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Stunts exposed


There are no superhumans, only gullible people.

Secret arts

It seems that the more outrageous a claim is, the more people will believe it. If I told you I saw an old man yell at a young attacker and cause him to be thrown to the ground, people would say I was lying. However, if I also said the man was a grand master of kung-fu, people would tend to believe it happened. The unbelievable is still unbelievable no matter who appears to be able to do it. If it is unbelievable, then do not believe it until it is proved. The laws of physics and nature apply to everyone, even martial arts masters.

An excellent example of the way that the public or even experienced martial artists may be misled is the John F. Gilbey book Secret Fighting Arts of the World. Gilbey claims to have traveled the world to find the world's most secretly guarded fighting techniques which he then describes in his book.

Some of the legitimate techniques he describes are the Liverpool headbutt, the Ganges groin grab, French savate, and Mexican knife fighting. However, he also describes a Parisian who could project a belch ten feet in the open air and cause a man to faint. He describes a ninja who could take a full force blow across his forearm with a sharp sword without the skin being cut. The ninja could also stop another person's bleeding nose with a loud kiai. Another old master could silently leap to the roof of a house.

Gilbey also tells of seeing a man in the Reykjavik, Iceland passenger train station whose deflected punch left a quarter of an inch depression in a steel stanchion that it hit. There has never been a train station in Reykjavik. The only train in Iceland's history was a small narrow-gauge work train that only had one short rail line.

John F. Gilbey is actually a pen name of Robert W. Smith, a noted author, and martial art teacher. In the late 1960's, Smith, along with fellow martial artists, Donn F. Draeger, Jon Bluming, and Jim Bregman invented a super martial artist from Reykjavik, Iceland named John F. Gilbey (the last name taken off a bottle of gin). Although the book was a work of fiction parodying various martial arts tall tales, it was widely believed for decades to be a factual account of actual martial artists.

Possible or impossible

You cannot always believe what you see and hear. This includes what you see and hear during demonstrations by martial arts "masters." Some of the things you see are true feats of skill that were developed through years of intense training; however, some things you see are merely illusions. When you see something that first appears to be possible even though it seems to be impossible, be skeptical and make sure what you are seeing is really the truth.

The martial arts are not spiritual or mystical; they are merely methods of self-defense. There is nothing magical about the techniques in the martial arts; they only demonstrate physics in action. Most martial arts demonstrations you see at tournaments or in the media are for entertainment and marketing. They show extraordinary athletes performing athletic feats that 90 percent of the public could never hope to achieve, even after years of dedicated training.

Many times, the demonstrations involve tricks, feats, or stunts that have been used by charlatans to fool the public for centuries; the stunts have just been updated for modern times. Some of these stunts are described below. These tricks should only be performed by well-trained professional adults with proper safeguards.

WARNING: While most of these stunts are not as dangerous as they appear to be, some of them involve activities that may result in injuries or possibly death. Therefore, before you attempt them, you should have professional adult instruction, proper training, and readily available safety equipment and safety personnel.

Breaking boards

Martial artists use board breaking to build confidence, judge the power of their techniques, and to simply entertain audiences.

Some standard tips for board breaking are to:
  • Use wide pine boards (length does not really matter, except for cost).
  • Pick boards with no with no knots done the center line of their length.
  • Use dry wood.
  • Break with the grain.

The drier the boards, the easier they are to break. Boards may be dried by placing them in an oven with space around them for air circulation. Set the oven a low temperature, 150 to 200 degrees, and let them bake for as many hours as possible. For safely, keep a constant vigil on the process.

When breaking more than one board, place spacers (such as wood pencils) between the boards (one along each of two opposite sides aligned with the grain) to make the breaking easier. For example, when you break four one-inch boards stacked on top of each other, it is roughly the equivalent of breaking one 4-inch board. However, when spacers are used, you are breaking four 1-inch boards, one at a time, which is much easier.

Breaking burning boards

This is no more difficult than breaking the same boards without the flames. You are not in contact with the flames long enough to burn yourself and the charred areas are not hot enough to burn you. Ever seen "tough guys" passing their fingers through the flame of a match, it's the same principle. The skin is not in contact with the flame long enough for the heat to injure the skin.


This trick has been used for centuries by magicians, street performers, and martial artists, and in recent years, by self-improvement gurus. If done properly, it is not dangerous. There are no flames, only hot coals evenly spread over a large surface. The coals are allowed to smolder until they have white ash on their surfaces. People then quickly walk over the coals with bare feet and are not harmed. The effect is not mystical, it has a scientific basis:
  • The dry wood coals used by fire walkers conduct heat very poorly. The coal itself may be very hot but it will not transfer that heat very well to something touching it.
  • The coals have a very uneven surface, and the actual surface area of a foot touching the coals is very small, so the skin to coal contact area is small and changes with every step. Hence, the conduction of heat is even slower.
  • Wood coals have a very low heat capacity, so although they are very hot there is actually not much heat energy to be transferred to the foot.
  • Firewalkers do not spend much time on the coals, and they keep moving.
  • As they walk across the coals, firewalkers keep a steady pace with a rolling step (heel makes contact first and the foot roll over and pushes off the ball of the foot). This means each section of the sole of the foot is only in contact with the coals for a short time.
  • Blood is a good conductor of heat. What heat does get through is quickly conducted away from the soles of the feet.

The "Leidenfrost" effect may play a part in fire walking. This occurs when a cold, wet object (like a foot) touches a hot, dry object (like a hot coal). The water vaporizes, creating a barrier of steam between the hot and cold objects. Hence, the two objects do not actually touch and evaporation from the cold object is much slower than might otherwise be expected. Since steam is a relatively poor conductor of heat the foot does not get burned.

This effect can be seen in action by shaking droplets of water onto a hot skillet and watching the droplets bead up and dance around instead of instantly evaporating. It also explains how mom can touch a clothes iron to see if it is hot if she first licks her finger. Jearl Walker, of Scientific American's "The Amateur Scientist" column, explained the Leidenfrost effect in the August 1977 issue; he walked across coals unharmed and attributes this to the Leidenfrost effect. Other scientists believe that the Leidenfrost effect is unimportant in fire walking.

Here is another way to have fun with this. The next time you are at a party where cold beverages are being served, find a smoker. Then press the thumb and index fingertips of one hand against the side of your ice-cold glass or can (it should be cold enough that it sweats). Then take the lit cigarette in the other hand and hold the lit end between the thumb and index finger of the chilled hand. You will be able to hold it for several seconds without discomfort or damage. When it starts to warm up, release it quickly and watch the look of amazement on people's faces.

Walking on broken glass

This is another old carnival trick. The edges of the glass are what cut; so if you blunt the edges, there is less chance of getting cut. The old carnies broke some glass, removed the jagged pieces and shards, put the glass in a large canvas sack with some stones, and then rolled and shook the bag until the edges of the glass were blunted. Sometimes they even filed the edges by hand. The glass was then spread on an even surface and smoothed, so no pieces were standing upright. When they stepped on the glass, it was with straight up and down steps, with firm even pressure, and with no other foot or toe movement.

The martial art version of glass walking uses the same process except we have more modern ways to blunt the edges of the glass, such as by using a rock polishing tumbler or a rotating cement mixer with some sand in it

Use broken, thick glass (such as tempered glass) and a lot of it. Tempered glass breaks into small chunks with dull edges. If you have had a car door glass broken, then you probably have seen small chunks of glass on the car seat but no slivers of glass. Walk slowly, stepping each foot down flat and then slowly apply weight. No one piece of glass as enough force applied to it for it to pierce the tough sole of the foot.

Lying on a bed of nails

This trick is very easily performed by anyone. If you push a nail into your skin, it will not penetrate until the pressure applied to the point of the nail is great enough to break through the skin. Since skin is tough and pliable it will require extreme pressure before the nail will penetrate. If you were to lie on one nail, the pressure may be great enough to penetrate the skin. If you were to lie on a bed of nails, each nail would not have enough applied pressure to break the skin. The more nails, the less chance of harm.

Dipping your hand into molten lead

The molten lead is at about 800 degrees Fahrenheit but when performed properly, the hand will not be injured. First, dip the hand into some water and then quickly dip the hand in and out of the molten lead. The water will turn to steam and insulate the hand from the heat. The molten lead will not cling to the hand, so a quick dip will not burn the hand. This because of the "Leidenfrost" effect described above in the fire walking item.

In a January 2010 episode of the Mythbusters television series, the hosts performed this stunt. After some preliminary testing to ensure they would not be injured, each of the two hosts dipped their fingers into water and then quickly into and out of molten lead. They did not feel any discomfort.

Having 2 x 4 board broken across your body

Have you ever seen a person break long two-by-four boards across another person's body? It’s an easy stunt to perform.

The strength of wood is in its compression. A two-by-four has tremendous strength when it is in compression, such as when used in walls to support the roof of a house, but it has weak lateral strength, such as when a long 2x4 is supported at the ends and a heavyweight is placed at the midpoint of the board’s length. The board will bend and break.

Another factor involved in this trick, it the physics of levers. If a person is struck with the end of a board, an injury will occur. If the board is long and strikes the person at a point on the board that is less than the midpoint of the board, the person's body will act as a fulcrum and the board will break around the person's body with no injury to the person.

Standing on knives

This trick is dangerous, but if done properly, no injury will occur. When a sharp edge is pressed against the skin, it takes great pressure for the edge to cut the skin since the skin is very tough and pliable. However, if the edge is moved along the surface of the skin, it will cut with very little applied force.

The secret to standing on knives is not to move while standing on them. This method is also used when the martial artist places an object, such as an apple, on a person and then uses a sword to cut it in half. If the sword moves vertically, and the downward force is slight, there is little chance of it cutting the person. However, even the slightest horizontal movement of the sword will cut the person.

Pushing point of a spear or arrow against throat until shaft breaks

The shafts are always wood. As stated before, skin is tough and pliable. The blunter the point on a spear or arrow, the more pressure is needed to penetrate the skin. If the shaft of the spear or arrow is designed to bend and/or break before enough pressure builds on the point to penetrate the skin, the performer is safe from injury.

Breaking a wood chopstick on throat

All stunts are preceded with "patter," the superfluous words that attribute the premise of the stunt to some ancient oriental force that only true "masters" of the martial arts have attained. For this stunt, you might speak of yin and yang, weak and strong. "The chopstick is strong, but the throat is weak. But with proper training, you may strengthen the throat until it may resist penetration."

Then perform some "chi focusing" motions and noises, stare intensely, and place the chopstick to your throat, at the top of the sternum in the hollow of the throat, holding it by the butt with it inside your fist. Then with a kiai, slap the top the fist to seemingly drive the chopstick into your throat, but instead of penetrating the skin, the chopstick breaks.

When performing the stunt, the performer lets the mark examine the chopstick and then stands to face the mark to hide the twisting/breaking motion used in the stunt. As the performer begins the break, he or she uses a couple of practice strikes on the fist holding the stick to let the mark see the motion. On the third strike, the performer slaps the fist hard and loudly, but twists the support fist so it bends the stick sideways and breaks it. The better the quality of the chopstick, the more care must be taken to ensure the broken ends do not cause harm.

Touching hot oil

A master pours clear oil into a pot or wok and heats it. When the oil boils, he touches his palm to the surface of the oil without being burned. To perform this stunt, the master pours a mixture of oil and lemon juice (much more juice than oil) into the pot. The oil separates and floats on top of the juice. The juice starts to boil so it seems as if the oil is boiling, but the oil is actually cooler than the juice. Then, just as quickly as touching a wet finger to an iron to test it, the master quickly touches the oil with a damp hand.

Breaking concrete block on chest

In this stunt, a hard object, such as a concrete slab or a cinder block, is placed on the chest of a prone person and is broken by another person using a sledgehammer.

The force a blow imparts to a person depends on the power in the blow and the area over which it strikes. If the sledgehammer’s small contact area were to strike the person, they would be crushed by the force. However, since the sledgehammer is striking another object that has a much larger surface area in contact with the person, the force of the hammer is spread out enough that no harm is caused to the person. The large mass of the object also absorbs much of the blow. In addition, concrete is hard, but it is also brittle, which mean it shatters easily, which disperses the blow’s energy.

Lying between two chairs

In this stunt, a person lies between two chairs with the shoulders resting on one chair and the heels resting on the other chair. Then another person stands on the person's torso or some object is broken on the person's torso, such as the block break discussed above.

Again, the secret to this trick is leverage. With the body supported by the feet and shoulders, the torso may be held rigid rather easily. Imagine a line down the middle of the torso between the two support points with marks at the 1/4, 1/2, and 3/4 points along the line. The torso cannot support much weight placed on the 1/2 point of the line, but if a weight placed on the torso at the 1/4 or 3/4 marks, a much greater weight may be supported with no effort.

Breaking a block of ice

Breaking ice is easy. Like wood, the strength of ice lies in its compression, it has weak lateral strength. At some point, a long block of ice will break under its own weight. Ice is brittle, so it shatters rather than breaking.

The strength of ice can be affected by adding salt to the water from which it is made. The result is not a block of frozen salt water, but a block of frozen water with salt crystals dispersed throughout the block. The salt crystals weaken the ice making it easier to break.

The break may be made easier if a string is pulled back in forth across the ice block in a sawing motion to melt the ice. Saw partially through the block. The ice will refreeze the cut so it is invisible, but the block will be weakened. Making a scratch mark across the ice with an icepick will also weaken it at that point. Spacers may be used with multiple blocks to make the break even easier.

Breaking a baseball bat with shin

First condition the shin by rolling a hard rod up and down it daily for weeks. Kick the baseball bat at the point the bat just starts begins its smallest diameter with a quick, powerful kick. The bat will break. The conditioning will help ease the pain. Just as with other types of breaking, if you do not fully commit yourself to the kick, the bat will not break, and much pain will ensue, as may be seen in numerous YouTube videos.

Proving a trace by having the person look upward while trying to open his or her eyes

Some claim they can put you into a trance. One way they try to convince you that you are in a trance is to have you close your eyes, look upward, and try to open your eyes. Since your eyes will not open, it is claimed you are in a trance. Try it. As long as you are looking upward, your eyes will not open. It has nothing to do with a trance.

Standing on eggs without breaking them

An egg breaks easily when pressure is applied to its sides. However, when pressure is applied to the ends, it may withstand over 500 pounds per square inch of pressure.

To perform the stunt, use a device to hold the eggs upright and apply the pressure evenly; four eggs will support a person without breaking.

Grabbing a coin from a person's hand

Remember the old Kung-fu TV show where Grasshopper had to grab grains of rice from the master's hand. Sounds impressive! Instead of rice, let's try it with a coin.

Have your mark hold a quarter in the palm of his or her hand. Hold your hand about eight inches above theirs and tell them that you can grab the quarter before they can close their hand. Stress how speed is important and how you have practiced for years. It can be very impressive if set up right. Offer to let them try first if they want. It may sound easy enough, but it is next to impossible if tried legitimately.

Here is how you do it: cup your hand, palm downwards, about eight inches or so above theirs. Instead of grabbing the coin, sharply strike their hand with yours. This will make the quarter bounce up into your hand. Do not be too overt about it; you want it to seem like a natural part of just grabbing the coin. Some people will think that the coin is still in their fist. If you want to make this a little more dramatic, ask them if they still have the coin before you open your hand to reveal your plunder. The technique will take a bit of practice but once you once you learn it, even when they see how you did it, you can still beat them. Your action is much quicker than their reaction.

Bending straight pins with a slap

Another trick used to demonstrate strength and deference to pain is to push a straight pin (the one with a head that is used in sewing) into some wood just enough that it stands upright, and then slap your palm down on top of the pin. The pin will bend without penetrating the palm. It looks impressive.

The pin will always bend, and the pain will be minimal. If you slap the palm down on a flat surface just before slapping the pin, you will not feel the pin at all.

Push or pull a large vehicle

It would not seem possible for an ordinary person to push a large truck. If the person suddenly applied his or her maximum strength, the truck would probably not move. However, if the person pushes and continues to push for a period, the truck will gradually start to move. If the force is continuously applied over time, the truck's speed will gradually increase.

The same principle applies to a stuck window in your home. If you quickly jerk the window, it stays stuck. However, if you apply a steady force over a period, the window may break loose. This is how a weak seedling can push its way out of the hard earth. It applies a weak force over a long period.

Tearing phonebook in half 

The trick is to bend the book so the pages are spread out, so you are actually only tearing a few pages at a time. Phone books and paperback books are "glue bound" with a common glue used to hold the pages to the spine. Grab the book in both hands along the spine with a gap between the hands. While keeping a firm grip, push downward with each hand while pulling them in opposite directions to break the spine. Now just keep pulling the two halves apart and down so you are ripping the pages instead of the entire book. This will not work if you try to tear from the non-glued side where the pages are open.

Bending a metal rod or flat bar

Just as with pushing or pulling a large vehicle, one may bend a stiff iron bar by applying force over a period.

More stunts

Read about the stunts of strongmen performers of the past: Vintage stunts of strength.

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