The makiwara, or machiwara in Uchinaguchi (lit. “Okinawa mouth,” the native language of Okinawa), is a popularly referenced, albeit often misunderstood, traditional karate training tool. It has fallen out of favor with many karateka, either because they feel it is antiquated and less-useful than modern equipment, or simply because it is uncomfortable, painful, and sometimes boring to work with. As to the former, I find that most of them are simply unaware of a makiwara’s actual intended purpose, as they tend to mistakenly believe it is a hand conditioning tool (which I have previously written about, here: LINK). Regarding the latter, there is certainly something to be said for the character-building and fortitude enhancing benefits of training despite discomfort, pain, and boredom. In fact, many martial arts schools market themselves based on these benefits coming from rigidly disciplined classes, long hours of kihon-waza (basic techniques) practiced in low stances, and painstaking kata precision, even if they don’t use the makiwara. There is still something to be said for enjoying training. Personally, I suspect that more people would use the makiwara if they knew that it was not just for toughening the hands, and if they knew that the training could be much more varied and interesting than they have been led to believe.
Most karateka who have found a passion for their art, even if they have never touched a makiwara, will have seen at least one old photo of a late karate master using one. Perhaps the most famous of these is the photo to the left; Funakoshi Gichin (the originator of Shotokan) posing in wooden geta (sandals) with his arm and chest exposed, his fist pressed into the rice rope bundle that gives the makiwara its name. It is an iconic photo, and there are several similar examples of photos from other masters over the years. There are a couple points about these photos that should be noticed. First of all, you will tend to see much more natural stances in older photos, such as those from the 1930’s seen in Funakoshi and Motobu Choki’s books. As time goes on, the stances shown in photos of makiwara training tend to become longer and deeper, which is generally said to be for rooting yourself to the ground to generate more power. The second thing to note is that our oldest examples of makiwara training are drawings and photographs, rather than film, and were for basic instructional or historical books. This meant that the best type of makiwara training to photograph would be the most static–standing in a stationary stance, posing with a single technique. These two things have led to the fairly widely-held misconception that makiwara training is intended to be done exactly as shown in these photographs–standing still, usually in a deep front stance, throwing hard gyaku-tsuki (reverse thrusts) at a makiwara that often doesn’t have any flex (which, again, is hard to see the existence of in still photos). To the karateka who subscribe to this idea, there is no other proper way to strike the makiwara, despite Motobu Choki, a prolific Okinawan fighter and karate master, stating that he still, at more than 60 years of age, did not know the best way to strike the makiwara. That statement, alone, suggests that there are a variety of exercises that can be done with this training tool. One of them is certainly to do this type of stationary, basic, repetitive training, and it does have value. Even in my video on introductory makiwara training (which you can watch here: LINK), this is the type of exercise I show–standing still, using one stance, and one type of strike. Of course, some do vary the stance and strike, as such has been written about by a number of karate masters in their books. Again, though, this is generally done from a stationary position, which is fine for working on the basics of your striking form and structure, and introducing you to the general idea of working with the makiwara, but it is not the only way to use it. This article will showcase a few other methods that can be used, to the benefit of the karateka, but which some would consider “non-traditional,” “flowery song-and-dance,” or “reinventing the wheel”–all terms that I have actually seen used to describe any makiwara training that is not holding a stationary stance and throwing one type of strike over and over.
Due to the makiwara’s spring action, it makes sense for karateka to begin working with it from a stationary stance. That doesn’t mean that variety cannot be added to the training, however, and provide new benefits. One of the simplest ways to do this, with or without any footwork, is to alter the path of motion that your strike takes on its way to the makiwara. Typically, when throwing punches at the makiwara, most karateka look at it like kihon (basic) practice, and pull the punch all the way back to their side before launching it forward. This is a perfectly acceptable way to work the makiwara, but we can change the effect simply by shortening the path of motion. You can start your punch with your elbow touching your side instead of your fist, for example, effectively cutting the distance between your fist and the makiwara in half. This gives your fist less time and distance over which to build momentum, forcing you to work on developing more power in a shorter amount of time. You can even shorten this distance more, to really focus on developing short power, as Ryan Parker Sensei illustrates in this video. In addition to shortening the path of motion, we can add angles to it, effectively creating arcing punches, as opposed to straight ones. This may seem counter-intuitive, as we are always told that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and many karateka see this as the fastest, and most efficient way to punch. There are times, however, when these arcs become very important–they are part of a concept called kuruma (wheels), or kurumadi (wheel hands), which Jan Dam Sensei gives a brief explanation of in this video. As an example example, consider that if your hands are down at your sides, it is slower to pull the hand up and thrust your punch straight out, than to simply swing the hand up and thrust it forward as part of an arc, and this is something easily worked on the makiwara. Also, if you want to parry, block, trap, or clear your opponent’s limbs, whether they are attacking or defending, you will often have to apply these circular methods–particularly if you are following this bit of advice from Motobu Choki: “The blocking hand must be able to become the attacking hand in an instant. Blocking with one hand and then countering with the other is not true bujutsu (martial arts). Real bujutsu presses forward and blocks and counters in the same motion.” With this statement in mind, consider the path of motion one’s hand must take in order to execute an inward “block,” for example, and then punch. You could do this in a hard, linear fashion, but it will be much slower than if you “round out the corners,” as my Sensei (Richard Poage) likes to say, and make it circular. This also allows you to create paths of motion that are “compound motions”–motions that travel in more than one direction at a time–resulting in techniques that “cut lines” (which I have previously written about, here: LINK).
For a simple introduction to adding movement and more variety to makiwara training, foot sliding can be added to your stationary stance. Now, some may see this as a negative addition, as it reduces the “rooting” component of the stance, but even with sliding there is a “rooting” component, otherwise the spring action of the makiwara would knock you off-balance. It is also important to remember that the makiwara is not intended to simply be pounded on at maximum power from the most ideal position; rather, it is intended to teach the karateka the proper mechanics and structure for whatever strike they are using, and develop the power for it. For all the talk of “rooting” that comes up in karate, self defense and fights are both rather chaotic, and the feet are going to move, either intentionally or accidentally, and that is going to impact your ability to deliver strikes. With that in mind, we can find a good deal of value in having the makiwara teach the proper way to transition between sliding steps and stances, while delivering strikes. Some have stated that this is not something that is traditionally practiced on Okinawa, but one need only watch Higa Minoru Sensei work the makiwara, or the example of Maeshiro Morinobu Sensei in this animated GIF, to see that it is certainly worked on Okinawa, and by well-respected masters, as that. To work on this, you can simply take up an angled stance, of some type, pull the lead leg back, and then slide forward again as you thrust your punch into the makiwara, with either the lead or reverse hand. This actually happens rather naturally if you kick the makiwara with your lead leg, first, then set down into a stance to throw a hand strike. For a bit more mobility, you can slide both feet. You can also work sliding just the back foot forward as you strike, rather than sliding the front foot prior to the strike, which is a completely different mechanic. A more complex foot-slide would be to pull the rear leg all the way into kosa-dachi, as you would at the beginning of Passai, for example. This can be a bit uncomfortable, at first, but actually generates a good amount of power, and sets you up very well for pivoting (something I’ve covered before, here: LINK).
The next exercise that will be addressed is another simple one–the stepping punch. Considering the prevalence of oi-tsuki (lunge thrusts) as an attack in modern karate drills and kata applications, it is somewhat surprising that more karateka do not work it on a makiwara. Of course, there are also several variations on delivering strikes as you step forward, all of which can be explored on the makiwara. At its most basic, you can simply take up a stance a full step away from the makiwara, step forward and throw your oi-tsuki, or gyaku-tsuki. Maeshiro Morinobu Sensei can be seen teaching this in the same video the previous animated GIF came from. You can adjust the timing of your step and punch, so that you can either use the momentum of the step to generate power, or plant your step and then throw the punch in order to quickly root your stance and torque your body into the strike. This step also allows you to work either dropping or rising into the strike, as you can step from a higher stance to a lower one, or vice versa. Changing the stances can significantly alter the feel of the strike, and since kata contain strikes in a variety of stances, it is important to work power generation in more than just zenkutsu-dachi (front stance). For example, stepping forward and twisting into Sanchin-dachi (three battles stance) to throw your lead hand punch is going to feel a good deal different from stepping forward and dropping into a neko-ashi-dachi (cat foot stance), as seen in this animated GIF. You will find that the spring action of the makiwara will affect your balance differently, depending on your stance, which isn’t all that surprising of an idea, but the feeling can be surprising at first. This experience is important, because it really helps you deal with meeting resistance from different positions. Without this, you may find some of the strikes you use in kata end up weak and off-balance when you try to work them with a partner. Once you get more comfortable with these stepping transitions, you can blend full steps with foot sliding, as previously described, to work combinations of strikes.
When most people work with the makiwara, they are focused on one technique at a time–pretty much always a strike–and they are often seeking to reach a certain number of repetitions with that one technique, before moving on to a different one. This is not the only way to approach your training, however. Most kata work sequences of uke-waza (receiving techniques) and uchi/tsuki-waza (striking/thrusting techniques), so it makes sense to drill our techniques with the makiwara in a similar fashion, at least occasionally. It is easy to get locked into the idea that working with the makiwara means that every technique you do must impact the board, but that is not the case. We can very simply add uke-waza, tai sabaki (body evasion), and tenshin (shifting) to our strikes, none of which need touch the makiwara, itself, but which facilitate the delivery of your strikes in actual application. If you were to drill a fighting technique with a partner, you would either have to redirect, jam, block, or evade whatever attack they use, before you could counter with your own, unless you wanted to engage in a war of attrition and see who hits harder. The makiwara may be for developing your power, but that doesn’t mean you have to ignore the other components of your fighting techniques. An easy introduction to this is to work a parry-pass style uke-waza (which I’ve previously written about, here: LINK) in the air, imagining that you are receiving a punch from an opponent, before sliding or stepping in to deliver your strike to the makiwara. You can see two examples in this animated GIF. For both exercises, I slide back slightly and execute a parry-pass motion, and in the first drill, I thrust the parrying hand out as a fingertip strike to the eyes, before sliding forward to deliver a gyaku-tsuki. In the second drill, I do exactly the same thing, but the parrying hand strikes across with a shuto-uchi (sword hand strike), aiming for the throat, rather than a fingertip strike to the eyes.
One should not forget that uke-waza can often contain “hidden” strikes (something I’ve discussed, here: LINK), and there are also segments of kata where multiple strikes are explicitly worked in sequence. Some of these strikes may not be lined up with an ideal path to the face of the makiwara, and have to be worked in the air, unless you have access to an ude-makiwara (“arm makiwara”), or large taketaba (bamboo bundle), which are round and provide a 360 degree striking surface. When it comes to uke-waza, a kakiya/kakete-biki (which Ryan Parker Sensei discusses in this great article: LINK) is even better, as it gives you an actual arm to work with. Even without those tools, though, you can emphasize the striking components of the uke-waza movement in the air, before moving to strike the makiwara. Some kata also work in setup or distraction strikes before throwing more powerful techniques. Pinan Godan and Chinto, for example, throw hammerfists and then punch (click here to see a video of the opening sequence of Chinto on the makiwara: LINK). Pinan Yondan and Kusanku throw hammerfists followed by elbow strikes which, interestingly, according to Hiroshi Kinjo Sensei, used to be fingertip strikes to the eyes before the elbows, which can still be seen in some versions of the kata. You can see Michelle Enfield Sensei, in this animated GIF, showing how a fingertip strike can be thrown at eye level above the makiwara, which cocks the hips to deliver a powerful punch with the other hand. This actually addresses the issues that many people have with the “double hip” motion that tends to show up in many karate practitioners, where they cock the hip back before driving it forward to power a strike, but neglect to use the cocking motion to power a block or strike. If you are focused just on the punch when working with the makiwara, then it is easy to rely on setting up the hip for power, so incorporating a technique like this will help keep speed and efficiency of motion in mind.
While everyone knows that the makiwara is ideal for striking, it is often overlooked that the makiwara can also be pulled. Due to the spring action of the makiwara, it will provide resistance in both directions, although it will typically have less resistance to pulling because of how makiwara are built. As karateka, we place a fairly heavy emphasis on hikite (pulling hand), and rightfully so, as that pulling hand can be clearing obstructions and pulling opponents into our strikes, giving us some great advantages in a fight (something I discussed in a previous article: LINK). Why not take advantage of the makiwara to work on that pull? Personally, I like to work this by striking the makiwara with shotei-uchi (palm heel strike) and immediately clamping my fingers over the top of the board, and pulling it back toward myself. From a fighting perspective, this works well to clear your opponent’s arms out of the way following your strike, if they are found to be in the way. It can also be used to strike at the arms, legs, or neck, then grab and pull them to control your opponent. Alternatively, you can focus solely on the pulling component by hooking your hand behind the makiwara, grabbing over the top, or grabbing around the sides, and using your stance, arm, and waist to pull. This works on your grip, as well as the structure and power needed to execute strong hikite against your opponent.
Grip and strength can also be worked with different tools, in conjunction with using the makiwara for striking. Most of the time, karateka who utilize various hojo undo kigu, such as chi-ishi (stone mallets), nigiri-game (gripping jars), ishi-sashi (stone locks), etc., focus solely on the exercise with that tool before moving on to something else, which is a good way to focus your training, but they can also be blended. As an example, one can hold a chi-ishi while striking, as I show in this animated GIF, which really works your ability to stabilize one side of your body, while using the other side for power. This can be surprisingly challenging, but useful for when an opponent is holding onto your arm, or when you are trying to control an opponent’s arm, while also striking them. You can also do various moving exercises with the chi-ishi, rather than simply holding it still. Nigiri-game also work well for this. Modern tools can be used, as well, such as a spring hand gripper to work not only grip strength, but also the general feeling of “locking down” when your strikes make contact, and relaxing between strikes. A more traditional version of that would be the nigiritaba (lit. “gripping bundle”), which is typically just a bundle of straw or rope used for gripping and twisting. You can also work on your hikite with separate tools while working with the makiwara. An elastic tether, such as a resistance band or tire inner tube, attached to the wall behind the makiwara gives you something to essentially do rows with while punching, so that you can build strength in your pull while also working on the structure necessary to both pull and punch at the same time. Using a non-elastic tether, such as a rope, or even your obi (belt), can also help build strength and structure for this, but in a different way. While the elastic tether emulates the action of you pulling your opponent in, the non-elastic option is more like pulling an opponent who is heavier and/or stronger than you, so you end up pulling yourself into them, instead. Since both of these are possibilities in a fight, they both have a place in your training, and both can be used to enhance the power of your strikes.
The methods described, above, a just a handful of exercises that can be done with the makiwara. There are many more, which are practiced in a variety of styles, and it is highly recommended that karateka research as many of these methods as possible, in order to make their karate training as exploratory as possible. As Motobu Choki suggests, there are certainly many, many different ways to use the makiwara, and there really isn’t one method that is “the best,” since they can all provide different benefits. Some styles use a lot of different and dynamic exercises with the makiwara–a great example of this can be seen in the methods of Onaga Yoshimitsu Sensei and his daughter, Onaga Michiko Sensei–while other styles prefer to use only the most basic exercises. There is a strong urge in the traditional karate community to exactly mimic the practices of the previous generation–that is, after all, the definition of the word “traditional.” While this can have its uses, it also has limitations, and karate was never meant to be stagnated in such a manner that nothing past a certain master would be allowed to change. One of my favorite quotes from Chibana Chosin, the founder of Shorin-Ryu, actually addresses this very issue:
“Karate, as it is transmitted, changes every few years. This is a common phenomenon. It happens because a teacher must continue to learn and adds his personality to the teachings. There is an old Okinawan martial arts saying that states that Karate is much like a pond. In order for the pond to live, it must have infusions. It must have streams that feed the pond and replenish it. If this is not done then the pond becomes stagnant and dies. If the martial arts teacher does not receive infusion of new ideas and/or methods, then he, too, dies. He stagnates and, through boredom, dies of unnatural causes.”
We should not ignore ideas and methods that are different from those we have been shown. As Chibana says, it is important for karateka to “receive infusion of new ideas and/or methods,” because those are what will continue the advancement of karate, as a whole, and the improvement of the karateka, as an individual. That is also a vital part of the learning process that is frequently associated with Asian culture, called Shu-Ha-Ri. If you simply copy (which is the very first stage of Shu-Ha-Ri), then you will never grow.