Friday, June 28, 2013

Makiwara Misconceptions

"There are no karate men who do not use the Makiwara."
 - Nagamine Shoshin shinshii

This is the second article in my series on training with the Makiwara (Machiwara in Uchinaaguchi). The previous article provided a look at my indoor makiwara design to give folks some ideas about building their own. In this article I want to address what I see as the four most widespread  misconceptions which exist about Makiwara training. This hopefully will allow us to move forward into the instructional articles with a minimum of inaccurate baggage...

Misconception #1:  Makiwara is mainly about hand conditioning.

Okinawan martial artists have a gazillion conditioning methods (most of which they inherited from the Chinese) so they hardly needed to invent a new one. Moreover, I am not convinced a makiwara is ideal for that function anyway. Conditioning is a side benefit but not the -main- purpose. The two things that set a makiwara aside from all other punching-posts and punching-bags are:

a) Progressive resistance


 b) The forceful "spring back" (the makiwara returning to its original position)

Progressive resistances means the harder you hit or push the device, the more resistance the makiwara offers. This makes it ideal power development. Heavy-bags, Chinese style punching posts, and wooden-man dummies (devices which Okinawans also used, which are usually called sunabukuro, ude-makiwara, and kakete-biki) simply do not offer any progressive resistance and are therefore inferior for developing power.

The "spring back" forcefully pushes your arm back a spit second after impact. This makes it ideal for solo training of "immovable body" skills. In so-called “internal arts” like Tai-chi and Aikido they spend much time and effort practicing remaining immovable while a partner forcefully pushes on their arm (actually this skill is part of Okinawan shime/kitae training too, but that is another topic). A makiwara allows you to practice this same “immovable body” skill but without the need for a partner. You just do a progressive "body audit" by mindfully paying attention to joint after joint, feeling for any "give" or movement. You do this "body audit" from the hand all the way through the body to the feet. Eventually you can hit the makiwara with a hard shot that bends it well back, but results in zero discernible push-back (the makiwara remains bent and no motion can be seen in the body until the practitioner -chooses- to release it). So while the makiwara does condition the hands, conditioning was never its *main* function.

If the device does not offer progressive resistance and a forceful “spring back” (which can be used for kinesthetic feedback) then that device is NOT a makiwara.  This leads me to the next misconception…

Misconception #2: The devices which cause arthritis or joint damage are types of makiwara.

In truth, the devices which are most commonly associated with joint damage which are *called* makiwara are NOT in fact actually makiwara at all (I think the most common example would be punching a 4x4 post).

An iron-shot filled wall-bag is not a makiwara. A wall mounted pad/target is not a makiwara. A clapper style wall device is not a makiwara. A post in the ground is not a makiwara. A thick inflexible board is not a makiwara. If it doesn’t bend backwards several inches when struck and then immediately spring back to its original position (if not impeded) then it is SOME OTHER type of punching device and is not a makiwara. Because genuine makiwara DO bend when hit, they are very unlikely to ever cause joint damage (when struck by a normal healthy individual).

This is not to say you can’t injure yourself on a makiwara. You most certainly can…  but you won’t wind up with badly damaged hand joints. Wrist injuries are  another issue but they are avoided with good form. I’m not saying all of the other devices will damage the joints (or cause arthritis) if they are -used correctly- .

I am just saying that the makiwara gets blamed for injuries that were actually caused by completely different punching tools which are only erroneously CALLED makiwara.

Misconception #3: Hand conditioning is about calluses.

As already mentioned, conditioning is only a secondary goal to power-development and developing a rooted structure. Although it is secondary, it -is- still a goal. However, conditioning has little to do with calluses.  Body conditioning is about strengthening bones (via bone remodeling) as well as strengthening dense regular connective tissues containing closely packed bundles of collagen fibers.  These connective tissues include fasciae, aponeuroses, ligaments, and tendons. All of these tissues remodel according to imposed demands and bulk mechanical properties like modulus, failure strain, and ultimate tensile strength can be significantly increased over time with consistent training.

Creating callus does little to strengthen anything of any importance. Callus is a bit harder to rip so it can prevent some skin tearing. However, callus is generally less flexible which can actually make tearing more likely in the case of rotational force (violent twisting while in contact) so it is a bit of a mixed bag… Hitting a makiwara without callus feels like the skin is getting pinched between two hard objects (because it is). This pinch is annoying but far from debilitating. In my mind discomfort (to a degree) is good because it develops mental toughness. However I’ll admit I was glad when the pinch stopped being felt. You don’t need to have a lot of callus for the pinch to be dulled or eliminated. 1/5 of an inch is probably plenty. Lemus shinshi has mentioned that many Okinawan teachers do not want to advertise their martial experience, and choose to remove the accumulation of callus as it develops. This is probably a good idea IMHO. If somebody knows you are dangerous they are likely to attack you with a tire-iron to the back of the head rather than punch you in the jaw!  The subject of callus removal segues nicely into the next misconception…

As you can see, the hand is largely normal looking after callus removal

Misconception #4: Makiwara hand care is mostly about hit-medicines.

Hit-medicine is only one of several things you should have available to care for your hands. An emery board will remove the callus efficiently with no pain and leave your hands mainly normal looking. It also will remove (mostly anyhow) what I call “perma-scab”. If you look at a serious makiwara person’s hands you will often notice a small scab-like sore in the middle of at least one knuckle. These take months or even years to go away. However, an emery board will remove this perma-scab and the surrounding callus pretty effectively. Once removed, you should apply “new-skin” to the area to prevent the perma-scab from re-forming. “New-skin” is my second essential tool in the makiwara hand care kit. When you get the inevitable skin tear, just remove the skin that was detached with a nail-clipper (it NEVER will reattach in my experience so get rid of it right away) and apply pressure with a paper y towel until the bleeding stops. After that dab the area every few minutes (you want to remove the liquid which accumulates and will turn into a scab) until the area remains dry. Then apply the new-skin in a thin layer to the whole area (including a little past the tear itself) and blow on it to speed drying. Add a second (and possibly a third) coat the next morning. At that point you are GOOD TO GO. No need to miss any makiwara training!! It belongs in every makiwara kit.  Next, I recommend using a good hand lotion once in a while to prevent the skin from drying and cracking. This is especially true if you live somewhere with really cold winters.

Regarding hit-medicines, I believe much of the value of applying them comes simply from the act of thoroughly massaging the hands and knuckles before and after training. Just the massage (without any medicine) will speed recovery time a great deal. In terms of the medicinal value of hit-medicines, their main significance seems to be their remarkable anti-inflammatory properties. The reduced swelling, reduced bruising, and faster healing are all (IMHO) directly the result of the anti-inflammatory effect.

I use the "Golden Lotus" 34 herb formula as my hit-medicine of choice. I was quite impressed with the reduction in swelling which took place very quickly and also the increased speed in bruise healing (which was less dramatic but still impressive). The same formula is also available from Shen and several other suppliers but this supplier was recommended to me by Rod Morgan.


  1. Ryan, very interesting post. I think there are definitely a lot of misconceptions with Makiwara training. I've discussed it with a lot of people and there is always a ton of confusion. I'm sending a few people to this post so that they can get a better understanding of what it's really like. Thanks again for the clear and detailed post.

  2. I really liked your article - very detailed information and easily digestible.

    In my dojo (kyokushin karate) we have a very old fashioned canvas heavybag that we use for hand conditioning. We'll also perform knuckle pushups...on concrete (I hate these).

    I've been curious about setting up a makiwara at home but it seems that for every pro-makiwara article I read, from a reputable author, I find a con-makiwara article, from a reputable author. So I guess I am still on the fence.

    1. If you train sensibly, patiently and progressively you will develop stronger, denser bones, as well as strengthening the exact muscles, tendons and ligaments used in hand strikes. The problems come when you have a medical condition affecting your bones, or you don't look after your hands (especially if you are so lax they go septic), or you rush it. But I don't think there is anything quite like the makiwara to develop the connection between the legs, hips, tanden and arm.

  3. a really nice and very very interesting post, keep up the good work m8!

  4. So what can you use for exclusively hand conditioning ?

  5. Not sure if my initial post went through.

    Great article!
    I need to rethink my training.
    Thank you, ed

  6. Hi Ryan san, can I translate this article and share it on facebook?

  7. Sir I do NOT have time to build my own makiwara--Is there any pre-fab that you commend?

  8. I really need this reminder often: "...If you train sensibly, patiently and progressively...". As a young guy, i always thought a person could train to the point where their skills are almost constant in intensity & coordination. Never considered Family, career, illness, getting older and the basic unpredictability of life. Now, i'm starting to train smarter. Takes a dummy a long time to learn. Better late than never :).

  9. There is no reason to hit another person if you practice hitting the makiwara !
    Because it is all about overcoming fear !
    Okinawaman practice makiwara to meditate on survival and to deliver peace with harmony.

  10. Thanks for the informative read: I searched for 'do Aikidoka use makiwara to condition their hands/knuckles..?', to which this was the first article in Google. I guess ultimately its up to the individual as to how hard they want their hands to get, but as you would likely be aware, their's not a great deal of punching etc in Aikido, but I also work in the 'Security Industry' and there's always sometime that a strike works better as a lead up to other Aiki techniques.
    Are you aware of Aikidoka using hand conditioning such as makiwara to give them a stronger tougher hand along with their blending softer movements..???
    Searching for any feedback from yourself and others.
    Regards Brendon.

  11. You might have more understanding of the makiwara and its training if understood from the chineses kung fu point of view before much was lost when taken by the japanese. This is why the japanese/karate practioners lose the internal aspect thats intended to be gained from hitting a makiwara and also why you dont understand the progressive power gained from proper wooden dummy training. The wooden dummy is exponentially better than makiwara training for developing power. Very misinforming since you lack alot of knowledge about the trainings true use and put info out as tho you are thoroughly knowledgable on the training and history behind it.
    Also a makiwara clapper board is a kung fu essential to train a one inch punch something karate doesnt have and therefore your reason for misunderstanding the makiwara clapper for developing power.

  12. "There is no reason to hit another person if you practice hitting the makiwara !"

    Training with equipment alone will never fully prepare a person for battle. At some point, a practitioner must fight to test their complete skill package. Fortunately, with body armor, this can be done reasonable safely. Without fighting practice, Martial Arts can become a very involved system of aerobic training.

  13. "Without fighting practice, Martial Arts can become a very involved system of aerobic training."

    Hello: I am an instructor of a well known art for 23 years. People take martial arts for different reasons. Who is ready for battle ? That depends. Does the black belt prepare you for battle. Yes and No. Some schools will promise you the Moon to sign you up and then, give you a mugging and take your money! My first instructor, Chito Ryu, leaned on me to sign a lifetime membership. He doesn't teach or train, but I still do, but not his style. He took my money. I quit after six months. I still train, but not with karate.

    How do we know that we will win the battle. Because of the gold bars on your belt. Because someone told you, you are invincible. Because you hit a makiwara for 20 years. No. Readiness for battle depends on how you trained and who trained you. Everyday is a battle ! Not a silly karate fight. If you are still alive and still training, then maybe you won the battle? Not everyone should be fixated about winning the battle, just pay your rent, cut the lawn, take out the garbage !

  14. "...How do we know that we will win the battle..." This is the essential question. All the martial arts training will not guarantee victory in battle. Sometimes, no martial arts training assures victory. Current martial arts training is divided into two categories: Physical Fitness and Warriorship. People of both persuasions can be completely sincere but there is a fundamental difference between the two. My $0.02.