Skip to content

Author Guest Blog: “The Breaking Techniques” by Sifu Phillip Starr

April 8, 2010

Phillip Starr has authored three books on martial arts with Blue Snake Books, sharing his wisdom from over 50 years as a practitioner and teacher of martial arts. For more information or to purchase Starr’s books, click on their covers at the bottom of the page.

I think it was in 1962 that I witnessed my first board-breaking demonstration.  I watched in awe as the black belt instructor cut through three one-inch boards with his knife-hand.  That was really incredible!  In a single blow he split those boards as easily as if they were papier-mache.  Such demonstrations were typical of most karate exhibitions at that time and they remained so until fairly recently.  It would seem that many contemporary martial arts practitioners feel that such displays of strength are beneath them.

The Japanese word for this art is tameshiwari, which refers to testing one’s strength and technique by attempting to break various things like boards, bricks, and even stones.  Masutatsu Oyama, founder of the legendary Kyokushin style of Japanese karate, once remarked that karate without the breaking techniques is like a nut with no meat…and to some degree, I’m inclined to agree with him.  There’s more to tameshiwari than meets the eye -more than most people suspect.

Many karate, taekwondo, and kung-fu novices begin practicing tameshiwari by testing their techniques against wooden boards.  I still remember breaking my first inch-thick board.  I thought I was Superman!  I quickly fell in love with the breaking techniques and I’ve practiced them regularly throughout my martial arts career.  At first it was all just a huge adrenaline rush…but as I got older and more experienced – and being the philosophical sort that I am – I started to really think about tameshiwari and what it meant.

The mechanical aspects can be daunting.  For instance, wood doesn’t really “break.”  It tears.  Bricks, concrete slabs, and stones break.  This can be an important piece of information for those who are seriously interested in mastering the breaking techniques.  The intended target must be struck in the center and the distancing must be exactly right.  Otherwise, you’ll just end up “pushing” against your target instead of delivering a sharp blow.

The standard board should be about an inch thick and measure 12”x12”.  This used to be the standard size for board breaking.  The idea was that if you could cut an inch-thick board, you could just as easily break a human clavicle (which requires about 16 lbs. of pressure to fracture).  If you could split two inch-thick boards, you could shatter a human arm or rib.  And if you could break three inch-thick boards, you could kill a man in a single blow.  At least that’s what the Kyokushin school taught back in the day.  Mind you, these boards were placed flat atop each other – spacers were never used and if anyone had attempted to use them I’m sure he would have been laughed out of the building.  Spacers allows you to break a single board several times…you see, if one board has the resistance of 1X, then two boards (placed flatly together) are 2X, three boards are 3X and so on.  However, if the boards are separated, they all retain their single 1X resistance…so you are breaking a 1X, then another 1X, and another 1X…which is not at all difficult to do.  The same is true for any other material (brick or concrete).

Additionally, some people have been known to bake their boards, bricks, or concrete, making them extremely brittle and easy to break.  I once saw a so-called “master” drop a couple of boards prior to a demonstration and they shattered!!!

In time, I moved to breaking inch-thick bricks and then to full-sized red bricks.  I would split them with my knife-hand or with a punch.  This is no mean feat and requires a great deal of practice.  Eventually, I was able to cut a paver brick (about 1 ½” thick, these are used to pave patios and the like) with my spear-hand.  Moving through these stages of breaking boosted my confidence considerably and I began to realize that there was more to me than I had ever considered.

And let me tell you, if you really want to feel like a superhero – take up breaking stones!  There’s nothing like it!  It’s a super confidence-booster but you absolutely must learn how to do from a qualified instructor.  My best break was a large stone that weighed nearly 25 lbs.  My right hand shook uncontrollably for three days afterwards…and that worried me (I never tried such a stunt again) but it did wonders for my confidence and spirit.

I reasoned that if martial arts masters of old could do it, I could also do it – which is a pretty dangerous assumption, but God was with me – and I’d try almost anything.  I think my favorite was the arrow-catch, which involves having an (highly skilled) archer fire an arrow from a 45-60 lb. bow at your chest from a distance of about 60 paces… and as you turn out of the line of fire, you catch the arrow in mid-flight.  This isn’t something that I recommend you try and it’s a technique for which you must train regularly for a considerable time…but I was finally able to do it and used to demonstrate it at special exhibitions.  I mention it only because it is actually considered a form of tameshiwari (even though it doesn’t involve breaking anything).

My point is this- training in tameshiwari will build spirit and an inner strength that simply cannot be developed through any other means.

  • All martial arts practitioners want to test their techniques and themselves.  They want to know if their techniques will really work but they also know that it is unethical and immoral to go out looking for a fight.  Tameshiwari gives us the opportunity to test ourselves without having to resort to physical violence; they act as a sort of barometer by which the power of our blows may be measured.

Having said that, I must say that some of the most effective self-defense techniques are not suited for tameshiwari.

  • From the outset, the student learns that in order for the break to be successful, he or she must aim at a point past the surface of the target.  This is often a student’s first exposure to the principle we call “extend”; where the yi (intention) goes, the chi/jin (power) follows.

Unfortunately, most of them never realize the implications of this seemingly basic principle.  WHERE YOUR MIND/INTENTION GOES, SO ALSO GOES YOUR STRENGTH!  Or…”As a man thinketh, so he is.”  Think about it.

If you want to succeed at anything, you must first have the intention and commitment to do it.  Your mind must DO IT first.  Your body will follow along naturally.  Thus, the mind “does the thing” in the unseen world…and that brings it into the physical world.  From unreality to reality (as we perceive it)…

  • Here is an addendum to the aforementioned principle…if you really want to be sure of your success in a given break, you must first actually see yourself doing it successfully!  Then strike without delay.  You’ll succeed.  If you want to fail, see yourself failing or just worry that you won’t succeed.  Your failure will be pretty much guaranteed.  This applies not only to breaking bricks and boards, but to life as well…and that’s the lesson that must be learned!  You’ll see (and acquire firsthand experience) of how this principle works for tameshiwari – and it’s easy to take it to the next level and apply it to life.  What you see, what you visualize, is exactly what will happen!


Because it’s already taken place!

The old adage, “You can do anything if you just set your mind to it…” is very true but lacks instruction.  Just how do you set your mind to do whatever it is that you want to do?  Tameshiwari teaches you the “how.”

  • When you determine that the time is right, you must strike without the slightest hesitation.  If your spirit is in disorder, your strength will be scattered.  Focus your mind and fully gather your spirit, then COMMIT yourself 100% to the task at hand, giving no thought to anything else.  There is no possibility of failure!!!
  • Then realize that in many cases, the break you performed is not physically possible.  A brick is much harder than a human hand, which is made mostly of water.  How could you possibly shatter this object with your bare hand?  You could not do it – not just with your hand alone.  There is more to you than you can see.  What does this mean?  Consider it.
  • Through continued practice you develop a strong spirit, an indomitable will, and a courageous heart.  The weak-willed, those whose resolve is flagging, and those who are timid or withdrawn, are doomed to failure.  They can become stronger but only if they determine that they will put forth the required effort.
  • Through extended practice you will overcome a fundamental human fear; that of getting hit or of hitting something forcefully (they’re basically the same thing).  Whereas breakfalls help you overcome a different basic fear (the fear of falling down and hurting yourself), tameshiwari helps you overcome the fear of striking something with your full strength.  Many modern martial arts practitioners disdain the breaking techniques, saying that they’re not really martial arts or that they have little to do with real technique but I think you can see how very wrong they are!

They’re fine, so long as they punch and kick the air or maybe a cushy heavy bag…but place a couple of boards or a brick in front of them and they freeze up.  They experience FEAR and they hate to admit that they fear anything.  Sometimes the truth hurts.  Literally.

Martial arts should help us SEE our fears (and other weaknesses), ADMIT them to ourselves (and sometimes, others), and then OVERCOME them.  If we fail to do this – and many martial arts practitioners fail because they’re afraid to face or admit their own fears – we’re just “playing” at martial arts like young children “play” at being soldiers.  It isn’t real.

So next time you set up a single board and chamber your fist, remember that this is where it starts.  You’re not training your fist.  You’re training your mind and spirit.

For more info and insights from Philip Starr, check out his books below!

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: