Some schools or programs that instruct folks in a martial art may or may not spend much time on the skill of breaking. For taekwondo practitioners, breaking is typically introduced early on and done while testing for promotion, at the very end, to showcase how a student has developed their skills enough to apply the techniques to… well, breaking a board, or a concrete patio block. Yes, I said concrete patio block.
The general idea behind why breaking exists in martial arts is due to its use to gauge the force someone can apply to an object with a finely tuned skill such as a kick, punch or elbow strike. Today breaking is seen more as a spectacle during martial arts demonstrations but the principles of training to break something, like a pine board or cement block, have some serious validity.
Our bodies adapt and change through stresses that are applied by the world around us. We have stress internally and externally. The external stresses, that are physical in nature, like running for your life!, cause us to build up stamina to run long distances or to sprint really fast. Weight training forces our bodies to adapt to lifting heavy objects, and plyometrics train our nervous system to contract muscles fibers quickly. Breaking, stresses the skin to build calluses, the bone to build density, and the muscles to build strength and contraction speed. This is called “progressive resistance training”
For breaking boards and concrete blocks as well as ice blocks, the principles are such: the bones respond as found in Wolff's law, which states that the skeletal system will, after healing, be stronger if injury is put to it. As the bone gets stressed and micro injuries occur do to this stress, it heals more dense and stronger than before allowing you to increase the stress load even more.
There are two basic types of breaks you’ll typically get exposed to during taekwondo training, testing, and competitions: speed breaks and power breaks. Other types such as soft breaks (snapping break or wave break).exist, but are rarely done throughout the promotion process. Power breaks and speed breaks are the most command, leaving the soft breaks as a lesser applied type with regard to Olympic Style Taekwondo. In fact, I never even tried a soft break until after becoming a black belt in the system.
A beginner’s first break will be a power break which is required during lower rank testing. In this style of break one or more pine boards will be held in place on both ends by another person. This lets the student striking it concentrate on putting power behind the technique. The very first break for all white belts, 10th geup ranks, is usually a reverse punch. Breaking a board with a punch requires good technique and the ability to apply enough power to the impact that the board will split in two along the grain line.
At later ranks such as 1st Dan or Black Belt, skills and technique are likely refined enough to break a patio block from your friendly neighborhood home improvement store. In general students testing for black belt are required to break a single patio block during testing. It takes a while to build up the confidence to strike a concrete object but it isn’t as scary as it sounds. As a martial artist, you must know your breaks inside and out. It’s up to you to understand the physics involved in breaking and properties of the materials your striking. Martial arts are about attaining knowledge and using that knowledge to your advantage.
Speed breaks are usually attempted after a student has really refined a strike’s accuracy and can now concentrate on applying higher velocity instead of power to the technique. The board or object the student attempts to break is not held in place on both ends, so it will only give in when the strike speed reaches a velocity that overcomes the materials structural bond before the impact overcomes the inertia of its mass. WHAT?
In other words you have to hit the thing so fast that it breaks before flying across the room, still intact. A good way to understand speed breaks is comparing the speed of a bullet and the speed at which you can move your finger. Take a piece of letter size paper and hold it with one hand. Point the index finger of your other hand straight at the center of the paper and as fast as you can, strike it with your finger to see if you can poke a hole through it.
If you get it on the first try, I will be calling you master from this point on, if not, you probably noticed that no matter how fast you poke at the paper, your finger won’t go through it before the paper itself bends and moves back. You’re not generating enough speed to break through the paper’s material bond before the inertia of its mass is overcome. We all pretty much know that a bullet or really any object traveling at a high rate of speed, and same diameter as your finger, will poke a hole through the paper before it moves to much. You could probably throw a rock or marble fast enough to go through it, but getting your arm to move fast enough to push your finger through is another story.
If we add mass to the paper, say about 185lbs, by having someone hold it in place, we can easily push through the paper with power rather than speed. We don’t need a lot of speed because the inertia of the person holding it will not be so easily overcome before the paper’s structural bonds break. If it is then you have some really strong paper!
This applies to breaking pine boards and concrete blocks as well. But, because those materials contain more mass than paper we won’t need the speed of a bullet to split them in two pieces. Treat breaking objects, like boards and blocks, as you would any training, start slow and build up slow to achieve goals. Don’t break one pine board and suddenly try to break eight concrete blocks. You’ll end up “breaking” your arm, wrist, elbow, or at the very least your pride.
The downward palm heal strike is very popular for power breaking and a great technique for building up power to smash concrete blocks. Students will start with a single pine board held in place by a couple of cinder blocks, one at each edge. Once breaking a single board becomes easy, a second board is added until that becomes easy, then a third and a fourth. Typically by the third or fourth board, the material is switched out for a single concrete block.
One block, depending on its moisture content and concrete mix formula, is roughly about the same strength as three or four one inch thick 12”x12” pine boards in a stack. After accomplishing the break with a single block, practitioners will add a second block, usually with a gap between them in order to allow the first block to break first before the downward force applies to the second. Later, a third block is added, then a fourth, fifth, sixth and so on. Students will learn to use other strikes to break with, such as knife hand, forward elbow or downward elbow. Each strike must be trained with care and at a slow pace so the body has time to adapt.