Martial Arts


Reprinted with permission
Tae Kwon Do Times - September 2007


About The Author

Kwan Jang Nim John St. James is a 8th degree black belt and the owner/chief instructor of Karate World in Suwanee, Georgia. He is also the founder and president of the Atlantic-Pacific Tang Soo Do Federation and has trained many world-class martial artists including Master Leif Becker, a current world record holder in breaking.

Breaking Through Your Limitations

A break is a break is a break...or is it?

Students practice breaking to demonstrate power, speed, focus and proper understanding of technique. This practice is done in preparation to testing to the next level. Although this can be a good thing, it often results in frustration, embarrassment, and feeling of failure when things don't go right. The reasons for this are many and yet the main reason is often a lack of  understanding and proper preparation. Breaking is all about empowering ourselves to step out of our comfort zone and face the two primary fears that hold people back from realizing their true potential. Those two primary fears are  the fear of failure and the fear of rejection or embarrassment. When breaking is used as a motivational tool, it can become not only a wonderful way to empower a martial arts student but also a great way to show students how to live their lives at a higher level outside the studio. In this article, I will cover some of the ways that world-class breakers go about breaking. To gain further insight, I interviewed Master Leif Becker of Southbury Academy of Karate in Southbury, Connecticut. Master Becker currently holds the world record for breaking the most boards (487) in one minute.

When studying the art of breaking it is important to split the curriculum (both mental and physical) into two basic components: The right physical strategy and the right mental strategy or psychology. The overall right strategy is taking the proper steps that have to be in place in order to get a consistently successful result. For example, the right psychology is using your mind to see things in a way that will bring you closer to your goal(s). It requires the student to know and use the proper mindset (thinking patterns) that leads to a reliably triumphant outcome. In this way, the student of the art of breaking learns how to use their mind and their body in synergy to actualize their true potential.

The Right Physical Strategy

Safety First

Instructors must first decide which techniques are best for their students. Factors would include both age and ability. Stay away from joints and focus on other areas of the body without injuring developing bones. An example of this could include using a palm strike or elbow strike instead of a closed hand punch. An instructor then begins to discuss mechanics as a student's abilities increase. Proper body alignment and development of power while striking leads to successful execution. Most injuries occur due to a lack of understanding of proper body mechanics and delivery. To be successful, one must constantly work on the proper mechanics of each technique. For example, Master Becker practiced the proper body mechanics every other day for three months before his world record attempt. Look at the best breakers, forms competitors and weapons specialists in the world and you will no doubt find that they continue to practice the fundamental basics every day.

Physical Conditioning

Conditioning is another key to successful breaking. You need to strengthen your body and understand that conditioning is about more than just developing strength. It includes developing both strength and stamina. Listed below are some specific areas martial artists must develop to become successful at breaking. These drills are used to develop strength and stamina.

   Endurance Training - Breaking is more than power alone. Individuals must be balanced within as well. Endurance ensures
                                      that an individual will stay focused and continue to deliver power over an extended period of time.
                                      This important factor dramatically lessens the possibility of an injury when attempting multiple
                                      breaks. Endurance training should include both longer sessions, approximately 30 minutes, as well
                                      as short explosive endurance drills such as sprinting or hill climbs.

   Strength Training - Breaking does require power, therefore martial artists need to ensure they are working with weights if
                                   they choose to compete at breaking at a high level. This is a very effective drill taken right out of
                                   Master Becker's training regimen. In this specific drill, you take a technique or type of lift (if weight
                                   training) and perform it continuously for one minute. This exercise is extremely important to begin
                                   developing the mindset needed for longer breaking performances. For example, Master Becker used
                                   this drill to develop the strength, stamina and mental preparation for a full minute of intense breaking
                                   which led to his world record.

   Body Conditioning - This should include training on a makiwara board (a striking board of Okinawan origin) or something
                                     similar to condition your hand or foot. Conditioning should happen on a regular basis. This important
                                     technique conditions the body as well as the mind.

The Right Mental Strategy


Master Leif Becker


Possibility Thinking

What type of break do you want to attempt? You need to consider your current level of expertise and the type of technique that is best suited for your body type. I recommend that you start by asking your instructor what technique he or she would like you to practice. Next, you should consider your current level of conditioning as discussed above and start from there. Set up short-term, small goals and take action. The Law of Incremental Change states that "it is hard by the yard but a cinch by the inch."

Decide in Advance

After you have chosen your specific goal, you must decide in advance how much time it will take to reach your goal. Proper preparation is critical. Set a training schedule in the dojang and at home that will allow for enough time to properly prepare. The amount of time needed will be in direct proportion to the degree of difficulty of the break and your current level of mental and physical conditioning. Here again, I suggest you discuss this with your instructor for more guidance as it relates to establishing time frames that make sense.

Reverse Engineering

Create the action steps that will take you from where you are to where you want to be. My recommendation is to use a planner and decide specific times and days you will condition yourself both mentally and physically. For example, you might train in the dojang on Tuesdays and Thursdays and hit the gym on Wednesdays and Fridays. You could schedule 30 minutes of bag work and/or target training per day at home to review your specific breaking technique. The key is to be consistent in your training and map your progress. Make your action steps SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic/Relevant, and Time bound).


Kwan Jang Nim John St. James

Start Small and Work Your Way Up

The key to reaching any large goal, including breaking, is to start small and work your way up. Once you have perfected proper body mechanics, it is time to work on focus and conditioning. Start with smaller/thinner boards before moving up to an advanced level. If your goal is to break three boards with a stepping side kick, you might start with one motivational board or something similar and then progress to a regular board that is eight to ten inches. After several successful attempts, you can then progress to either a twelve-inch board or two eight-inch boards. From there, you move steadily towards your goal of breaking three eight, ten and/or twelve-inch boards.

See It To Believe It

We all have the ability to visualize success before it ever occurs. To do this, simply imagine what it will look like, feel like, and how it will sound when you successfully complete your break. See yourself as the lead actor in a  a movie featuring world-class breakers. The goal is to run the movie over and over again in your mind. Make it vivid and sharp. Put it in high definition and try zooming in on the target before you start the break. Play with this until you become good at it. The effort will be well worth it in the end.


Kwan Jang Nim John St. James


Other Considerations

As you think and plan your next break, consider whether you will use a single breaking station or multiple stations. You will also need to consider whether to execute a stationary break and/or attempt a supported or unsupported speed break. Your decision should be based upon your confidence level, conditioning and overall competency. You also want to consider how many holders you will need and, if possible, gain commitments well in advance from them. Your instructor will be glad to help you with this. The fact is that even though breaking is an individual pursuit, it takes a great team (including competent holders) to get the job done. The more your team is together and working in the same direction, the better the chance to achieve your goal.

Other considerations include the type of material used for the break (wood, brick, cinder block) and whether or not spacers are used for stationary breaks. Also consider what type of spacer will compliment your goal. For example, the type of spacer used in competition may be completely different from the type of spacer used for a performance.

Don't Forget Creativity

Finally, many breakers use their creativity to produce an overall effect depending on the audience and circumstances. For example, Master Becker and his world-class breaking team combine different breaking materials, music, choreography, extreme breaking, power breaking, speed breaking, and even lights to gain maximum effect. The sky is the limit and your ability to tap into your own creativity and the creativity of others will determine your overall effectiveness.

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