How to Learn Karate Board Breaking

In this post I will go over the process of teaching and learning board breaking in karate.  In a previous post, I discussed the purpose of board breaking.  This post will expand on that with more of a focus on how to teach the subject of board breaking safely and effectively.

Board Breaking in Karate is Scary

Board breaking and sparring are the two activities in karate that cause students the most anxiety.  The potential for injury is greater than in other training areas.  When students start breaking, they must hit things with maximum power and sometimes it hurts.  If an instructor teaches breaking poorly to their students, not only is the chance of injury high, but the student’s confidence in themselves also greatly diminishes.

So, how exactly do we teach students breaking?  Unfortunately, I think the norm in most studios out there is to just do it.  You don’t break it?  Hit is again! 

There is an effective process to learning how to break boards in karate
There is an effective process to learning how to break boards in karate

While some of that is true, there is a better way to go about it.  Just like with everything else we do, a systemized process that builds upon itself increases student’s confidence and allows them to fix mistakes without getting hurt.

Types of Boards for Breaking

First, let’s talk about what students should be breaking.  In my opinion, only 1-inch-thick pine boards that are 8-12 inches wide should be used.  No tiny sliver boards or boards that have been scored.  I am also not a fan of the razor thin demo boards that break when you sneeze on them.  

The reason smaller boards and easier to break boards are used is because younger and younger children are doing classes.  My answer to that is that just because they are in karate, does not mean they are ready to break boards.  It is cool, exciting, and makes kids feel good which is great for business but not necessarily great for learning.

I also am a firm believer in using boards only for training purposes.  Multiple boards are fine for bigger, stronger students but bricks and other materials should be used as a demonstration only, not training.

What Techniques are Used for Breaking?

As with the material being broken, there are also techniques that should only be done for demonstrations.  In my opinion, we should break with techniques that we would use in real life.  These are mainly hand strikes and kicks.

Breaking boards with a jump spinning hook kick is impressive and shows lots of skills, but it is also impractical.  Perfecting a side kick break would much more beneficial.  Breaking with a spear hand/fingertip strike is also cool but not useful.  A nice reverse punch strike would be a better option than using the fingertips.

I have also seen people do breaks with blocking techniques.  You can argue that this beneficial but if you have a choice, why not perfect the strike versus the block.  Generating enough power in your blocks to break is more challenging than doing so with strikes and therefore should be reserved for higher rank students.

The lists below are examples of the techniques I would consider useful for breaking and those which should be used only for demonstrations.

Techniques to break with for training

Kicks: front kick (ball of the foot), side kick, hook kick, back kick, roundhouse kick (ball of the foot), diagonal kick (ball of the foot), spinning back kick, spinning hook kick, knee strike

Hands: palm heel, elbow (front and back), knife hand (downward, lateral both directions), hammerfist (downward, lateral), reverse punch, ridge hand

Techniques for demonstrations that have no practical use

Any jump kick, jump spin kicks, fingertips, blocks

Let me be clear, the demonstration techniques are beneficial and require skills like speed, balance, coordination, and focus.  These are obviously needed in martial arts.  However, from a practicality standpoint, those techniques are not useful in a self-defense situation.

Holding/Supporting Boards

Before going into the process for learning to break with any technique, I think it is important to talk about holding/supporting boards.  I could write an entire post on holding boards and maybe I will someday.  There are few key concepts that must be adhered to regardless of technique.

Holding the boards correctly is just as important as the technique itself
Holding the boards correctly is just as important as the technique itself

The face of the board should be oriented as close as possible to perpendicular to the trajectory of the strike.  See the diagram below for a visual.

For kicks and higher target techniques this is not always possible, but it is important to try to be as close as possible.

The holders should be positioned in the direct opposite direction of the strike (except when doing speed breaks).

If a break requires more force, more mass is required to hold it.  Having a smaller person hold by themselves or having someone try to hold two boards without another person to assist will not be successful.

An incorrect hold can lead to a student getting injured or losing confidence in an otherwise valid technique.  It is imperative therefore that instructors teach how to hold for each technique in addition to how to do the actual technique.

Process for Learning Karate Board Breaking

Now that we have gone over a lot of background details, let’s discuss the process for learning how to break in karate.  Regardless of specific technique, the following process can be applied.

Execute the technique in the air, over and over, ensuring entire body is involved.  Instructor should make corrections and students should just continue to build muscle memory.  

Execute the technique on pads, over and over, ensuring proper contact points, adequate power, and follow through.

Execute the technique on re-breakable boards, over and over, ensuring proper contact points, adequate power, and follow through.  Start with a lower level of resistance and build up to harder and harder boards.  Instructor can see if follow through or other deficiencies are present on a lower resistance board while the student remains uninjured.

Execute the technique on real boards.

A couple of things it is important to note about the above process.  First, students must treat every step as if they are breaking.  When doing the technique in the air or on a pad, the student should be using their kihap, using full power, and full follow through with exact technique.  

Secondly, each step builds upon the previous step.  Students should not advance to the next step until they have demonstrated aptitude in the current round.  For example, don’t let a student advance to the re-breakable board step if they are hitting the pads with no follow through.

The last thing I’d like to mention regarding board breaking is that it is almost all in your head.  Not only is using the process I’ve outlined good for building confidence in breaking, but a supportive, positive instructor and class group is vital.

If you would like a specific example of how this process is used please feel free to reach out to me directly.

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