Air, Wood Or Fire…

Depending on the style of martial art that you study, the way you develop your strikes can be integral to a solid progression towards your goals. Personally, I have always had an issue with things like brick and/or board breaking, because I’ve always seen it as a futile exercise meant only to show off or demonstrate one’s prowess in breaking through an object that’s been set up to yield. For example, my Sensei’s school of karate never involved board breaking in class. If it ever did, it predates the time I joined.

“Boards Don’t Hit Back!”

– Bruce Lee, Enter The Dragon (1973)

But while I’ve never been a fan of breaking, it can lend some specific benefits to the traditional martial artist. Other than scaring your mother’s new boyfriend into submission, that is. The first point that I’ll bring up is unfortunately a negative one. The boards and bricks that are typically used for breaking are special, in that they have a thickness and composition that makes them ideal for breaking. The boards are usually thin, about 3/4″ thick, and cut with the grain to allow an easy break.

The bricks are usually thinner than you’d usually see for any practical building application as well, and are stacked in such a way that there is usually a minuscule gap of air between each one. This is where physics comes in. So long as you strike the brick properly, The strength and force of your fist will be assisted by gravity and help to break every subsequent brick. This is where the positive point comes in. You’ll notice I specified that you need to strike the brick “properly.” That’s where the big difference comes in…

From a martial arts perspective, if you walk into a dojo on Day 1 and try to punch through a board, you risk spraining and/or damaging your wrist, tendons, muscle tissue and potentially fracturing fingers or knuckles. It takes a reasonable period of training and developing one’s striking techniques before you can properly apply them against a hard surface like a board or a brick. And even then, the amount of focus required to strike safely and keep from injuring yourself is paramount.

“Very Good. But Brick Don’t Hit Back.”

– Bolo Yeung, Bloodsport (1988)

As I mentioned in the opening, the value of breaking is not a universally shared aspect among all styles. Most traditional Okinawan martial arts styles, such as karate, don’t lend much value to breaking, although some of our hand-strengthening methods are just as brutal, if not worse. And any style that focuses primarily on weapons or grappling won’t give breaking a second (or first) thought. But some “high-flying” styles, such as Tae Kwon Do, take breaking to a whole other level.

You can see senior belts breaking boards after flowering spin kicks, or boards held high above head level. While these types of breaks look spectacular to spectators, they lend little (if any) value in an actual fight situation. That being said, the precision, speed and skill required to pull off those techniques, even if they’re only worthy of demonstration, is beyond MY skill. So I can’t help but feel a little impressed by them, despite their worthlessness.

The bottom line is that as I explained in my previous post Making An Impact, training in the martial arts for any sort of long-term period will eventually require you to hit something. Whether it’s air, wood or fire, allowing your strikes to impact a surface is an important part of learning to strike properly. I’ve always been a bigger fan of pads or bags, because you can work on your precision, strength and speed without the risk of injury associated with striking a board or brick. That, and I don’t feel the need to convince others of my skill by smashing inanimate objects in front of them. But I digress.

As far as the jury ruling on breaking, the pros would include the development of strength, accuracy and getting those knuckles calloused up for proper striking. Don’t even get me started on using a knife hand on something like a brick. I wouldn’t even use a knife hand against an opponent, unless I was striking soft tissue or cartilage. There’s too much risk of breaking fingers, which would render them useless if the fight isn’t over or you face multiple opponents.

The cons would include junior students attempting to break before gaining the experience required, resulting in injury. It’s also an effectively useless display, since you need to clean up and replace every board and brick you break. There are no such issues while using a punching bag. Another con is the fact that some schools require breaking as a part of belt grading, which can be an issue if you have all the skills and precision to respectfully earn the belt. Would breaking bricks have made me a more effective black belt? I don’t think so, although I believe some would disagree.

At the end of the day, this is simply another aspect of the martial arts that has evolved as a means of impressing others as opposed to the use of skill for the betterment of oneself or the style. Much like competition, it’s been around for a long time and isn’t in any danger of disappearing any time soon. But should you find yourself starting the martial arts and join a school that maintains the practice, bear in mind the aspects I’ve written. And try not to break your fingers… ☯

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I am a practitioner of the martial arts and student of the Buddhist faith. I have been a Type 1 Diabetic since I was 4 years old and have been fighting the uphill battle it includes ever since. I enjoy fitness and health and looking for new ways to improve both, as well as examining the many questions of life. Although I have no formal medical training, I have amassed a wealth of knowledge regarding health, Diabetes, martial arts as well as Buddhism and philosophy. My goal is to share this information with the world, and perhaps provide some sarcastic humour along the way. Welcome!

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