I’ve spent the last few months teaching one of the other personal trainers at work how to break wooden boards with her hands. The other day, we held a small demonstration, footage of which can be seen here.
And on that day, I had three people ask me what the trick is. I said training, and conditioning the hand over time, and understanding appropriate progressions. I also pointed out that it’s easier with certain striking areas than others, but that is simply an aspect of understanding the nature of appropriate progressions. Now that I reflect upon it though, I think the question reveals something else that’s going on in the fitness industry.
Of course there is no trick. It’s just training, conditioning the body, and developing over time. The two primary keys to progress are of course known, they are patience and consistency. Moving forward to what will be helpful when it is helpful, but not before. Avoiding injury, over-stimulation, boredom or stagnation.
The easiest way to break a board is with a muscular – rather than bony – surface area. So of course we begin by practicing the correct technique and leverage, and getting the heel of the palm used to a small degree of impact. Over time, one may progress to striking with the knuckles, but of course – while stronger in a certain context, the knuckles are also more fragile and vulnerable to injury. So again, appropriate steps only. Move from the simple to the complex, what is doable to what is challenging.
If you have trained well, when it comes to breaking a board with your hand, it may feel surprisingly easy. The thing is this – in a meeting between your hand and the board one surface will remain strong and the other will yield. If the board yields and your palm remains strong, you will succeed and it will feel smooth, potentially easy. But if the board is the one who remains strong, then your hand will yield, and it can be jarring or shocking. Once you progress to impacts with your knuckles, you discover a new dynamic. You may be able to punch strongly, and break the board, but if you fail, the injury done to your hand may be more severe. Likewise if you strike a harder surface like stone, the preparation must be even more thorough if you wish to avoid damaging your hand. So if you rush to attempt some feat for which you are not prepared, the consequences may not be pleasant.
There’s an analogy that relates to all physical training here somewhere. There is no trick. Only training, which means conditioning, practicing the techniques, and applying yourself over time. We have been told there are tricks and secrets, but in the martial arts and in fitness, the secrets are all hidden in plain sight, within the most simple of techniques.
Of course some techniques appear more exotic, there are methods for training your breath and concentration, and as much as there may be real and genuine masters with seemingly mystical powers, all true things are built upon solid foundations. In the end, the techniques are physical ones that can be trained and progressed as the body and mind both respond and adapt to the new reality.
There is nothing quite like progressing over time, and remembering what it was like for a certain thing to feel impossible, in the days before you were able to do it. Experiencing this kind of progress changes the way you regard things, it challenges the nature of possibility. In learning to break wood with your hands, this dynamic is obvious, profound and satisfying, but in many walks of life and professions this dynamic is also found, if in subtler or less physical forms. Whatever it is you have been doing, you may now be capable of doing a thing that you once were not. You may be able to think of an analogy in your own life, great or small. A thing that happened – it need not be an achievement – but something that changed your perspective. Something transformative – where a thing changed from impossible or untrue to known and real. Reflect upon it if you wish, and share with me if you like. What is the nature of progress?
And if you look at the great and prominent martial artists of recent times – from Jean Claude Van Damme to Bruce Lee and everyone in between, the reason for their greatness actually lies in simplicity. They’re just really damn good at their arts, the simple kicks and punches are performed with a degree of mastery that you cannot fake, and is rarely seen.
The only secret is that the advanced techniques are not advanced – instead they are simple, but the degree of competency and quality is what is advanced. The way a human moves is often simple and predictable to a point, but with experience, it is the understanding of human movement, the application of physical leverage, power and speed, and the application of relaxation and softness – it is these things, these concepts that are both advanced and subtle, not the physical movements themselves. There is no real secret to the technique. Only this: you’ll understand it more and more the better you get at practicing it. Sensitivity is key. Awareness is key. And self-knowledge develops over time.
All training is like this. The secrets are widely known but we forget what is clear, and what is free: repetition and consistency are the keys to progress, coupled with analysis. Sooner or later, a degree of insight is achieved, and what was in plain sight all along is able to be perceived clearly.
In the end, this seems to be true across the board: if it is a secret, it’s a scam.
Tricks are illusions of course, but the idea that a trick is the key is also an illusion.
Instead, the truth to training the body is very simple, and that’s what makes it challenging.