popular use by practitioners of other martial arts today. In the past, Shaolin and other earlier martial artists would use many different types of devices in order to condition themselves, not always for simply breaking, but using the same concepts used today. For instance, there is Iron Palm, Iron Shin, Iron Shirt, Iron Head, and other types of training which center around conditioning various parts of the body so they could withstand or give blows such as what is seen today in martial arts breaking. Many Chinese systems also are of the school of thought that "internal energy" or Chi is used when breaking, which is not dependent upon muscle strength and body weight.

The general principles used in martial arts breaking training is similar to the same principles used for most athletics. The body adapts to stress. There are generally three areas a martial arts breaker wishes to force their body to adapt to: the bones, the skin (calluses), and muscles (for both mass and speed). The general principle here — for instance, for the bones — is found in Wolff's law, which states that the skeletal system will, after healing, be stronger if injury is put to it. Craig Edmunds demonstrates this theory after breaking hand in seminar measuring bone density then measuring bone density after healing. In this manner the breaking practitioner operates not unlike a bodybuilder who works out with weights, then takes a period of rest to heal and allow the muscles to come back stronger.

This kind of training is called "progressive resistance training"; see Weight training for more information. Often differences in body structure can be seen in the form of calcium deposits between a breaking practitioner and a non-practitioner. Mike Reeves, a champion breaker, advocates in his book the usage of a makiwara and knuckle push-ups. With knuckle push-ups, he recommends starting on softer floor material and working your way up to concrete.[3]

USBA/WBA Founder Drew Serrano, producer of the documentary "Breaking All Records",[4] encourages practitioners to gradually increase the difficulty and amount of a material to avoid injury. He suggests that beginners should start with wood boards and increase the amount as technical prowess increases. Once a level of comfort, both physically and mentally, is reached, harder materials such as concrete can be attempted.

There are safety concerns with martial arts breaking, so one should seek out an instructor. There are many small bones of the foot and hand which need to be very carefully and slowly conditioned for safety. Repeated damage to the extensor capsules of the knuckles can lead to long term problems with dexterity.[5]

Speed vs. Power vs. Impulse vs Soft Break

There are generally 3 classifications of breaks: speed breaks, power breaks, and soft breaks. Additionally, there is a 4th, lesser-known, classification known as the impulse break.

Speed breaks are breaks where the striking object is not held in place. The only way to break the object is to strike the surface with sufficient speed at a focused point of impact. Sometimes a board to be broken is held lightly between two fingers by a person; an advanced dan test may involve an attempt to break a board as it falls through the air. Regardless of the strength of the striker, the board will only break if it is struck with sufficient velocity.

Another type of "Speed Break" is that which involves breaking a number of objects over a given amount of time. A common time span is 1 minute, but this can vary depending on the material and venue. In competition it is very common for a speed breaking category to limit the time to 8–10 seconds, enabling more competitors to participate. Records and specifics are kept track of by leading martial arts breaking organizations such as the USBA/WBA (United States and World Breaking Associations) and the ISKA (International Sports Karate Association).

Power breaks are breaks where the striking object is supported. Either the break will employ human holders for horizontal, angular, or upward vertical strikes, or the break will require that the objects be stacked for downward vertical strikes. For a stacked break the object is placed on sturdy supporting objects, such as concrete blocks, that are placed on the ground. Many color belt (belts before black belt) promotion testing breaks are power breaks—it is substantially easier for an inexperienced person to muster sufficient energy to break a wooden board with a power break (Note, this is not true for all breaks). The vast majority of these employ human board holders. Often a stronger or more powerful striker may substitute some strength for technique and successfully accomplish the break. Most records that are catalogued are for power breaks. It is very common for black belt tests to use bricks, concrete patio blocks, or several boards stacked on top of supporting objects for challenging downward strikes.

Taped boards are sometimes used to lessen the amount of human influence from the holders for a break. It is very difficult to hold a stack of boards more than 4 inches steadily enough for challenging break. Therefore, some strikers will tape a stack of boards together to make a "brick" for their holders to hold. Usually however, test breaks at promotions and events are done without taped boards.

Both the speed and power breaks deliver the energy required to overcome the tensor and flexion forces of the board through mass displacement, where the kinetic energy is given by 1/2 m*v2. That is, either the speed of the striking implement (hand/foot/etc.) has to be high enough, or the striker must be strong enough to increase effective mass brought into the break (i.e. his or her body weight) to exceed the brick/board's threshold. For single boards, it is generally easy (as in the casual person has a sufficient reserve of mass) to reach this threshold through a power break.

The third method, soft breaks, also known as "ki" breaks almost always involve the use of "flat hand" strikes; primarily the palm, as it's easier to accomplish a successful break with forward momentum, but sometimes the back of the hand (in a semi outstretched configuration) it utilized to exhibit the person's prowess, as this alternate method usually entails certain conditioning of the hand to endure the stress of impact (see note on Wolff's Law above) as well as using a less natural arm position when delivering the blow. The material is usually supported, horizontally, on two ends. The breaker raises their hand and lets it fall with no tension or significant flexing of the muscles, instead relying mostly on gravity, in order to palm strike the material. The material is broken by a complete energy transfer all the way through, in a direct line from the palm to the other side of the material. The impact also passes through a wider, more dispersed area and from a martial art perspective therefore causes more damage than other strikes, if delivered to a human adversary. This break is akin to striking a person with a slap, although more energy is transferred into the target than what is typically conveyed by a mere slap. Thus, such a palm strike can cause significant internal damage while leaving few signs of the damage externally (possibly a red mark but not much else), whereas a punch or similar strike, would tend to cause recognizably more external damage, such as bruising, swelling, etc., regardless of how much internal disruption was inflicted. Any person of any age, such as elderly people up to 80 and 90 years of age, can do this break with little injury to themselves. The most serious repercussions may be a palm that tingles afterward, should the break be unsuccessful. This method of break, even if utilizing more than one piece of material and additionally done with no spacers, is easily attainable by people of any age or gender, provided they have sufficiently practiced the technique. There are 2 reference videos at the bottom of the page: one shows Rudy Timmerman Sajanim, of the National Korean Martial Arts Association and the 9th degree Kong Shin Bup grandmaster, doing a multiple brick soft break, and another shows him teaching this unique soft breaking technique at a seminar.

Though fundamentally different, the 4th kind of break — the impulse break — is often confused with a speed break (i.e. the first one of the 2 types noted above), because the striking implement often moves at a high velocity, despite the success of the break not depending on such speed. But moving your hand or foot or other body part very quickly, is where the similarity ends. The energy transmission from an impulse break derives not from mass displacement, but from wave transmission (e.g. as an ocean wave hits a beach). The mass of the hand/foot/etc. typically does not travel through the medium, but only goes as far as necessary to deliver the wave—this results in an extremely brief contact with the face of the brick or board and it's the wave itself that causes the striking surface to flex and buckle. The less flexible the striking surface, the more likely it is to break. An advanced aspect of this type of break can be seen where several bricks are placed on supports without spacers, and the person performing the break chooses which brick will break, e.g. breaking ONLY the middle brick of 3 stacked bricks, although the top or bottom brick could just as easily be targeted. This feat was demonstrated in China in the early part of the last century, by well-known qi-gong masters, many who performed it with 5 or 7 bricks or slabs of concrete, and the really talented masters could break two bricks, even if unconnected to one another (e.g. breaking the third and sixth bricks in a stack of 7).

Pegged vs. unpegged (spaced vs. unspaced)

There are two types of multiple stacked board settings: pegged (spaced) and unpegged (unspaced). Unpegged stacks are where multiple items are stacked directly on top of each other.

Pegged stacks are stacks where multiple items are stacked with spacing items (often referred to as spacers) between them, usually wood spacers. "Unpegged" stacking allows a direct transfer of kinetic energy and the striker must maintain peak force much longer than an "pegged" stack as the striker moves down through the pile they are encountering the resistance of each board individually instead of creating enough force to flex and break an entire stack unspaced."

This is due to the way in which the two materials break. Wood, which is a natural fibrous matrix, flexes to a certain degree before it snaps at the target point. When unpegged, this allows for an entire stack of wood to flex upon impact, resulting in the break occurring in the order of furthest board from impact to the closest board (albeit a fraction of a second difference separates each board, making it appear instantaneous). This can be witnessed in many novice demonstrations where the rear board will break, but the remaining top boards are intact. When pegged, the gap between the boards necessitates each individual board to flex and snap before the next board is reached in succession. Bricks, on the other hand, are ceramic, and snap (or shatter) upon impact, with no flex action.

When using a pegged design, the setup and positioning of the pegs is critical. Competitors work extremely close with their team to ensure that each peg is in proper location and will not shift. A peg that shifts from its location can potentially interfere with the overall break of the stack. If careful consideration and measures are not taken, pegs will typically shift during the initial stack and setting of the break.

Concrete patio blocks, used in most major breaking competitions, require the competitor to "shock" the material and drive through from top to bottom.

Spacing of materials in competition is also important to enable a clear winner to be established as the number of stacked items increases. Whereas a limit of five unspaced patio blocks may be a common sticking point from one competitor to another, a stack of spaced patio blocks can provide more variables because of the increased confidence, which will narrow the field of competitors. This use of spacers makes competition more dynamic and exciting for competitors and spectators alike.


  1. "United States and World Breaking Association". USBA llc. Retrieved July 15, 2008.
  2. Kyokushin Canada. "Mas Oyama."
  3. Reeves, Mike, and Robert G. Yetman. Power Breaking: How to Develop and Use Breaking Skills for Self-Defense.
  4. Serrano, Drew, and Christopher Vallone. Breaking All Records. 2007.
  5. Hibbard, John. Karate Breaking Techniques: With Practical Applications to Self-Defense.

(Wayback Machine copy)

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