These days, karate is often practiced without the aid of any training equipment, but that has not always been the case. Hojo undo (supplementary training) has long been a vital component of martial arts training not just on Okinawa, but also China and India. While it is certainly possible to develop a great deal of knowledge and skill without using any additional equipment, beyond your own body and a partner, there are major benefits to utilizing training equipment. There are traditional hojo undo kigu (supplementary training tools), as well as modern training equipment, that can be employed to help develop a more effective martial artist. There are a lot of training tools available, but this article lists a selection of tools that I, personally, believe to be essential.
The makiwara is a tool that I’ve written about on numerous occasions, and for good reason–it is the classic karate training device! While other striking tools have their benefits, the makiwara is the only one that provides targeting training, power development, structural feedback, and conditioning, all in one tool. The biggest benefit, in my opinion, is the immediate feedback you receive from striking the makiwara. It can tell you where your structure is weak, and help you strengthen it.
Kakiya/Kakete-Biki (Wooden Dummy)
The kakiya/kakete-biki is a tool that has largely fallen out of favor with karateka, but still has a lot to offer. Classically, it was a wooden post with a lever arm that was counter-weighted to give it some resistance. These days, a kakiya/kakete-biki can be made in a wide variety of ways. Springs and advanced mechanical joints can be used to make arms that move and provide resistance in many directions. This allows you to practice trapping and limb control methods, in conjunction with striking, which helps develop tactile sensitivity and muchimi (stickiness).
Sunabukuro (Heavy Bag)
While the makiwara helps teach a karateka how to strike powerfully and efficiently, the heavy bag allows you to work full-power strikes in combination, with movement, on a target that moves and reacts like a human body. Unlike the makiwara, a heavy bag will move, sway, and give more like a person, and it’s round, fully-padded form allows you to move freely around it to work from a variety of angles. It can also be utilized much like a sagi-makiwara (hanging makiwara) to develop structure and muchimi.
The tetsutaba (iron bundle) is much more common in Chinese martial arts than in karate, but I have found them to be very valuable. Karateka often practice kote-kitae (forearm forging) drills to toughen their arms for blocking and striking. Others do various types of partnered tai tanren (body conditioning) exercises, where they strike each other to toughen the body to take blows. Some also practice kata shime (testing) which, although it is intended to refine posture, structure, and technique, can also toughen the body for receiving blows. The trouble with these types of body conditioning is that they generally require a partner, and a partner isn’t always available. This tool gives you the ability to toughen your body, even when you don’t have a partner, or when you are injured or sick.
Macebells and sledgehammer exercises are slowly becoming more popular in the fitness community, but Okinawan have been using them for generations in a more primitive form–the chi-ishi (stone mallet). Originally nothing more than a stone on a stick, these tools are extremely versatile and customizable, because they can be made with handles of varying lengths and thicknesses, and the weight can be made as light or heavy as needed. While hammers and commercially produced macebells are available, it is a bit of a rite of passage for a karateka to make their own chi-ishi. They are very simple to make, and there are many resources online that will explain how to make them. For functional, movement-based strength training that connects directly to karate, it’s hard to beat.
Kettlebells are another popular training implement, which is generally credited to Russia, but similar weights have been used all over Eurasia, including India, China, and Okinawa. Many of these were made of stone, and the Okinawans call them ishi-sashi (stone locks). Much like chi-ishi, these tools are very versatile, and can be used for overall strength training, as well as more motion-specific strength training. Unlike chi-ishi, they are a bit harder to make, yourself, and most will find it easier to simply purchase kettlebells.
The barbell has long been a staple of weight training, the world over, and Okinawa is no exception. Before they had modern steel barbells with modular weights, they used train and automobile wheels and axles, and before that, they used stone weights on both end of a pole, like a double-ended chi-ishi, which they called a tan. At heavy weights, this is an excellent tool for developing full-body strength, which is really the biggest benefit of a barbell, generally. At lower weights, however, it can be used to isolate specific muscle groups, and specific movements.
These are, of course, only a small selection of training implements–there are many more which can be beneficial to a karateka, and it would be very difficult to list them all. This list is simply a starting point. If you can only afford a small set of hojo undo kigu, I believe that these will be the most beneficial, versatile, and cost-effective. If you have these tools, then I strongly urge you to research other equipment, and see how it can be incorporated into your training.