The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Physics of Board Breaking & Karate at The Amazing Meeting 8

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 14, 2010

This past weekend I attended The Amazing Meeting 8 in Las Vegas, along with about 1300 other skeptics & supporters of science.  And, like last year, there was a talent show in which I participated.  Last year I performed the bed of nails demonstration and explained the physics involved, but this year I decided to do the hitting, so I gave another skeptical physics lesson – this time on karate & board breaking.  And, thanks to my colleague Dean over at the Blog of Phyz, I have some slow-motion footage of my grand finale break…

It might surprise many people to know that pretty much anyone can break boards with little training – in order to do more challenging breaks like that pictured here takes more training, though the basic principles are still the same. But in the end there is *nothing* mystical involved – no chi or “life energy” or any of that rot. With proper body mechanics and good use of mass (twisting the body), velocity (dropping to convert GPE into KE), and a low time of impact (solid supports that won’t give) one can make lots of kindling out of boards. Oh yeah, and the spacers are a nice trick as well :) For a fuller explanation, see my previous blog post on the subject.

And, just to put my money where my mouth is, I have to brag about one more thing: while at TAM8, I taught skeptic & paranormal investigator Joe Nickell how to break boards.  Joe had never before performed a board break, and – to my knowledge – has no formal martial arts training, yet I was able to get him successfully breaking boards with just 5 minutes of instruction.  Here he is successfully performing a palm-heel strike on a board I’m holding…

So, there you have it: if Joe Nickell, at his age & with no formal training, can employ the basic physics & body mechanics required to break a board, then pretty much anyone can do it… no special chi or paranormal powers required :)

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9 Responses to “Physics of Board Breaking & Karate at The Amazing Meeting 8”

  1. [...] the rest here: Physics of Board Breaking & Karate at The Amazing Meeting 8 « The … and-explained-, board-breaking-, gave-another, hitting, nails-demonstration, performed-the, [...]

  2. Sweet. I thought our bed of nails was hard to beat last year…

  3. [...] Physics of Board Breaking & Karate at The Amazing Meeting 8 from The Skeptical Teacher: “Last year I performed the bed of nails demonstration and explained the physics involved, but this year I decided to do the hitting, so I gave another skeptical physics lesson — this time on karate and board breaking.” [...]

  4. [...] closing, Matt, the Skeptical Teacher, demonstrated karate breaking at The Amaz!ing Meeting a couple of weeks ago in Las Vegas, and even showed that he could teach [...]

  5. 1st dan black belt, ITF TKD said

    The problem is, using anything you can teach in 5 minutes in a fight? not gonna happen. Not if you want it to be effective. Also, Chi strikes do exist, and Chi can/does have an effect on the body.

    • mattusmaximus said

      Never once, in all my 20+ years of martial arts experience (I’m also a black belt), have I ever seen a single, useful “chi” technique that didn’t work on those already willing to believe in it. As for your claim: talk is cheap.

  6. roger said

    My son does a prettign good job with sparring another person his own size/age,prettiy decent on techniques inclass,but when it comes to breaking a real wood 1″ #2 pine board his strenght technique drops and he only gently pushes the board. He does well with the practice pad and even the plastice padded break board he does at least ok. How to get him through the wood?? Techniques,advice? Thanks.

  7. Richard Burr said

    Hi Roger – I’ve been an instructor/coach of many of the past junior and senior male and female ITF World Champions from New Zealand over the past 7 years. We practice a lot naturally. Every big break (multiple boards) hurts to some extent – you cannot do the big ones repetitively without some hurt factor. I am a big fan of many many many many breaks of a single board with some form of protection (sparring glove/shin pad/light shoes) to establish muscle memory, refine technique, focus impact point etc. After the first 100, 200, 500 or 1000 successful breaks (I’m not joking) the body and mind becomes conditioned to the movements/speed/focus required. What is in front of you – wood/plastic/brick/concrete – single or multiple – then becomes far less of a mental issue. The key points are developing speed of technique, conditioning of the attacking tool, lots and lots of small successful breaks at full power/speed. Then when it comes to the pine board the mental approach is “it’s just another object to break” – rather than “this is going to take a lot more effort and will probably hurt”. If that is what the brain is thinking then it is almost impossible to tell the body to go 100% without some reflexive protective action – i.e. pushing the board, pulling the technique, less than full extension. Would LOVE to demonstrate for you! (just send airline ticket and money – lol!)
    Just as a side line – I personally and most of my fellow ITF instructors don’t put much credence in those multiple breaks with ‘spacers’ between boards/blocks/slabs. Try a 7-8 pine board break without. The required deflection of approximately 1cm to break is the same as a single board, except that the energy must be applied over a much shorter time period – effectively one break of 14-16cm as opposed to sequentially 7-8 breaks of 2cm. Check out the competitors at the 2011 World Champs – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A8-9RIidXLo
    I can speak for the NZ competitors – they can break significantly more than required in competition e.g. Luke Thompson 4 black polar board side piercing

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