Related: How do Shaolin monks break spears with their neck?

For anyone unacquainted with the fairly impressive looking feat of breaking bricks (or wood) in martial arts, see THIS 1.5min video. I'd say most people tend to view this practice as impressive, requiring skill and training, etc. Recently, though, I've been wondering if that's really the case.

Are there any analyses of the various factors involved in this feat which suggest that it either is as impressive as it it made to look or isn't?

  • Ability of a "common" man of decent strength to do the same thing
  • Typical mechanical properties of the materials used
    • What types/thickness of wood (pine would be much different than hard maple)
    • Density or type of concrete brick/block material used
  • Force analysis
  • Identification of any mechanical "tricks" (leverage, why spaced apart, etc.)

I'm skeptical, as the materials are always very wide in aspect ratio (thin but long), are always many small pieces vs. a bigger one of equivalent thickness (why break 20 very thin "bricks" when one could break a slab as thick as all put together?), and are always stacked with a space between adjacent blocks.

Question: is the practice of breaking things in martial arts a skilled, impressive feat of strength and ability... or is this far more achievable by the "average Joe" than we're led to think? One other option is that it's primarily an illusion created with some knowledge of force mechanics and material properties.

Additional examples:

  • Break some river stone with a whip of two fingers: LINK
  • Break some thick looking ice: LINK
  • Vid suggesting not just anyone can do this (epic fail): LINK
  • Everything (some brick, then wood): LINK
  • 3
    Basic breaking is not hard--good technique, good focus, and follow-through. I've taught people to do a basic front-kick break in two hours from "no martial arts experience". But that is using a strong, tough part of the body on a one-by-twelve plank. Screwing up a break hurts and that introduces a real psychological component when you start to move to harder breaks. – dmckee --- ex-moderator kitten Jul 18 '11 at 16:50
  • 4
    Additional examples: 1) There's a classic "That's Incredible!" blooper, where Fran Tarkenton tries to clumsily reproduce a martial artist's feat of walking on eggs without breaking them. He intends to fail, for the laughs, but surprises himself when he finds it easy to do. 2) Walking on coals has been reproduced by many skeptics. – Oddthinking Jul 18 '11 at 16:54
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    I saw some martial artists being heckled by someone in the crowd as they would break 2 boards. They challenged him to do the same. they discretely set up the heckler's boards with the grain running at 90-degree angles, making it virtually impossible for him to do so. – fred Jul 18 '11 at 17:50
  • 2
    @Randolf: With two boards setting the grain perpendicular when you stack them makes it much, much harder. So this is a dirty trick. And if you are using a linear sticking surface (knife edge of the palm, or a edge-on side kick) getting lined up with the grain is part of the technique. – dmckee --- ex-moderator kitten Jul 18 '11 at 19:31
  • 2
    In my experience (TKD red belt), breaking is not as physically difficult as one might imagine, but it it mentally harder than one might imagine because it requires you to commit yourself to the strike. You know you will be injured if you do it improperly. Physical toughening of your skin, muscles, and supposedly even bone isn't really important until you're getting into pretty hardcore breaks. The average fit person could break a paver with the heel of their hand without physical toughening, if they could do the strike with proper form and speed. – Larry OBrien Dec 31 '11 at 23:45

Cecil Adams of the Straight Dope is a noted skeptic and debunker of myths, and was asked about this one

He read a paper:

"The Physics of Karate Strikes" by Jon Chananie at the University of Virginia.

that in turn cited physicist Jearl Walker - probably section 1.45 of his book The Flying Circle of Physics.

He then anecdotally describes using this knowledge (and other research) to give it a go, and in his first session was splitting 5 boards. A younger assistant could split 3.

As Cecil Adams is not a martial artist, it seems that the skill is more about knowing how than concentration or special strength.

  • 8
    The fun part comes in doing correctly and with good follow through the time after you've failed. – dmckee --- ex-moderator kitten Jan 2 '12 at 4:44

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