The makiwara (“wrapped straw”)–or machiwara, as it is called in Uchinaguchi (the native language of Okinawa)–is a traditional hojo undo kigu (supplementary training tool) that is used in Okinawan karate. A makiwara is a wooden post used for striking, and its name comes from the padding that was traditionally used for the striking areas, which was made of bundles of rice straw wrapped with rice rope. According to Okinawan karate lore, this device was developed entirely on Okinawa, rather than having been imported from Japan, China, India, or Southeast Asia. In looking at documents from these regions, it seems fairly likely that this is true, although there are somewhat similar tools that can be found. Clearly, the Okinawans had a specific need that they were trying to fill in their training by developing this tool. Various Okinawan masters have stated that it is a vital piece of equipment for any serious karateka, and while it has fallen out of favor in many dojo, it is still in use to this day.
|This is NOT a makiwara, and it is also very unhygienic|
First, it is important to understand what a makiwara is not; it is not simply a piece of wood meant to toughen your hands and feet! There are some who believe that the intended purpose of the makiwara was to toughen the hands and, in pursuit of this goal, they started experimenting with hitting a wide variety of things and calling them “makiwara.” Trees are popular among some groups, as can be seen in the photo, above. I have also been in dojo where they have built makiwara out of wood that does not bend, or they have used planks so thick that they cannot bend, regardless of the type of wood used. There are also people who simply attach a bit of padding to a wall, or use commercially produced “wall mounted makiwara” (like this, or this). Generally, they arrived at these types of solutions because they did not get the results they were expecting from properly made makiwara–they likely felt they were “too soft” and had “too much give” to toughen the hands properly.
|Automotive leaf springs|
That brings us to what a makiwara actually is. Numerous Okinawan masters have stated that the makiwara is vital to developing a powerful punch; not through toughening the hands, but through the refinement of technique and building of strength. Chibana Chosin, founder of Shorin-Ryu, insisted that a springy makiwara was necessary develop a punch with penetrating power, and that a makiwara that was too stiff would only toughen the hands and lead to injuries. Essentially, a proper makiwara is a wooden spring, which acts much like modern automotive leaf springs do. In fact, many people choose to build their makiwara from several planks of wood strapped together, exactly the way leaf springs are built out of steel. This is how two of the makiwara at my dojo are built, as is my own personal makiwara. Ideally, a makiwara should lean toward the person using it, both to properly align the striking surface with the fist, and to give it room to flex. A completely vertical makiwara can still work, provided it can flex. That flex–and the spring action of the wood returning to its neutral position–is vital to the effectiveness of the makiwara, because without it, you are just punching a dead piece of wood.
|Nakazato Shugoro (Shorinkan founder) punching his makiwara–note the flex of the makiwara|
The purpose of the makiwara is to provide instant feedback regarding the effectiveness of your strikes, as well as to strengthen the structure of your strikes. When you strike it, the makiwara resists, and the harder you hit it, the harder it pushes back. This is different from the reaction you get from a heavy bag, which will swing away from you when you hit it, reducing its resistance as it does so until it reverses its direction and comes back at you. The makiwara’s spring action provides constant pressure, and this will cause you to notice when your structure is weak. Your wrist or elbow may buckle, your shoulder might be pushed back, your torso might lean away, or you may even be rocked back on your heels. These are clues as to what you need to improve in your striking form. Conveniently, the constant pressure of the makiwara is also like weight lifting for your strikes. Since you are striking against resistance, all of the muscles and connective tissues used in the action of striking will be strengthened over time. This means that as the makiwara tells you where you are making mistakes, it helps reinforce your corrections by making you stronger in just the right ways.
|A chunk of old puzzle mat tied to the makiwara with my obi (belt) for extra padding|
Makiwara training is not usually something that can be jumped into without any preparation, because it can injure you if you strike it incorrectly, or too hard. Learning the basics of how to strike can be done first in the air, and then on pads and bags, which are more forgiving than the makiwara. It also is a good idea to do knuckle planks and push-ups to help develop wrist strength and toughen the skin, connective tissues, and bones of the hand and wrist. This will prepare your striking surfaces and joints for the stress of makiwara training, which will allow you to do more makiwara training than you may otherwise have been able to do. When I introduce people to the makiwara, I have them simply set their knuckles against the pad and push it back. This is much easier on the hands, making it a good place to start, but it is also an excellent exercise for those who are accustomed to makiwara training. I actually do this to start every makiwara training session! Once you are comfortable with how much pressure you can safely use against the makiwara, you can start striking it. Strikes should start out relatively light, and increase in power as you become stronger and more acclimated to the training. When you do start hitting the makiwara, it doesn’t hurt to add extra padding if it causes too much pain, or if your knuckles are injured, so long as it does not interfere with the spring action. I used to use foam hand pads, but they were too “squishy,” and dampened the spring effect. Paul Enfield Sensei recommended using an old flip-flop, but I made use of a chunk of old puzzle mat (seen in the photo, above) to get the same effect.
I am certainly not a master when it comes to makiwara training–I’ve only been training in karate since 2006, and while I was introduced to the makiwara at that time, I only had access to it about one day a week, for a few minutes before and after class. In addition, I did not have access to a makiwara, at all, for the last half of 2008 until the middle of 2010. In the grand scheme of things, I really don’t have much experience with it, especially when you consider that a 60+ year old Motobu Choki once said that he still hadn’t mastered the use of the makiwara. Still, I feel that I might be able to provide some helpful information for those who have never used a makiwara, or who have not been taught how to properly use one. With this in mind, I recorded the brief video, above, to go over some basics. This, of course, assumes that you have already learned how to properly strike soft targets, like hand-held pads or punching bags, with good technique.